Lincicome happy to choose life over golf

By Randall MellMarch 29, 2016, 7:44 pm

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – There is something almost gravity defying about Brittany Lincicome’s game.

It isn’t in the way her golf ball challenges Newton’s Law, soaring higher and farther than most of her peers. It’s in the way she breaks so unapologetically from the sport’s slavish conventions.

Lincicome is back at Mission Hills this week to defend her title at the ANA Inspiration. She’s an American original in the women’s game.

At 30 now, Lincicome isn’t ruled by the ambition that fills driving ranges from sun up until sun down at LPGA events.

She isn’t driven to be the best player in the game.

She doesn’t aspire to be No. 1, to break records or make it to the Hall of Fame.

Lincicome isn’t daring to be great.

She’s daring to be happy in a profession that makes so many of her colleagues miserable.

As cheery and agreeable as Lincicome always seems to be, she’s a rebel this way.

Lincicome confesses crimes against the player code that you won’t hear any other player not named Laura Davies confess. Lincicome doesn’t have a coach. She hasn’t had a lesson in at least three years, maybe four. She unabashedly admits to loving her naps and hating to practice. She doesn’t spend much time on the practice range. Mostly, when she’s there, she’s warming up to play, because that’s what she loves. She loves to play.

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If Lincicome is going to be anywhere from sun up to sun down, it’s on her boat, fishing in the Gulf of Mexico near her St. Petersburg home. She has a 24-foot Sheaffer fishing boat designed to her personal specifications.

She named it “Taking Relief.”

What’s her idea of a perfect day? It’s a day with her newlywed husband, Dewald Gouws. Though he’s also in the game as a professional long driver, her perfect day isn’t spent on a golf course with him, though they play a lot together.

“My sponsors hate me saying this, but it’s a day of fishing,” Lincicome said. “It’s getting up with the sun, getting on the boat, getting your bait and heading out. When the water’s dead calm, it’s so much more fun. You can see for miles, and the things you see, turtles, dolphins, stingray, manta rays ...

“I like catching goliath groupers. We have a spot where we usually go, about 13 miles out, over a sunken tug boat. The goliath groupers can range from 100 pounds to 700 pounds. A guide once told me they’re like reeling in a Volkswagen beetle with its doors open.”

The largest goliath grouper Lincicome has ever caught?

“About 400 pounds,” she said. “You can’t really weigh them.”

The major championships Lincicome has won in her career are her goliath groupers of golf. She also won the ANA Inspiration back in 2009, when it was the Kraft Nabisco.

Lincicome said there was “validation” winning her second major, but she says she did not set out in her career burning to win one. She doesn’t look back overly disappointed that she didn’t win a third major in that playoff loss to Inbee Park at the LPGA Championship two seasons ago. Instead, she looks back delighted that she played this game she loves so well that somebody handed her six LPGA trophies at the end of tournaments.

“I can’t think that losing a tournament would ever be devastating to my career,” Lincicome said. “I can’t think of losing something that would ruin a number of years for me.

“When I was growing up playing, I thought it would be cool just to be on the driving range with Annika Sorenstam, Juli Inkster and Lorena Ochoa. When I turned pro, I didn’t even know if I would be able to keep my card, but I’ve been blessed to have kept my card every year I’ve been out here, knock on wood. I’ve been blessed to win six times. I think I’ve accomplished a lot. Six wins is pretty good.”

Yeah, Lincicome knows the wrath she invites from people who wonder what she might achieve if she pushed herself harder. She isn’t immune to the criticism. She admits she has wondered, too.

“To be like Lydia Ko or Stacy Lewis, always finishing in the top 10, to always be in contention, I’ve wondered where my balance should be,” Lincicome said. “Do I need to practice more? Would that help me? Or would it hurt me?”

What Lincicome has learned is that she’s miserable when she grinds away, looking for perfection in her swing. She says her game gets worse. That’s not to say she doesn’t work at her game. She does in practice rounds, but she’s not a technical player, and she doesn’t think a lot about technique. She isn’t on Track Man looking at her numbers and she doesn’t break down video looking at what positions she’s getting her club into. She’s a feel player, and Lincicome feels she's at her best when she’s fresh.

“It’s important as a player that you understand what works for you,” Gouws said. “Britt realizes when she’s putting in too much time, she gets frustrated with the game. She plays her best when it’s still a game for her, when she finds her happy place. I promise you, when Britt is excited about playing golf, she’s going to play good golf.”

When something’s awry with Lincicome’s swing, she’ll ask Pederson and Gouws about it and then go to work on it in a practice round.

“She’s such a phenom, and that’s enough for her,” Gouws said. “She has figured out what works for her.”

Lincicome is a rebel in today’s game, a mutineer who plays golf for fun, an insurrectionist unbound and untethered by social gravity’s pull.

“I’m sure people have told Brittany that she needs to practice more, but she hasn’t changed who she is, and I think that’s pretty cool,” said Angela Stanford, who has watched Lincicome grow since joining the tour as a rookie. “She just keeps doing her thing. She believes in what she’s doing, how she should go about things. I think if she were out there grinding all the time, she would be miserable.”

Lincicome is nicknamed “Bam Bam” for her power, but Stanford marvels at how well rounded her game is.

“She is an amazing talent,” Stanford said. “She obviously bombs it, but the thing I’ve always said about Bam is how great her hands are. Around the green, I’ve seen her hit chip shots where I’m thinking, `How does a girl who can bomb it like she does hit shots so soft?’ And her putting. I enjoyed being her Solheim Cup partner because you know she’s going to make a putt.”

Lincicome sees the game as just that. It’s a game. It’s’ one dimension of her larger life.

“If you dedicate your whole life to golf, you can wake up when you’re 50 and have nothing else,” Lincicome said. “You can find you don’t have a family, and you haven’t really lived your life. That would be a big regret for me. I don’t want to have those regrets.”

That’s why meeting Gouws three years ago was such an important turn in Lincicome’s life. She went to Mesquite, Nev., to cheer for her friend, Trevor Consavage, in a long drive competition.

Sitting in the bleachers, paging through a program, Lincicome wondered aloud to a friend how the brackets worked. Seated a couple rows in front of Lincicome, Gouws offered his help. He was also in the competition.

“I thought he was cute, and he had really big muscles,” Lincicome said.

After the competition, Lincicome and Gouws met again at a casino bar where all the competitors hung out. Gouws, a South African with little knowledge of the LPGA, had no idea who Lincicome was or that she was a major champion. When Lincicome briefly stepped away, another friend of Gouws began raving about what a great LPGA player she was.

“We don’t get to see much LPGA on TV in South Africa, but my friend kept going on and on about her,” Gouws said. “I told him I don’t really care, she’s just a really a cute blonde I’m enjoying having a conversation with, but he wouldn’t stop.”

Gouws asked his friend if he would shut up if he walked over and asked Lincicome to autograph his chest.

“I was joking,” Gouws said.

But moments later, somebody handed Gouws a Sharpie. So, he walked over to Lincicome and asked if she would sign his chest.

And she obliged.

“I thought he was going to take his whole shirt off, so I was kind of disappointed when he only pulled down the front of his shirt,” Lincicome said.

Lincicome and Gouws didn’t stop talking for two hours, and they stayed in contact by cell phone, texts and emails when Gouws returned to his South African home. Three months after they met, Consavage booked a trip to South Africa to see Gouws and begged Lincicome to join him.

“I’m like `Are you crazy? My dad will never let me fly to South Africa to see a boy I’d just met,’” Lincicome said.

But Lincicome did go, and Gouws gave her and Consavage the grand tour of his homeland. He took them on safari, where they played with lion cubs and survived a scary charge by a bull elephant. They toured Cape Town and the wineries of the region. Their romance really began there, leading to their marriage in December.

“We watched our wedding for the first time on video the other day,” Gouws said. “I asked her if she knew how incredible our story is, how we are from different parts of the world but we were able to meet the way we did. Who would have thought?”

Lincicome doesn’t hide the fuller life she seeks with “D,” her pet name for Gouws, and how, once again, golf isn’t what comes first in this broader life she craves. She wants to be a mother.

“I would love to have a family tomorrow,” Lincicome says. “Write that, and I’ll tell ‘D’ to read it.

“I understand we just got married, and we need to focus on us a little bit before we start a family, but I’ve already been asking a million questions to the moms on tour, what it’s like raising a family out here, how traveling can be like a circus. I’d love to be at home, doing nothing when we start a family, but I realize I will probably be playing with a family, that I’ll probably need to work a couple more years before retiring.”

And remember what Gouws said. When his wife’s happy, she plays her best. So there shouldn’t be any counting her out of winning more majors, even with children in tow. After all, Lincicome doesn’t need as much practice as most players.

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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.

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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.