Changes Shorten List of Contenders

By Mercer BaggsApril 3, 2006, 4:00 pm
Even the optimists have reservations. Those who cling to the hope that they can actually win the Masters Tournament have within them the understanding of a Realist.
I wouldnt say that Im not able to win the golf tournament, said Jim Furyk, but its more difficult now than it was 10 years ago.
Ten years ago, Augusta National measured 6,925 yards, just as it did 62 years prior, when the tournament was first played and won by Horton Smith.
Tiger Woods
Many players believe Augusta's latest changes have only made it easier for Tiger Woods to win more green jackets.
Over the years, club officials have made innumerable alterations to the course. But it wasnt until the 1999 competition ' two years after Tiger Woods won with a record 18-under total ' that length was added to the overall count. It was just 60 yards then, as well as a second cut of rough. Three years later it was another 185 yards. The next year, another 20. And now, for this weeks edition, the 70th overall, there is an additional 155 yards, bringing the new total to 7,445.
Since the first Masters in 1934, this golf course has evolved, and that process continues today, said Hootie Johnson, club chairman at Augusta National, in a statement. As in the past, our objective is to maintain the integrity and shot values of the golf course as envisioned by (architects) Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie.
Augusta National, golfs green Mecca, is now golfs Green Monster.
Where it used to be kind of the most fun of all the majors, said Ernie Els, its becoming the hardest now.
If the conditions are firm, said four-time winner and defending champion Tiger Woods, that golf course is probably the most difficult golf course youll ever play.
Distance-wise, six holes have been stretched for this year: the par-4 first (435 to 455); par-3 fourth (205 to 240); par-4 seventh (410 to 450); par-4 11th (490 to 505); par-5 15th (500 to 530); and par-4 17th (425 to 440).
I dont mind them lengthening the golf course, 2003 champion Mike Weir said. But, I dont think they should have rough; I dont think they should have all the (new) tees that theyve put in; I dont think they need all of the trees where they put them.
In addition to the additional distance, some fairways have been narrowed, more pine trees planted, and certain angles of attack completely eliminated.
Most of the premium was on iron shots and short game. I think that has changed, said two-time champion Bernhard Langer. Its still a great tournament, but its a different golf course.
I heard them say that they want it to play like it used to play. I dont know if theyve done that.
Langer believes that the changes are playing right into the hands of the longer hitter. Fellow two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal thinks the big boppers 'will have the hugest smile from ear to ear. And theyre not alone in their belief. In fact, there are few who would bother to disagree ' even the bombers.
It eliminates a lot of guys, Woods said about the recent changes.
The short-but-straight Fred Funk, the man who survived to win the 2005 Players Championship, harbors no delusion of grandeur for this week.
No, he said flatly when asked if he could win.
There are probably 25 to 30 guys playing long enough to have a chance. Of those 25 to 30 guys, theres probably five or six who have the mental ability to win. And out of those five or six, theres just one whos going to win.
That one, Funk believes, will be Woods.
If they want Tiger to win every year, then they got it with the changes theyve made.
Others arent ready to write themselves off just yet. They are optimist. And realists.
That was the thought when I won in 2003, that only a longer hitter could win, said Weir. But anybody whos playing good, making putts, wedging it well is going to have a shot.
Of course, the longer player will always have an advantage, because theyre going to have shorter clubs in (to the greens).
I wouldnt make the statement that theres only five or six people who can win the tournament, said Furyk. But, absolutely, youve probably eliminated a few people and narrowed the odds on a lot of people.
Arnold Palmer won the Masters four times and felt that he should have won it even more than that. Then again, no one ever gave him much of a chance to ever win one green jacket, not with his low ball flight. But, as Palmer recently said, The desire to win at Augusta was as great as the lack of maybe game to do it. I learned how to win there.
Desire and fight will allow certain players to hang in there for a little while, but Els feels they will be filtered out as the event progresses.
Over four days of competition, its going to narrow the field dramatically, Els said about the course length. You might see more tournaments like we had last year where a couple of guys break away, and its kind of two different tournaments within a tournament kind of thing.
Last year, Woods and Chris DiMarco ended regulation knotted at 12 under, seven shots clear of third place. Sixteen players managed to break par ' and the course was once again playing soft due to rain on Thursday and Friday.
Many believe that if the course plays dry ' which it did in last years practice rounds, but hasnt done during actual competition since the major renovations began taking place four years ago ' that no one will finish in red numbers.
We havent seen the greens hard and fast, said Woods. With or without the rain last year, we were thinking in the practice round that over par is going to win the tournament. If you can keep it around even par, youre going to win easily. This year, if it stays dry, probably the same thing.
Woods played the course prior to this week; so, too, did Els. When asked about the changes, Els laughed and said, They are quite major. Woods called them, interesting, very interesting.
In sharing their experiences, Els said he hit 2-iron into the green at the 240-yard, par-3 fourth; Woods, who doesnt carry a 2-iron, hit 3-iron and came up short. Both players are thinking about putting a 5-wood into their bags.
Ive talked to some of the older guys, who played there back in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and they never had to hit (a) wood into (No.) 4 before, but youll see a lot of guys hitting wood into 4 this year, said Woods.
Johnson and the Green Jackets want their tournament, their course to play like it did when Byron Nelson won it, when Jack Nicklaus won it, when Nick Faldo won it. They say that they are making changes out of necessity, in order to hold true to Bobby Jones original vision.
They think theyve done that. Not everyone agrees.
Its becoming more like a U.S. Open instead of the Masters, Weir said. I dont think this is what Bobby Jones envisioned.
Said Olazabal, who doesnt even know if he could win on the current set-up during his prime, Nowadays, the golf course is completely different to when I started playing there in the late 80s and all through the 90s.
We have seen the direction they have taken, he added, and time will tell if they are right or wrong.
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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.

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    Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

    By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

    SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

    The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

    Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

    Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

    ''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

    The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.

    Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

    Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

    ''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

    Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

    ''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

    Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

    He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

    Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

    Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

    He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

    Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.