Brooks Koepka wasn’t losing to anyone, not even Tiger Woods

ST LOUIS — He could hear the roars. How could he not? It felt, at times, like the Bellerive Country Club was vibrating. Brooks Koepka, however, wouldn’t look in the direction of them. He just kept marching forward, often with his head down and a tiny smirk on his face.

Up ahead, it was obvious Tiger Woods was pouring in birdies. The fairy-tale finish at the PGA Championship that everyone seemed to be longing for was taking shape. It was starting to feel like a remake of the 1986 Masters, with Koepka playing the role of Greg Norman, and Tiger morphing into Jack Nicklaus. The sentimental favorite was going to conjure up some old magic, and the young and brash phenom was going to wilt. The pressure was mounting with each roar.

“Everybody on the golf course could hear it,” Koepka said. “You could hear it trickle down as they changed the scoreboards. You’d hear different roars every three seconds. It was pretty obvious when Tiger made a birdie.”

But this wasn’t 1986. There was one significant difference this time. In this version, the brawny, confident antihero never blinked. You don’t have to love it, but Koepka was so icy and impressive amid the circus, you have to respect it. After holding off Woods for a two-stroke victory, Koepka now has three major championships at the age of 28. He did what Woods used to do in his prime, grabbing the lead and then stepping on the accelerator every time someone got close.

“Other than me and my team, I think everybody was rooting for Tiger,” Koepka said. “As they should. He’s the greatest player to ever to play the game. [Woods] is the whole reason people of my generation are even playing golf. To duel it out with him, I don’t think I ever dreamed of that situation today.”

Historically, it’s always been easy to compare Woods and Nicklaus. They dominated their eras like no one before them or since. And interestingly, there are a lot of similarities between Koepka and Norman. They’re both fitness freaks, both historically great drivers and both walked with a swagger and a chip on their shoulder. There appears to be one major difference, however: Norman tended to melt in big moments, and Koepka seems to live for them.

Need an example? When Woods birdied the 15th hole on Sunday to pull within a shot at 13-under par — nearly dunking his approach from the fairway — it was bedlam. Even if you shouted, you could barely hear your own voice above the din. Woods punched the air in jubilation, seemingly feeding off the gallery’s energy. “I wish we could play in front of crowds like this every single week because this is a true pleasure,” Woods said.

Koepka couldn’t help but smile, listening to it unfold.

“It brought me back to when I was a kid, when I was watching him, and you heard those roars,” Koepka said.

But instead of getting starstruck, Koepka uncorked a 334-yard drive on 15, hit his approach to 10 feet and made the birdie.

“He’s a tough guy to beat when he’s hitting it 340 in the air,” Woods said, talking about Koepka’s game with the same kind of awe Woods’ elders used to talk about his. “[Hitting it] 320 in the air is like a chip shot [for him]. That’s the new game.”

Koepka wasn’t done. He stood on the daunting 16th tee, a 248-yard par 3, and hit arguably the best shot of his entire week, ripping a 4-iron that landed soft and trickled to within 6 feet of the pin.

“That was like a laser,” said Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott. “He had to push the button. He had to give himself a cushion coming down the last few holes. The wedge on 15 was huge too, but that 4 iron, it never left the stick.”

“That’s probably going to go down as one of the best shots I’ve ever hit under pressure,” Koepka said.

When he drained the birdie putt, Koepka’s lead was back to two strokes. A birdie by Woods on 18, and bogey by Adam Scott on the same hole, gave Woods sole claim to second place. But even a final-round 64, Woods’ best Sunday round ever in a major, wasn’t enough.

“Surreal, that’s all I can say,” Koepka said.

It’s hard to surmise, at the moment, just how good, in historical terms, Koepka might be. Only four other players have ever won the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship in the same year. It’s some pretty robust company: Gene Sarazen (1922), Ben Hogan (1948), Nicklaus (1980) and Woods (2000).

You can argue that Koepka, if he keeps this up, could go down as one of the best American golfers ever, a thought he said hadn’t even occurred to him until he was asked about it Sunday night.

“I actually never thought about that,” Koepka said, grinning as he turned that potential reality over in his mind. “Three majors at 28 — it’s a cool feeling. It really is. You know, hopefully I can stay healthy. I’ve kind of had some trouble with that over the past two years, three years. I think I’m much more disciplined now, so I should be able to play every major, making sure my body’s healthy. But I’m excited. I’m excited for the next few years. I mean, as fans — and I’m a fan of golf — you should be excited. I mean, Tiger’s come back. You look at what Dustin [Johnson is] doing, Justin [Thomas], Rory [McIlroy], [Jordan] Spieth. It’s a great time to be a golf fan. I can’t wait to duel it out with them over the next couple years.”

There was a time when Woods — having finished second — would have been on his private jet by the time the last putt dropped. But this time was different. He hung around until Koepka was finished and offered him a hearty bear hug after the winner had signed his scorecard.

“I could hear it!” Koepka said, referencing the roars.

In truth, we all could. It was still special. But the game rolls on, and new faces emerge. The past is fun to revisit, but as Koepka can attest, the present is pretty damn good too.

SOURCE: ESPN

Justin Thomas figured out how to win again at just the right time

AKRON, Ohio — The last time Justin Thomas won a golf tournament, he was calling out rowdy spectators in the gallery and getting more attention for that controversial move than for capturing the Honda Classic.

That win was five months ago, not that big of a deal in the overall scheme of things but an eternity to a guy like Thomas, who was getting a bit antsy before closing the deal on Sunday at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

A five-time winner during the 2017 season, Thomas, 25, was always going to have a tough time living up to that Player of the Year season. And heading into defense of his PGA Championship this week at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, it was bugging him.

“It’s been hard, too,” Thomas said of trying to temper expectations. “I mean, it feels like I haven’t won in forever.”

Of course, a four-shot win at Firestone and a first World Golf Championship victory will make that angst go away quickly. Thomas took care of that nagging victory question with a final-round 69 to easily win over Kyle Stanley while winning a PGA Tour event for the first time with his grandparents in attendance.

While there was some emotion involved, Thomas might also step back for some perspective.

All he needs to do is ask his good buddy, Jordan Spieth, what it’s been like this year. Spieth has not won since the 2017 Open at Royal Birkdale.

And so while Spieth heads to Bellerive trying to complete the career Grand Slam, it is Thomas who takes a good bit of momentum, now having won three times this season to join No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson as the only players to win that often.

Funny, that friendship/rivalry with Spieth — who tied for 60th and shot three rounds in the 70s this week.

Their relationship goes back more than a decade, back to junior golf days and at rival colleges, where each could hold their own share of bragging rights.

But Spieth clearly blossomed more quickly as a pro than Justin Thomas, who always praised his good buddy’s success through an amazing early run on the PGA Tour, including his third major title last year at The Open and into the PGA Championship where he was getting all the hype.

Spieth was gunning for the career Grand Slam and Thomas was … well, searching for his first major championship, which came with a final-round 68, as he overtook a few of the game’s other young stars in the process at Quail Hollow.

Now, three victories later, he has closed the gap on Spieth — 11 PGA Tour victories for Spieth, nine for Thomas. And since the start of 2017, Thomas has won seven times, had a brief time at No. 1 in the world, and now sits No. 2 to Johnson.

“I think what he learned is that he has to play his game and not force it,” said Thomas’ caddie, Jimmy Johnson, who has been working with Thomas for three years after a long stint with Steve Stricker. “Let the course come to him, and play a little smarter. He was trying too hard, maybe. I don’t think he was so much frustrated as he was trying too hard. He’s just letting his potential go through now.”

Thomas had not exactly been dogging it since his Honda victory. He lost in a playoff to Phil Mickelson the next week at the WGC-Mexico Championship and was fourth at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

But his only top-10s since then were a tie for eighth at both the Memorial and the French Open. He was not a final-day factor at the Masters and U.S. Open and he missed the cut two weeks ago at The Open.

“I just want to have more chances to win tournaments,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of really solid finishes, a lot of top-10s, or a lot of top-15s, but a lot of those have been because of a pretty good last day, as opposed to having a chance to win. That’s what I’m out here for.

“These last, what, six events, I really want to try to have an opportunity to win as many of these events as I can going into Sunday and on the back nine, because that’s where I feel like I’m comfortable, it’s where I feel like I thrive, it’s what I enjoy, it’s why I play.”

It is that kind of attitude that quickly drew Rory McIlroy to Thomas when he first came on tour a few years ago. They live near each other in South Florida, so they often practice and play together.

As it turned out, they were grouped in the final pairing Sunday, with McIlroy unable to make a charge and settling for a tie for sixth.

“I like J.T.’s attitude over everything else,” McIlroy said. “He’s got a nasty streak in him, which I think you need out here. He has that. When he gets himself in the hunt, you can see like a little twinkle in his eye and he really enjoys it.”

What made Sunday even better for Thomas was having his grandparents on hand. Both Thomas’ dad, Mike, and his grandfather, Paul, were PGA of America pros — and Paul Thomas played in the 1960 PGA Championship at Firestone. Paul and Phyllis Thomas live in the Louisville, Ky., and this is the first time they saw Justin win in person on the PGA Tour.

“It was pretty special,” he said. “I can’t put it into words, honestly. I saw my grandma and grandpa and just had to put my head down. I never have gotten like that on the golf course before. You just don’t know if they’re ever going to see me win if I don’t win here, so it was pretty cool to get it done.”

SOURCE: ESPN

Make it two majors in two years for rising Korean star Sung Hyun Park

KILDEER, Ill. — Sunday’s story lines were swirling like the winds in suburban Chicago for the final round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

But when the day finally ended after a two-hole playoff and a brief storm delay, Sung Hyun Park was the winner. The victory brought the normally steely South Korean to tears on the shoulder of her caddie, David Jones.

It was Park’s second major championship in two years, and it came after she held off compatriot So Yeon Ryu and Japan’s Nasa Hataoka in a playoff following her bogey-free round of 3-under 69. For the week, Park carded rounds of 66-72-71-69 for a finish at 10-under 278.

“Actually, this is my first time feeling this kind of emotion,” Park said when asked about her tears after the round. “I couldn’t help that.”

It was understandable.

After winning last year’s U.S. Women’s Open as a rookie, Park won the CP Women’s Open in Canada and wrapped up 2017 as the LPGA’s top rookie and co-player of the year. But 2018 hasn’t looked like 2017.

Although she won the LPGA event in Texas in May and tied for ninth in March at the ANA Inspiration, she has missed five cuts, including in the U.S. Women’s Open. That’s when the doubters got in her ear.

“The tears came today because she understood how hard it was to win this week,” Jones said. “We’ve missed four of the last six cuts, so she’s felt the pressure. She also had to battle herself to win this one.”

Park started Sunday’s final round trailing Ryu, who built a 3-shot lead surging past Canadian Brooke Henderson and Park on Saturday. Brimming with confidence, Park appeared one round closer to adding another major championship to her collection as she gained momentum Sunday afternoon.

But it was Hataoka who blistered Kemper Lakes Golf Club on Sunday with a round of 8-under 64 to storm from behind and move within one shot of Ryu, who had six holes to play when Hataoka signed her scorecard.

Hataoka recorded two eagles in her round and put a number on the leaderboard that likely got the attention of Park and Ryu.

Hataoka chipped in from a back bunker on No. 7 and added a second eagle on No. 11. The 19-year-old also rolled in birdie putts on holes 12, 15 and 16, saved par from a greenside bunker on No. 17 and again saved par from the back fringe on the last hole.

With a sparkling 64 in her pocket and a chance to win, Hataoka turned and bowed to the Kemper Lakes course out of respect and then headed to the clubhouse to wait an hour for Park and Ryu to complete their rounds.

Meanwhile, out on the course, Park flirted with disaster on the challenging par-4 16th hole. Trying to carry the water hazard on her approach shot into the green, her ball hit the lake bank and bounced back into some tall grass by the water’s edge. Neither she nor Jones could see the ball, but it was a tense walk toward the errant shot.

“I thought the tournament was gone,” Jones said. “I thought the ball was in the water, but when I reached it and saw that it was still above ground, I nearly broke my neck turning around to tell her it was playable.”

Park’s ball landed on a big tuft of grass. It wasn’t clear where the water ended, but Park and Jones discussed how to extract the ball from the pond’s edge, and Park opted to use her 58-degree wedge and play it like a bunker shot.

The ball landed two feet from the hole, and Park converted the putt to save par on what could have just as easily ended her hope to win.

“Actually, that was my first time doing that kind of shot,” Park said.

It was the par-3 17th hole that caught up with Ryu. With a 2-shot lead, her tee shot sailed left of the green into the water hazard. She finished the hole with a double-bogey 5, dropping her into a three-way tie at 10 under with Park and Hataoka.

That misstep was Ryu’s second double-bogey of the day. She took a double-bogey 6 on the second hole but rallied back with birdies on holes 6 and 7. The double on No. 17 forced Ryu to refocus — and quickly, as she was running out of holes.

“I had to let it go,” she said. “I don’t think the [yardage] number was bad, but I just drew it a little too much.”

Park and Ryu matched pars on the 18th to move into a playoff with Hataoka, who watched the telecast from the clubhouse before heading out to prepare.

The three players returned to the 18th hole for the sudden-death playoff. Ryu drained a 16-foot birdie putt to put the pressure on her two fellow competitors.

Putting from the back fringe, Hataoka’s 15-foot birdie effort missed right, and she was eliminated. Last to putt, Park drained an 8-foot downhill putt to stay in the playoff.

“I did feel nerves going [into the playoff], but on the other hand, I haven’t won a major yet, so I felt like I had nothing to lose,” Hataoka said. “When So Yeon made her putt … hats off to her.”

The matched birdies on the first playoff hole sent Park and Ryu to No. 16 to continue their duel. Both players were preparing to putt when thunder rumbled in the distance.

Play was suspended due to lightning. Heavy rain followed, but the storm blew through quickly, and play resumed with the players on the green just 20 minutes later.

Park slammed home a 7-foot birdie putt to win, as Ryu’s birdie effort rolled past the left edge of the cup.

“It was a really long round today, and I still can’t believe that I’m sitting next to this trophy,” said Park, 24, who has four career wins and career earnings of more than $3.1 million in less than two seasons on the LPGA Tour.

Park is still trying to learn to speak English. The success she has experienced in a short amount of time has come faster than her ability to articulate her thoughts. The American media sometimes struggle to connect with the Korean star. On the other hand, the Korean media often expect more than she can deliver.

“She’s still just piecing it all together,” Jones said of Park. “There’s an awful lot expected of her back home in South Korea. After she came out of nowhere last year to win the U.S. Women’s Open, I think the expectation was that she should be winning every week. In golf, for every one you win, there will be many more that you never even sniff.”

But this week, once again, Park sniffed victory.

She had to fight for it. Against herself. Against blazing temperatures and stormy weather. Against a playoff and with a memorable shot beside a pond that was reminiscent of fellow South Korean Se Ri Pak’s storied shot from the water to force a playoff in 1998 to win the U.S. Women’s Open.

It might be only the beginning of Park’s LPGA career, but already, the legend has begun.

SOURCE: ESPN

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — History will look at Brooks Koepka and note that he won the same major championship two years in a row. The only similarity in victories between last year and this year is that the name of the courses had the word “Hills” in it. Because, in truth, the U.S. Open he won at Erin Hills a year ago and the one he locked up Sunday at Shinnecock Hills could have not have been more different.

At lush Erin Hills, he took home the trophy after shooting 16 under par over four days in Wisconsin. This time, on a fast and hard Shinnecock Hills course that drew the ire of players this past week, he posted 1 over for the tournament.

How did we end up here, with Koepka becoming the first player to win consecutive U.S. Opens since Curtis Strange did it in 1988 and 1989? We go through all the key moments of Sunday’s final round.

The hole that won the U.S. Open

Koepka made five birdies, but it might have been the par at 14 that lifted him to his second consecutive U.S. Open. Fitting, really, that it was a par at a U.S. Open in which pars were so tough to get. The player with a bad left wrist, playing in the event that most puts that wrist in danger — at a U.S. Open with high, thick, punishing rough — needed to navigate that rough to get home with a pivotal par at 14.

He pounded his tee shot 340 yards, but it found that unforgiving rough up the right side. He advanced it as far as he could, hacking it out 98 yards. With that, he had to get up and down from 62 yards to keep his one-shot lead. His wedge settled 8 feet from the hole. He walked in the putt and kept a lead he wouldn’t give up.

The 63 that wasn’t good enough

Tommy Fleetwood was surprised when he shot 66 in Friday’s second round. Imagine how he felt after tying the U.S. Open record with a 63 on Sunday. He finished at 3:49 p.m. local time, then waited … and waited … and waited.

“Looking at the pins, you knew they were going to be more accessible,” Fleetwood said immediately after his round. “I knew I was kind of in it teeing off, but you still have to get off to that good start. [When I was] 4 under through seven, and it was game on.”

Still, he would have liked to have back the putt that just slid by on the final hole.

“I wanted 62,” he said.

Final-Round 63s At A Major That Didn’t Win

YEAR PLAYER MAJOR
2018 Tommy Fleetwood U.S. Open
2017 Haotong Li Open Championship
1995 Brad Faxon PGA Championship
1993 Payne Stewart Open Championship
1991 Jodie Mudd Open Championship

 

The Grand Slam conversation that wasn’t

Patrick Reed doesn’t lack confidence. He wanted to make a statement, and he did that early. Reed birdied his first three holes, five of his first eight, and went out in 4-under 31. The murmurs started: Maybe Reed could follow his Masters win with a triumph at the U.S. Open. Only seven times a player has opened a calendar year by the winning the season’s first two majors. The last time it happened was when Jordan Spieth won at Augusta and then picked up the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in 2015.

Reed, though, couldn’t keep up the momentum after bogeys at 9, 11 and 12. A missed short par putt at 18 officially ended his hope of the major double.

The quest for a major comeback

In 1975, Lou Graham won the U.S. Open after trailing by 11 shots at the 36-hole mark. Tony Finau and Daniel Berger faced the same scenario. It appeared early they wouldn’t be joining Graham. Finau strung together three consecutive bogeys at Nos. 2, 3 and 4. Berger had back-to-back bogeys at the second and third. They each tried to rally — Finau made four birdies in a seven-hole stretch in the middle of his round, while Berger opened his back nine with a birdie at 10 — but they could not make the long road back from 11 down.

The USGA changed the place

The tone of the day started very early, well before Andrew “Beef” Johnston hit the day’s first shot at 8:21 a.m. local time.

“In preparation for [Sunday’s] forecasted dry and windy conditions and to maintain a challenging yet fair U.S. Open test, we applied appropriate levels of water to all putting greens last night and this morning for turf health and firmness,” the USGA said in a statement. “Similar to the preparation we took for Round 1, green speeds will be, on average, 10-12 inches slower than Rounds 2 and 3. We also adjusted some hole locations in a manner similar to what we did in Round 1, reviewing our initial selections and comparing them against our weather forecast and other agronomic data.”

Our translation: We messed up Saturday. We are going to make up for it. The place is going to play easier. Did it ever. Not only did Fleetwood shoot 63, but the whole field had a better day. The course played nearly a shot easier on average than it did on any other day this past week.

 

SOURCE: ESPN

Bryson DeChambeau wins Memorial with birdie on second extra hole

DUBLIN, Ohio — For the fourth straight year, Bryson DeChambeau leaves Ohio feeling like a winner.

This time he had a trophy to show for it, and a handshake with Jack Nicklaus to remember.

DeChambeau finally made it easy on himself the third time playing the 18th hole at the Muirfield Village on Sunday, rolling in a 12-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to beat Byeong Hun An and win the Memorial.

“I can’t believe I did it,” said DeChambeau, a winner for the second time on the PGA Tour.

He had played the Memorial only once before, though the 24-year-old Californian has been a regular in central Ohio. He has made it through the 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier each of the last three years, all in the Columbus area.

This was far more rewarding.

DeChambeau watched his putt disappear and raised both arms, pumping them seven times as he yelled above the cheers of fans. Many of them lingered at the 18th green in expectation that this might be the day Tiger Woods returned to winning.

It wasn’t.

Woods was never a serious factor, especially after missing a three-foot par putt on the 10th hole and hitting another tee shot into someone’s backyard on the 13th hole. One of his best weeks hitting the ball ended with an even-par 72 and a six-way tie for 23rd.

The finish was no less entertaining.

DeChambeau went from a two-shot deficit at the turn to a one-shot lead after No. 12, and he kept the lead the rest of the way until a three-putt bogey on the 18th hole from about 55 feet for a 1-under 71. That tied with An, who had closed with a 69 in the group ahead and was the first to reach 15-under 273.

Kyle Stanley joined them in the playoff. He hit into the water on the par-3 12th to fall five shots behind with six holes to play, only to run off four straight birdies, capping the big run with a 30-foot putt on the 17th to tie DeChambeau.

Just his luck, Stanley hit a tree on the right elbow of the dogleg at No. 18, and it shot the ball across the fairway and nearly into a creek, except the ankle-deep rough was thick enough to slow it. Even so, he could only advance the ball 100 yards and made bogey for a 70.

In the playoff, his tee shot was enough to the right that the ball was well above his feet in thick grass. Stanley choked up and took a swing, but the ball squirted out about 30 yards to the right, leading to another bogey, and he was quickly eliminated.

“A couple bad breaks on 18,” Stanley said. “I mean, in the playoff, if I knock that ball 2-3 feet right of where it was, I would have had a shot. But after Hole 12 my chances were looking pretty slim, so to come back and make some birdies coming in … it’s a bit of a sour finish, but proud of the way I hung in there.”

An took some of the pressure off DeChambeau on the second playoff hole, also on No. 18, when he yanked his approach into the gallery. He played a marvelous flop shot out of deep rough to a couple of feet for a certain par, only for DeChambeau to hit his approach 12 feet behind the hole and make the birdie.

“I finally got it right the third time,” DeChambeau said. “It took me a little bit.”

Patrick Cantlay also had a chance Sunday, leading by two shots going to the back nine. But he didn’t make a birdie over his last 10 holes, and he fell back when he went bunker-to-bunker on the 17th and made bogey to fall two strokes behind. Cantlay narrowly missed a 25-foot birdie putt on the final hole, shot 71 and finished fourth. Peter Uihlein (66) was alone in fifth.

Joaquin Niemann, the 19-year-old from Chile, birdied the 18th hole to tie for sixth. That was enough for him to earn special temporary membership on the PGA Tour, meaning he can get unlimited sponsor exemptions.

Justin Thomas shot 68 and tied for eighth in his debut at No. 1 in the world. He will keep that ranking going into the U.S. Open.

Woods started five shots behind. He pulled to within three shots with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 fifth hole, but he didn’t make another birdie until he had fallen seven shots behind and only had eight holes in front of him.

Woods was second to last in the key putting statistic among the 73 players who went all four rounds.

“If I just putt normally, I probably would be right there with those guys and up there in the last couple of groups,” Woods said. “If I just keep building on this, with how I’m hitting it right now, I’m in good shape for two weeks from now.”

The next stop for Woods is the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

DeChambeau will be there, too, his confidence higher than ever. He first played the Memorial in 2016 and was coming off four straight missed cuts. He tied for 38th that week, a small victory, but realized his game wasn’t good enough.

Now, he has PGA Tour titles in consecutive seasons. And his victory moved him to No. 8 in the Ryder Cup standings.

SOURCE: ESPN

DUBLIN, Ohio — Joaquin Niemann could figure out where Tiger Woods was on the golf course from the mass of people following him a few groups ahead, and he had a pretty good idea what he was doing from all the noise, at least before Woods put a putter in his hands.

“There was so many people,” Niemann said.

The few who stuck behind for the 19-year-old Chilean saw another good show at the Memorial Tournament.

In his fifth start as a pro, Niemann finished with two birdies over his last three holes for a 4-under 68 and a share of the lead with Kyle Stanley, who had a 66. He finished with an 8-foot birdie on the 18th hole.

Woods shot a 67 and was six shots behind with nearly two dozen players in front of him.

Stanley, who won the Quicken Loans National last summer, was atop the leaderboard for much of the day and was starting to pull away until a poor tee shot at No. 6 led to bogey. He finished with a par save from just off the ninth green and reached 11-under 133.

On the other side of the course was Niemann, the No. 1 amateur in the world and Latin American Amateur champion who wanted to play the Masters before turning pro. He looks his age when his braces shine every time he smiles. He plays beyond his years.

Already with a pair of top-10s on the PGA Tour, Niemann now finds himself in the last group going into the weekend at the tournament Jack Nicklaus founded, and he doesn’t appear to be the least bit nervous about being there.

“It feels really nice to be on top of the leaderboard,” he said. “It does feel really nice for tomorrow.”

Byeong Hun An had a 67 and was two shots behind.

Among those three off the lead were Hideki Matsuyama (71), who earned his first PGA Tour title at the Memorial three years ago, and Jason Day, a former world No. 1 who is a member at Muirfield Village and has never come close to winning. Perhaps this is the year. Day had never been within five shots of the lead going into the weekend at the Memorial, and he’s not sure why.

“I think I just [stunk] on it for a long time,” Day said. “I don’t think there was anything, any reason why. I just didn’t really play well. But I’m hopeful I can change that because I feel different this year.

“I want to play well in front of my family,” he said. “Family and friends come out and I want them to be yelling in the crowd when I’m in contention.”

Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose each had a 66 and were in the group at 7-under 137, while Dustin Johnson was among those at 138, even though he has played the par 5s in just 1 under for the week.

Johnson and Rose each have a chance to get to No. 1 in the world. Justin Thomas, in his debut at No. 1, overcame a pair of early bogeys for a 69 and was at 3 under.

Rory McIlroy made bogeys on both par 5s on the front nine as he tried to finish strong. He had to settle for a 70 and made the cut on the number. That was still better than Jordan Spieth, who finished bogey-bogey for a 72 and missed the cut by three shots.

Since his closing 64 at the Masters, Spieth has finished at least 12 shots behind the winner in his three tournaments and missed the cut in his final event before heading to Shinnecock Hills for the U.S. Open.

SOURCE: ESPN

Why Jordan Spieth’s next four weeks are so important

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Jordan Spieth understandably could have been upset about putting his tee shot in the water and quadruple-bogeying his final hole at the Players Championship, but the three-time major winner was pretty pumped after his final round.

That’s because he really likes the way he’s playing, and that has his confidence soaring for the upcoming back-to-back tournaments on his home turf.

“I feel as good about my golf game right now as I have in two-plus years,” Spieth said Sunday after finishing tied for 41st at 6-under par at TPC Sawgrass. “I went 14-under … with three holes left in the first round until the 17th hole the final round on a golf course that really doesn’t fit my game, and I’m going to a few places in a row that I really love.

“Everything feels like it’s progressing really nicely. I’m extremely positive about the next few weeks.”

The PGA Tour’s next two stops are in Dallas, for the AT&T Byron Nelson Classic, and Fort Worth, Texas, for the Fort Worth Invitational. Spieth lives in Dallas and has played numerous rounds at Trinity Forest Golf Club, a links-style course that opened in the fall of 2016 and will be the new home of the Byron Nelson.

Spieth said that gives him a significant advantage over “anybody else in the field, having been there from the day they sprigged the greens.

“I haven’t seen a lot of the pins and I know the tees are going to switch around from what we normally play, but I’m excited about the next few weeks.”

Spieth hasn’t finished higher than a tie for 18th in six appearances at the Byron Nelson, but he has finished in the top 10 in four of his five appearances at the Fort Worth Invitational, including winning the tournament in 2016 and finishing tied for second last year and in 2015.

Those two tournaments will be Spieth’s second and third consecutive weeks of golf, and he’s expected to play the Memorial at the end of the month. It’s the only time he plays four times in four weeks every year, and he likes doing it.

“Historically I play better golf after I’ve played the week before,” Spieth said. “You just get these weird kinks, like what I did there on 18 [at the Players], these kind of, OK, refocus and make sure you’re playing away from trouble. I get a little, I don’t know if lazy is the right word, but a little lack of commitment or maybe even over-commitment, to trying to be too aggressive first weeks out trying to shoot up the board.

“Is it difficult [to play four consecutive weeks]? No. I’m in my own bed. There’s certainly a lot of obligations that I don’t have other weeks the next two, but I’ve done a good job managing them the last couple years and will continue to.”

Quadruple-bogey on No. 18 aside, Spieth’s performance at the Players was his best there since he finished tied for fourth in his tournament debut in 2014 (he missed the cut the previous three years), and his third-round 65 was his second-best round of the season. He had shot 66 five other times this season, including the first round of The Masters (he finished third).

Spieth missed the cut at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans two weeks ago and didn’t play in the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina, May 3-6. With his confidence in his game sky high, he’s excited about the next few weeks.

“I’ve got a four-week stretch here now that I really enjoy,” Spieth said. “This is the only time I play four in a row in a season, and I like doing that. It’s fun. I love being on the road and practicing and grinding and having a chance to play on the PGA Tour, and to have these events, go home — I’ve got an opportunity in these four weeks to have a lot of fun playing golf and potentially give myself a chance to win. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

SOURCE: ESPN

Patrick Reed wins Masters for first major title

 

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The tepid applause that greeted Patrick Reed on the first tee made it clear he wasn’t the people’s choice.

All he cared about was being the Masters champion.

He turned back an early move by Rory McIlroy and a late charge by Rickie Fowler. Most daunting in the middle of the final round Sunday was a familiar name at Augusta National — Jordan Spieth — on the verge of the greatest comeback in Masters history.

Reed had the game and the grit to beat them all. And when he slipped on that green jacket, he had everyone’s respect.

“I knew it was going to be a dogfight,” Reed said. “It’s just a way of God basically saying, `Let’s see if you have it.’ Everyone knows you have it physically with the talent. But do you have it mentally? Can you handle the ups and downs throughout the round?”

He has proven that playing for his country. He did it Sunday for himself.

The final test was a 25-foot putt down the scary slope on the 18th green, and Reed pressed down both hands, begging it to stop as it rolled 3 feet by. From there, the 27-year-old Texan calmly rolled in the par putt for a 1-under 71 and a one-shot victory.

Known as “Captain America” for his play in the Ryder Cup, Reed added a far more important title: Masters champion.

The loudest cheers were for everyone else, and Reed picked up on that right away. The crowd was squarely behind McIlroy and his best chance yet at completing the career Grand Slam. Then it was Spieth, running off four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine to challenge the course record. The loudest cheer was for Fowler when he made an 8-foot birdie putt on the final hole to pull within one.

Reed never flinched through it all.

“I just went out there and just tried to play golf the best I could and tried to stay in the moment and not worry about everything else,” Reed said.

Reed, who finished at 15-under 273, won for the sixth time in his PGA Tour career.

Until Sunday, he was best known for the trophies he shared at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. He is ferocious in match play, especially the team variety, and his singles victory over McIlroy at Hazeltine in the 2016 Ryder Cup led to his nickname.

“He’s not scared. I think you guys have seen that previous from the Ryder Cups and the way he plays,” said Fowler, who closed with a 67. “He won’t back down. I don’t necessarily see him as someone that backs up and will let you come back into the tournament. You have to go catch him.”

Fowler did his best with three birdies in a four-hole stretch, and the 8-footer on the final hole. It still wasn’t enough. Fowler was runner-up for the third time in a major. He left the scoring cabin when Reed tapped in for par.

“Glad I at least made the last one, make him earn it,” Fowler said with a grin as he waited to greet the newest major champion.

“You had to do it didn’t you?” Reed told him as they exchanged a hug. “You had to birdie the last.”

Spieth put up the most unlikely fight and was on the verge of the greatest comeback in Masters history. He started nine shots behind going into the final round, and was inches away on two shots from a chance at another green jacket.

His tee shot on the 18th clipped the last branch in his way, dropping his ball some 267 yards from the green. His 8-foot par putt for a record-tying 63 narrowly missed on the right. He had to settle for a 64.

“I think I’ve proven to myself and to others that you never give up,” Spieth said. “I started the round nine shots back and I came out with the idea of just playing the golf course and having a lot of fun doing it and try to shoot a low round and finish the tournament strong and see what happens, if something crazy happens.”

McIlroy, meanwhile, will have to wait another year for a shot at the career Grand Slam.

Trailing by three shots to start the final round, he closed to within one shot after two holes. That was as close as he came. McIlroy’s putter betrayed him — he missed four putts inside 10 feet on the front nine — and he was never a factor on the back nine. He closed with a 74 and tied for fifth.

“Tough day, but I’ll be back,” McIlroy said. “And hopefully, I’ll be better.”

Reed is old-school among his generation, with a brash attitude and a willingness to speak his mind. He has never been terribly popular in this state, mainly because of allegations of bad behavior while playing for Georgia that led to an early departure from the Bulldogs. He transferred to Augusta State and led the outmanned Jaguars to a pair of NCAA titles. His parents live in Augusta, but were not at the tournament. They weren’t at his wedding in 2012, a relationship Reed chooses not to discuss.

“I’m just out here to play golf and try to win golf tournaments,” Reed said.

He won a big one Sunday, and it was hard work, just the way he likes it.

Different about this victory for Reed was the fuchsia shirt he wore as part of a Nike script. Reed always wears black pants and a red shirt because that’s what Tiger Woods does, and Reed has long modeled his mental game after Woods. “Be stubborn,” he once said about learning by watching Woods.

Woods broke par for the first time all week with a 69. He tied for 32nd, 16 shots behind, in his first major since the 2015 PGA Championship.

Reed went to the back nine with a four-shot lead over four players, and they all had their chances. That included Jon Rahm, the 23-year-old from Spain, whose chances ended when he went after the flag on the par-5 15th and came up short in the water. He shot 69 and finished fourth.

Reed made a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 12, and his biggest birdie was a 9-iron to 8 feet on the 14th that broke the tie with Spieth. He made all pars from there. That was all he needed.

He became the fourth straight Masters champion to capture his first major.

Reed once claimed after winning a World Golf Championship at Doral that he was a top 5 player in the world, which subjected him to ridicule because it was only his third career title. His first major moves him to No. 11. It also comes with a green jacket, which is worth far more notoriety, not to mention respect.

SOURCE: ESPN

For the first time in a long time, Tiger Woods looking forward to Masters week

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods was not on the grounds at Augusta National on Sunday, choosing to spend at least the early part of Easter at home before venturing north from Florida to a place he feared might never again be part of his competitive future.

Woods was here a little over a week ago to get a feel for the venue where he has four Masters Tournament victories, playing Augusta National for the first time since 2015, when he tied for 17th.

Each of the past two years, Woods, 42, came to the home of the year’s first major championship to take part in the Tuesday night champions dinner at the club, a bittersweet experience to say the least.

In both instances, the back issues that plagued him for a good part of the past four years prevented him from playing, and being on site made the pain even more acute.

“Brutal; it’s one of my favorite tournaments,” Woods said during a recent interview with ESPN.com. “To go and know that I can’t tee it up … it was harder than you might think. Way harder. When I got on the grounds, looking out there, knowing how to play the golf course, seeing the conditions, seeing the guys play … that was tough.”

Woods will be among the betting favorites when the Masters begins Thursday after a successful return to competition following 10 months away because of spinal fusion surgery on April 19, 2017.

In five tournaments on the PGA Tour, Woods has made four cuts, including a tie for second at the Valspar Championship and a tie for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, ramping up the hype even more.

That’s a long way removed from the past two Masters, when Woods in each case had made an effort to prepare for and play in the tournament, only to send along his regrets just days before tournament week.

“Of course, I’m always going to try,” Woods said when asked how seriously he considered playing the past two years. “But I really had a hard time walking. I knew I couldn’t swing, couldn’t play. And that made it even harder being there. If I wasn’t there, it’s a lot easier. But when I step foot on the property, knowing all the good memories and all the things I’ve done in the past on the golf course, it’s harder.”

Woods said the mood was somber two years ago as he realized that Arnold Palmer was in poor health. Wood and Palmer each won the Masters four times, trailing only Jack Nicklaus, who donned the green jacket six times.

Helping Palmer get seated at the dinner that night, Woods said, was worse than his own troubles. Palmer was unable to participate in the honorary starter ceremony the next morning with Nicklaus and Gary Player; Palmer died less than six months later.

Woods’ outlook was dire a year ago for a different reason. He wondered if he’d ever play again. At the time, he was just a few weeks away from having the spinal fusion surgery that required he go six months without swinging a club.

Nobody, most of all Woods, knew how he would emerge. Even as he was about to start swinging a club again, Woods said on Sept. 27, “I don’t know what my future holds for me.”

“There were plenty of dark thoughts,” Woods said. “Because I really couldn’t do it. That’s what makes this year so exciting. I’ve got a chance to really do some good playing. That hasn’t been the case for years.”

Woods visited Augusta National on March 22- 23, playing practice rounds each day, according to a post on his website. He had said following the Arnold Palmer Invitational that he would spend considerable time charting the greens and learning the course again.

As has been his custom, Woods used a local caddie named Jay Thacker — Augusta National requires one of its caddies to be employed during non-tournament weeks — and took his time making his way around the course.

His pre-tournament preparation has varied over the years. Woods said he has never played Augusta National — as would be his privilege as a past champion — other than in the weeks leading up to the tournament to get a feel for any changes made.

For several years, Woods made a habit of playing a Sunday practice round at Augusta National, when no spectators are around and just a handful of tournament participants and members are on the course.

But he didn’t do so the last time he played (in 2015), showing up on Monday — having taken the previous nine weeks off to address short-game issues — and then, surprisingly, tying for 17th. And he elected to skip Sunday this year, too.

No matter. Few know the golf course as well as Woods, who last won here in 2005 but has seven top-six finishes in his past nine starts. He also arrives healthy for the first time since 2013, when he tied for fourth.

That is why there is so much optimism, especially from Woods.

“Quite a shift,” Woods said on his website. “Six months ago, the odds were I wasn’t even going to play. I’ve been better with each week I’ve competed. A little more crisp. I’m starting to put the pieces together.”

SOURCE: ESPN