Stat attack!: Open preview

By John AntoniniOctober 7, 2014, 6:43 pm

For the second straight year the PGA Tour season begins with the Open in northern California. This week’s event, to be contested at Silverado Resort & Spa’s North Course for the first time, hosts 12 tournament winners from the just-completed 2013-14 season. The dozen includes three U.S. Ryder Cuppers – Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar and Jimmy Walker (shown). Walker won the Frys a year ago, jumpstarting a career year that saw him win three times and finish seventh on the FedEx Cup standings for the 2013-14 season.

Also playing this week is European Ryder Cupper Lee Westwood and several players new to the PGA Tour, including regular season money leader Carlos Ortiz and Finals Series priority list co-leader Adam Hadwin.

Wild Walker way-lays CordeValle

When Jimmy Walker won last year’s Frys at CordeValle, he did so despite hitting just 22 fairways for the week. According to it was tied for the third-fewest fairways hit by a PGA Tour winner since the Tour began keeping track in 1983. Walker hit only five fairways during his third-round 62. It was the fewest number of fairways hit by any player who shot 62 or lower on the PGA Tour last year.

Fewest fairways hit by a tournament winner: 1983-2014

 Player Tournament Fairways hit Percentage
 Tom Sieckmann 1988 Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic 19 33.9
 Greg Twiggs 1989 Shearson Lehman Hutton Open 21 37.5
 Jimmy Walker 2013 Open 22 39.3
 Tiger Woods 2005 WGC/American Express 22 39.3
 Johnson Wagner 2012 Sony Open in Hawaii 23 41.1

Who’s this year’s Jimmy Walker?

Walker’s win a year ago was the first of his PGA Tour career. He used the victory as a springboard to two more victories, top-10 finishes in three majors and a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. But his career-year began with the work he did during 2013, when he finished 36th on the FedEx Cup standings after making the cut in his first 15 tournaments of the year. Here’s a list of non-winners who were high in last season’s FedEx Cup standings, who are playing at Silverado and might be ready to follow Walker’s path with a breakthrough win at this year’s season opener.

Winless players ready to move up at Silverado

 Player 2014 FedEx Cup Career best Years on Tour Note
55 Yes 4 Just one top 10 (T-10 Colonial) in 28 starts
37 No 4 Former Presidents Cupper had two seconds in 2014
 Russell Knox 40 Yes 3 T-2 at Honda was one of two top 10s
 Chris Stroud 47 No 8 10 top-20 finishes in 2014
 Brian Stuard 51 Yes 3 Opened last year with 3 top 10s in first 6 starts
57 No 4 Made the cut in 11 of his last 12 starts
20 Yes 5 Barclays runner-up in 2014

Of that group, Stroud is the closest comp for Walker. In his ninth year on the PGA Tour, Stroud has played 217 tournaments without a win (Walker won in his 188th start), but his solid play a year ago included third-place finishes in Malaysia and Mayakoba and a T-4 at Greenbrier. His strong play actually goes back two years, as he was a career-best 43rd on the 2013 FedEx Cup standings.

A flying start

Jimmy Walker wasn’t the only player to maintain his momentum from a strong finish at the Open. Two other top-eight finishers won for the first time later in 2014 – Hideki Matsuyama and Brian Harman – and every player in the top eight qualified for the PGA Tour playoffs except for nonmember Brooks Koepka, who nevertheless parlayed his T-3 finish into enough FedEx Cup points to gain full status on the PGA Tour for this year.

How the top finishers at the 2014 Open fared during the season

 Player FedEx rank Wins in 2014
 1. Jimmy Walker 7 3
 2. Vijay Singh 87 0
 T-3. Scott Brown 85 0
 T-3. Brooks Koepka N/A 0
 T-3. Hideki Matsuyama 28 1
 T-3. Kevin Na 24 0
 T-7. Brian Harman 36 1
 T-7. George McNeill 46 0

Now on the tee…

The latest Tour graduates will have a chance to test themselves on the PGA Tour for the next few weeks, and there will be plenty of room for good finishes as most of the Tour’s top players aren’t expected to start their seasons until the Asian Swing next month. Because Silverado hasn’t hosted a Tour event since 1980, this week’s rookies and veterans will be unfamiliar with the course that was lengthened by 250 yards in 2010. Still, there are a few players who will have a special brand of nervousness on the first tee Thursday. Of the Tour’s 24 rookies, 16 are playing the Frys, including Whee Kim, who is making his PGA Tour debut.

PGA Tour rookies with the fewest starts on Tour

 Player Starts In Frys? Previous starts World Rank Priority Rank
 Whee Kim 0 Yes None 561 25
 Sung Joon Park 0 No None 176 45
 Carlos Sainz, Jr. 0 No None 512 49
 Byron Smith 0 Alternate None 433 21
 Daniel Berger 1 Yes T-28 2014 U.S. Open 286 28
 Zac Blair 1 Yes T-40 2014 U.S. Open 259 11
 Tom Hoge 1 Yes MC 2011 Canadian 463 19
 Carlos Ortiz 1 Yes T-65 2014 Memorial 130 3
 Zack Sucher 1 Yes MC 2009 John Deere 190 14

Have game, will travel

Having only been held since 2007, the Open doesn’t have a long and storied history, but some players have shown an ability to play well in the NorCal event, whether it was contested at Grayhawk (until 2009) or CordeValle. Among the list below, Molder and Clark were in the top 10 at both of the tournament’s previous stops. Can they make it three in 2014?

Most top-10 finishes in Open history (among players in this year’s field)

 Player Top 10s Best finishes
 Mike Weir 3 Won in 2007, T-4 in 2008, T-6 in 2009
 Alex Cejka 2 T-6 in 2007, T-8 in 2009
 Bryce Molder 2 T-6 in 2009, Won in 2011
 Jimmy Walker 2 T-4 in 2012, Won in 2013
 Pat Perez 2 T-6 in 2007, T-7 in 2008
 Tim Clark 2 T-4 in 2009, T-6 in 2010
 Vijay Singh 2 T-4 in 2010, 2nd in 2013

One final thought: Matt Kuchar, ninth on the Official World Golf Ranking, is the only top-10 player in the field. He’s making his tournament debut at the Frys, but you might expect a good performance. He has been in the top 10 in his season-opening event in each of the past two years (T-9 Hyundai in 2013, T-7 McGladrey last season).

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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.

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McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and 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.”