Lack of Experience Not All That Bad

By Associated PressSeptember 21, 2006, 4:00 pm
36th Ryder Cup MatchesSTRAFFAN, Ireland -- Everybody has a theory on what to do with rookies.
 
Saddled with a half-dozen in his only stint as Europe's Ryder Cup captain in 1997, Seve Ballesteros simply persuaded the one he liked the least to disappear. Nine years later, American captain Tom Lehman is leaning heavily on two of his four from the get-go, sending out J.J. Henry and Brett Wetterich -- though not together -- in Friday's opening session.
 
'At some point, you're a rookie,' Lehman said Thursday, less than 24 hours from the opening tee shot. 'When I was a rookie, I played the very first match and hit the very first shot at Oak Hill.'
 
To quiet his jangling nerves, Lehman recalled focusing on something Lanny Wadkins, his captain in 1995, said just before he sent Lehman out: ''I put you here because I know you can do it.''
 
'And I think,' Lehman added, 'that's why you play the guys you play.'
 
Henry, though, has a slightly different take on why he and fellow rookies Wetterich, Vaughn Taylor and Zach Johnson might see a lot of playing time.
 
'Let's be honest,' Henry said recently. 'We've lost four of five. We haven't been setting the world on fire. We might not be household names, but a lack of history might not be all that bad a thing in this case.'
 
Besides, it's worked out plenty of times before -- for the Europeans, anyway.
 
Under the current format -- four better-ball and four alternate-shot matches both Friday and Saturday, followed by a dozen singles matches Sunday -- every one of the 12 team members has to play at least once. But because their teams have had fewer bona fide superstars and even fewer overheated egos to ice down, the Europeans haven't been afraid to trot theirs out early and often.
 
In that same 1995 Ryder Cup where Lehman made his debut, an obscure Irishman named Philip Walton sank the winning putt in the next-to-last singles match Sunday against the much more experienced Jay Haas. In 2002, it was another, slightly less obscure Irishman named Paul McGinley who clinched Europe's win with a 6-footer to halve his match with Jim Furyk.
 
The only U.S. win in the last five cups, in fact, came at Brookline in 1999, when European captain Mark James ignored the philosophy of his predecessors. He sat three of his seven rookies until the singles matches, then watched the strategy backfire as the Americans steamrolled the trio en route to a 6-0 lead and the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history.
 
Ian Woosnam, this year's Euro boss, has only two rookies on the squad, Swedes Robert Karlsson and Henrik Stenson. Karlsson gets his feet wet in Friday's second match, pairing with World Match Play winner Paul Casey against Henry and Stewart Cink.
 
Karlsson might feel he has something extra to prove, since the Swede was mysteriously left off the 1999 team by James in favor of Scot Andrew Coltart, even though Karlsson amassed more qualifying points. But that wouldn't make him much different from any of the other rookies.
 
'So what if we're rookies? So what if it's our first time in the Ryder Cup? It's still just golf,' said Taylor, who, like Wetterich, has never officially competed in match play. 'I've played golf for 20 years. I know I will be nervous, but I don't think we're all suddenly going to forget how to play.'
 
Not the way Chris Riley did, anyway.
 
He was a rookie on the 2004 team that suffered the Americans' worst pummeling ever. Riley had to sit until Saturday morning just to get a game, but after pairing with Tiger Woods to win a better-ball match, he begged off playing alternate-shot in the afternoon and captain Hal Sutton reluctantly went along. In a recent book, Jackie Burke, a two-time U.S. captain himself and Sutton's assistant in 2004, recalled how that little bit of momentum Riley and Woods managed to generate was quickly squandered.
 
'If Chris had told me he had no experience with the foursomes,' Burke wrote, 'I would have told him, 'Most of us have little or no experience with it. But it works like this. He hits it, then you hit. Now get your ass out there.''
 
Of course, that's easier said than done.
 
Ballesteros had so little faith in rookie Miguel Angel Martin in 1997 that he convinced his fellow Spaniard that a wrist injury was worse than Martin thought, sent him home with a uniform and a team photo, and replaced him with another countryman, Jose Maria Olazabal.
 
Because they often play such a pivotal role at the Ryder Cup, advice on how to handle rookies has become something of a cottage industry.
 
No less an authority than Jack Nicklaus, a two-time Ryder Cup captain, was asked awhile back whether he would let a rookie paired with a veteran at the peak of his game hit the opening drive. He answered by explaining that when he plays with one of his sons in a tournament, he always had them tee off first.
 
'It's best to know,' Nicklaus said, 'that they have Dad in reserve.'
 
If only everybody had that option.
 
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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.