St. Andrews perfect spot for major history

By Randall MellJuly 30, 2013, 1:00 pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Her story is almost too enchanting to be true.

If there is an author to the scripting of Inbee Park’s career, the master storyteller couldn’t have led her to a more dramatic stage than St. Andrews in her historic march this week.

“I feel like the whole world is watching me,” Park said.

Is it really coincidence Park will be trying to become the first man or woman to win four professional major championships in a single season at the Old Course, where more history has been made than any other golf venue in the world? Of all the places this magical story could go, how does the page turn here, to the revered home of golf, in just the second time the women have been allowed to play a major championship here?

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Hall of Famer Pat Bradley is a believer in golf’s cosmic architecture.

“For Inbee Park to be going to the home of golf to do this, it feels like destiny to me,” said Bradley, who made her own Grand Slam bid in 1986, when she won three of the four major championships in women’s golf. “It is such a storybook venue. For St. Andrews to be in the rotation for this, with all the history there, it really seems destined.”

Bradley is not alone believing fate is a force every bit as real over the Old Course as the winds that blow off the North Sea.

Lorena Ochoa believes, too. She felt it at St. Andrews.

When Ochoa won the first women’s major ever staged at the Old Course in 2007, she felt an overwhelming sense that she was being led to the moment. She felt this before she even teed it up that week. She felt it when she arrived Sunday before the championship began.

Fresh off the plane after the Evian Masters, Ochoa made it to the Old Course with the sun about to set. It was too late to play, but she walked around the 18th hole with her brother, Alejandro. They lingered, just soaking up the sense of history in the stillness of dusk.

Ochoa stood there imagining the finish she wanted.

“There was just this feeling,” Ochoa said. “I pictured myself there on the 18th green, lifting the trophy. It was like it was meant to be, almost like I knew it was going to happen.”

To fully appreciate the power of that moment, you have to understand the pressure Ochoa was under, the doubts up against her in majors. At that point, at 25, she had already won a dozen LPGA titles and overtaken Annika Sorenstam as the Rolex world No. 1, but Ochoa still had yet to win a major. In fact, she had squandered chances to win a few of them, raising questions about her ability to handle major championship pressure. Just a month earlier, she had a chance to win the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles but couldn’t hit a green in regulation over the final five holes. She tied for second behind Cristie Kerr. She also squandered a chance at the Kraft Nabisco that spring. The co-leader halfway through, she shot 77 on Saturday with a quadruple bogey at the 17th hole.

Ochoa, though, showed all her brilliant promise at St. Andrews, breaking through in dominating fashion in a four-shot rout. She emphatically established herself as the best player in the game.

“After winning at St. Andrews, you realize things happen for a reason,” Ochoa said. “I had chances and had come so close at the U.S. Open and Kraft Nabisco before going to St. Andrews, but looking back, it helps you understand how golf works, how life works. There was something special waiting to happen for me. It happened at St. Andrews.”

Park arrives at St. Andrews with destiny oddly intertwined with her name.

Yes, she’s South Korean, but the name Park is revered in Scottish golf. Willie Park Sr. won the very first British Open ever played back at Prestwick Golf Club in 1860, beating the favored Old Tom Morris by two shots. Park won four British Opens overall. His brother, Mungo, won the Open in 1874. Willie’s son, Willie Park Jr., won two Open titles.

Inbee arrives with more than Scotland watching. She’s the first woman to win the first three major championships of the year since Babe Zaharias in 1950. While amateur Bobby Jones won the four majors of his era in 1930, Park is looking to become the first man or woman to win four professional majors in a single season.

The fact that she’s trying to do it on the most historic venue in golf heightens the drama.

Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam played St. Andrews when it first hosted the Women’s British Open six years ago. She appreciated being among the first women to play the course in a major.

“It’s like holy ground,” Sorenstam said.

The first time Park qualified for the Women’s British Open, it was at St. Andrews. She had just turned 19 when she tied for 11th there. She fell in love with the course and is eager to return.

“I can’t wait,” Park said. “Everything about the golf course is very special.”

Bobby Jones won the second of his three British Open titles at St. Andrews in 1927. Sam Snead won the British Open there in ’46, Seve Ballesteros in ’84 and Nick Faldo in ’90. Jack Nicklaus won two Opens there in ’70 and ’78. Tiger Woods also won two there in 2000 and ’05.

From Old Tom Morris to Young Tom Morris, from Jones to Nicklaus to Woods, nearly all the game’s greats have at least walked St. Andrews’ fairways, if not won there.

Back when Bradley was fashioning her Hall of Fame career, the LPGA never got to play at St. Andrews. She so yearned to play there, though, she drove to the Old Course on the Monday after the ’92 Solheim Cup was played at Dalmahoy Country Club in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was the first and only time she ever played there, and she relished it.

“It was a beautiful day, and as I was playing, I was thinking of all the footsteps I might have touched from over the years,” Bradley said. “I’m playing, and I’m thinking, ‘Am I touching the footsteps of Old Tom Morris and Bobby Jones?’ It was wonderful.

“I’m rooting for Inbee Park so much. I really believe that St. Andrews is where the Grand Slam is to be won.”

It would be a storybook finish for golf’s most storied venue.

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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.

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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.