The answer man: Spieth responds to every challenge

By Rex HoggardJanuary 11, 2016, 4:37 am

KAPALUA, Hawaii – Some considered Jordan Spieth’s performance along this stretch of the Maui coast a referendum on where his game, and by extension golf, is right now; but considering the PGA Tour is still a few stops shy of the quarter pole this season it felt more like a competitive Q&A.

After all, as dominant as Spieth was in 2015 he hadn’t exactly proven himself a specialist on fast tracks like Kapalua, where even-par rounds will leave a player dusted.

Spieth suggested as much on the eve of his victory lap at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions when he was asked to assess his position after starting his week with rounds of 66-64-65.

“To be honest, with the scoring we have done this week, it frustrates me that I have to shoot 4 to 6 under in order to win this tournament still,” he said.

But if there was any question as to whether Spieth had the firepower to win a shootout, the answer arrived early and often, with the world No. 1 responding to every challenge to his dominance on Sunday at the Plantation Course.

Question: How will Spieth respond after Patrick Reed, who began the day a half-dozen behind Spieth, starts his round with back-to-back birdies to cut the lead to four?

Answer: Spieth, being Spieth, rolls in a delicate 35-footer for birdie from above the hole at the second.

Hyundai Tournament of Champions: Articles, photos and videos

Question: How will Spieth respond when Reed, who went 68 holes this week without a bogey, adds a 5-footer for birdie at the fifth?

Answer: Spieth converts from 2 feet for birdie at the sixth to retain his five-shot advantage.

Eventually, the biggest and most crucial inquiries for Spieth may have come from within.

Question: What will he do after a bogey at the eighth hole, Spieth’s second dropped shot of the week, combined with Reed’s birdie at the ninth hole cuts the lead to three strokes?

Answer: Spieth birdies the turn with mid-range putts at the ninth and 10th holes to reestablish a five-shot advantage.

By the time he’d birdied the 15th hole only history could be counted as a true competitor, with the tournament-record 31-under mark within reach.

Spieth likes goals, they keep a creative mind on point, and penciling in Ernie Els’ record total from the 2003 Tournament of Champions is the type of competitive carrot that can dominate the internal dialogue.

“I was peeking at the boards here and there but knew that if we stuck to our goal of getting to 6 [under], ultimately I wanted to get to 30 under,” said Spieth, who came up just short of the tournament record with a closing-round 67 but reached 30 under for an eight-stroke victory.

That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of other accolades to be processed following a commanding performance in Maui.

The victory made Spieth the third-youngest player, behind Tiger Woods in 1998 and Horton Smith in 1929, to get to seven victories on Tour, and he became the first player since Woods in 2000 to win the last event of one season (Tour Championship) and the first stop the following year.

On a personal front, his eight-shot triumph was Spieth’s largest margin of victory in an official-money Tour event and his first triumph on the Tour’s West Coast swing.

But most importantly Spieth answered the inevitable question that came with the New Year – how could he possibly match his performance in 2015?

“[Caddie Michael Greller] said on 18 fairway, ‘Man, just a way to make a statement.’” Spieth said. “I thought that was cool. I mean, it's not what I'm going for, it's not why I do what I do. I still think it's going to be very difficult to have a year like last year.”

Following his Kapalua rout the conversation is also sure to turn to comparisons between Spieth’s current play and Woods’ at a similar age.

At the risk of breaking the internet, Butch Harmon, who was Woods’ swing coach from 1996 to August 2002, should be considered the ultimate arbiter on this subject.

“It’s not unfair to compare Jordan with Tiger because Jordan is doing exactly what Tiger did at the same age,” said Harmon, who enjoyed a 26 percent winning clip in Tour starts and eight major victories while working with Woods.

Spieth, however, is quick to deflect such comparisons.

“I just think it's premature, but I'll say that probably my entire career,” Spieth said. “There's just such an age gap that I understand these comparisons are going to be there. I hope they continue to be there - that means I'm still being in the same ballpark as he is. I know what he did and I just find it hard to believe that it can be matched.”

The 22-year-old certainly has a head for history and a head-to-head comparison between Spieth and Woods at similar points in their careers is clear enough. This week’s Tournament of Champions was Spieth’s 77th Tour start as a professional and his seventh victory. Through 77 starts as a member of the play-for-pay set Woods had won 18 times on Tour.

But Harmon’s assessment is more nuanced and takes an a la carte approach.

“The biggest difference, and this is a huge difference, is Tiger’s ability and length off the tee,” Harmon said. “Go back to 2000, he was the second-longest hitter in the game and he hit 72 percent of his fairways. He was really hard to beat because of that.”

In Woods’ third full year on Tour (1999) he ranked third in driving distance, 65th in driving accuracy and fifth in greens in regulation; compared to Spieth’s line last year of 78th in driving distance, 80th in driving accuracy and 49th in greens in regulation.

Where Spieth holds the edge at this point in their careers is on the greens, with Woods 24th in putting average and 58th in three-putt avoidance in ’99, compared to Spieth’s 2015 line of first in putting average and 37th in three-putt avoidance.

“I never thought I’d see anyone who can make as many pressure putts as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods did,” Harmon said. “But Jordan Spieth is definitely right there. Jordan makes more long putts than anyone we’ve seen in a long time with the exception of Arnold Palmer.”

Founded or not, the comparisons will continue if Spieth continues to trend down his current path, which prompts an entirely different exchange.

Question: Can Spieth maintain this level of excellence long enough to make it a true comparison, at least in his own eyes, to Woods’ dominance?

Answer: TBD.

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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.