Notes: Home stretch towards the playoffs

By Doug FergusonJuly 19, 2011, 6:26 pm

SANDWICH, England – Three majors down, one to go.

And while the attention now shifts to Atlanta for the final major of the year at the PGA Championship, right behind that is the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs on the PGA Tour. With only five tournaments left in the regular season, the standings indicate what kind of year it has been.

Two of the major champions – Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke – are not PGA Tour members and won’t be there.

A 14-time major champion might not be there for long, if at all.

Tiger Woods, who hasn’t played since he withdrew from The Players Championship in May and hasn’t earned any points since The Masters, dropped three spots to No. 129 in the FedEx Cup standings. Only the top 125 qualify for the playoff-opener at The Barclays, and the fields are then trimmed to 100 players, then 70 and 30 for The Tour Championship.

Even if he returns soon, it might not be for long if Woods doesn’t play well.

But he’s not alone in his struggles. Three players who finished in the top 10 in the FedEx Cup last year are not among the top 100 in the standings, and two of them might not get to the first playoff event.

Ernie Els, who missed the cut in the last two majors, is at No. 139. Paul Casey is even farther down the list at No. 143. The other top 10 player from last year is Retief Goosen, who is No. 106.

Jim Furyk won the $10 million prize last year. He ended a streak of four straight missed cuts at the British Open, but he still is No. 76 in the standings and will have to work hard – if not over the next five weeks, then the first two playoff events – to get back to the Tour Championship.

FATHER-SON TRIP: U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein made his first cut in a major at the British Open, ending a two-week trip to Britain that was memorable not only for where he played and practiced, but the company he kept.

He played with his father, Wally Uihlein, the chief executive of the Acushnet Co., who has kept busier than usual this year preparing for Titleist’s umbrella company to be sold to a Korean group headed by Fila. Joining them were Acushnet vice president Peter Broome and his son, Matt, who plays at Furman and grew up with the Uihleins.

“It was good fun,” Peter Uihlein said. “We had a few days of good golf. We haven’t done that in at least 10 years.”

They played Kingsbarns and the Old Course at St. Andrews, along with Carnoustie and Royal Aberdeen, a key part of the trip for when Uihlein returns in two months for the Walker Cup.

Wally Uihlein referred to it as more than just a father-son trip.

Along with going to Royal Aberdeen before the Walker Cup, Uihlein thought it would be beneficial for his son to experience links golf, see the home of golf and get an appreciation of how golf is passed down from generations.

“It seemed like the appropriate thing to do,” Uihlein said. “It’s not just a son going to play golf with his father. We’re much more purposeful than that. It was as much about the culture and the emotional experience, and how people feel about their golf over here.”

His son and Matt Broome, who reached U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying this year, each opened with a 66 at Kingsbarns. As for the Titleist chief?

“My (handicap) index shows 20 rounds over the last 15 months,” Uihlein said. “I broke 80 most of the time, and I was happy with that.”

ONE-TWO KNOCKOUT: Royal St. George’s tends to produce a good leaderboard, along with a few surprises, but it sure wasn’t kind to players in the top 10 last week – starting with the top.

Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, both missed the cut.

According to Official World Golf Ranking administrator Ian Barker, it was the first time the top two players missed the cut in a major dating to 1989, which is as far back as its data base goes on such matters. The 2009 British Open also was missing the top two players on the weekend at Turnberry when Tiger Woods missed the cut and Phil Mickelson didn’t play that year as his wife was in the early stages of battling cancer.

Along with Donald and Westwood, also missing the cut last week were Matt Kuchar (No. 6), Graeme McDowell (No. 9) and Nick Watney (No. 10). The best performance from top-10 players came from Martin Kaymer (No. 3) and Steve Stricker (No. 5), who tied for 12th.

CADDIE FORTUNES: Caddies keep changing jobs this year, whether temporary or permanent, but the one with the best fortune might be John Mulrooney. He was on the bag for Darren Clarke at the British Open, but what’s amazing is how he got there.

Clarke had lined up Ricci Roberts, who won all three majors with Ernie Els, to be his caddie in Spain the week of The Players Championship. Roberts decided instead to go to Florida to watch Els get inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Mulrooney, meanwhile, was in Spain to caddie for David Howell, but the former Ryder Cup star got injured. Mulrooney then was to work that week for Maarten Lafeber until he got injured.

He wound up with Clarke, who went on to win the Iberdola Open.

“He’s a little bit different, a little bit quiet, but a very, very good caddie,” Clarke said. “He’s worked on some proper bags before. We went out that week and won, and then it was a case of having to call Ricci and saying, ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve just won with John, so with your permission I’d like to carry on with him.’ So Ricci was fine. I carried on with John, and he’s been very good for me.”

DIVOTS: A week after Steve Stricker won the John Deere Classic, he went to the British Open with an incentive to try harder. Stricker signed an endorsement deal with Avis Rent a Car, which went into effect Thursday. The deal requires Stricker to wear the Avis logo on his shirts and outerwear. … Only seven shots separated top from bottom going into the weekend at the British Open, although the R&A is not looking into a 10-shot rule. Jim McArthur, chairman of the championship committee, said the 99 players who made the cut at St. Andrews in 1995 made it difficult to get everyone around in a reasonable time. “I don’t think there’s any proposal at the moment to have another look at that just now,” he said. … More reading material on Tiger Woods is now in stores, this book loaded with pictures. He is the latest subject of Bluewater Productions’ biographical comic book series. This one is called, “Fame: Tiger Woods,” and it became available in stores last week.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Chris Kirk became the fifth PGA Tour rookie to win this year. The record for most rookies to win in one year is six in 2004. There are 14 tournaments left, including four in the Fall Series and one opposite-field event.

FINAL WORD: “There’s winning tournaments, there’s winning big tournaments, but there’s winning majors, which is just a little bit different.” - British Open champion Darren Clarke.

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 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 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.

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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.