Notes: Strange 'not rooting against' Rose's defense

By Doug FergusonJune 10, 2014, 2:12 am

PINEHURST, N.C. – Justin Rose can expect a phone call of congratulations from Curtis Strange if he were to successfully defend his U.S. Open title this week.

It's just not a phone call Strange wants to make.

This is the 25-year anniversary of Strange winning at Oak Hill to become only the sixth player to win back-to-back in the U.S. Open.

No one has done it since then.

''Do I want to see somebody do it? Not particularly,'' Strange said Monday. ''But I'm not rooting against somebody.''

Strange won his first U.S. Open in 1988 at The Country Club, beating Nick Faldo in a playoff.

A year later, he was three shots out of the lead going into the final round at Oak Hill when Tom Kite stumbled to a 78 and Strange closed with a 70 to win by one shot.

He doesn't know why it has taken so long for the next repeat champion. Tiger Woods won back-to-back at the Masters (2001-02), the British Open (2005-06) and twice at the PGA Championship (1999-2000, 2006-07). He is a three-time U.S. Open champion, but never came particularly close to repeating.

Ben Hogan won in 1950-51, so it was 38 years before the next repeat champion in the U.S. Open. Not even Jack Nicklaus won back-to-back. Strange never gave it much thought about winning two in a row until he shot 64 in the second round to take the lead.

''And then I didn't play well on Saturday, so I was three behind,'' he said. ''So there wasn't anything written on Sunday morning. And I played well on Sunday and prevailed, but there wasn't a lot written that week. And then after the fact, there was a lot written. Then, they thought if I could do it, it can be done a bunch in the future.''

That hasn't been the case.

Woods tied for sixth in 2009 at Bethpage Black in his most recent title defense.

Even so, the closest anyone came was Retief Goosen. He won in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills, and the next year had a three-shot lead going into the final round at Pinehurst. He closed with an 80.

Strange is at Pinehurst this week as an analyst for ESPN.

He is largely indifferent about whether Rose joins an exclusive club, but he made it clear he is not consumed with who wins. He mentioned how the Miami Dolphins celebrate each time an NFL team fails to complete a perfect season.

''I'm not drinking champagne Sunday night,'' Strange said. ''But I've also said if Justin would happen to do it this year, that would be the first phone call. That would be fantastic.''


OLD BATHROOM, NEW TEE: As if Pinehurst No. 2 wasn't difficult enough already, there is a new tee on the par-3 sixth hole that plays about 240 yards. USGA executive director Mike Davis said it probably would be used twice this week.

Oddly enough, the new tee was not part of the plans except for the removal of a bathroom.

Bob Dedman, chairman of the company that owns Pinehurst, never liked the brick bathroom behind the sixth tee and he had it removed. Davis was at the golf course doing advance work when the absence of the bathroom gave him a different view. And he liked it.

All the par 3s are roughly the same distance. This gave Davis options in setting up the course.

''If you look back at '99 and '05,'' he said of the two previous U.S. Opens at Pinehurst, ''they were using the same clubs all four rounds. So two days we're going to play it back, and then one day we'll go 50 yards forward and use a front hole location. For one par 3, they'll have to hit a long iron to a hybrid.

''And the whole reason is because he knocked the bathroom down.''

Davis said the hole location for the longer shot would be the back part of the green. That's one of the few greens at Pinehurst where being long is the best miss.


FIELD SET: The U.S. Open field was set at 156 players on Monday with the recent Official World Golf Ranking. The USGA had set aside five spots for players who moved into the top 60 in the world.

Kevin Na, who lost in a playoff at the Memorial, was at No. 40. Bernd Wiesberger of Austria, who lost in a playoff last week on the European Tour, moved to No. 60.

That allowed three alternates into the U.S. Open – Cameron Wilson, the NCAA champion from Stanford; Craig Barlow; and amateur Brandon McIver.

The USGA still does not publish a list of alternates in case anyone withdraws before the opening round Thursday. According to a USGA official, the priority ranking of the alternates depends on whether the player who withdraws was exempt or had to qualify.


GREENS ARE GONE: USGA executive director Mike Davis said the greens at Pinehurst No. 2 are as pure as he has ever seen them.

Enjoy them while they last – they'll be dead in a month.

Pinehurst No. 2 several years ago installed a hybrid bent grass called Penn A1-A4. Davis said the resort will switch to a Bermuda grass after the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open.

''With a shorter season, it's a much better surface to play, and actually is less expensive to maintain,'' Davis said.

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 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).


Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship


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.

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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.