Masters rookies have great chance to join exclusive club

By Jason SobelApril 5, 2014, 12:45 pm

Go ahead and ask Fuzzy Zoeller if he has any advice for this year’s crop of Masters rookies. I dare you to try and spit out the entire question before he bursts in and starts dispensing advice.

Betcha can’t do it.

“They’re making a big mistake,” he interjected when I attempted that mission. “A lot of local knowledge goes into that tournament, so they should take a local caddie. Jeepers, what an advantage to have a guy who knows the course.”

He would know.

Thirty-five years ago, he became the only true first-timer to win in his initial trip down Magnolia Lane. Oh, sure, Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen were technically rookies – and Zoeller considers them part of the exclusive club – but prevailing in the first and second editions of the tournament, respectively, hardly offered the same stature as a guy toppling fellow competitors with a decade or two of experience among the azaleas.

With one potential spot remaining, there are 23 fresh-faced rookies in this year’s 96-man field, but the quality is more stunning than the quantity.

Five of ‘em already own multiple PGA Tour titles, including Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed, each of whom have three in the past calendar year. Jordan Spieth only has one, but he’ll make his debut as the 13th-ranked player in the world. Others, such as Graham DeLaet, Billy Horschel and Victor Dubuisson, will arrive armed with the ball-striking abilities necessary to master Augusta National.

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All of which leads to this question: Can someone join the club this week?

As Zoeller himself insists, “There’s nothing impossible about it.”

He’s got plenty of company in that camp – and a lot of it comes from this year’s rookie class.

“I'm going to have to play my butt off,” Spieth said. “I have to have my A-plus game there, because I think it definitely helps to see that golf course multiple times. But if we go through the right preparation, I'm on my game, then I feel like I've got a good shot at it.”

“Whoever shows up at an event nowadays has a chance to win,” Reed said. “I'm definitely not going to say that I don't have a chance of winning. I feel like I do. But at the same time, I'm going to have to put four really good rounds together.”

That rallying cry doesn’t differ much from those of the dozens of competitors who are making a return appearance to Augusta. Which is pretty much the point. More than ever before, inexperienced players are seemingly imbued with the confidence to defeat ones who own more hardware.

Just in the past month, Reed triumphed over an elite field at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, Matt Every overtook Adam Scott at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Steven Bowditch held off Matt Kuchar at the Valero Texas Open.

Each of them will be a Masters rookie and even though history tells us seasoned players have an advantage at Augusta, these recent results could negate that notion.

“The greens are really tough so obviously the Phils and the Tigers and Adam Scott, they're going to have kind of the upper hand,” said Harris English, one of those 23 rookies. “[But] there's a lot of good young guys who have not played the Masters yet that will probably get a good run.”

Much of that is because of pure talent, but a lot of it is due to the fact that unlike all other majors, there is a traditional sameness to the venue. Following his win, Bowditch admitted he knows the course mostly through playing it on PlayStation.

“I feel like I know the golf course from watching it as much as I have on TV,” DeLaet said. “You just have to hit it straight, hit it close and make putts.”

He punctuated that thought with a laugh – and it could be a rookie who laughs last or laughs all the way to the bank or one of a number of chuckle-related clichés.

Even so, most of the first-time participants – if not all – will fail to heed Zoeller’s advice about taking a local caddie. That’s OK, though. He’s got some other advice, too.

“Have fun and enjoy it,” he recommended. “It is a spectacular place. I think everyone plays better when they’re enjoying it.”

And if they do? Well, there just might be another member of that exclusive club.

“I’d welcome them with arms open,” Zoeller said. “Besides, we need a foursome.”

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.