Road to the Top Always Goes Through Woods

By Associated PressJuly 25, 2006, 4:00 pm
PGA Tour (75x100)Golf's landscape can change quickly.
Phil Mickelson had a two-shot lead with three holes to play at the U.S. Open. He looked like a lock to win his third straight major and head to Hoylake for a shot at his own Grand Slam, and a spot in history that was supposed to be the private domain of Tiger Woods.
Four days on the crispy, brown links of Royal Liverpool changed everything.
The cheers Mickelson heard as he finished up the British Open on Sunday were coming from behind the 18th green, where Woods had a one-shot lead and was just getting started. Woods then matched the best round of the day (67) while playing in the final group and won by two shots for his 11th career major.
Woods now has won three of the last seven majors, slightly better than the 3-of-9 mark Mickelson brought to Winged Foot.
Mickelson might never get another chance like the one he had at the U.S. Open, making double bogey on the 18th hole to lose by one shot. Woods winning the next major was almost like slamming shut a door that was halfway open.
The points separating Woods (No. 1) and Mickelson (No. 2) in the world ranking are equal to the points that separate Mickelson and Brett Rumford at No. 126. The actual gap isn't that wide, but considering how they finished off the last two majors, it might seem that way.
Heading to Medinah next month for the PGA Championship, this is how the landscape looks now.
Mickelson had been the best player through six months of the season, but now it's a toss-up.
He won by 13 shots at the BellSouth Classic and followed that with his second victory in the Masters and should have won the U.S. Open.
Woods, however, leads the PGA Tour in victories. Along with his silver claret jug, he won the Buick Invitational in a playoff and the Ford Championship at Doral in a shootout.
Not to be forgotten is Geoff Ogilvy. Along with winning the U.S. Open after Mickelson's collapse, the 29-year-old Australian was the comeback kid at the Accenture Match Play Championship, surviving four matches that went extra holes.
Woods might have the edge right now because his victory at Royal Liverpool put him atop the PGA Tour money list for the first time this year at just over $4.2 million, even though he has played only 10 tournaments.
The money title is significant because it's something Mickelson has never won. He also has never been voted player of the year.
Barring a victory at Medinah next month, Mickelson will not be allowed to take time off over the last month of the season -- including the Tour Championship -- if he wants to win those awards.
'We have one more major coming up, and I really want to be prepared for that,' Mickelson said.
Still, the message that came out of Hoylake was that all roads ultimately have to go through Woods.
Just as glaring as the absence of Mickelson among the leaders at the British Open was the presence of Sergio Garcia, playing in the final group with Woods while dressed in an outfit that some would say was the color of a lemon.
Garcia was outclassed from the start. With shorter irons in his hand, he couldn't get the ball closer to the hole than Woods. And his putting is so poor, some wonder whether he is battling the yips at age 26. He looked closer to Woods at age 19 when he chased after him at Medinah in the '99 PGA Championship than he did on Sunday.
Ernie Els had his chances, too.
He held his own playing with Woods in the final group Saturday, when both shot 71. But it was an ideal situation in the final round when Els played in the second-to-last group, and put pressure on Woods with no mistakes and a two-putt birdie on No. 5 to tie for the lead.
But the Big Easy blinked, and he had to settle for his best finish in a major in two years.
Els has three majors and is among the few players in their prime to have been No. 1 in the world. But one can only wonder how many more majors he would have won without Woods in the picture.
'Competing against a guy like Tiger for our generation of players is really tough,' Els said. 'He has really found a way to win majors. For me, I can do a couple of things better under pressure, so I'm going to be working on that for the next time I play a major.'
Vijay Singh sustained his battle with Woods longer than anyone. He rose to No. 1 in the world in 2004 with nine victories, beating Woods head-to-head and staying at the top for six months. That's longer than anyone else has been No. 1 since Woods turned pro.
But he missed the cut at Royal Liverpool, his first weekend off at a major in four years.
It was a strong leaderboard going into the last day at the British Open -- Woods by one over Garcia, Els and DiMarco, all of whom Woods has beaten while paired together in the final group of a major.
DiMarco must wonder what it takes to win a major. He shot 68 in the final round, didn't make a bogey over the final 17 holes, and still was reduced to a footnote after finishing two shots behind.
'He's a hard guy to catch,' DiMarco said. 'He's got an uncanny ability, when somebody gets close to him, to turn it up to another level.'
And until that changes, Woods will be in the driver's seat.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

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.