Leonards Run Begins at Home

By Mercer BaggsMay 8, 2001, 4:00 pm
For Justin Leonard, the dominos start to fall on Thursday in Irving, Tx.

Leonard will play the next four weeks on the PGA Tour, beginning with this weeks Verizon Byron Nelson Classic and culminating with the Memorial Tournament.
From Lord Byrons tournament to Jack Nicklaus, Leonard is preparing himself for the U.S. Open, which, in turn, will go a long way to determining whether or not he makes this years Ryder Cup team.
The 101st U.S. Open will take place at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla. Following his four-week stretch, Leonard will skip the FedEx St. Jude Classic, which directly precedes the Open.
Leonard is playing for the first time since the Shell Houston Open, where he tied for fourth two weeks ago.
The finish was Leonards first top-10 since the Mercedes Championships in January. In between Hawaii and Houston, the 28-year-old missed five cuts and failed to break the top-25 in four other starts.
However, it wasnt as bad as it looked on paper.
I saw some positive things through that, Leonard said on Tuesday. And even through the missed cuts, and the 73s and 74s, there were stretches in the rounds where I actually played some pretty good golf.
The root of Leonard's lackluster results was easy to trace. He spent the first five months of the season refining his swing.
Despite winning the 2000 Texas Open and collecting a trio of runner-up finishes, Leonard wasnt happy with his play a season ago. His felt his swing was faulty, unable to sustain the pressure of four full rounds.
Ive shortened my swing and Ive simplified my swing, said the 1997 British Open champion. Ive taken a lot of the excess movement out of my swing by a different position at address. And basically, Ive got a better understanding of what Im trying to do in the golf swing and how it is supposed to feel.
Leonard knew his swing overhaul would be painful in terms of his performance. In fact, he was more surprised than anyone when he finished inside the top-10 in his first two starts of the 2001 campaign.
I set myself up for a big fall with those first two events, he said. Now, I feel like Im playing at a more consistent level.
Im not working on eight different things anymore. The last couple of weeks Ive spent trying to move the ball up a little bit in my stance, and just checking my alignment. You know, thats as simple as it gets. And Ive gotten very comfortable with it.
Leonards simplistic approach will be tested mightily this week outside Dallas. Thirteen of the top 20 players in the world are in attendance this week, including Tiger Woods, who is making his first appearance since winning his fourth consecutive major and third straight overall event at the Masters Tournament.
In addition to the impressive field - which also includes Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh - Leonard will also have to battle a pair of courses that have caused him a bit of turmoil over the years.
Though hes a Dallas native and a former All-America at the University of Texas, Leonard has yet to crack the top-20 in seven prior Nelson starts.
Last year, he opened in 80 and missed the cut.
Leonard and the rest of the 156-man field will alternate play over the first two days on the TPC at Las Colinas and the Cottonwood Valley Course.
Both tracks are a par-70. Las Colinas, the host course, will be ultimate battlefield over the weekend.
The purse has climbed to $4.5 million this year, with $810,000 going to the winner ' thats $90K more than Jesper Parnevik collected in winning last year.
But Leonard isnt concerned with prize money.
With three major championships left on the calendar and the Ryder Cup looming in late September, Leonard has more than money on his mind.
Youll recall it was Leonard who sank the controversial 45-foot clinching birdie putt in the 1999 Ryder Cup. He currently stands in 22nd place on the 2001 points list.
And to get to where he wants to go, Leonard is relying on an old clich ' one step at a time.
Thursday is first. Thats my first priority, said Leonard. Sunday night, my priority is Fort Worth and what I do at the Colonial. Ill take the first challenge Ive got and put everything into that.
If I play poorly these next four weeks, you know, the majors are out, Ryder Cup is out. I never put all of my eggs in one basket.
But I just know Ive got a really good feeling about my game, and the tournaments that are coming up, and, you know, Im just really looking forward to this week and this whole summer.
That first domino will fall Thursday morning at 11:50am CT at Las Colinas.
Full field and tee times for the 2001 Verizon Byron Nelson Classic
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 a trip to Augusta.

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquinn Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com 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.

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 Web.com 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.