After three wins in a row, Jutanugarn eyes a major

By Randall MellMay 30, 2016, 2:23 am

Ariya Jutanugarn is radiating with confidence she seemed to have completely lost just a year ago.

With her victory Sunday at the Volvik Championship, Jutanugarn made history, becoming the first player to make her first three LPGA titles consecutive victories.

Jutanugarn, 20, blew away the field on the back nine at Travis Pointe Country Club in Ann Arbor, Mich., to win in a five-shot rout.

“Ariya is very difficult to describe,” said Christina Kim, who finished second. “There really hasn't been a player like her, honestly, in my generation. The way that she just powers the ball, it's remarkable. She's got such imagination around the golf course and incredible touch. It’s really, really cool to see how far she's come.”

Jutanugarn is the first player to win three LPGA titles in a row since Inbee Park did so in 2013.

“She’s going to be unstoppable,” Kim said.

At this time a year ago, Jutanugarn was mired in a rookie slump that would see her miss 10 consecutive cuts. With Sunday’s victory, she climbed to No. 10 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Just a little more than a month ago, Jutanugarn was two shots ahead with three holes to go at the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship. She blew the lead, bogeying all three holes to lose to Lydia Ko. The championship ended with Jutanugarn snap-hooking her final drive into the water.

Now Jutanugarn’s aiming to make her fourth consecutive victory a major.

After taking this next week off, Jutanugarn will head to Seattle to tee it up at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee.

“I badly want to win my first major,” Jutanugarn said.

Oddsmakers just may make Jutanugarn the betting favorite with Ko there. On Sunday in Michigan, Jutanugarn closed out with a bogey-free 5-under-par 67. She pulled away on the back nine making four birdies over a five-hole stretch.

“I’m speechless,” said Jessica Korda, who trailed Jutanugarn by just one shot starting the final round. “That was amazing.”

Jutanugarn was a teen phenom from Thailand who struggled to return from surgery after tearing the labrum in her right shoulder in the summer of 2013, but there’s more to her rebound than that the return of physical skill.

“Getting more and more confident,” Jutanugarn said.

Kim remembers talking to Jutanugarn amid the rookie’s run of 10 consecutive missed cuts last year.

“She was really, really distraught,” Kim said. “I was like, `If you had any idea how good of a golfer you are . . . It’s unbelievable.”

Jutanugarn admitted fighting nerves losing the ANA Inspiration. Her collapse at Mission Hills added to questions about her ability to close out leads. Three years before that she blew a chance to win her first LPGA title at the Honda event in Thailand in equally heartbreaking fashion. She took a two-shot lead to the final hole there, but she watched her homeland wince and groan, instead. She made triple bogey and lost to Inbee Park.

While Jutanugarn battled nerves closing out the Yokohama Classic and Kingsmill Championship earlier this month, she didn’t betray any Sunday in Michigan.

“She looked bored,” Korda said. “She sat down on the 16th tee and 18th tee, chilling in the shade, told me to come sit down next to her, like we were having a picnic.”

Gary Gilchrist, who began coaching Jutanugarn early this year, said he was most impressed with Jutanugarn’s demeanor.

“It was watching how composed she was,” Gilchrist said. “We talked this week about how everyone gets nervous, and I told her if she started feeling stress today, she should just smile and get on with it. A smile relaxes the body.”

Jutanugarn has struggled with her driver this year, but it wasn’t an issue. She hit 3-woods and 2-irons off the tee boxes all week at Travis Pointe. She kept the ball low in the wind Sunday, hitting stingers.

“She was hitting that three-quarter shot,” Gilchrist said. “She has a strong 3-wood and can hit shots with such a penetrating trajectory, where the ball runs 30 yards. It helps to have a shot to go to like that under pressure.”

Jutanugarn joins a growing cast of young stars. With the LPGA calendar turning to June, nobody older than 23 has won a tour title this year.

“It’s an exciting time for the LPGA,” Kim said. 

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.