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Tiger, Rory lead storylines to watch out for at Pebble Beach

Joy Chakravarty

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Former World No. 1 Tiger Woods returns to the venue of his iconic U.S. Open victory in 2000 following his 15th Major triumph at The Masters recently.

Dubai: Finally, the U.S. Open, almost always in the spotlight because of wrong reasons over the last few years, looks set to be remembered as a proper golf contest.

The United States Golf Association (USGA), which conducts the championship, have taken great pride in their objective of providing the toughest test of golf at the U.S. Open, but have often went overboard in tricking up the golf courses.

In their zealous pursuit, the USGA has let playing conditions get out of hand several times in the past. In the 2004 edition at Shinnecock Hills, the seventh hole became so hard and fast, it had to be watered in between groups. In 2015 at Chambers Bay, the greens were so bad that Henrik Stenson referred to them as ‘broccoli’. 2016 was the year of the Dustin Johnson rules fiasco. And in 2018, there was the unforgettable sight of a frustrated Phil Mickelson running after his putt and hitting his next while the ball was still in motion during the third round.

Those who have already reached the stunning golf course in Monterey County have praised the way it has been set up for this week. India’s Anirban Lahiri, who qualified for the tournament after finishing second in the Sectionals last week at Columbus, quipped: “Doesn’t feel like the US Open! There is nothing to complain about the golf course this year!”

Now that the course is not the centre of attention, let’s focus on the tournament. And it promises to be a cracker with several compelling storylines. Let’s have a look…

Tiger returns to a venue he blitzed in 2000

No talk of a Major tournament these days is complete without Tiger Woods. The 15-time Major champion will be looking for his 16th at Pebble Beach, the place where he set the record books on fire en route to his 2000 triumph.

That year, Woods won by 15 shots! It kickstarted the ‘Tiger Slam’, when he had possession of all four Major titles, winning the Open Championship and PGA Championship in 2000 and the Masters in 2001. He started the week with a 65 and ended with a Sunday 67 for a 12-under par total, virtually lapping the field. Second-placed Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez were at three-over.

However, that was 19 years ago. Woods did win the Masters earlier this year, but he also missed the cut at the PGA Championship last month. He grew up in the area, so is used to the tricky poa annua greens. And his immaculate control over his iron shots will be a huge factor at Pebble.

Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy

McIlroy heads to Pebble in sizzling form

There was some concern about Rory McIlroy when he missed the cut at The Memorial after two fairly average outings at Majors – T21 at the Masters and T8 at the PGA Championship. This, despite the fact that he has a whopping nine top-10s in 11 starts, including a win at the Players Championship.

Any such talks were consigned to the trash bin after a most spectacular victory last week at the RBC Canadian Open, where he shot rounds of 64 and 61 over the weekend to romp home by seven shots.

There is just one issue though. Pebble Beach is not a golf course which can be dominated with the driver, which really has been McIlroy’s most lethal weapon. Will that change his gameplan, or are we in for yet another masterclass of aggressive golf from him?

Brooks Koepka

Koepka goes for a repeat and three-peat

It’s not beyond the realms of imagination, at least not with Brooks Koepka and the kind of form he is in. If Koepka wins on Sunday, it will be his fifth Major title, a third straight US Open and a second straight Major after winning the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black last month.

For the record, no golfer has ever won the US Open three times in a row in modern era (Willie Anderson won in 1903, ’04 and ’05).

Can Koepka do it? Form and his confidence level would suggest so. And then there is also the fact that he was so good getting out of the thick roughs at Bethpage Black. Brawn and brain is always a terrific combination.

Mickelson and his quest for Slam

Every US Open, and not without reason, Phil Mickelson seems to be one of the most engaging stories. The five-time Major champion needs just that one title to complete a career Grand Slam.

Mickelson has finished runner-up six times in the tournament, held every week during his birthday. It’s on Sunday this time, so there really could not be a better gift for himself than the U.S. Open trophy.

No player has won a Major aged 49 (Julius Boros was the oldest, winning the 1968 PGA Championship at 48 years, four months and 18 days), but then Mickelson seems ageless. He actually won at Pebble Beach earlier this year (AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am), and that should count for something.

The resurgence of Spieth

It will remain one of golf’s greatest modern-day mysteries that Jordan Spieth, the man who could do no wrong not too long ago, went without a top-10 finish for 43 weeks after the 2018 Open Championship (where he was tied ninth).

The American has the most sublime touch on the greens, but started struggling with the flat club, and that put some pressure on his long game as well.

However, a tied third place at the PGA Championship saw him returning to form with the putter and he has had two further top-10s in two starts after that. This could be the week where everything comes together for Spieth and a fourth Major title is not a wild thought.

Johnson’s chance to get even at Pebble

Dustin Johnson arrived at Pebble Beach as a precocious 26-year-old during the 2010 U.S. Open. He had won the AT&T Pebble Beach twice (2009 and ’10) and was being looked upon as one of the favourites.

DJ did not disappoint, racing to a three-shot lead after the third round at six-under par. But in his quest for a first Major, he collapsed on the final day. An early triple and a double bogey took him out of contention and he wound up with an 82.

Nine years later, he has a chance to get even. Johnson, who severed ties with coach Claude Harmon III after the PGA Championship, knows how to handle the golf course and is in good form. The other motivation is reclaiming his world No1 ranking from Koepka.

Anirban ready to break US Open hoodoo

This is Anirban Lahiri’s third appearance at the U.S. Open—his first two being disappointing missed cuts. The Indian ace, who turns 32 later this month, hasn’t had a good year, but is showing signs of regaining his form of late.

Not only will a good finish in the U.S. Open look good on his resume, he also needs it given his tenuous position in the FedEx Cup. The other issue he’d be facing is that this is his first visit to Pebble Beach, having never played a PGA Tour event there before.

But Lahiri’s irons are becoming hot, and they will be critical on the iconic course which is well known for the small size of its greens.

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With dream pairing in his favour, Shubhankar hopes to ‘Open’ campaign

Joy Chakravarty

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India's Shubhankar Sharma during a practice round for The 148th Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.

Antrim, Northern Ireland: The week of the Open Championship holds a special significance for Shubhankar Sharma. Not only did he make his first cut in a Major in this tournament, but it also coincides with his birthday almost every year.

This year, Sharma will turn 23 on Sunday, the day when the 148th Open Championship is decided at the hallowed Royal Portrush Golf Club. And he expects the celebrations to be even better than last year, when it fell on the Moving Day of the tournament at Carnoustie.

It’s not been the best of seasons for Sharma so far, and completely pales when compared to 2017-18. He won twice on the European Tour, played all four Majors and became the Asia No. 1. In comparison, a tie for 27th place at the Hero Indian Open has been his best result in 2019 so far.

However, Sharma can sense a change in his fortunes. He may have missed the cut at the Irish Open in the run-up to the Open Championship, but he was happy with his ball-striking there. At the Scottish Open, he needed an 18th hole birdie from 45 feet to make the cut on the number before finishing tied 34th.

“I made a few changes in my swing and I can now feel that it is getting in the groove. I was happy with the way I played in Scotland and I have worked hard over my game in the past few weeks. My coach (Jesse Grewal) is here and I am feeling quite confident going into the fifth Major of my career,” said Sharma on the eve of the tournament.

Sharma has been handed a dream pairing—he goes out on the first two days with the reigning World No. 1 Brooks Koepka and the 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen.

“I was very surprised when I saw the grouping, but I am really looking forward to it. Brooks is obviously the World No. 1 and Louis is a former champion. I have played with Brooks before in India (at the 2013 Challenge Tour event in Kensville, Ahmedabad, where they were paired during the final round),” added the World No. 196.

“Obviously, there is going to be a lot of people following and a lot of people watching back home in India. I think it will very exciting and it is always nice to get a draw like that.”

Sharma, then just 16 and making his professional debut, beat Koepka by three shots that day, but the American has made giant strides since then.

Talking about his upcoming 23rd birthday, Sharma said: “Last year was obviously very special as I made my first cut in a Major. Hopefully, we can make it even more special this year on a Sunday.”

Sharma will tee off at 13:04 local time (17:34 IST) on Thursday. On Friday, he will start at 08:03 local time (13:33 IST).

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Amandeep grabs first win of season in Bengaluru

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Bengaluru: Amandeep Drall finally grabbed her first title of the season, and it came after a long wait as she emerged a comfortable four-shot winner in the 10th leg of the Hero Women’s Pro Golf Tour at the Bangalore Golf Club on Friday. Her last win was in the 11th leg of the 2018 season, which was 16 starts back.

On a day when none of the players broke par at the par-70 layout, Amandeep had two birdies on the second and 16th and three bogeys, while Gaurika Bishnoi, who also shot 71, leapfrogged from tied-sixth to second as the rest faltered.

Gursimar Badwal, the first round co-leader with Amandeep, was expected to provide the strongest challenge but fizzled away with three bogeys on the back nine after a double bogey, bogey and two birdies on the front nine. She finished with a round of four-over 74 and ended third.

Amandeep, whose previous best this season was second at both the second and third legs, has also been at least tied-third on four other occasions. The win this week, therefore, comes as a big relief to the consistent Kapurthala golfer, who is the sixth different winner in 10 events this season.

Amandeep Drall receives the giant cheque from BGC secretary Sunil K. Vasant.

Gaurika Bishnoi showed that she is fast achieving a high level of consistency. Having won twice this season, she finished runner-up for the third time. She has also been third twice.

Afshan Fatima had a roller-coaster of a round with  a double and three bogeys in the first four holes to be five-over after four. She then birdied three times in the next four holes to turn in two-over. On the back nine, she birdied twice on 12th and 17th, but double bogeyed the 18th for a 2-over 72 and a tied-fourth place finish with Sonam Chugh (73) and Ananya Datar (74).

Neha Tripathi (73), Ridhima Dilawari (75) and Gurjot Badwal (75), in her first outing as a professional, were tied-seventh. Gauri Karhade, who was one of the three players to shoot the day’s best score of 71, was tenth.

Gaurika Bishnoi continued to lead the Hero Order of Merit with Rs. 8,61,800, while Neha Tripathi is second with earnings of Rs. 7,69,133 and Amandeep Drall rose to third with Rs. 7,64,333. Gursimar Badwal and Ridhima Dilawari are fifth and sixth.

The next event is the 11th leg of the Hero WPG Tour, which will be played at the Hyderabad Golf Club from August 7.

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SPORTS LOUNGE IMPACT: IOA forms committee to run affairs of ‘unruly’ Indian Golf Union

Shaghil Bilali

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The de-recognition of the IGU will also affect the staging of the European Tour tri-sanctioned Hero Indian Open next year.

New Delhi: After Sports Longue highlighted the Indian Golf Union’s failure to implement the National Sports Development Code 2011 (NSDC) and put its house in order, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) swung into action as it disaffiliated the golf body and formed a five-member governance committee to run the sports and oversee ‘aspects regarding golfers’ participation in the Olympic qualifiers’.

If this was not enough, the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports (MYAS) led by Kiren Rijiju on Thursday also sent a letter to the IGU, informing that it no more enjoyed the government’s recognition.

IOA’s letter, a copy of which is in possession of Sports Lounge, of forming a governance committee came after almost two years it had sent a letter to the IGU about its non-compliance with Sports Code 2011. The IOA had intimated the golf body that it’s recognition was not guaranteed beyond February 2018. However, the IGU managed to evade sanctions through various means but it ultimately faced the wrath of IOA.

The IOA president Dr Narinder Dhruv Batra on Tuesday shot a letter to IGU acting president Lt. Gen. Devraj Anbu and honorary secretary Lt. Gen. A.K.S. Chandele, informing him that the IOA is taking the matter of governance of golf in its hands.
“Given the lapses in procedures and timelines, there is void in the leadership and management of golf in India. IGU has failed to resolve the impasse on reform in the last six months. Under the current circumstances, a resolution is not feasible without external supervision on reform of governance,” the letter read.

Batra wrote that after the IGU failed to hold AGM and conduct election, he and Rajiv Mehta, general secretary, IOA, met Antony Scanlon, Executive Director of International Golf Federation (IGF), in May in Australia, where the decision to form a governance committee was taken.

“Dr. Narinder Dhruv Batra, President and Mr. Rajeev Mehta, Secretary General of Indian Olympic Association met Mr. Antony Scanlon, Executive Director of International Golf Federation, on 6 May 2019, at GCCEC, Gold Coast, Australia, to discuss on working together to resolve the situation. It was then agreed that a Golf Governance Committee would be formed to reform governance, liaise with all stakeholders, ensure compliance of norms and helping IGU conduct election,” the letter said.

The IOA letter said the IGU held its last election on October 28, 2016. Term of whose top officials and the council members ended by the end of October 2018.

The letter also ensured that the Indian golfers’ preparations for the Olympics won’t be jeopardised.
“Considering the significance of participation in Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the Committee shall also oversee all aspects with regard to participation of athletes and officials in the Olympic Qualifier competitions/ events during the interim period.”

At present, professional golfers Gaganjeet Bhullar (Rank 48) and Shubhankar Sharma (49) are the highest-ranked Indians in the Olympic rankings, while on the women’s side it is the likes of Aditi Ashok (35) and Diksha Dagar (55). These four players would represent the country if they remain the highest-ranked golfers in the IGF standings before next year’s cut-off date for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The five-member governance committee has Women’s Golf Association of India (WGAI) president Kavita Singh as chairperson, Mukesh

Kumar, Onkar Singh, Vir Srivastava and a nominee of IGF as its members.

The letter further said since the IGU’s AGM last year was challenged in the court and it failed to come up with a solution subsequently, the IOA lost hope on the golf body.

“The IGU had issued letter to conduct election on 15 December, 2018, which was legally challenged and the election was stayed by order of the Alipore District Court, dated 14 December, 2018, in case Misc-79/2018 (West Bengal Golf Society Vs The Indian Golf Union & Ors).

“Given the lapses in procedures and timelines, there is void in the leadership and management of golf in India. IGU has failed to resolve the impasse on reform in the last six months. Under the current circumstances, a resolution is not feasible without external supervision on reform of governance.”

Sports Longue in its reports had highlighted the IGU’s adamant behaviour towards its members and golf clubs, and failure to follow the Sports Code guidelines.
The federation got four unprecedented interim recognition extensions from Sports Ministry before it ultimately got de-recognised last month. Issues like pending court cases, army clubs having voting rights in the AGM and the active army personnel holding top posts in the state and the national federations went against the IGU. The current president of the IGU is also the Vice-Chief of Army staff.

Ministry too writes to IGU

The sports ministry’s derecognition of IGU came into effect from June 30, four days after the federation had requested it to continue recognition citing a Calcutta High Court observation. However, nowhere the Court had said that the ministry was bound by its decision, nor there was any instruction that the de-recognition must be annulled. But if IGU had any hope of a fifth extension, the ministry dashed it on Tuesday.

In his letter, A.K. Singh, under secretary in the Sports Ministry, wrote to IGU director general Maj. Gen. Bibhuti Bhushan (Retd.), “I am directed to refer to your letter dated 26.6.2019 requesting further extension of recognition to Indian Golf Union (IGU). In this regard, it may be recalled that IGU’s interim recognition was extended by the Ministry for the fourth time till 30.06.2019, subject to the conditions as detailed in letter dated 08.03.2019. IGU was also informed vide letter dated 27.06.2019 that the implementation of the court order dated 20th Feb 2019 is an internal matter of IGU and the Government does not interfere in such issues to maintain the autonomy of a National Sports Federation (NSF). It was also conveyed therein that there does not seem to be any hindrance in implementing the above mentioned court order.”

He further wrote, “It has, therefore, been decided that the request for extension of recognition of IGU can only be considered after it complies with the directions as laid down in this Ministry’s letter dated 08.03.2019.”

What golf fraternity can do now

The de-recognition by the ministry and disaffiliation by the IOA is a huge blow to the IGU, which for last two years failed to convince its members to come under the same page. Even though the IOA has formed a committee which will oversee the election process, it will be almost same members from the current IGU set-up, who are likely to be part of future federation. So, for now, the IGU officials should look back, acknowledge their faults, sort out pending court cases and resolve all the issues with its members. The flared egos in the federation have taken them to hit rock bottom. It’s time to keep the disagreements away, work for the unity and take golf to the grassroots.

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