Junior proves golf is more than birdies and bogeys

By Erik PetersonNovember 26, 2008, 5:00 pm
REUNION, Fla. ' In the world of competitive junior golf, the American Junior Golf Association is where the best players come to compete. Its where Tiger Woods learned the fist pump and Paula Creamer became known as the Pink Panther. Its where scorecards bleed red ink, and girls hit it 280 yards. Since its inception in 1978 the AJGA has given kids the platform to say: Hello, World.
 
One player who has said Hello, World both as a golfer and a person is Pontus Widegren, winner of the 2008 AJGA Jerry Cole Sportsmanship Award. The award is given out annually to an AJGA member who promotes integrity and sportsmanship in golf. Most importantly, the award serves as a reminder to its members that its simply not enough to possess golf talent. Aspiring collegiate golfers, and future PGA and LPGA pros are reminded that qualities of high character will get you even further.
 
pontus widegren
Sweden's Pontus Widegren has made an impact in the U.S. (AJGA)
Widegren, 18, is your typical Swedish teenager: blonde, extremely polite, and dressed head-to-toe in his countrys blue and yellow. He could be described as quiet, though his demeanor is more confident than anti-social. Hes lived in Stockholm his whole life, and began playing competitive golf when he was 12. Athletic in nature, Widegren quickly realized he possessed a special talent for golf, so he stopped playing tennis and hockey. In 2005 he was invited to play in the AJGA Thunderbird International Junior. It was his first visit to the U.S.
 
The Thunderbird event was my best experience, by far, he said. I was amazed by the tough setup and condition of the course. During my first round I saw [current USC junior] Jamie Lovemark make the turn at five-under. I remember thinking, I didnt know it was possible to shoot that low. It was a great learning experience for me.
 
As he continued to impress at junior golfs highest level, Widegren showed even more aptitude as a person of high character. While competing in the 2007 AJGA Junior Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, Widegren connected with his groups standard bearer, a 12-year-old boy from North Florida. I could tell he really looked up to us as players, Widegren said. When I was his age, I really admired and appreciated the opportunity to be around older golfers who were better than me. They motivated me to get better. I could see the same in him.
 
After one of his rounds, Widegren spent significant time with his new friend on the practice range. I just looked at his swing and gave him a few tips, he said. I knew if I were in his position, it would mean a lot to me to have an older player show interest in my development.
 
A current member of the Swedish National Team, Widegren has enjoyed continued success on the AJGA circuit despite the fact that he has to travel upwards of 5,000 miles to compete. His career highlights include three top-five finishes, including a second-place finish at the 2008 Junior Players. In addition to AJGA events, his affiliation with the Swedish National Team has allowed Widegren the opportunity to travel to four continents. The travel, he admits, can take its toll. This year, Im missing 65 days of school and am spending 120 nights away from home, he said. I usually travel by myself or with the team, so I dont get much time with my family.
 
Widegrens worldly travels are evidence of the AJGAs mission to provide the best-possible competition for junior golfers from all corners of the globe. Many top AJGA events reserve a certain number of spots for international exemptions, and partnerships with other national golf associations are forged in order to give credence to its performance-based entry system, which makes AJGA tournaments more accessible to international players.
 
Rob Jansen, vice president of player services at the AJGA says Widegren is proof that the AJGAs mission is working. The fact that he was able to make such an impression playing in only three events this season speaks volumes of his character, he said. He is a good example of how the AJGA mission extends outside of the United States.
 
Widegren signed a letter of intent with UCLA, where hell begin next fall. Though hes already achieved a lot, he admits he has a long way to go. After UCLA, I want to play professionally and win majors. But as a lesson to the next junior out there who wants to someday say, Hello, World, Widegren is pragmatic. Dont worry about goals, he said. Work hard. The results will come.
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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.

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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.