New Year with Unlimited Possibilities

By Associated PressJanuary 5, 2005, 5:00 pm
04 Mercedes ChampionshipsKAPALUA, Hawaii -- The serenity of the moment didn't last long for Vijay Singh.
Staring down the lush green fairway into the Pacific Ocean, on a day so clear it looked like he could hit the island of Molokai on the horizon, Singh's drive instead ballooned into a big slice. He quickly turned and scolded a photographer whose camera went off too early.
Then his trainer and caddie, Joey Diovisalvi, walked over to another photographer and told him, 'No pictures.'
Maui is a wonderful place to relax, but there's no time for that now.
Singh is on top of the world, but it's getting crowded at the top. And while the season-opening Mercedes Championships at Kapalua offers the most spectacular views on the PGA Tour, a snapshot of the elite in golf also is breathtaking.

A new season has rarely looked this ripe with possibilities.
Singh is the undisputed No. 1 player, coming off a season in which he won nine times, added his third major championship and shattered the PGA Tour record with nearly $11 million.
Tiger Woods and Ernie Els are capable of replacing him quickly if the 41-year-old Fijian can't keep up his amazing pace. Masters champion Phil Mickelson and U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen are poised to make a move, and some believe Sergio Garcia is ready to join the elite.
'This year is going to be exciting,' Goosen said. 'There will probably be a No. 1 player a few times this year.'
Joey Sindelar first joined the PGA Tour in 1984, when Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino were not done winning majors and Tom Watson was the man to beat. Curtis Strange was on the verge of becoming a dominant player, and Greg Norman was about to make his first big splash in the majors.
Still, he can't remember a time when so many top players were hitting their stride at the same time.
'It would be like having the best of the '70s, the best of the '80s and the best of the '90s all happening at one time,' Sindelar said. 'We didn't have that many dominators during those years. There were one or two. Now you've just named five or six. And there's probably more.
'When you look at them all together, it's like looking at a bunch of 7-footers.'
It all begins to unfold Thursday when the Mercedes Championships get under way on the Plantation Course at Kapalua with an elite 31-man field comprised of only PGA Tour winners from last year. The only one missing is Mickelson, who elected not to play.
Singh still stands the tallest in the field, an imposing figure with a swing he has grooved from countless hours on the practice range. He won six out of the last eight tournaments he played on tour, and he finished out of the top 10 only once over the final three months.
'Vijay is the man at the moment,' Els said.
Along with becoming only the sixth man in PGA Tour history to win at least nine times, Singh ended Woods' five-year reign at No. 1 in the world ranking.
Woods showed up at Kapalua on Monday, the earliest he has ever arrived for the Mercedes because heavy rains near his home in California kept him from practicing.
Sitting in a cart after playing nine holes earlier in the week, someone asked him about the rivalry with Singh. Woods laughed and shook his head, not wanting to take part in a debate he has heard for years.
'You guys are funny,' he said before driving off.
Even when he was ruling the PGA Tour, Woods dismissed talk of a rivalry by mentioning there were too many players who could serve as his foil. Now when he says that, people believe him.
'There's no doubt at the moment there's a lot of guys playing well,' Garcia said. 'Of course, two or three years ago, Tiger was the one that was standing out. But I think right now at the moment, there's a bigger group. There's no doubt that it's exciting to see what's going to happen.'
Woods ended his most troublesome year -- one PGA Tour victory, not in contention in any of the majors -- by winning the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan and his Target World Challenge in December against a 16-man field in the silly season. But he found the swing key he had been working on with coach Hank Haney, and expectations are high.
Asked if it was similar to 1999, when he finally figured out his swing changes, Woods said, 'No. It's better.'
'I just feel that the swing is better,' he said. 'It's hard to explain. I worked my tail off this past year, and the results I had toward the end of the season made it so exciting.'
They remain high for Els, too.
Having taken time off to run his toes through the sand along the coast of South Africa, the Big Easy figured 2004 wasn't all that bad. He won five times around the world -- three times on the PGA Tour -- but most remember the close calls he had in all four majors, especially his playoff loss to Todd Hamilton at Royal Troon.
'If you told me before last year, 'Hey, I'll give you three top 5s in the majors, I'll give you five wins worldwide,' that's a very good year,' Els said. 'But who knows? Let's see how it goes. Just winning any tournament to start off will be great, and then see how the momentum builds.
'Let's just be cautious at the start and see where we are and take it from there.'
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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 what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

    "The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

    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).

    Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

    Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the 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.

    “Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

    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 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.