Lopez Makes One Last Charge at 97 Open

By George WhiteJuly 1, 2003, 4:00 pm
Nancy Lopez has won 48 times on the LPGA. She has won three majors. Back in 1987 she passed the final qualification to join the LPGA Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the PGA World Golf Hall of Fame in 1989.
 
But she never won the tournament she wanted most ' the U.S. Womens Open. Four times she was runner-up, the first time as an 18-year-old amateur in 1977. The last ' and probably the closest ' time she just missed was in 1997, when at the age of 40 she was in contention until the last hole.
 
It was at Portland, Ore., and her primary foe was Englands Alison Nicholas - who, incidentally, was still around probably because of some very kind words by Lopez. Nicholas, disillusioned and homesick, had wanted to go home after her rookie season seven years earlier.
 
But she was intercepted by Lopez, who convinced her to give the LPGA Tour one more try. The fact that Nicholas did was probably the only reason that today Lopez still is without a U.S. Open triumph.
 
This story begins on the second day of the tournament. It was then that Lopez got squarely in contention with her score of 3-under 68. That was good, but Nicholas also was hot at the same time, firing a 66.
 
Saturday was more of the same ' Lopez shot 69, but Nicholas was again two better with a 67. After 54 holes, Nicholas was three clear of Lopez heading into the final round.
 
Lopez birdied the very first hole Sunday to quickly reduce the margin to two strokes. But then it became quite difficult to make up more ground ' Lopez would birdie, followed by a Nicholas birdie ' or better.
 
For example, Lopez rolled in an eight-footer for birdie on No. 3, but Nicholas immediately stroked in a seven-footer. And on the par-5 fourth hole, Lopez was brilliant with her third-shot wedge, arching it up to within a foot of the hole for a tap-in bird. But Nicholas went her one better, pitching a short sand-wedge shot into the cup for eagle.
 
At that point Lopez had made three birdies in four holes, but was still exactly where she had started ' three shots down.
 
They made the nine-hole turn and Nicholas had increased the lead to four. Nancy was throwing everything at the pin and really putting the pressure on, she said. I knew I had to knock it close, so I went straight for the flag.
 
A four-shot lead with nine holes remaining at a major tournament is virtually as good as money in the bank, but credit Lopez for again injecting suspense in the tournament. She birdied the 13th, and Nicholas had her only meltdown of the day on No. 14. She struck a wedged second shot into a hazard beyond the green, took her penalty drop, and by the time her misadventure had ended, she incurred a double bogey. Her lead over Lopez was down to a single stroke.
 
Time for Nicholas caddy to step in with a few well-chosen words. He said, Al, youve got to think forward now. Think of the present. Were got four holes to play, Nicholas said.
 
Now they were at 17, and Nicholas approach was off-line, finishing just a foot from the grandstand. She took a penalty-free drop but chunked her chip. Two putts later, she had taken a bogey. Lopez fans were ecstatic - is this where their hero would tie it up?
 
But Lopez could not capitalize. She hit her approach just short of the green into a bunker, then splashed out to 12 feet short of the flag. The golfing world waited breathlessly while she putted, but it died in front of the cup ' two rolls short.
 
Now she most likely had to have a birdie at 18 to send this one into an extra day of play. And she got the ball to 15 feet of the cup, certainly a reasonable distance.
 
But her putt was a tough downhiller that slid off on the low slide. She had tears in her eyes as she warmly congratulated the champion ' Alison Nicholas.
 
I had tears in my eyes because I didnt have a chance anymore, said Lopez. It was pretty tough to see.
 
At the end of the ordeal, Lopez had a light bulb flashing in her head. I think I finally learned how to play the U.S. Open, she said. I felt excited and motivated in a way I havent felt in a long, long time. I played the best I could, so Im not disappointed. But Im not happy, either, because I didnt win.
 
Lopez is now 46, and last year she said her farewells to tournament golf. She still plays in a few tournaments, but balky knees probably mean she is through with competitive golf. But deep within her, she still hopes that some day she will be able to win this trophy.
 
Even my dad said, Maybe youre not supposed to win the U.S. Open, Lopez said that day in 1997. And I told him, No, dad, Im going to win this someday.
 
Related Links:
  • Full Coverage of the U.S. Women's Open
  • U.S. Women's Open Leaderboard
  • Getty Images

    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.

    Getty Images

    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.

    Getty Images

    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.

    Getty Images

    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.