PGA Tour's wraparound schedule has merit

By Mercer BaggsOctober 14, 2013, 6:02 pm

SAN MARTIN, Calif. – The wraparound season’s not so bad. Some people are treating it like New Coke, but, really, does it matter if players are competing to keep their current cards or get a jump on a future one?

Expectations are key to acceptance. If you thought changing October events from enders to beginners would attract bigger names, then you’re bound for disappointment. There will be no Tiger Woods, but as he says, it is what it is.

These tournaments are what they are. Classify them how you want, but these events are ones which offer the best opportunity for players to maintain/gain their Tour livelihood. This past week, for example, had no player inside the top 25 in the world golf ranking, but offered full FedEx Cup points, a $5 million purse, a two-year Tour exemption (as well for the remainder of this year), and a trip to the 2014 Masters.

One might say, ‘Well, that’s the point. All that is on offer and the field is weak.’ Consider the alternatives. Open: Articles, videos and photos

If these were the old Fall Series events, purses would be smaller, there would be no golden ticket to Augusta and the fields would be the same.  Would you rather have silly season events? Did you really enjoy watching Fred Funk dress as a woman or Stephen Ames battle K.J. Choi?

The handful of superstars in the sport aren’t playing those hit-and-giggle tournaments, either. They’re going overseas for straight cash, homey. And they are going to do that regardless of whether the Tour is wrapping up its season or wrapping around its season, or if there are skins games or shootouts.

You can watch Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in places like China and Turkey, not Sea Island, Ga. and Naples, Fla. And, aside from a planned trip to the WGC-HSBC Champions, Phil Mickelson’s not playing anywhere but at his house with his kids.

The European Tour did a wraparound schedule for more than a decade, before instilling an offseason in 2012. The PGA Tour does have a break this year. After the Mayakoba event concludes Nov. 17, there is only the World Cup, Tiger’s event and the Franklin Templeton shootout on its unofficial schedule. There is plenty of time for players to recharge and fans to miss the sport

And, speaking as person who works for a 24/7/365 golf network, extended offseasons are not a good option.

Entering the final round of the first event to the 2013-14 season, Brooks Koepka led George McNeill and Jason Kokrak by two shots. Jimmy Walker, Robert Garrigus, Will MacKenzie, Ben Martin and Jim Herman were among those in the top 10.

Who wants to watch that? Hard-core golf fans.

This time of year isn’t meant for the casual fan. They have college and NFL football, and baseball playoffs to watch. They have fantasy football teams to manage. October is for the person who wants to watch golf because he or she loves golf. And as a person who loves golf, I’d rather watch players grinding for something meaningful than a bunch of semi-stars earning more NetJets dollars while goofing around.

Last year’s fall winners included Ryan Moore (Shriners), Jonas Blixt (, Tommy Gainey (McGladrey), Nick Watney (Malaysia), Ian Poulter (WGC-HSBC) and Charlie Beljan (Disney).

Jimmy Walker won this year’s Open. Tell me the difference. The quality of field is similar, the quality of champion is similar. That’s the way it is this time of year on the PGA Tour. Coming off a string of FedEx Cup tournaments and cup matches, and when No. 82 on the money list makes over $1 million, the Tour can’t entice big name players to play its events late in the year.

They want their rest. They want their appearance fees. They want to play without having to compete. So you’re left with a Koepka-McNeill-Kokrak final grouping in Tour events.

Viewers and readers constantly whine and moan that there isn’t enough coverage of regular Tour members and fresh faces. Well, here you go. This is your time of year. Enjoy this new wraparound season for what it’s worth, because – unlike other options – it’s worth something.  

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 what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

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

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

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

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

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 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.