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Len Ziehm On Golf

Women’s Western will benefit from closer relationship with WGA

This one was long, long overdue.

The Western Golf Association and Women’s Western Golf Association have jointly announced that they have formed “a new partnership.’’ That made May 10, 2017, an announcement date to remember in Chicago sports history. Given the rich histories of the two organizations, its importance goes beyond just golf.

While the new agreement doesn’t kick in until Aug. 1 – which is after the WWGA’s two 2017 tournaments – it does have the potential for some great things that could be coming to golf in Chicago as soon as the 2018 season.

Few organizations in anything have lasted as long as the two Chicago-based golf groups. The WGA was founded in 1899, the WWGA in 1903. Prior to the women forming their own organization the WGA sponsored the first two Women’s Western Amateur Championships in 1901 and 1902.

Despite their similarities in name and purpose, the two groups have operated more or less independently most of the time since then. They formed a loose partnership in 2011 and the WWGA conducts its board meetings at WGA headquarters in the North Chicago suburb aptly named Golf. That doesn’t come close to having the impact the new five-year agreement will have, however.

Under the new agreement the WGA will “help guide the Women’s Western Golf Foundation’’ and “help stage and promote the WWGA’s Women’s Western National Amateur Championship and the Women’s Western National Junior Championship and secure host sites for the events.’’

These are changing times, and the new agreement in no way detracts from all the great things the women’s group has accomplished in its 116 years. Operating with all volunteers the WWGA put on not only its two continuing championships but also ran an LPGA major tournament, the Women’s Western Open, from 1930 until 1967. The Women’s Western Amateur is the oldest annually played championship in all of golf.

Organizational demands, though, have grown over the years and the 2011 agreement with the WGA did provide the women with some administrative support. Still, more is needed.

The WWGA will operate the same as last year for its two 2017 events – the 117th Women’s Western Amateur June 12-17 at River Forest Country Club in Elmhurst and the 91st Women’s Junior Championship July 10-14 at Dubuque Golf and Country Club in Iowa. Then the WGA takes on managerial duties just as it has long done with its three tournaments – the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship (an offshoot of the old Western Open), the Western Amateur and the Western Junior.

First order of business will be for the WGA to name a site for the next WWGA tournament. No site has been determined for the 2018 Women’s Western Amateur but WGA staffers hope to announce one during the tournament at River Forest and some Chicago clubs are under consideration.

The stop at River Forest was the tournament’s first staging in the Chicago area since Exmoor, in Highland Park, hosted in 2001. Though no official comments were made, the off-the-record sentiments of Western staffers was that the tournament should be basically a fixture in the Chicago area much like the WGA’s Western Amateur has been since the tourney left Point O’ Woods in Benton Harbor, Mich., after a 28-year run there ended in 2008.

Chicago area courses have hosted eight of the nine Western Amateurs played since then and Skokie will be the site of the 2017 championship from July 31 to Aug. 5. The WGA also has reaches a milestone tournament-wise this year when its Western Junior is played for the 100th time. Park Ridge Country Club will be the site from June 19-22.

Both organizations are delighted with the new agreement.

“The history between these two golf associations goes back to the beginnings of the Women’s Western Golf Association. We have had a great relationship with the Western Golf Association through the years,’’ said Frances Fleckenstein, the WWGA president. “We now look forward to taking the next step to having their full support, which will be beneficial to both our organizations.’’

David Robinson, the WGA chairman, feels the same way.

“We’re excited to be deepening our relationship with the WWGA, which has done so much in the Midwest and across the country for women’s golf,’’ he said. “It’s an organization whose values and storied history of championships and scholarships are very much aligned with our own.’’

The WGA’s Evans Scholars program had 935 students enrolled in 20 universities during the 2016-17 school year and 24 percent were women. The Women’s Western Golf Association Foundation, founded in 1971, has awarded more than $3.5 million in scholarships to more than 690 young women from across the country over the years.

Already the two organizations jointly sponsor a Women’s Western Evans Scholar, awarding a four-year tuition and housing college scholarship to a female caddie who excels academically, has an outstanding caddie record and demonstrates financial need. The current Women’s Western Evans Scholar is Hannah Gillespie, who is completing her freshman year at Notre Dame.

And all those good connections lead to the inevitable question: Can there be a Women’s Western Open again?

The Women’s Western Open had a history as rich as the men’s Western Open. It was first played 20 years before the formation of the Ladies PGA Tour, and the LPGA had the support of the WWGA at the time of its founding.

Two Chicago players – Lucia Mida of Butterfield and June Beebe of Olympia Fields – played in the title match of the first Women’s Western Open, Mida winning at Acacia in Indian Head Park – a club that no longer exists. The tourney continued under a match play format through 1954 with 11 of the 24 tournaments played on Chicago courses. The last of those was at Glen Flora, in Waukegan.

Then the tourney went to a stroke play format from 1955 to 1967 and Chicago’s Beverly Country Club hosted twice. The event’s last playing was at another Illinois course, Pekin Country Club, where Kathy Whitworth won the title with a record 11-under-par performance. Years after the event was discontinued it is still considered a major championship in women’s golf history.

Quoting the WWGA tournament histories in its 2016 annual publication, the Women’s Western Open was discontinued “when the WWGA concentrated all its efforts to support and promote amateur women’s golf.’’

Now might be a good time to change that line of thought. The WGA has benefitted from being involved in the pro game, why not the women as well?

No one in a leadership role at either the Western Golf Association or the Women’s Western Golf Association will predict a revival of the Women’s Western Open, but they won’t rule it out, either. Be sure to stay tuned.

CDGA Amateur makes rare appearance out of Illinois

The Chicago District Golf Association has been staging competitions since 1914 and it’s the regional governing body for amateur golf in Illinois and parts of three other states. It services nearly 400 clubs and 800 individual golfers in a variety of ways.

Most know the CDGA for its computerized handicaps. All members get a U.S. Golf Association Handicap Index from the CDGA twice a month. Some are aware that the CDGA is authorized by the USGA to assign course ratings. Some are aware of its turfgrass research program or the efforts of its Foundation to help those with physical and mental challenges.

The CDGA’s board of directors, known as the “Blue Coats,’’ donate their services and time – more than 15,000 man-hours a year – to the organization’s projects and the month of June offers two of the most high-profile ones. Both are competitions.

On June 7 Oak Park Country Club will host the Radix Cup matches for the 56th time, and from June 27-30 the 98th playing of the Chicago District Amateur will be conducted at Briar Ridge in Schererville, Ind. These two annual attractions, coupled with the Illinois State Amateur, form the nucleus of Chicago’s rich golf tournament history.

The Illinois State Amateur will be played for the 87th time at Calumet Country Club in Homewood from July 18-20.

This year’s CDGA Amateur, though, might be more special than the others. The tourney has been played outside of Illinois only four times, and this will be the fifth. Briar Ridge will be the first non-Illinois course to host the event since The Dunes Club in Michigan was the site in 1998. Prior to that the only non-Illinois tourneys were at Gary Country Club in Indiana in 1952, North Hills in Wisconsin in 1954 and Southmoor in Pennsylvania in 1955.

It’s not that those three big tournaments form the heart of the CDGA season. In May, for instance, the CDGA Senior Amateur brought together 90 players – the survivors of four qualifying rounds – to Chicago’s Ridge Country Club. They battled it out until Terry Werner, of Briar Ridge, beat John Finnin of Olympia Fields 3 and 2 in the title match.

That was the first big one of the season among the more than 50 championships conducted by the CDGA for amateur golfers, be they high or low handicappers, juniors, seniors, men or women. The CDGA also conducts regional qualifying rounds for USGA championships. During May, for instance, three local eliminations were held for this month’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills and in June the CDGA holds a qualifier for the U.S. Senior Open on June 5 at Aurora Country Club and another for the U.S. Women’s Open on June 12 at Prestwick in Frankfort.

June’s schedule also includes 10 state-wide qualifiers for the Illinois State Amateur sandwiched around the demands of the Radix Cup and CDGA Amateur. Yes, executive director Robert Markionni and his staff of 19 at Midwest Golf House in Lemont will by busy – and that’s putting it mildly.

The Radix Cup matches pit the top amateurs from the CDGA against the top professionals from the Illinois PGA. The 12 players on both teams are determined largely by point systems devised by each organization and the competition to get on either of the teams can be intense. The IPGA leads the series 35-18-2 but it’s always interesting to see how the amateurs stand up in the better ball matchups.

And then there’s the CDGA Amateur – one of the oldest such tournaments in the country. For some reason it doesn’t get the attention that the Illinois State Amateur does, but the CDGA Amateur’s list of champions offers a walk through history.

No less a celebrity than Chick Evans won the first CDGA Amateur, played at Ravisloe in Homewood in 1914 – the year the CDGA was founded. Two years later Evans became the first player to win the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur in the same year, and Bobby Jones is the only other golfer to accomplish that feat.

Robert Gardner won the first of his three CDGA Amateurs in 1916. By then he was already a two-time U.S. Amateur champion (1909 and 1915). The tourney wasn’t held for six years, when the U.S. was involved in wars, but the tourney was always revived after peace was restored.

In 1935 invitations were issued nationally and in 1941 the event became known as the Great Lakes Amateur Championship. That lasted until 1955 when the CDGA board of directors opted to limit the field to players who were CDGA members. That remains the case today but it didn’t keep tournament winners like Jim Jamieson, Sherman Finger, Lance Ten Broeck, David Ogrin, Joe Affrunti, Eric Meierdierks and Carlos Sainz from using the CDGA Amateur as a partial springboard to playing status on the PGA Tour.

As the game evolved, so did its CDGA champions. Frank Stranahan, who played the PGA Tour successfully while remaining an amateur, was the CDGA champion in 1946 and 1947. Skee Riegel, another tour player, won in 1949 and Tam O’Shanter’s colorful Martin Stanovich took the tiitle in 1959 and 1960.

Some of the other CDGA Amateur winners – notably Joel Hirsch, Bill Hoffer, Mike Milligan and Rick Ten Broeck — didn’t turn pro but went on to bigger things in the amateur ranks.

Hirsch won both the CDGA and Illinois State Amateur twice, was a two-time winner of the British Senior Amateur and a qualifier for 34 U.S. Golf Association championships. At 58 he qualified for his fourth Western Open.

Hoffer won the U.S. Mid Amateur in 1982 (a title which earned him a berth in the Masters) and the Illinois Open in 1983. Milligan ruled the CDGA Amateur three times from 1973 to 1977 and Ten Broeck had a game that lasted, too. He won the CDGA Amateur in 1981 and 1994 and the Illinois Open in 1973 and 1981.

The CDGA Amateur format has changed slightly over the years. This year’s calls for four 18-hole qualifying eliminations, two of which were held during the last two days of May. The last two are June 5 at Ravinia Green, in Riverwoods, and June 7 at the University of Illinois’ Orange course in Savoy.

Starting in 2003, the tourney finals called for 60 finalists playing 36 holes in one day to determine 16 match play qualifiers. Matches will be at 18 holes with the exception of the finals. It’ll be played over 36 holes.

Andrew Price, who plays out of Conway Farms is Lake Forest, is the defending champion and one of only 17 players awarded a sponsor’s exemption off previous tournament accomplishments.

Koepka played like Dustin’s double in claiming U.S. Open title

ERIN, Wis. – No, Dustin Johnson didn’t defend his U.S. Open title on Sunday. In fact, the game’s No. 1-ranked player didn’t even qualify for the weekend rounds at Erin Hills.

But Brooks Koepka did win, and he might well be a reincarnation of Johnson. They are close friends. They play lots of practice rounds together, and they frequently dine together on the road.

On Saturday night Johnson called Koepka.

“It was probably not that interesting,’’ said Koepka. “For us it was a long conversation – about two minutes. We played a practice round here on Tuesday, and he basically just said `you’re good enough to win.’’

And he was.

Koepka, 27, played just like Johnson does when he’s on his game. He dominated the final round of the 117th playing of America’s national championship and tied the tournament record for lowest 72-hole score in relation to par. He posted 16-under 272 after a 67 on Sunday and won by four strokes over third-round leader Brian Harman and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama.

Veteran tour player Bill Haas, who had his best-ever finish in the Open with a tie for fifth, was quick to compare Koepka with Johnson.

“He’s just really impressive physically,’’ said Haas. “He just pounds the ball and he hits it very straight. He’s got a lot of Dustin Johnson in him, and he’s going to overpower golf courses. He’s got a great demeanor. Just like Dustin, nothing seems to bother them.’’

Koepka started the day one stroke behind Harman and tied with Justin Thomas and Tommy Fleetwood. Thomas, paired with Harman in the last twosome, struggled after his record 63 round of Saturday and finished in a tie for ninth. Fleetwood, paired with Koepka, was solo fourth.

A birdie-birdie start put Koepka into the lead and he protected it the rest of the way. Matsuyama, playing six groups in front of Koepka, shot the day’s low round of 66 and his 12-under score was the target that Koepka needed to beat with five holes left in his round. He did it with birdies of Nos. 14, 15 and 16 and two closing pars.

The one thing that eluded him was sole possession of the tournament 72-hole scoring record in relation to par. He could only match the standard set by Rory McIlroy at Congressional in 2011. Still, Koepka had only one three-putt in the heat of Sunday’s final round and he missed only 10 greens in regulation all week.

“That’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced and to do it on Father’s Day is pretty neat,’’ said Koepka. `I didn’t exactly get my dad a card, so I hope this works. This is probably the first major that anyone in my family missed. I don’t know if that’s saying anything.’’

Well, it does suggest that Koepka can take care of himself, as he did immediately after making an unusual decision to start his professional career. After playing collegiately at Florida State he turned pro in 2012. Rather than compete for a spot on one of the PGA tours Koepka opted to start in Europe. Few American players do that, but for Koepka it worked.

He won four times on the European Challenge Tour, then once on the European Tour and once in Japan. His U.S. Open title came after only one win on the PGA Tour.

“I have felt like I’m an under-achiever because I tried so hard to win. I felt like I should be winning more,’’ he said. “I needed to stay patient and not get ahead of myself.’’

For 72 holes at a new U.S. Open venue he was able to do that, and the emotions showed on his cart ride from the 18th green to the scoring tent.

“I played real solid from the moment I got here,’’ said Koepka, “but that was probably the most emotion I have ever showed.’’

Harman just couldn’t keep up with Koepka’s back nine birdie barrage

ERIN, Wis. – Brian Harman didn’t lose Sunday’s U.S. Open. Brooks Koepka just won it. That’s how Harman sees it.

The turning point came on Erin Hills’ back nine after Harman made bogeys at Nos. 12 and 13.

“Then I made the birdie at 14 and he birdies 14, 15 and 16,’’ said Harman. “That was kind of lights out. You’ve got to tip your cap. He went out and won the tournament on the back nine. I’ve done that before, but he did it today.’’

Koepka talked afterwards about feeling like an under-achiever until he won his first major title. Harman could identify with that.

“When I was a young junior golfer I definitely perceived myself contending in majors,’’ he said. “Not that I’m an old man by any means, but I am 30. So for me I am trying to make up for some lost time. I don’t know why, but that’s the way I feel.’’

MONEY-MAKERS: The tourney’s $12 million purse represents another big jump in recent years. In 2003 it was $6 million, in 2014 it was $9 million and in 2015 it hit $10 million.

Last year Dustin Johnson’s first-place prize was $1.8 million. Koepka earned $2,160,000 for his victory on Sunday.

A BREEZE: Jordan Spieth was the ninth player to tee off on Sunday and the wind was at its worst, approaching 30 miles per hour. That didn’t keep Spieth from shooting a 3-under-par 69 – his best round of the tournament.

“A fantastic round of golf, given what we were dealing with to start the day,’’ he said. Conditions got easier as the day went on and Spieth left a happier man than he’d been all week.

“I struck the ball the same way I have been. I hit 17 greens, which was just awesome in these conditions,’’ he said. And then my expectations were lowered on the greens given the conditions. That was the difference. I was able to get to a few under by just accepting the fact that the putt might miss instead of having to have it perfect. Maybe a day like today is all I needed to just kind of calm down.’’

HEROES AT HOME: Steve Stricker and Jordan Niebrugge, the two Wisconsin players in the finals, finished up in style. Stricker shot 69-69 on the weekend to get to 5-under for the tournament. Making birdies on three of the last five holes, Niebrugge was 3-under on his final nine and was 1-over for the 72 holes.

Stricker hosts a Champions Tour event, the American Family Insurance Championship, at University Ridge in Madison this week while Niebrugge just learned he has a spot in the Web.com Tour’s Lincoln Land Charity Championship, at Panther Creek in Springfield, IL.

SCHEFFLERS WIN: The battle for low amateur at the U.S. Open was a two-man duel between Texans. Scottie Scheffler of Texas was 1-under-par in edging Cameron Champ of Texas A&M by one stroke. It was a team win for the Schefflers as Scottie’s sister Cali worked as his caddie.

WHAT’S THE BEEF? Andrew “Beef’’ Johnson has been popular with the galleries whenever he comes over from London to play in a tournament, but his popularity was magnified at Erin Hills.

“It’s been wicked,’’ said Johnston. “The people have been so good to me. Hopefully they’ve had fun watching me, as well, because I’ve had fun with them. I never dreamt of this. To have the support is just crazy.’’

A WIND PLAYER: Veteran Matt Kuchar took advantage of the windier conditions on Sunday to finish his U.S. Open with a 4-under-par 68.

“I was looking forward to tougher conditions, knowing that I’d have a chance to make up a lot of ground,’’ he said. “I did just that.’’

He gave Erin Hills high grades in its first year as a U.S. Open site.

“The course was great. The people were great,’’ said Kuchar. “The tournament was really well run. We’ll be leaving on a high note.’’

Women’s major at Olympia Fields tries to match a successful U.S. Open

These are unprecedented times for spectator golf around the Chicago area. Last week it was the U.S. Open at Erin Hills. Next week it’s a women’s major – the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Olympia Fields.

The best players in women’s golf start showing their skills at the south suburban private club on Tuesday in a star-studded pro-am. After a day of practice the 72-hole battle for a $3.5 million purse – one of the biggest in women’s golf — is on the line beginning on Thursday, June 29.

Once named the LPGA Championship, the tourney became an unprecedented collaboration between the Ladies PGA Tour and the PGA of America three years ago at Westchester Country Club in New York. Last year’s event was at Sahalee, in Washington, and Chicago gets the next two—at Olympia Fields and then at Kemper Lakes, in Kildeer, in 2018.

Tuesday’s pro-am, which tees off at 7:30 a.m., features former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, comedian George Lopez and Chicago sports legends Brian Urlacher, Ryne Sandberg and Greg Maddux.

The 156-player field in the tournament proper includes defending champion Brooke Henderson. World No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn and American mainstays Stacy Lewis, Cristie Kerr and Lexi Thompson.

U.S. Open aftermath

Back in 1990, when Medinah hosted the last of its three U.S. Opens, members weren’t happy with the record low scoring. Ideal weather, much like that last week at Erin Hills, led to the low scores but Medinah members felt the course setup wasn’t challenging enough as well.

With one exception, those U.S. Open scoring records set 27 years ago are no more thanks to the shootout in Wisconsin. Medinah yielded 28 sub-par scores for the 72 holes in 1990. Thirty-one players finished under par at Erin Hills.

The total number of sub-par rounds at Erin Hills was 140, which surpassed the previous record of 122 at Medinah, and the 44 sub-par scores in the first round at Erin Hills erased the record of 39 at Medinah. The one Medinah record still on the books is for most sub-par scores in one round. Medinah yielded 47 on its most vulnerable day while the most in any one round at Erin Hills was 46.

Medinah unveils new Nos. 2 course

Medinah’s No. 2 course is back in operation after undergoing a unique $3.6 million renovation jointly created by architect Rees Jones, superintendent Curtis Tyrrell, head professional Marty DeAngelo and instruction staffers Travis Johns and Rich Dukelow.

No. 2 was basically untouched since original architect Tom Bendelow designed it in 1927. The new course will be the most versatile of the three layouts at the club. Each hole has seven tee placements and will be the base for a “Golf for Life’’ program that DeAngelo has created “to bring enjoyment for all skills without the use of handicaps.’’

“The No. 2 course was always known as the ladies course, but now it’s the most appropriate venue for higher handicappers and casual golfers,’’ said Jones. “It has the potential to become the most popular golf course in the entire city of Chicago.’’

Here and there

Three of the 12 Illinois PGA members who qualified for this week’s Professional Players National Championship in Sunriver, Ore., survived the 36-hole cut. Curtis Malm, of White Eagle in Naperville; Mike Small, the Illinois men’s coach; and Jim Billiter, of Kemper Lakes, will compete through Wednesday (TODAY) and the top 20 qualify for August’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in North Carolina.

More than 150 of the world’s top junior golfers are competing in the 100th Western Junior Championship this week at Park Ridge Country Club. The field will be cut to the low 44 and ties after today’s (WEDNESDAY) round and the survivors will play 36 holes on Thursday to determine the champion. Sean Maruyama, a UCLA recruit from Los Angeles, is bidding to become the tourney’s first repeat champion in 76 years.

The 98th Chicago District Amateur begins its four-day run on Tuesday (JUNE 27) at Briar Ridge in Schererville, Ind. The tournament has been played outside of Illinois only five times, the last in 1998 when The Dunes Club in Michigan hosted.

Canadian Maddie Szeryk captured last week’s 117th Women’s Western Amateur at River Forest in Elmhurst.

Medinah’s Tee-K Kelly followed up his win in the Dominican Republic with a fourth-place finish in Jamaica on Sunday on PGA Tour Latinoamerica. Elgin’s Carlos Sainz Jr., the reigning Illinois Open champion, tied fors seventh in Jamaica.

Thomas’ 63 is the best round in U.S. Open history

ERIN, Wis. – No, Justin Thomas isn’t leading the U.S. Open going into today’s final round but he’s definitely the man of the hour at Erin Hills.

The 24-year old from Louisville, Ky., shot the lowest round in the 117-year history of America’s premier golf championship on Saturday – a 9-under-par 63. He trails Brian Harman by one stroke going into the final 18 holes.

Johnny Miller posted the first 63 in U.S. Open history in the final round of the 1973 championship at Oakmont, in Pennsylvania. Oakmont was a par-71 course then, so Miller was 8-under par.

Three other players posted 63s in the Open. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf did it in 1980 and Vijay Singh in 2003. All were on par-70 courses, so they were 7-under. Only Thomas reached 9-under, and he did it despite making two bogeys along the way.

“That means I’m a part of history. It means I have a lot better cce to win the tournament than I did when the day started,’’ said Thomas. “It’s all pretty self-explanatory in terms of what it means. But just for me, I’ve been playing pretty well all week and didn’t quite have the numbers to show for it. Obviously today I definitely had something to show for it.’’

Thomas started the day at 2-under-par after a 73-69 start. He was in a 9-way tie for 24th place when he teed off and is tied for second with American Brooks Koepka and England’s Tommy Fleetwood heading into the tournament’s first-ever staging in Wisconsin and first in the Midwest since Olympia Fields hosted in 2003.

Thomas’ card featured 10 threes and a two. Put another way, he had 10 birdies, two bogeys, five pars and – in a finish that couldn’t have been more spectacular – an eagle. It came at the second-longest hole in Open history. Erin Hills’ finisher was set up at 637 yards on Saturday. Oakmont’s No. 12 played at 694 yards in the first round of last year’s U.S. Open.

Coming off a birdie at the 17th, Thomas hit 3-wood off the tee to stay clear of fairway bunkers and had a tough decision to make on his second shot.

“I had 310 to the hole, but it was downwind to where I knew if I hit it solid I could definitely get it there,’’ he said. “I also knew my miss, if I hit it off the bottom or got spiny, it was going to be in those front bunkers, which was fine. That was perfect. All my caddie and I were trying to do was give ourselves a chance to make four and get out of there.’’

Thomas went with the 3-wood and put it eight feet from the cup as the huge gallery around the green went crazy. Then Thomas had to wait to attempt his eagle putt because playing partner Jonathan Randolph was struggling his way to a bogey before Thomas could putt.

Once he did, though, the ball went straight into the hole and the cheers got even louder.

Thomas said Friday night rains helped on his long second shot. Without a softer-than-usual green he couldn’t have stopped a 3-wood on the putting surface. Once he did the considerations of posting a 63 came to mind.

“I knew what it was score-wise. I knew it was for 63. You’ve got leaderboards everywhere and you usually have an idea what you’re doing,’’ said Thomas. “But I had no idea in terms of 9-under being the best in the U.S. Open.’’

Thomas is no stranger to low scores. He became the youngest player to shoot a 59 on the PGA Tour when he did it en route to winning the Sony Open in Hawaii in January.

Prior to turning pro Thomas became the third youngest player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event. He did it at age 16 in the 2009 Wyndham Classic before heading to the University of Alabama. He turned pro in 2013 and – prior to Saturday – his career highlight was back-to-back wins in Hawaii to begin the 2017 part of the PGA Tour season.

Comparing 63s isn’t easy for Johnny Miller

ERIN, Wis. – Johnny Miller, the golf analyst for NBC, was impressed by Justin Thomas’ 63 in Saturday’s third round of the U.S. Open, especially the 9-under-par aspect to it. Miller shot the first 63 in the Open 44 years ago, and his score was 8-under on a par-71 course.

“Justin Thomas is a lot like I am. He’s a streaky player,’’ Miller told The Golf Channel. “When I was in my prime it was the same way. I could get it really low.’’

As for Thomas having a better score in relation to par, Miller had some qualms.

“Taking nothing away from 9-under-par,’’ he said. “Nine-under is incredible, but it isn’t a U.S. Open course that I’m familiar with, the way it was set up.’’

Erin Hills is 11 years old and hosting its first U.S. Open. Miller shot his 63 at Oakmont, the Pennsylvania course that has hosted a record nine Opens.

STILL AROUND: No doubt Steve Stricker was snubbed by the U.S. Golf Assn. when he didn’t receive a sponsor’s invitation to the first U.S. Open in his home state. Stricker never complained, though, and he’s been rewarded.

Not only did Stricker survive a sectional qualifying round, he also survived the 36-hole cut at Erin Hills. He’s been greeted with standing ovations throughout his rounds and feels his decision to enter qualifying – despite his stature in the game — was well worth it.

“I wanted to experience our first U.S. Open (in Wisconsin) more than anything,’’ he said. “I’m glad I went through it, and I’m glad I’m here.’’

Stricker made the cut in 18 of his 20 U.S. Open appearances, but this was the first one since he turned 50. Next week he’ll play in the American Family Insurance Championship, a PGA Champions Tour event that tees off on Friday at University Ridge in Madison, Wis. Stricker, who lives in Madison, is the two-year old tournament’s host.

“Next week is for totally different purposes,’’ he said. “It’s about raising money for our foundation and giving back to our area and our community. That’s a totally different feel for me. This (week) is more on a playing level.’’

HOW TIMES CHANGE: Last week Stephan Jaeger was en route to winning his second Web.com Tour event in a three-week stretch in the Rust-Oleum Championship at Ivanhoe Club. On Saturday he was not only paired with two-time major champion Jordan Spieth in the U.S. Open, he beat him.

Jaeger shot 74 to hit the 54-hole stop at 2-over-par and in a tie for 51st place. Spieth shot 76 and is tied for 59th entering today’s final round.

Spieth stayed upbeat.

“I’ve been striking the ball well. It’s just been trying to figure it out on and around the greens. Once the cannon gets open I’ll start pouring them in.’’

TALE OF FOURSOMES: The U.S.. Open had four co-leaders entering Saturday’s round – Brian Harman, Brooks Koepka, Tommy Fleetwood and Paul Casey. It was the first time since 1974 at Winged Foot that four players were tied for the lead. Then the foursome was Hale Irwin, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Raymond Floyd.

GOOD DAY FOR THE JDC: Zach Johnson and Harman are both Georgia neighbors and recent winners of the John Deere Classic, the only annual PGA Tour event in Illinois. Both have also played well in this U.S. Open. Harman, in fact, is leading through 54 holes and in position to become the tourney’s first left-handed champion today.

For Johnson Saturday’s 68 was particularly good news because his play hasn’t been what he’s wanted it to be.

“Probably the best my game’s been all year,’’ said Johnson. “From a contentment standpoint this is the best I’ve felt with my golf bag all the way through.’’

Johnson switched to PXG clubs and that didn’t produce good results initially.

“I probably didn’t listen to them enough in the beginning,’’ said Johnson. “My stubbornness, my arrogance got in the way. But those individuals at PXG have really pushed me and persuaded me in the right direction over the last eight-nine months.’’

TO THE VICTOR: The champion of this year’s Open will receive $2,160,000 and the runner-up will get $1,296,000. The 66th, and last-place, finisher will receive $22,729 from a total purse of $12,000,000. All professionals who missed Friday’s 36-hole curt will receive $10,000.

Spectator’s death latest in events that mar this U.S. Open

ERIN, Wis. — Away from the play on the course it’s been one thing after another for the U.S. Golf Association to deal with at this 117th U.S. Open.

On Thursday it was a blimp crash a half-mile from the course. On Friday the USGA announced that E.Coli bacteria had been detected in a Hydration Station on the No. 12 hole and announced that bottled water would be delivered to all four such stations as a precautionary measure.

During Friday’s second round came an even worse development – the death of a 94-year old man from nearby Wauwatosa who had been watching the action in the grandstand near the No. 6 green on his first visit to this U.S. Open.

Rescue personnel and Washington County sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the grandstand and arrived three minutes after being called. They reported the man to be pulseless and not breathing. The unidentified subject was transferred to an on-site ambulance where he was pronounced deceased. No foul play is suspected and the death appears to be of natural causes, according the medical personnel.

GO FIGURE: Defending champion Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day – the top three players in the Official World Golf Rankings – all failed to survive the 36-hole cut on Friday.

Johnson and McIlroy are still shaking off injuries and Day, who was basically out of it after a first-round 79, was the most surprised.

“It’s been the best preparation going into a major in my career,’’ he said. “I did the work, looked at the golf course, made sure that I could actually play and visualize the golf course. And, I felt the most calm I have in a major in a long time. Unfortunately this just didn’t pan out.’’

NOT TO BE IGNORED: Canadian Adam Hadwin, who won the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship in March, matched a longstanding U.S. Open record when he strung six birdies in Thursday’s first round. He had seven on the day, all after approach shots to within 15 feet.

The Open had two previous six-birdie streaks, both at Pebble Beach. George Burns did it in 1982 and Andy Dillard in 1992.

Hadwin, who also strung six in a row at the PGA Tour’s CareerBuilder Challenge, cooled off on Friday but still was safely under the Open cut line at 2-under to qualify for weekend play.

NO REGRETS: Roberto Diaz, the Mexico golfer who got into the starting field after Phil Mickelson’s late withdrawal, saw his hopes of making the 36-hole cut disappear when he opened the second round with a 40.

Diaz was just happy to have a chance to play in his first U.S. Open, though he was in constant limbo in the days leading up to it as Mickelson’s participation loomed as a possibility.

“I thought Phil was going to come. I always did,’’ said Diaz. “I thought he was going to somehow pull it off, but I didn’t want to put my hopes up and then see my hopes go down. I prepared the whole week to play, but I was prepared to not play.’’

ANOTHER WD: Mickelson wasn’t the only notable withdrawal. England’s Danny Willett, the 2016 Masters champion, pulled out, too. He complained of a sore back after shooting 81 on Thursday.

MIXED BAG: Stephan Jaeger, who won the Web.com Tour’s Rust-Oleum Championship at Ivanhoe Club last Sunday, continued his solid play. The German’s 71-73 start qualified him for the weekend rounds at the U.S. Open for the first time.

Andy Pope, the only player with a Chicago residency connection in the 156-man field, shot 77-75 and missed the cut, marring his third straight appearance at the U.S. Open.

Top three stars aren’t needed to make Erin Hills’ Open a special event

ERIN, Wis. – Phil Mickelson doesn’t show up and defending champion Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day – the top three players in the Official World Golf Rankings – miss the 36-hole cut. What kind of U.S. Open is this anyway?

Actually, it’s been quite a good one in terms of competitiveness and the quality of golf demonstrated over the first two days at Erin Hills, a new venue for America’s premier championship.

As far as the competition goes, there’s a four-way tie at the top of the leaderboard midway through the 117th playing of the tournament with Americans Brian Harman and Brooks Koepka and English stars Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood setting the pace.

Another trio of players, including first-round leader Rickie Fowler, are one stroke back and five more — among them Japan star Hideki Matsuyama who posted a sizzling 65 on Friday – trailing by two.

The four co-leaders are at 7-under-par 137. Very rarely does a U.S. Open produce scoring that good.

“The condition of the course has more to do with the low scoring than anything,’’ said Harman. “The course is absolutely immaculate and the greens are some of the best I’ve ever putted on.’’

Harman’s run at the coveted title has a special twist going into the weekend rounds. He’s a left-handed golfer, and the Open is the only one of the four major championships that hasn’t produced a left-handed champion. That’s largely because the absent Mickelson has been second a record six times while posting wins in the Masters, British Open and PGA Championship.

“I forget that I’m left-handed because all I see is right-handers every day,’’ said Harman.

Though this is the first time he ever made a cut in the U.S. Open, Harman’s swing from the “opposite’’ side has worked well in the past in U.S. Golf Association events. He was the U.S. Junior champion in 2003 and played on two U.S. Walker Cup teams.

As a PGA Tour player he had a breakthrough win at the 2014 John Deere Classic and won the Wells Fargo Championship this year. Now his sights are set on a major – this one.

“My time is not unlimited here,’’ said Harman. “I want to take advantage of every opportunity I have.’’

And this is a good one, to be sure.

Of the other front-runners Casey had the most interesting day in the second round.

“Not every day you enjoy a round of golf with an eight on the card, but I’m a pretty happy man,’’ he said. The eight came as a triple bogey on No. 14, one of two holes set up at over 600 yards on the back nine. Casey recovered to shoot 71, bouncing back with five birdies in a row at one stretch after his mishap.

Fleetwood, who plays basically on the European PGA Tour, feels like he’s entering a new world.

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never played a U.S. Open, so it’s going to be great, a very cool experience,’’ he said.

Koepka felt his superior length was what put his at the top of the leaderboard.

“It’s not easy, by any means. It’s the U.S. Open,’’ he said. “But I played pretty well. I had a few errant shots, but I’ve only hit 7-iron – that’s the longest I’ve hit into any par-4.’’

Fowler shot 65 on Thursday, matching the record for the lowest score in relation to par in the history of the tournament. On Friday he watched playing partner Matsuyama post the same score while Fowler dropped out of the lead after making three straight bogeys on the back nine.

While Fowler tied for second in the U.S. Open in 2014 – a year in which he cracked the top five in all four major championships – he missed the cut four times in his eight appearances in the tournament including the last two years.

“I haven’t had the best showing the last couple years and it’s nice to get back up there,’’ he said. “This is definitely one of the harder tests we get on a yearly basis. This year, with the softer conditions the first two days, you would probably say the scores were lower than what you’re used to seeing – but it’s been fun.’’

Dustin Johnson’s the man to beat at Erin Hills

ERIN, Wis. — No matter how you slice it, Dustin Johnson is at the top of the golf world. The FedEx Cup standings say so. So do the Official World Golf Rankings. And, starting today, Johnson will defend the most prestigious title he’s ever won at the U.S. Open.

So, what could possibly go wrong for him at Erin Hills?

Well, the other 155 players in the field could take heart from the fact that Johnson hasn’t won since before the last major championship – April’s Masters – and Johnson didn’t even play in that one. He took a fall down some stairs on the eve of that tournament, injured his back and his game hasn’t been as good since.

“It was a freak accident, and obviously disappointing,’’ said Johnson while heavy afternoon rains wiped out his rivals’ final practice time for the Open. “I watched most of the Masters lying on a couch. Leading in I was playing the best golf I’ve played. I’ve still got work to do to get back to playing that good.’’

And doing the “work’’ hasn’t been easy because Johnson has had other things on his mind lately. Fiance Paulina Gretzky gave birth to their second child on Monday – a son named River Jones Johnson.

Insisting the name came from “Mama,’’ Johnson was pleased to report that “everybody’s healthy’’ and it’s full steam ahead for him to become the Open’s first repeat champion since Curtis Strange in 1988-89.

“It helps that Paulina and my son are home now, and I don’t have to worry about them,’’ said Johnson. “Now I’ve got to play golf.’’

He said his participation in the Open was in jeopardy for a while “depending on what happened with the baby…..But I’m here, and I’m playing.’’

Actually, Johnson could have been going for an Open three-peat had he not three-putted the final green at Chambers Bay in 2015, handing the title to Jordan Spieth.

Like Chambers Bay, Erin Hills is hosting the U.S. Open for the first time.

“I really like it,’’ said Johnson. “Like all U.S. Open courses there’s a big premium on driving in the fairways. Given the conditions the last few days the course is soft and will be playing long. That sets up very well for me.’’

Another storm pelted the Erin Hills Media Center as Johnson declared his readiness. The fact that he didn’t show up at Erin Hills until Tuesday was insignificant. So was the fact that he shot 78-74 to miss the cut in his last tournament, the Memorial.

“I didn’t want to do that, but it worked out because I got to practice two days here,’’ said Johnson. “I may have come in late this week, but I don’t feel behind the 8-ball at all. I’m happy to defend. I feel my game’s in good shape. I’m prepared.’’

Since his freak fall before the Masters Johnson had a tie for second in a weak field at the Wells Fargo Championship, a tie for 12th in a strong field at The Players Championship and a tie for 13th at the Byron Nelson Classic before his collapse at the Memorial.

Those showings created some shuffling in the two most significant ranking systems, but didn’t unseat Johnson as No. 1 in both. In the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings he’s trailed by Justin Thomas, Hidecki Matsuyama, Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth.

In the Official World Golf Rankings his closest pursuers are Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Matsuyama and Spieth. They’re all here to give chase to Johnson on a course that plays into Johnson’s strength. Erin Hills is the longest course to host a major championship.