DeChambeau vs. Koepka
Rivalries are usually always entertaining in the world of sport. Interest in the sport is magnified and the media can have a field day igniting the feelings of its readers to take sides and keep the attention on the participants going. The DeChambeau and Koepka affair is interesting as these players have significant differences in their personalities. Koepka is introspective, intensive and supremely confident in his skills and he has the proof in the major championships he has won and competed in. My sense is that he could use a few media lessons as he seems to deliver a widely disparate point of view about a number of things and it’s hard for me to understand why or what issues he may have with DeChambeau. Golf is a game that is the great equalizer and players at this level are really not going to benefit from sniping at each other either on social media or in the newspapers. DeChambeau is exactly the opposite in terms of manner and approach to the game. He has differentiated himself with his approach to the game. DeChambeau had a very successful amateur career including a US amateur championship. After some success on the PGA Tour, DeChambeau decided to change his approach and adopt the power game by bulking up his body and attack the golf course. His driving is prodigious in length and he is shortening all the golf courses. He is the reigning US champion from 2020 and will have a pretty good opportunity at a repeat at Torrey Pines which should suit his power game. Koepka will also have a good chance to contend at Torrey especially after his performance at the PGA Championship where he finished second despite having some of the worst putting experiences of his stellar career. DeChambeau is still adjusting his power game as he has continuous issues with club selection and short game accuracy. When you’re hitting tee shots 375 yards or more, the short game from 100 yards and in becomes a critical part of the game. Most of the other professionals on tour aren’t hitting as many of these type of shots so its an area that DeChambeau is going to have to master if he wants to contend continuously in the majors. It will be interesting to see him compete in the Open Championship since this style of play is within the last two years and there was no Open Championship in the 2020 season. There doesn’t seem to be much substance to the rivalry and it seems that the media is trying to magnify to a level that it really doesn’t deserve but it does generate considerable fan interest, which is good for the game.
There is a downside to the rivalry between these two players. In my view, the post pandemic world is producing a lot of bad behavior across the society in almost every aspect of life. Golf fans are now returning to the tournament venues and we all witnessed some bad behavior at the PGA Championship where the crowds interfered with Koepka and Mickelsen as they approached the finish. Golf fans are taking sides in the Koepka/DeChambeau affair and hurled insults and bad language at DeChambeau at this week’s Memorial Tournament where Koepka is not participating. I think that both players won’t do much to add to the hype and it will be interesting to see how this develops or flames out. It’s likely that both players will be participating in this year’s Ryder Cup. If I were Captain Steve Stricker, I would pair them together to get some of this hype straightened out. As an aside, I fear that Ryder Cup behavior may stoop to an all time low and I hope the PGA is prepared for some significant unruly behavior.
The Women’s US Open
It was hard to watch. Lexi Thompson held a 5 shot lead heading into the back nine at Olympic after an easy par on number 10. Then the goblins of Olympic Club came out of the woodwork. These are the same goblins that devoured the likes of Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and most recently Jim Furyk all of which squandered large leads in major championships losing to the likes of Lee Jantzen, Scott Simpson and Billy Casper. Olympic is a tough track from start to finish. Having played the course many times, the easiest hole on the course is the first hole and after that it is a real grind. The course demands that you put the ball in the proper position to attack the hole. This is a golf course that has no birdie holes other than arguably the first. The course in addition to its natural subtle conditions is always impacted by the San Francisco marine layer which can hang over nearby Lake Merced for days. It is usually cool (mid 50’s) and the ball does not advance easily in the fairways. There is always a breeze and it reminds me of the 12th hole at Augusta that most of the time the Olympic goblins are always fooling the player. It all started to go wrong for Thompson when she started missing fairways. The 18th hole at Olympic has claimed a number of victims in the past. Payne Stewart lost the 1998 US Open to Lee Jantzen after taking a four shot lead into the final 9 holes. Stewart was unnerved by a tee shot on the 12th hole that landed in a sand divot and he was unable to execute a 9 iron out of that divot and finally missed a 15 footer on 18 to force a playoff. Stewart would forever motivate himself to win this event and he eventually won the 1999 Open at Pinehurst over Phil Mickelsen.
Some other fun facts regarding the 18th hole at Olympic during the US Open:
In the 1998 US Open, the 18th green was so slick and fast that officials had to syringe the green during the final round. In the third round, Kirk Triplett was so disgusted with the green, he picked up his ball and threw it out of play producing an automatic disqualification. The 18th also produced the Tommy Nakajima incident where his approach shot landed in a tree. The fans started to climb the tree and find the ball and shake it down. Alas, it was never found and Nakajima recorded a double bogey here eliminating from serious contention. The tree would ever be known as the “Nakajima tree.”
In the preceding three days, Thompson was outdriving the field by an average of ten yards with most of those drives in the fairway. On the 11th, she missed the fairway and slashed a shot out of the rough and then one of the goblins yanked her wedge shot, which she probably hasn’t done in years while the average Joe weekend warrior probably does a number of times during a round. She ended up with a double bogey and with a birdie up ahead the 5 shot lead evaporated to 2. Thompson who had putted extremely well for the prior 64 holes seemed rattled and now every putt looked tentative. She actually never made a putt that mattered coming in including a very makable birdie putt on 16 that might have sealed the deal. On 17, her drive could not find the fairway and that would be the end of a birdie opportunity but worse than that she could only advance it 40 yards out of the rough to make another bogey and the lead would then disappear. I could not understand what happened on the 18th hole. She needed to “right the ship” and make no worse than par to get into the playoff where she would a significant advantage over her two competitors from an experience standpoint. She striped a four iron 205 yards down the middle of the fairway and had 109 yards to a very difficult flag position placed in the front of the green. She had to take the greenside bunker out of play and simply get on the green to make par–if she hit a brilliant shot and had a great birdie opportunity so much the better. Instead, her club selection of a 50 degree wedge brought the front bunker into play–she was going for the win-if this club cleared the bunker, the ball would stop because of that wedge and present the birdie opportunity. I felt this was high risk/high reward in a situation where the entire championship was on the line and the Thompson ship was leaking oil from the previous 7 holes. Thompson could not navigate the front bunker–the goblins won’t have it–attacking a pin with a 50 degree wedge from 109 yards for a major championship is a high risk shot with low probability of success. With Thompson in that bunker, there was no chance to get up and down as her 12 footer from the top side of the green wasn’t even close. Lexi Thompson is a phenomenal talent and at age 26, she’ll learn from this experience and hoist this trophy one day. She simply became another casualty of the perils of Olympic Club on this particular Sunday.
Only 6 birdies would be recorded in the final round on 18 and I believe one of them was a holed sand shot. Yuka Saso, the eventual winner of the event would make the 7th birdie on the 18th hole in the playoff. Saso played great and the goblins were getting to her early in the round as she found herself 6 shots behind Thompson. She continued to hit fairways and greens and make pars to put herself in position and Thompson brought the field back to her. Saso’s game was impeccable at the end and she certainly seemed a lot older than her 19 years. Olympic Club did it again due another major championship winner–you simply have to obey the rules–put in the fairway, put in on the greens–pars are good.
It was a tournament full of drama especially the performance of 17 year old amateur, Megha Ganna from New Jersey. I can’t imagine playing in the final group on the last day in contention with no professional experience as the goblins of Olympic acknowledged her accomplishments of the preceding three days. She never gave up and while nothing really went her way until she birdied the 17th hole, she finished as the low amateur in the event and her attitude was mature beyond her years. It was refreshing to see a young player flourish and enjoy the moment finishing with the leaders. When asked about next steps, she commented that she would be jolted back into reality on Monday when she would return to New Jersey and get back to high school calculus class. She will attend and play golf at Stanford University and currently has no social media accounts–it seems her parents have figured out how to support her in a positive nurturing fashion emphasizing her education. I sense that she will be back on the LPGA tour down the road and refining her game to the next level. Kudos also to Nasa Hataoka of Japan who was the only player that came back from the back with a final round 68 and birdies at 13, 14 and 15 pulled her into a tie for the lead and into the playoff. Once again, the rough at 18 reared its ugly head and Saso was able to execute a birdie to secure the victory–on 18–fairway and green is a must.
Pepperdine Wins NCAA Championship
Pepperdine University completed another run through some pretty tough competition and defeated Oklahoma to win the 2021 NCAA National Championship. The Waves are coached by Michael Beard who is the son of accomplished former PGA professional Frank Beard. This result was no fluke as the Waves are a deep team and approached the tournament by driving aggressively and hitting greens in regulation. Easy to say but not always easy to accomplish as they also had to endure the heat of the desert at Greyhawk Golf Club in the Phoenix Area. It was no surprise to most as we saw Pepperdine win the Western Intercollegiate event at Pasatiempo in extra holes with some spectacular chips and putts. Congratulations is also in order to the San Francisco Dons golf team for qualifying for the NCAA finals at Greyhawk under coach Jack Kennedy for their most successful season in program history.