Column: Thomas Earns PGA–And Rightful Place Among Golf’s Young Stars

The biggest storyline entering the 99th PGA Championship was Jordan Spieth, and whether he could become the youngest player in history to complete the career grand slam.

When the dust settled at dusk on Sunday Spieth was, in fact, celebrating a championship on the 18th green–in street clothes, as he hugged close friend and first-time major winner Justin Thomas.

Thomas earned the PGA title by emerging from a crowded pack of contenders over Quail Hollow’s back nine on Sunday, and in doing so earned his rightful place among the group of young stars dominating today’s golf landscape.

A Well-Earned Title

Thomas started Sunday’s final round two shots back of 54-hole leader Kevin Kisner, and while he certainly benefited from a couple of good breaks on his way to winning the Wanamaker Trophy, he also showed his skill in the clutch en route to victory.

After struggling through the brutal opening hole, Thomas made a clutch 15-footer to limit the damage and make bogey.  Thomas then birdied the second and seventh holes, before holing a 36-footer for birdie at the ninth to get within a shot of Hideki Matsuyama’s lead.

Riding the momentum at the turn, Thomas’s 10th hole turned a good round into a round of destiny.  His tee shot was way left on the 600-yard par-5, but bounced off a tree straight to the center of the fairway.  After his second missed the green long and his third rolled to within eight feet, his birdie putt rolled to the left lip of the hole and stopped, before falling in the hole after 12 suspenseful seconds, keeping him within one.


A par at the 11th pulled Thomas into a five-way tie for the lead (when Matsuyama made bogey), then a par at the 12th gave him the lead as his fellow co-leaders each fell off the 7-under mark, Thomas chipped in from left of the green on the par-3 13th, adding to his final round highlight reel and his lead, which was two.


As other players continued to struggle down the stretch, Thomas made pars on the 14th, 15th and 16th, then birdied the difficult par-3 17th after an aggressive tee shot to 14 feet on a green guarded on three sides by water, allowing him to conservatively play the dangerous 18th with a three-shot lead on his way to clinching the victory with a tap-in bogey.

A Young Star

By earning the PGA title with his steady play throughout the final round, Thomas has also earned his rightful place among golf’s young stars, especially alongside his friend Spieth.

Thomas and Spieth, both 24, grew up playing together as two of the best junior golfers in the world.  Both represented the U.S. in the Junior Ryder Cup (Spieth 2008, ’10; Thomas 2010) and Walker Cup (Spieth 2011, Thomas 2013), contributing to American victories in each event.  Both would eventually lead a college team to a national championship (Spieth at Texas in 2012; Thomas at Alabama in 2013).

Both Spieth and Thomas appeared in a PGA Tour event at age 16.  Spieth opened eyes with a 16th-place finish at the 2010 Valero Texas Open, but a few months earlier Thomas had shot an opening 65 in the Wyndham Championship and become the third-youngest player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event, proving his game’s strength to all in attendance that week in Greensboro–myself included.

Spieth has had more success since the two turned pro, but that’s at least partially because Spieth turned pro before Thomas, and had more PGA Tour opportunities through sponsor exemptions, while Thomas had to qualify for the Tour through the second-tier Web.com Tour.

But now, Thomas is catching up in the most-viewed category of success–major championships–by ironically winning the one major Spieth lacks.

The major title puts Thomas a leg up on others in the tight-knit group of young stars.  Other young guns still seeking their first major include Daniel Berger and Smylie Kaufman from the U.S. and international players including Jon Rahm, Emiliano Grillo and Matsuyama, who went on to tie for fifth Sunday and has finished second to Thomas in two other events this season.  Rickie Fowler, who was also waiting to congratulate Thomas at the 18th green, is older (28) than some of the other players, but is close with Thomas, Spieth and others of the young wave.

Thomas will also be the favorite for PGA Tour Player of the Year honors as the Tour enters the FedEx Cup Playoffs next week.  Thomas leads the Tour with four wins, all by two or more strokes, including one in a major and one in January’s SBS Tournament of Champions.  On January 12, Thomas became the youngest of eight players in PGA Tour history to break 60, shooting 59 on his way to a win at the Sony Open in Hawaii.  Thomas also tied a U.S. Open record with a 63 in the third round before finishing ninth.

The last time two players under 25 won back-to-back majors was in 1925, when Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen won the Open Championship and the PGA Championship.

The names Jones and Sarazen were commonly heard in major championship conversations over the next decade.

We know the name Spieth will similarly be a part of the conversation for the extended foreseeable future.

But now, after earning his first major, Justin Thomas has earned his place in that conversation too.

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Fast Five: Storylines Entering the PGA Championship

The final major of the 2017 golf season starts Thursday, as the 99th PGA Championship begins Thursday at Quail Hollow in Charlotte.

The tournament field, which is annually the deepest in golf, features 97 of the top 100 players in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Here are the biggest storylines entering this week’s event.

Quail Hollow

The Charlotte country club, which hosts the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship each May with the exception of this year, is hosting a major championship for the first time, although it likely won’t be the last.  The PGA of America has shown its affection for the venue, as it was in the running for the 2020 and 2024 Ryder Cups.  It will also host the 2021 President’s Cup.

In a typical major championship (besides the Masters), the field is playing a venue that hosts that event once every few years that they may not have played since the last time a major was there (and younger players may not have played at all).  But at Quail Hollow, the players are all very familiar with the course from playing it in the Wells Fargo Championship each year.

A big factor in the 7,600-yard layout landing big events is the finishing stretch.  The 14th and 15th holes play relatively easy–although both have water in play–as a short par-four and a reachable par-five, but they are the calm before the storm.

The following three-hole finishing stretch, known as “The Green Mile,” often play as the three toughest holes on the course:  The 16th is a long par-four with water to the left and behind the green; the 17th is a long par-three with water on three sides of the green, and a penal collection area to the right; the 18th is a long par-four with a punishing creek down the entire left side, and imposing bunkers on the right on both the drive and approach.

If a player needs to play the final three holes in even-par to win on Sunday, they will have earned it if they end up hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy.  In the event of a tie, the PGA’s unique three-hole aggregate playoff would be played over these three difficult holes.

Quail Hollow is becoming the third course in North Carolina to become a major, and the first in Charlotte.  Pinehurst No. 2, a resort course 80 miles east of Charlotte, hosted the 1936 PGA and the U.S. Open in 1999, 2005 and 2014; Tanglewood, a public course in suburban Winston-Salem, hosted the 1974 PGA.

There are always questions regarding the weather for a major championship in the summer in the South, and while the temperature will be in the mid-80s for the week–a best case scenario for August in Charlotte–but scattered thunderstorms are expected throughout the week, which may challenge tournament organizers in trying to finish the event by dusk on Sunday.

Rory McIlroy

In seven Wells Fargo starts at Quail Hollow, McIlroy has two wins and has only finished outside the top 10 once.  His four-shot win in 2010 was his first on the PGA Tour, while his 2015 win set the tournament record for scoring (21-under 267) and margin of victory (seven shots).

McIlroy won the PGA Championship in 2012 and 2014, although after winning four majors in a three-year span from 2011-14 he hasn’t won one since his triumph at Valhalla.  But given McIlroy’s success at Quail Hollow, perhaps that could change this week.

McIlroy tied for fifth at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, shooting four rounds of 69 or better (the first time he’s done so the 2014 PGA), and tied for fourth in the last major at The Open Championship, matching his best major finish since his 2014 PGA win.

The PGA Championship comes just weeks after McIlroy’s highly-publicized split with longtime caddie J.P. Fitzgerald.  Harry Diamond, a friend who was the best man in McIlroy’s wedding, is temporarily carrying the bag for McIlroy, who said the situation has allowed him a fresh perspective on his shot selection and tournament preparation.

Jordan Spieth

After winning The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale three weeks ago, Jordan Spieth is now a PGA Championship win away from becoming the sixth player to win all four majors in a career, the “career grand slam.”

This week marks Spieth’s one and only chance to become the youngest to complete the career slam; if he doesn’t win the PGA until next year, he would be older than Tiger Woods was at the time he completed the career grand slam in 2000.  This major is the first of three straight with a player having a chance at completing the career slam:  Rory McIlroy can finish it at The Masters, and Phil Mickelson can at the U.S. Open.

Spieth tied for 13th at the Bridgestone in his first start since his Open triumph, but including The Open has won two of his last three starts.

Spieth only has one start at Quail Hollow–a tie for 32nd in the 2013 Wells Fargo Championship before he turned 20–but he has been successful on relatively unfamiliar major venues before:  he finished second in his first Masters (and won the following year), won the first U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, missed a playoff by one at St. Andrews in his first start there, finished second behind Jason Day’s domination at Whistling Straits, and won at Royal Birkdale in July.  With Spieth’s superb all-around game, he can win on any track at any time.

He’s also proven he can win back-to-back majors, doing so in the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open, joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy as players to do so in the 21st century.

Hideki Matsuyama

The world’s third-ranked player is coming off an impressive win Sunday in Akron, but he’s becoming a potential story in each major due to his consistency on the PGA Tour.

Matsuyama’s 2016-17 season started with wins at the WGC-HSBC Champions and the Hero World Challenge last fall, and the Phoenix Open in Feburary.  The Japanese star slumped from mid-February until the U.S. Open, with a tie for 11th at Augusta as his only top 20 in the stretch, but after a tie for second in the U.S. Open, a tie for 14th in The Open Championship, and last week’s win Matsuyama now leads the FedEx Cup Standings just two weeks before the FedEx Cup Playoffs begin.

Matsuyama is already the most accomplished Japanese player of all-time, and now he’s trying to do something only one other Asian player–South Korean Y.E. Yang–has done:  win a major championship (Yang won the 2009 PGA).

As accomplished as young stars like Rickie Fowler and veterans like Lee Westwood are, Matsuyama is now clearly the best player without a major title–but that distinction could change by Sunday night.

PGA Moving to May

Perhaps the biggest story in the days ahead of the 99th PGA Championship is about the tournament’s future, as the PGA of America announced this week the PGA Championship will move to May, starting in 2019.

The PGA has been nicknamed “Glory’s Last Shot”–organizers even used the phrase as an event slogan at one time–as the event has been the last chance to win a major in a calendar year.  That will change with the move to May, giving the PGA the second-spot in the major championship lineup between the Masters and the U.S. Open.

The Players Championship, which is not a major but is considered the biggest non-major tournament in the world–will move from its current May date back to March, when it was played from its inception until 2007.  The BMW PGA Championship, which is the flagship event of the European Tour and is also currently played in mid-May, is expected to move to September.

The move will take the PGA off of a date that was strongly affected by golf’s return to the Olympic Games in 2016; now, the PGA won’t have to move up two weeks as it did a year ago to accommodate the Olympic golf tournament.

Another factor is the PGA Tour’s rumored plans for a larger schedule overhaul, potentially moving the FedEx Cup Playoffs up to August in 2019 to avoid weekend competition with football that currently exists in September.

If that move happens, the game of golf will have a marquee event each month from March to August:  The Players, the Masters, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, The Open Championship and the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

Other Notes: 

Jimmy Walker holds an unusual combination of titles this week–defending champion and sleeper.  His struggles since his first major win 52 weeks ago can, at least partially, be attributed to Lyme Disease, but Walker showed flashes of brilliance last week at the Bridgestone with a Friday 65 on his way to a tie for 28th.

Dustin Johnson has been the top-ranked player in the world since the spring, although he’s struggled–at least by number-one standards–since the back injury that took him out of the Masters.  But Johnson has finished eighth and 17th the last two weeks, including a 68-66 finish at the Bridgestone, and his length will be advantageous at Quail Hollow.

Masters champion Sergio Garcia and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka are playing the first two rounds with Spieth in the traditional pairing of the season’s first three major winners.  Garcia and Koepka are trying to join Spieth (2015), Mark O’Meara (1998), Jack Burke Jr. (1956) and Gene Sarazen (1922) as players to win their first two majors in the same season.

Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els are both starting their 100th major championship.  The pair have combined for nine majors (Mickelson five, Els four), including Mickelson’s 2005 PGA win at Baltusrol, and Mickelson has six top fives in the last 10 Wells Fargo Championships at Quail Hollow, including a second to McIlroy in 2010.

Rickie Fowler’s first PGA Tour win came at Quail Hollow in 2012, in a thrilling playoff triumph over Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points.  Could his first major championship win come at the same venue?  He finished ninth last week at the Bridgestone with a 67-66 weekend.

Webb Simpson has just two top 10’s since February, but the 2012 U.S. Open champion is playing on his home course at Quail Hollow.  With some home cooking and his local knowledge, Simpson is a sleeper this week.

Charley Hoffman finished second and third in the last two PGA Tour events and is trending well in majors, finishing in the top 22 of all three majors so far this year, including an eighth at the U.S. Open.

Two-time major winner Zach Johnson finished second at the Bridgestone, and has three top 10s in the Wells Fargo Championship.  A win would leave him just a U.S. Open title away from the career grand slam.

Other former Wells Fargo Championship winners in the field include Vijay Singh (2005), Jim Furyk (2006), Sean O’Hair (2009), Lucas Glover (2011), J.B. Holmes (2014) and James Hahn (2016).  Brian Harman won the Wells Fargo in May, but the event was held at Eagle Point in Wilmington while Quail Hollow prepared for the PGA Championship.

Prediction:
I know it sounds like a movie script, but I can totally see the tournament unfolding this way:  An epic back-nine duel between McIlroy, Spieth, Fowler or Matsuyama, and an unexpected contender (Quail Hollow has produced some surprise winners, after all), culminating in a Spieth-McIlroy playoff, which McIlroy wins, denying Spieth the career grand slam (at least for now). 

 

 

99th PGA Championship
Notable First Round Tee Times (ET):

7:45 a.m.:  Hideki Matsuyama, Ernie Els, Ian Poulter
8:25 a.m.:  Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth
8:35 a.m.:  Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson
8:55 a.m.:  Zach Johnson, Lee Westwood, Charley Hoffman
1:05 p.m.:  Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Webb Simpson
1:25 p.m.:  Jimmy Walker, Phil Mickelson, Jason Dufner
1:35 p.m.:  Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler
1:45 p.m.:  Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose, Chris Kirk

PGA Championship winners
(Year, Player, Nationality, Venue)
Match Play Era:
1916 Jim Barnes, England, Siwanoy
1919 Jim Barnes, England, Enginners
1920 Jock Hutchinson, Scotland, Flossmoor
1921 Walter Hagen, U.S., Inwood
1922 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Oakmont
1923 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Pelham
1924 Walter Hagen, U.S., French Lick Springs
1925 Walter Hagen, U.S., Olympia Fields
1926 Walter Hagen, U.S., Salisbury
1927 Walter Hagen, U.S., Cedar Crest
1928 Leo Diegel, U.S., Baltimore C.C.
1929 Leo Diegel, U.S., Hillcrest
1930 Tommy Armour, Scotland, Fresh Meadow
1931 Tom Creavy, U.S., Wannamoisett
1932 Olin Dutra, U.S., Keller
1933 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Blue Mound
1934 Paul Runyan, U.S., The Park C.C.
1935 Johnny Revolta, U.S., Twin Hills
1936 Denny Shute, U.S., Pinehurst No. 2
1937 Denny Shute, U.S., Pittsburgh Field Club
1938 Paul Runyan, U.S., Shawnee
1939 Henry Picard, U.S., Pomonok
1940 Byron Nelson, U.S., Hershey
1941 Vic Ghezzi, U.S., Cherry Hills
1942 Sam Snead, U.S., Seaview
1944 Bob Hamilton, U.S., Manito
1945 Byron Nelson, U.S., Moraine
1946 Ben Hogan, U.S., Portland G.C.
1947 Jim Ferrier, Australia, Plum Hollow
1948 Ben Hogan, U.S., Norwood Hills
1949 Sam Snead, U.S., Hermitage
1950 Chandler Harper, U.S., Scioto
1951 Sam Snead, U.S., Oakmont
1952 Jim Turnesa, U.S., Big Spring
1953 Walter Burkemo, U.S., Birmingham (Mich.) C.C.
1954 Chick Harbert, U.S., Keller
1955 Doug Ford, U.S., Meadowbrook
1956 Jack Burke Jr., U.S., Blue Hill
1957 Lionel Herbert, U.S., Miami Valley
Stroke Play Era:
1958 Dow Finsterwald, U.S., Llanerch
1959 Bob Rosburg, U.S., Minneapolis G.C.
1960 Jay Hebert, U.S., Firestone
1961 Jerry Barber, U.S., Olympia Fields
1962 Gary Player, South Africa, Aronimink
1963 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Dallas A.C.
1964 Bobby Nichols, U.S., Columbus C.C.
1965 Dave Marr, U.S., Laurel Valley
1966 Al Geiberger, U.S., Firestone
1967 Don January, U.S., Columbine
1968 Julius Boros, U.S., Pecan Valley
1969 Raymond Floyd, U.S., NCR C.C. 
1970 Dave Stockton, U.S., Southern Hills
1971 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., PGA National
1972 Gary Player, South Africa, Oakland Hills
1973 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Canterbury
1974 Lee Trevino, U.S., Tanglewood
1975 Jack Nicklaus, U.S. Firestone
1976 Dave Stockton, U.S., Congressional
1977 Lanny Wadkins, U.S., Pebble Beach
1978 John Mahaffey, U.S., Oakmont
1979 David Graham, Australia, Oakland Hills
1980 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Oak Hill
1981 Larry Nelson, U.S., Atlanta A.C.
1982 Raymond Floyd, U.S., Southern Hills
1983 Hal Sutton, U.S., Riviera
1984 Lee Trevino, U.S., Shoal Creek
1985 Hubert Green, U.S., Cherry Hills
1986 Bob Tway, U.S., Inverness
1987 Larry Nelson, U.S., PGA National
1988 Jeff Sluman, U.S., Oak Tree
1989 Payne Stewart, U.S., Kemper Lakes
1990 Wayne Grady, Austrailia, Shoal Creek
1991 John Daly, U.S., Crooked Stick
1992 Nick Price, Zimbabwe, Bellerive
1993 Paul Azinger, U.S., Inverness
1994 Nick Price, Zimbabwe, Bellerive
1995 Steve Elkington, Australia, Riviera
1996 Mark Brooks, U.S., Valhalla
1997 Davis Love III, U.S., Winged Foot
1998 Vijay Singh, Fiji, Sahalee
1999 Tiger Woods, U.S., Medinah
2000 Tiger Woods, U.S., Valhalla
2001 David Toms, U.S., Atlanta A.C.
2002 Rich Beem, U.S., Hazeltine
2003 Shaun Micheel, U.S., Oak Hill
2004 Vijay Singh, Fiji, Whistling Straits
2005 Phil Mickelson, U.S., Baltusrol
2006 Tiger Woods, U.S., Medinah
2007 Tiger Woods, U.S., Southern Hills
2008 Padraig Harrington, Ireland, Oakland Hills
2009 Y.E. Yang, South Korea, Hazeltine
2010 Martin Kaymer, Germany, Whistling Straits
2011 Keegan Bradley, U.S., Atlanta A.C.
2012 Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, Kiawah Island
2013 Jason Dufner, U.S., Oak Hill
2014 Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, Valhalla
2015 Jason Day, Australia, Whistling Straits
2016 Jimmy Walker, U.S., Baltusrol
Future Sites:
August 2017 Quail Hollow (Charlotte, N.C.)
August 2018 Bellerive (St. Louis, Mo.)
May 2019 Bethpage Black (Farmingdale, N.Y.)
May 2020 TPC Harding Park (San Francisco, Calif.)
May 2021 Kiawah Island (Kiawah Island, S.C.)
May 2022 Trump National (Bedminster, N.J.)
May 2023 Oak Hill (Rochester, N.Y.)

Column: Not the Next Tiger, But the First Spieth

After Jordan Spieth won his third career major championship on Sunday, four days before his 24th birthday, pundits and fans alike inevitably compared the talented Texan to Tiger Woods.

While Spieth’s career is off to an outstanding start, much like Woods two decades ago, he is not “the next Tiger Woods.”

He’s the first Jordan Spieth.

I not trying to be a smart-aleck, because the fact is that Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods have fewer similarities than some may think.

There are certainly comparisons between the two.  Both won their first three majors at a very young age—Spieth is actually about six months younger than Woods was at the time of his third major.

Both have shown mental strength to be a major key to their success, and both have an innate ability to make big putts from anywhere when needed down the stretch.

Woods used countless Houdini-like shots to escape trouble in many of his major triumphs, and Spieth used a similar shot Sunday on his 3-wood recovery from the practice area 50 yards right of the 13th fairway, turning a near-certain “big number” into a bogey that kept him in contention, which he followed with a 5-under stretch over the next four holes.

But on and off the course, there are major differences between Woods and Spieth.

On the course, Tiger’s first three major wins were more dominant than Spieth’s.  Woods’ first three major wins came by a combined 28 shots, including victories by 12 at the 1997 Masters and 15 at the 2000 U.S. Open.

The combined eight-shot margin of Spieth’s first three majors is still quite impressive, yet is nothing compared to the utter dominance of Woods.  And while Spieth’s 2015 Masters win at 18-under 270 matched Woods’ record for low score in the event, his 18-under came on an Augusta track softened by rain, where 11 players finished 7-under or better; in 1997, Woods was the only player 7-under or better.

After Woods’ third major, he promptly won the next three majors, the 2000 Open and PGA and 2001 Masters, a feat that will be difficult for Spieth to duplicate.  That said, Spieth will have one chance to win the career grand slam at a younger age than Tiger, when he competes in the PGA Championship next month in Charlotte.

Off the course, Woods can be cocky while holding things close to the vest, bluntly answering questions about his golf career and life.  Spieth is one of the humblest professional athletes in recent memory, and is very candid, honest and open.

Woods, the Buddhist son of a middle-class Green Beret, grew up playing the municipal courses of southern California.  Spieth, a Catholic son of a web CEO, grew up on country clubs of suburban Dallas.

Woods, who has a fascination with the Navy SEALs, worked out obsessively in his prime and built a massive muscular physique, using his strength to pull off some of his incredible shots on the course.

While Spieth has shown some strength at times, he is less of a “bomber” of the golf ball, and physically looks more like someone I might have competed against in collegiate intramurals than one of the best athletes in the world.

From a cultural impact level, Spieth has no chance to equal the magnitude of Woods’ career.  The emergence of a black star who also has Asian heritage in a sport historically dominated by white men brought golf to an entire new audience.

While Spieth has throngs of fans he has, more or less, excited existing golf fans with the emergence of a new star more than he has taken the game to new audiences.

These two stars are quite different, so instead of pinning the weight of the “the next Tiger Woods” label on a player—which is quite unfair to anyone, considering there will likely never be another player to match the talent, domination and impact of Woods—let’s simply sit back and watch what someone with the talent of Jordan Spieth can do next.

No, Jordan Spieth is not “the next Tiger Woods.”

He’s the first Jordan Spieth, and that alone is exciting for the game of golf.

 

 

The 146th Open Championship
Leaders:
1. Jordan Spieth, U.S., -12 (65-69-65-69–268), becomes second youngest player to win three legs of the career grand slam (behind Jack Nicklaus)
2. Matt Kuchar, U.S., -9 (65-71-66-69–271)
3. Haotong Li, China, -6 (69-73-69-63–274)
t4. Rory McIlroy, N. Ireland, -5 (71-68-69-67–275)
t4. Rafa Cabrera Bello, Spain, -5 (67-73-67-68–275)
t6. Matthew Southgate, England, -4 (72-72-67-65–276)
t6. Marc Leishman, New Zealand, -4 (69-76-66-65–276)
t6. Alex Noren, Sweden, -4 (68-72-69-67–276)
t6. Branden Grace, S. Africa, -4 (70-74-62-70–276), in third round became the first player in major championship history to shoot 62
t6. Brooks Koepka, U.S., -4 (65-72-68-71–276)
Notables:
t11. Henrik Stenson, Sweden, -3 (69-73-65-70–277), defending champion
t14. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan, -2 (68-72-66-72–278)
t22. Rickie Fowler, U.S., E (71-71-67-71–280)
t27. Jason Day, Australia, +1 (69-76-65-71–281)
t37. Sergio Garcia, Spain, +2 (73-69-68-72–282)
t54. Justin Rose, England, +4 (71-74-69-70–284)
t54. Dustin Johnson, U.S., +4 (71-72-64-77–284)
t62. Alfie Plant, England, +6 (71-73-69-73–286), low amateur
Phil Mickelson (+10) missed the cut; Tiger Woods did not play.

Open Champions, since 2000
2000 Tiger Woods
2001 David Duval
2002 Ernie Els
2003 Ben Curtis
2004 Todd Hamilton
2005 Tiger Woods
2006 Tiger Woods
2007 Padraig Harrington
2008 Padraig Harrington
2009 Stewart Cink
2010 Louis Oosthuizen
2011 Darren Clarke
2012 Ernie Els
2013 Phil Mickelson
2014 Rory McIlroy
2015 Zach Johnson
2016 Henrik Stenson
2017 Jordan Spieth

Fast Five: Storylines Entering the 117th U.S. Open

The second major of the 2017 golf season, the U.S. Open, begins tomorrow morning at Erin Hills in Wisconsin.

156 players will tee it up in “golf’s toughest test,” each with the hope of hoisting one of golf’s oldest trophies on Sunday evening.

Here are the biggest storylines entering the 117th edition of the U.S. Open:

Erin Hills

The venue for this year’s U.S. Open is hosting the event for the first time.  The course, designed by Dr. Michael John Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, is carved from the rolling Midwestern hills 25 miles northwest of Milwaukee, and with ragged bunkering and thick fescue rough looks as much like Ireland as Wisconsin.

Erin Hills, the fifth public course to host the U.S. Open (all since 2002), hosted the 2011 U.S. Amateur, won by Kelly Kraft (who failed to qualify for this year’s U.S. Open), just after the course opened in 2006.  The par-72 layout–the first par-72 for a U.S. Open since 1992–stretches 7,741 yards, the longest course in major championship history.  Add to that the distance between some of the holes, and players will be in for a long walk over the next four days.  The course’s length could potentially play into the hands of the big hitters throughout the week, although a case could be made that the thick rough would work against them.

This U.S. Open marks the first in the state of Wisconsin, and the state’s fifth major championship (1933, 2004, 2010, 2015 PGA); Wisconsin native and former U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Jordan Niebrugge will strike the first tee shot of the event tomorrow at 6:45 a.m. local time, while fellow Wisconsin native Steve Stricker headlines the group of 78 who reached the U.S. Open through qualifying (from a field of 8,979 players).

The Weather

A big part of course conditions in any golf tournament is the weather.  Temperatures will stay in the mid-80s through the week until Sunday, with a forecast high of 77.  Thursday and Sunday look the best regarding potential precipitation, with 10 and 20 percent chances of rain, respectively.  Friday and Saturday, meanwhile, have more threatening forecasts, with a 50 percent chance of rain Friday and an 80 percent chance Saturday.  Winds will mainly come from the west, and will stay around 10 MPH until Sunday, when they are forecast to strengthen to 18 MPH.

The weather would be a big story regardless, but because of one star player’s unique circumstances, it could become and even bigger story on Thursday with a surprise rain storm…

Phil Mickelson

…because five-time major winner Phil Mickelson needs such a surprise rain storm to stay in the field.

Mickelson–who at 46 needs only the U.S. Open title to become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam–is attending his daughter’s high school graduation in California, at 12 p.m. CT.  His scheduled tee time at Erin Hills is very late, at 2:20 pm CT, but still won’t be late enough for Mickelson to make it to Erin Hills unless the tournament’s first round is significantly delayed by weather.

Given the above forecast, such a delay is unlikely, meaning Mickelson would have to withdraw from the tournament.

18 years ago Mickelson was prepared to withdraw from the 1999 U.S. Open in the event wife Amy went into labor for the birth of Amanda, who was born the morning after the tournament ended (just as a playoff against Payne Stewart would have hypothetically started had Stewart not defeated Mickelson by one shot in regulation).  18 years later Mickelson will, in all likelihood, miss a chance to complete the career Grand Slam as he attends Amanda’s graduation, where she will be giving a valedictory address.

Mickelson has not yet officially withdrawn, holding out hope for an unlikely delay, and the USGA says he can withdraw at any time before his tee time on Thursday.  His place in the field would be filled by an alternate; the first alternate is currently Roberto Diaz.

UPDATE:  Mickelson officially withdrew at about 10 a.m. local time on Thursday, making this U.S. Open the first major championship without Mickelson or Tiger Woods in the field since the 1994 Masters.

Dustin Johnson

The defending winner of the U.S. Open after last year’s triumph at Oakmont, Johnson enters this year’s edition as the 7-1 favorite.  Johnson has five PGA Tour wins since last year’s triumph, which was his first major title, and is the top-ranked player in the world, with as large a lead over second-ranked Jason Day as Day has over 38th-ranked Brandt Snedeker.

Last year’s win came after a controversial delayed ruling by the USGA left Johnson’s exact score in question as the back nine of the final round played out, with a review pending that could (and eventually would) penalize Johnson one stroke for his ball moving on the fifth green after he addressed the ball.  For this year’s U.S. Open, the USGA has added four on-course video review booths to allow for in-round rules decisions to be made more efficiently.

Johnson is trying to become the first U.S. Open winner to go back-to-back since Curtis Strange in 1988-89.  Golf may not have Johnson’s undivided attention this week, as he and fiance Paulina Gretzky had their second child on Monday, but some players have won major championships under similar circumstances (including Danny Willett at the 2016 Masters and Bubba Watson at the 2013 Masters).

Johnson may also have some subtle form of redemption on his mind; he was the heavy favorite entering the Masters, but withdrew with a back injury after falling down the stairs of his rental home.

 

Other Contenders 

Beyond the top-ranked Johnson, three other superstars are among the favorites every time they tee it up:  Jordan Spieth (9-1), Rory McIlroy (10-1) and Jason Day (11-1).  Since the start of 2013, Spieth and McIlroy both have 58 major championship rounds, totaling 4,108 strokes and an 18-under par score, with both winning two majors including a U.S. Open.  In the same span, Day is -43 in major championship play, 10 shots better than anyone else.

However, six straight majors have been won by a first-time major champion, and the first and second round grouping of Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm could extend that streak to seven.  Fowler (18-1) has a win and six top six finishes in 2017, including a tie for second two weeks ago at The Memorial, while Matsuyama (28-1) is ranked fourth in the world, and Rahm (18-1) has eight top five finishes since the day he turned pro last year, which is tied for the most on the PGA Tour in that span.

Sergio Garcia (28-1) and Justin Rose (20-1) are also potential contenders after their epic back nine duel at The Masters.  Garcia, who won that Masters duel for his first major title, has five career top 10s in the U.S. Open including a fifth last year, while Rose won the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion.

 

 

 

117th U.S. OPEN

Notable First Round Tee Times (ET)

8:51 a.m.:  Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm
9:13 a.m.:  Danny Willett, Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera
9:24 a.m.:  Matt Kuchar, Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed
9:35 a.m.:  Martin Kaymer, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson
2:36 p.m.:  Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia
2:47 p.m.:  Henrik Stenson, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen
2:58 p.m.:  Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas, Paul Casey

3:09 p.m.:  Jason Day, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy
3:20 p.m.:  Steve Stricker, Stewart Cink, Phil Mickelson

U.S. Open Champions
(Year, Champion, Nationality, Host Course)
1895 Horace Rawlins, England, Newport
1896 James Foulis, Scotland, Shinnecock Hills

1897 Joe Lloyd, England, Chicago G.C.
1898 Fred Herd, Scotland, Myopia Hunt
1899 Willie Smith, Scotland, Baltimore C.C. 
1900 Harry Vardon, Jersey, Chicago G.C.
1901 Willie Anderson, Scotland, Myopia Hunt
1902 Laurie Auchterlonie, Scotland, Garden City G.C.
1903 Willie Anderson, Scotland, Baltusrol
1904 Willie Anderson, Scotland, Glen View
1905 Willie Anderson, Scotland, Myopia Hunt
1906 Alex Smith, Scotland, Onwentsia
1907 Alec Ross, Scotland, Philadelphia Cricket Club
1908 Fred McLeod, Scotland, Myopia Hunt
1909 George Sargent, England, Englewood
1910 Alex Smith, Scotland, Philadelpia Cricket Club
1911 John McDermott, U.S., Chicago G.C.
1912 John McDermott, U.S., C.C. of Buffalo
1913 Francis Ouimet, U.S., The Country Club
1914 Walter Hagen, U.S., Midlothian
1915 Jerome Travers, U.S., Baltusrol
1916 Chick Evans, U.S., The Minikahda Club
1917-18 No tournament due to World War I
1919 Walter Hagen, U.S., Brae Burn
1920 Ted Ray, Jersey, Inverness
1921 Jim Barnes, England, Columbia C.C.
1922 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Skokie 
1923 Bobby Jones, U.S., Inwood
1924 Cyril Walker, England, Oakland Hills
1925 Willie Macfarlane, Scotland, Worcester C.C.
1926 Bobby Jones, U.S., Scioto
1927 Tommy Armour, U.S., Oakmont
1928 Johnny Farrell, U.S., Olympia Fields
1929 Bobby Jones, U.S., Winged Foot
1930 Bobby Jones, U.S., Interlachen
1931 Billy Burke, U.S., Inverness
1932 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Fresh Meadow
1933 Johnny Goodman, U.S., North Shore
1934 Olin Dutra, U.S., Merion
1935 Sam Parks Jr., U.S., Oakmont
1936 Tony Manero, U.S., Baltusrol
1937 Ralph Guldahl, U.S., Oakland Hills
1938 Ralph Guldahl, U.S., Cherry Hills
1939 Byron Nelson, U.S., Philadelphia C.C. 
1940 Lawson Little, U.S., Canterbury
1941 Craig Wood, U.S., Colonial
1942-45 No tournament due to World War II
1946 Lloyd Mangrum, U.S., Canterbury
1947 Lew Worsham, U.S., St. Louis C.C.
1948 Ben Hogan, U.S., Riviera
1949 Cary Middlecoff, U.S., Medinah
1950 Ben Hogan, U.S., Merion
1951 Ben Hogan, U.S., Oakland Hills
1952 Julius Boros, U.S., Northwood
1953 Ben Hogan, U.S., Oakmont
1954 Ed Furgol, U.S., Baltusrol
1955 Jack Fleck, U.S., Olympic
1956 Cary Middlecoff, U.S., Oak Hill
1957 Dick Mayer, U.S., Inverness
1958 Tommy Bolt, U.S., Southern Hills 
1959 Billy Casper, U.S., Winged Foot
1960 Arnold Palmer, U.S., Cherry Hills
1961 Gene Littler, U.S., Oakland Hills
1962 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Oakmont
1963 Julius Boros, U.S., The Country Club
1964 Ken Venturi, U.S., Congressional
1965 Gary Player, South Africa, Bellerive
1966 Billy Casper, U.S., Olympic
1967 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Baltusrol
1968 Lee Trevino, U.S., Oak Hill
1969 Orville Moody, U.S., Champions
1970 Tony Jacklin, England, Hazeltine
1971 Lee Trevino, U.S., Merion
1972 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Pebble Beach
1973 Johnny Miller, U.S., Oakmont
1974 Hale Irwin, U.S., Winged Foot
1975 Lou Graham, U.S., Medinah
1976 Jerry Pate, U.S., Atlanta Athletic Club
1977 Hubert Green, U.S., Southern Hills
1978 Andy North, U.S., Cherry Hills
1979 Hale Irwin, U.S., Inverness
1980 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Baltusrol
1981 David Graham, Australia, Merion
1982 Tom Watson, U.S., Pebble Beach
1983 Larry Nelson, U.S., Oakmont
1984 Fuzzy Zoeller, U.S., Winged Foot
1985 Andy North, U.S., Oakland Hills
1986 Raymond Floyd, U.S., Shinnecock Hills
1987 Scott Simpson, U.S., Olympic
1988 Curtis Strange, U.S., The Country Club
1989 Curtis Strange, U.S., Oak Hill
1990 Hale Irwin, U.S., Medinah
1991 Payne Stewart, U.S., Hazeltine
1992 Tom Kite, U.S., Pebble Beach
1993 Lee Janzen, U.S., Baltusrol
1994 Ernie Els, South Africa, Congressional
1995 Corey Pavin, U.S., Shinnecock Hills
1996 Steve Jones, U.S., Oakland Hills
1997 Ernie Els, U.S., Congressional
1998 Lee Janzen, U.S., Olympic
1999 Payne Stewart, U.S., Pinehurst No. 2
2000 Tiger Woods, U.S., Pebble Beach
2001 Retief Goosen, South Africa, Southern Hills
2002 Tiger Woods, U.S., Bethpage Black
2003 Jim Furyk, U.S., Olympia Fields
2004 Retief Goosen, South Africa, Shinnecock Hills
2005 Michael Campbell, New Zealand, Pinehurst No. 2
2006 Geoff Ogilvy, Australia, Winged Foot
2007 Angel Cabrera, Argentina, Oakmont
2008 Tiger Woods, U.S., Torrey Pines
2009 Lucas Glover, U.S., Bethpage Black
2010 Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland, Pebble Beach
2011 Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, Congressional
2012 Webb Simpson, U.S., Olympic
2013 Justin Rose, England, Merion
2014 Martin Kaymer, Germany, Pinehurst No. 2
2015 Jordan Spieth, U.S., Chambers Bay
2016 Dustin Johnson, U.S., Oakmont
Future Sites
2017 Erin Hills (Erin, Wis.)
2018 Shinnecock Hills (Shinnecock Hills, N.Y.)
2019 Pebble Beach (Pebble Beach, Calif.)
2020 Winged Foot (Mamaroneck, N.Y.)
2021 Torrey Pines (La Jolla, Calif.)
2022 The Country Club (Brookline, Mass.)
2023 Los Angeles C.C. (Los Angeles, Calif.)
2024 Pinehurst No. 2 (Pinehurst, N.C.)
2025 Oakmont (Oakmont, Penn.)
2026 Shinnecock Hills (Shinnecock Hills, N.Y.)

Fast Five: Storylines Entering The Masters

The Masters gets underway tomorrow at Augusta National, and as always there are a plethora of storylines.

While Tiger Woods is absent, continuing to nurse a bad back, 93 of the world’s best players make up the most exclusive field in golf for the 81st time.

Over the years the fields at Augusta have gotten deeper, and this year is no exception, with dozens of players who have a legitimate chance to wear the green jacket on Sunday night.

As tournament play begins on Thursday morning, here are the biggest storylines:

The Weather

After Wednesday’s Par 3 contest was rained out for the first time ever, the course should play soft.  However, it won’t play easy, as winds of over 20 miles per hour are forecast for the Augusta area on Thursday and Friday.

Augusta National is never easy, but should play even more difficult than usual if this forecast is correct.  A score of even-par could easily be in contention entering the weekend.

Saturday and Sunday, the weather will be better.  Calm winds and warmer temperatures will allow for better scoring conditions, meaning that the even-par score that should be a contender on Friday evening will have to move a few under-par to don the green jacket on Sunday evening.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson

This will be the first major Dustin Johnson has played as the top-ranked golfer in the world, and the first Masters since his victory in last year’s U.S. Open, a win that got the proverbial monkey off his back in major championships.

Few players have entered a Masters as hot as Johnson enters this year’s edition.  Johnson has won three straight starts on the PGA Tour, and has finished in the top six in six of his last seven starts.

Johnson was the clear favorite early Wednesday, but now his status for the tournament may be in jeopardy after accidentally falling down the stairs in his Augusta rental home and injuring his lower back.  Fortunately, Johnson has the very last tee time (2:03 pm ET), so he has the longest possible amount of time to treat his injury and decide if he can play.

Johnson’s manager says he hopes to play, but the uncertainty about whether Johnson can play and how well he can play with the injury has made Johnson an even bigger story entering the first round.

Jordan Speith vs. the 12th Hole

Last year, Jordan Spieth led The Masters by five shots entering the back nine on Sunday, but a quadruple-bogey seven on the par-3 12th hole cost him his second straight green jacket.

Now, as the 23-year old seeks his third major championship, Spieth will have face redemption at the difficult Amen Corner hole after hitting two balls in the water the last time he played it in competition.

Spieth hit his tee shot to about one foot at the 12th in Tuesday’s practice round, perhaps exorcising some of the demons from a year ago.

Even with last year’s collapse, Spieth’s record at Augusta is the best ever by a player in his first three starts:  a win and two runner-up finishes.  With that experience, it would be shocking if Speith is not in the mix late Sunday.

The Young Guns

Spieth is not the only young star capable of winning the green jacket on Sunday.

20 years after a 21-year old Tiger Woods changed the game of golf forever with his 12-shot Masters win, the young stars who grew up watching Woods are primed for Masters success.

Rory McIlroy (age 27) is seeking to win the final leg of the career grand slam, and would become the second youngest to do so (Woods was 24).  McIlroy, who is ranked second in the world, led through nine holes of the final round in 2011 before a back nine 43 in his best chance to win to date.  McIlroy has finished in the top 7 in both of his starts after missing time with a rib injury.

Jason Day (29) is ranked third in the world.  His form hasn’t been as strong as some of the others on this list, although his mother’s cancer battle may explain that.  Now, after her cancer surgery was successful and she will not require chemotherapy, Day has a clear mind to go chase the green jacket.  Day tied for second in the 2011 Masters and finished third in 2013, and has the game to threaten in any major championship; he won the 2015 PGA Championship.

Justin Thomas (23) is ranked seventh in the world after starting the 2016-17 PGA Tour season with three wins.  Thomas, who grew up competing against Jordan Spieth in junior events, tied for 39th in his only Masters appearance last year, and his best major finish is a tie for 18th, although he has made the cut in five of his six starts.

Hideki Matsuyama (25), ranked fourth in the world, also has two wins and two seconds this season, plus an unofficial one against a strong field at the Hero World Challenge.  The Japanese star made the cut at Augusta twice as an amateur, and has finished in the top seven the last two years, along with a tie for fourth at last year’s PGA Championship.

Rickie Fowler (28), ranked eighth in the world, has a win at The Honda Classic and six top-six finishes this season.  While he didn’t win last week in Houston, some suggested his result of third is even better than winning (only two players the last 60 years have won The Masters after winning the week before, a spell that now falls to Shell Houston Open winner Russell Henley).  Fowler tied for 5th in the 2014 Masters as part of a season when he finished in the top five of all four majors.

Jon Rahm (22), ranked 12th, is the least established star on this list, but is still coming into Augusta on a hot streak after winning the Farmers Insurance Open and finishing in the top 10 in his last four starts (including two WGC events).  However, this is Rahm’s first Masters–the only Masters rookie since 1935 to win was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.  Rahm’s idol is fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, whose 60th birthday would have been this Sunday.

Danny Willett (29), ranked 17th, is the defending Masters champion, although he has not won an event since donning the green jacket last April.  Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) are the only players to win back-to-back Masters.

Other young guns with a legitimate chance include Emiliano Grillo (24), Brooks Koepka (26), Daniel Berger (23) and Tyrrell Hatton (25).

Youth vs. Experience

But while the young stars have the talent to win The Masters, experience is always a factor at Augusta.

Masters champions receive a lifetime exemption into the event, with most playing the event into their late 50s or early 60s.  Often, one of these legends will randomly pop up on the leaderboard and contend on the weekend.

Jack Nicklaus, who stopped playing the Masters after 2005 but will be one of the honorary starters on Thursday morning, won his sixth Masters at age 46 in 1986 to become the oldest Masters winner, then tied for sixth at age 58 in 1998.

Phil Mickelson (46) is trying to tie Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods for the second most Masters titles, as a win would be his fourth.  Mickelson, while still in his prime, is a few months older than Nicklaus was in 1986, and has finished in the top seven in two of his last three starts.

Bernhard Langer (59), the 1985 and 1993 champion, tied for eighth in 2014 and was tied for third, two shots back through three rounds last year, before fading with a final round 79.  Langer comes in in good form with a win and two thirds this season in the PGA Tour Champions, where he leads the Charles Schwab Cup standings.

Fred Couples (57), marking the 25th anniversary of his 1992 Masters triumph, can threaten if his bad back cooperates.  Couples finished in the top 20 in every Masters from 2010-14, including a sixth in 2010, and has finished in the top six in all four PGA Tour Champions starts this year, with one win, and is second in Charles Schwab Cup points.

Other past Masters champions in the field include Charl Schwartzel (32), Adam Scott (36), Trevor Immelman (37), two-time champion Bubba Watson (38), Zach Johnson (41), Mike Weir (46), Angel Cabrera (47), two-time winner Jose Maria Olazabal (51), Vijay Singh (54), Augusta native Larry Mize (58), Sandy Lyle (59), Ian Woosnam (59), and Mark O’Meara (60).

There are also players who have not won The Masters, but still have plenty of experience on Augusta’s hallowed ground.

Ernie Els (47), a four-time major champion, may be playing his final Masters, as his exemption from winning the 2012 Open Championship expires after this year.  From 2000-2004, Els finished in the top six every year, including two runner-up finishes.  Last year, he six-putted the first hole, eliminating a realistic chance to win just 15 minutes after his tournament started.

Jimmy Walker (38) and Henrik Stenson (turned 41 on Wednesday) are the winners of the last two major championships of 2016.  Walker, who won the PGA Championship, tied for 8th in the 2014 Masters, while Stenson, the Open Champion, has never finished better than 14th at Augusta, although he has 11 combined top 10s in the other three majors and was the 2016 Olympic silver medalist.

Matt Kuchar (38) and Brandt Snedeker (36) are both seeking their first major, and have both said how emotional a win at Augusta would be.  Kuchar finished in the top 10 each year from 2012-14, including a tie for third in 2012, and won bronze at the 2016 Olympics.  Snedeker has three top 10s including a tie for third in 2008.

Steve Stricker (50) has scaled back on playing regular tour events, focusing on the majors as he still seeks his first.  He has two top 10s in The Masters and none since 2009, but has not missed a Masters cut since 2008.

Lee Westwood (43), Paul Casey (39) and Sergio Garcia (37) are each European stars who have had successful careers but never won a major championship, while Justin Rose (36) has one major, the 2013 U.S. Open, and won the Olympic gold medal in 2016.  Westwood has only finished outside the top 11 once in the last seven Masters, with two runner-up finishes; Casey has four top tens, including ties for sixth and fourth the last two years; Garcia has three top eight finishes including a tie for fourth in 2004 and has four second-place finished in majors; Rose has four top 10s including a tie for second in 2015.

 

 

2017 Masters
Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
Notable First Round Tee Times (ET)
7:40 a.m.:  Honorary Starters (Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player)

9:06 a.m.:  Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Hadwin
9:28 a.m.:  Adam Scott, Kevin Kisner, Andy Sullivan
10:01 a.m.:  Fred Couples, Paul Casey, Kevin Na
10:12 a.m.:  Russell Knox, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama
10:34 a.m.:  Jordan Spieth, Martin Kaymer, Matthew Fitzpatrick
10:45 a.m.:  Phil Mickelson, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Si Woo Kim
10:56 a.m.:  Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose, Jason Day
12:24 p.m.:  Danny Willett, Matt Kuchar, Curtis Luck (a)
12:46 p.m.:  Angel Cabrera, Henrik Stenson, Tyrrell Hatton
1:19 p.m.:  Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Shane Lowry
1:41 p.m.:  Rory McIlroy, Hideto Tanihara, Jon Rahm
1:52 p.m.:  Marc Leishman, Bill Haas, Justin Thomas
2:03 p.m.:  Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker

Masters Champions
(Year, Winner, Nationality, Score)
1934 Horton Smith, U.S., 284

1935 Gene Sarazen, U.S., 282
1936 Horton Smith, U.S., 285
1937 Byron Nelson, U.S., 283
1938 Henry Picard, U.S., 285
1939 Ralph Guldahl, U.S., 279
1940 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 280
1941 Craig Wood, U.S., 280
1942 Byron Nelson, U.S., 280
1943-45 No tournament due to World War II
1946 Herman Keiser, U.S., 282
1947 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 281
1948 Claude Harmon, U.S., 279
1949 Sam Snead, U.S., 282
1950 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 283
1951 Ben Hogan, U.S., 280
1952 Sam Snead, U.S., 286
1953 Ben Hogan, U.S., 274
1954 Sam Snead, U.S., 289
1955 Cary Middlecoff, U.S., 279
1956 Jack Burke Jr., U.S., 289
1957 Doug Ford, U.S., 283
1958 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 284
1959 Art Wall Jr., U.S., 284
1960 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 282
1961 Gary Player, South Africa, 280
1962 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 280
1963 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1964 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 276
1965 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 271
1966 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 288
1967 Gay Brewer, U.S., 280
1968 Bob Goalby, U.S., 277
1969 George Archer, U.S., 281
1970 Billy Casper, U.S., 279
1971 Charles Coody, U.S., 279
1972 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1973 Tommy Aaron, U.S., 283
1974 Gary Player, South Africa, 278
1975 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 276
1976 Raymond Floyd, U.S., 271
1977 Tom Watson, U.S., 276
1978 Gary Player, South Africa, 277
1979 Fuzzy Zoeller, U.S., 280
1980 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 275
1981 Tom Watson, U.S., 280
1982 Craig Stadler, U.S., 284
1983 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 280
1984 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 277
1985 Bernhard Langer, West Germany, 282
1986 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 279
1987 Larry Mize, U.S., 285
1988 Sandy Lyle, Scotland, 281
1989 Nick Faldo, England, 283
1990 Nick Faldo, England, 278
1991 Ian Woosnam, Wales, 277
1992 Fred Couples, U.S., 275
1993 Bernhard Langer, Germany, 277
1994 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 279
1995 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 274
1996 Nick Faldo, England, 276 
1997 Tiger Woods, U.S., 270
1998 Mark O’Meara, U.S., 279
1999 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 280
2000 Vijay Singh, Fiji, 278
2001 Tiger Woods, U.S., 272
2002 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2003 Mike Weir, Canada, 281
2004 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 279
2005 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2006 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 281
2007 Zach Johnson, U.S., 289
2008 Trevor Immelman, South Africa, 280
2009 Angel Cabrera, Argentina, 276
2010 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 272
2011 Charl Schwartzel, South Africa, 274
2012 Bubba Watson, U.S., 278
2013 Adam Scott, Australia, 279
2014 Bubba Watson, U.S., 280
2015 Jordan Spieth, U.S., 270
2016 Danny Willett, England, 283

American Pharoah: 2015 Stiles on Sports Sportsman of the Year

After a triumphant stretch like no other in the history of his sport, American Pharoah is the 2015 Stiles on Sports Sportsman of the Year.

The thoroughbred, owned by Ahmed Zayat, trained by the legendary Bob Baffert, and jockeyed by Victor Espinosa, became the first horse to win horse racing’s Triple Crown since 1978, winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes over the span of a remarkable 36-day period, all in dominant fashion.

After becoming just the 12th winner in the long history of the Triple Crown, American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner to also win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the most lucrative event in horse racing, nearly five months later on Halloween, achieving the newly-coined “Grand Slam.”

The choice of American Pharoah as the year’s best is not an easy one, particularly considering that, although his performance this year was unprecedented, he is a horse.  In the end, however, it turns out that this horse’s accomplishments make him the most qualified for an award like this one, even over other candidates who have had tremendous years such as Stephen Curry, Jordan Spieth, and Serena Williams.

Curry was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and helped lead his team, the Golden State Warriors, to their first championship since 1975, before leading them to an NBA record beginning-of-season winning streak of 24 games.  Curry is an extremely explosive scorer, and while he’s one of the best shooters the game ever seen, he is also a tremendous all-around player.  Curry’s 2015 accomplishments resulted in him being named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, joining Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James as basketball players to win the award.

Basketball has had other superstars, however, and even several players to win both the league’s MVP and the NBA Finals.  Curry’s playing style is unique, but his level of success has been achieved in his sport before.  American Pharoah is the first horse to ever win all four of thoroughbred racing’s biggest events.  Anyone 40 or younger has grown up with the Michael Jordans, Kobe Bryants, and LeBron Jameses of the world, so they’ve seen hoops superstars before, but have never seen a Triple Crown winner.

Jordan Spieth won golf’s first two majors of the year, The Masters and the U.S. Open, before missing a playoff at the third major, The Open Championship, by a single shot, finishing tied for 4th.  Spieth then finished second at the PGA Championship, three strokes behind winner Jason Day, and went on to win the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour’s season-long points championship.  Spieth was the first player since 2002 to have a chance at the Grand Slam after two majors, and came within four shots of winning all four majors, something that has never been done since the Masters was established, and has only been done once overall, by Bobby Jones in 1930 (the events considered majors were different at the time).

Spieth’s performance in the majors this year was amazing, and resulted in a “Grand Slam Watch” of sorts throughout much of the summer before the Texan fell just short at St. Andrews.  However, Spieth isn’t in unchartered territory, as Tiger Woods won the first two events in 2002, and won all four in a row (but not in a calendar year) from the 2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters.  After this generation has seen Tiger’s udder domination of the game, the Summer of Spieth wasn’t overwhelmingly better than other players in other seasons, including Rory McIlroy winning two majors just last year.  While what Spieth did in 2015 is comparable to others, including contemporaries, American Pharoah’s season replicated no other, and may never be seen again.

In August, Serena Williams was within two matches of winning the tennis version of the Grand Slam, after previous wins at the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon.  Williams was upset by Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals, but had still won the previous four majors over two years, known as the “Serena Slam”.  At one point this season, the distance between Williams and the 2nd-ranked player in the WTA rankings was the same as the distance between 2nd and 1000th.  At a time in her career when most are beginning to fade, Williams thrived through her age 33 season.  As a result, Williams was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year, becoming the first solo female athlete to win the award since track star Mary Decker in 1983, and the first tennis player since Arthur Ashe in 1992.

However, Williams season isn’t unique in the history of her sport, and isn’t really even unique within her own career.  Williams has won 21 majors in a remarkable career, and has won multiple majors in seven seasons.  In 2002, Williams won three majors, and didn’t lose a match in a major all season, failing to win the Grand Slam only due to missing the Australian Open with injury.  Williams’ 2015 record of 53-3 is exceptional, and the three losses were the least of her career in a full season, but she had a slightly better winning percentage during a 78-4 season in 2013.  These numbers show that Williams whole career has been magnificent, but also show that her 2015 season wasn’t necessarily one-of-a-kind like that of American Pharoah.

One thing that can be said about Curry, Spieth, and Williams that cannot for any non-human athlete is that all three showed the utmost grace in their prodigious successes in 2015.  All three, and particularly Curry and Spieth, displayed humility and dignity, even through moments of great personal triumph.

But maybe it can be said that American Pharoah was graceful in running and winning on horse racing’s biggest stages.  In winning the Triple Crown, and later the Breeders’ Cup, the horse used his astounding agility, balance, and finesse to establish a beautifully smooth and polished form and elegantly prevail with such ease in a sport that is among the most rhythmic of all, displaying tremendous poise through such palpable pressure.  Even as a thoroughbred, American Pharoah exhibited that he was the epitome of gracefulness on his dash to immortality.

In a Sports Illustrated article arguing that American Pharoah was worthy of that publication’s Sportsman of the Year award, jockey Victor Espinosa described the horse’s stride as “beautiful and smooth.”  Espinosa said that with most horses he can tell when the horse is going all out, including War Emblem and California Chrome, who both won the first two legs of the Triple Crown before falling short at the Belmont.  But with American Pharoah, he would feel as if the horse was on an easy gallop, and he would look back and the colt was several lengths ahead of the competition.

Another reason American Pharoah is deserving of this honor is the athleticism he showed in powerfully dominating in each victory.  He entered the Kentucky Derby having won each race except his very first, with each of the victories by three and a quarter-lengths or more, including a margin of eight lengths in the Arkansas Derby, his final start before the Kentucky Derby.  At Churchill Downs, American Pharoah faced his toughest test, and beat Firing Line to the finishing line by a single length, as part of a brisk three-way stretch run with third-place finisher Dortmund, who was the second betting favorite behind American Pharoah.  At Pimlico in the Preakness, he turned a one-length lead at the top of the stretch into a seven-length victory, exploding through the final furlongs to run away with the race.  Against a primarily different field at Elmont Park in the Belmont, the horse similarly erupted in the final portion of the race, turning a one-length lead at the top of the stretch into a five and a half-length victory to complete the Triple Crown, running the second quickest Belmont race of any Triple Crown winner.  American Pharoah was even more dominant at the Breeders’ Cup, with a more comfortable two- to three-length lead through much of the last half of the race, and another potent stretch run to pull away to a decisive six and a half-length triumph.  These runaways were not in any way against weak fields, but against the best thoroughbreds in the world.

American Pharaoh and his accomplishments were cause for great celebration within not just the sport of horse racing, but throughout the entire sports world.  While his connections could have undoubtedly decided to retire the horse after winning the Triple Crown without anyone blaming them for it, they decided, as a gift to the sport, to continue to race.  American Pharoah won the Haskell Invitational, and finished second at the Travers Stakes, before prevailing in his final start at the Breeders’ Cup.  In Espinosa’s article, he described how continuing to run the colt was so beneficial to the sport.

“The decision of owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert to keep American Pharoah running after he won the Triple Crown was a real gift to the sport, and the year’s greatest display of sportsmanship. The colt could have been retired to a very good career as a stallion in June, and there was a large element of risk in bringing him back to the racetrack. Horse racing can be dangerous. But Ahmed and Bob kept him running, and kept him winning. For fans—for everyone, really—to be able to see him run some more races was the gift of a lifetime. Like I said, we may never see another Triple Crown winner. American Pharoah was a star that made our whole sport look good.”

In a fan poll of which finalist should be SI‘s Sportsman of the Year, American Pharoah was the overwhelming favorite, winning 47% of the vote, compared to other nominees which included the Kansas City Royals (29%), Lionel Messi (6%), Stephen Curry (4%), and Jordan Spieth (3%), among others.  The amazing widespread popularity of American Pharoah is, in many ways, unmatched in the sports world, and his accomplishments were celebrated nationwide like the successes of few others.

American Pharaoh reached the pinnacle of horse racing by winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years, and in accomplishing a feat that has become notoriously hard to achieve (since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, 13 horses won the first two legs and failed to win the Belmont), may have become the final horse to win the Triple Crown, or at the very least, the last to do it for a very long time.

Someone wins the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, and collegiate national championships every year.  Someone is always awarded the MVP awards in the NFL, MLB, and NBA.  Someone always wins major championships in golf and tennis, and although Jordan Spieth and Serena Williams both had a shot to win a Grand Slam in their respective sports, their accomplishments in 2015 weren’t as unique and as special as that of American Pharoah.

The horse of a lifetime is also one of the best athletes of a generation, and as a result, is the sportsman of an exceptional sports year in 2015.

 

Stenson Wins The Tour Championship, The FedExCup, And A Large Payday

Henrik Stenson completed a career year today with a 3-shot win in The Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta.  He becomes the 6th player to win the FedEx Cup since its inception in 2007, following Tiger Woods (2007, 2009), Vijay Singh (2008), Jim Furyk (2010), Bill Haas (2011) and Brandt Snedeker (2012).  The Swede is just the second non-American to win the Cup, after Singh, from Fiji, won five years ago.

Stenson’s big win earned him a grand total of $11.44 million.  $10 million of this is the prize for winning the FedEx Cup, which is the largest purse for any event in sport played by individuals (as opposed to team sports).  The remaining $1.44 million is the purse for winning this one event, The Tour Championship.

Whether it was intentional or not, Stenson’s season built up to the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and he was rewarded with the PGA Tour’s biggest prize, excluding the four major championships.  In his first three events, he made 2 out of 3 cuts but failed to record a top-30 finish.  He showed some signs of good play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Shell Houston Open, collecting a T8 and a T2.  Following a top-20 at The Masters and a missed cut, he posted a T5 at The Players.  After some mediocre performances, including a T21 at the US Open, he began his big run to the Cup at The Open Championship where he finished solo 2nd behind Phil Mickelson.  That was followed by a T2 behind Tiger Woods runaway at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and a solo 3rd at the PGA behind Jason Dufner and Jim Furyk.

After the PGA, it was playoff time.  Stenson entered the playoffs ranked 9th, which was the highest among non-winners.  Following a T43 at The Barclays, he changed his winless status with a dominating performance at the Deutsche Bank Championship.  His worst round that week was a 67.  The win, along with his high regular season ranking, left him in good position headed into the final two playoff events, and he remained in 2nd, even after a T33 at the BMW Championship.  Because of his position, he could win The Tour Championship to seal the FedEx Cup, no matter what anyone else, including top-ranked Tiger Woods, did in the tournament.

Stenson earned his title this week with a wire-to-wire victory.  Rounds of 64-66-69-68 gave him a three-shot victory over Jordan Spieth and Steve Stricker.  Had Spieth found a way to win, Stenson would’ve still won the Cup based on Spieth lower ranking prior to the finale and Woods’ poor finish.  Had Stricker won, the Wisconsin would have won the Cup, a prize which he’s been close to several times but fallen just short of.

Today marked Stenson’s 4th Tour win, and they’ve all been in big events.  He won the Accenture Match Play in 2007, followed by The Players in 2009.  Stenson struggled from 2010 to 2012, both on the PGA Tour and in Europe, before a resurgence this year and wins at the Deustche Bank Championship and today.  Counting both the PGA Tour and European Tour, this was his 14th professional win.

How did Stenson do it from a statistical standpoint?  He leads the PGA Tour in greens in regulation and in ball striking (a combination of greens in regulation and total driving), and is 2nd in Total Driving (a combination of the distance and accuracy stats).

Today concluded the 2013 PGA Tour season.  By this time next week, we will know the entire membership for the 2014 PGA Tour season, as the Web.com Tour Finals will conclude Sunday at the Dye Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach.  This year, for the first time, the Fall Series events over the coming weeks will count toward money and points for the 2014 PGA Tour Season.  The new season begins October 10-13 at the Frys.com Open in San Martin, CA.

 

Tour Championship, Final Results
1. Henrik Stenson, Sweden, -13 (64-66-69-68–267)
T2. Jordan Spieth, U.S., -10 (68-67-71-64–270)
T2. Steve Stricker, U.S., -10 (66-71-68-65–270)
4. Webb Simpson, U.S., -9 (68-71-69-63–271)
5. Dustin Johnson, U.S., -8 (68-68-67-69–272)
6. Justin Rose, England, -7 (68-68-70-67–273)
T7. Billy Horschel, U.S., -6 (66-70-70-68–274)
T7. Zach Johnson, U.S., -6 (69-68-69-68–274)
T9. Roberto Castro, U.S., -5 (67-71-72-65–275)
T9. Jason Dufner, U.S., -5 (74-70-66-65–275)
T9. Sergio Garcia, Spain, -5 (68-71-69-67–275)
Notables:
T12. Phil Mickelson, U.S., -4 (71-67-70-68–276)
T14. Jim Furyk, U.S., -3 (70-68-73-66–277)
T14. Adam Scott, Australia, -3 (65-69-74-69–277)
T22. Tiger Woods, U.S., E (73-71-69-67–280)

Final FedEx Cup Standings
1. Henrik Stenson, Sweden, $10,000,000 bonus
2. Tiger Woods, U.S., $3,000,000
3. Steve Stricker, U.S., $2,000,000
4. Adam Scott, Australia, $1,500,000
5. Zach Johnson, U.S., $1,000,000
6. Matt Kuchar, U.S., $800,000
7. Jordan Spieth, U.S., $700,000
8. Graham DeLaet, Canada, $600,000
9. Phil Mickelson, U.S., $550,000
10. Justin Rose, England, $500,000
Notables:
13. Jim Furyk, U.S., $270,000
22. Sergio Garcia, Spain, $215,000