The boys at Palmetto can't quite pull Kiz to PGA win

By Rex HoggardAugust 14, 2017, 1:07 am

AIKEN, S.C. – Interstate 77 south goes from four lanes to two in a hurry just outside Charlotte, N.C., as clear a sign as any that you’re quickly descending into the Old South.

Just two hours down I-77 from Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club, site of this week’s PGA Championship, just off exit 22 on the road to Augusta, Ga., is Aiken – think Mayberry, USA, with Uber and a thriving restaurant district.

It’s where Kevin Kisner was born and where he continues to live despite the unwritten mandate that with fame and fortune on the PGA Tour comes the need to upgrade to a tony new zip code.

Kisner stayed in Aiken after he left the University of Georgia and turned professional because, “when I was playing mini-tours and I was broke, that's the only place I could afford to buy a house and I went back there. I just love it.”

And he became a member at Palmetto Golf Club, an 1892 Alister MacKenzie gem hidden behind a row of shrubs just off Berrie Road, because, “I have a core group of friends that we hang out with that don't pester me about golf and we hang out and have a couple beers on the back porch.”

On any given day, Kisner can be found with long-time friend and playing partner, but never opponent, Scott Brown tooling around in a tricked out golf cart with big speakers and a cooler.

In Palmetto you’ll find the perfect metaphor for Kisner: laid back, edgy and perfectly southern.

He could have bolted to the warm skies and clear waters of South Florida like so many other Tour types and become a member of a secluded club with big fences and a fancy pool. Palmetto isn’t that club.

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Just across the gravel parking lot on the other side of the 16th tee is the Palmetto pro shop, the property’s original structure that is part pro shop, part halfway house, part 19th hole. Think of it as an open floor-plan hang.

More than two hours before Kisner was scheduled to tee off in the 99th PGA Championship an assortment of members marched through the multifunctional clubhouse.

There were the normal Sunday games at Palmetto, which anecdotally were not allowed during the Blue law days until Palmetto Golf Club vs. Aiken County changed all that in 1927. They still talk about those days at Palmetto so, you’re welcome.

Groups pay off bets and talk about their rounds and eventually ask, “How’s Kiz doin’?”

He’s one of their own, not just a fellow member, but a friend you can tease and catch the needle from and someone to drink a beer with, which will run you $1.50, or as head pro Brooks Blackburn winks, “PGA prices.”

2:49 p.m.

After finding the fairway at the first, Kisner’s approach drops 12 feet from the hole for a two-putt par to maintain his one-stroke lead at Quail Hollow.

“Was that a cut?” Blackburn asks of Kisner’s approach shot. “We call that a cut block.”

This is where Kisner learned the game. At 7 years old, his father, Steve, who is a local contractor in Aiken, sent him to a clinic at Palmetto.

“He was the same as he is now,” says Tom Moore, who served as Palmetto’s head pro for 30 years and ran that clinic 25 years ago. “He’s always had that air that he was good. He had the attitude no matter what shot he hit it was going to be good.”

3:20 p.m.

It’s a measure of the ownership the club has with their resident Tour winners, that for every member who made their way through the clubhouse during Sunday’s final round at Quail Hollow there were just as many, “How’s Brownie doin’?”

At the Zurich Classic, Kisner and Brown teamed to finish runner-up. It’s a partnership that began when they were juniors, Brown growing up in North Augusta and Kisner in Aiken. They both have houses that border Palmeto – with Kisner’s adjacent the 17th fairway and Brown’s next to the third hole –  and share the same swing instructor, John Tillery.

Brown has seen the best of Kisner, and when asked how he would described his regular partner, “He’s humbly confident. He’s not going to go around telling everyone he’s great, but his belief in himself is very high,” he says.

Another way to describe the two-time Tour winner is competitive, sometimes to the extreme.

“If he’s in here drinking beers he’ll talk trash,” laughs Matt Nesmith, an Aiken native and aspiring professional “He’s always been like that.”

3:30 p.m.

At the par-4 third, Kisner finds a bunker off the tee, hits his approach short and faces a slippery 6-footer for par. About a dozen members mulling around the clubhouse watch anxiously, but Blackburn shrugs, “Just give it to him. He never misses those.”

Kisner converts the par putt to a round of applause.

They’ve all seen it, Kisner’s machine-like ball-striking and effortless putting stroke on Palmetto’s slick Bermuda grass greens that are nothing more than smaller versions of the putting surfaces at this week’s PGA.

“We tried to take those two on [Kisner and Brown] in an alternate-shot game right before they left for the Zurich [Classic] and they killed us,” Nesmith says. “We lost everything, the front, the back, the overall. They were 8 under.”

4 p.m.

The local middle school team arrives for a practice session and one by one they run from the range, which measures just 240 yards, to check on Kisner’s progress.

Kisner rinses his second shot at the par-5 seventh hole on his way to a bogey to drop a stroke off the lead.

“I can’t watch this,” moans Richard Anaclerio, an 11-year-old with the short game of a 21-year-old, before darting back to the practice putting green.

5:05 p.m.

A dozen members linger in the 19th hole or on the porch looking over their shoulders at a pair of flat-screen televisions and the place comes alive when Kisner converts from 17 feet for birdie at the 10th hole to, temporarily, move back into the lead.

“He made it, he made it,” member Jay Jasmin announces.

5:20 p.m.

With Kisner facing a 6-footer for par at the 11th hole, the broadcast predictably posts a graphic of Kisner’s performance from 6 feet and in this week – 53-for-53.

“I think they’re going to jinx him, no . . ,” Nesmith says.

Kisner misses the putt and follows that with another bogey at the 12th hole to fall to 5 under par and three strokes behind Justin Thomas.

6 p.m.

With the crowd thinning like the last two minutes of a University of Georgia football game with the home team down by three touchdowns, Kathy, the bar attendant, closes for the night.

“What is happening?” Anaclerio sighs as he peaks through the door.

6:20 p.m.

Following a birdie at the 14th hole, Akien’s favorite son taps in for another at the par-5 15th to move to within a stroke of the lead.

“Go Kiz!” yells an elderly member to no one in particular on his way to the locker room.

Although arguably the most brutal stretch in major championship golf awaits – Nos. 16, 17 and 18 – Moore explains why Kisner is uniquely suited to do what few were able to this week and play the Green Mile under par.

“It’s just like the greens here [at Palmetto], you have to just let them die in the hole and that’s exactly what these [the PGA greens] do,” he says.

6:30 p.m.

Kisner three-putts the 16th hole for a bogey to drop three back and a groan echoes from somewhere in the locker room. Blackburn gazes at the television shaking his head at the 10-footer for par that Kisner left inexplicably short.

“Don’t leave it short. What is this a Calcutta?” Blackburn asks before pausing and being reminded that Kisner may need some time before he can joke about his seventh-place finish at the PGA. “He’s pretty good about [losses], it’s amazing what hunting and fishing and Budweiser can do to help ease the pain.”

Well, all that and a place called Palmetto.

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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.