Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 1, 2014

In A Prelude To Pinehurst, Lewis And The LPGA Shine

Like many sporting events, golf tournaments are scheduled with more than passing attention paid to television contracts. On Sunday that meant that the LPGA Tour’s stop on the New Jersey shore, broadcast on the Golf Channel, was wrapped up by mid-afternoon so that the cable network could follow the women’s tournament with coverage of a Champions Tour event. That in turn allowed viewers to switch over to CBS and catch the final hour of the PGA Tour’s annual homage to Jack Nicklaus at his invitational event, The Memorial Tournament. The contrast between the quality of play was jarring, and not in a good way for the vastly more popular men’s tour.

As spectacularly talented as the golfers who make their living on the PGA Tour are, every so often watching a tournament is like watching a bunch of rank amateurs hacking their way around the local muni on a weekend afternoon. That can certainly be the case at the U.S. Open, where the USGA will go to sometimes absurd lengths to protect par. But this weekend no one could blame the course. Muirfield Village Golf Club, the site of the Memorial Tournament, is a firm but fair test on which the average winning score over the last decade has been 14-under par. But as the final groups played the back nine on Sunday a combination of bad luck and bad shot making turned this year’s Memorial into the tournament that seemingly no one wanted to win.

The bad luck belonged almost exclusively to Adam Scott. The 33-year old Australian had celebrated his ascension to the top of the Official World Rankings as well as his recent marriage to long-time girlfriend Marie Kojzar with a playoff victory over Jason Dufner last week at Colonial. On Sunday he moved briefly into a tie for the lead before making three straight bogeys. The most painful of those was on the par-5 15th hole, where his approach shot hit the base of the flagstick and the edge of the cup. Sometimes a shot like that will slam into the hole and stay there for an eagle. Often it will spin away a couple of feet, setting up a tap-in birdie. But every once in a while, as was Scott’s misfortune on Sunday, it will ricochet off the stick, roll down the false front of the green, and continue trundling down the slope of the fairway for another twenty yards. A nearly perfect shot left the world #1 with a difficult and lengthy up and down attempt. When he couldn’t execute it, Scott’s chances were done.

If the golfing gods were busy picking on Adam Scott, Bubba Watson had only himself to blame for errant shots that left the 54 hole leader one shot out of a playoff by day’s end. A wayward tee shot on the 14th led to a bogey that dropped Watson into a tie with 22-year old Hideki Matsuyama. But that drive was a thing of beauty compared to the snap hook he hit on the 15th, the ball sailing over trees and into the backyard of a local resident. Hitting his third from the tee after the out-of-bounds penalty, Watson managed to find the fairway with a three wood. But with his confidence apparently shaken the long-hitting Masters champion made no attempt to go for the green from there, instead laying up and virtually assuring himself of a double-bogey.

That seemed to hand the trophy to Matsuyama, playing his first full season on the PGA Tour after winning five professional tournaments in Japan, the first when he was still a teenager. But Matsuyama, who didn’t par a single hole in regulation after the 12th, promptly put his tee shot in the water at the par-3 16th hole, setting up his own double-bogey that dropped him into a tie with Kevin Na. When Matsuyama made another bogey on the 17th, the lead belonged to Na. The 30-year old is known more for ponderously slow play than winning golf tournaments; but he had at least played like a winner on Sunday, posting a 64 some two hours earlier. But Matsuyama rallied by becoming the first golfer in the history of the Memorial Tournament to birdie the 18th in all four rounds, setting up a sudden death playoff. Thrust into a spotlight where players had been imploding for more than an hour, Na promptly joined the party by pulling his tee shot on the first playoff hole into a water hazard. So Hideki Matsuyama becomes just the latest in a string of first-time winners on the PGA Tour this season. Although in this case “non-loser” might be a more accurate description.

The men were making a mess of things on CBS only after the women of the LPGA Tour had put on a clinic over on the Golf Channel. At the ShopRite Classic on the Seaview Hotel and Golf Club’s Bay Course across a bay from the casinos of Atlantic City, the lead clinician was Stacy Lewis. The 29-year old American’s back story includes overcoming severe scoliosis and spinal fusion surgery as a teenager, as well as becoming the first woman amateur to post a perfect 5-0 record in Curtis Cup play, began the final round with a one shot lead over Christina Kim. The challenger has her own compelling tale. Kim set what was at the time a record as the youngest woman to reach $1 million in earnings a decade ago; but plunged from there into a period of suicidal depression. On Sunday she contended again for the first time in four years.

Kim hung in valiantly by playing the front nine in even par while Lewis recorded a pair of early birdies. On the par-4 10th hole Kim’s approach landed past the hole and spun back to tap-in distance. But Lewis promptly rolled in a lengthy birdie putt to match Kim’s three. It was the first of three birdies in four holes for Lewis, who closed with another one at the par-5 finishing hole for a convincing six shot victory.

The win is the 10th on Tour for Lewis and the second this season. In addition to the two victories Lewis has eight other top-ten finishes in twelve events so far this year. That remarkable consistency puts her on top of the Tour’s money list, Player of the Year standings, and season-long point’s race. It also means that when the new World Rankings are published Monday Lewis will be back on top, dethroning Inbee Park who was number one for 59 weeks. Lewis held the number one spot for less than a month last spring, and has vowed to make her second stay at the top a longer one. If she keeps hitting fairways and greens and making putts like she did on Sunday that’s likely to be the case.

Later this month the USGA will stage first the men’s and then the women’s Open back-to-back at Pinehurst #2. The crowds, the purse, and the television coverage, all will be greater during the first week when the men are making their way around that historic old Donald Ross layout. But this Sunday while the men were flailing away in Ohio, in New Jersey on another old course designed by the brilliant Scotsman, Stacy Lewis, Christina Kim and the other members of the LPGA Tour served notice that at the twin Opens, the best golf just might be played during week two.

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