Prognosticating the PGA

By John HawkinsAugust 10, 2011, 5:12 pm

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – America’s major drought stands at six, the longest such streak in golf history, and if you’re looking for positive signs that it will end at this week’s PGA Championship, you’ll need a magnifying glass. A European hadn’t won this tournament in 74 years before Padraig Harrington hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy in 2008. Y.E. Yang’s stunner over Tiger Woods in ’09 and Martin Kaymer’s playoff victory last August make the PGA an apt reflection of the game’s shifting power balance.

It might get worse before it gets better. Here are my favorites heading to Atlanta Athletic Club.

Rory McIlroy (12-1): In golf’s what-have-you-done-lately universe, he’s not the hottest player in town, but he is the best. A long, straight ball works just about anywhere, but at this ballpark, it’s an absolute requirement, which is why neither Woods nor Phil Mickelson will be around Sunday afternoon. Is McIlroy ready to get back to the business of winning big tournaments? Guess we’ll have to see, but I suspect he’ll be in the mix with nine holes to play.

Lee Westwood (14-1): You can’t have a favorites list at any major without him on it. Westwood’s putting has cost him dearly at big tournaments over the years, but only recently has he enlisted the help of guru Dave Stockton. It’s not so much that he’s a lousy putter – he just never makes one when he really needs to. Maybe his time will come. Maybe it won’t.

Jason Day (15-1): He keeps knocking on the door at the biggest events, and at some point, the talented young Aussie will finish the job. He drives it too well and makes too many putts not to win a major in the near future. Maybe this isn’t the week, but runner-up finishes at the Masters and U.S. Open suggest he’ll become the first player from Down Under to claim a green jacket. Only a matter of time with this kid.

Dustin Johnson (16-1): Still America’s best hope despite the shank that ended his hopes at the British Open. Johnson drives it straighter than any of the jumbo hitters, and though his low ball flight won’t do him any favors at AAC, it’s hard to imagine the PGA of America letting the greens get too firm in the sweltering Georgia heat. Is there scar tissue from past failures? There has to be. And the guy keeps showing up.

Bubba Watson (25-1): If you’ve got to be really long or really straight to have a chance this week, Bubba’s in the hunt. His towering shapes off the tee will serve him well at AAC, but nobody will winthis tournament from the rough, regardless of how benign it is. The playoffloss to Kaymer at Whistling Straits last year was his first real taste of the highest level, and though a lot of good things have happened since, Watson’s summer has only been so-so. No top 20s since the victory in New Orleans. Needs to keep his chin up when the bad breaks come to get him.

Steve Stricker (30-1): My sense is that AAC won’t be a “putter’s course,” meaning solid tee-to-green play is essential, but Stricker has evolved into a terrific all-around player whose penchant for finding the hole only complements his ballstriking. The numbers across the board are superb: first on the PGA Tour in par-4 performance, first in birdie-conversion percentage, first in GIRs from inside 100 yards. Here’s another stat – Stricker ranks fourth when comes to hitting the green from a fairway bunker. Remember that shot to win the John Deere? AAC has a lot of sand.

Tiger Woods (30-1): A lot of good things would need to happen for Red Shirt to even find a spot in the Sunday hunt. Talk all you want about rust and the wounded leg, but Woods’ return at Firestone was marred by the same problems that have nagged him for years. He doesn’t drive it straight, and though nobody does a better job of escaping trouble, AAC is too long and too buffered to allow much of a Seve impersonation. Tiger’s fairway percentage has dropped below 50 percent, which qualifies as ghastly. Still not enough evidence to suggest Big Comeback starts this week.

Adam Scott (35-1): Wouldn’t have been considered for this list until the victory last week, which was bigger than the 2004 Players because Scott had basically disappeared from the game’s top tier. His putting woes may not be a total thing of the past, but again, you won’t need to hole a bunch of 20-footers to win this PGA. The knock on Scott has always been a faulty short game, but driving the ball has never been an issue. A good tool to have in your arsenal this week.

Ryo Ishikawa (50-1): Last week’s strong performance in Ohio reaffirmed the Bashful Prince’s vast potential – and could go a long way toward turning around what has been a mediocre year on both sides of the Pacific. No question, the tsunami-related devastation in his homeland left a mark on the kid’s psyche. At age 19, Ishikawa has one of the purest and most effective putting strokes anywhere. He has also played in enough premium-field events to know what he’s in for, if not what it takes to walk away with a title. This week, it will require a very robust tee ball and some cold towels.

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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.