The Bell Tolans for Thee

By Mercer BaggsJune 11, 2002, 4:00 pm
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- The U.S. Open is the most democratic of all sporting events. It allows anyone with a handicap of 1.4 or lower the opportunity to qualify and compete in the nations premiere golf tournament.
Whether a promising professional or an aged amateur, a club pro or a local legend, a major champion or veteran journeyman, a dream can be corralled at the U.S. Open.
Many players are living a weeklong fantasy this week at Bethpage State Park, including an unassuming 16-year-old from Colorado.
Derek Tolan chipped in from 50 feet last week at the Columbine Country Club in Denver to earn a spot in the 156-man U.S. Open field. He did so on the first playoff hole, besting former PGA Tour winner Mike Reid and PGA club professional Mike Zaremba in the process.
At first it was confusing. It hasn't hit me that I'm playing in probably the biggest golf event in the world, the 6-foot bespectacled Tolan said.
Without a hint of nervousness in his voice, Tolan calmly addressed the media Tuesday. His composure was another reassurance that todays youth is overly prepared for things once thought impossible - or at least improbable.
While most high schoolers are spending the summer enjoying the sun or saving money, Tolan is playing golf. In fact, the sport controls the majority of his interests.
Im not a very good student. I dont have any good subjects, he said, adding, I have a hard time focusing on two things at one timeI put most of my effort into one thing.
Therefore, golf trumps academics.
To me, I just feel like golf can get me further (in life) than (academics), he philosophized.
Where his single-mindedness takes him in the future is in doubt, but for now hes playing alongside the game's greatest.
Monday, he played a practice round with Steve Jones; Tuesday, Bob Tway, Scott Verplank and Justin Leonard; Wednesday it will be Darren Clarke, Thomas Bjorn and one of his idols, David Duval.
Thats probably the most exciting part, Tolan said of his getting to play with golfing luminaries. Theyve been great. Yesterday, Paul Stankowski came and shook my hand and told me, 'Congratulations.' I dont think he knows how much that helped me settle down.
Obviously, Dereks game is still under construction. He said he gained length over the winter ' partly due to a change in his swing and partly due to the course of nature ' that will allow him to contest the 7,214-yard par-70 Black Course.
Experience is still an attribute he is trying to possess. He qualified last year, at the age of 15, for both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior Amateur championships, and won this years Arizona Junior Classic.
Playing in the U.S. Amateur helped me tremendously, he said. I walked up to players like (defending champion) Jeff Quinney and I felt intimidated. I felt like I didnt belong.
Now I know theres no need to be intimidated. I earned my spot here.
Though hes the youngest competitor in the field this week, hes not quite the youngest to participate in a U.S. Open. That distinction belongs to Tyrell Garth, who at 14, was too young to defend his country in 1941, but not too young to vie for a national title.
Should Tolan feel frisky this week, he can check the record books to see that John McDermott, at 19 years, 10 months and 14 days, is the most nubile Open champion.
Of course, Tolans mind ' congested as it is ' is focused on just enjoying the experience ' and maybe making the cut.
I just want to play well. I want to see what its like and get experience, he said. Well see where it takes me.
The benefits of competing in a national open are immense ' and often immeasurable. But there was one tangible perk that Tolan received once his unconscionable chip shot rolled into the bottom of the cup. Dereks father, John, who is the head pro at the South Suburban Family Sports Center, promised him a car if he qualified.
We always set little bets like that; not in golf but in everything, said Derek, who mentioned he was playing poorly at the time he and his dad made the bet. It was more of a pride thing.
The keys to the car were in doubt during the most part of the 36-hole qualifier. As one of 35 players vying for two spots, he was 1-under-par through 10 holes when he triple-bogeyed the 11th. However, by the time he again reached No. 11 in the afternoon, he had played some of the best golf of my live to reach 7-under. He finished with rounds of 70-69 to make the playoff.
Someone chipping in crossed my mind a little bit, but I didnt think I would be the one to do it, Derek said of the playoff-ending shot.
But he did, and now hes here. And his friends have one request: Get autographs.
I think they have enough to worry about without me bugging them, he said. Thats one thing I will not be able to bring back for those guys.
Tolan, however, will bring back plenty of more important things upon his return.
I just want to take in all of the experiences and take advantage of all the hospitality and stuff there is here.
This is incredible.
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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.

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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.