Dustin Johnson takes 1-shot lead in US Open

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OAKMONT, Pa. (AP) Dustin Johnson took the 36-hole lead in the U.S. Open on Saturday without ever hitting a shot.

Johnson finished his second round the night before at 4-under 136 (67-69) because of the earlier rain delays at Oakmont. No one could catch him when the round was completed Saturday. Andrew Landry, the 28-year-old playing in his first U.S. Open, rallied from a rough stretch for a 71 and was one shot behind.

The third round began Saturday afternoon in threesomes off both tees, though it would not be completed by the end of the day.

Almost as surprising as Johnson in the lead were the number of players headed home.

Rory McIlroy four-putted from 10 feet to end his comeback, and a double bogey on the final hole caused him to miss the cut by two shots. Phil Mickelson went back on his word by hitting driver off the tee on the reachable 17th hole, though it didn’t help. He missed the cut for the second straight time in a major.

Also departing early were Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose, while Henrik Stenson didn’t bother returning to finish his second round.

Johnson now has had at least a share of the lead six times in the last five majors dating to the U.S. Open last year at Chambers Bay. But he still hasn’t been in the lead on the day it mattered – the final round.

Oakmont presents his next big chance.

Of the top 10 players on the leaderboard, 46-year-old Jim Furyk is the only player to have won a major.

The sun began to dry out Oakmont, and with no rain in the forecast, the course reputed to be the toughest in the land was starting to show signs of revenge against the unusual low scoring. There were 33 rounds in the 60s over the opening two rounds, compared with just eight for the entire tournament the last time it was at Oakmont.

Gregory Bourdy of France caught Johnson, and briefly passed him, it what was shaping up as the round of the week. Bourdy was 6 under with three holes to play, needing only a birdie to become only the fifth player with a 63 in the U.S. Open.

But he made bogey on the par-3 16th, and his approach to the 18th came up short and rolled down the false front back into the fairway and into a divot and it took two chips to reach the green. He finished with a double bogey for a 67 and was two shots behind.

Shane Lowry of Ireland had to assess himself a one-shot penalty on the 16th green when his ball moved, but he gathered himself to make an 8-foot bogey putt that allowed him to keep his wits, and he played bogey-free from there for a 70.

Bourdy, Lowry, Sergio Garcia and Scott Piercy were at 138. Garcia and Piercy finished their rounds Friday night.

Furyk is playing his final major in his home state, and while his game has struggled as he comes back from wrist surgery that kept him out nearly eight months, he still managed to complete two rounds under par. Furyk was at 1-under 139 with Daniel Summerhays, Andy Sullivan and Lee Westwood.

McIlroy opened with a 77 and came charging off the opening tee. He made four birdies in eight holes until it all fell apart on the par-4 second hole when he took four putts from 10 feet, the final three putts from about 3 feet. Needing a par on the ninth hole, he drove into a bunker and took two shots to get out.

Defending champion Jordan Spieth was getting close to the cut line until he birdied the 16th to stop a slow leak of bogeys. He had another 72 and was eight shots behind. Jason Day, the world’s No. 1 player, finished off a 69 that allowed him to make the cut with one shot to spare.

Everyone was chasing Johnson, who has been immaculate from tee-to-green through the opening two rounds. He has had four good chances in the majors, including last year at Chambers Bay when he had a 12-foot eagle putt on the final hole to win and three-putted to finish one shot behind Spieth.

In his favor is Oakmont. While the course is renowned for having the most impressive list of major champions, six of the eight U.S. Open champions at Oakmont had never won a major. That list includes Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller and Ernie Els.

Akshay Bhatia: The confidence of a young Tiger and the game to back it up

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There’s only one thing that the number one junior golfer in the world, Akshay Bhatia, admits he can’t do.

He doesn’t know how to put contact lenses in. 

The 17-year-old, who currently resides in Wake Forest, North Carolina has unwavering confidence in just about everything else.

His resume of tournament wins doesn’t hurt: he’s won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, the Jones Cup, and back-to-back Junior PGA Championships, where he shot a 61, his career low in a competitive round. In addition, the teen recently became the youngest player ever to be named to the United States Walker Cup team. 

Upon first glance, there is an uncanny resemblance between Bhatia’s swing and that of a golfer whose name may sound familiar.

Tiger Woods.

Both stand around six-feet tall and use their long limbs to generate speed. Bhatia is fully aware of the similarities. 

“I mean, he was skinny, he was tall, he was lanky. Some things I do better than him, and some things he’s done better than me, but it’s definitely pretty similar,” said Bhatia. “Tiger obviously hit it far when he was young and the clubs were different and whatever but, just the speed I’m able to create, the way I use the ground, [swing coach George Gankas] is pretty impressed with that.”

The ease with which Bhatia measures his swing against Woods’ may be shocking, but it also demonstrates a level of self-confidence that is vital for success on the PGA TOUR and reminiscent of a young Tiger’s attitude. 

The day before Woods’ own professional debut in 1996, he told Curtis Strange in an interview, “I’ve always figured that, why go to a tournament if you’re not going there to try and win? There’s really no point in even going.” Strange laughed off the bold comment.  “You’ll learn,” he scoffed. 

Bhatia’s ambition has helped him rise to the No. 1 ranking on Junior Golf Scoreboard and No. 4 in the World Amatuer Golf Rankings. However, he will fall off both of those elite lists very soon. 

The teen plans to forgo college and make his professional debut at the Safeway Open in September. According to Bhatia, a solid foundation of self-belief will be the real key to a successful professional career. 

Alongside Bhatia throughout his journey to junior golf domination has been Gankas, who many would describe as the most popular, yet unconventional swing coach in the game right now. 

The combination of Gankas’ eccentric personality and his ability to add upwards of 10 miles per hour to many of his students’ swing speeds has attracted 168,000 followers to his Instagram.

“I’ve just surrounded myself with a lot of great people, and George especially,” said Bhatia. “He’s always helped me so much on what I should be feeling when I’m not playing well and if I’m feeling great then you know, there’s something I always want to work on because I get bored sometimes when I’m playing so well.”

Apparently, Bhatia’s non-stop practice grind, which includes three to four hours of putting daily, is not always enough to keep him on his toes. 

“I’m just like George, I need to do something, I need to work on something,” Bhatia joked. 

Gankas is the coach of PGA Tour break-out star Matthew Wolff and the mind behind a new golf slang, in which “scoobie snacks” and “scwamdowed” are words of encouragement. 

“Matthew Wolff, one of my friends, and he goes to George as well, he’s said the same thing: as long as you believe you can be out here, and you can win and you can prove it to yourself, the sky’s the limit,” said Bhatia. “A lot of us juniors and college players are taking over the PGA Tour right now. For me it just shows if they’re capable of doing it, there’s no reason I can’t.”

Bhatia trusts that he can mirror what the current PGA Tour rookie class has accomplished this season.

“I know I can shoot very low. I’m capable of holding off players when I need to do it,” said Bhatia.

If Bhatia continues to go through his young career with the self-belief and ambition that he has now, there will undoubtedly be critics. However, as players like Woods, Brooks Koepka, and Wolff have demonstrated, valid self-confidence makes all the difference.

The professional golf world does not know what’s coming for them this September when Bhatia rolls up, thick-rimmed glasses and all.

An Inside Look as the Open Returns to Royal Portrush

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Before Augusta National’s “Amen Corner” there was “Calamity Corner,” the renowned 16th at Royal Portrush Golf Club’s Dunluce Links.

This week, golf viewers around the world will get to know this hole as the Open Championship makes its epic homecoming to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951. 

Royal Portrush’s Head Professional for the last twenty years, Gary McNeill, has extremely high expectations for the anticipated 148th Open.

However, the course that players will face starting Thursday morning does not look exactly like the track that McNeill and the rest of the Portrush community have cherished since its inception. 

In order to accommodate the influx of fans expected by the R&A each year at the Open, the Dunluce has had to undergo some major alterations. The only space large enough for the required spectator village was the land occupied by the original Harry Colt-designed 17th and 18th holes. 

Although the final two holes held a special place in Portrush’s history, the members were willing to build two new holes, slotted in as the 7th and 8th, which borrowed land from the club’s second course, the Valley Links. Other notable renovations include two new bunkers on the 1st and a new championship tee box on the 14th, making the hole 80 yards longer. 

“Everything that Martin Ebert, the architect, has done is very much in keeping with what was already here,” said McNeill. “It just feels like the course is almost a better golf course with the addition of the two new holes.”

The old 17th and 18th holes were situated on a relatively flat piece of the property and “didn’t have a lot of character” McNeill explained. The new 7th and 8th holes, on the other hand, boast sweeping undulations that run throughout the fairways and greens and are located in one of the most scenic sections of the golf course. 

Another picturesque hole, the 5th, named “White Rocks,” is a 380-yard downhill dogleg par four, featuring three new fairway bunkers, including two that are about 300 yards from the tee, strategically placed to catch wayward drives. The real danger, though, lies behind the green. The tiered putting surface slopes away from you, toward the daunting cliffs of White Rocks beach. A treacherous out-of-bounds line is only a few paces off the back of the green. 

“During the championship they will play the players up a bit, to entice them to have a crack at the green. It’s what the R&A look upon as a ‘risk and reward’ short par four where there’s a bit of entertainment for the spectators,” said McNeill. “If they get a hard bounce, or catch some of the slopes there, they could run out of bounds over the back. We anticipate that there will be quite a bit of drama on this one.” 

Royal Portrush’s most famous hole, the unnerving par three 16th, fittingly named “Calamity Corner,” will prove to be drama-prone as well, especially during the Sunday finish. Measuring at a lengthy 236 yards, it is played over a “very deep chasm which lies between the tee and the green and on the right-hand side,” said McNeill.

To the left of the green is a shallow swale, a sort of safe-haven for players who either unconsciously or consciously choose to guard against the danger to the right. In the 1951 Open, Bobby Locke purposefully played to this area each day of the championship and made an up-and-down par each time, giving the corner a title that stuck: Bobby Locke’s Hollow. 

Will players be happy to walk away from Calamity Corner with a par? “They’d be delighted,” McNeill emphatically remarked.  

Like at any traditional links course, the swirling coastal winds will play a major factor. But Royal Portrush takes this challenge to a new level. 

“There are no two holes that consecutively run in the same direction,” explained McNeill. “You are constantly dealing with winds coming from different directions.”

As a whole, Portrush is known to be a driver’s golf course. In order to attack pins on the Dunluce’s many elevated greens, it is imperative to be playing from the manicured fairways. 

The rough, on the other hand, is nightmarish. According to McNeill the tall grass is “particularly penal this year. It has been unusually warm through the winter and the spring months so it’s a little juicier than it normally would be at this time of year.” 

Whose game will fit this masterfully crafted puzzle-like links? 

McNeill has his eye on the 28-year-old Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, whose accuracy off the tee could give him a great shot at being named this year’s Champion Golfer of the Year. 

“Tommy Fleetwood is a great driver of the golf ball and he’s been knocking on the door at the US Open on tough golf courses, where the premium is very much on driving the ball in play.”

McNeill noted that the Portrush community has a great deal of confidence in Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, and Darren Clarke, three Northern Ireland natives. Additionally, Brooks Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliot, grew up playing Royal Portrush. 

“Ricky knows this golf course very well and Brooks – there’s not many players playing better than him now, particularly in major championships,” said McNeill. 

When the Claret Jug is raised Sunday evening in the shadows of the Dunluce castle ruins, golf viewers will all be hoping it does not take another 68 years for the Open Championship to make another swing through this dreamscape on the coast of Northern Ireland.