Major Match Play: Sizing up the 16 contenders

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 11, 2014, 12:50 pm's Major Match Play Championship is underway. Here is a look at the 16 seeds and why they were selected.

1. 1986 MASTERS – Jack Nicklaus, who most thought was washed up, wins his final major at age 46.

Significance: Final win by the game’s greatest major champion.

Drama: Even as Jack was burning up the back nine, most questioned whether he could sustain his charge. Once he was in, both Greg Norman and Tom Kite had a chance to beat or tie him.

Quality of challengers: The first Official World Golf Ranking, then known as the Sony Rankings, was released on the Monday before the '86 Masters. Going into the final round, No. 2 Greg Norman led, followed by No. 1 Bernhard Langer and No. 2 Seve Ballesteros (both T-2), No. 4 Tom Watson and No. 7 Tommy Nakajima (both T-6) and No. 3 Sandy Lyle (T-9).

Quality of winner’s play: Nicklaus shot 65, including 30 on the back nine.

Trivia: Nick Price shot a Masters-record 63 in the third round.

2. 1997 MASTERS – In his first Masters as a pro, Tiger Woods wins by 12.

Significance: The youngest (21) winner in Augusta history, Woods was also the first minority to win the Masters. He set records for victory margin (12) and total score (270, -18).

Drama: How low could Woods go?

Quality of challengers: There were none.

Quality of winner’s play: See “significance.”

Trivia: Woods shot 40 on his opening nine Thursday.

3. 2008 U.S. OPEN – Tiger Woods beats Rocco Mediate on the first hole of sudden death after an 18-hole playoff.

Significance: Woods joined Nicklaus as the only two players to win three career Grand Slams.

Drama: Woods was visibly hampered by an ailing left knee, and two days after the tournament he announced that he had sustained a double stress fracture of his left tibia and would undergo surgery and miss the rest of the season. Woods, who led by one after 54 holes and had never surrendered a 54-hole lead in a major, came to the final hole, a par 5, needing a birdie to tie Mediate. Woods reached the green in three and sank a 12-foot birdie putt. In the playoff, Woods birdied the final hole again to send it to sudden death, then won with a sudden-death par to Mediate’s bogey.

Quality of challengers: With only five wins and no majors, Mediate was an extremely unlikely challenger.

Quality of winner’s play: Woods finished 1 under in regulation and made must-make birdies at the end of regulation and the 18-hole playoff.

Trivia: Lee Westwood also had a birdie putt to tie, but missed a 15-footer. 

4. 1950 U.S. OPEN – Ben Hogan wins at Merion.

Significance: The tournament was played just 16 months after Hogan’s near-fatal auto accident.

Drama: See “significance.” Also, Hogan hit his famous 1-iron shot to the final green to set up a two-putt par and make it into a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio. In the playoff, Hogan led Mangrum by one shot through 15 holes, but Mangrum took a two-shot penalty for picking up his ball to brush off a bug on the 16th and Hogan went on to win by four.

Quality of challengers: Mangrum had won the 1946 U.S. Open and finished second in the 1940 and ’49 Masters. Fazio had only two PGA Tour wins and later became better known as a golf course architect.

Quality of winner’s play: Plus-seven got into the playoff. In the final round Hogan failed to make a birdie and bogeyed three of his last seven holes.

Trivia: It was the final major for Tommy Armour, the 1927 U.S. Open champion and a three-time major winner. He missed the cut.

5. 1977 BRITISH OPEN – Tom Watson edges Jack Nicklaus in the “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry.

Significance: Because Watson and Nicklaus were paired in the third and fourth rounds and both shot lights out, this is widely considered to be the finest head-to-head duel in major-championship history.

Drama: Watson shot 65-65 to top Nicklaus’ 65-66. It went down to the final hole. With a one-stroke lead, Watson appeared to seal the win with an approach to 2 feet. But Nicklaus drained a 35-foot birdie putt, putting more pressure on Watson’s putt. Still, Watson made it.

Quality of challengers: Jack Nicklaus. 'Nuff said.

Quality of winner’s play: Watson’s winning total of 268 broke the Open Championship 72-hole record by eight shots.

Trivia: The 36-hole leader was current NBC Sports golf on-course reporter Roger Maltbie. He finished T-26.

6. 2000 U.S. OPEN – Tiger Woods wins by a staggering 15 shots at Pebble Beach.

Significance: It was Woods’ first U.S. Open win and the margin was the largest in any major championship.

Drama: The only drama was waiting to see how big Woods’ margin would be. He led by 10 after 54 holes and increased the margin to 15 with a final-round 67.

Quality of challengers: Challengers? What challengers?

Quality of winner’s play: In finishing at 12 under, Woods became the first player to finish an Open at double digits under par.

Trivia: It was Jack Nicklaus’ final U.S. Open. He missed the cut.

7. 1913 U.S. OPEN – Francis Ouimet beats Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in an 18-hole playoff at Brookline.

Significance: A watershed event for American golf, with Brookline resident Ouimet taking down two British superstars and becoming the first amateur to win the Open.

Drama: Ouimet, a local favorite, had to birdie two of the last six holes to get into the playoff.

Quality of challengers: Vardon and Ray were two of the best of the day and Vardon was one of the best of all time.

Quality of winner’s play: Of the 16 Opens that had been played over 72 holes, Ouimet’s score of 304 ranked as the seventh-lowest.

Trivia: Ouimet's caddie was 10-year-old Eddie Lowery, who went on to become a significant figure in golf in his own right.

8. 1960 U.S. OPEN – Arnold Palmer stages what is at the time the biggest comeback in U.S. Open history, rallying from seven strokes behind in the final round to win.

Significance: With 18 career PGA Tour wins, including the 1958 and 1960 Masters, Palmer was the game’s biggest star.

Drama: After driving the green on the par-4 first hole and making birdie, Palmer played the first seven holes in 6 under, then played the next 11 in even par. He won by two shots over amateur Jack Nicklaus.

Quality of challengers: Though still an amateur, Nicklaus was already highly regarded. Tied for third were Julius Boros, Dow Finsterwald and Jack Fleck, all of whom had won a major. Ben Hogan, seeking a fifth U.S. Open title at age 47, was tied for the lead going to the next-to-last hole, but finished bogey-triple.

Quality of winner’s play: Palmer’s 65 was the lowest final round in U.S. Open history.

Trivia: Nicklaus'  second-place finish was the best showing by an amateur at the U.S. Open since Johnny Goodman won in 1933.

9. 1962 U.S. OPEN – Nicklaus beats Palmer, 71-74, in an 18-hole playoff at Oakmont.

Significance: It was the first win for Nicklaus and came in heavily pro-Palmer country.

Drama: It was the beginning of golf's greatest rivalry, Nicklaus vs. Palmer. They were paired in the first two rounds in front of a heavily pro-Palmer gallery.

Quality of challengers: Palmer was the game's top player.

Quality of winner’s play: They finished 1 under in regulation, a good score for an Open.

Trivia: Nicklaus became the first player since Bobby Jones in 1931 to hold the U.S. Amateur and Open titles simultaneously.

10. 1930 U.S. AMATEUR – Bobby Jones defeated Eugene Homans, 8 and 7, in the match-play final.

Significance: It was the final leg of Jones’ Grand Slam. Jones remains the only golfer ever to win the four major championships of the day in a calendar year.

Drama: No one had ever won the Open and Amateur championships on both sides of the pond, and Jones was arguably the greatest golfer of the day (and certainly the greatest amateur).

Quality of challengers: Jones’ semifinal victim was Walker Cup teammate Jess Sweetser, whom he beat, 9 and 8.

Quality of winner’s play: Jones was medalist, tying his own record for lowest qualifying score. He won the final match, 8 and 7.

Trivia: Jones, though only 28, retired from competitive play two months after the tournament.

11. 1975 MASTERS – Nicklaus beats Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf by one shot.

Significance: Nicklaus became the first (and still only) player to win five Masters. This was also the Masters that included an African-American player for the first time (Lee Elder).

Drama: Weiskopf, who had won the week before at Greensboro, was trying to win his first Masters after three runner-ups. Miller and Weiskopf, playing together in the final pairing, both had birdie chances to tie at 18 – Miller from 20 feet, Weiskopf from 8. Nicklaus sank a long putt at the 16th.

Quality of challengers: Weiskopf was an 11-time winner on the PGA Tour. Miller had won 14 times, was best known for his final-round 63 in winning the 1973 U.S. Open.

Quality of winner’s play: Despite a third-round 73, Nicklaus finished at 12 under.

Trivia: Miller shot 30 on the front nine in a 65 on Saturday.

12. 2001 MASTERS – Tiger Woods completes the "Tiger Slam."

Significance: Woods’ victory gave him wins in four consecutive majors, a run that began with his 15-stroke runaway with the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Drama: Woods led Phil Mickelson by just one shot going into the final round. David Duval tied for the lead with a birdie at the 15th, but gave the shot back at the next hole. When Duval failed to birdie the 18th, Woods needed only a par to win, but he made birdie for a two-stroke final margin. Mickelson was third, three shots back. It was Woods' second Masters and sixth major title.

Quality of challengers: At the end of 2000, Duval was No. 3 in the world, Mickelson No. 4.

Quality of winner’s play: Woods finished at 16 under, just two shots off his record 18-under finish in 1997.

Trivia: Chris DiMarco led the first two rounds, but finished T-10. In 2005 he would take Woods to a playoff at Augusta before losing.

13. 1923 PGA CHAMPIONSHIP – Gene Sarazen defeats Walter Hagen in 38 holes.

Significance: A clash of titans. Sarazen won his third of seven majors and Hagen already had three of his 11 majors. Hagen would go on to win the next four PGAs, giving him five overall.

Drama: These were the top two players of the era. Sarazen was the defending champion and Hagen had won in 1921.

Quality of challengers: Hagen was one of the greatest players of all time.

Quality of winner’s play: Match play – hard to judge.

Trivia: Hagen had skipped the previous year's PGA Championship in favor of lucrative exhibition matches.

14. 2000 PGA CHAMPIONSHIP – Tiger Woods defeats Bob May in a three-hole playoff.

Significance: Woods became the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win three majors in a calendar year.

Drama: Shooting 66-66-66 after an opening 72, unknown May gave Woods all he could handle. May made an 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole that forced Woods to make his own 6-footer for birdie to extend the tournament. Woods won the playoff by one shot.

Quality of challengers: May was an unknown going into the tournament and has done nothing of note since. No one finished closer than 5 shots to Woods and May.

Quality of winner’s play: At 18 under, Woods and May set a PGA Championship record for score to par.

Trivia: It was Jack Nicklaus’ last PGA. He missed the cut.

15. 1954 MASTERS – Sam Snead defeats Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff, 70-71.

Significance: Snead and Hogan were the game’s top two players. Between them they had won the previous three Masters (Hogan was defending champion) and had 15 wins in majors.

Drama: Snead and Hogan were tied after 13 holes in the final round and remained that way through 18. In the playoff, they were tied after nine. Snead took a one-shot lead on 10 and never again trailed. He won by one shot despite bogeying the final hole.

Quality of challengers: See “drama.”

Quality of winner’s play: Snead’s regulation total of 289 is tied for the highest winning score in Masters history.

Trivia: Billy Joe Patton led after the second round and during the fourth, threatening to become the first amateur to win the Masters. He finished one shot out of the playoff.

16. 1953 BRITISH OPEN – Ben Hogan wins at Carnoustie.

Significance: Hogan became the first (and still only) golfer to win the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in a calendar year.

Drama: Not much on the leaderboard (Hogan won by four). It was Hogan’s first British Open – and turned out to be his only one.

Quality of challengers: Amateur Frank Stranahan was the only other American on the leaderboard, but Roberto De Vicenzo and Antonio Cerda of Argentina, Dai Rees of Wales and Peter Thomson of Australia were quality players. (Thomson would win the Open Championship each of the next three years and five times in all.) 

Quality of winner’s play: Hogan’s final-round 68 broke the course record.

Trivia: The tournament had no exemptions. Even defending champion Bobby Locke had to qualify.

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from a trip to Augusta.

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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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.