Founders Cup growing in importance to LPGA

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2014, 9:00 pm

PHOENIX – The JTBC Founders Cup is old for its age.

In the best way, that is.

It radiates with memories, like a historic event that has been around since the dawn of the LPGA.

This is just the fourth year the Founders Cup will have been played, but it feels so much older because it reaches back so far for its meaning. It reaches all the way back to 1950, when the LPGA was formed. The beauty of this event is that it was built to celebrate the tour’s past, honoring its 13 founders and its pioneers, while also promoting the future of women’s golf. LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf is the charity beneficiary.

Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth, winner of a record 88 LPGA titles, is a tournament honoree this year. So is Renee Powell, the second black woman to play the tour, having made her start as the civil rights struggle raged across the land.

The Founders Cup is quickly evolving as the most important women’s tournament outside the majors.

“This has become a marquee event on our schedule,” says Heather Daly-Donofrio, the LPGA’s senior vice president of Tour Operations.

“It has become one of the best stops on tour,” fourth-year LPGA pro Gerina Piller said.

All the tour’s stars show up to play the Founders Cup. It boasts the strongest field this season. The top 12 players in the Rolex world rankings will tee it up together this week. No. 1 Inbee Park, No. 2 Suzann Pettersen and No. 3 Stacy Lewis lead the field at J.W. Marriott’s Wildfire Golf Club.

The list of past Founders Cup champs isn’t very long yet, but the quality of the winners speaks volumes about the nature of the event. Hall of Famer Karrie Webb won the inaugural competition in 2011, with then world No. 1 Yani Tseng winning in 2012 and with Lewis winning last year to seize the No. 1 ranking from Tseng.

“The story of this event is remarkable,” Daly-Donofrio said. “We started, basically, with players playing for free, playing for charities. Who else in professional sports would do that? And we’ve built this up to where this tournament is going to be around for a very long time.”

The remarkable story is in the vision LPGA commissioner Mike Whan showed creating the event. It’s also in the risk he took selling his bold idea to his membership. He basically asked his players to play for free that first year, with the entire purse going to charity. The idea was to “pay it forward” to women’s golf while honoring its past.

It seemed like the right idea at the wrong time.

Initially, there was some backlash.

Whan proposed the new event with LPGA pros hurting, with fewer opportunities to play in a shrinking schedule. The tour was down to a paltry 23 events in ’11. There were players who questioned Whan’s Founders Cup plan, not necessarily over playing for free, but over how the charity payoff and “mock purse” were structured.

Whan listened to his players, and he tinkered with his idea, expanding charity opportunities beyond Girls’ Golf to personal player charities.

And Whan pulled it off. He got his players to compete with all the prize money going to charity.

The generosity, the sacrificial nature of the LPGA pros who competed, made a large impression on RR Donnelley, the title sponsor of that first event. In the second year of the competition, the company stepped up, funding not only the charity, but also a real purse.

It was a testament to Whan and his vision of what the tour ought to be. He envisioned his players channeling the spirit of the founders. He envisioned them trying to leave the tour better than they found it.

“When we all first heard about it, it was kind of a shock,” Lewis said. “It was kind of like, `Are you serious?’ We didn’t know if he was actually serious. But I think once people got the concept, we understood.”

Christina Kim said channeling the spirit of the founders was a wonderful concept.

“I am big on never forgetting where you came from,” Kim said. “The founders built this tour from nothing to where now we get to play with logos plastered all over us and with endorsement deals. They didn’t play for much back when they were starting this tour. They were playing for the love of the game. I really felt like some people forgot about that.”

Daly-Donofrio said the founders’ spirit has become a governing principle under Whan.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the 13 founders,” Daly-Donofrio said. “It’s something we talk about at the LPGA on a daily basis, acting like a founder.”

Webb was on the LPGA board of directors when Whan proposed the Founders Cup concept.

“It was definitely bold and risky,” Webb said.

Webb liked the idea, but she didn’t know if a title sponsor would go for it. Now, she believes channeling the founders’ spirit that first year made all the difference in the world with corporations paying attention. The LPGA’s schedule has grown from 23 events to 32 events since the Founders Cup was created.

“Could that be a reason we’ve had such a big turnaround?” Webb said. “Maybe people took notice that we were prepared to do that at a time when maybe we shouldn’t have been prepared to do that, and maybe the positive feedback it got has helped us.”

Webb also points to the growth of LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf since it became the beneficiary of the Founders Cup. Once again this year, $500,000 from tournament proceeds will go to the cause. The Girls’ Golf program has grown six-fold since the Founders Cup was founded, from 5,000 members in 2011 to 30,000 this year.

Though there were title sponsor questions before JTBC stepped in earlier this year, Lewis believes the Founders Cup is here to stay. She gave $50,000 of her winnings here last year to LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf.

“We’re going to keep this tournament going whether we have a sponsor or not,” Lewis said.

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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.

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McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and 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.”