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Highlights: Final Round Freaky Fireworks

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If you flipped around the final rounds this weekend, each tournament ended with me saying "Wow!  What did I just see?"  Just when you thought golf without Tiger in the field was ho-hum, along comes the unexpected. Here are some moments you’re sure to see over and over:

Richard Finch wins the Irish Open after he performs a miracle-shot and a River Dance.  His final shot to the 18th found Finch on a steep riverbank. One swing later, his ball neatly landed on the short grass as Finch found himself suddenly floundering waist deep in reeds and chilly water.

Kenny Perry’s ball treebounds into the drink for a playoff defeat at the ATT.  Perry overshot the 18th green on the first playoff hole, nailed the trunk of a tall tree, landed neatly on the fringe and rocketed 40 yards across the green, down the bank, and into the water, leafing Ryuji Imada to score his first PGA win.

Lorena Ochoa gets rough with the rough on her way to the Sybase Classic title.  Attempting to hammer herself out of a deep rough with a hybrid club, Ochoa instead hit a wormburner and showed us a what she thought of her performance by surprisingly pounding and pounding the gnarly lettuce with her club. 

Andy Bean stalks a tall win at the Champion Tour’s Regions Charity Classic. Bean jumped from three shots ahead, to two, then to one, but he mustered a blistering final approach to 18 from 217 yards away that rolled up to within 10 feet for a two-putt and the trophy.

 There seems to be a new zeal for risk-taking and high performance across professional golf.  I can’t wait for next week.

 

 

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Tim Schoch got hooked on golf by his uncle, a golf course superintendent, who gave him a set of hickory sticks he'd dredged from the bottom of the course's lake. Tim would later caddy for the private nine-holer, waiting with the other boys in the stifling caddy shack until one of the portly hacker members grunted in his direction then heaped two bags of clubs and three hours of verbal abuse on his shoulders, all for $5 per bag and a quarter tip. Tim loved it. Tim is a writer, editor, humorist, copywriter and marketing professional, and author of 10 novels and dozens of magazine stories. He occasionally blogs about golf at www.golferblogger.com and creative writing on the blog found at www.TimWriter.com. He wrote for GolfWRX eight years ago, and is happy to be back. Tim's been on eBay since 1998. Currently, Tim and his wife run two eBay shops: www.doubleTvintage.com and www.DejaGolf.com.

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

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How much of a deficit is too much to close, on day four? Gary Woodland posted his third-consecutive round in the 60s, maintaining position at the top of the leader board. Justin Rose did more than keep pace with his playing partner, however. He shaved one stroke off the leader’s advantage, ending the day one shot off Woodland’s 11-under pace. Next came Brooks Koepka. That guy. Like Woodland, Koepka has also visited the 60s during each round, the only other golfer in the field to do so.

Stories of contenders are plentiful, just not as many as we held on Friday evening. The 2019 United States Open championship is drawing to a close, with no indication of its resolution. Still, at least five things became more apparent on Saturday, and we’ve selected a quintet of factors that might reveal the next national champion of the USA. Here we go.

5. Contenders make putts

They say that poa annua, the grass that inhabits the putting surfaces of Pebble Beach, opens up as the day progresses, making smooth runs bumpy. Even in the late afternoon, when the poa does growa, the golfers in contention find a way to get the ball in the hole. Rolls from all distances, from every corner of every green, found their way to the bottom of the cup in round three.

Chez Reavie and Gary Woodland made bombs for par from over 40 feet. Justin Rose tamed short, twisty snakes for birdie. As valuable as those putts were today, to keep golfers in contention, they will be worth their weight in gold on Sunday. On day four, made putts might be the stroke that propels someone toward a major title.

4. Contenders get up and down … or sometimes, just down

The bunker sand at Pebble Beach hasn’t varied from the sort that the PGA Tour encounters each February. Weird, I know, but sometimes a course trades out the usual sand for something USGA-funky. A disproportionate number of hole-outs and near-misses from sand has happened this week. Perhaps it’s the cream rising to the top, or maybe it’s the sand. Who knows?

The gnarly, snaggly rough appears ferocious, yet somehow, these golfers are able to decode its parameters. As for chips and pitches from tight lies, how welcome are they? Put a wedge in the hands of the leaders, and it’s as good as a putter. In 1982, Tom Watson’s hole-out from beyond 17 green was unprecedented. Anticipate 3 or 4 of those tomorrow, epic shots that define a championship.

3. Contenders get it done on the opening 7 holes

The announcers have belabored the point of Pebble’s two faces: holes one through seven, then all the rest. It’s a point worth belaboring. The USGA has set up the fourth to be drivable as a par 4, affording an opportunity for golfers to begin with a bang. A drive in the fairway at one and three leaves short iron or wedge for the approach. Six is a reachable par 5 that shows no shame in giving up eagle after eagle to the daring strike. Seven has been docile all week, with little wind to distract the wee pitch shots that fly like darts at the flag. If you get yourself 4-under after seven on Sunday, you’ll find yourself near the lead or clear of the field. If you don’t, as Tiger Woods did Saturday, playing the opening 7 in 1 over, you’ll drift away as a statistic.

2. Contenders get something done over the difficult stretch

You have to go all the way to Matt Wallace, the last golfer listed at T9, to find a double bogey on a score card. While the stretch from 8 to 18 is daunting, it is not unmanageable. In fact, it must be managed to remain in contention. Big numbers receive a one-way ticket away from Monterey. So, too, do extended runs of bogey.

The top 15 golfers (save one) shot between 1 and 4 under on Saturday. Matt Wallace, at even par, was the exception. It doesn’t seem that a low 60s number on Sunday is in the offing, but that’s what they said in 1973, at Oakmont. The top two will battle each other, while the rest of the field will hope for lightning to strike.

1. What to make of Gary Woodland?

He hasn’t gone away. To the contrary, he sits atop the field for a second-consecutive evening. Is Gary Woodland, finally, major material? He was supposed to be the next brawny basher, until Brooks Koepka showed up. Woodland scrambled his tail off on Saturday, missing seven of 11 greens, but making just one bogey. He three-whacked the 8th green from an inch onto the back fringe, after a massive misread of the first putt’s break. Other than that, he was brilliant each time momentum prepared to shift.

Can he fight momentum shifts for a second consecutive day, when he will again pair with the elegant Justin Rose? He will have to, for he must beat them all in order to wear the crown. Somewhere in Arizona, Amy Bockerstette is pulling for him to do just that.

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Why players are living so far under par

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The PGA Tour’s tagline is “Live Under Par,” and every week we see the best players in the world take on courses set up to challenge them as much as possible. Even on these difficult courses, with pin positions tucked around greens and rough grown out beyond what many regular golfers might ever experience, we still see the pros who are playing their best get way under par and often break scoring records.

But how and why does this happen week after week? Are these courses just not challenging enough? Are players really that good? (“These Guys are Good” was the tour’s previous motto, after all)

Let’s break down a few factors that relate to scoring on the PGA Tour and why we keep seeing low scores on an almost weekly basis.

First off, we have the length. It’s not a guarantee that more length equals higher scores. Pebble Beach under U.S. Open conditions is a great example of that, but if we are to use a recent example, at Hamilton Golf & CC (host course to the RBC Canadian Open), we saw Brandt Snedeker shoot 60 during his Friday morning round, and multiple rounds in the low 60s. Hamilton is not a long course by modern PGA Tour standards, but on a day with some benign pins, little wind, and slower, softer greens (thanks to a wet week leading up), it’s a perfect scenario for someone to make a score. On top of that, to finish off the tournament we saw Rory McIlroy get on a total heater Sunday afternoon to shot 61 – with a bogey at the last, and win by 7 – yes 7!

Rough. As we saw at the PGA Championship this year at Bethpage Black, length plus rough means that you are going to eliminate more than half the field before the tournament even starts. It’s the exact reason we saw the bomber-filled leaderboard that we did.

On the opposite end of the spectrum a dry Open Championship often proves that tightly mown areas actually pose a greater risk to players than rough, since once a ball starts rolling, there is no telling where and when it’s going to stop – although a hazard is usually the answer. Average length rough around the greens makes chipping and pitching difficult, and when you add in the fact that as the week goes on the pins get closer to slopes and edges, it’s a recipe for those having the best week with their irons having the best chance to take home the trophy.

Player skill. This is the X-Factor. No matter what you do to the course fans need to realize that week to week, you have the world’s best players taking their games to every tournament. It all comes down to a numbers game. Half aren’t going to make the cut, 35 percent are going to play well but miss some putts, and the final 15 percent are going to have their games peaking and be inside the top ten.

Within that 15 percent, one or two of those players are going to be firing on all cylinders, and if you are a casual observer, that’s all you really get to see on TV, the guys on fire like Rory this past Sunday at the Canadian Open.

 

 

 

 

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5 things we learned on Friday at the U.S. Open

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If the weather forecast is to be believed, the next 48 hours of Pebble Beach weather will be a blend of cloudy, partly cloudy, and mostly cloudy skies. Rain will never have less than a 10 percent chance of falling, but never more than 20 percent. Winds will peak at 11 mph, dropping to three mph, blowing from west to east, at a variety of angles. What that consistent weather forecast means, is that golf will not be consistent.

The USGA should not need to water the greens, which means that they will slowly firm up, forcing golfers to be even more precise in the changing landing spots they select. It means that anyone who shoots the score of 65 (that was low each of the first two days), will find himself in the thick of the chase. For now, let’s take a brief look back at five things that we learned on Friday at the U.S. Open.

5. The numbers

79 golfers made the cut at 2 over, 11 shots behind the leader. Eight golfers missed the cut by one stroke, while 24 others made the cut on the number. Of the 79, four are amateurs, at 2 over, E, E and 2 under, respectively. That foursome will do battle for its own tournament medal, although none is expected to challenge for the overall championship trophy. Rhys Enoch had an 11-stroke turnaround, from 77 to 66, to make the cut on the number.

Rickie Fowler went 12 strokes the other way, from 66 to 78, to move from squarely in title contention, to 10 shots off the lead. Pebble Beach showed no favoritism to either wave, morning or afternoon. Low and high scores came during each. What Pebble Beach did do, was fray the nerves and distract the attention of the competition. The first act is now complete.

4. Brooks Koepka looks like…Brooks Koepka

True to his word, Koepka doesn’t change much. No soaring highs, no crashing lows…yet. The U.S. Open Champion of 2017 and 18, who is also the PGA Champion of 2018 and 19, stands at 4 under par, tied with four others in sixth place,  five shots behind the leader. Of the nine golfers between him and the top, three have won major titles, none since 2014. Only one of them, Rory McIlroy, has won the U.S. Open, and his win came on a rain-softened Congressional course in 2011.

Besides McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson at 1 under, and Tiger Woods at even par, no other golfer in the field has more than one major championship to his credit. It’s a wide-open weekend, so why shouldn’t Koepka have as much say as anyone in the outcome? The defending champion had half as many birdies (six to three) on Friday, but one-third as many bogies (three to one). It’s that second number that will weigh heavily on his result. The fewer the mistakes, the more likely the victory.

3. A Rose by any other name … needs another major title

In 2016, Justin Rose won the Olympic gold medal, a unique achievement in his generation. Problem is, no one knows where it ranks in terms of tournament victories. In 2017, Rose went into a playoff at Augusta National with Sergio Garcia, but came out a runner-up. The Englishman has won 24 times around the globe but lists just the 2013 U.S. Open in his major victories column.

In terms of a place in history, he needs more than one. Rose sits tied with Dustin Johnson, Jerry Pate, Henry Picard and a hundredfold of other champions of a solitary grand slam event. Trouble is, Rose’s long game is not at its best. His putting is sublime, but his driver is wayward, and his iron game, misguided. Do Aaron Wise, Chez Reavie and Chesson Hadley pose a threat to the man currently in 2nd place? Probably not. It’s the Oosthuizens, the McIlroys and, of course, the Koepkas that demand that Rose preserve his pristine putting stroke, while getting his long game in order. This is the elite of the elite, after all. No excuses, no margin for error.

2. Will the U.S. Open see another, first-time major champion?

Five of the last seven U.S. Open champions had not previously won a major title. Two of the last three Open champions at Pebble Beach (Graeme McDowell in 2010 and Tom Kite in 1992) made the Open their first major victory. For those reasons alone, names like Wise, Hadley, Reavie, Kuchar, and Wallace should not be eliminated from consideration this weekend.

True, the U.S. Open environment is a cauldron of pressure, increasing in constriction as each nine holes passes. At the same time, Koepka, Johnson, Kaymer, Rose and Simpson each had to find something yet unknown, to push aside the detractors and gain admission to the exclusive club of Open champions. Pebble Beach is a known commodity to PGA Tour regulars, so the putting might not be the greatest concern of the final 36 holes.

What will come into play, are the playing corridors. Fairways essentially cut in half, pushed left and right toward hazards and other dangers, a fraction of the width normally seen in February. The sure thing is that there is no certainty. The holder of the champion’s silver come Sunday might as soon be a first-timer as a repeat winner. Time will tell. After all, things like this could happen to anyone.

1. Gary Woodland is in uncharted territory

On the bright side, Gary Woodland played around Pebble Beach in 65 strokes on Friday. Six birdies against zero bogeys added up to the low round of the day and a two-shot advantage over Justin Rose. Also on the bright side, Woodland has hit 22 of 28 fairways, and 26 of 36 greens in regulation over the first two days. The leader has three PGA Tour titles to his credit, including Phoenix in 2018.

On paper, Woodland looks like a good bet to hoist the trophy on Sunday. That’s where the confidence begins to wane. Woodland’s track record in major events is improving, with consecutive top-10 finishes in the 2018 and 2019 PGA Championships. His best U.S. Open finish, though, was eight years ago, his only top-30 finish in the event. Woodland tees it up on Saturday in the final pairing, with the 2013 U.S. Open champion. No time like the present to find out if a step to the next level is in the offing.

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