Six weeks left for players to punch ticket to Masters

By Doug FergusonFebruary 24, 2016, 6:24 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Whether the road to the Masters started at Riviera (Rory McIlroy), PGA National (Rickie Fowler) or Doral (Jordan Spieth), qualifying for the most restricted field of the majors starts with the Florida swing.

Last year ended with 89 players having earned invitations to Augusta National. Seven weeks into the new year, the number is likely to be unchanged.

The only PGA Tour winner to earn a spot so far is Vaughn Taylor, who won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The other addition was Paul Chaplet, who won the Latin America Amateur Championship. While there have been no official subtractions, Jim Furyk had wrist surgery and is hopeful of a return in May at The Players Championship, and the latest report on Tiger Woods is no report at all. It would be surprising if he returned to the Masters.

There are six PGA Tour events left for players to earn a spot in the Masters, and two of them are World Golf Championships: the Cadillac Championship at Doral, and the Dell Match Play in Texas. The latter has the top 64 in the world, and currently only seven of those players are not yet eligible for the Masters.

After two years of the Masters field coming close to 100 players or more for the first time since 1966, it most likely won't come close to that this year. Augusta National will take the top 50 in the world ranking after the Match Play. As of Monday's world ranking, everyone in the top 50 already is exempt.

Among those not yet eligible are Matt Jones (No. 52), Rafael Cabrera Bello (No. 58), Thorbjorn Olesen (No. 60), Thomas Pieters (No. 61), Marcus Fraser (No. 62), Gary Woodland (No. 63) and Ryan Palmer (No. 64).

Jones lost a good opportunity when he missed the cut at Riviera. The top 50 effectively get a free start at Doral, though Jones can still qualify if he were to move into the top 50 after the Honda Classic this week. Cabrera Bello and Fraser earned spots in Doral by being in the top 10 on Europe's money list. Pieters narrowly missed out when Nathan Holman won in Malaysia.

Woodland and Palmer are playing in the Honda Classic this week.

Let the race begin.


CHOI'S RESURGENCE: K.J. Choi was the vice captain at the Presidents Cup in South Korea. He turns 46 this year and is in the final year of his exemption from winning The Players Championship. He ended last year at No. 302 in the world.

And he is quietly making a big move.

Choi was a runner-up at Torrey Pines and he was among those tied for the lead on the back nine at Riviera until he tied for fifth. One reason for the resurgence might be his desire to play in the Olympics this summer.

''I want to play for South Korea, but I need to have wins,'' he said. ''That's why I'm training the last two months, three months, very hard.''

Choi already is up to No. 102. To make the Olympic team, he would need to move past K.T. Kim (currently No. 72) by July 6. Byeong Hun An is ranked No. 28.


HARRINGTON'S HERO: Padraig Harrington posed Tuesday with the top players from U.S. Kids Golf, 13-year-old Yae Eun Kim and 12-year-old Luke Clanton, who cited Jordan Spieth and Jason Day as their favorite players.

''You'd want to be a little older than 12 to look up to me as his idol,'' Harrington said.

His sporting heroes at age 12 were in soccer, and he really didn't pay attention to elite golf until he was 16. That would have been about the time Nick Faldo was winning his first major and Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman were battling for No. 1 in the world.

His hero? Bernhard Langer. Harrington called him the ''professional's professional.''

''Got the most out of his game,'' he said. ''Came back from the yips twice. That's just unheard of. Absolutely phenomenal how much he got out of the game from his work and dedication. I've always admired that much more so than people who it comes easy to. Bernhard Langer, it never came easy to him, and definitely a hero of mine.''


SLUMBERS ON TURNBERRY: If the British Open returns to Donald Trump-owned Turnberry, it won't be until at least 2022.

R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers, in a meeting with British golf writers this week, said negotiations have begun for the 2020 and 2021 championships. One of them will be in England to balance between English and Scottish links in the rotation.

''At no point during those discussions has Turnberry been part of that,'' Slumbers said. ''So that's where we are. And 2022 and beyond it is something we don't have to think about for a few years.''

Historically, that would not be unusual.

Turnberry last hosted The Open in 2009 after an absence of 15 years. The main reason for waiting were the roads leading to the Ayrshire town. Then again, Trump pledged big upgrades to the hotel and the golf course when he bought the property.

Slumbers didn't say whether Trump's views during his campaign for the GOP nomination are causing the R&A to think twice about staging The Open there.

''We're asking the very best players in the world to come and put their names to a championship which we've written down in history, and we feel deeply that the quality of the golf course and the challenge we give them should be commensurate with the quality of the players and the commitment that the players make,'' he said. ''But we are also very focused on the macro environment. We as an organization have said that we believe golf should be open to all, regardless of gender, race, nationality or religion, and that's where we sit.''


RANKING GAME: While the Honda Classic has been gaining in strength over the last five years, this year's field is not as strong at the top as it has been in recent years.

Attribute that to a change in the world rankings. And to Tiger Woods.

For the first time since 2012, the Honda Classic will not have the No. 1 player at PGA National. Rory McIlroy was No. 1 in 2013 and 2015, and Woods was atop the ranking in 2014. Woods, out with an injury since Augusta, is now at No. 445. McIlroy is No. 3, having wasted a good chance to go back to No. 2 by closing with a 75 at Riviera.

The Honda Classic has four of the top 10 in the world: McIlroy, Rickie Fowler (No. 5), Patrick Reed (No. 9) and Branden Grace (No. 10).


DIVOTS: This will be only the third time this year that either the No. 1 or No. 2 player in the world ranking was not competing. ... Charley Hoffman and Kevin Streelman have been elected co-chairs of the Player Advisory Council. They will replace Bo Van Pelt and Mark Wilson on the PGA Tour policy board next year and serve three-year terms. ... The R&A and the Ladies Golf Union have agreed to merge. ... Simon & Schuster says it will publish a biography on Tiger Woods, to be written by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. The title and publication date have not been determined.


STAT OF THE WEEK: Bubba Watson was only the second player in the top 10 in the world to win on the PGA Tour this season. No. 1 Jordan Spieth won at Kapalua.


FINAL WORD: ''Nobody is looking at records when it comes to tournament records. All we're looking at is trophies.'' - Bubba Watson.

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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.