<
>

Halfway home on the PGA Tour

6/18/2013 - Golf Tiger Woods Sergio Garcia + more

The long nightmare of the Merion Golf Club for the PGA Tour's elite came to a close on Sunday night as Justin Rose raised the U.S. Open trophy. The game's best now look ahead to the Open Championship next month at Muirfield and the PGA Championship in August at Oak Hill.

As an unofficial halfway point of the long golf season that began in January with the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and ends with the Tour Championship in September, this is a time for players to take stock of their seasons.

Many of them are watching their places closely in the FedEx Cup standings and world rankings. A good finish or two could get them inside the top 50 in the world and into the Open Championship or the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Others are trying to end a missed-cut streak that's lasted for several weeks. For them, a caddie or swing coach change might be in store for the duration of the season. They are looking for anything that will help them keep their playing privileges for next year.

Top players like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are focused almost solely on the two remaining majors. The FedEx Cup playoffs and its $10 million first prize are an afterthought to their designs on Muirfield and Oak Hill.

With four wins in 2013, Tiger promised to shape the central narrative of the year. Another three or four wins on the season would further cement his stature as the best player in the game. But unless he wins a major, it's for him a year of largely unfulfilled goals.

If votes were cast this week, Tiger would likely earn his 11th PGA Tour player of the year award. For his win at the Sony Open and 18th position on the money list, Russell Henley would take rookie of the year honors. And after battling injuries the last few years, Boo Weekley would likely get comeback player of the year after his win at Colonial.

Where does that leave our two major champions: Adam Scott and Justin Rose? These two wins represent great personal achievements in careers that deserved a major championship. Scott finally won the green jacket for Australia that Greg Norman came so close to capturing on several occasions.

And Rose endured the best on a very mean and unforgiving Merion east course. On Father's Day, he was able to win it for his dad, who died of leukemia in 2002.

Yet these wins mainly highlight the unpredictability of the majors and the need for caution in selecting favorites. By Friday evening, Merion knew more about the players than they did. Who the favorites were had long been tossed in a trash can along one of the muddy paths on the course.

The attention shifts now to Muirfield, which last hosted the Open Championship in 2002, when Ernie Els won the first of his two Claret Jugs in a playoff over Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington. But that Open is also remembered as the one where Tiger shot an 81 in the third round to ruin his chances of taking the grand slam.

Muirfield, a picturesque Links course that was originally laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1891, will present a very different test than the one that players witnessed at Merion. The heavy winds and rain that pushed Tiger to his worst professional 18-hole score of his career could be a factor again this year. Still the 14-time major champion will be the favorite in July to win his fourth Claret Jug.

Many of the players headed over to Scotland are in the field this week at the Travelers Championship, outside Hartford, Conn. The TPC River Highlands, a par-70, 6,844-yard course, will not likely yield a 20-under winning score, but it will play a lot easier than Merion.

That's good news for survivors from last week like Rose, Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Jason Dufner and Bubba Watson, who are in the field at the Travelers. One of these tired souls will have enough in reserve to win this tournament that was first held in 1952.

There is still time in the season for a player to put his mark on the year. Come December, it will be a very sad state of affairs if the biggest storyline in the game from the season is that Tiger won eight times but didn't win a major. And that Rory McIlroy got super rich with a new Nike deal, but the adjustment to the new equipment might have cost him a year of his career.

Perhaps the majors could have all first-time major champions.

We're halfway to knowing the answers to some of these questions. Thankfully on tour, the answers and the lessons come weekly in places like the TPC River Highlands, where the future is now.