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Opinion & Analysis

It’s SHO time: The Shell Houston Open preview

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By Pete Pappas

GolfWRX Staff Writer

The first Houston Open debuted in 1922 as the Independent Insurance Agent Open, making it the third oldest tournament on the PGA Tour behind the Western Open (1899), and the Canadian Open (1904).

Yet despite this long-established pedigree, the Shell Houston Open has to sometimes feel like the black sheep of the PGA Tour schedule.

Since 2007 it’s played second fiddle to Augusta National.  And its notoriety has been more about being the final “tune-up” for The Masters (similarities or dissimilarities aside) than it’s been in being a regular event on the PGA Tour since 1946 (impressive in its own right).

The PGA Tour’s decision in 2007 to move the Houston Open to the week immediately preceding The Masters was embattled in controversy when Phil Mickelson (who prefers to play the week before a major to keep his competitive juices flowing) said he wouldn’t play the event because nothing about it resembled Augusta.

Lefty’s comments presumably were directly responsible for the 2010 renovations that did make the Tournament Course at Redstone Golf Club set up more like Augusta.  But that wasn’t exactly the player endorsement this Reese Jones course needed while trying to attract the world’s top players.

To be sure the Shell Houston Open has corralled its fair share of big names since then; for instance, Adam Scott, Paul Casey, and Anthony Kim are all champions of this event (in 2007, 2009, and 2010 respectively).

But it hasn’t quite been the flowing list of “marquee” names envisioned, as evidenced by the notable absentees this week, including seven of the world’s top-10 ranked players in the Official World Golf Rankings, with world No. 1 Luke Donald, and No. 2 ranked Rory McIlroy the spotlight missing in action.

And now with every media outlet blowing hot and cold all week about what Tiger Woods’ first victory in 923 days at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this past Sunday means, the Shell Houston Open probably won’t get the recognition it deserves once again.

Absent 2011 defending champion Mickelson robustly cracking another driver (as he did here in round one last year), the tournament before the year’s first major might just go gently into the Humble, Texas night.

But as they say, the SHO (Shell Houston Open) must go on.

The road not taken

Those players who have decided the road to Augusta goes through Redstone will include 15 major champions (including three major winners from 2011), seven previous Shell Houston Open champions, and six 2012 PGA Tour winners.

52-year old Fred Couples (one of the most popular players in tour history with 15 career PGA Tour wins) makes his 20th career start at Shell, and is coming off his first win on the over-50 circuit this season.

Couples claimed his seventh-career Champions Tour victory at the Mississippi Gulf Classic last week by sinking a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 18 at the treacherous Fallen Oak Golf Course.

“The bottom line is you get a lot of chances to win if you play well,” said Couples. “It was a fun day and I’m looking forward to the Shell and then Augusta.”

2011 SHO defending champion Phil Mickelson tries to become the first player this season to win multiple times on the PGA Tour, and looks to regain momentum after a disappointing T-24 performance last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill.

Mickelson sounded confident heading into Thursday.  “I find that I play my best in a major championship when I compete the week before,” Mickelson said.  “It gets me in a competitive frame of mind, and I enjoy the challenge of only having three days between competitive rounds.”

Houston we have a problem

With 25 players in Houston already safely qualified to play next week in the 77th Masters, 100 other players unambiguously need a victory to capture a birth at Augusta (absent a Masters Committee discretionary invitation).

But before you start thinking everyone in the Shell field is only there to secure that treasured “green jacket” opportunity, think again.

“I’m not smart enough to concentrate on two things at once,” said world No. 3 Lee Westwood.  “So I have to concentrate on the thing at hand, which is trying to win [The Shell Houston Open] this week.”

Everything’s bigger in Texas

The Tournament Course at Redstone is one of the longest on the PGA Tour at 7,457 yards (32 yards longer than Augusta National).  And its prodigious length is spread over a protracted 350 acres.

But is bigger really better?  The Shell course ranked 29 out of 51 in difficulty on the PGA Tour in 2011 (but first in spectator fatigue).

The coyotes wail along the trail (clap, clap, clap, clap) deep in the heart of Texas! 

Lee Westwood (10/1).  Westwood is living up to his world No. 3 billing with two top-10 finishes to go along with a top-25, and is third in scoring average (69.38) this year on tour.

The Englishman is second in greens-in-regulation and first in sand saves (which can translate to low scores on a Shell course with heavily bunkered greens and more than 60 sand traps).

Hampered by two poor days between a strong opening and closing day last year, he finished T-30 at Redstone in 2011.  But Westwood’s track record at Shell is impressive overall (with a T-11 in 2009 and a T-8 in 2010).

Westwood sees similarities between Redstone and Augusta, but he’s not just gearing up for The Masters.

“I’m not one of these people for playing the shot that I have to play next week,” he said.  “I like to play each tournament and give it the respect it deserves and play each course on its merits, play a shot when it’s necessary.”

Westwood hasn’t played since the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship (T-29).

Phil Mickelson (12/1).  The world No. 15 also has two top-10 finishes in 2012 including his thrilling victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and equally emotional playoff loss at the Northern Trust Open.

Lefty is one of only four players to triumph the week before winning The Masters, and last year went 7-under on Sunday en route to taking home the Shell Houston Open trophy (20-under, 268).

Mickelson’s bogey-free 63 on moving day in 2011 was a course record, and he led the field with 27 birdies (18 coming over the weekend).  However he was wild with his driver at Redstone (and this year is hitting fairways at a pedestrian 54 percent clip).  That’s something he’d like to improve on this week.

Phil’s iron play could also use a bit of sharpening heading into Augusta (64 percent GIR), but it’s been hard to argue with his sixth-place ranking in birdie conversion and third-place ranking in strokes gained-putting.

I think Phil is primarily interested in tinkering with and tweaking his game to position himself for a run at his fourth green jacket next week.

But if he’s in contention on Sunday in Houston, he’ll put the full-court-press on winning Shell for the second time in his career (joining a list of seven others who’ve also won twice, including last week’s masterly host, Arnold Palmer).

Steve Stricker (15/1).  In many circles Sticker is mentioned as the best American golfer on tour (of course you know who jumped into that discussion again with a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week).

In four starts this season Stricker’s notched three top-10 finishes, and a victory at the PGA Tour season opener in Hawaii (the Hyundai Tournament of Champions).

And if the PGA Tour Player of the Year voting was held today, it might be difficult to vote against him.

He’s first in birdie average, second in scrambling, and fifth in GIR this season.  Stricker is also first in back-9 scoring average (showing he brings it in the clutch).

The world No. 5 ranked player finished T-4 here last year, and has four top-11 finishes in five career starts at Redstone.

The biggest question about his game heading into Shell will be is he rested or rusty coming back for the first time since his T-8 finish at the WGC-Cadillac.

Keegan Bradley (20/1).  Bradley is a picture of consistency.  The St. John’s University alum hasn’t finished lower than 22nd place in each of his eight starts this season.

He has two top-10 finishes, and a second place finish (a playoff loss) at the Northern Trust Open.

Bradley ranks fifth in all around ranking, seventh in scoring average, 10th in scrambling, 20th in GIR, and 31st in total driving.

Like Stricker he’s also making his first start since his WGC-Cadillac T-8 finish (and is making his second ever appearance at Redstone).

Ernie Els (25/1).  Absent a “special invitation” Els needs a victory in Houston to get his 19th crack at Augusta National next week.

The Big Easy has two top-5 finishes the past two weeks but both could easily have been victories.

The pressure of this must-win scenario will be boiling over at Redstone, even higher than it was when Els’ green jacket bid was derailed with a bogey-bogey finish two weeks ago on Sunday at the Transitions Championship.

One of the most feel-good or heartbreaking stories of the PGA Tour season will unfold this week in the Houston heat.

Graeme McDowell (25/1).  McDowell nearly tamed the Tiger in Arnie’s Kingdom last week at Bay Hill finishing in solo second place.

G-Mac would rank 17th in GIR (if eligible) and 30th in strokes gained-putting.

He’s only appeared once at Redstone in 2006 (a T-54 finish).

Johnson Wagner (30/1).  “Fear the Stache.” 

Wagner’s first career victory came here at the Shell Houston Open in 2008.

He’s currently ranked No. 1 in the FedExCup standings.

His four top-10 finishes are the most on Tour (including his latest T-4 last week at Bay Hill).

Kevin Streelman (80/1).  GolfWRX Swagger.”

I’m picking Streelman purely on what I’ll call a “WRX swagger hunch.”

Feeding hundreds of thousands of frenzied GolfWRX maniacs your 2011 Masters yardage book?

Seriously good karma Streels!

Perfect Pairings

Phil Mickelson, Charl Schwartzel, Fred Couples

Keegan Bradley, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood

Kyle Stanley, Anthony Kim, Ernie Els

Hunter Mahan, Johnson Wagner, Steve Stricker

John Huh, Louis Oosthuizen, Robert Allenby

Ben Crane, Scott Piercy, Y.E. Yang

Lucas Glover, Jason Bohn, Camilo Villegas

Billy Mayfair, Kevin Streelman, Matt Every

Should I stay or should I go?

Put yourselves in the spikes of a PGA Tour professional.  You’re heading into Augusta, the first major championship of the season (and possibly the biggest).

Would you take the week off?  Would you play the Shell Houston Open?  Would you just kick it with friends and watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory?

Redstone is set up to be similar to Augusta National.

Some players like Tiger prefer to skip the week before The Masters and get in some final preparation and specific practice.

Others like Phil prefer to keep the momemtum going and play straight into that major.

Whichever route of preparation you’d choose, I’m sure you have good reasons.  But if it were me?  I wouldn’t settle for similar.

Notes

Television Coverage

Thursday and Friday: Golf Channel 3-6 p.m. EST

Saturday and Sunday: NBC 3-6 p.m. EST

Radio Coverage

Thursday through Sunday: SiriusXM Satellite Radio 12-6 p.m. EST

Odds

Odds provided by Las Vegas PGA Tour Golf Betting Odds

You can follow Pete on twitter @TheGreekGrind

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum.

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Pete is a journalist, commentator, and interviewer covering the PGA Tour, new equipment releases, and the latest golf fashions. Pete's also a radio and television personality who's appeared multiple times on ESPN radio, and Fox Sports All Bets Are Off. And when he's not running down a story, he's at the range working on his game. Above all else, Pete's the proud son of a courageous mom who battled pancreatic cancer much longer than anyone expected. You can follow Pete on twitter @PGAPappas

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. peak904

    Apr 1, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Did Phil put in play C taper shafts in his irons this week?

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Gear Dive: Mizuno’s Chris Voshall speaks on Brooks Koepka’s U.S. Open-winning irons

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Mizuno’s Chief Engineer Chris Voshall speaks on how Brooks Koepka was the one that almost got away, and why Mizuno irons are still secretly the most popular on Tour. Also, a couple of Tiger/Rory nuggets that may surprise a few people. It’s an hour geek-out with one of the true gems in the club biz. Enjoy!

Related: Brooks Koepka’s Winning WITB from the 2018 U.S. Open

Listen to the full podcast below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Opinion & Analysis

Hear It, Feel It, Believe It: A Better Bunker Method

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The following is an excerpt from Mike Dowd‘s upcoming novel, “Coming Home.” 

After picking the last of the balls on the driving range, Tyler cornered Mack as he hit a few shots from the old practice bunker to wind down at the end of the day. Mack was hitting one after another, alternating between the three flags on the practice green and tossing them up about as softly as if he was actually lobbing them each up there underhanded.

Tyler just stood there, mesmerized at first by the mindless ease with which Mack executed the shot. Bunker shots, Tyler silently lamented, were likely the biggest hole in his game, and so after Mack had holed his third ball in a couple of dozen, Tyler finally decided he had to ask him a question.

“What are you thinking about on that shot, Mack?” Tyler interrupted him suddenly.

Mack hit one more that just lipped out of the closest hole, paused a few seconds, and then looked up at his protégé in what Tyler could only interpret as a look of confusion.

“What am I thinking about?” he finally replied. “I don’t know, Tyler… I’d hate to think how I’d be hittin’ ‘em if I actually started thinking.”

Tyler gave Mack a slightly exasperated look and put his hands on his hips as he shook his head. “You know what I mean. Your technique. I guess I should have said what exactly are you doing there from a mechanics standpoint? How do you get it to just land so softly and roll out without checking?”

Mack seemed to be genuinely considering Tyler’s more elaborately articulated question, and after a moment began, more slowly this time, as if he was simplifying his response for the benefit of a slightly thick-headed young student who wasn’t getting his point.

“You can’t think about technique, Tyler… at least not while you’re playing,” Mack replied. “There’s no quicker path back to your father’s garage than to start thinking while you’re swinging, especially thinking about technique. That’s my job.”

“Mack,” Tyler insisted, “How am I supposed to learn to hit that shot without understanding the technique? I’ve got to do something different than what I’m doing now. I’m putting too much spin on my shots, and I can’t always tell when it’s going to check and when it’s going to release a little. How do I fix that?”

“Well, not by thinking, certainly,” Mack fired right back as if it was the most ridiculous line of inquiry he’d ever heard. “A good bunker shot can be heard, Tyler, and felt, but you can’t do either of those if you’re focused on your technique. You feel it inside of you before you even think about actually hitting it. Watch, and listen.”

With that Mack swung down at the sand and made a thump sound as his club went through the soft upper layer of sand and bounced on the firmer sand below.

“You hear that?” Mack asked. “That’s what a good bunker shot sounds like. If you can hear it, then you can feel it. If you can feel it, then you can make it, but you can’t make that sound until you hear it first. Your body takes care o’ the rest. You don’t have to actually tell it what to do.”

Tyler still looked puzzled, but, knowing Mack as he did, this was the kind of explanation he knew he should have expected. Coach Pohl would have gone into an eight-part dissertation on grip, stance, club path, release points, weight transfer, and so forth, and Tyler suddenly realized how much he’d come to adopt his college coach’s way of thinking in the past four years. Mack though? He just said you’ve got to hear it.

“Get in here,” Mack said suddenly, gesturing to the bunker and offering the wedge to Tyler. “Now close your eyes.”

“What?!” Tyler almost protested.

“Just do it, will ya’?” Mack insisted.

“Okay, okay,” Tyler replied, humoring his coach.

“Can you hear it?” Mack asked.

“Hear what?” Tyler answered. “All I hear is you.”

“Hear that sound, that thump.” It was Mack’s turn to be exasperated now. “It was only moments ago when I made it for you. Can’t you still hear it?”

“Oh, remember it you mean,” Tyler said. “Okay, I know what you mean now. I remember it.”

“No, you obviously don’t know what I mean,” Mack replied. “I wanted to know if you can hear it, in your mind, hear the actual sound. Not remember that I’d made it. There’s a big difference.”

Tyler suddenly did feel kind of dumb. He wasn’t picking up what Mack was getting at, at least not exactly how he wanted him to get it, and so he sat there with his eyes closed and gripped the club like he was going to hit a shot, waggled it a bit as if he was getting ready, and then opened his eyes again.

“Okay,” he said suddenly. “I think I can hear it now.”

“Don’t open your eyes,” Mack almost hissed. “Now make it, make that sound. Make that thump.”

Tyler swung down sharply and buried the head of the wedge into the sand where it almost stopped before exiting.

“That’s not a thump,” Mack said shaking his head. “That’s a thud. You can’t even get the ball out with that pitiful effort. Give me that!”

He took the wedge back from Tyler and said, “Now watch and listen.”

Mack made a handful of swings at the sand, each one resulting in a soft thump as the club bottomed out and then deposited a handful of sand out of the bunker. Tyler watched each time as the head of the club came up sharply, went down again, hit the sand, and came back up abruptly in a slightly abbreviated elliptical arc. Each time Tyler listened to the sound, embedding it as he studied how the club entered and exited the sand. Mack stopped suddenly and handed the club back to Tyler.

“Now you make that sound,” he said, “and as you do remember how it feels in your hands, your forearms, your chest, and most importantly in your head.”

“What?” Tyler asked, looking back up at Mack, confused at his last comment.

“Just do it,” Mack said. “Hear it, feel it, then do it, but don’t do it before you can hear it and feel it. Now close your eyes.”

Tyler did as he was told, closing his eyes and then settling his feet in as he tried to picture in his mind what Mack had been doing. At first, he just stood there waggling the club until he could see the image in his mind of Mack hitting the sand repeatedly, and then he could hear the soft thump as the club hit the sand. He started to swing but was interrupted by Mack’s voice.

“Can you feel it?” Mack said. “Don’t go until you can feel it.”

“Well, at first I could see the image in my mind of you hitting that shot over and over again,” Tyler said, opening his eyes and looking at Mack, “and then I could hear it. It sort of followed right in behind it.”

“Ah, the image is a good starting point, but you can’t just see it and hear it, you need to feel it,” Mack replied, pointing to his head. “Feel it in here, and then you can feel it here,” he continued, putting his hands together like he was gripping a club. “Now close your eyes again.”

“Okay,” Tyler said, not sure he was getting it, but finally bought in. He settled in again and began waggling the club until he could see Mack swinging and hear the subtle thump of the sand. He let it just loop in his mind, over and over again, until suddenly he could feel it like he was the one doing it, and then he swung.

Thump came the sound as the flange of his wedge hit the sand. It was his swing, but it was different, maybe not to the naked eye, but in the speed, the level of tension, and the release. He opened his eyes again, almost tentatively, and looked at Mack with a combination of curiosity and amazement.

“I felt it that time,” Tyler said in a voice that seemed to resonate within from somewhere in the past. It almost sounded like Jackie’s in its exuberance.

“Yes… good,” Mack replied patiently. “Now close your eyes and do it again, but make sure you can feel it before you pull the trigger.”

Tyler settled in again, waited until, like the last time, he could see it, hear it, and then finally feel it… Thump… Something was slightly different this time, though, and Tyler opened his eyes to notice Mack kneeling down next to him. He had quietly deposited a ball into the place where Tyler had swung. Tyler looked up in the direction of the green and the target flag he had been aiming toward just in time to see a ball slow to a gentle stop about four inches from the flag.

“How’d you do that?” Tyler said, almost in wonder now.

“I didn’t,” Mack replied. “You did. You just had to stop thinking. See it, hear it, and feel it. Once you feel it, you can believe it. Anything more is more than we need. Any questions?”

As Mack turned to walk up out of the bunker, Tyler just stood there shaking his head a moment, looking at the spot in the sand, and then back up at the green as if to confirm the ball he’d seen roll to stop was still there. “I guess I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

“Well… yes and no,” Mack said cryptically as he turned back to look at him. “You pretty much know how to hit all the shots, Tyler. You’ve hit every one of them at one time or another. You’ve just got to learn how to empty your head of all those instructions so you can focus on finding the shot you need when you need it. It’s in there somewhere.”

“It’s hard to explain,” Tyler said, “but a lot of times I walk up and think I somehow just instinctively know what shot to hit without even thinking about it. I just kind of see it and feel it. It’s when I start to analyze things a bit more closely, factoring in all the things I know are important to consider like the wind, keeping away from the short side, where I want to putt from, and the best trajectory or shot shape for the situation, that I often start to second guess that feeling.”

“Ever heard the saying paralysis from analysis?” Mack asked. “It pretty much describes those moments.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Tyler replied, “but all that information is important. You have to consider everything and not just make a rash decision.”

“Sure, information is important, but you can’t get lost in it,” Mack countered. “Whether it’s golf, or just about anything else in life, Tyler, you need to learn to trust your gut. You’ve hit hundreds of thousands of shots in your life, Tyler. All those shots leave a mark. They leave an indelible little mark that gets filed away in your brain subconsciously, getting stacked one on top of the other. And after years of playing the game, those stacks and stacks of shots create an instinctive reaction to each situation. It’s like gravity. It pulls you in a certain direction so much that most of the time you almost know what club you should hit before you even know the yardage. Trust that, Tyler. Go with it, and know that first instinct comes from experience. There’s more wisdom in those gut reactions than just about anything else.”

“Thank you,” Tyler said after considering it a moment. “I think that’ll really help.”

“You’re welcome,” Mack replied. “Now rake that bunker for me and clean the balls off the green. I want to get things closed up before dark.”

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Opinion & Analysis

5 things we learned on Saturday at the 2018 U.S. Open

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Whoops, we did it again. While not as dramatic as the 7th hole concern of 2004, the Saturday of 2018 seemed eerily familiar. The commentators were divided on the question of whether the USGA was pleased with the playing conditions. The suggestion was, the grass in the rough was higher than necessary, and the cuts of the fairway and greens were just a bit too close of a shave. No matter, everyone finished and the band played on. The hashtag #KeepShinnyWeird didn’t trend, but Saturday the 16th was certainly not ordinary. Five weird things we learned, on the way.

5) Phil’s breaking point

It wasn’t violent. No outburst or hysteria. We’d seen Phil leap in triumph at Augusta. Now we’ve seen the Mickelson jog, albeit under most different circumstances. Near as we can determine, for a moment Phil forgot that he was playing a U.S. Open. After belting a downhill, sliding bogey putt well past the mark, the left-handed one discerned that the orb would not come to rest for quite some time: a lower tier beckoned. As if dancing a Tarantella, Phil sprang toward the ball and gave it a spank while still it moved. Just like that, his quadruple-bogey 8 become a 10, thanks to the 2 strokes for striking a moving ball penalty. In true warrior fashion, Mickelson accepted the penalty without questions, intimating that it saved him another stroke or two in the end. Yeesh. Phil, we feel you.

4) DJ’s front-nine free fall

Just as unlikely as Phil’s whack-and-walk was Dustin Johnson’s front nine of 41. The cool gunslinger of Thursday-Friday faced the same turmoil as the other 66 golfers remaining, and the outward nine did not go according to his plan. DJ got past the opening hole with par, after making bogey there on Friday. Number two was another story. Double bogey on the long par three was followed by 4 bogeys in 5 holes, beginning with the 4th. The irony once again was, Johnson struggled on holes that the field did not necessarily find difficult. Hole No. 2 was the 10th-ranked hole for difficulty on day 3, while 4 and 7 were 13th and 11th-ranked, respectively. Hole No. 6 and 8 did fall in the more difficult half, but not by much. At day’s end, however, the tall drink of water remained in contention for his second U.S. Open title.

3) The firm of Berger and Finau

Each likely anticipated no more than a top-15 placing after 3 days, despite posting the two low rounds of the day, 4-under 66. Those efforts brought them from +7 to +3 for the tournament, but Johnson and the other leaders had yet to tee off. Every indication was lower and deeper; then the winds picked up, blustery like the 100 acre wood of Winnie The Pooh. Both golfers posted 6 birdies against 2 bogeys, to play themselves into the cauldron of contention. Berger has one top-10 finish in major events, while Finau has 2. None of those three came in a U.S. Open, so a win tomorrow by either golfer would qualify as an absolute shock.

2) Recent winners fared well

In addition to Johnson, the 2016 champion, Justin Rose (2013) and Brooks Koepka (2017) found themselves near or in the lead for most of the afternoon. Since Shinnecock Hills offers much of what characterizes links golf, it should come as no surprise that 2016 British Open champion Henrik Stenson is also within a handful of strokes of the top spot. Rose played the best tee-to-green golf of the leaders on Saturday, but was unable to coax legitimate birdie efforts from his putter. Koepka was the most impressive putter of the day, making up to 60-feet bombs and consistently holing the clutch par saves. On another note, given his victories at Chambers Bay (2015 U.S. Open) and Royal Birkdale (2017 British Open), the missed cut by Jordan Spieth was the week’s biggest surprise.

1) The wind

The most unpredictable of nature’s weapons, the winds of Shinnecock Hills exposed flaws in the course preparation. Areas that would have held off-line putts, were dried out enough to escort those efforts off the shortest grass, into the runoff compartments. The zephyrs pushed tee balls and approach shots just far enough astray to bring all the danger zones into the recipe. Prediction for tomorrow is, any golfer within 5 shots of the lead has a chance at the title. A Miller-esque round of 63 would bring anyone into contention, if the wind continues to blow. No event appreciates drama more than the U.S. Open, and Sunday at Shinnecock promises plenty of it.

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