Quiet But Persistent Business Buzz at Augusta National

By Adam BarrApril 10, 2002, 4:00 pm
The latest from Augusta:
 
Under the giant oak tree behind the clubhouse at Augusta National Golf Club, manners are genteel but fashion rules are relaxed. Where else could the most powerful people in golf feel perfectly comfortable in a fine blazer, a snappy tie ' and a baseball cap?
 
Many of those caps are emblazoned with golfs most recognizable brand names: Callaway, TaylorMade, Titleist and more. And although this is not a week for high productivity, golfs leaders come to see, be seen, and drink up the fabled atmosphere at golfs cherished rite of spring.
 
Geniality reigns. You may see ideological rivals chatting, even laughing (U.S. Golf Association officers and equipment company executives, for example). Any meetings with potential for brow-furrowing occur off-site.
 
Buzz becomes louder as the competition days approach.
 
CALLAWAY TO POST STRONG FIRST QUARTER: Advance word on Callaways first quarter financial numbers have the company feeling proud. The income statement wont be released until Thursday, April 18, but inside sources say to expect gross sales of $245 million. That works out to about 41 cents per share, about what Callaway expected. Considering the sluggish economy for big-ticket and recreational goods in the wake of September 11, the results are pleasing, say Callaway higher-ups.
 
Typically, either the first or fourth quarter yields the lowest gross sales for premium golf companies. If thats true and the summer is strong, could Callaway crack a billion this year?
 
Callaway also reports that its Odyssey 2-Ball putter is moving so well at retail that sales of that model would make it the worlds third biggest putter company all by itself. Odyssey claims a 45 percent market share in on-course golf shops.
 
THE TAYLORMADE-MAXFLI HORIZON: Look for TaylorMade-adidas Golf to exercise its option to buy all of Maxfli and Slazenger some time this summer, say sources close to the situation.
 
Late last year, TMaG set up a complex transaction that gave it effective ownership of Maxfli for five years, with an option to make it permanent. TaylorMade moved its golf ball production to Maxflis Westminster, S.C. plant and gave its Pontotoc, Miss. plant to Maxfli seller Dunlop Slazenger Group. (DSG promptly shut down that plant.)
 
What will happen if TMaG indeed takes the reins for good? Well, dont expect the Maxfli Noodle golf ball, or anything like it, to hang around. TaylorMades focus has been on making the best golf equipment for the best players, and polishing its image to match. Thats how it would handle the Maxfli brand.
 
So Maxfli clubs would vanish, and golf balls would be positioned as serious, high-performance products worthy of matching up with TaylorMade clubs. But its likely TMaG wouldnt completely meld the companies; the strategy would be to maintain Maxflis brand integrity and position it under the adidas umbrella. And even though adidas, the worlds second-largest sporting goods company, would be the corporate parent, the golf brands would probably be organized under the TaylorMade master brand, to take advantage of TMs strong golf pedigree.
 
HAD TO BE THE SHOES: Cocktail parties and dinners are a big part of Masters week. Most of them are pleasant but normal-looking affairs ' but count on Nike to set itself apart. In a lovely home not far from Augusta National, Nike had a party Tuesday night that featured the now-famous Annika Sorenstam red golf shoes displayed in a glass box. Annika stopped by later in the evening; I had to resist the temptation to ask her to put on the shoes, click the heels together, and say Theres no place like Stockholm.
 
Annika is also in town this week to accept an award from the Golf Writers Association of America, whose annual dinner is Wednesday night. Ill be there to lead the standing ovation when my colleague George White steps up to collect his well-deserved writing award.
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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.