With Ryder Cup pressure on, Fowler steps up in Rd. 1

By Will GrayAugust 25, 2016, 8:20 pm

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – At this point, there’s no sense in beating around the bush.

Rickie Fowler came to The Barclays knowing full well that it was time to deliver. Long viewed as one of the faces of American golf, his Ryder Cup chances stood in peril heading into the final week of automatic qualification, the unexpected byproduct of a disappointing summer.

It’s a daunting task, knowing that a two-year window comes down to your performance over a handful of weeks. It’s the type of pressure that has caused players in the past to crumble, and will undoubtedly be the undoing of would-be stars in the future.

For Fowler, though, the raised stakes may have been just what he needed to kick-start his stagnant game.

“I don’t mind it,” Fowler said. “I’ve always liked kind of being put up against the wall, in a corner, and having that on me.”

The wall and the corner are both very much in sight after a stretch that has included only one top-10 finish in the last nine starts for Fowler. Viewed as a lock for Hazeltine only a few months ago, he entered this week at No. 12 in the American standings - on the outside looking in - and likely relying on a pick next month from Davis Love III to make the team.

Fowler even added last week’s Wyndham Championship in a last-ditch effort to move up the standings, but a T-22 finish didn’t do the trick.

So he came to Bethpage Black needing to turn things around in a hurry, and he promptly delivered a 4-under 67 that put him within a shot of the early lead. After the round, Fowler stepped to the microphone and answered a series of questions that began, predictably, with the Ryder Cup.

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“That’s the No. 1 priority coming into the year. I’d say that’s always one of the main goals for sure coming into a Ryder Cup year. Even in the off year, you’re thinking about it,” he said. “You’d be lying if you’re saying there’s not more (pressure). Yeah, I’m thinking about it. The other guys are thinking about it. So if it’s even on your mind at all, not that it’s pressure in a way, but it’s more to think about.”

They’re comments that likely garner a hearty fist pump from American fans desperate to celebrate a victory in the biennial event, and they certainly don’t hurt his cause for a potential captain’s pick from Love. But they also reinforce the fact that Fowler has a tendency to deliver when the margin for error is the slimmest.

There was the late birdie run to win The Players last year, then the emphatic 72nd-hole approach in Scotland and the late chip-in earlier this year in Abu Dhabi. Some guys wilt under the bright lights, but Fowler appears to seek out their warmth.

“I think he’s always responded to pressure situations down the stretch, and a little bit of sense of urgency,” said caddie Joe Skovron.

The recent results have been even more frustrating for Fowler simply because the culprit has been so clear. The ball-striking that has made him an elite player remains ever-present, but a balky putter has simply failed to cooperate.

There have been spurts where it all came together, sure. Fowler started well at Baltusrol, and he notably spun a front-nine 29 during the third round of the Olympics. But the consistency required to turn nine holes into 18, or to turn one round into four, has evaporated.

“It’s been tough. I mean, personally, me knowing exactly how close it is, and it’s a really fine line,” he said. “The difference between Rio Saturday and Sunday, I swung it better going out on Sunday, and I shoot 29 on Saturday and I’m over par (on Sunday). I can’t remember what I shot, but it was not 29.”

Even just last week in Greensboro, Fowler hit 60 of 72 greens in regulation but never factored and didn’t shoot lower than 67 on the par-70 layout.

It’s a cautionary tale that could still apply to this week’s outcome, but Fowler has been fervent in his belief that his game has not been as far off as the results indicate. A Tuesday session with putting guru Paul Vizanko, with whom Fowler has worked since he was 14, paved the way for a 28-putt performance in the opening round.

“It’s close,” Fowler said. “I hit a lot of good putts today, some were just mis-reads. It was nice to make a couple and get off to a solid start.”

Love said last week at Sedgefield that he wants hot hands on his 12-man squad, hoping to head to Hazeltine with as much momentum as possible. But he’ll also be looking for players who are able to handle the heat one of golf’s biggest stages, calm their nerves and put forth a strong performance when it matters the most.

Consider Thursday’s round a gentle nudge from Fowler to Love, a reminder that he just might be the right man to suit up and deliver next month.

“I think the Ryder Cup speaks for itself. It’s the greatest team event we have. It’s arguably the best event we have all year, or every two years,” Fowler said. “It’s a special event and something I don’t want to miss out on.”

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Two-time champ Bubba fires 63 at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 7:20 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Amid a resurgent season that has already included a pair of wins, it only makes sense that Bubba Watson is back in contention at the Travelers Championship.

TPC River Highlands has been one of Watson’s favorite haunts over the years; it’s a layout where the southpaw’s creative approach is often rewarded. This is where he burst into tears after earning his first PGA Tour victory in 2010, and this is where he beat Paul Casey in a playoff to again lift the trophy in 2015.

He’ll once again have a late weekend tee time after firing a 7-under 63 during the second round, tying the low score of the week and moving to within three shots of Brian Harman’s 10-under total.

“Little bit less wind, little more confidence on the ball-striking, and I made putts,” Watson said. “The key is making putts. When you start making putts, that’s where you’re going to score a decent number.”

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Watson was well down the standings after opening with an even-par 70, a round that included three bogeys in a four-hole stretch on the back nine to negate progress he had made earlier in the day. But he ran into no such struggles the second time around, adding six birdies to an eagle on the par-5 13th hole when he hit his approach shot from 229 yards to within 18 inches of the hole.

The difference, according to Watson, was between the ears.

“Yesterday I was just thinking about some negative stuff instead of focusing on my target and focusing on the shot at hand,” Watson said. “I was focusing on hitting to the bunker, or focusing on, ‘Water is over here, so hit it over here.’ Just things like that, just things that you can’t do around the golf course.”

Watson was also a runner-up in 2012 here in addition to his two wins, and he has racked up nearly $3.5 million in earnings in 11 prior appearances. Once again thinking the right thoughts on one of his favorite tracks, he’s potentially 36 holes away from his third win since February.

“Obviously around here I feel pretty comfortable,” Watson said. “I can hit some shots around here, and I’ve made it work throughout some of the years.”

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Only putting is holding McIlroy back

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 6:48 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Through two rounds of the Travelers Championship, the tee shots are towering and the approaches are accurate for Rory McIlroy. Now he just needs the putter to heat up.

McIlroy started to show signs of life during the second round last week at Shinnecock Hills before missing the cut, and after putting in some extra work honing his swing over the weekend, his tee-to-green game is worth boasting about at the halfway point at TPC River Highlands.

McIlroy has missed only five greens in regulation through two rounds, barely breaking a sweat en route to rounds of 64 and 69 that left him at 7 under. He’s within striking distance heading into the weekend, three shots behind Brian Harman, but might be topping the standings with a more cooperative putter.

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“I felt like I left a few out there,” McIlroy said. “I felt like I had a lot of good putts that just didn’t go in. I started them on line, did everything I needed to do, and it’s just one of those days where they were sliding by the edges.”

McIlroy took 32 putts to complete his second round, including a three-putt on No. 7 for his only bogey of the day and another three-putt on No. 13 that turned an eagle opportunity into a par. Already with a win under his belt this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational when he knocked in putts from all directions during a final-round 64, McIlroy feels confident that he might be only a few rolls away from having another shot to contend in his second career trip to the Hartford-area stop.

“I think if I can put the ball in the fairway and hit my irons as good as I have been over the first couple of days, I’ll give myself a lot of chances for birdies,” McIlroy said. “It’s just about converting them and taking the opportunities when they present themselves.”

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Rosaforte Report: Toski lively, singing and ready to go home

By Tim RosaforteJune 22, 2018, 6:41 pm

Bob Toski sounded pretty good for a man near death last week. When we spoke on Friday, the 91-year-old teaching legend and former PGA Tour leading money winner was alive and feeling well. Especially when he was talking about giving lessons, swinging a golf club again, and going down to the piano bar at Arturo’s near his home in Boca Raton, Fla., to sing his favorite song, “Sentimental Journey."

“It’s been quite a journey,” Toski said in total bliss. “But I’m going home tomorrow.”

Going back 10 days, to June 12, Toski suffered a severe heart attack that had him on life support, in critical condition, at a hospital not far from the South Florida golf community where he’s pro emeritus at St. Andrews.

He opened 15 minutes on the phone on Friday by asking how much he owed me for the publicity he got during the U.S. Open. Typical Toski. His heart may have skipped a beat, but he hadn’t.

At no more than 120 pounds, still larger than life.

Bob Toski from his hospital bed in South Florida

“This is the mouse,” he said when asked to confirm it really was him on the phone. “The Mighty Mouse.”

We were laughing now, but there was a moment one night during “Live From the U.S. Open” when I got a message from the Boca hospital which sounded grim (hospital staff used a defibrillator on him six times during his stay). That’s when one of the friends by his side texted me and said it would be just like “Tosk” to sit up straight and ask everybody what was going on.

Essentially, that’s what happened. And now here he was on the phone, cracking off one-liners, talking about Brooks Koepka’s win at Shinnecock, giving his take on the USGA and course setup, asking how much I’d been playing, and giving his love to everybody at “The Channel.”

He invited me down for a lesson at St. Andrews and dinner at Arturos. “In a month’s time,” he said, “I’ll be ready to go.”

He sounded ready right now, singing a line from his favorite song, from his hospital bed in the happiest of voices, “Gotta set my heart at ease.”

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Spieth fades with 3-over 73: 'It's just golf'

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 6:10 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – After finding nothing but positives for his first five trips around the course, Jordan Spieth finally suffered a setback at TPC River Highlands.

Spieth won the Travelers Championship last year in his tournament debut, and he quickly bounced back from a missed cut at Shinnecock Hills by firing a 7-under 63 in the opening round this week to take a share of the lead. Out early during the second round with a chance to move even further into red figures amid calm conditions, he instead went the other way.

Undone by a triple bogey on the par-5 13th hole, Spieth was 5 over for his first 14 holes and needed an eagle on the par-5 sixth hole for the second straight day simply to salvage a 3-over 73. The score knocked him back to 4 under for the week and six shots behind Brian Harman.

Despite finding three fewer fairways, three fewer greens in regulation and taking five more putts than he did in the opening round, Spieth still put a positive spin on a lackluster result.

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“I actually felt like I had better control of my golf swing than I did yesterday. I really struggled with my swing yesterday and I kind of got some good breaks,” Spieth said. “It’s just golf. It’s kind of like yesterday I got three or four shots extra out of the round, and today I lost three or four based on how I felt.”

Spieth was happy with his opening-round effort, but even after finishing late in the day he still went straight to the driving range that lines the ninth fairway at TPC River Highlands – not exactly standard behavior after grabbing a share of the lead.

“So it’s not like things are on,” he said. “Sometimes it can get disguised by rounds, but it’s not far off. It really is close.”

Spieth has lamented a lack of quality chances to win this year, which he has previously described as being within six shots of the lead heading into the final round. He’ll have some work to do to meet that mark this weekend in defense of his title, as his round hit a snag on No. 13, his fourth hole of the morning, when he pulled his tee shot out of bounds and then hit his subsequent approach into the water.

“For whatever reason, it’s a large fairway but it’s always just killed me,” Spieth said. “I don’t know what it is about the hole, but that hole I get on the tee and for whatever reason I struggle. … I just hit a bad shot at the wrong time there.”