Garcia: At home in Ryder Cup and at Medinah

By Jason SobelSeptember 24, 2012, 4:10 pm

Two years ago, Sergio Garcia spent Ryder Cup week riding in a golf cart, his ear pressed to a walkie-talkie as he received updates from around the course. The juxtaposition was profound, a proven winner in the competition seemingly in the prime of his career, yet choosing a role traditionally left to players whose best years are behind them.

It leads to one simple question which doesn’t have a simple answer: Why?

Sure, the literal explanation is easy. Garcia wasn’t playing well and didn’t make the European team. This much we know from the numbers and statistics that tell the story of his decline during that time.

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But really, why? Why would a 30-year-old decide to watch his peers up close when he couldn’t join them? Why would a man with five Ryder Cup appearances and a 14-6-4 record elect to feel the pain of exclusion for an entire week?

To understand the answer to these questions, we must understand Garcia, which is often an unwieldy task. He has been an enigma for much of his career, bright-eyed and engaging at times, disillusioned and petulant at others.

On this topic, though, there are no blurred lines. Garcia loves this competition, thrives on it, feels it in his blood and in his bones. Failing to be a part of it was never an option. When he didn’t make the team, he found another way.

“It was hard, because I wasn’t able to hit any shots,” he recalls. “But it was fine. I enjoyed it, too. You know, it was a different role. I just tried to help the players as much as I could, so it was good fun. I think it was harder than playing it, though.”

We would have to peruse through the annals of Ryder Cup history to deduce whether Sergio Garcia was the youngest assistant captain ever. We would need to poll every candidate to figure out if he was the most disgruntled person to hold this position.

This much is sure, though: He was easily the most perplexing assistant to ever play that part.

Call it motivational, call it cathartic or call it just downright peculiar, but therein lies our answer to why he felt compelled to be present at Celtic Manor.

Sergio Garcia needs the Ryder Cup way more than the Ryder Cup needs him.

The two will be reunited this week, as Garcia makes his triumphant comeback to the European side after earning his way onto the roster once again. He returns a different man than the one left brooding in celebration two years ago, the piece to a team puzzle that never really fit.

Playing elite-level golf once again, Garcia finds himself fitting that puzzle perfectly now, helping to create an image that includes him with a more important role this time around that riding in a cart while holding a walkie-talkie.

“The Ryder Cup is huge, and to me, even more so,” he explains. “I’m very excited and I’m just hoping to feel good there and help my team as much as possible.”

It’s not only Garcia who is excited for this return. Much like his countryman Seve Ballesteros once did, Garcia lives for this competition – and his teammates understand the value of welcoming him back inside the ropes.

“I think it’s great,” says Luke Donald, who owns a 4-0-0 record when paired with Garcia. “Sergio is kind of synonymous with the Ryder Cup. He gets very excited, he has a lot of passion, he has a lot of energy. He brings a lot of energy to the team room, and I’m looking forward to having his energy there again.”

As if Garcia needed more inspiration, he owns a very personal relationship with Medinah Country Club.

Six years ago, he finished in a share of third place at the PGA Championship on this very site. It was the 1999 edition of that event, though, for which he will always be remembered.

Seemingly stymied behind a tree on the right side of the par-4 16th hole, the 19-year-old Garcia took a mighty lash at the ball, then enthusiastically chased it down the fairway, mounting a memorable scissor-kick in the process. Upon realizing the ball had safely come to rest, he patted his heart in exaggerated relief, the world breathing a heavy sigh of relief with him.

“I have great memories from there,” he says. “I’ve played twice, and I’ve done well both times. So yeah, I’m excited about it.”

That tree no longer exists, felled years ago by the club. It could have served symbolically for him two years ago, when he was forced to watch the Ryder Cup from the sidelines. This time, though, he can keep patting his heart. Sergio Garcia is back in the Ryder Cup, in the heat of the moment. Right where he belongs.

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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 what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

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).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

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.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

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.