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Monday, February 6, 2017

A big weekend for some of those 2009 U.S. Walker Cuppers

   You knew when you were watching the Walker Cup Match at Merion Golf Club’s historic East Course in 2009 that you were seeing some guys on Buddy Marucci’s winning U.S. side that you would be watching for years to come in the big leagues of professional golf.
   And I’ve always tried to keep half an eye out for how some of those guys were doing. That wasn’t hard to do on this Super Bowl weekend as no fewer than five of those 2009 U.S. Walker Cup alumni teed it up in the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale with four of them making the cut. Meanwhile, at another desert course on the other side of the world, a sixth member of that U.S. team was having a pretty good weekend in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
   It’s been almost eight years since a lot of those guys teed it up at Merion and led the U.S. to a convincing 16.5-9.5 victory. And most of them are still in their 20s. Many are veterans, but they’re still young guys.
   The two best players from that team, Oklahoma State teammates Rickie Fowler and Peter Uihlein, both had top finishes in their respective events.
   If your pre-Super Bowl viewing included a few stops at the Phoenix Open, you probably noticed Fowler zooming up the leaderboard. His final round of 7-under 65 left him in a tie for fourth with a 15-under 269 total. It left him two shots out of the playoff in which Hideki Matsuyama eventually outlasted Webb Simpson.
   The 28-year-old Fowler is No. 14 in the World Golf Ranking. He is coming off what, for him, was a disappointing 2016. He had no wins on the PGA Tour, although he did pick off a European Tour victory at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship early in the year.
   But it wasn’t 2015 when he had two wins, including a dramatic victory in the almost-major Tournament Players Championship. And it wasn’t 2014 when he had 10 top 10s, finishing in the top five in all four majors.
   He’s piled up $530,133 in just three events. He’s just getting started while many of his tour counterparts got a headstart during the wraparound season that began in October. Some of us who watched him play the leading man on the U.S. team at Merion in 2009 just can’t get it out of our heads that we were looking at a future major champion.
   Just on pure talent Uihlein was probably the best player on that U.S. team. His considerable talent was on display this weekend as a final-round 69 at Emirates Golf Club left him in a tie for fifth in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at 12-under 276. Sergio Garcia cruised to a three-shot win over Henrik Stenson with Uihlein seven shots behind.
   The 2010 U.S. Amateur champion is 27 and somehow his World Golf Ranking is 200. He burst on the European Tour scene in 2013 with a victory in the Madeira Islands Open in Portugal and was named the Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year. But he hasn’t won since.
   On the eve of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship last month, Uihlein told Rex Hoggard of The Golf Channel that he’s content on the European Tour and has no plans to play the PGA Tour anytime soon. He could easily work himself onto the PGA Tour with a bustout season on the European circuit, but he genuinely seems to enjoy being a world traveler.
   One of these years in an Open Championship don’t be surprised … just sayin’.
   By the way, the winner of that Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship was also at Merion in 2009 as a member of the Great Britain & Ireland side. Tommy Fleetwood outdueled Dustin Johnson, among others, for his second European Tour victory. He has risen to No. 57 in the World Golf Ranking and if he can get that number inside the top 50 by the end of March, he’ll stamp his ticket to Augusta.
   Meanwhile at TPC Scottsdale, three of the teammates of Fowler and Uihlein at Merion on the U.S. side also cashed checks.
   Brian Harman, the gritty left-hander, fired a 3-undere 69 in Sunday’s final round to finish in a tie for 24th at 9-under 275. The 30-year-old Georgia product has two top 10s while making seven cuts in nine starts this year and has already raked in $761,695.
   Harman, who was also was in the field at Merion for the 2005 U.S. Amateur, is No. 99 in the World Golf Ranking. His best year was 2014 when he won $2.4 million, including his lone tour win at the John Deere Classic. He is a model of consistency, making the FedEx Cup playoffs each of the last five years.
   The third Oklahoma State Cowboy on that U.S. team in 2009 was Morgan Hoffman, who had a final-round 71 Sunday and finished tied for 36th at 7-under 277.
   A native of Franklin Lakes, N.J., the 27-year-old Hoffman is No. 359 in the World Golf Ranking. He made the FedEx Cup playoffs three years in a row before finishing just outside the top 125 in 2016. He’s got some work to do after making just four cuts in eight starts this season, but he’s proven he can compete with the big boys.
   Bud Cauley posted a final-round 69 at TPC Scottsdale to finish in a tie for 47th in the Phoenix Open. The 26-year-old Alabama product, No. 188 in the World Golf Ranking, has finished outside the top 125 in each of the last three seasons.
   But his bid to return to the FedEx Cup playoffs got a big boost last month when he finished in a tie for third at the CareerBuilder Challenge, a direct descendent of the Bob Hope Desert Classic.
   The only player in the field at the Phoenix Open from that 2009 U.S. Walker Cup team who failed to make the weekend was 29-year-old Georgia Tech product Cameron Tringale.
   Tringale, No. 239 in the World Golf Ranking, has made five cuts in eight starts and has already pocketed $126,841 this season. He has made the FedEx Cup playoffs six years in a row and seems well on his way to making it seven straight years.
   He cost himself $53,000 last summer when he reported to the PGA Tour that his wave over the ball that he then tapped in during the final round of the PGA Championship could have been considered a whiff. It was after the tournament was over. Nobody knew about it, but it nagged him. He reported it and the tour disqualified him.
    Maybe that’s why I liked all those kids on that U.S. team so much. The right way? It’s the only way they know.
   One of the players tied with Cauley for 47th at TPC Scottsdale had nothing to do with the 2009 Walker Cup, but when you’ve followed a guy like Sean O’Hair since he was battling to reach the PGA Tour in something called the New England Tour, you can’t help but keep an eye on his progress.
   An adopted son of Delaware County after marrying former Sun Valley standout Jackie Lucas, the 36-year-old O’Hair, No. 84 in the World Golf Ranking, made the cut for the fifth time in five tries with a pair of top-10 finishes already this season.
   After missing the FedEx Cup playoffs in 2013 and 2014 and battling his way back on to the PGA Tour in the Web.com playoffs, O’Hair had a solid 2015 and followed it up in 2016 with a FedEx Cup playoff run that took him all the way to the Tour Championship.
   He has earned more than $21 million and won four times on tour, but his last victory was in the 2011 Canadian Open. It would be nice to see him get back in the winner’s circle.

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