Hawk's Nest: Nicklaus speaks the truth on task force

By John HawkinsOctober 20, 2014, 12:23 pm

Old guys never throw each other under the Conestoga wagon, so it should surprise no one that Jack Nicklaus recently defended Tom Watson’s rocky Ryder Cup captaincy.

This wasn’t a bouquet of roses, mind you, but a tepid endorsement of the U.S. system and the dispiriting notion that Watson and his staff “probably did a pretty good job” in piloting the Yanks to a five-point loss at Gleneagles.

If you’re an American golf fan, golly gee, you’ve gotta be feeling totally stoked about 2016.

I don’t know about that “pretty good job” stuff, but otherwise, Nicklaus couldn’t have been more perceptive in his post-rout assessment. Anybody who thought this U.S. team was going to win in Scotland was either delusional or drunk on the Kool-Aid. Watson’s mismanagement obviously didn’t help matters, but it’s not the reason the Yanks lost.

The subsequent formation of an 11-man task force, as Nicklaus noted, amounts to a dangerous case of overkill. How many chefs do we need standing over the broth? Most sports-related task forces are born out of tragedy or scandal, not because a bunch of guys in Ralph Lauren sweaters couldn’t make a putt.

Dangerous? You betcha. The pressure on the 2016 U.S. team to win at Hazeltine will be unlike anything previous Ryder Cup squads have ever faced. Factor in golf’s debut in the Summer Olympics that August, and the process of fielding the best possible roster will only become more complex.

For all the hand-wringing and idea-floating to be done between now and then, it’s worth noting that the U.S. has lost with two captain’s picks (2002-06), four captain’s picks (2010-12) and now three captain’s picks. It has continued to lose despite a reduction of the off-course social functions the players found so distracting.

It has lost with mild-mannered, player-oriented skippers (Davis Love III) and intense types (Watson, Corey Pavin). It has won without Tiger Woods when he was the No. 1 player in the world, but lost when it had the top three players in the World Ranking.

We can drive around in circles, getting nowhere all night long. The best way to prepare for 2016 is to act like 2014 never happened, but then, that’s not gonna happen, either.

AS HIS 16-FOOTER for birdie tumbled into the hole on Augusta National’s 18th green, Mark O’Meara raised his arms triumphantly. After 17 full seasons and 218 career starts, his first major title had occurred at the 1998 Masters, certainly one of the most thrilling of the modern era.

There was just one little problem. After holing the putt and accepting a congratulatory handshake from fellow competitor Fred Couples, O’Meara went to fetch his ball — and found a green cap lying on the ground maybe two feet below the hole.

The hat belonged to O’Meara’s caddie, Jerry Higginbotham, who had hurled it into the air in celebratory fashion, which wouldn’t have mattered if it hadn’t landed on Couples’ line. Freddie still had a short putt for par, making it a humorous and awkward moment, although O’Meara wasn’t exactly giggling as he retrieved the cap himself and walked away.

Having gotten to know Mark O. quite well over the years, I’m thinking last week’s World Golf Hall of Fame induction spurred a similar split reaction — overjoyed by the selection, then perturbed by comments that he’s not Hall-worthy. As good as he was, as long as he was consistently good, O’Meara always carried himself like a man who had something to prove.

So if those logoed shirts could never quite hide the chip on his shoulder, O’Meara was one of the most approachable and likeable tour pros I’ve ever known, a man utterly incapable of snobbish behavior. It’s no wonder he won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am five times. A course full of hacks and the six-hour rounds weren’t going to bother O’Meara even a little bit.

But does he belong in the Hall? My perspective tells me that if a majorless Colin Montgomerie got in without having ever won a tour event in America, O’Meara should have made it years ago. His 16 tour victories and two majors trump Couples’ 15 and one, and besides, fellow 2015 inductee David Graham got in with eight Ws.

All that said, I reiterate my belief that the WGHOF standards have gotten too low, and this year’s alterations to the selection process aren’t likely to change that anytime soon. We’re talking about a self-serving enterprise in which those already elected to the Hall decide on who’s next, which leads to cronyism and the occasional popularity contest, which isn’t what such enshrinements are supposed to be about.

SPEAKING OF CRONIES, Ian Poulter and Sir Nick Faldo used to be pretty good buds, but now we’ve got another Ryder Cup-related squabble breaking out and IJP is hopping mad. Psssst: Old Tom Watson was nowhere near this one.

It basically started on the first day of last month’s competition at Gleneagles. Faldo was working the Golf Channel telecast with Terry Gannon and referred to Sergio Garcia as “useless” at the 2008 Ryder Cup — the last time the U.S. defeated Europe. Faldo was the captain of that losing squad, and while numerous whispers of Sir Nick’s inadequacies as skipper have surfaced in the years since, an appointment of British royalty must absolve one of anything that smells like blame.

“Half a point, bad attitude,” Faldo said of Garcia that morning. “Anyway, we move on, six years later.”

Not so fast, Nicholas.

“It makes me laugh,” Poulter writes in his upcoming autobiography, “No Limits.” Faldo is talking about someone being useless ... and the European team suffered a heavy defeat [when] he was captain. So who’s useless?”

Time to yank out the pitchfork.

“There were plenty of things a lot of the players were unhappy with at Valhalla, but none of us criticized [Faldo],” Poulter adds. “He may find that begins to change now.”

First of all, IJP is as good at selling books as he is making putts. Secondly, not even a month has passed since the “useless” comment and Poulter already has his memoirs in manuscript form? Talk about having a publisher running the no-huddle offense ... .

Thirdly, and most notably, Sir Nick has made a nice second career out of saying little on television. He talks about nerves and swing planes, but doesn't seem to know much about today's players.

In recent years, however, Faldo has been particularly critical of Garcia — one of the few players who has been good enough and around long enough to attract Sir Nick’s attention. This time, his negativity bit him on the cheek, and Poulter, regardless of whether he should have gotten involved, has the teeth of a piranha.

Shall we appoint a task force on the matter?

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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.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.