Vegas goes from limited status to Tour Championship

By Doug FergusonSeptember 22, 2016, 1:27 am

ATLANTA – Jhonattan Vegas doesn't have a realistic chance of claiming the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus even if he wins the Tour Championship.

It's having any chance at all that makes this season so remarkable.

''Best year of my career so far,'' Vegas said Wednesday with as broad a smile as could be found at East Lake. ''It's just crazy to think of this from where we started.''

Still vivid are memories of how uncertain his career felt a year ago.

Vegas failed to keep his card, and then his season got even worse. With a chance to regain his card in the Tour Finals, he missed the cut in the final event. That left the 32-year-old from Venezuela with limited status.

''I remember sitting down Friday afternoon after I missed the cut, not knowing where I could play,'' Vegas said.

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He received a sponsor's exemption to the Open to start the season, opened with a 64 and tied for 10th to get into the next tournament in Las Vegas. In an opposite-field event in Mississippi, he tied for fourth.

And then he broke through in a big way by winning the RBC Canadian Open in July, and he played well enough in the FedEx Cup playoffs to finish at No. 29 and get into the Tour Championship by a mere four points.

All he wanted to do this year was finish in the top 125 and keep his card.

Now, he is playing the Tour Championship and is assured of playing at least three majors next year, along with World Golf Championships in Mexico and Firestone.

''One of the biggest accomplishments of my career,'' Vegas said.

For others, there is so much more to accomplish.

The Tour Championship, which starts Thursday, is the final stop of the FedEx Cup season that pays out $10 million to the winner in a finale that is up for grabs among the 30 players who made it to East Lake.

Everyone has a mathematical chance to win the FedEx Cup, though it's unlikely for Vegas. He would have to win, and Dustin Johnson would have to finish 28th.

The focus is more on Johnson, the No. 1 seed, and the next four players behind him - Patrick Reed, Adam Scott, Jason Day and Paul Casey. They only have to win the Tour Championship to claim the prize no matter what anyone else does.

Bill Haas at No. 25 in 2011 was the lowest seed to win the FedEx Cup. The last player to win the Tour Championship without claiming the FedEx Cup was Phil Mickelson in 2009. He wound up second in the FedEx Cup to Tiger Woods.

Johnson and Day have their own competition going. Players will be voting on PGA Tour player of the year at the end of the week. Both have three victories, though Johnson has a big edge from his U.S. Open title (Day's biggest victory was The Player Championship). Johnson also is leading the money list and the Vardon Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average. But if Day were to win this week, that might make the vote more complicated.

Vegas is nowhere near that conversation. For him, just getting to East Lake was worth celebrating.

With only past champion status, which he had at the start of the season, he could only count on getting into tournaments where most of the top players didn't show up. It's hard to plan a schedule. There is no continuity. And his confidence was lagging.

It turned out to be the best thing for him.

''Losing my card made me realize how much harder I had to work to get better,'' Vegas said. ''It led me to make a bunch of changes - important changes - that I wasn't ready to make. But it forced me to do them.''

Vegas was part of the next wave of impressive young players when he won the Bob Hope Classic in the second start of his rookie season in 2011. The following week, he was tied for the lead at Torrey Pines with eight holes to play and tied for third.

Suddenly, he was playing in majors and World Golf Championships. Over time, he started going through the motions. He lost one year to surgery on his left shoulder. By the end of last season, he had plunged to No. 381 in the world ranking.

''If I kept my card, that was my No. 1 goal,'' Vegas said. ''I knew I had limited starts. I would have about 15 events. So I knew that every week was a major for me. If you approach things that way, your preparation and everything around it is more important. Because you're there to get it done. It puts it in a different perspective.''

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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.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.