The morning started as most others, breakfast and chit chat, but we all realize how real this Big Break, as once again we were one less player at the table.
We had an interesting breakfast letter, one that was going to ruffle feathers to say the least, at least mine. The early morning first elimination was going to be a 'call out' session. We all had cards under our seats. The lower card was going to pick whom he wanted a 'show down' with, until all players were picked.
Something told me that when Mark didn't pick me – as we all assumed he would pick Anthony – the number two pick held by Chan, was going to be used to pick me. And low and behold it was me and I can say that I was not the least bit happy. Being called out is not a pleasant thing, worse when it comes from Chan. There are reasons behind my thoughts, but I was pissed and ready to send him a lullaby.
Simple rules. First player hits a shot in the fairway, next player hits and must hit his shot further and also in the fairway. Great elimination that made every player think his way through shots. It seemed that my fellow competitors started out somewhat cautiously, starting short and progressing to longer and longer shots. As I sat there, Ray and I agreed that it was time to up the elimination and just go for the jugular when it was our turns. As my match started and I was walking back to the tee, I was ready to send Chan a very direct message. That message being, “You picked me and I'm now going to show you that you made a mistake. A mistake that could send you home to eat all the grass that you want.”
As I stepped to the tee, I was going to my 'money' club, my 18 degree Adams utility wood. I know this surprised a few of the guys, but my mind was locked and loaded to hit this shot. I was so calm and ready and when that ball left the club, although not struck as solid as I would have liked, I knew the seed was planted. I hit a mediocre shot of 237 yards. I wasn't worried about what Chan was going to hit but knew he better hit a 3 wood to have any chance. When he picked a hybrid, I pretty much knew he had to hit his best or no chance. He hit it good, but it wasn't good enough and I did my job. I was safe and Chan was not. Lullaby sent.
Fortunately for me, I did not get to see the 2nd elimination because of a great excursion that Golf Channel provided for the winners of the first elimination. After watching the 2nd elimination on TV, I wish I would have seen it, because it was a very unique challenge and it would have been fun to watch the guys perform. I must say, Mike hit two GREAT shots and he deserved to advance.
Four players were up for elimination, Chan (the lowest), James, Stu and Anthony. Chan being the loser from the second elimination had the choice of choosing two players to join him in the elimination. I knew he wasn't going to pick James, so he chose Anthony and Stu. The challenge was four locations, total score and if there was a lone leader after 3 locations, he would automatically advance to the next show. Through three locations, Chan was the leader and therefore advanced to a episode four. But there was still much to be decided. Anthony and Stu had to play the remaining hole with Anthony holding a one stroke advantage. All Anthony had to do was halve the hole and he advanced. There was only one problem with that thought, Stu wasn't ready to go home yet. Anthony made par and Stu had about a 10 footer to send the match to extra holes and boom, that is exactly what he did. On the first extra hole, they both hit fair tee shots. Stu hit first and hit a good shot, just below the pin, about 10 feet again. Anthony, however hit a poor lob wedge to about 60 feet and the two putt was no gimme. Just when you think the match is swinging in a different direction, Anthony drains the bomb of his life. Stu had his destiny in his hands, but unfortunately, his putt slid by the high side and Stu's run on Big Break came to an end.
In closing, I must say that it was a pleasure and joy to get to meet and learn more about Stu. This young man has had a tough battle in his life, a battle that he will have for the remainder of his life and having dealt with a family member who had similar issues, I know golf is easy when it comes to this battle. I have faith in Stu and I'm happy to always be a lending ear to him. As for Anthony, he played great and needs to have more inner confidence. He deserves to believe in himself more than he does.
Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile
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).
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.
“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 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.
McIlroy gets back on track
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.
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.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
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.
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.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
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.
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.