Struggling picks Creamer, Hedwall under microscope

By Randall MellSeptember 17, 2015, 5:49 pm

ST. LEON-ROT, Germany – American Paula Creamer and European Caroline Hedwall made reputations thriving in the Solheim Cup, but they know recent struggles raise questions about how they will respond this week to the most intense spotlight in women’s golf.

Will Solheim Cup pressure draw out the best in them?

Or will it widen cracks in their armor?

Creamer is 12-6-5 in five Solheim Cups. She has put up more points in this competition than any other American here this week, but she enters having missed her last four cuts in a row. She enters having slid to No. 48 in the Rolex world rankings, the lowest ranking of her 11-year career.

Hedwall won all five matches she played helping the Europeans rout the Americans two years ago in Colorado, becoming the first player in Solheim Cup history to go 5-0. She also was a vital part of the European victory in Ireland four years ago, when she turned around her match to claim an integral half point late in the Euros’ dramatic comeback.

She hasn't done much since Colorado, though.

Creamer, 29, knows there are doubts to slay this week, but she says she’s relishing the challenge.

“This week is so much fun for me,” Creamer said. “I love having partners. I love match play. It’s that format that brings out the fighter, that grinder that I have inside me. Getting here, wearing these colors, it’s motivating. There’s nothing better than that.”

Hedwall, 26, faces similar scrutiny heading into Friday’s start of the matches at St. Leon-Rot Golf Club.



“I’m not scared of the nervous feeling,” Hedwall said. “I really enjoy it, and I think that's the challenge.”

American Stacy Lewis, a two-time major championship winner, was asked this week how Solheim Cup pressure differs from anything else in golf.

“I think it's like playing the 18th hole of a major over and over again,” Lewis said. “That's the kind of pressure you feel on every single shot, on every single hole.”

American and European golf fans will be tuning in to see how Solheim Cup stars like Creamer and Hedwall react.

“I feel the best I’ve felt in a long time,” Creamer said. “No matter what, I’m not going out and putting extra pressure on myself.”

U.S. captain Juli Inkster showed a lot of confidence in Creamer making her one of her two captain’s picks. She showed even more confidence in her on Thursday when she announced she was sending Creamer out in her leadoff match in foursomes for the start of the Solheim Cup. She’s teaming Creamer with Morgan Pressel Friday morning against what may be Europe’s strongest team, Norway’s Suzann Pettersen and Sweden's Anna Nordqvist.

“I have faith in Paula,” Inkster said. “I have all the confidence in the world in her. It was a no-brainer for me.”

Foursomes is the toughest and truest team format because it’s alternate shot. There’s more pressure in those matches because a player’s wayward shot can put her partner in bad spots.

Creamer and Pressel are best friends. They’ve partnered together in the Solheim Cup twice before and haven’t been beaten (1-0-1), but they’ve never played foursomes together in this event.

“I watched Paula practice for three days,” Inkster said. “She’s hitting it great. She’s excited. I wanted to get her out there and get her feet wet, so to speak.”

Cristie Kerr has played practice rounds with Creamer all week and likes what she’s seeing.

“Paula loves this event,” Kerr said. “She just loves playing for her country. She rises to the occasion, and you’ll see that. I’ve never seen her make so many putts in practice and hit so many hybrids close to the hole. It was pretty amazing. I’m excited to see how she plays.”

Creamer has won 10 LPGA titles in her career. She won her last at year’s start in 2014, taking the HSBC Champions in a playoff, but she still slipped to 22nd on the LPGA’s money list at year’s end, the lowest finish of her career. Always one of the game’s best iron players, Creamer’s struggles are evident in her stats. She finished 51st in hitting greens in regulation last year. She led the LPGA in GIR in ’09 and never finished worse than seventh in that category in her first eight years on tour. She’s 69th in GIR this year.

“It’s really the first time in her career that she’s gone through a tough stretch,” Kerr said. “I think it’s humbling. Given the opportunity to shine here, I think she’ll do it.”

Creamer’s struggles date back to her attempt to find more distance three seasons ago, when she tried to change her swing with her driver, to get more of an upward, sweeping motion. She also struggled through some equipment issues while making swing changes, where her affinity for bending her irons to get more loft affected the bounce on them.

“I think Paula will rise to the occasion,” Lewis said. “I think all players, even great players, have bad streaks, good streaks, ups and downs, it happens. I think she'll rise to the occasion and she'll be just fine.”

Hedwall, 26, faces similar challenges finding form in a Solheim Cup. In the victory at Colorado Golf Club two years ago, European captain Liselotte Neumann called Hedwall one of her “Swedish Vikings.” Hedwall has played nine Solheim Cup matches and been beaten just once. She’s 7-1-1, but she’s also coming into this week having missed the cut in five of her last seven starts worldwide.

Riding that Solheim Cup boost late in 2013, Hedwall rose to No. 22 in the world. She has slid to No. 117.

“I'm hitting the ball really well, but I just haven't putted that well,” Hedwall said. “It kind of was the same situation when I came into Solheim in 2013. I didn't make many putts and all of a sudden it all worked. I'm kind of hoping for some magic this week, too.”

European captain Carin Koch believes match play will spark some fire in Hedwall this week. Unlike Inkster, however, Koch left Hedwall out of Friday’s opening session.

“Caroline is quite spectacular, usually, when it comes to match play,” Koch said. “And the times I watched her play this year, she was hitting the ball very well. So I'm not too worried. I think she can take care of herself. But it will be exciting to see what she can do this week."

For better or worse, Creamer and Hedwall both promise to be storylines given what they’ve meant to the Solheim Cup.

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).


Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship


Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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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.