Spieth hopes to gain ground on McIlroy at Players

By Randall MellMay 6, 2015, 8:47 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – This looks like perfect terrain for Jordan Spieth to up the ante against Rory McIlroy.

TPC Sawgrass levels the ground for Spieth at The Players Championship.

Spieth wants to be McIlroy’s rival. He wants to be No. 1 in the world. He wants to tower over the game, but he knows he has to prove he’s McIlroy’s equal before he can be anything more.

With his Masters victory last month, Spieth moved to No. 2 in the world behind McIlroy, but he still feels far removed from the top, especially with McIlroy winning the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship last weekend.

“As far as a rivalry goes, he moved even further away from it really being what I would consider a budding rivalry,” Spieth said Wednesday. “I could certainly appreciate if I could get to where he's at, but, right now, I don't see myself there. There's a lot of hard work that needs to be had to get there.”

McIlroy and Spieth will be grouped together along with Jason Day in the first two rounds this week. McIlroy dismissed Spieth when asked if he paid much attention to media hyping Spieth as his next rival.

“Not really,” McIlroy said. “Last year it was Rickie, this year it's Jordan, might be someone else, too, could have been Tiger. There have been four or five rivalries over the past year. So, it doesn't really do anything for me.”

Spieth knows he has to win more big events to distinguish himself from McIlroy’s wannabe rivals.

“It's certainly a huge goal of mine to make it interesting with him and possibly take over No. 1, but I know that he is as far ahead of me as I am with the next nine guys,” Spieth said. “So with that being said, it's kind of anybody's game to get up there and make it interesting. I just happen to be the one that occupies No. 2 right now.”

That’s why the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course feels like the perfect terrain for Spieth to make it interesting.

Architect Pete Dye’s design levels the ground for two completely different kinds of players.


The Players Championship: Articles, videos and photos


“I heard something that it tests everyone and favors no one," McIlroy said.

Just listening to McIlroy and Spieth Wednesday, you couldn’t help concluding the Stadium Course favors Spieth.

McIlroy missed the cut the first three years he teed it up in The Players Championship. He didn’t even break par, but he’s figuring out how to play the Stadium Course. He tied for eighth in 2014 and tied for sixth last year.

Still, when asked to pick one word to describe Dye’s design, McIlroy didn’t need much time to come up with it.

“Frustrating,” he said.

McIlroy, though, did call it his favorite Dye course. What that means is hard to know. His favorite form of torture?

“This golf course, it magnifies your weaknesses,” McIlroy said. “If your game is off just a little bit in any department, it really magnifies that during this week. You don't have to hit it that long off the tee, but you have to be really precise.”

Spieth tied for fourth in his first Players Championship last year. He was tied for the lead with Martin Kaymer going into the final round with Kaymer ultimately winning. Even with that, Spieth fell in love with the place.

“Incredible golf course,” Spieth said. “One of the best in the world, one of my favorites in the world.”

At 21, Spieth isn’t a power player. He plays tactically, maneuvering his way to the best angles. His short game and putting stroke are the envy of most players, including McIlroy.

Asked what part of Spieth’s game he would most like to have, McIlroy chose Spieth’s putting.

“He's obviously been putting phenomenally well over the past few months,” McIlroy said. “I think that's been a big thing for him. You look at the putts holed and the putts that he's holed when he needed to. That's been a big reason why he's done so well.”

At 26, McIlroy’s a power player. He’s one of the longest drivers on tour and still hits a lot of fairways. He’s 11th in driving distance and still impressively 58th in driving accuracy.

Asked what part of McIlroy’s game he would most like to have, Spieth’s answer surprised nobody.

“I would like to hit it as far as he does,” Spieth said.

At the Stadium Course, Spieth doesn’t have to hit it as far as McIlroy, who learned missing those cuts here that he can’t hit a lot of drivers.

“It's always hard for me when I can't get driver in my hand, because I feel like when I get driver in my hand I can give myself an advantage over the rest of the field,” McIlroy said. “It's just about being very patient and approaching it a different way, winning a different way.”

That McIlroy has to play differently here makes this perfect terrain for Spieth to make this rivalry talk more interesting to McIlroy.

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Defending champ Gana co-leads Latin America Amateur

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 11:20 pm

Toto Gana moved into early position to try to win a return trip to the Masters Saturday by grabbing a share of the first-round lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship.

The defending champ posted a 3-under-par 68 at Prince of Wales Country Club in his native Chile, equaling the rounds of Argentina’s Mark Montenegro and Colombia’s Pablo Torres.

They are one shot ahead of Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz and Mario Carmona, Argentina’s Horacio Carbonetti and Jaime Lopez Rivarola and the Dominican Republic’s Rhadames Pena.

It’s a bunched leaderboard, with 19 players within three shots of each at the top of the board in the 72-hole event.

“I think I have my game under control,” said Gana, 20, a freshman at Lynn University. “I hit the ball very well, and I also putted very well. So, I am confident about tomorrow.”

The LAAC’s champion will get more than a Masters invitation. He also will be exempt into the The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event he is eligible to play this year. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

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LAAC returning to Casa de Campo in 2019

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 8:23 pm

The Latin America Amateur Championship will return to Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic in 2019 (Jan. 17-20), event organizers announced Saturday in Chile, where this year’s championship is underway.

The LAAC champion receives an invitation to play the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club every spring.

The champion is also exempt into The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event for which he is eligible to compete. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The championship got its start in 2015 with Chile’s Matias Dominguez winning at Pilar Golf in Argentina. In 2016, Casa de Campo hosted, with Costa Rica’s Paul Chaplet winning. At 16, he became the first player from Central America to compete in the Masters. In 2017, Chile’s Toto Gana won the title at  Club de Golf de Panama.

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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.