Free thinker

By Randall MellJanuary 7, 2011, 8:40 pm

The RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup will be Mike Whan’s legacy.

The bold idea he unveiled Thursday is destined to define his run as LPGA commissioner.

How will this one-of-a-kind event ultimately be remembered? As good business or bad business? As altruistic or imperiled? As brilliant or loony?

They’re all on the table with Whan’s reign beginning its second season and the tour still fighting to rebuild itself.

Give the man credit, though, he’s got more than grand vision. He’s got guts.

Whan essentially stepped in front of his players in the middle of a tough year last season and asked them to annually commit to playing a full-field event for free. He asked them to do so to honor the tour’s founding pioneers and to help build a better future. He asked them to make a giant sacrifice when many of his rank-and-file players are struggling to meet expenses.

It is a giant ask given the bare-boned nature of the women’s tour today.

Imagine PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem asking his players to compete in a full-field official event for free. If Finchem’s membership didn’t think he bumped his head coming in to see them, they would have made sure he bumped his head on the way out. His pros give a lot to charity, but they’d never agree to that.

The LPGA Founders Cup will open the American start of this year’s schedule March 18-20 in Phoenix at the Wildfire Golf Club at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa. It’s a 54-hole event with a 132-player field and a unique purse. Really, it’s an imaginary purse. Though Founders Cup “winnings” will count toward the official money list, any “money” won will not go into player pockets. It will be donated to the LPGA Foundation, which funds the LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf Program.

Even the wisest of LPGA pros couldn’t help scratching their heads when they first heard Whan’s Founders Cup plan.

It’s gallant, it’s big-hearted, but in the strictest business sense, is it the right idea at the wrong time?

The LPGA will play one more event in 2011 than they did last year, but they’ll be playing it without pay.

“The first reaction is, `Whew, we only have nine or 10 domestic events and we’re going to play one of them for free?” Hall of Famer Juli Inkster said. “I’m not sure I have an opinion yet. I’m not sure I know how the whole thing’s going to work, what we’re trying to do, what the objective is. I have to find out more, but it seems like, if you have a sponsor, why wouldn’t you play for a purse? I’m just trying to figure it out.”

You can, after all, fund a charity and get paid.

Two-time major championship winner Cristie Kerr said she needs some time to digest the plan’s details before commenting.

Obviously, the event’s success depends on the support of the elite players who drive interest. While Whan doesn’t know how many top-10 players will commit, he says he isn’t worried. He feels overwhelming support from players and is confident it will feature a strong field.

“I would say most players, 98 percent of the players, are for this,” three-time LPGA winner Brittany Lincicome said. “It was sort of a crazy concept. At first, we looked at each other like, `OK, this is different.’ But we know our commissioner is dedicated to making the tour better. I’ll be there. I’m excited about it.”

Count two-time LPGA winner Christina Kim in Whan’s court.

“I can’t speak on behalf of all players, but I think it’s a progressive idea, a noble idea,” Kim said. “It gets us back to our roots and reminds everyone what we’re about.”

Whan said he came up with the idea listening to Hall of Famer Louise Suggs and other LPGA founders talk about what they sacrificed to build the tour. Whan said Marilynn Smith, one of the tour’s 13 founders back in 1950, wept while thanking him for creating the event. Whan expects the size of the LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf foundation to double next year and triple the year after that.

“Players have heard me say many times, you only have one goal if you’re a part of the LPGA, that’s to leave the game better than you found it,” Whan said. “With this new tournament, it’s not only a chance to celebrate the women who put this tour on the map, it also gives us a huge chance to pay it forward.”

The Founders Cup encapsulates what Whan believes the tour should be all about, and it promises to test how what his membership believes about his business skill.

“I’m sure there were plenty members of my staff holding their breath as I presented my idea of the Founders Cup 2011,” Whan said. “At the time, we didn’t have a sponsor yet, but I took the players through the entire presentation and why I thought this was the right thing to do. At the end of the discussion, there was no discussion. Everyone stood up and applauded. There was a standing ovation. It was a strange and exciting reaction.”

Players are a predictable breed. They loved Carolyn Bivens when she was hired before Whan, but they ran her off when her business model failed in a sinking economy.

Whan’s Founders Cup may prove a great addition to the LPGA, but he better build more playing opportunities to go with it. Ideals aside, he shares the same bottom line that cost Bivens her job. Whan says he’s got at least three strong probable additions to next year’s schedule, possibly one this year.

The inaugural Founders Cup will be a success. It’s difficult to imagine top-10 tour pros having the nerve to pass playing. They’d risk being chastised as ingrates. It’s easy, however, to imagine players growing resentful of the commitment if they’re required to play this event annually without the tour growing around it.

When Bivens was hired, she believed the tour was undervaluing itself, that its business culture was soft and that sponsors took unfair advantage. She believed the tour was giving away too much of value. She might have failed in her heavy-handed approach, but if Whan’s model doesn’t work, old notions about the tour will be reinforced.

The Founders Cup encapsulates so much of who Whan is and what he’s come to believe about the LPGA’s mission as both a business and an association.

“Mike seems to have a plan for this,” Inkster said. “He’s not one to fly off the handle with something. He really thinks things through.

“I like what Mike’s doing overall. He’s building a solid foundation. Sponsors trust him, the media trusts him, the outside world trusts him. I think he’s got a lot of positive karma. Players aren’t complaining about him, they’re totally behind him.”

They’re behind a crazy idea to play for free. Whether they remember Whan kindly for it won’t depend on the Founders Cup as much as what comes after it.

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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.”