Monday Scramble: Major competition at Erin Hills

By Ryan LavnerJune 12, 2017, 3:00 pm

U.S. Open week arrives, Phil Mickelson keeps an eye on the forecast, amateur Braden Thornberry shines in his PGA Tour debut, Ariya Jutanugarn makes a statement and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

It’s an important week for the USGA. The blue blazers need to get this U.S. Open right, after they had a few setup issues at Merion, after they destroyed the greens at Chambers Bay and after they interfered during Dustin Johnson’s final-round comeback at Oakmont.

Adam Scott has put the USGA on notice, and players on social media have already made reference to Erin Hills’ "unique" design, with severe slopes that will turn what should be 20-foot putts into 40-yard pitch shots, and the fact that there is knee-high fescue just five yards off each fairway.

“Why can’t we have a lot of the past U.S. Open winners get together and set up a major?” Kevin Na said Sunday. “I’d like to see that happen one day.”

Let's be clear: Regardless of what happens this week in Wisconsin, players will continue to show up for the year’s second major. But the past few years have significantly damaged the USGA’s credibility, and if this year isn’t any better, there’s a chance the players’ tone will only get more pointed. 

1. Why mess with what works?

Just like last year, Daniel Berger stayed in Room 44 at the Hyatt Place in Germantown but thought there was little chance that he’d be able to defend his title at the FedEx St. Jude Classic – especially after he cracked the face of his driver earlier in the week.

Then he shot back-to-back 66s on the weekend to win for the second time on Tour.

2. It’s been a mediocre year for Boog, who had only two top-10s in 12 starts. With this victory, however, he moved to No. 10 in the season-long standings, making him a virtual lock for the Tour Championship and freeing him up for the rest of the year. He also jumped to No. 5 in the Presidents Cup standings. 

“It means I can go out there and have a little more fun,” he said. “It’s been a battle.” 

3. At one point Sunday, it seemed as though half of the city’s population was tied for the lead. Absent among that massive group: The three 54-hole leaders.

Rafa Cabrera Bello, Stewart Cink and Ben Crane were a combined 7 over par in the final round on a day when the rest of the field averaged 70.6.  

4. Mickelson made two doubles and a triple bogey last week and still finished the week only three shots back. It added up to a ninth-place showing, his fifth consecutive top-11 finish at TPC Southwind.

On Sunday, Mickelson was cruising along, 4 under through 11 holes and tied for the lead, when he sent his tee shot on the par-4 12th hole miles right, out of bounds. Compounding the error, he rinsed his fourth shot and made a 10-footer for triple.

5. The 42-time Tour winner admitted that a leaderboard behind 11 green that showed he was tied for the lead “shook” him.

“It was as if I had never won before, as if I was a rookie,” he said. “I was not as mentally focused as I needed to be.”

And that right there explains why Mickelson, who has played some of the best golf in the world over the past 12 months, is still looking for his first title since July 2013.

“The physical game is as good as it’s been when I’ve won a bunch of tournaments,” he said. “But mentally I’m not as sharp. I’ve made some mistakes.”

6. Common sense eventually prevailed, and Mickelson said on the CBS telecast Sunday that he needs a four-hour delay Thursday in order to attend both his daughter's high school graduation and the first round of the U.S. Open.

Graduation begins at noon CT. His first-round tee time is 2:20 p.m. It’s a 3-hour, 20-minute trip. The numbers don’t add up, and, poor Phil, the forecast for Thursday is projected to be the best of the week: 87 and mostly sunny.

It might be for the best, anyway. Mickelson would arrive on the first tee without having seen the course and would be relying on caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay for every shot. 

“It’s not looking good,” he said, “and that’s totally fine.” 

7. If there was any doubt whether Braden Thornberry and his funky swing could translate to the pro game, his performance in Memphis answered that.

The rising junior at Ole Miss improved every round, going 71-69-67 and capping his week with a bogey-free 65 that briefly gave him a share of the clubhouse lead. He tied for fourth, which matched Justin Rose (1998) and Lee McCoy (2016) for the best finish by an amateur in a non-opposite-field event in the past 20 years.

“Amateur or pro, the ball doesn’t know,” Thornberry said, “so that was my philosophy coming in: just play as good as I could and see what happens.” 

8. Thornberry’s auspicious debut on the big tour was a reminder of the Tour’s shortsighted policy regarding amateurs.

Obviously, the 20-year-old could not receive prize money, so he forfeited $241,280 in earnings. But as an amateur, he also does not get into the next available field (next week’s Travelers) even with a top-10 finish, nor is he able to collect any non-member FedExCup points. That’s important, because he’d be able to stockpile those points and qualify for the season-ending Tour Finals.

The Tour's main purpose is to provide playing opportunities for its members, but this a rule that needs to be changed ASAP. Thornberry (and the others before him) have earned the chance to keep playing.

9. When will Thornberry turn pro? That's the question that many already are asking. He is exempt into The Greenbrier, by virtue of the Haskins Award, and he should get more looks from tournament directors this summer.

With nothing left to accomplish in college, there has been talk that he will join the play-for-pay ranks after the Walker Cup in September. 

10. Here are one man’s 10 favorites for this week’s U.S. Open:

1. Dustin Johnson: A course that rewards length and strong wedge play plays right into DJ’s strengths.

2. Rickie Fowler: Hasn’t played this major well in the past, but his game is better across the board than it’s ever been.  

3. Jon Rahm: Has a great game for the year’s second major – prolific driver, tidy short game, loves to grind.  

4. Jason Day: Been just a touch off all year, but his Open record is too good to ignore – five top-10s in six career starts.  

5. Jordan Spieth: Last week should have given him time to work on his putting, and if he can stay away from the big number, he should be in the mix for another Open title.

6. Sergio Garcia: Decent finishes since the Masters, but with three majors to go, he seems determined to build on that breakthrough and make it an epic year.

7. Justin Rose: One of the game’s best ball-strikers is surprisingly hit-or-miss at the Open (six made cuts, five missed), but when he plays the weekend he’s almost always in contention.

8. Thomas Pieters: Big, brawny player already has a top-5 this year at the Masters. The Illinois product should be comfortable up north, too.

9. Adam Scott: Four top-20s in his last five Open starts. Whether he can contend will come down to his shaky putter.  

10. Rory McIlroy: Gotta include him, because he's Rory, but he has played just two tournaments in the past 80 days, he's breaking in new clubs, a new ball and a new putter, and he hasn't had any range sessions because of his lingering rib injury. 

11. It could be another eventful major week for DJ.

He didn’t play the Masters after injuring his lower back when he slipped on a set of stairs.

This time, it’s the arrival of his second child – Paulina Gretzky was due to give birth to a baby boy on Monday. Johnson likely won't arrive at Erin Hills until Tuesday, at the earliest, but he already logged two rounds last week. 

12. Having covered the 2011 U.S. Amateur – found my Golfweek gamer in the archives here – your trusty correspondent probably has more experience at Erin Hills than most. Six years removed, here’s what I can tell you: I don’t remember much, other than the prevalence of mosquitos. The course itself was unmemorable. I even played it the day after, too.

Kelly Kraft won that Am. He stunned Patrick Cantlay, who in the summer of 2011 was the best amateur in the world. Alas, they both failed to qualify for this year’s Open.

In all, 18 players from that Am will be at Erin Hills, a group that includes Spieth, who reached the quarterfinals, and Justin Thomas, who lost in the Round of 32.  

13. It will be the rare U.S. Open that has the potential for fireworks, not implosions.


For starters, it’s a par 72, the first at an Open since 1992. The fairways are huge, by U.S. Open standards. And over the last five holes, there are two par 5s (14 and 18), a drivable par 4 (15), a par 3 that can be set up with a blind tee shot (16), and a beefy, 500-yard-plus par 4 (17).  

14. There was no need for the LPGA to issue a clarification this week: Jutanugarn is the clear No. 1 player in the world.

A week after she was supposed to move to the top spot before a projections error, the 21-year-old left little doubt with a playoff victory at the Manulife LPGA Classic. She buried a 25-footer on the first extra hole to beat Lexi Thompson and In Gee Chun (both of whom are in the top 5 in the world ranking) for her first victory after last season's five-win, Player of the Year campaign.

15. Even Jutanugarn admitted that it was a shocker to hoist the trophy, for two reasons:

At the beginning of the week, she was “scared” to hit her tee shot, a problem that has surfaced in the past and is a big reason why she doesn’t use a driver. “I feel a lot better now,” she said.

And then there was Thompson, who had a one-shot lead entering the final round and at one point on Sunday ballooned her advantage to four shots. Then she made four bogeys in her last seven holes, including short misses on the last three holes (and a 4-footer to win!), and chunked her approach after a 340-yard drive on the first playoff hole. 

16. Golf will get at least two more opportunities to show that it belongs as part of the Olympic schedule.

The IOC executive board’s decision means golf will be in the Olympics through at least the 2024 Games. (It was already guaranteed for 2020.) That’s good news, after all of the handwringing last summer over who would or wouldn’t make the trip to Rio. Big-name winners (Justin Rose and Inbee Park) undoubtedly helped confirm the sport’s participation, even if some stars opined that it had no business being part of the Olympics. It would have been interesting to see if this vote would have been different if, say, Marcus Fraser and Harukyo Nomura had gone on to win the gold medal in a dull final round ... 

Paul Azinger, who will appear on Fox’s U.S. Open coverage, got into the gossip game when he was asked about Tiger Woods on the Open pairings show. He said that pain medications have been a long-term “problem” for Woods.

“I know firsthand there are some players that think there’s a problem there with Tiger,” he said. “I haven’t been around him much the last few years. But there are some players out there that are saying this has been a problem for a while.”

Even if that’s true, it was wildly irresponsible for Zinger to pass along those secondhand comments.   

This week's award winners ...

Common Sense: USGA allowing alternates to play U.S. Open practice rounds. While good in theory – you don’t need any more congestion with a 156-player field – anyone who has attended an Open knows that the course is virtually empty on Monday, Tuesday and especially Wednesday afternoons, thus providing these alternates a chance to get in their hacks. 

Bound for the PGA Tour: Stephan Jaeger. He won his second event on Sunday, which secured his card for next season. Now it’s just a matter of whether, like Wesley Bryan a year ago, he can win title No. 3 and earn an instant promotion to the big tour before the season is over. 

When You Don’t Tee it Up Properly: Charl Schwartzel. Flipping off a divot, when you have the option to place your ball anywhere you like, is a new level of weird.

No Open Hangover: Travelers Championship. The Hartford-area stop will have its strongest field in years, with Spieth, McIlroy and Day all scheduled to tee it up, thanks to the Tour’s new strength-of-schedule rule. 

He is Human, After All: Bernhard Langer. Trying to become the first player in seven years to win three consecutive starts on the senior circuit, Langer coughed up a first-round lead and eventually finished fourth. 

Not Just a Good College Team: 2012 Texas. The team that won the NCAAs at Riviera has now produced 16 individual pro titles. That number is skewed by Spieth, of course, but Cody Gribble has won on Tour and now Dylan Frittelli, the player who clinched the national title, captured his first event on the European circuit.

Get Your Paper Up: All but 16 professional athletes. Tiger Woods ($37.1 million) landed at No. 17 on Forbes’ list of the highest-paid athletes … ahead of guys like Neymar and Usain Bolt and Conor McGregor and Clayton Kershaw … despite playing no official events in 2017 and being irrelevant on the course for the past couple of years. 

Not As Fun As They Used to Be: U.S. Open pairings. Unveiling the groupings on Skip Bayless’ show was just the latest insult to golf fans. With only a few marquee groups and little creativity, it’s clear these just haven’t been the same since the blue blazers got called out for the “fat guys” group in 2014.  

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Fowler. The Tour’s leader in strokes gained-total, coming off a tie for second at the Memorial, Rickie shot 74-70 to miss the cut. On the plus side, he was able to get in some extra prep at Erin Hills, where he should be a factor. 

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Lopez fires flawless 63 for lead in Arkansas

By Associated PressJune 23, 2018, 12:41 am

ROGERS, Ark. – Since its first year on the LPGA Tour in 2007, the crowds at the NW Arkansas Championship have belonged to Stacy Lewis.

Another former University of Arkansas star staked her claim as the hometown favorite Friday when Gaby Lopez shot a career-low 8-under 63 to take the first-round lead at Pinnacle Country Club.

Like Lewis, the two-time winner of the tournament, Lopez starred as a three-time All-American for the Razorbacks before joining the LPGA Tour in 2016. Despite flashes of potential, Lopez had yet to join Lewis among the ranks of the world's best - missing the cut in her last two tournaments and entering this week ranked 136th in the world.

For a day, at least, the Mexican standout felt right at home atop the leaderboard in her adopted home state.

''I feel like home,'' Lopez said. ''I feel so, so comfortable out here, because I feel that everyone and every single person out here is just rooting for us.''

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Moriya Jutanugarn was a stroke back along with Minjee Lee, Catriona Matthew, Nasa Hataoka, Lizette Salas, Mirim Lee and Aditi Ashok. Six others finished at 6 under on a day when only 26 of the 144 players finished over par, thanks to some mid-week rain that softened the greens and calm skies throughout the day.

Jutanugarn finished second at the tournament last year and is trying to win for the second time on the LPGA Tour this year. Her younger sister, Ariya, is already a two-time winner this year and shot an opening-round 66.

Lewis, the former world No. 1 who won the event in 2007 in 2014, finished with a 66. She's expecting her first child in early November

Defending champion So Yeon Ryu, coming off a victory Sunday in Michigan, shot a 67.

Friday was Lopez's long-awaited day to standout, though, much to the delight of the pro-Arkansas crowd.

After missing the cut her last two times out, Lopez took some time off and returned home to Mexico City to rest her mind and work on her game. The work paid off with two straight birdies to open her round and a 6-under 30 on her front nine.

Lopez needed only 25 putts and finished two shots off the course record of 61, and she overcame a poor drive on the par-5 18th to finish with a par and keep her place at the top of the leaderboard. Her previous low score was a 64 last year, and she matched her career best by finishing at 8 under.

''(Rest) is a key that no one really truly understands until you're out here,'' Lopez said. ''... Sometimes resting is actually the part you've got to work on.''

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Harman rides hot putter to Travelers lead

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:28 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – There are plenty of big names gathered for the Travelers Championship, and through two rounds they’re all chasing Brian Harman.

Harman opened with a 6-under 64, then carded a 66 during Friday’s morning wave to become the only player to finish the first two rounds in double digits under par. The southpaw is currently riding a hot putter, leading the field in strokes gained: putting while rolling in 12 birdies and an eagle through his first 36 holes.

“Putted great today,” said Harman, who ranks 22nd on Tour this season in putting. “Got out of position a couple of times, but I was able to get myself good looks at it. I started hitting the ball really well coming down the stretch and made a few birdies.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Harman, 31, has won twice on the PGA Tour, most recently at last year’s Wells Fargo Championship. While he doesn’t have a win this year, he started his season in the fall by reeling off five straight finishes of T-8 or better to quickly install himself as one of the leaders in the season-long points race.

Now topping a leaderboard that includes the likes of Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy, he realizes that he’ll have his work cut out for him if he’s going to leave Connecticut with trophy No. 3.

“The putter has been really good so far, but I’ve been in position a lot. I’ve had a lot of good looks at it,” Harman said. “I’m just able to put a little pressure on the course right now, which is nice.”

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10-second rule costs Zach Johnson a stroke

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:06 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Zach Johnson heads into the weekend one shot back at the Travelers Championship, but he was a matter of seconds away from being tied for the lead.

Johnson had an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 3 at TPC River Highlands, his 12th hole of the day, but left the ball hanging on the lip. As Johnson walked up to tap the ball in, it oscillated on the edge and eventually fell in without being hit.

Was it a birdie, or a par?

According to the Rules of Golf, and much to Johnson’s chagrin, the answer was a par. Players are afforded “reasonable” time to walk to the hole, and after that they are allowed to wait for 10 seconds to see if the ball drops of its own accord. After that, it either becomes holed by a player’s stroke, or falls in and leads to a one-shot penalty, resulting in the same score as if the player had hit it.

According to Mark Russell, PGA Tour vice president of rules and competitions, Johnson’s wait time until the ball fell in was between 16 and 18 seconds.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Once he putts the ball, he’s got a reasonable amount of time to reach the hole,” Russell said. “Then once he reaches the hole, he’s got 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, the ball is deemed to be at rest.”

Johnson tried to emphasize the fact that the ball was oscillating as he stood over it, and even asked rules officials if marking his ball on the edge of the hole would have yielded a “bonus 10 seconds.” But after signing for a 2-under 68 that brought him within a shot of leader Brian Harman, the veteran took the ruling in stride.

“The 10-second rule has always been there. Vague to some degree,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is I went to tap it in after 10 seconds and the ball was moving. At that point, even if the ball is moving, it’s deemed to be at rest because it’s on the lip. Don’t ask me why, but that’s just the way it is.”

While Johnson brushed off any thoughts of the golf gods conspiring against him on the lip, he was beaming with pride about an unconventional par he made on No. 17 en route to a bogey-free round. Johnson sailed his tee shot well right into the water, but after consulting his options he decided to drop on the far side of the hazard near the 16th tee box.

His subsequent approach from 234 yards rolled to within 8 feet, and he calmly drained the putt for an unexpected save.

“I got a great lie. Just opened up a 4-hybrid, and it started over the grandstands and drew in there,” Johnson said. “That’s as good of an up-and-down as I’ve witnessed, or performed.”

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Travelers becoming marquee event for star players

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 11:29 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Get lost in the throngs following the defending champ, or caught up amongst the crowds chasing the back-to-back U.S. Open winner, and it’s easy to forget where this tournament was a little more than a decade ago.

The Travelers Championship was without a sponsor, without a worthwhile field, without a consistent date and on the verge of being jettisoned to the PGA Tour Champions schedule. The glory days of the old Greater Hartford Open had come and gone, and the PGA Tour’s ever-increasing machine appeared poised to leave little old Cromwell in its wake.

The civic pride is booming in this neck of the woods. Main Street is lined with one small business after the next, and this time of year there are signs and posters popping up on every corner congratulating a member of the most recent graduating class at Cromwell High School, which sits less than two miles from the first tee at TPC River Highlands.

Having made it through a harrowing time in the event’s history, the local residents now have plenty of reason to take pride.

The Tour’s best have found this little New England hamlet, where tournament officials roll out the red carpet in every direction. They embrace the opportunity to decompress after the mind-numbing gauntlet the USGA set out for them last week, and they relish a return to a course where well-struck shots, more often than not, lead to birdies.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Ten years ago, this tournament was also held the week after the U.S. Open. Stewart Cink won, and for his efforts he received a paltry 36 world ranking points. But thanks to a recent influx of star-power, this week’s winner will pocket 58 points – the same amount Rory McIlroy won at Bay Hill, and two more than Justin Rose got at Colonial. Now at the halfway point, the leaderboard backs up the hefty allocation.

While Brian Harman leads at 10 under, the chase pack is strong enough to strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned veteran: McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson, they of the combined eight major titles, all sit within three shots of the lead. Former world No. 1 Jason Day is one shot further back, and reigning Player of the Year Justin Thomas will start the third round inside the top 20.

Paul Casey and Bryson DeChambeau, both likely participants at the Ryder Cup this fall, are right there as well at 8 under. Casey lost a playoff here to Watson in 2015 and has come back every year since, witnessing first-hand the tournament’s growth in scope.

“It speaks volumes for what Travelers have done and how they treat everybody, and the work that Andy Bessette and his team put in to fly around the country and speak highly of this event,” Casey said. “And do things which matter, to continue to improve the event, not just for players but for spectators.”

Part of the increased field strength can be attributed to the Tour’s recent rule change, requiring players who play fewer than 25 events in a season to add a new event they haven’t played in the last four years. Another portion can be attributed to the short commute from Shinnecock Hills to TPC River Highlands, a three-hour drive and even shorter across the Long Island Sound – an added bonus the event will lose two of the next three years with West Coast U.S. Opens.

But there’s no denying the widespread appeal of an event named the Tour’s tournament of the year, players’ choice and most fan-friendly in 2017. While Spieth’s return to defend his title was assumed, both Day and McIlroy are back for another crack this year after liking what they saw.

“Anyone that I talked to could only say good things about the tournament about the golf course, how the guys are treated here, how the fans come out, and how the community always gets behind this event,” McIlroy said. “Obviously I witnessed that for the first time last year, and I really enjoyed it.”

After starting the week with all four reigning major champs and five of the top 10 players in the latest world rankings, only Masters champ Patrick Reed got sent packing following rounds of 72-67. The remaining top-flight contingent will all hit the ground running in search of more low scores Saturday, with Spieth (-4) still retaining a glimmer of hope to keep his title defense chances alive, perhaps with a 63 like he fired in the opening round.

The Tour’s schedule represents a zero-sum game. Outside of the majors and WGCs that essentially become must-play events for the game’s best, the rest of the legs of the weekly circus become victim of a 12-month version of tug-of-war. Some players like to play in the spring; others load up in the fall. Many play the week before majors, while a select group block off the week after for some R&R far away from a golf course.

But in an environment where one tournament’s ebbs can create flows for another, the Travelers has continued a steady climb up the Tour’s hierarchy. Once in jeopardy of relegation, it has found its footing and appears in the process of turning several of the Tour’s one-name stars into regular participants.

Rory. Jordan. Bubba. JT.

It’s been a long battle for tournament officials, but the proof is in the pudding. And this weekend, the reward for the people of Cromwell – population 14,000 – looks to be a star-studded show.

“All the events are incredible,” Thomas said. “But this is kind of one of those underrated ones that I think until people come and play, do they realize how great it is.”