Three-time winner gets shot at hero Woods

By Doug FergusonAugust 2, 2012, 12:39 am

AKRON, Ohio –  Branden Grace is playing the opening two rounds of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with Tiger Woods, the biggest draw in golf and a seven-time winner at Firestone. It was a clever pairing because they are the only players with three wins this year.

Grace is a powerful South African who won the Joburg Open, the Volvo Golf Champions at Fancourt and the China Open.

He also is the third African player, who is not well known in America, who be paired with Woods at the start of a World Golf Championship. By the look of things, Grace is in better position than the other two.

It was at Firestone in 2005 when officials decided to put Woods with Marc Cayeux of Zimbabwe, who was making his first trip to America.

Just his luck, Cayeux burned the inside of his left hand on a barbecue the week before, leaving a quarter-sized hole in his hand. Unwilling to miss such a big event, he wore a thick glove and fought through the pain to post a 71. The toughest part of Cayeux was getting to the seventh green, going to mark his ball and seeing the words, ''PRACTICE'' on the side of his Titleist. A range ball somehow got into his bag.

He sheepishly called over Woods and Niclas Fasth, and then a rules official, but was not penalized because he was using the same ball.

Three years later at Doral, officials looking for a rising international star decided to put Woods with a young South African named Louis Oosthuizen. Upon arriving in America, he watched on TV as Woods buried a 25-foot putt to win Bay Hill, and then get a message from South African Airways that his clubs had gone missing. They didn't arrive until the night before the opening round.

About the only thing Grace might have to battle is idol worship.

''He's my role model since I started playing golf,'' Grace said. ''Tomorrow is a little bit of a dream come true.''

Grace has come a long way in a short time. He got his European Tour card through Q-School, then came out roaring. He won in back-to-back weeks in South Africa, winning in a playoff at Fancourt that included Ernie Els.

''I promise you at the end of last year, I would have dreamt of playing with Tiger first two rounds at Bridgestone,'' Grace said. ''But it shows you if you stick your head down and keep grinding and keep playing, you never know what can happen.''


TOMS RETURNS: David Toms didn't plan a six-week break in the middle of the year. He didn't plan to miss the British Open.

After his tie for fourth in the U.S. Open, Toms flew home to Louisiana from San Francisco with plans of taking two weeks off and returning at The Greenbrier. If he felt strong enough, he was going to play the John Deere Classic before going over to England for the British Open.

''I got home Sunday night, and Monday morning I went to tie my shoes and my back went out,'' Toms said. ''I was in bed for 2 1/2 days and didn't move. I couldn't do anything for two weeks.''

He had a cortisone injection and let it heal, but he was not prepared to play Greenbrier or John Deere, and he didn't fancy his chances at the Open. And with hopes of playing seven straight weeks through the FedEx Cup playoffs, he felt rest was in order.

''I'm sure my back was bothering me during the U.S. Open, and then that long flight coming home,'' he said. ''I didn't hit a shot for two weeks. After that, it was chipping and putting. I wasn't ready to play golf. I wasn't going to be competition. And then you've got the long flight over, links golf ... I felt zero percent of zero is zero, right? I wasn't confident I was going to play well.''


LONG PUTTERS: The U.S. Golf Association and Royal & Ancient are looking into long putters and belly putters, focusing mainly on anchoring the putter to the body and whether any decision should fall under the rules of golf or an equipment ruling. If it's under the rules, a change would not take place until 2016.

Whatever the case, Keegan Bradley might say he had a hand in any decision.

Bradley became the first player with a belly putter to win a major last year at the PGA Championship. Then, Webb Simpson used a belly putter in winning the U.S. Open, and Ernie Els used a belly putter to win the British Open, by one shot over Adam Scott, who uses a long putter.

''There's been a lot of belly putters winning,'' Bradley said. 'I don't think that's a bad thing. I just think it all happened at once. My generation of golfers have been using these putters for a long time. In the past, I think it was a lot of the older guys who felt they couldn't use anything else. I think this generation is different and a little more willing to try things. You're just starting to see it.''

Bradley had a good stroke with the short putter, but decided to try the belly. So if there's a change, ''I'm not scared at all to have to putt with a short putter,'' he said.

That might be different for someone like Carl Pettersson, who has used a long putter dating to his amateur days, or Tim Clark, who also has used a long putter in playing in the Presidents Cup and winning The Players Championship.

And then there is Ernie Els, who decried the longer putters a few years ago until he switched with the famous line, ''As long as it's legal, I'll keep cheating like the rest of them.'' Now, the Big Easy is trying to work his way back to a short putter.

''By the end of the year or so,'' he said. ''But don't cast that in stone. I think I've still got four years maybe with the long putter, so I've still got a bit of time. But eventually, I want to get to the short putter because I feel back in the day, that was my best method of putting.''

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.