Second Season Begins

By September 28, 2004, 4:00 pm
Big Break II LogoThe Golf Channel debuted the first episode of The Big Break II Tuesday night, the networks follow-up to its hit series from last fall where 10 highly skilled golfers from around the country compete in a weekly showdown using a variety of golf skills challenges. The last man standing after the 11-week season wins the Big Break of his golfing career - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in four Nationwide Tour events televised on The Golf Channel in 2005.
Flying in from all over the country, the 10 competitors were a bit confused as to why they all were meeting inside an airport in Ontario, Calif. But shortly after all had arrived and spent a little time getting to know one another they were escorted outside to a bus that they figured was going to take them the rest of the way into Vegas.
Why are we in Ontario, Calif., when were supposed to be in Las Vegas? Whats going on? wondered schoolteacher Jay McNair from Brandon, Fla.
The Big Break IIAnd then off the bus steps none other than Matt Griesser, better known to most as Sign Boy from the FootJoy television commercials, and co-host with Peter Jacobson on The Golf Channels Plugged In series. Knowing Sign Boy and his antics, the group soon began to realize that something was up, especially after the bus pulled into a deserted Air Force base.
All I see is all these little Cessna planes. Im like dude, Im not getting on one of those planes, said McNair about the shows first apparent twist. I dont know what they got planned, but I aint getting on with a personal pilot on no Cessna. I aint doing it.
So after they all pile out of the bus, Sign Boy informed them that the beautiful private jet that they pulled up alongside (not the Cessna) will be taking to Vegas those competitors who can complete this seasons first challenge.
A makeshift green was ready on the tarmac and the players would have to make a simple 3-foot putt if they wanted to ride on the charter plane provided by Net Jets. If they missed, it was back on the bus with Sign Boy for a long, long bus ride to Sin City.
Youre like, Its a 3-footer and, well, a 3-footer is not that big of a deal. But then (you see) the wind is flying by the flagstick, remarked Bart Lower about the suddenly not so simple task. It was exciting; it got the heart pumping a little bit. And you dont want to gag the first challenge.
One by one they stepped up and drained the putt that put them on the Net Jet, except for one, Mike Foster Jr., who ended up pushing his putt just a little and watched as it lipped out.
I think I was just too excited, a little bit of the adrenalin running, said Foster, who is known as Hawaiian Mike. I wasnt disappointed that I missed, I just felt that I shouldve made it.
With that, the lucky nine who made the putt reveled in the comforts of the Net Jet as they were finally en route to the bright lights of Las Vegas where a fabulous penthouse suite was awaiting, complete with a virtual golf simulator and other amenities any golfer would love.
Its absolutely ridiculous. We got our own putting green, said a wide-eyed David Gunas Jr., a golf professional from Manchester, Conn. We got our own slot machine. We cant get any money out of it, but were trying.
After getting a tour through the resort and settling into their room assignments, the group looked forward to the following day where they would begin their Big Break II quest.
Meeting the next morning on the range of the Stallion Mountain Country Club with new co-host Lesley Swanson - who will set the stage for each episode and guide the contestants through the various challenges ' the competitors were introduced to Rick Smith, famed golf instructor for 2004 Masters champion Phil Mickelson.
Smith, who will be on hand to offer advice, tips and other needs for the players, was excited to set up the days first challenge as well as pass along some other wonderful information. First was the news that Nationwide was sweetening the pot of the four Nationwide Tour exemptions to also include $10,000 in cash. Secondly, Ford Motor Company was offering a new Ford 500 luxury sedan to the lucky winner of the Big Break II.
The Big Break IIOther good news was that this first challenge was a chance to let the competitors get their feet wet and that no one would face elimination. It also, much to the delight of everyone, afforded them a chance to win a new Ford 500 outright, even before things were to get serious.
Sitting on the tee box, a target green was located 300-yards away and the players were told that the person that wound up closest to the pin would have a chance to knock his next shot into the cup for the luxury sedan.
If you can get up-and-down from 300-yards you win a new car? Youve got to be kidding me? said driving range owner Bart Lower of Ann Arbor, Mich.
Each competitor then took turns trying to knock it stiff but ultimately it was Lower who ended up closest to the pin following a ripped 3-wood that finished some 23 feet from the hole.
Pulling off any golf shot when you have to pull it off is a great feeling, said Lower. Whether its $10 with your buddies or a shot like that.
But with the pressure squarely on his shoulders, his putt for the car unfortunately drifted left and settled a few feet from the hole.
No one ever said winning in Las Vegas was easy.
I just didnt play enough break and it kinda hopped a little bit and the wind just pushed it and pushed it, said Lower on his nerve-racking putt. Im like, Sorry honey, no car.
With that initial skill challenge over and the players more aware of what to expect, the group returned to their suite knowing the next day things were going to get serious, and that someone was going to become the first sent packing for home.
Not lost among the surroundings of Las Vegas though was what the Big Break could ultimately mean to them individually.
It would give me a chance to chase my dream one more time, remarked Hawaiian Mike. This is all anyone could ask for.

The chance to get four Nationwide Tour starts is very important to me, reiterated Kip Henley III, a golf teaching pro from Crossville, Tenn. I mean it would be my true Big Break.
Be sure to tune in to The Golf Channel next Tuesday at 9:00 p.m.(ET) as the first competitor will fail to capitalize on what could have been his Big Break.
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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.

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    McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

    By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

    Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

    Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

    The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

    Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

    McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

    McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.