Koepka prevails in Phoenix for first Tour win

By Doug FergusonFebruary 1, 2015, 11:03 pm

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Brooks Koepka has lost track of the miles flown, the oceans crossed and the stamps in his passport as he toiled in remote corners of the golfing world for more than two years to prepare himself for moments like Sunday at the Phoenix Open.

The most significant journey turned out to be the 50 feet his golf ball traveled from the fringe, up a ridge and right into the cup.

That eagle on the par-5 15th hole gave Koepka a share of the lead, and he left the mistakes to everyone else the rest of the way. He closed with a 5-under 66 for a one-shot victory and his first PGA Tour title.

''I left every long putt short today,'' Koepka said. ''I said to my caddie, 'I'm finally going to get this one there.'''


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Hideki Matsuyama, among five players who had a share of the lead over the wild final hour at the TPC Scottsdale, was the last player in Koepka's way. The 22-year-old from Japan had an 18-foot putt to force a playoff, but it never had a chance and he closed with a 67.

Masters champion Bubba Watson (65) and Ryan Palmer (66) had to settle for pars on the three closing holes and joined Matsuyama in a tie for second. Martin Laird, tied for the lead with two holes to play, hit into the gallery on the 17th and made bogey and yanked his tee shot into the water on the 18th and made double bogey for a 72.

A week that began with hype over Tiger Woods, who shot 82 and missed the cut by 12 shots, ended with yet another example of a massive generation shift.

The 24-year-old Koepka didn't get the recognition of Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, or former U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, his roommate in Florida with whom he often traveled in Europe. His raw power got the attention of his peers, however, and Koepka went through enough trials to mature into a rising star.

His second victory in four starts against strong fields - he won the Turkish Airlines Open during the final stretch of the Race to Dubai in Europe in November - moved him to No. 19 in the world.

''It's unbelievable,'' said Koepka, who finished at 15-under 269. ''I didn't think I would work my way up this quickly, but playing the Challenge and European tours led to this. And especially the failure I've had. I can't tell you how much I learned from that.''

Koepka proved to be one smooth customer - he describes himself as ''chill'' - even when the starter pronounced his name as something like ''cupcake'' on the first tee. He laughed during practice swings. He wasn't rattled when Matsuyama holed a wedge from 129 yards for eagle on the opening hole, or when the Japanese star added two more birdies to catch Laird, who began Sunday with a three-shot lead.

Koepka was making nothing but pars. Back-to-back birdies late on the front nine kept him in the game, though still two shots behind.

Matsuyama took the lead with a beautiful pitch behind the green at the par-5 13th, and Koepka followed him to 4 feet for a birdie to stay two behind. Matsuyama had gone 44 holes without a bogey until a three-putt on the 14th, and then everything changed on the 15th.

Koepka rolled in his 50-foot eagle putt and tied Laird, who two-putted from 25 feet.

The tournament effectively was decided on the 322-yard 17th. Laird went well right into the gallery, did well to chip to 50 feet in the fat of the green and three-putted for a bogey. Koepka needed a little luck. With the tees moved forward, it was slightly too close for his 3-wood, not long enough for his hybrid.

He hit 3-wood onto and over the green. And when he saw it disappear over the back, Koepka thought he was cooked.

''One of the camera guys said it stayed up. I still don't know how,'' he said.

The ball settled on the red hazard line, a foot from the water. He made par, and then showed no nerves on the 18th by smashing a driver over the water and bunkers, 331 yards away.

Watson tied for the lead by holing a bunker shot on the par-3 12th for birdie and two-putting for birdie from 20 feet on the 13th.

''I just couldn't do anything after that,'' he said.

His lost opportunity came on the 17th, when his 3-wood went to the front of the green and he three-putted from over 100 feet and made par. Palmer also had birdie chances on the last three holes and couldn't convert.

Arizona State junior Jon Rahm closed with a 68 to tie for fifth with Laird. It was the best finish by a Sun Devil still on the golf team playing in the Phoenix Open. The previous best was a tie for 32nd by Phil Mickelson. However, the top 10 does not get the Spaniard into Torrey Pines next week because he is an amateur. Besides, he's on his way to Hawaii to join his teammates for a tournament.

Koepka is going to San Diego - one of the shorter trips in his career - and with new status as a PGA Tour winner.

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LAAC returning to Casa de Campo in 2019

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 8:23 pm

The Latin America Amateur Championship will return to Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic in 2019 (Jan. 17-20), event organizers announced Saturday in Chile, where this year’s championship is underway.

The LAAC champion receives an invitation to play the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club every spring.

The champion is also exempt into The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event for which he is eligible to compete. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The championship got its start in 2015 with Chile’s Matias Dominguez winning at Pilar Golf in Argentina. In 2016, Casa de Campo hosted, with Costa Rica’s Paul Chaplet winning. At 16, he became the first player from Central America to compete in the Masters. In 2017, Chile’s Toto Gana won the title at  Club de Golf de Panama.

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Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 6:07 pm

An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.

It was too much “socializing.”

“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”

Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.

“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.

His plan for doing that?

“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

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Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.