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Tour Rundown: McHorses for McCourses at the Wells Fargo | Thailand treated to 1-2-3 finish in Honda LPGA

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May is here in full force, with a complete slate of professional events and a biennial amateur team golf event to boot. The guy who married a girl from Rochester came through in Charlotte, while a lad named Smotherman broke through on the Korn Ferry tour. We saw a first-time major champion on the Champions Tour, and a native daughter brought honor and glory to her country. Other than that, a dull week. Let’s wrap it up and run it down in this week’s edition of #GolfWRXTourRundown.

PGA Tour: McHorses for McCourses at the Wells Fargo 

Rory McIlroy’s first PGA Tour win came at Quail Hollow. So did his 11th. And despite a 72nd-hole rinse, so did his 19th. McIlroy had been on a winless run of 18 months, stretching to the HSBC in November of 2019. Pundits and golf fans had criticized everything from his distance-chasing to the buttons on his shirts. McIlroy went as far as adding a new instructor, the renowned Pete Cowen, to his team. Finally, the work paid off, but he didn’t make it easy.

McIlroy began the final round three shots behind Keith Mitchell. The one-time PGA Tour winner failed to summon his better game on Sunday, although for just a moment, he appeared to do that. Mitchell opened with birdie, but lost two shots midway through the outward half with a pair of bogeys at five and six. He added a third bogey at 17, along with a birdie at 13. For his efforts, a third-place tie with Viktor Hovland came his way. Abraham Ancer played a fine round of golf, advancing five places into second position. Ancer never should have been a factor in the event, save for the trio of birdies he made at 15 through 17. His attempt to reach double-digits under par, from 33 feet, just missed at the final hole.

It was McIlroy who brought Ancer back into contention. The northern Irishman made up all three shots on Mitchell on the outward half, posting two-under 33. Coming home, he added birdies at 14 and 15, giving himself a comfortable lead on the home tee. And then, he pulled a Rory, or nearly did. McIlroy wisely opted for three-metal from the tee.

Knowing that water left awaited on the entire stretch of the hole, and that only water would bring a playoff into the realm of the possible, Rory pulled his tee shot into the drink. His drop, in the rough, left him 200 yards home, and he did well to land the ball safely on the green. Demonstrating considerable nerve, McIlroy took two putts from over 40 feet, and breathed a sigh of relief upon escaping with a one-shot win.

LPGA Tour: Thailand treated to 1-2-3 finish in Honda LPGA

What a week to bet the home team! Fans in Thailand were treated to a 1-2-3 finish by a trio of homebred golfers. From a legend to a new power, to a relative unknown, three countrywomen challenged for victory in Chonburi.

Patty Tavatanakit jumped out to an early lead with rounds of 64-64 through 36 holes. The newly-minted ANA Inspiration champion struggled mildly on the weekend (70-70) and finished two shots out of first place. Atthaya Thitikul also opened with 64, and remained in contention until the final hole. Thitikul stood minus-five on the day, tied for the lead, when she made bogey at 17. Unable to source a birdie on 18, she finished one ahead of Patty T. and three others, in solo second at minus-21.

Winning the day with 63, and the week with 22-under par, was Ariya Jutanugarn. Winless on the LPGA Tour since 2018, Jutanugarn made her homecoming a victorious one, capping her time on home soil with a 72nd-hole birdie. With her 4 at the last, she flipped places with Thitikul and claimed her 11th title on tour. The two-time major winner (British and US Opens) posted 9 birdies and 9 pars on day four to secure a special title.

European Tour: Higgo wins second title in Canary Islands

Right around 28 degrees north of the equator, and 16 degrees west of the prime meridian, suits Garrick Higgo just fine. The young South African completed a three-week stay in the Canary Islands in resolute fashion, finish first-eighth-first during his three weeks off the coast of Africa, earning a great deal of fairway cred and cash along the way.

It’s a fun week when your worst 18-hole score is a 66. Higgo opened with that number, making just six birdies on the day. He improved with six more on Friday, and capped the round with an eagle-three at the last, for minus-eight for the round. A paltry five birdies on Saturday were set straight by a pair of eagles, and Higgo began to pull away from the field. On Sunday, the Joburg native crushed any doubters with an ace at the seventh, to go with his six birdies. His margin of victory was six shots over Australia’s Maverick Antcliff, with Finland’s Tappio Pulkkanen an additional shot back, in the third slot.

 

Korn Ferry Tour: Simmons Bank Open is Smotherman’s first big professional win

After playing some college golf in Dallas with Bryson DeChambeau, Austin Smotherman moved out into the great open spaces of the world’s golf tours. He won in Mexico in 2018, on the PGA Latinoamérica tour. In Tennessee this week, Smotherman caught lightning in a bottle and translated it into a 16-under par performance. The California lad opened with 65, two behind the leader, Harrison Endycott. When Endycott was forced to withdraw, Smotherman locked in on the number 69 and turned in three consecutive cards at that figure.

Smotherman carried a one-shot advantage over Carl Yuan and David Skinns into the final round, and turned in two-under 34. Yuan carded five birdies on the day, and made a brief run on the back nine with three saved shots in four holes. Bogey at 16 and 17 submarined his try at the title, but a birdie at the last brought him into a tie with Paul Haley II for second position. Skinns closed in even-par 72 and finished in solo 4th position.

Walker Cup: Team USA wins a close one at Seminole

It’s hard to carry the weight of a side on your shoulders. Alex Fitzpatrick learned that this weekend in Florida. The Wake Forest stalwart from England did his level best in each of four matches over two days at storied Seminole golf club, and came out on the wrong end each time. Fellow Demon Deacon Mark Power, also on the Great Britain and Ireland side, fared much better. He was 3-0 until running into a buzzsaw named Austin Eckroat, who dispatched him by 7 & 6. Thus did the host squad escape with a 14-12 win on home soil.

Who were the heroes for the Red, White and Blue? Begin with Eckroat, who won a pair of singles matches, despite not experiencing partner combat either day. Essentially coming in cold off the bench, Eckroat dispatched Power and Angus Flanagan, giving the USA team a pair of needed points. Cole Hammer a member of the 2019 team went 3.5-0.5. Ricky Castillo, who should have been a member of that 2019 squad, earned four points, the only member of either side to achieve that accolade.

The 2021 Walker Cup will also be remembered for a stomach bug. Both Mac Meissner (USA) and Jake Bolton (GBI) came off the alternate bench for the USA, when the original partners were unable to compete during that round. Ironically, each won a point with his newfound partner.

PGA Tour Champions: first major of the season goes to Cejka

Steve Stricker knows what it’s like to win your first major title on the Champions Tour. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to add another, and that surely means that he regrets his playoff loss to Alex Cejka at the Regions Tradition in Birmingham. It was Saturday when the two combatants proclaimed the 2021 playing to be a two-horse race, after posting 65 (Stricker) and 66 (Cejka). Robert Karlsson turned in a fine 64 on day three, but needed another on Sunday to enter the fray. He would settle for solo third place, four out of the playoff.

Through nine holes on Sunday, Stricker had opened up a three-shot advantage on Cejka. He gave two back through 13, and Cejka grabbed three more with birdies at 12 through 14. Suddenly with two strokes in hand, the German played conservatively home in par, giving Stricker an opening. The 2021 USA Ryder Cup captain made two more birdies at 16 and 18 to close the gap and send their match into extra holes.

Facing an awkward pitch from sidehill rough, Cejka lofted his third to about ten feet, just outside of Stricker’s birdie attempt. Leaving nothing to chance, he knocked the putt into the heart. When the reliable Stricker left his blade opened and missed to the right, the tournament belonged to Cejka.

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Ronald Montesano writes for GolfWRX.com from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.

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

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Some golfers played 24 holes on Friday to ensure that the woodsman’s axe would fall and the 36-hole cut would take place on schedule. Louis Oosthuizen closed out his opening 67 with three pars, joining Russell Henley atop the leaderboard. Sebastian Muñoz wasn’t so fortunate. He made double at the par-5 ninth to drop to even on the round then ballooned to a 77 to miss the cut by two. So cruel, this game. For every Muñoz, however, there is an Akshay Bhatia. Let’s enjoy his clutch performance at the last, and count the five things that we learned on Friday at the U.S. Open.

1. Bland on the run

Check my Twitter feed. At 2:10 pm, EST on this Friday of U.S. Open 2021, I indicated to @acaseofthegolf1 that I would utilize Bland on the run rather than the trite Anything but bland, in honor of Sir Paul McCartney’s recent birthday. There you go. What’s that? Who is Richard Bland? He’s an English bloke, a man who amassed seven birdies against three bogeys on day two and jumped to 6 under par for a time. He made bogey at his penultimate hole, else he would be at minus 6 on the week. Bland won his first European Tour event last month after years of attempts. He came close in 2002 at the Irish Open, where he lost in a playoff. Since then, it’s been grind, grind, grind. He cannot possibly win this thing, given that better Brits like Monty, Poulty, Westy, Casey, and Lukey have not. Rosey did win it, however, so maybe Blandy can do so, after all. What’s he got to lose?

2. Speaking of guys we haven’t seen in a minute…

That two-time Masters champion, Bubba Watson, matched Bland’s 67  with an eagle at the 18th. He moved into fourth place, two behind Bland. That Louis Oosthuizen got up early (see lede) to finish round one, struggled a bit through round two, but rallied through the hangover, and birdied two holes down the stretch to finish at even on the day, one back of Bland. That Jon Rahm played more solid, post-COVID-19 golf, posting 70 for minus 3. Rahm lowered his bogey total from three to two on day two, and that’s the key to winning U.S. Open championships. And one more? How about first-round, co-leader Russell Henley, also known as second-round co-leader Russell Henley? He followed his 67 with 70, led for his own minute, and will tee off in the final pairing with Richard Bland.

3. Calling mid-60s round

Six rounds of 67 have been posted, followed by five more at 68. Yes, this is the U.S. Open, but these are the world’s best golfers, on a course that they know very well. Someone will find a way to reach 65 today, mark my words. That 6-under round will do someone a lot of good, but it won’t win the tournament. Nothing wins the tournament on Saturday.

What will allow that magical round to happen? In the first place, the golfer will drive the ball in play on all three long holes, and will not err laterally with his second. Birdies or better on all three par-5 holes will be necessary to offset the occasional bogey on Torrey Pines’ long-for-your-and-me par 4s. By shooting that number on Saturday, the lead pack after 54 holes will know that it can be done, and will chase the same number down on Sunday.

4. Right brain, meet left brain

I cannot move farther without recognizing the two sides of Matthew Wolff. On Thursday, the young Californian painted his scorecard like a creative kindergartner. He amassed eight birdies and countered them with three bogeys and two doubles. On Friday, Wolff played nothing like that foundling. His game was controlled, his numbers were almost boring, but he improved by two shots to 68 and a tie for third, at 4 under par. The Oklahoma State product isn’t driving the ball that well, but he is finding his way to the putting surface. A 43 percent fairways-hit statistic is countered by a nearly incomprehensible 75 percent greens in regulation that ranks him first. The only way to explain his rise is that blend of confidence and arrogance that successful golfers have. Wolff tees off in the penultimate grouping with the resurgent Oosthuizen, who looks to improve upon last year’s T3 at Winged Foot, and last month’s T2 at Kiawah.

5. Saturday’s fun pairing

I cannot resist the third-last pairing of Bubba Watson and Jon Rahm. Gerry Lester Watson tied for 18th at the 2009 U.S. Open, his best career finish in this event. Since then, even as he won two Masters and established himself in the upper echelon of the game’s talent, the US Open became an enigma. Not hard to imagine why; the long lefthander adds a mercurial temperament that doesn’t square with a USGA set-up. Torrey is different, and Watson has a long-ago triumph here, over Phil Mickelson of all golfers, in his memory bank. Watson makes birdies, including five in his final seven holes on Friday. He’ll need to churn out another half-dozen on Saturday and Sunday each, to take a run at a coveted, second unique major title. No one knows what goes on in Bubba’s mind, least of all Bubba. That’s when he plays his best.

Paired with him is the game’s great in waiting, Jon Rahm. Much has been written of his unfortunate disqualification from the Memorial, and in truth, a parkland course in middle America has no bearing on the next 48 hours. Rahm has shed the mentors and is his own man. What type of champion will he become? El gran Vasco has eight birdies and five bogies over the first 36 holes, and has kept the ball mostly in play through the green. His long-game numbers are fine, but it’s the way he rolls the ball that has kept him in the game. Is that a great recipe for a brush with immortality? Probably not, unless he keeps it up. Saturday will show us the depth of Rahm’s mental fortitude.

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5 things we learned Thursday at the U.S. Open

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Should we have anticipated a fog delay at Torrey Pines? Yes. That’s the kind of thing that happens along the California coast. Should we have anticipated a scorecard like the one that Matthew Wolff turned in? Not in our wildest, sleep-deprived hallucinations. Our guy had five pars out of 18 holes and shot 70. Two of those pars came on his final pair of holes, so through 16 greens, Wolff had eight birdies, three bogey, two doubles … and three pars. There were other odd rounds on the day, but none that ended as well as did that of George Gankas’ star pupil. 36 players were stranded on course overnight and will finish in the morning. Have a look at the five things we learned on Thursday at Torrey Pines.

1. Guys we absolutely should have seen in contention after day one

Start with Koepka. Two-time winner of the U.S. Open, plus mental and physical giant, plus eternal chip on his shoulder, adds up to constant challenge in major events. Brooks reached 4 under par through 11 holes, after his birdie at the second hole. Along with Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas, the Tallahassee Titan began his day on the inward half. Torrey Pines bit him on the very next hole, and again at the seventh, and he finished his day at 2 under.

Xander Schauffele is one of those guys who would have won a major title (say I) had 2020 been a normal sort of year. He was on a roll, and the venues suited his game quite well. Two bogeys and four pars on the day gave him 69 on the day, even with Koepka. Most important takeaway from today? All of his birdies came on the inward half. Comfort on the back nine during Sunday’s home stretch would be everyone’s first request.

Tyrrell Hatton is entertaining. His clench-jawed, self-immolating method of conquering a golf course is not one that I recommend that you emulate, yet I can’t help smile each time he directs a debilitating comment at his own visage. He seems to possess that essence that might take him to the top of a major one day. Dude is thick and plays without fear. He had four birdies on the day and waits in the shadows for his opportunity.

2. Guys we absolutely did not expect to be in contention after day one

The law firm of Molinari and Molinari. If hit with the question Which Molinari has a USGA title? at trivia tonight…or tomorrow…or Saturday, go with Edoardo. Two years ago, we would have expected Francesco to be in the thick of things. Now, not so much. Francesco notched five birdies on the day and escaped with a pair of bogeys in his 68. Brother Edoardo, the 2005 U.S. Amateur titleist at Merion, eclipsed younger brother Francesco in the birdie department (six on the day) but had a rough patch of plus-4 from holes 2-6 at the beginning of his round. When you can do this, however, you can erase bogey!

One actual co-leader, Russell Henley, is one of the tour’s most accurate putters. On Thursday, he toured Torrey in 27 putts, which will win the day quite often. Henley hit 8 of 14 driving fairways but found his way onto 13 greens in regulation. That approach won’t play all week, unless the putter remains white hot.

The other actual co-leader, Louis Oosthuizen, gave chase to Phil Mickelson last month at the PGA Championship on Kiawah Island. Did we anticipate a return challenge from the 2010 Open Champion at St. Andrews? Absolutely not. That, dear reader, is precisely why he is challenging. Oosthuizen’s stature demands that he play a straight-arrow game, and Torrey Pines rewards that approach this week.

3. Guys whose rotten play blew our minds on day one

Webb Simpson was 6 over par when he reached the 10th tee. Then, things got worse. He added a bogey and a double before marking down the day’s only birdie, at 18. Unless there’s a mid-60s round in the offing, Webb’s stay in San Diego will be brief.

Kevin Na might be the best player in history to have absolutely no game for major championships. Na has two token top-10 finishes in 40 career biggie starts. Other than a seventh-place finish at Oakmont in 2016, his U.S. Open record is forgettable. After an opening 77, add 2021 to the flop list.

Justin Rose won the 2019 Farmers at Torrey Pines. What that tells us: he has a nice track record when the course plays like a PGA Tour event. What that does not tell us: how he fares when the USGA takes control of cut lines, green firmness, and putting surface speeds. As far as weird rounds go, have a look at his: par par par bogey bogey bogey par par par bogey bogey bogey par par par. In hindsight, do you think he would eschew the money he was paid in 2014 to jump ship to bad clubs, after his seminal U.S. Open win? Yup. Yup. Yup.

4. Guys we are THRILLED to have in contention

Rafael Cabrera Bello, aka the beautiful goatherd, has long been one of those golfers who should have more wins than his record belies. RCB might have had the day’s only clean card. Birdie at the 2nd, eagle at the 18th, see you on Friday! The Canariano finished top-25 at Winged Foot last September, and perhaps looks to add an even better finish in 2021, thanks to an opening 68.

Keep it Spanish with El Vasco, Jon Rahm. A victim of Covid two weeks ago at The Memorial, Rahm is in town with unfinished business. Knowing well that he cannot bull his way around a U.S. Open track, Rahm has chosen a more elegant method, and it is paying dividends. After a helter-skelter front nine of birdies, bogeys, and just two pars, Rahmbo settled down on the inward half and finished his round at -2.

5. Guys we see hoisting the trophy on Sunday

Unlike Winged Foot last fall, there are no angles that allow for bomb and wedge play at Torrey Pines. Ultimately, the new prototype for a U.S. Open course will be more Torrey than Golden Age. Length doesn’t matter this year. What wins on Sunday is the golf equivalent of the decathalete. Blend all the skill sets for 96 hours, and you depart with the art. With that image seared into your mind, here are three chaps with a chance.

Hideki

Matsuyama showed us in April that he has the major disposition. If the putter stays warm, the pride of Japan will be halfway to a 2021 grand slam with his second major title.

Matt

Fitzpatrick won a U.S. Amateur the same year that Rose won the Open at Merion. Fitzy is trending upward the last few weeks, and Father’s Day might be the one for him to honor his pops with a major professional title.

Lee

As much as we love a rising-star story, we long for a fading-star comeback. Westy was oh-so-close in 2008, the year of the broken tiger. He has zero major professional titles on his family crest, so does he break through in 2021? I’m not the one to say no.

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Report: PGA Tour set to ban green-reading books

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The PGA Tour is on the verge of banning green reading books as early as this year, according to a report from GolfWeek’s Eamon Lynch.

Per the report, the Players Advisory Committee voted “overwhelmingly” to ban the books at a meeting during the Memorial Tournament a fortnight ago. The onus is now on the PGA Tour Board, who will vote on whether to ban the aid or not.

Green reading books are one of the most popular aids on tour, with the vast majority of tour pros using them on the greens. However, critics of the aid have often commented that the books take the art and skill of putting away, with others believing they lead to slow play.

Augusta National Golf Club is currently the only club that bans the books, which is brought up each time the club hosts the Masters.

Per the report, The Players Advisory Council met at the Memorial Tournament in Ohio on Tuesday, June 1 where they voted overwhelmingly to ban the books. The PAC is currently chaired by Rory McIlroy and includes Justin Thomas, Billy Horschel and Zach Johnson.

One player who was at the meeting is firmly in favor of the ban and told Lynch: “It was overwhelming. It wasn’t close. The books should be banned. Green reading is a skill to be learned.”

Before this week’s U.S. Open, Rory Mcilroy told media at Torrey Pines:

“Everything that’s talked about in those meetings is somewhat confidential, but what I can say, I think — I use a greens book, and I’d like to get rid of them.

I think everyone is in the same boat, most guys on tour are in the same boat, that if it’s going to be available to us and it helps us, people are going to use it, but I think for the greater good of the game, I’d like to see them be outlawed and for them not to be used anymore.”

Should the PGA Tour vote to outlaw the books, the ban should come into effect at the beginning of the 2021/22 PGA Tour season later this year.

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