Days later, still difficult to sum up Spieth's win

By John FeinsteinJuly 25, 2017, 10:00 pm

Finding words to describe Jordan Spieth’s Sunday performance at The Open is difficult. So, let’s begin by agreeing on one thing: The Open always delivers.

Since Louis Oosthuizen’s stunning runaway at St. Andrews in 2010, every Open Sunday has produced something remarkable.

It began with Darren Clarke’s emotional victory at Royal St. George’s in 2011. In his 20th Open – at age 42 – Clarke held off Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson for an emotional triumph and choked up during the victory ceremony talking about his wife, Heather, who had died of cancer five years earlier.

A year later, Ernie Els, also 42, played a brilliant back nine at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s – the same course where he thought he was going to win in 1996 – and walked away with the claret jug when Adam Scott imploded over the last four holes.

Then came 43-year-old Phil Mickelson’s closing 66 at Muirfield, giving him a victory he honestly didn’t think he’d ever achieve. Rory McIlroy ended the 40-something’s dynasty a year after that at Royal Liverpool with a bravura performance that ended with an emotional hug with his mom on the 18th green.



At St. Andrews in 2015, weather pushed the finish to Monday and, after a wild scramble down the stretch, Zach Johnson, Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman played off – with Spieth, eyeing the single-season Grand Slam, one shot and about three inches from joining them. Johnson putted like a demon to walk away with the victory.

And the last two years have given us breathtaking mano-a-mano duels on Sunday: Henrik Stenson and Mickelson last year; Spieth and Matt Kuchar this year. Mickelson shot 65 on Sunday at Troon and went from a one-shot deficit at the start of the day to a three-shot defeat, after Stenson threw a 63 at him to win his first major.

Kuchar couldn’t help but note Sunday that, after taking a one-shot lead walking to the 14th tee, he played the next four holes in 2 under par. Which meant he only dropped THREE shots to Spieth during that stretch.

Which brings us to trying to find words to describe what Spieth did in the last 90 minutes of The Open – 30 of which were spent on the 13th hole.

Let’s start with two phrases that will be repeated for years-to-come:

Birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. And: Driving-range shot.

There’s the ‘car-park shot,’ dating to Seve Ballesteros’ recovery at the 16th hole at Lytham on Sunday in 1979, leading to his first major title. And now, there’s the driving-range shot.

Everyone knows what happened: Spieth, fighting his swing and his emotions, hit about as bad a shot as a professional can hit on the 13th tee, described by NBC’s Roger Maltbie as being, “100 yards right.”

It took more than 20 minutes for Spieth to hit another shot – his third after taking an unplayable lie from the dune where the ball ended up. Because golf’s rules and those who enforce them have been under fire for a couple of years now and because Spieth has a (deserved) reputation as a slow player, there was a good deal of grumbling about how long it took him to play his third shot.

It would be a shame if people focused on that rather than Spieth’s final 19 shots of the championship, beginning with the one he finally struck from the driving range.

But, let’s review the circumstances for a moment. Spieth first had to choose from his three options after declaring the ball unplayable: go back to the tee; try to drop within two club lengths of the spot where his ball had finished; go back as far as he wished as long as he kept the dune where his ball had been, between him and the hole.

The first option – especially having to stand up on that tee again – almost certainly would have led to a 6, at least – and probably would have finished Spieth. The second was impossible, no place to drop.

So, it had to be option No. 3. The question was where could Spieth and his wandering golf ball go? The answer, as it turned out, was the nearby driving range – which (like the car-park) probably wasn’t out-of-bounds because nobody thought anyone would hit a shot anywhere close to there.

Spieth then took a lot of time checking yardage – there was nothing in his yardage book about playing a shot from there – talking to caddie Michael Greller and figuring out where he needed to aim his shot. Meanwhile, Kuchar sat and waited.

What made the situation impossible was there’s nothing in the rules – believe it or not – that covers this. It was unique. All the officials and all the king’s men couldn’t force Jordan to hit again.

Hale Irwin, who was playing with Ballesteros at Lytham in ’79 suggested Monday that it’s time for golf to have some kind of shot-clock. “Once the ball is in play, regardless of how tough the shot may be, there should be a limit on how long you can take. You’re a professional, YOU put yourself in that situation. There should be a limit on how long you can take to get yourself out of it.”

On Sunday though, no such rule was in play. So, everyone waited.

The good news was that you can’t say that Kuchar was affected by the delay. Imagine if Rory Sabbatini had been playing with Spieth. Come to think of it, don’t imagine it. The visual’s too gruesome.

Spieth, as everyone knows, made bogey when all the dust and clouds and dunes cleared. The 8-foot putt that he made might have been the most important of the 268 shots he played at Royal Birkdale last week.

Clearly, it gave him a jolt. He went from looking baffled and bewildered by the round he was playing to steely-eyed, the way the true greats get when something clicks. Bruce Edwards always said he got a chill when Tom Watson turned to him on the driving range and said, “I’ve got it,” when he figured out a swing-thought he knew would work.

Spieth had it by the time he walked to the 14th tee. He almost holed his tee shot, settling for a 6-foot birdie putt. Then came the ludicrous eagle putt that travelled through several English counties (or 38 feet) at 15. That’s when his victim, Kuchar, no doubt began to get that sinking feeling.

Then came the birdies at 16 and 17. By then, Kuchar, who had played well all day and all week – no one in the field ended up within two shots of him – had to feel like Joe Frazier at the end of the Thrilla in Manila: He’d thrown everything he had at Muhammad Ali, as played by Spieth, and it hadn’t been enough.

So, back to the words that describe those last 90 minutes? You pick one: extraordinary, amazing, stunning, fantastic, supernatural, ridiculous, remarkable, indescribable.

They all fit. But one other stands out: historic. Those two phrases will remain part of the golf pantheon forever: the driving-range shot and birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie.

Enough said.


John Feinstein's new book 'The First Major: The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup' will be released October 24. It is available now for pre-sale online.
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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: Joaquinn 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 Web.com 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 Web.com 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.