Azinger's insight into the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup team

By Rex HoggardAugust 9, 2014, 5:00 pm

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson, this year’s matches are shaping up to being a rebuilding year.

In order, Dustin Johnson announced an indefinite “leave of absence” from golf for personal reasons; Matt Kuchar, who was also a virtual lock to make the team that will travel to Scotland in September, withdrew from this week’s PGA Championship with an ailing back; and Jason Dufner, who at eighth on the U.S. points list was a leading candidate to either qualify or possibly receive one of Watson’s three captain’s picks, walked off Valhalla mid-round with a neck injury on Thursday.

Add to that Tiger Woods’ miserable week, both physically and competitively, and Watson’s options seem wildly limited.

But where some see lost opportunities, Paul Azinger – the last U.S. captain to lead a team to victory in 2008 at Valhalla – sees an embarrassment of riches.

On Saturday at Valhalla, ’Zinger settled in for a rainy morning of war room talk with With the only proviso that Watson still has three weeks before he finds himself on the clock and because of that much can change, Captain Paul dissected this year’s team, much like he did in ’08, and offered his picks.

“It’s not fair to make picks now because you have three weeks to watch. It’s counter intuitive to say, ‘This is who I’d pick now.’ You have to pick who is red hot after you have three weeks to watch,” Azinger said.

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With that footnote, Azinger went back to the formula he used in ’08 and said he would give ownership to the players who qualify for the team and allow them to make the picks.

In ’08, for example, Chad Campbell, who was 21st on the U.S. points list, was one of Azinger’s four picks despite a less-then-stellar run-up to the selection date (missed cut at the PGA, T-65 at The Barclays and T-7 at the Deutsche Bank Championship).

“I’d let them pick because that’s what lets them get invested, that gets them really engaged,” he said. “I didn’t pick (Campbell). They had three players they could have picked. (Steve) Stricker, Stewart Cink and Ben Curtis picked Chad Campbell. They were invested in him and Campbell was so invested in them.”

If the U.S. team’s 16 ½ to 11 ½ victory in ’08 isn’t evidence enough, Azinger’s players from the Valhalla team seem to be the ultimate arbiters of the success of the captain’s plan.

“Few captains, if any, have had an impact on the team and the result as much as he did,” said Hunter Mahan, one of Azinger’s picks in ’08. “He did so much work beforehand that when we got here he told us, ‘Here are your teams.’ He had a huge impact on that week because he could. At the Ryder Cup they give him an opportunity to put (his) mark on it and he put his stamp on it.”

As Azinger studied the current team, which will be solidified after Sunday’s final round, he quickly pieced together potential “pods,” the system he used in ’08 and explained in his book “Cracking the Code.”

Once those pods are set – Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk and Jimmy Walker, for example – Azinger said he would give them a list of possible picks that would join their pod and they could make the choice.

Pushed for who he would pick off the current list, however, Azinger quickly ran through the list of potential candidates.

Spoiler alert: Azinger would not pick Woods.

“I’m not pickin’ Tiger; he’s hurt,” he said.

With the assumption that Phil Mickelson – who is currently 10th on the points list, one spot outside the automatic qualifiers and currently tied for seventh at the PGA – will qualify for the matches, Azinger’s first pick went to Keegan Bradley.

“He loves the Ryder Cup and (the Europeans) are going to be out to get him because of the way he played the last time,” Azinger said, noting that Bradley went 3-0 paired with Mickelson at the matches in 2012.

Although Bradley missed the cut at the PGA, he is 11th on the points list and tied for fourth (WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and The Greenbrier Classic) in two of his last four events.

After that, Azinger said he would swoon all the way to 38th on the point list and select Stricker, which seems a little awkward considering his status as a vice-captain for Watson’s team but a reasonable selection since the part-timer player is tied for ninth this week at Valhalla.

“He brings a calm and steadiness that is just valuable,” he said of the three-time Ryder Cup player.

And finally, Azinger didn’t hesitate before selecting Ryan Moore. Although Moore would be playing in his first Ryder Cup he checks off all the important boxes.

“He is a (U.S.) Amateur champion, he’s a match-play player and he’s got a lot of heart and a lot of guts. He doesn’t have any scars from Ryder Cups past,” Azinger said.

Moore also follows the mold of picking the hot player, having finished in the top 10 in three of his last four starts, and is currently tied for 38th place at Valhalla. As for his status as a rookie, Azinger considers that a bonus.

“I want rookies, dude,” Azinger laughed. “I want rookies who are unscarred and playing well. That’s how I would be thinking. I want to take a bunch of rookies in there, put a chip on their shoulder and go William Wallace on their ass.”

With a large smile etched into his face Azinger added, “You can write that down,” and then set out under skies that were finally starting to clear. For a brief moment, the U.S. Ryder Cup team’s chances seemed a little less gloomy.

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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.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.