Jang trying to appeal to Americans and Koreans

By Randall MellMarch 16, 2016, 8:02 pm

PHOENIX – Ha Na Jang’s dynamic emergence as an LPGA winner this year hit the tour like a freshening breeze with her colorful victory celebrations going viral.

That “Samurai Lasso” Jang unveiled winning the Coates Golf Championship sent a jolt of delight through the gallery around the 18th green in Ocala, Fla. Her Beyonce “Single Ladies” dance after winning the HSBC Women’s Champions was just as electric.

With her 10,000-watt smile and playful disposition, Jang is the fun, new headliner in women’s golf this year, and that’s what makes her revelation at the JTBC Founders Cup this week so disconcerting.

“Now every day, crying in my room, last night, last week,” Jang said.

Jang’s spirits ought to be soaring with two victories in her last four starts, but she’s struggling emotionally dealing with a media tempest back in her South Korean homeland. She’s upset about a controversy pitting her against reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion In Gee Chun.

If you missed this, when Jang arrived in Singapore before the HSBC Women’s Champions, her father lost control of a 15-pound carry-on bag at the airport. The bag crashed down an escalator and struck Chun in the lower back, which led Chun to withdraw from that event and also from this week’s Founders Cup.

The drama intensified when Jang won and jumped into the South Korean Olympic golf team’s four-player mix, bumping Chun out, at least for the time being.

Chun issued a statement last week that basically said she didn’t get the proper apology due her, but she didn’t want to see Jang face any more stinging criticism.

As fallout from all of this, Jang’s Beyonce dance created a backlash in South Korea that Jang didn’t see coming.

The backlash is twofold.

First, there’s an element of Korean culture critical of Jang’s animated, celebratory style.

“The Korean culture is much more reserved than celebratory,” an LPGA/South Korean liaison said. “So when she did [the Beyonce dance], a lot of people thought it was a little overboard.”

Chun’s situation exacerbated that. Her supporters complained that Jang’s dance was ungracious and ill-timed, given Jang’s father’s role in Chun being sidelined.

Here’s how highly scrutinized this whole issue is back in South Korea. Even before Chun’s injury, Jang’s “Samurai Lasso” victory move was criticized by some as disrespectful, with Jang hearing complaints that she should have compared her sword-like slashes to Korean fencing moves, not to a Japanese Samurai move.

“In Korea, it’s a very big issue,” Jang said.

Jang said she used the Samurai term sitting in front of American media because she believed the term translated better, was more easily understood by English audiences. Still, the intense scrutiny over Jang’s flamboyant style appears to be taking a toll on her. She wiped away tears Tuesday after trying to explain the situation to American media without inflaming the issue back in her homeland. She’s walking on egg shells trying to the right thing this week, trying to please American and Korean fan bases.

“It’s hard on my heart,” Jang said. “It’s a little sad.”

This is the difficult terrain Jang is trying to play through this week.

It isn’t just a South Korean issue. It’s a potentially unfortunate turn for the LPGA, because there is something about Jang that might prove to be transformative. This is a delicate topic, but there’s no getting around how South Korean dynamics play in the United States. Even after a decade of dominance, there’s a certain segment of American audiences who remain cold to South Korea’s omnipresence on LPGA leaderboards. You see it in Internet commentary threads, in chat rooms and in tweets.

Jang’s nature, the way she elicits smiles in galleries throughout her round, is potentially game changing. Her body language may be the most eloquent in the women’s game. Her mannerisms and expressions transcend spoken language. In that way, she connects meaningfully with fans without having to utter a word.

Getty Images photographer Scott Halleran, who has been shooting golf for 27 years, followed Jang for the first time in Sunday’s final round in Singapore. He makes his living trying to capture more than images. He tries to capture moments that speak to people in ways words never can.

“Following her was one of the most refreshing days I’ve ever had on a golf course,” Halleran said. “She’s the most passionate, energetic golfer I’ve been around in a long time. The last 30 minutes of that tournament was incredible.”

Halleran loved Jang’s Beyonce dance. More than that, he loved how much fun Jang had playing to the cameras, sidling up next to the small band at the trophy presentation and pretending to play the drums.

“It was by far the most high-energy trophy presentation I’ve ever seen,” Halleran said. “I think at some point I blurted out, `I wish you could win every week.’”

Stacy Lewis was paired with Jang in the first round of an event last year. They were among the first groups off early in the morning on a Thursday, and shortly into the round, with the sun barely up, Jang holed a birdie putt and let loose a spirited fist pump. Lewis laughed.

“It’s never too early to fist pump.” Lewis remembered saying.

David Stone was Jang’s caddie for nine months of her rookie year last season and said he thoroughly enjoyed their journey together.

“Ha Na is crazy, and I mean that in the best sense of the word,” Stone said. “She is funny, always smiling, joking about everything. Practice rounds with her were hilarious, some of the most fun practice rounds I’ve ever had.

“The thing about Ha Na is she is the same way on and off the golf course. Doesn’t matter if she shoots 75 or 68, she’s the same person.”

Kevin Kim, the Korean-born Web.com Tour player, put Jang through a month-long boot camp to get her ready for the start of this year.

“I’ve never seen a man or woman on the Korean tours celebrate like she does,” Kim said after watching Jang win in Ocala. “It’s just not Korean style, but she’s one of a kind.”

Dean Herden, an Australian caddie who has toted for a long line of South Korean players, including Jang, says she is a natural entertainer on and off the course.

“She is very open with people,” Herden said. “She enjoys people and going out and chatting and socializing. I never got to see her at a night club, but I’m sure she would be the life of the place.”

Herden said Jang was animated but less so while playing the Korean LPGA Tour.

“In our western culture, we love that, and Ha Na has realized this and is now opening up to it,” Herden said. “This is so healthy for our sport, and I personally hope there will be a few more younger players watching Ha Na who will realize professional golf is a living, but you can also enjoy yourself and show people how much fun you are having expressing yourself. I’m so happy Ha Na is doing what she is doing. This is what our sport needs.”

The South Korean contingent playing the LPGA is a special group.

Inbee Park will earn induction into the LPGA Hall of Fame with her 10th start this year. She doesn’t get enough credit for how important her mastery of the English language has been to her connection with American media. Park’s ability to tell her story in her record-setting runs was important to the LPGA. So Yeon Ryu and Na Yeon Choi have been important, too. They’ve been terrific Korean ambassadors in the LPGA ranks. Sei Young Kim, the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year last season, may not be as animated as Jang, but she has shown a fun-loving personality in her 14 months on tour.

For Jang, the challenge now isn’t just continuing to connect with American fans. It’s walking the line between American and Korean tastes.

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.”

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''