Bunkers making players bonkers at Atlanta Athletic Club

By Doug FergusonAugust 13, 2011, 7:21 pm

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – The longest par 70 in major championship history. Water on half of the holes.

There was plenty of evidence that Atlanta Athletic Club would be a strong test for the PGA Championship, and it has proven to be just that through the opening two rounds. But perhaps the biggest challenge is something not many players considered before they arrived.

The bunkers.

Not just where they are located, but the sand that fills them.

“The sand is very heavy,” D.A. Points said. “The sand is very powdery, so your ball rolls into it; it does not sit on the top of the sand. It sits a sixth of the golf ball down. It’s almost better if you can somehow hit a shot into a place where somebody has already raked.”

Rickie Fowler was 3 under in the third round Saturday when he caught a bunker short and left of the eighth green. His next shot was a shocker, sailing some 40 yards over the green, behind a row of bushes, almost on part of the fourth tee. He wound up with triple bogey, erasing the three birdies he had made.

Tiger Woods had a soft lie and an awkward stance in the bunker on No. 11 in the second round. He blasted out, turned his head away when sand flew into his eyes, and was able to see again just in time to take in his ball racing across the green and into the water.

“Bunker play wouldn’t really be a strength at the best of times,” Graeme McDowell said after missing the cut. “But out of these traps, they are just unplayable.”

Scott Verplank managed just fine with some of the lies he had Friday, saving par all four times he was in the sand around the green. From the fairway on the 14th, however, he poked it out to the fairway some 100 yards short of the green and had to scramble for bogey.

Perhaps most telling was one of the purest shots of the tournament.

Paul Casey was in a bunker just right of the 18th fairway - the same bunker where moments earlier, Woods put a 4-iron into the water. When he saw his ball, he realized he had received a good break. Why? Because it was in a spot that had been raked.

Needing par to make the cut, he hit 4-iron to 18 feet and two-putted to make it to the weekend.

“It was a spot that had a lot of action,” Casey said. “The caddies had raked it and I had a good lie. This sand is lumpy, clumpy, whatever the word is. And it’s incredibly light. So the weight of the ball sits down. You can’t get at the back of the ball. That’s why you’re seeing either low shots or chunks. There’s no in between.”

In a way, it’s like links golf - avoid bunkers at all costs because it can be a half-shot penalty.

Casey has no problem with that. Bunkers are supposed to be hazards and players aren’t supposed to hit into them. Too many times on too many courses, players have tried to put it in the sand for an easier shot.

But on this course, there are plenty of other defenses, whether it’s water guarding the greens or the contours on fast greens, making it difficult for anyone on the wrong side of the hole.

“Bunkers are hazards, but it has to be in balance with the rest of the course,” he said. “These are making guys look silly. And it’s killing creativity and shotmaking.”

Casey could relate to Fowler’s plight in the sand Saturday. Earlier in the day, he hit into the water, then the bunker, and sailed well over the green and made an 8. Fowler at least escaped with a triple bogey.

Points was one shot out of the lead going into the weekend, which he attributed to keeping the ball in the fairway. That normally means a player is happy to avoid the rough. In this case, throw in the bunker.

“If it’s a fairway bunker shot, it’s no fun,” Points said. “And if it’s a greenside bunker shot, it’s hard to get much spin on it and the ball just comes out real heavy.

“It’s a hard sand to judge.”

There have been endless examples of how difficult the bunkers are playing. Rory McIlroy on the third hole Friday had a shot on the upslope, strange in that it wasn’t plugged. It took him two shots to get out. Woods hit a tee shot on No. 18 in the first round that buried in the slope and left him no chance but to go sideways, and he did well to get to the edge of the fairway.

For Casey, the most telling moment came Friday.

He was playing with Miguel Angel Jimenez and Steve Stricker. All three hit similar tee shots that landed in the same bunker.

“Jimenez had a good lie and hit it close,” Casey said. “Mine came out thin and right, hit some trees and went over by the gallery. Stricker chunked his 30 yards. So you had three tour players in the same bunker not within 100 yards of each other.”

Casey is out of the tournament. He barely made the cut, and that quadruple-bogey 8 sent him to a 78. His only concern is whether the bunkers will make a difference to someone down the stretch Sunday, with the final major of the year on the line.

“I just hope it doesn’t cost someone coming in,” he said.

A bunker getting a lot of attention on the final hole of the PGA Championship? Now that sounds familiar. Dustin Johnson was in one on the last hole at Whistling Straits last year, except he didn’t know he was in a bunker.

In Atlanta, there’s no mistaking them.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.