Finchem could block anchoring ban on PGA Tour

By John HawkinsDecember 17, 2012, 1:44 pm

In college, I was led to believe the birth-control pill and electric guitar were mankind’s finest accomplishments. Now that I’m older and a few pounds wiser, neither seems more essential to my happiness than the polyester/lycra undershirt, known as a “base layer” by those in the fashion industry and popularized by Under Armour, which has turned stretchy fabric into a good reason to print money.

Such garments allow us to play golf, at least rather comfortably, well into December in the Northeast. Until not so long ago, cold-weather gear had a straitjacket-like effect on my swing – the last thing I need is another excuse to stink. Not only am I now able to strike the ball without wardrobe interference, I’ve found I can still slam an offensive club against my bag and break the shaft in my 3-wood, which ranked right behind my children on the list of Things I Absolutely Do Not Want to Screw Up.

Oh, well. The temporary greens might be in play by the time you read this, leaving me at least three months to get it fixed. Hey, things could be worse. I could be taking a long putter to the repair shop.

TOM WATSON IS an American legend. His popularity has proven timeless, his old-school virtues amplified by a career full of profound achievement and take-it-like-a-man heartbreak. When vicious fate cost him the 2009 British Open just two months before his 60th birthday, Watson’s grace and perspective afterward were as impressive as his performance at Turnberry throughout the week.

His 39 PGA Tour victories and eight major titles make him one of the finest players ever – an entire generation of U.S.-born golfers would come and go before anyone even approached those totals. Beyond the numbers, however, Watson was tougher than a chilly rain or a three-club breeze.

The harder the conditions, the better he played. Even after an avalanche of missed 4-footers kept him from winning more big tournaments, Watson continued to contend against men half his age, many of them 30 yards longer off the tee. Nobody has struck the ball more purely. And no one has been more candid in his assessment of matters both on and off the golf course.

Simply put, Tom Watson rarely misses the center of the clubface. With all due respect to the nine men who have captained the U.S. Ryder Cup team since Watson piloted the team to victory at The Belfry in 1993, his return to the helm in 2014 is more than a mere change in direction. It is a statement that doesn’t require much of an explanation. Loudly and clearly, the bugle has been blown.

At the risk of overstating the role of Ryder Cup captaincy or figuring Watson’s presence is worth a couple of points to the U.S. cause, reality speaks for itself. The Yanks have won just two of those last nine meetings against the Europeans. Changes to the formula during that stretch have been few and far between – perhaps it’s no coincidence that Paul Azinger’s demand for alterations in the qualifying format helped the Yanks triumph at Valhalla in 2008.

America’s latest loss was probably the hardest to stomach. As hypotheticals go, maybe David Toms would have gotten the nod in 2014 if the Yanks had won comfortably at Medinah instead of blowing a four-point lead on Sunday. Maybe Watson won’t make a difference at Gleneagles, but the fact that he was given the job is a healthy acknowledgement of failure, a proactive strike with absolutely no downside.

In baseball, a pitcher can give up six runs in five innings, all but one of the runs unearned, and you still bring in the reliever. At this juncture, it’s not so much that America has nothing to lose, but a whole lot to gain.

SOME LINGERING THOUGHTS on the anchored-putter ban – additional eyesight provided by a couple of in-the-know Tour pros:

Maybe the governing bodies were studying this issue for years, as USGA executive director Mike Davis said. A good and honest man Davis is, no question, but recent public outcry is what made a resolution of the matter such a high priority. After years of occasional rumblings about long putters, the dissent turned into one large roar in 2012.

With that in mind, things become a bit more complex. Those opposed to anchoring were vocal because it was having an increased effect on pro golf – you can’t tell me people were outraged because handicaps were getting lower. At the recreational level, it simply wasn’t an issue, but when some of the game’s best young players began winning major titles with extended-length utensils, well, now we’ve got a problem.

There’s just one hitch: The USGA doesn’t hold any jurisdiction over the PGA Tour. Davis couldn’t call Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and say, “Hey, your guys are no longer allowed to brace putters against their bodies.” Sure, Finchem was kept informed while the USGA and R&A dealt with the issue, but the simple fact that Camp Ponte Vedra issued a rather nebulous response to the ban tells me one thing: the Tour’s adherence to the new rule is no slam dunk.

We can speculate for months as to whether the Tour will adopt the measure, but there is one obvious precedent in terms of CPV ignoring the USGA mandate and doing its own thing: the lift, clean and place provision. This would be a much bigger deal for a number of reasons, and you don’t need a Ph.D. in common sense to see that Finchem is in a tough spot.

Does he go to the policy board and try to convince his constituency that anchored putters are a breach of competitive integrity? Or does he acknowledge the considerable impact the ban will have on the Champions Tour, where long putters rank immediately behind Viagra on the list of necessities, and decide that the goose and the gander are two very different entities?

When the PGA of America’s Connecticut Section convened for its year-end gathering, executive director Tom Hantke told the club pros that he’d recently been in the company of Finchem – and that the commish expressed disapproval over the USGA’s position on the matter.

“[Hantke] told our guys Finchem might not go along with it,” was how my local pro put it. Perhaps Finchem was guilty of nothing more than reasonable posturing. Sometimes, people hear what they want to hear, and the PGA of America has made it clear that it doesn’t agree with the anchoring ban. You don’t walk into a room full of club pros and tell them their opinion doesn’t matter.

That said, could you disallow anchoring on the PGA Tour but let the old guys continue doing it? What about potential lawsuits – how solid is the ground stood on by those who depend on a long putter to make a living? Basically, we’re talking about legislation ostensibly designed for one nation that was drawn up and enacted by another.

That’s not how the world works, and my sense is, this ain’t no can of worms. This is an industrial drum full of rattlesnakes.

YOU CAN’T WRITE something like this in mid-December without acknowledging the year that was. I don’t know if 2012 ranks among the best in golf history – I don’t know how anyone could even rank years, period – but it certainly was interesting. Better than 2010 or 2011, I suppose, if only because someone clearly established himself as the best in the game, and because the guy who had been the best for so long started bearing a slight resemblance to his former self.

Listed in chronological order below are my nine defining moments of 2012, known on the Chinese calendar as the Year of the Dragon. Given the dark nature of several of these indelible moments, perhaps we should identify it as the Year of the Demon.

Kyle Stanley, WM Phoenix Open. Nobody blows a three-stroke lead on the final hole and loses in a playoff, then rallies from eight back the very next week to win. Spencer Levin’s own Sunday collapse allowed Stanley to complete his amazing reversal at TPC Scottsdale. At the time, it looked like one of those gutsy victories that launches a career, but Stanley was merely preparing another astonishing U-turn – he didn’t have a single top-10 finish the rest of the year.

Tiger Woods, Bay Hill Invitational. This was the first real sign Woods was back, so to speak, and on Sunday, he was absolutely as good as he’s ever been. On a blustery afternoon of two-club breezes and gusts much stronger, Tiger hit 10 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens. His closing 70 was more like a 65 – only two guys shot lower and neither was close to contention entering the final round. Woods’ 2012 was a mixed bag, but all things considered, I’d give him a solid B+.

Bubba Watson, Masters. He had surrendered a sizable 54-hole lead at Doral a month earlier, looking uncomfortable all day, which prompted questions about Watson’s ability to handle pressure in big tournaments. The doubts were debunked with authority at Augusta National. Bubba’s escape from the pine straw right of the 10th fairway on the second playoff hole was, without question, the shot of the year. And, as is often the case, the Masters was the golf season’s most riveting major.

Matt Kuchar, The Players Championship. For all the top 10s and fat paychecks on his return to prominence, Kuchar wasn’t winning tournaments at a rate befitting of a top-tier player. His performance at TPC Sawgrass wasn’t flashy, but at a ballpark where the guy who makes the fewest mistakes usually wins, Kooch got it done. When all is said and done, a career is measured primarily on Ws. It will be interesting to see where the guy goes from here.

Jim Furyk, U.S. Open. Not to pick on my friends at Olympic or anything, but this was a less-than-stellar major: hard to watch, even tougher to stomach as Furyk threw away the title on the final three holes. We’d never seen this guy look so fallible under heavy heat, and when he did it again at Firestone two months later, questions about his Ryder Cup worthiness became legitimate. Furyk struggled in the closing moments at Medinah, too, treating us to second-guessers galore.

Adam Scott, British Open. Anyone noticing a trend here? More than any year I can remember, established players squandered comfortable leads at big events. Scott’s was the most unsightly – a full-fledged meltdown on the final four holes that handed Ernie Els  his fourth major. Scott is a true gentleman, the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry, but losses like that can be tough to overcome. Somebody get this man a pint of cold blood.

Rory McIlroy, BMW Championship. Yes, the PGA was a bigger win, an eight-stroke triumph that secured the Irish Lad’s standing as the world’s best player, but I picked this one for a couple of reasons. One, the course (Crooked Stick) was so soft and easy that anyone could have won – we really hadn’t seen McIlroy win a shootout. It was also his third victory in four starts, a roll reminiscent of Woods’ late-season tear in 1999, which became a prelude to his miracle season in 2000. This kid is gonna be real good for a real long time.

Justin Rose, Ryder Cup. His bomb for birdie on the 17th green Sunday was by far the biggest putt of the year; Rose basically stole a point from Phil Mickelson in a match that ultimately proved the most pivotal of the bunch. Rose quietly had a terrific year and is currently fourth in the world ranking, although I’m not real sure how Louis Oosthuizen sneaked his way all the way up to fifth. That formula could use a stack of dynamite, which is exactly what Rose’s clutch finish at Medinah did to the U.S. hopes.

Ian Poulter, Ryder Cup. You learn a lot about the world’s best golfers when you take them out of the individual, stroke-play format and throw them into a team, match-play competition. Poulter’s heroics all week, particularly his astounding play Saturday evening, added up to the finest performance in modern Ryder Cup history. I’ve never seen a player transform himself to such positive effect at such crucial moments as Poulter has done at least a couple of times against the Americans.

He personifies the difference between the two sides, merging passion and precision into unparalleled performance. Maybe U.S. captain Watson should have his lads spike their hair and wear battery-powered pants at Gleneagles in 2014.

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.