Long Tough Road to the Top

By Associated PressJanuary 2, 2007, 5:00 pm
PGA Tour (75x100)KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Adam Scott was in his final year of high school in Australia when he awoke at 5 a.m. one Monday in April to watch the final round of the Masters. What he saw that morning brought equal doses of awe and reality.
Scott had spent countless hours working on his game, driven by the dream of being No. 1 in the world. On the screen that morning was 21-year-old Tiger Woods becoming the youngest Masters champion with a record score of 18-under 270 for a 12-shot victory, the largest margin in a major championship since 1862.
Adam Scott
Adam Scott has a long way to go to catch Tiger Woods at the top.
'I thought it was unreal,' Scott said.
And it didn't take long for him to recognize that his dream might be just that.
Scott showed up at Kapalua for the start of the 2007 season with his game as good as it has ever been. He found consistency to go with that polished swing, rose to a career-high No. 4 in the world ranking and captured the TOUR Championship to finish a career-best No. 3 on the PGA TOUR money list.
The final few steps, though, seem like a marathon.
'All my life as a kid, I dreamt of being No. 1 in the world,' Scott said 'How am I going to live up that dream? I've got to somehow figure out a way to play better than this guy over a pretty long period of time. I don't think I'm making up ground on him, but at least I'm creeping up to a level that's competitive.'
Then he paused, and finished the sentence with a smile.
'On a good day.'
That's not giving up. That's reality.
Woods first rose to No. 1 in the summer of 1997, and only two players have taken that away from him -- David Duval in 1999 and Vijay Singh in 2004.
So it can be done.
Then again, neither stayed at No. 1 for more than six months. And both times Woods lost the No. 1 ranking, he was at the tail end of overhauling his swing.
A new year brings renewed optimism, yet the one question that remains is whether any young player is capable of challenging Woods. The list of candidates has become more refined, spearheaded by Scott, U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald and Paul Casey. All of them are in their 20s.
And all of them understand what they are facing.
'It's unfortunate for us that we've probably got the best golfer of all time that we have to be better than to be No. 1 in the world,' Ogilvy said. 'But we're also fortunate to be playing in his generation. We're all better because of him. The tournaments are better, there's more people to play in front of.'
Ogilvy broke through in a major way last year, winning the Accenture Match Play Championship and the U.S. Open. He finished fifth on the money list despite missing two months when his wife gave birth to their first child. Long considered one of the most talented Aussies, his goal was always to be the best, figuring the No. 1 ranking would come along with that.
And now?
'I still have aspirations to be No. 1,' said Ogilvy, now at No. 10. 'I think it's feasible. Is it feasible when he's having a run like he's having now? I don't know.'
Inspiration comes from Singh, who set a lofty goal in 2002 to take down Tiger. Remember, this was the year that Woods won the Masters and the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, and finished second at the PGA Championship. Singh closed that year by winning the Tour Championship to move to No. 7 in the world.
But the Fijian matched Woods' five victories in '03, then won nine times in '04 to dethrone Woods.
'If someone told you that Vijay would be No. 1 in the world after Bethpage, you would have laughed,' Ogilvy said. 'Well, you wouldn't have laughed because Vijay is a great player. But you would have laughed if someone said anyone would be better than Tiger. He was winning tournaments for fun back then. No question, it's possible. But it's going to be tough. And a lot depends on him.'
Woods twice went 10 majors without winning, and he lost his No. 1 ranking during both those droughts. But his rebound was remarkable. After the first dry spell, he won seven of the next 11 majors; after the second, he won four of the next eight.
'If Tiger plays his best golf, it's hard to beat that,' Casey said. 'It can be done, and I don't think Tiger would disagree. But he would find a way to work twice as hard to make sure it didn't happen. And that's the difficult part.'
Garcia already has played in the final group twice in a major (both times losing to Woods). Scott's four victories include The Players Championship and the TOUR Championship. Casey won three times in Europe last year and was voted the tour's best golfer. Ogilvy will try to convert his first major into many more.
All of them have solid credentials, weakened only by comparisons to Woods.
'The hardest thing now is for young kids to realize this Tiger benchmark is out of most everyone's league,' Scott said. 'I think it's a hard thing for young kids to find out when they get here. I certainly found out it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.'
But he hasn't given up a dream nurtured as a teenager in Australia, even before he turned on his TV that Monday morning in 1997.
'You can't give up on your hope of being No. 1 in the world,' Scott said. 'I want to be No. 1, and I believe I can be. But I've got to be realistic. If I play my best golf in the next five years, then I might be No. 1. If. Maybe. And it depends on what he does. But it's five years away for me.'
Another pause, another smile.
'Maybe I'll catch him between swing changes,' Scott said. 'He'll be due for another one then.'
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    Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

    By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

    Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

    The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from a trip to Augusta.

    He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

    Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

    Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

    Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

    Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

    The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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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.