Hit it hard, Champ: Amateur crushing and contending

By Ryan LavnerJune 16, 2017, 11:13 pm

ERIN, Wis. – In the summer of 2010, as a favor to one of his friends, Sean Foley agreed to meet with a relatively unknown 15-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., named Cameron Champ. Foley set aside some time on the range at Orange County National, and what he saw for the next hour changed both his short- and long-term plans.

“I called my wife and said, ‘What do I have scheduled tomorrow?’” Foley recalled. “She said, ‘Lessons from 8-5,’ and I told her, ‘Cancel it.’ I had spent that first hour just in awe.”

The sound. The trajectory. The mind-blowing numbers on TrackMan: a 340-yard carry, 131-mph clubhead speed and ball speed that topped 190 mph. (For context, Dustin Johnson’s swing and ball speed are 121 and 186 mph, respectively.) Seven years later, there is an almost mythical quality to Champ’s length.

There was the round with teammates the week before he started at Texas A&M. “There was water 360 or 370 yards from the tee,” said Champ’s former teammate, Jake Goodman. “Everyone else was laying back, but he pounded one 10 yards short of the water. I’m playing with two seniors, and we were up on the green. Looking back, they’re like, There’s no way in hell that’s his drive. He must have hit it in the trees and punched out. There’s no way. So he gets up there and makes birdie. He goes to the next hole, and they wait because they want to see if he can actually drive it that far. He absolutely killed one, and they looked at each other and said, ‘Damn, that probably was his drive last hole.’”

U.S. Open: Scores | Live blog: Day 2 | Full coverage

There was the round at the 2011 Ping Invitational. “We were recruiting someone else, and Cameron was paired with him,” Aggies coach J.T. Higgins said. “I called my assistant coach and said, ‘Um, we’re recruiting the wrong guy.’ He was hitting it sometimes 80 to 100 yards by the guy we were recruiting. I said, ‘This is unbelievable.’”

And there was the practice round on Monday with Rory McIlroy and Louis Oosthuizen here at Erin Hills. On the par-5 first hole, Champ coiled his lower body and sent a low bullet 30 yards past the similarly built McIlroy, who is regarded as one of golf’s biggest boppers – for now. “He couldn’t get over it,” Foley said. “He said, ‘This is unbelievable!’ It’s not even up in the air and it’s going that far!”

For Tour players unfamiliar with amateur golf, Champ, who turned 22 on Thursday, has been one of the week’s biggest revelations, as he nearly shelled the TV satellite trucks set up on the back end of the range.

“The future of the game,” Ernie Els said.

The present, too, because Champ has bashed his way into the top 10 of this 117th U.S. Open. His 12-foot birdie putt on the final green Friday capped a 3-under 69 and left him just two shots back heading into the weekend.

“He is just super long off the tee and he’s always in the fairway,” said Xander Schauffele, who was grouped with Champ for the first two rounds. “With that combination, this course is incredibly set up for him. I’m not the shortest guy, and I can’t even sniff where he’s hitting the ball.”

Was this a surprise? Well, sure, you can never predict how a college senior will react during his first experience on a big stage. But there were signs earlier this week that if Champ could stay calm, he was not only going to make the cut but also contend at a massive ballpark that rewards strong driving.

“Rory was continuously telling him, ‘You’re hitting it as far as us. When you realize how good you are, you’re going to be able to do some damage out here,’” said Goodman, who is on Champ’s bag this week. “That can do nothing but grow your confidence. He feels like he belongs out here.”

Champ was first exposed to golf at 18 months. He was taught the game by his grandfather, Mack, who in the 1950s, as a black man in south Texas, could caddie with his two brothers but not play the course. That changed once he went into the military, and he developed into a decent player who could consistently break 80.

“We just told Cameron to swing hard,” said his father, Jeff. “When you do that, you build up some fast-twitch muscle fibers over time, and now he can move it.”

Added Foley: “It’s a physical skill that’s at the level of a Usain Bolt, where it’s just so much faster than the next guy.”

Creating all of that torque puts immense pressure on the spine, of course, and Champ, generously listed at 6 feet, developed two bulging disks and a cracked vertebrae before starting at Texas A&M. He withdrew from his first college tournament, tried unsuccessfully to gut out two more starts, and spent most of three semesters on the sidelines.

“He was really disappointed,” Jeff Champ said. “He put so many years into it and then got hurt. I think he was getting really frustrated.”

Foley tweaked Champ’s posture and how he attacked the ball, and over the past several months he has reported no issues. “We treated it as it’s great that it happened now instead of the PGA Tour,” Foley said.

This past season for the Aggies, Champ won once and finished in the top 10 in six other events. It’s odd, but for a player who routinely pounds 350-yard drives, Champ often is too conservative on the course. Higgins has pushed his star player to become more aggressive, to use his driver as a weapon, instead of trying to avoid trouble because of his prodigious length. “You’ve got the green light,” Higgins told him. “Hit driver wherever you want.”

That’s been Champ’s strategy this week at Erin Hills, where he leads the 156-player field in driving distance, at 339.3 yards, about seven ahead of Johnson – to the surprise of no one who has seen this kid play. “Swing hard” was his grandpa’s advice, and so Cameron does.

Now 76, Mack Champ is back in Northern California, watching the TV coverage with tears in his eyes, his family’s story having come full circle.

“It’s an amazing story,” Jeff Champ said, “the gentleman who couldn’t play golf, and now his grandson is playing in the U.S. Open.”

With this type of game-changing power, it definitely won’t be his last.

Getty Images

McIlroy battles back into tie for BMW PGA lead

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 26, 2018, 4:09 pm

Rory McIlroy got off to a rocky start on Saturday in the third round of the BMW PGA Championship, including hitting a spectator and making a double bogey. But after that incident on the sixth hole, he didn't drop another shot, birdieing the final hole to shoot a 1-under 71 and tie for the lead.

McIlroy had gone into Moving Day with a three-shot lead, but Francesco Molinari had the round of the day, a 6-under 66. "It was nice keep a clean scorecard," said Molinari, who hasn't made a bogey since the 10th hole on Friday.

Full-field scores from the BMW PGA Championship

McIlroy and Molinari will be paired in Sunday's final round. They are tied at 13 under par, four shots clear of Ross Fisher, Branden Grace, Sam Horsfield and Alexander Noren.

The Wentworth course ends with back-to-back par-5s, and McIlroy birdied both of them. He got a break on the 18th hole as his drive hit a spectator and bounced into light rough.

"It was a struggle out there today," McIlroy said. "I think when you're working on a few things in your swing and the wind is up and you're stuck between trying to play different shots, but also try to play - you know, make good swings at it, I just hit some loose tee balls on the first few holes. But I'm proud of myself. I stayed patient. I actually - I'm feeling a bit better about myself after today than I was even walking off the course yesterday."

Getty Images

Watch: McIlroy hits spectator on hand

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 26, 2018, 2:58 pm

We never cease to wonder at how close fans crowd in to the intended line of some shots, and just how skilled Tour players are in not hitting someone.

But every once in a while, golf ball and spectator intersect, with painful results. It happened to Rory McIlroy during the third round of the BMW PGA Championship, after he had hit a wayward drive on the sixth hole. Attempting to hack out his second shot from under a bush, McIlroy struck a female spectator on her right hand. There was no official word on her condition, but she was clearly - and understandably - in pain.

McIlroy went on to make double bogey but was able to put the incident behind him, as he promptly birdied the next hole.

Getty Images

Hataoka leads Minjee Lee by one at LPGA Volvik

By Associated PressMay 26, 2018, 12:54 am

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – After losing in a playoff last weekend, Nasa Hataoka is making another bid for her first LPGA Tour victory.

Hataoka shot a 4-under 68 on Friday, and the Japanese teenager led by one stroke over Minjee Lee after the second round of the Volvik Championship. Hataoka, who is coming off the first two top-10 finishes of her LPGA career, made seven birdies at Travis Pointe Country Club. She began her round on No. 10, and her best stretch came toward the end, when she birdied Nos. 4, 5 and 6.

''I'm really comfortable playing the LPGA,'' the 19-year-old Hataoka said through a translator. ''I've really got confidence now.''

Hataoka made the cut nine times in 17 starts as a rookie in 2017, and she has made significant strides of late. She tied for seventh at last month's MEDIHEAL Championship and nearly won a week ago at the Kingsmill Championship in Virginia.

Hataoka finished the second round in Michigan at 9 under. Lee (69) was also solid Friday. Gaby Lopez (68), Jodi Ewart Shadoff (70) and Lindy Duncan (70) were a stroke behind Lee in a tie for third.

Hataoka did not make a single bogey in last week's three-round tournament, and she didn't have any in the first round in Michigan. She finally made a few Friday, but that didn't stop her from taking sole possession of the lead.

''I kind of feel like not really perfect, but I just kind of try to (be) aggressive,'' she said.

Full-field scores from the LPGA Volvik Championship

Lee, who lost by one stroke on this course last year, is in contention again.

''I guess the fairways are pretty generous and I think the greens are a little bit on the trickier side to read,'' Lee said. ''As long as your iron shots are pretty solid, I think you're going to be in good position around this golf course.''

Lee birdied the first two holes, and the only blemish on her scorecard Friday came on the par-5 14th. After missing the fairway to the right, she hit an aggressive shot out of the rough that went straight toward a water hazard well in front of the green. She settled for a bogey after taking a drop.

''I thought the ball was sitting OK in the rough, but it must have been a bit funny, or underneath it,'' she said. ''I made a mistake. I thought it was good enough to hit 3-wood there.''

Lee lost last year in Michigan to Shanshan Feng, but Feng will have some ground to make up in her attempt to repeat. She shot 69 on Friday but is still eight strokes behind the leader.

Ariya Jutanugarn was 6 under after a second consecutive 69.

Lopez made only six pars in the second round, tied for the fewest of the day, but her eight birdies and four bogeys put her near the top of the leaderboard.

''It was a little bit of an up and down,'' she said. ''There's so many opportunities out here to make birdie, that the most important thing to do is just to be patient, to be in the moment and not to get ahead of yourself. I think I came back from a couple mistakes that I did.''

In contrast to Lopez, Brittany Lincicome parred all 18 holes Friday and made the cut at 1 under. Paula Creamer (71) triple bogeyed the par-4 13th. She followed that with an eagle on the very next hole but missed the cut by a stroke.

Getty Images

Childhood rivals share Sr. PGA lead

By Associated PressMay 26, 2018, 12:00 am

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – Kevin Sutherland and Scott McCarron have been rivals since their junior golf days around Sacramento, California. The two old friends were back at it Friday at the top of the Senior PGA Championship leaderboard.

''It's honestly, nothing new for us,'' said Sutherland who played in the third-to-last group and birdied his last two holes for a 5-under 66 to match McCarron at 8 under.

McCarron had a 68 in the morning wave to emerge from a championship record group of six tied for the first-round lead.

Sutherland was last year's Charles Schwab Cup winner with his only senior win coming in the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship, while McCarron has six PGA Tour Champions wins, including a major at the 2017 Senior Players Championship.

''We are both (Northern California) guys, played in high school, junior golf, on tour and it seems like a lot on the Champions Tour,'' Sutherland said. ''We were in the last group on Sundays a lot last year. Scott played so well and had an incredible year, and I had a great year, too.''

Sutherland's lone PGA Tour victory came at McCarron's expense in 2002 at La Costa in the Accenture Match Play Championship, when he beat McCarron 1 up in the 36-hole final. As youngsters they played on opposing high school teams located about an hour apart and met often in state tournaments as well as on the California junior circuit.

''It's been happening for 30 years, wait 35 years now, I guess,'' Sutherland said. ''Playing together on a Saturday is a little different. We're both still trying to get in position to win.''

Jerry Kelly shot a 65 to join Tim Petrovic (69), Chris Williams (68) and Joe Durant (67) at 7 under. Durant tied for second last week in the Regions Tradition, also a major championship.

Full-field scores from the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship

McCarron feels like he is just starting to warm to the task this year. He had to replace his clubs, including a favored putter damaged beyond repair in air transit two months ago.

''I've been putting with a back-up putter I had, but it just didn't feel quite right,'' he said. ''I changed last Sunday at the Regions Tradition and started putting better on Sunday. So I'm using this one again this week and seem to be putting pretty good with it.''

McCarron said the Harbor Shores course played a little tougher in light winds in the second round. He made six birdies and three bogeys.

''I would just like to have a couple of those bogeys back,'' he said. ''But we're in a good position going into the weekend.''

McCarron came to the press center after his round and walked in on a press conference where course-designer Jack and Barbara Nicklaus were being honored by sponsoring KitchenAid with the establishment of a local college scholarship program in their name.

McCarron, who said he has idolized Nicklaus since his youth, played media and asked Nicklaus what he ate when he was near the lead going into the weekend of a major championship.

Nicklaus said if you play well one day, eat the same thing the next day.

''But no hamburgers, or you will play like hamburger,'' he said.

Stuart Smith, the Reno, Neveda, club pro who was tied for the lead after the first round, missed the 36-hole cut with a second-round 83.

''I'll take the 66, 83 and enjoy the 66 yesterday,'' he said. ''You put this one down to just plain old golf. It's a nasty game we play sometimes. Glad I have a day job.''