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Five Things We Learned Thursday at the PGA Championship

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I write to you from Buffalo, New York. We are a city that has been in the national news this week for a horrific reason. Our work needs to begin in earnest, and needs to continue, to ensure that that this history has no chance of repeating itself. I welcome the opportunity to think about a major men’s golf championship this week, although my thoughts are never far from the victims and their families.

Southern Hills is the latest, reborn club to host a major championship. The new breed of course doctors are true students of the classic elements of proper golf course architecture. Gil Hanse and his cavemen did a fine job returning the glory of Perry Maxwell to this Tulsa treasure. Oklahoma had itself a somewhat-steamy Thursday, with the temperature peaking at 90 degrees around four o’clock. By that time, Rory McIlroy had completed his morning rounds, and held a one-shot advantage as the afternoon squad hit the tee decks. The two-time PGA champion will feature in our Five Things We Learned for today, but we need to get to four others first.

5. How badly do I crave a major?

The list begins with Will Zalatoris (-4) and continues to Cameron Smith (-2) and Xander Schauffele (-2) and a host of others. The PGA Championship has an element of chill that other majors lack, and that might be why golfers tend to break through with confidence for a first major title. At the other three majors, first-time winners are often the unwitting beneficiaries of the misfortune of others. Not so at the professionals’ major. Lurking are Matt Kuchar (-3) and Abraham Ancer (-3). There will be plenty of break-through storylines to follow this week at Southern Hills.

4. What is it? Or him? Or what? I don’t know?

#TigerWoods #WyndhamChampionship2015 One of the most enjoyable quotes from the great cat focuses on Tom Hoge, currently seated at four-under par, one shot back of the leader. Hoge hails from North Dakota, and won his first Tour title at Pebble Beach, after years of grinding. He was so far, under-the-radar that Tiger Woods had no idea if he was a sandwich or a fellow touring professional. Hoge is precisely the type of golfer (think Shaun Micheel or Wayne Grady, or even Walter Burkemo) who wins a PGA Championship

3. Speaking of Tiger Woods…

It’s all a part of the process, doncha know? Tiger Woods teed off on the second nine, and stood two-under par through his first five holes. He made one more birdie coming home, but the rest was as forgettable as it comes. Tiny cuts, in the form of bogies, came seven times over those remaining 13 holes, and Woods found himself at four-over par at day’s end, nine shots off the lead at 74. We know that he can bounce back from such a malaise. If he can get back to even par on Friday evening, he should make the cut. Woods has good vibes at Southern Hills, having won the PGA here in 2007. He’ll need to draw on that mojo on Friday, else we’ll see him next in Brookline.

2. The guy we like

He’s only seven holes into his round, as I type these words, but I think that Collin Morikawa will rise up and win a second PGA in three years. There’s no glitz in his life to distract him. Other than impending nuptials with his sweetheart, Morikawa is all about the golf. Through seven holes, he had posted seven pars. Once the birdie dam breaks, the putts will begin to drop from everywhere. Check back with us in a few hours to find out how accurate this prediction was! (Editor’s note: Not a great prediction)

1. Rory closes with birdie for 65

When we close the laptop on this week’s storylines, the 24-feet putt that Rory McIlroy made on green number nine (his eighteenth) on Thursday might be the one that we remember. The winner at Kiawah and Valhalla during the 2010s showed well on a course that resembles neither. McIlroy had consecutive birdies from holes 12 through 15, and added another pair at 2 and 5, to reach six-under par. On his 15th hole of the day, McIlroy stumbled to a bogey four, and repeated the recipe to holes later at the par-three eighth. Leaking oil, McIlroy knocked his approach to nine above the hole, then read the putt perfectly. He stroked it perfectly, too. As the orb tumbled down, McIlroy was in with 65 for a one-shot advantage.

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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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Your 2024 U.S. Open champion is BDC

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Opening Act: The Amateurs

There’s a balance to the universe, as Shipley gets a top USGA medal

Despite their given name, Neal Shipley and Luke Clanton played like the main attraction on Sunday. That’s not to say that their games were more elite; just similar. Case in point: Clanton played the final four holes bogey-bogey-par-bogey and lost the silver medal by two shots. Shipley closed in bogey-birdie-bogey-par and won a silver medal, to go with his runner-up silver medal from the 2023 US Amateur.

For fans of the amateur race, three were fortunate to qualify for the weekend’s 36 holes at Pinehurst. Gunnar Broin was in fine position at +3 through 36 holes, but a day-three 81 took him out of the running for the no-pay honors. He did close with 72, to finish at +16 and a tie for 70th place. Shipley and Clanton, as if scripted by Hollywood, were partnered in the 12:04 game, and would not have to look beyond their own fairway, to determine how they stood.

Shipley opened with a birdie, but gave the stroke back to Old Man Par at the very next hole. A double bogey at the tricky 8th brought him to the halfway house in 37 strokes. Clanton had bogeys at four, six, and eight, but a birdie at seven kept their low-am match even as they turned for home. Clanton found a pair of birdies at 10 and 13, but a bogey at 12 kept him even with Shipley, as they headed for the closing four. No stretch of holes could be any more disconcerting than this quadrilateral. Two par threes, sandwiched around a par five that plays as a par four, concluding with a par four that climbs uphill to a massive closing surface.

After both amateurs missed the 15th green and took three to get down, they both drove the fairway of 16, and faced 210-yard approach shots. Clanton put his shot some 50 feet from the hole, while Shipley rifled an iron to five feet. The former took three to get down for bogey, while the later drained his putt for three. In that instant, a two-shot advantage was forged. On 17, Clanton found the putting surface with his tee ball and made three, while Shipley returned a shot with another bogey four. On 18, Clanton hit a miraculous recovery iron to five feet, but his attempt to jam home the birdie for the tie was awry, and he missed the subsequent (and meaningless) putt for par. Shipley’s textbook fairway-green-two putts for par at the home hole conlcuded the mission.

The Main Event: The Professionals

It’s all  endurance, as DeChambeau claims 2nd US Open

They say that there are two types of folks that watch races: ones looking for excellence, and others that hope for crashes. We should have known that the 2024 US Open at Pinehurst #2 would end with a gut-wrenching crash. All of the elements were present: super-fast greens, surface edges that fell off into disaster, and wire grass-laden waste areas where consumate luck was the determiner for back-of-ball contact. For every Francesco Molinari moment (he of the 36th-hole ace to make the cut on the number) there were myriad stories of unfortunate bounces and pulls of gravity.

My prediction of a playoff missed by one shot. My prediction of a Matsuyama victory missed by four shots. All in all, I wasn’t far off. I made those predictions while hoping, privately, for a Rory McIlroy victory. When he took a two-shot advantage at the 12th, and preserved it at the short 13th, matching Bryson DeChambeau’s birdie three, those in the know, knew that it was far from over.

Let’s back up to the beginning of the fourth round. Let’s recall that DeChambeau held a three-shot advantage after 54 holes, which those in the know, know is nothing. One wayward swing brings double and triple bogey into the realm of the possible, and that trio of shots goes away in a gust. When DeChambeau made bogey at the fourth, his first of the day, a friend texted Bryson is imploding! True, there was much hyperbole around the place, but those in the know, knew that bogey at the long fourth was not nearly as large a speed bump as bogey at the par-five fifth, which Rory made.

Bryson DeChambeau’s front nine was a boring affair. Apart from that solitary bogey, he had nothing but par on the card. For those … all right, no more “in the know.” Eight pars is a sign of strength in the US Open. Even when McIlroy laced an iron fifteen feet above the hole, then drained the putt for two, DeChambeau didn’t flinch. Even when McIlroy added three birdies over the next four holes, DeChambeau didn’t flinch. Recall, please, that DeChambeau followed a 52nd-hole double bogey with a 53rd-hole birdie on Saturday. All who love Rory, know that controlling his emotions and preserving balance, is elusive. For DeChambeau, it was his greatest strength. They wrote and said that Ludvig Aberg had the cool of a gunslinger, but he finished 73-73 for a 12th place tie.

It was as if the denouement of the Amateur race turned into an eerie, Groundhog’s Day-effect. Over the closing four holes, McIlroy made three bogeys, while DeChambeau closed in plus-one. McIlroy’s two-shot advantage evaporated, thanks to missed putts of four and two-point-five feet on the 18th and 16th greens.

Worst of all was the iron that he played into 15. It was reminiscent of Tom Watson’s approach to the 72nd hole at Royal Troon in 2009. Needing only to put the ball on the front of the green to guarantee par and a major title at age 59, Watson momentarily forgot about adrenaline, and bounded over the green for bogey. This year, it was McIlroy’s turn. His tee shot landed in the middle of the rock-hard putting surface, and bounced, then rolled, over the target and up against a toupee of wire grass.

Thus spake Zarathustra, and thus did fate annoint Bryson DeChambeau the 2024 US Open champion. The big man from Texafornia did everything he could to give the tournament to McIlroy, but his grit and his guile would not allow that result. Few would ever have called the brawny Bryson the consumate US Open player but, in joining Brooks Koepka as the only golfer since Tiger Woods to win two of them, that might be his legacy.

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5 Things We Learned: Saturday at the U.S. Open

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If you weren’t on the edge of your seat as Saturday afternoon’s play thread unraveled, you were certainly having a good nap. Golf at Pinehurst was riveting, as birdies and double bogeys faced off in a breathaking dance. Competitors suddenly rose to heights, then fell just as quickly away to the depths. The leader through three rounds stands at seven-under par, with seven other conestants at minus-one or better. For the first time all week, the lead involves just one golfer, and there is a three-shot gap until the next players. It’s uncharted territory for the 124th US Open, and it merits a bit of investigation and explanation, along with a dash of anticipation. Five bits of information tie the third round in a splendid bow, and I’ll share those five things we learned with you, right now.

1. Holes 1 and 2 are not to be assumed

Thomas Detry’s hard work went away in the space of 35 minutes. He opened with bogey and followed with double, at Saturday’s first two holes. Pinehurst #2 can still be managed, but it’s a lot harder when you’re already three over par on the day. Neither the first nor the second is particularly daunting from a distance perspective. One plays slightly downward, and two is even more downhill, but the challenges around the green are regrettable, when not properly planned. Detry made five from the middle of the first fairway, thanks to three putts from the front of the putting surface. He followed with six at the second, victimized first by the piney sands along the fairway, then by the bunker that guards the right edge of the green. Detry fell away to two-over par after his 76, and will wonder how the formerly-benign opening sharpened its claws so quickly.

Solid Quote: Yeah, didn’t really get off to a great start. 3-putted the first. We (Detry and Caddy) kind of misjudged the yardage on the 2nd, which left us in a horrible spot. So double there.

Honestly, couldn’t have been a worse start because I didn’t really miss a shot, to be honest. We kind of misjudged the yardage. Laid up in the bunker. Kind of game over. 3-over after three, not good.

But I kind of regrouped nicely after that. The greens are a little bit bumpy, moving a little bit more. I shaved a couple of edges. Felt like I was a little bit unlucky on the greens. I’m looking forward for some redemption tomorrow.

2. Hole number three, while early, can be pivotal

The USGA was content to push the tees up a bit on the short, third hole on Saturday. It paid off, as players went after the green with their tee shots. Eagles were sparingly made, and birdies came more often than on previous days. If a player stands even or a bit under par after the opening pair, then finds birdie or eagle at three on Sunday, heartbeats will quicken and the game will be truly afoot. They’ll need to follow the leads of Neal Shipley and Cory Conners, both of whom found the putting surface in one on Saturday.

Solid Quote: Out here you can’t play defensive golf. If you (Morikawa) play defensive golf, it goes offline a little bit more, you’re 35 yards away from the pin.

3. Make your move in the round’s middle

Bryson DeChambeau picked up four shots on the card on Saturday, from holes five through eleven. The strong man from Texafornia (grew up in California, then played college golf in Texas) saved strokes at five and seven, then packed consecutive birdies at ten and eleven. The middle holes at the Deuce aren’t necessarily soft. They are attractive to scoring, especially when you’ve found a way to survive the first quartet. You gain momentum at the fourth, with the massively-downhill drive, then build opportunity with a well-planned fifth, the first par five of the day. The long holes are finished at the tenth green, but holes eleven through fourteen offer the chance to save a few more shots, before the long trek home.

Solid Quote: … on 13 I (DeChambeau) was going for the flag knowing the wind was off the right. It it went over to the left, totally fine. But I pushed it just a little bit and drew it back perfectly at the flag on 13. I knew that was in the realm of possibilities. Got a little lucky there.

Then 14 I was trying to hit it more toward Ludvig’s ball. I hit a great shot, just didn’t start out with any draw spin and the wind pushed it right towards the flag.

That’s kind of what you’re doing out here, is you’re trying to play conservative golf that gives you the opportunity to hit it close in some scenarios. That’s the best way I can describe it.

4. Hold on through the finish

Pinehurst’s number two course closes with two par threes, a par four that was built to be a par five, and an unforgettable finisher that conjures up images of fist pumps and sighs of relief. It’s hard to build a rhythm when you hit iron-drive-iron-driver over the closing quartet.

Solid quote: You (Pavon) feel like sometimes you are flying a little bit, your game, everything is going on, and then at some point you just miss one green, can see a bogey, and then all of a sudden it starts to be harder in your mind and in your game, and you still have to finish the round.

5. How do we sort this out?

With a three-shot advantage, the joystick is in DeChambeau’s hand. He forces everyone to shoot 67 or better, if he posts 70. His pairing in the final game with Matthieu Pavon is not ideal. The Frenchman has the potential to play a solid round, but his inexperience with the klieg lights of a major championship, fourth round, final pairing could lead to a high number. Does this faltering then distract DeChambeau? Perhaps. I believe that will happen, and he will post 72 on the day, finishing at minus five.

That wee wobble opens the door for the penultimate pairing. Cantlay and McIlroy will feel like the final day at a Ryder Cup, perhaps even a rehearsal for 2025 and Bethpage Black. They will be uber-focused on beating each other. The expectation will be that no other leader is better suited to handle Sunday’s pressure. Win the battle and you win the war. One of the two of them will post 68, and will reach a playoff at minus six.

The other playoff participant will come from a bit farther back. Either Hideki or Ludvig will inscribe 66 on his card on day the fourth, and will join battle for another two holes. We haven’t had a US Open playoff since Tiger Woods defeated Rocco Mediate in 2008, which means that we’ve never experienced a two-hole, aggregate score resolution.

We’ll have one on Sunday, plus one more hole. If contestants are tied after the aggregate, they move to sudden victory on the third playoff hole and beyond. After the two golfers match scores on one and eighteen, the 2024 US Open will be decided on the second playing of the first hole, and the winner will be the first male Japanese golfer to claim a USGA Open title: Hideki Matsuyama. For him, it will be fun.

Solid Quote: Yeah, I (Matsuyama) think I would be able to enjoy tomorrow if I can adjust my shot and putt well. It will be something fun tomorrow.

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5 Things We Learned: Friday at the U.S. Open

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Any weather concerns that surfaced earlier have vanished, meaning that the 2024 US Open, the 124th of its kind, will finish on time and without distraction nor interruption. Golfers that posted plus-six or higher have missed the cut, reducing the field of competitors to 74. The likes of Viktor Hovland, Max Homa, Will Zalatoris and, yes, Tiger Woods, will not figure any longer, in the outcome of this year’s playing. The leader stands currently at minus-five, and has 19 other golfers at even-par or better, heading into the weekend.

Neither of the day-one leaders succeeded in shooting below par on day two, so the lead did not stretch over the second 18 holes. Will something similar happen on Saturday? Will a golfer rise from the chasers, to seize the 54-hole lead?  It’s quite early to say, but certainly the Open will not be won on Saturday. It will be lost by more than a handful, so grab your snacks and buckle up for a Carolina shoot-out on day three. As for five things that we learned on day two, we have them!

1. Ludvig the Oh-Bear leads the Open

Ludvig Aberg posted one of the 24 rounds under 70 on Friday. Those scores ranged down to the 66 posted by Hideki Matsuyama. Aberg made half as many birdies (three) as he did on Thursday, but he also made just two bogeys, the same number as day one. It’s safe to say that Aberg will take two bogeys per round over the next two days, as long as no big numbers creep onto his scorecard. 2024 may be his first US Open, but history is filled with first-time winners. It has been a while for this national championship, so why not this year?

Solid Quote: … I played the U.S. Amateur here a couple years ago. I think just with the way those greens are, when it gets really firm, and just because you don’t really have any bail-out areas, you’ve just got to take on the golf shots and see where it ends up, and if you don’t pull it off, you’re going to have a really tricky short game shot. I think it’s a challenging golf course, but once again, that’s the way it was supposed to be.

2. Three x Four equals ???

Bryson DeChabeau, Thomas Detry, and Patrick Cantlay all concluded play on Friday evning at 136 total strokes. Cantlay and Detry will tee on in the penultimate pairing, while DeChambeau will match wills with the second-round leader in the day’s final game.

Detry reached six-under par through 14 holes, before two late bogeys brought him back to the field. The Belgian had nine one-putt greens on day two at Pinehurst. His T4 finish at this year’s PGA Championship gave him a bit of experience on how to manage his game through the waning moments of a major. Can he repeat the achievement in Pinehurst?

Cantlay was not the same golfer that signed for 65 on Thursday. He posted but three birdies on Friday, and stumbled with double at eight, and a pair of bogeys on the inward side. As for DeChambeau, he was able to achieve the all important ratio of more-birdies-than-bogeys for a second consecutive day. Which of the three will persevere, and feature on Sunday?

Solid Quote: I (Detry) always tend to do better at courses where pars gains on the field. I feel like this week, you make a par, you gain on the field, keep moving on. I always seem to do better that way. It puts a little bit less pressure on my putting. When I have a birdie chance, it’s like a bonus. I’ve done a great job of taking advantage of it today, I think.

3. Trio at three-deep has eyes on a day-three move

Rory McIlroy, Tony Finau, and Matthieu Pavon finished play on day two at 137 strokes. Neither Rory nor Pavon was able to produce a second consecutive round under par, but they did what was necessary, during a round when they had much less than their best. As for Finau, his move to a new putting grip paid off, and he posted 69 to move inside the top five. Much like the three-pack mentioned in point number two, we have an outsider, a potential winner, and a favorite in this group. Among these three, the standout will certainly be …

Solid Quote:  It’s just work. As I (Pavon) say, work, discipline, learning from the past mistakes you’ve done. The most dangerous guy is the one that learns from mistakes. That’s my opinion. I failed a lot. Helped me to understand a couple things in my game, in my swing. I finally got my first win in Europe. Bring me a lot of confidence because it was showing to me and myself that we were on the right road on everything we were, like, doing in terms of training and stuff like that.

4. Hideki rebounds with perfect card

There was a point on Thursday, during a tournament feed, when one of the commentaors contrasted Hideki’s win at Augusta in 2021 with his struggles on Pinehurst’s greens. Between that time and Friday evening, Hideki figured out those putting surfaces, to the tune of four birdies and zero bogeys. What’s frightening is, Matsuyama (see below) still feels that there is room for improvement. Imagine if he straightens out the other facets of his game!

Solid Quote:  I feel like my short game is really good. Feel like there’s plenty of adjustment to my iron game. Hopefully I can adjust that through the week.

5. Prediction time!

I’m happy to provide a few predictions, to get you through the morning hours on Saturday. My prescience is unrivaled by any, and my predictive abilities have no equal. I may not be Francesco Molinari, who brought drama to a new level with a 36th-hole ace to make the cut, but I do know a thing or two about major championships. Without delay, here are a few predictions about Saturday at Pinehurst:

Leader after three rounds: Bryson DeChambeau

Falls away, predictably: Matthieu Pavon

Falla away, unexpectadly: Patrick Cantlay

Struggles, but sticks around: Ludvig Alberg and Rory McIlroy

Jumps into the mix, thanks to a 65: Billy Horschel

Solid Quote: (in case you forgot how difficult this is, courtesy of the defending champion, Wyndham Clark) If you miss a green, even though you give yourself all the green in the world, it should be somewhat of an easy up-and-down, but you’re into the grain on your chip and then you have to go uphill and then downgrain. It was just difficult. It’s really easy to make bogeys out here.

 

 

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