Chile's Gana fought to the end, and he ended it

By Nick MentaJanuary 15, 2017, 11:15 pm

PANAMA CITY, Panama – Chile's Toto Gana stood 99 yards from the pin at the par-4 10th hole at Panama Golf Club.

He had watched his best friend Joaquin Niemann miss into the greenside bunker on the left and Alvaro Ortiz miss long and to the right, some 40 feet from the flag.

Playing his second extra hole, with a 52-degree wedge in his hand, Gana said to himself: “Well, this is my chance.”

He choked down, took aim at the front pin position – just a few paces onto the green above a severe slope leading back to the water – and “let it flow.”

That flow flew to about 3 feet.

“It was the best shot [of my life], at the best time,” he’d recall later, having just signed his name to a Masters flag.

Gana went on to make that short birdie putt to defeat Niemann and Ortiz in a three-way playoff on Sunday and win the Latin America Amateur Championship.

With the victory, Gana, the second-ranked Chilean amateur but 285th-ranked player in the world amateur rankings, earned exemptions into the U.S. Amateur, the Amateur Championship, sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open, and Final Qualifying for the Open Championship.

But most importantly, the 19-year-old just secured an invitation to Augusta National in April.

“Two days ago, I was nobody,” Gana said, holding his trophy. “Now I'm going to play the Masters.”

Gana looked as if he was going wrap up that invite a lot sooner than he did. Following up-and-downs from greenside bunkers on both 15 and 16, he walked to the par-3 17th two ahead with two to play. But Ortiz and Niemann immediately responded with birdies at 17, and Gana went long over the green at the 72nd hole after finding a fairway bunker off the tee. When his downhill pitch from the rough came up a good 15 feet short, Gana had a putt for par to win the tournament.

It didn’t drop, but he didn’t get down on himself either.

“I wasn't so frustrated,” he said. “The only thing I wanted to do was go on and play the next holes and be as enthused as possible."

He looked as if he might be the first player eliminated when he missed his drive well to left in the trees on the first playoff hole. But Gana punched out to an opening in front of the green and played a quality pitch to a few feet, leaving his friend Niemann smiling and shaking his head. Unlike on his first trip down 18, he converted the par save and all three players walked to the 10th tee.

Gana then gripped down and rifled a 3-wood down the middle to his spot in the fairway, 99 yards away. Two shots later, men in green jackets were walking onto the green to congratulate him.

“This is a very new experience for me,” he said. “I've never felt this feeling in my body before. Really, it's incredible. I don't want it to end.”

Gana’s easy-going personality no doubt played a role in his victory, and may well help him when he gets to Augusta in April. The bigger the stage, the more fun he seems to have.

“I didn't feel any kind of pressure,” he said. “I really love the [television] cameras. When the people started arriving, I said, ‘Oh, this is so cool, I hope more people come. It was perfect just to say, ‘Well, here I am.’ That's the most important. I love it. I didn’t feel nervous at all.”

Sunday will likely prove a career-changing experience for Gana, who came into the week largely unheralded, especially in comparison with his friend and runner-up Niemann, the fifth-ranked amateur in the world, who stole a microphone during Gana’s press conference and asked his friend to answer a question in his Donald Duck voice (Gana does a spot-on impression, by the way).

“I believe he deserves it 100 percent, all the sacrifice he makes,” Niemann said. “I am very happy for him and I'm waiting for next year so I can have my revenge or my chance.”

Niemann pulled his approach at the second playoff hole into the greenside bunker, where it buried into the sand. He managed to blast out across the green, but his lengthy par putt from the apron missed the hole.

Niemann walked across the green in frustration, but then quickly turned around to watch his friend putt for a spot in the Masters. His expression changed almost instantly, from looking angry and disappointed to looking like he was going to personally will Gana’s ball into the hole.

“Toto made a wonderful shot,” Niemann said. “It was almost a gimmie. Yes, after I took it out of the bunker, I said, ‘OK, well, that's it. That's the end of it.’ There wasn't anything I could do at that point. There was no going back. But I was able to enjoy watching my friend with a 3-foot putt to go to the Masters. When he made it, I felt really happy and proud for him.”

Caddying for Niemann this week in Panama was Eduardo Michel, who just so happens to coach both Niemann and Gana in Chile. What was it like to walk with two of his protégés on Sunday as they played for an invite to Augusta?

“It was amazing, a dream,” Michel answered. “I would have been happy for either one of them. Every time they would finish a hole, I was cheering them and congratulating them.”

Michel has been working with Gana for the last six years in Chile, and offered an honest assessment of his game and a revealing take about what makes Gana different from his peers.

“I have always believed that he was a very good player,” Michel said. “I have other players in my academy who are maybe better and have more talent, for example, Joaquin. But there is no other student wants to be good, that really works to be good, more than [Toto].”

To that point, almost exactly 24 hours before holing that final putt, Gana was asked on Saturday what he thought he had in his game that would propel him to a win.

“I think my biggest trait is in my head,” he answered. “I’m not a long hitter. I don’t hit my irons quite well, either. But I keep myself focused. I play with my heart. I play with a lot of grit. I fight it until the end.”

On Sunday, Gana did. And he was the one who ended it.

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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.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.

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Garcia cruises to five-shot win in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:10 pm

SINGAPORE - Sergio Garcia played 27 holes on the last day without dropping a shot to win the Singapore Open by five strokes Sunday in an ominous display of his newfound self-belief as he prepares to defend his Masters title.

Still brimming with confidence after claiming his first major title at Augusta National last year, Garcia started his new season with a runaway victory at the Sentosa Golf Club, finishing at 14-under 270.

Returning to the course just after dawn to complete his third round after play was suspended on Saturday because of lightning strikes, Garcia finished his last nine holes in 4 under for a round of 66 to take a one-shot lead into the final round.

With organizers desperate to avert the constant threat of more bad weather and finish the tournament on time, Garcia promptly returned to the first tee shortly after and fired a flawless 3-under 68, cruising to victory with 10 straight pars as his rivals floundered in the stifling humidity.

''It may have looked easy, but it wasn't easy. You still have to hit a lot of good shots out there,'' Garcia said. ''It's always great to start with a win, to do it here at this golf course against a good field in Asia on conditions that weren't easy. Hopefully I can ride on this momentum.''

Garcia's closest rivals at the end were Japan's Satoshi Kodaira (71) and South African Shaun Norris (70). Both birdied the last hole to share second spot but neither was ever close enough on the last day to challenge the leader.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

''I could not reach Sergio. I was thinking, 12 or 13 under for the win, but he went beyond that,'' Kodaira said.

Jazz Janewattananond (71) and his fellow Thai Danthai Bonnma (73) finished equal fourth at 8 under, earning themselves a spot in this year's British Open, while American Sean Crocker, who was given an invitation to the event after turning pro late last year, also won a place at Carnoustie by finishing in a tie for sixth.

Garcia made just three bogeys in 72 holes and his victory provided the 38-year-old with the 33rd title of his professional career and his sixth on the Asian Tour.

He has also won three titles in the last 12 months, including the Masters, and his game looks to be in better shape now than it was a year ago.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for Augusta National because of the steamy conditions and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament, which is regularly stopped because of inclement weather.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore a year ago, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

"I'm extremely happy with how the week went. It was a tough day and a tough week, with the stopping and going. Fortunately, the weather held on. Still, it was hard to play 27 holes under this heat and I can't wait to get a cold shower,'' Garcia said. ''I came with some good confidence and wishing that I will play well. I hit the ball solid the whole week and didn't miss many shots.''