Golf

Tiger Woods' masterful Sunday elicited emotions from admirers and haters alike

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USA Today Sports

Tiger Woods' masterful Sunday elicited emotions from admirers and haters alike

Cheers. Tears. Exhales. The first two were bottled up for over half a dozen years, but then when the exhale came Sunday afternoon, the tears flowed and the exclamations of joy burst forth. 

Tiger Woods was back. 

As a certified Tiger fan for over half my life, I’ve ridden the highs and the lows of his career. I consider him the greatest golfer of my generation and second only to Jack Nicklaus on the all-time list. But the last 10 years have not been easy -- not for Tiger and not for his fans. 

Each golf season would roll around and the questions would surface, much like the lingering back issues for the former world number one. Each tournament, each major, and each recovery from injury would start the hope anew, only to be dashed like a shank into the trees.  Fans and the golfer alike endured jeers, laughter at his misfortunes, and plain old hate when reports of chipping failures or that he can’t or putt or walk would surface. But after a successful last year, or what we could consider a successful season in the Tiger Woods post 2009 era, it seemed different this time.

This past Thursday at the start of the Masters, those in the Tiger fan camp once again gathered a collective strength and marched into the pool of Tiger doubters, naysayers, down-right haters that we encounter in the national media, among our family and friends, and especially find online in those with a keyboard and a social media account. We braved the elements on Friday when he faltered a bit, puffed our chests out when he made big strides on moving day, and were rewarded with the penultimate gift: Tiger Woods in the final group on Master Sunday. 

Much like the last seven years, his final round was a roller coaster. But when he made the turn, so did the tide. A misstep by then-leader Francesco Molinari at 12 opened the door. As I was watching, I could only hear Tiger’s own words in my head. The younger players on the PGA Tour over the years told him: “we want to go against you.” Well, now they can. Now they’ll see. And they did. Along with the rest of us, including the doubters and haters.

Tiger made birdie on 13 and 15. And he was in the lead. Chills. Joy. Nervousness. And that’s when the text messages, the tweets, and the posts started rolling my way, everyone knowing I’m a Tiger Fan.

“I can’t believe it.” “No way.” “He will choke.” I just smiled and responded the same to every one of them, “just watch and enjoy. This is history.”

When he sank his short bogey putt for the win, a huge smile ran across Tiger’s face, and on the faces of every single Tiger fan, and I suspect even some of the doubters. How could you not? This man had done what many deemed impossible. He won his 5th Masters and his 15th major. 

Raw emotion has rarely been displayed by Tiger Woods. But out of the shadows of the old, stoic Woods, came the glowing smile of a man running to hug his young son, daughter, and mother. 

I sat there watching with my arm around my 4-year-old son, taking it all in, tears welled up and chills on my arms. This is history. And maybe so too are the dark days of Tiger Woods. 

Jordan Spieth avoids another major meltdown to win British Open

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Jordan Spieth avoids another major meltdown to win British Open

SOUTHPORT, England -- During one of Jordan Spieth's many low points Sunday in the British Open, his caddie reminded him of a photo from a Mexico beach holiday two weeks ago that showed him in All-Star company that included Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan.

The message: "You belong in that group."

Spieth left little doubt with a closing performance that ranks among the greatest finishes in major championship history.

Trailing for the first time all weekend at Royal Birkdale -- and lucky it was only one stroke thanks to a shot from the driving range -- the 23-year-old Texan followed with a birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie stretch that allowed him to close with a 1-under 69 and win the British Open by three shots over Matt Kuchar.

Spieth captured the third leg of the career Grand Slam and heads to the PGA Championship next month with a chance to be the youngest to win them all.

"This is as much of a high as I've ever experienced in my golfing life," Spieth said.

And it all started in a spot so dire it looked as though he would endure another major meltdown.

The break of the tournament -- and a moment that will rate alongside Seve Ballesteros making birdie from the car park when he won at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 1979 -- was when Spieth discovered the range was part of the course.

His tee shot was so far to the right on the par-4 13th hole that it sailed some 75 yards from the fairway and settled in thick grass on a dune so steep he could hardly stand up, let alone take a swing. The only smart option was to take a one-shot penalty for an unplayable lie.

And that's when Spieth showed his golfing brain is as valuable as any club in his bag.

He had the presence to ask if the driving range was out of bounds. It wasn't, which allowed him to go back in a straight line from the flag until he was on the range among the equipment trucks. After getting free relief from them, he still faced a blind shot over the dunes to a hole littered by pot bunkers. He hit 3-iron just short of a bunker near the green , pitched over it to about 7 feet and made what he considers the most important putt of the day to escape with bogey.

And then came the finishing kick like Phelps, the go-ahead jumper like Jordan.

Spieth hit 6-iron to the 14th that landed in front of the flag and came within inches of an ace, leading to a short birdie putt to regain the lead. On the par-5 15th, he rolled in a 50-foot eagle putt and playfully barked at caddie Michael Greller to pick it out of the cup. "Go get that," he said, pointing to the hole.

And he wasn't done.

Spieth rolled in a 30-foot putt across the 16th green for a two-shot lead, and he kept that margin by pouring in a 7-foot putt to match birdies with Kuchar.

The final putt for par was a tap-in, as easy a shot as he had all day.

"To follow that bogey on 13 with great golf shots and great putts, and play the final five holes in 5-under par, I was just very happy for him and very impressed to watch all that guts, determination and skill," Jack Nicklaus posted on Facebook.

Spieth and Jack Nicklaus are the only players to win three different majors at age 23.

"This is a dream come true for me," Spieth said, gazing at his name on the silver claret jug. "Absolutely a dream come true."

For so much of Sunday, it felt like a recurring nightmare.

Just 15 months ago, Spieth lost a five-shot lead on the back nine at the Masters, coming undone with a quadruple-bogey 7 on the 12th hole. It was more of a slow bleed at Royal Birkdale, with three bogeys on the opening four holes and four putts inside 8 feet that he missed on the front nine to fall into a tie with Kuchar.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself unfortunately, and not on purpose, before the round today, just thinking this is the best opportunity that I've had since the `16 Masters," he said. "And if it weren't to go my way today, then all I'm going to be questioned about and thought about and murmured about is in comparison to that. And that adds a lot of pressure to me.

"Closing today was extremely important for the way I look at myself."

Kuchar, playing in the final group of a major for the first time, could only watch. He had a one-shot lead after 13 holes, played the next four holes with two birdies and two pars and found himself two shots behind and out of luck.

Kuchar walked off the green to find his wife and two sons waiting, a surprise because they had been in Colorado the day before, and it added to the emotions.

"It's crushing. It hurts. And it's an excitement and a thrill to have played well, put up a battle, put up a fight," said Kuchar, who closed with a 69. "I can only control what I do, how I play. Jordan is a great champion and certainly played that way in the finishing stretch today. It was impressive stuff. All you can really do is sit back, tip your cap and say, `Well done.' And it was certainly a show that he put on."

Zach Johnson, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler were among those who waited by the 18th to watch Spieth capture yet another major. Johnson won at St. Andrews two years ago, when Spieth missed the playoff by one shot in his bid for the calendar Grand Slam. Spieth drank wine from the jug that year, which he was told was bad luck for anyone wanting to possess the trophy one day.

"I started to believe them a bit through nine holes today," he said. "It feels good to have this in my hands."

From the driving range to the claret jug, Spieth put himself in hallowed territory just four days before his 24th birthday. Gene Sarazen in 1923 was the only other player with three majors before turning 24.

Spieth won for the third time this year, moved to No. 2 in the world and already has 11 victories on the PGA Tour.

Li Haotong of China shot a 63 and finished third at 6-under 274. He was on the practice range in case the leaders came back to him, and it was odd to see Spieth join him there as he tried to figure out how to get out of his jam.

Moments later, when he heard one massive roar after another, Spieth delivered the answer.

Brooks Koepka ties record score, captures 1st major championship at U.S. Open

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Brooks Koepka ties record score, captures 1st major championship at U.S. Open

ERIN, Wis. -- Brooks Koepka received a short piece of advice from a valuable source on the eve of the final round at the U.S. Open.

Defending champion Dustin Johnson was doing most of the talking.

"It was a long phone call for us -- it was like two minutes," Koepka said. "But he just said a few things, and just stay patient. And I'll win if I stay patient and just keep doing what I'm doing."

What he did looked awfully familiar Sunday at Erin Hills, minus any mess involving the rules.

With athleticism and power, and four straight putts over the back nine that allowed him to pull away, Koepka capped off his hardscrabble journey around the world and found stardom at home as the U.S. Open champion.

He closed with a 5-under 67, only realizing after his par on the final hole that a birdie would have set yet another U.S. Open record in a week filled with them.

Koepka finished at 16-under 272, matching the lowest score to par first set by Rory McIlroy six years ago at Congressional.

Tied for the lead with six holes to play, Koepka holed an 8-foot par putt on the 13th hole that gave him confidence with his stroke and momentum to pour in birdies on the next three holes to turn the final hour into a celebration of another young star in golf.

The 27-year-old Koepka wound up winning by four shots over Brian Harman, who was done in by back-to-back bogeys right when Koepka was making his run, and Hideki Matsuyama, who closed with a 66.

"That's probably the most emotion I've ever shown coming down the stretch," Koepka said. "It feels amazing to get my name on this trophy with so many other great names. It's truly an honor."

Emotion? The most he displayed was a light fist pump, his hand clenched a little tighter with each birdie, and a double fist pump on the 18th when he tapped in for par.

It's not much different from Johnson.

They are close friends on the golf course and in the gym, and they play a similar game of power off the tee, a clean strike with the iron and a knack for looking calm even as the pressure is ramping up.

And now their names are on the U.S. Open trophy, one after the other.

It capped quite a journey for the Floridian. Without a card on any tour when Koepka got out of Florida State, he filled his passport on the Challenge Tour with stamps from Kazakhstan to Kenya, Scotland and Spain, India and the Madeira Island.

One night in Scotland, he called his agent and wanted to come home, even though he was leading the tournament. He had been on the road for so long, in so many different countries, and was feeling lonely. He won the next day to graduate to the European Tour. The next year, he earned a spot in the U.S. Open through a qualifier in England, and his tie for fourth at Pinehurst No. 2 helped him earn a card on the PGA Tour.

Koepka took it from there -- a victory in Turkey against a strong field, his first PGA Tour victory in the Phoenix Open, his first Ryder Cup and now a major championship.

"To go over there, I think it helped me grow up a little bit and really figure out that, hey, play golf, get it done, and then you can really take this somewhere," he said.

Koepka became the seventh straight first-time winner of a major championship, and it was the first time since 1998-2000 that Americans won their national championship three straight years.

Tommy Fleetwood, who played alongside Koepka and closed with a 72 to finish fourth, played the Challenge Tour a year before Koepka arrived.

"It gives you a good grounding," Fleetwood said. "Obviously, Brooks dealt with it amazingly. He came and kicked everyone's (behind) over there, didn't he? But he's proven for a long time how good he is. Now he's done it in a major."

It was only fitting that Koepka left Erin Hills with yet another record matched or broken.

McIlroy finished at 16-under 268 when he won on rain-softened Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open. But the low scoring went much deeper than that. Only six players had ever reached double digits under par in the previous 116 times at the U.S. Open. McIlroy and Tiger Woods (12 under at Pebble Beach in 2000) had been the only players to finish there.

This week alone, nine players reached at least 10 under and seven finished there.

Xander Schauffele, a rookie on the PGA Tour playing in his first U.S. Open, birdied his last hole for a 69 to tie for fifth at 10-under 268 along with Bill Haas (69) and Rickie Fowler (72), who was poised at yet another major to win only to fall back. Fowler started one shot out of the lead at the Masters this year and shot 76. He was only two behind when he made the turn, but bogeys on the 12th and 15th holes -- and no birdies until No. 18 -- ended his hopes.

Justin Thomas, coming off a 9-under 63 that matched the major championship scoring record and was the first 9-under round at a U.S. Open, went out in 39 and closed with a 75 to tie for ninth.

The week ended with 31 players under par, breaking the U.S. Open record of 28 players at Medinah in 1990. There were 133 sub-par rounds, nine more than the previous record in that 1990 U.S. Open.