A Season of Change Ready to Begin

By Associated PressJanuary 3, 2007, 5:00 pm
PGA Tour (75x100)KAPALUA, Hawaii -- The start of another PGA TOUR season looks like any other.

Only the winners from the previous year are allowed to tee off in the Mercedes-Benz Championship. The view from the first tee on the Plantation Course at Kapalua is a 520-yard stretch of emerald terrain broken by the blue of the Pacific Ocean, with the occasional splash of a humpback whale in the distance.

And Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson stayed home again.

Stuart Appleby
Stuart Appleby has a fourth straight Mercedes win in his sights.
But even with so much familiarity, this is the year of the unknown on the PGA TOUR.

K.J. Choi is to hit the opening tee shot on Thursday, officially launching what the PGA TOUR has dubbed a 'new era in golf.' It is built around the FedExCup, a season-long points race that will pause in August to reset the standings, end with a flourish of four big tournaments and award $10 million to the winner.

'It has more of a fresh feel because it's just different,' Jim Furyk said. 'I think all of us are excited. All of us are apprehensive. All of us are scratching our heads in a few spots trying to figure out how it's all going to work. It's definitely new.'

TOUR officials have spent the last year using power-point presentations and slide shows to explain how the FedExCup works. Furyk was given 2 minutes to offer his version of the new format and broke it down into three areas -- a reorganized, shorter schedule; a way to market golf in a different light, and more excitement at the end of the year.

One thing hasn't changed.

'Whether you're looking at the money list or the points list, what it really boils down to is you need to play well,' Furyk said.

The season starts at Kapalua for the ninth straight year, a course built on a mountain that offers breathtaking scenery, generous fairways and free money at the end of the week. With only 34 players, there is no cut.

As for the 'new era in golf,' that might take time to sink in. Any changes probably won't be felt until the summer, when the tour gets closer to its playoff portion of the schedule.

The top 144 players on the points list on Aug. 20 (one week after the PGA Championship) will reach the playoffs, which start in New York. The field will be reduced to 120 players outside Boston, to 70 players for the tournament in Chicago, with the top 30 advancing to the TOUR Championship in Atlanta. The player with the most points gets $10 million.

Because the points are reset before the playoffs, it's impossible for a player to clinch the cup before September. And all that is eight months away, which is why there isn't a sense of urgency at laid-back Kapalua.

'I think everything will be pretty much normal through the year,' Stuart Appleby said. 'There will be some discussion, but I think the real crux of where the Cup is going to come is the last five weeks. Otherwise, it's just a horse race. Get out of the gates, get our position and get going. We have to play hard.'

Appleby has had no trouble getting out of the gates at Kapalua.

He is the three-time defending champion of the Mercedes-Benz Championship, and will try this week to tie a PGA TOUR record by winning the same event four straight times. Woods was the last player to do that at the Bay Hill Invitational (2000-2003).

Appleby won in 2004 by building a six-shot lead and holding off a furious charge from Vijay Singh for a one-shot victory. A year later, he let Singh, Ernie Els and a host of others make mistakes on the back nine for another one-shot victory. And last year, he birdied the last hole twice, the second time in a playoff, to beat Singh again.

Appleby has taken 825 shots on the Plantation course the last three years. Singh has taken 829 shots. Those four shots are the difference between one guy driving off with three new sports cars and the other guy taking a shuttle.

Except for playing in Australia during the offseason and not having as much rust as some other players, Appleby can't figure out why he has won nearly half his PGA TOUR victories on this island.

'There's nothing typical about this golf course that says I should do well,' he said. 'It's hilly -- I didn't grow up on hilly golf courses. Windy, yes, I'm used to wind. Bermuda (grass), I never grew up on that. I just feel comfortable here. I can play well here, and usually I'm playing well when I come here.'

Singh is back for another try at the tournament that has brought nothing but frustration. The 43-year-old Fijian has seven consecutive finishes in the top 10, his worst showing a tie for eighth in 2000.

Appleby will have plenty of challengers from the half-dozen Australians in the field, many of whom have been playing into December. U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy was runner-up to Woods in the Target World Challenge, John Senden captured the Australian Open and Adam Scott won the season-ending TOUR Championship at East Lake.

Woods, who won at Kapalua in 2000, is skipping the tournament for the second straight year. He was on a skiing vacation with his family and said he didn't have the time he wanted to prepare for this tournament, putting on hold his streak of six straight PGA TOUR wins.

Mickelson hasn't played the Mercedes-Benz since 2001.

The FedExCup will start without them, although no one in the field is terribly concerned. That leaves two fewer players to beat, and it shows that the FedExCup is about eight months, not one week.

'It's like Ryder Cup points,' Davis Love III said. 'It's in the back of your mind.'

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  • 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 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.

    Getty Images

    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.

    Getty Images

    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.