Awards season: Handing out the 2016 Rexys

By Rex HoggardDecember 14, 2016, 3:30 pm

Think of the year-ending Rexys as more Globetrotters than Golden Globes, but the aftermath is similar with honorees often left confused and cranky, and the committee on the hook for the bar tab.

Participation Prize. Not since middle school has an athlete accomplished so much outside the winner's circle and in 2016 the Participation nod goes to a pair of impressive also-rans in Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar.

Kuchar wasn't even qualified for the Olympics until the 11th hour when a collection of high-profile no-shows combined with his tie for third at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational bumped him to 15th in the Official World Golf Ranking and into the Games, where he rallied with a final-round 63 to claim the bronze medal.

 Lefty had a similarly understated year, finishing second to Henrik Stenson at The Open after narrowly missing a putt for 62 in the opening round at Royal Troon. But it was at September’s Ryder Cup where Mickelson made his year by helping lead the U.S. team to victory and validate the changes to the U.S. system that he helped championed.

Phoenix Award. He was a ghost for much of the year, an urban legend with sightings at regular intervals but nothing definitive until Tiger Woods committed to, and played, the Hero World Challenge earlier this month.

He tied for 15th in a 17-player field with an equal mix of birdies and bogeys. Rust was the primary culprit for Woods’ play at the Challenge and his return sparked an avalanche of optimism heading into 2017, but after a year of relative obscurity just making it to the first tee at Albany was an accomplishment of mythical proportions.

Wrong Address Acknowledgment. In November, USGA executive director Mike Davis referred to Rule 18-2 as a “God-forsaken” rule, and few, particularly Dustin Johnson, would argue with him.

The rule, which deals with a ball moving after a player has addressed it, cost Johnson a stroke but not the title at the U.S. Open when a surreal chain of events led to the bomber finishing his round unsure if he had a four- or five-stroke lead.

Earlier this month, Davis followed through on a promise to adjust the rule, eliminating the penalty when a ball is accidentally moved on the putting green.

Bronze Medal. Kuchar and China’s Shanshan Feng may have taken home the proper “show” medals at this year’s Games, but from 30,000 feet golf’s return to the Olympics deserves an acknowledgment of qualified success.

Many of the top players in the men’s game declined to make the trip to Rio, citing everything from concerns over the Zika virus to scheduling problems, and the legacy left behind (the Olympic Golf Course) is in danger of succumbing to the indifferent forces of nature and South American politics.

But the competition was inspiring and, for those who did make the trip to Brazil, the spectacle of the Games went well beyond what many envisioned.

There’s room for improvement before golf arrives in Japan for the 2020 Olympics, but a bronze medal isn’t a bad consolation prize – just ask Kuchar.

Mulligan Mug. He’d been down this rabbit hole before, endured the rigors of a two-year process that is consuming and cruel. But still, Davis Love III took the gig as U.S. Ryder Cup captain because his friends, the players, contended he was the right man for the job.

The result was a dramatic U.S. victory at Hazeltine National and a .500 record for Love, who lost his first turn as captain in 2012.

Love probably hasn’t taken a mulligan on the golf course since his late father, the legendary swing instructor Davis Love Jr., put a club in his hands, but if anyone needed a do-over it was Captain America.

Gold Watch. By many accounts, Tim Finchem didn’t receive an expensive timepiece when he officially stepped down as commissioner of the PGA Tour in November.

There were various gifts from friends and colleagues, there was even a five-minute standing ovation from tournament directors earlier this month, but no gold watch.

 What else would you give the man who spent more than two decades forging golf’s future? Not all of Finchem’s decisions were popular, not all of them made sense, but there is no debating that he led, and that has to be worth a valuable keepsake.

Make-Good Mug. FedEx Cup math be damned. After being pencil whipped at East Lake in the past, Rory McIlroy finally cleared the $10 million hurdle this season.

In 2012, the Northern Irishman began the week of the Tour Championship with a commanding lead in the points race only to drop the title to Brandt Snedeker; and in ’14 he finished third in the playoff race despite top-10 finishes at three of the four post-season stops.

But in September, McIlroy made the math easy, outdueling Kevin Chappell and Ryan Moore in extra holes to claim the FedEx Cup and a well-deserved make-good.

Courage Award. Actually, the Courage Award is an honor occasionally given out by the Tour, but we’re borrowing it to give to Sam Saunders, who spoke so eloquently in September at his grandfather Arnold Palmer’s funeral.

“He would always take my phone call, always,” Saunders said, before recalling the time Palmer answered his phone while he was in the Oval Office.

“He said, ‘I’m with the president,’” Saunders said. “I said, ‘The president of what?’ And he said to me as if it was so obvious, ‘Of the United States.’”

The golf world lost a piece of itself with the passing of Palmer, and Saunders’ grace and humility was an apropos homage to everything The King stood for.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.