Americans have chance to turn Ryder Cup tide

By Rex HoggardSeptember 25, 2014, 5:30 pm

GLENEAGLES, Scotland – In case of emergency, break glass.

Behind those shards of glass the PGA of America found Tom Watson, the 65-year-old legend that is two decades removed from his last turn as a U.S. Ryder Cup captain.

By reaching back into the archives the PGA, specifically the association’s president Ted Bishop, tacitly acknowledged that the U.S. Ryder Cup process was broken.

With just two victories in the last nine matches the United States had squarely established itself as the perennial underdog and Bishop’s gambit with captain Tom was Outside of the Box 101.

As these things tend to flow, the media quickly latched on to the notion that the competitive relevancy of the event hangs in the balance this week at Gleneagles. It’s a dance most Ryder Cup veterans are accustomed to.

“Even if we win this week, we're still a long way behind what the U.S. have done over the years. We've still got a long way to go,” said Rory McIlroy, defaulting back to the U.S. side’s 25-12-2 historic advantage in the matches.

“The U.S. team are very strong and I don't want to get into ‘if we win’ this week and what will happen. The Ryder Cup will go on whether Europe wins or loses, and it will be just as big and just as great an event either way.”

Although there is no danger of the matches lapsing into the depths of irrelevancy – the crowds that ringed Medinah’s fairways two years ago proved that it’s just not Chicago Cubs fans that are willing to embrace a habitual also-ran – but that doesn’t change the level of concern among those on the red, white and blue side of the transatlantic divide. Why else circle back around to Watson?

And this time around the U.S. team has come by its underdog status honestly. First Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson withdrew from these matches for a combination of physical and mental injuries, respectively; and then Watson’s captain’s picks were undermined by what can only be described as unfortunate timing when Billy Horschel, who wasn’t a pick, blazed his way to the FedEx Cup title.

That an American team hasn’t won an away game since 1993 – which, not coincidentally, was the last time Watson captained a Ryder Cup squad – and the dominant play of Europe’s stars this season have conspired to make the U.S. side a distinct long shot.

When Phil Mickelson was reminded of the U.S. team’s slim chances and his fading Ryder Cup opportunities, however, the veteran seemed to speak for the entire team.

“Are you always this half-empty?” Mickelson asked the scribe. “Is that how you look at things? Because we're more optimistic here.”

Perhaps it’s false bravado, maybe Lefty – who seemed to fire the first shot of these matches with a tongue-in-cheek reference to McIlroy and Graeme McDowell’s ongoing legal troubles on Wednesday – figures it’s best to avoid the negative association that comes with past failures.

Either way, there is a palpable feeling among the U.S. team – and even a few Europeans – that the Continent’s perceived advantage is as thin as the betting slips that have the home team a 4-to-6 favorite.

Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the U.S. team has a better average Official World Golf Ranking (16.4) than the European squad (19.9) and Euro captain Paul McGinley’s squad is not without its share of blind spots.

Consider that Ian Poulter, who admitted on Thursday that he scares his own children when he lapses into his Ryder Cup trance, may have been the magician of Medinah when he went undefeated in four matches, but the Englishman posted a single top-10 finish this year on the PGA Tour and broke par in just three of his last 20 rounds in the United States.

Lee Westwood and McDowell have also underperformed this season and rookie Victor Dubuisson has become a paradox of pedestrian play.

Which leaves McGinley – who has a total of four European Tour victories; the same number as, say, Chad Campbell on the PGA Tour – to piece it all together using the mystical winning “template” that has been passed down from captain to captain.

“The template is huge,” McGinley said on Tuesday. “This is not a time for me or Europe to have a maverick captain. It's a time for me to go in, identify the template, enhance it and try to make it better, roll it out again and then hopefully you hand it over to the next captain when he comes into position.”

The U.S. team doesn’t have that luxury and without a spare Paul Azinger layout around – the 2008 captain’s dance card must have been full this week – the PGA opted for Watson to play the role of maverick captain.

It is interesting that if the U.S. team is going to get off the schneid it will likely be the three players who hadn’t attended their first kindergarten class when Watson last won an overseas Ryder Cup that will turn the tide.

Jordan Spieth, who was born two months before the ’93 matches in England, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed will be the U.S. team’s true wild cards. No? Just look at the team’s record in these matches to prove the point.

Mickelson, playing his 10th Ryder Cup, is 14-18-6 in his career; while Jim Furyk is an inexplicable 9-17-4. Whether he likes the idea or not Old Tom has been shoehorned into a lineup that will have to rely on new talent if things are going to go America’s way, which would explain his decision to send Spieth and fellow rookie Reed out in the morning’s third fourball match on Friday.

“I'm a big believer that in the Ryder Cup, world rankings, majors, wins, they are all gone. Everybody starts from scratch,” said Bradley, who will join Mickelson in Friday morning’s anchor match against McIlroy and Sergio Garcia. “I say we are underdogs. But come that first tee, everybody's even from right there.”

Considering the growing sense of urgency among the American contingent the hope is that the paper lion’s advantage ends at that first tee.

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 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 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.