Mickelson thumps Woods in Sunday duel

By Jason SobelFebruary 13, 2012, 3:32 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – One after the other, the game’s two biggest stars ascended into one of the game’s most hallowed arenas. Their measured footsteps revealed a familiar path from the practice green, past a sculpture of Pebble Beach founder Samuel F.B. Morse and various weathered plaques, including one listing every champion of what for years was so lovingly referred to as the Crosby Clambake, but now goes by the corporate code of AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

If either man stopped to inspect the plaque, he would have found his own name etched into the presentation. This was no time to stop. Each bounced up the 13 stairs carpeted in Masters-green Astroturf, reaching the first tee box to the hushed reverence of hundreds of spectators. It was a telling reaction from the gallery. Others may have cheered wildly or continued casual conversations amongst themselves. This one just watched collectively, waiting, hoping, knowing that it was about to be treated to a performance that would have made Morse proud.

The specter of optimism permeated the air. Hopefulness isn’t an easy commodity to pinpoint; the simplest way to describe it is that you’ll know it when you feel it. And you could readily feel it on this opening tee box.

Phil Mickelson strode in first. Head held high, famous grin faintly emerging across his face, a look of determination in his eyes. He needed to play well in this final round – no, he needed to win. To prove wrong those doubters who believed he was washed up. But more importantly, to prove it to himself. Over the first month of the season, Mickelson struggled with carrying his game over from practice to competition, later intimating, “I started to wonder if I'm going to be able to bring it to the golf course.”

Tiger Woods followed. Eyes tunneling forward, chest puffed in a display of what masqueraded as indignance, but wholly existed as focus. He needed to win, too. In a career that paralleled that of Mickelson only in chronological arc, Woods’ string of 71 career victories had been halted nearly two-and-a-half years earlier. This day would serve as his next unmitigated opportunity to correct that pattern, his latest chance to make a grandiose statement that he is indeed back – back amongst the game’s upper echelon and back within the consciousness of every other competitor.

Optimism is a funny thing. It can ebb and flow, rise and fall based on momentum. Standing on the first tee at exactly 9:29 a.m. local time on Sunday morning, there was no way to tell what each player’s optimism would wreak. There was no way to tell that almost six full hours later, on the 18th green about a 4-iron away from the Morse sculpture and the plaques and the 13 stairs and that opening tee, one player would be enveloped by it, his entire body language screaming its virtues, while the other would be utterly devoid of those positive feelings.

Without further suspense, it was Mickelson who waltzed down the final fairway with panache, that famous smile now stretched across his face. When he curled in his last birdie putt to solidify a bogey-free 8-under 64 that netted his 40th career PGA Tour title, the mercurial lefthander acknowledged the fans, hugged his caddie, kissed his wife and kept on smiling.

He smiled not only because he won, but because he proved to the doubters that he could still reach such an accomplishment. No, because he proved it to himself.

“It's one of the more emotional victories for me that I've had and the reason is, I've had some doubt these last couple of weeks,” Mickelson confided. “This gives me a lot of confidence and erases the doubt.”

His post-round celebration on the final green was a crescendo of the optimism that permeated the air before he started. He birdied the second hole and the fourth and the fifth, optimism giving way to comfort, comfort giving way to exuberance. By the time he eagled the par-5 sixth hole, Mickelson – and his bevy of supporters behind the ropes – was downright euphoric, building on the momentum with every footstep across the venerable coastal links.

By the time he posted a brilliant par save on the 12th, consecutive birdies on 13 and 14, and another irrepressible par save on the 15th, Mickelson was billowing with enthusiasm, armed with the knowledge that his long-awaited victory was all but assured.

Let’s not pretend that the triumph wasn’t made even sweeter by the fact that it came over his longtime nemesis. Mickelson would only allow afterward that, “He seems to bring out the best in me and the last four or five years, I've played some of my best golf playing with him and I really enjoy it.” He really enjoys beating him, too. Enjoys checking the leaderboard and seeing his name ahead, enjoys celebrating on the final green while Woods can only watch with contempt.

Yes, by that point in the proceedings, Woods’ pre-round optimism had dissolved into the mighty Pacific. He trudged off the course, brow furrowed, lips downturned to display a world-class frown. He waited for an interview with a television reporter in uneasy silence, then answered a few more questions from the awaiting throng of media members before being whisked away from the venue.

“It was a fun day to be out there,” he claimed, “but also in the end, it was very frustrating at the same time.”

From the time he made five pars to start his round to the three consecutive bogeys to conclude his front nine to the back-to-back bogeys on 14 and 15, Woods exuded that frustration. Even more telling, he appeared uncertain. He admitted later that he could never get comfortable with his swing and his putting stroke looked fiercely inconsistent, missing five putts of less than 6 feet during the round.

When the debris settled, it all added up to a 3-over 75, a whopping 11 shots worse than his playing partner and good for a share of 15th place.

And just as Mickelson’s win gratified him more because it came against Woods, Woods’ loss hurt more because it came against Mickelson. Neither will concede that fact. You’ll just have to believe it.

Just as you’ll have to believe that optimism once reigned in the minds of both players on this day. It’s a funny thing, those ebbs and flows of hopefulness. They led to one of the most important wins of one man’s career on Sunday and dissolved during one of the most crushing losses for another.

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Defending champ Gana co-leads Latin America Amateur

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 11:20 pm

Toto Gana moved into early position to try to win a return trip to the Masters Saturday by grabbing a share of the first-round lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship.

The defending champ posted a 3-under-par 68 at Prince of Wales Country Club in his native Chile, equaling the rounds of Argentina’s Mark Montenegro and Colombia’s Pablo Torres.

They are one shot ahead of Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz and Mario Carmona, Argentina’s Horacio Carbonetti and Jaime Lopez Rivarola and the Dominican Republic’s Rhadames Pena.

It’s a bunched leaderboard, with 19 players within three shots of each at the top of the board in the 72-hole event.

“I think I have my game under control,” said Gana, 20, a freshman at Lynn University. “I hit the ball very well, and I also putted very well. So, I am confident about tomorrow.”

The LAAC’s champion will get more than a Masters invitation. He also will be exempt into the The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event he is eligible to play this year. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

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LAAC returning to Casa de Campo in 2019

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 8:23 pm

The Latin America Amateur Championship will return to Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic in 2019 (Jan. 17-20), event organizers announced Saturday in Chile, where this year’s championship is underway.

The LAAC champion receives an invitation to play the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club every spring.

The champion is also exempt into The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event for which he is eligible to compete. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The championship got its start in 2015 with Chile’s Matias Dominguez winning at Pilar Golf in Argentina. In 2016, Casa de Campo hosted, with Costa Rica’s Paul Chaplet winning. At 16, he became the first player from Central America to compete in the Masters. In 2017, Chile’s Toto Gana won the title at  Club de Golf de Panama.

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Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 6:07 pm

An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.

It was too much “socializing.”

“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”

Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.

“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.

His plan for doing that?

“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.