Am Tour Nationals: Busy seasons pay dividends for these competitors

By Brandon TuckerSeptember 14, 2016, 3:31 am

PALM HARBOUR, Fla. – The best way to get better at golf is to compete as much as you can, at least that’s what many Golf Channel Am Tour competitors learn each year. In 2016, many of the golfers who competed in the largest amount of events qualified for Nationals with prolific seasons and are in this week's field. 

When you buy an annual membership in the Golf Channel Amateur Tour, it gains you access to all of your local events and also a full season of two-day major championships around North America. But you can also compete on any other local tour. It’s a vast network with hundreds of events to compete in all year long.

So it shouldn't be much surprise that golfers who play in a lot of these events  in different regions and on different styles of championship courses  improve their games in a big way. 

This year, Jonny Lee, 40 from Los Angeles, made the decision to play as many competitive rounds as he could. He picked up golf just three years ago when he was invited out to round out a foursome of co-workers. But he soon realized that he wasn’t improving at the rate he wanted.


Golf Channel Am Tour National Championships: Leaderboard | Full Coverage


“I didn’t want to be a 20-handicap five years from now,” he said. “A lot of guys I play with, they’re just happy to break 90 or 100.”

So Lee, who played in 16 events on Am Tour in 2015, ramped up his tournament schedule, sometimes playing in two events over a weekend throughout Southern California. His 2016 Am Tour campaign consisted of 36 events, including three majors (two of which he placed int he top three) and the two-day SoCal Tour Championship. But perhaps even greater than his many results was the fact he improved his handicap by about ten shots, from 27 to 17, and jumped from the Snead flight (20-plus handicaps) to the Jones (16.0-19.9)

"Playing in all these events gave me an opportunity to get better," he said. "It’s a tournament. It counts. There’s trophies and points involved. I have incentive to get better."

Lee’s first round 104 has him in 57th place in the Jones flight, but he’s confident he can improve over the course of the national championship, as he’s done before, rallying from poor first rounds in Am Tour's two-day majors. But Lee’s goals are far loftier than competing in the Jones flight. He hopes to compete someday soon as a near-scratch golfer.

"My goal is within a year or two, try out for a U.S. Open," he said. "It’s a lofty goal."

Lee isn't the only golfer at Innisbrook this week who has competed in 30-plus events in 2016. Donald Owens (Championship flight) and Steve Eureste (Jones flight) also played in 30-plus events. And next week, when the Senior Nationals take place, several competitors blessed with the good fortune of retirement, will have competed in over 40 events. 

But this week, another player who reaped the benefits of lots of competition was Scott Striegel (pictured), from Southlake, Texas. His 33-event Am Tour season has had plenty of high moments, including his first ever hole-in-one, occurring at Stonebridge Ranch Country Club's 8th hole in March. And when he was moved up a flight to Hogan (8.0-11.9 handicap), he took the challenge against better competition dead-on and won the Kingsmill Classic, a two-day major in April.

Striegel, 49, found that competing on the tour has helped rekindle the competitive spirit he’d been missing since being a three-sport athlete in high school.

"It's addicting," said Striegel. "It makes you want to travel, go to different events and compete. It takes you back to the high school days, that’s what I was missing."

Striegel admits he may have been a little too jacked up for this week's championship, playing four practice rounds in three days, which may have worn on him Tuesday. He finds himself in 143rd place in the Hogan flight after the first round. 

"It’s an adrenaline rush like no other to get on a tee box and know that it counts," he said. "Competing against people is what brings me out here."

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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.