Azinger's Ryder Cuppers: Pods put up points

By Rex HoggardOctober 21, 2014, 10:43 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – The groundswell for change began long before Phil Mickelson aired the U.S. Ryder Cup team’s red, white and bruised laundry at Gleneagles.

The return of Paul Azinger, or more specifically the enigmatic captain’s systematic plan for victory, had been on the hearts and minds of players and fans since he led the last U.S. team to victory in 2008 at Valhalla.

Mickelson’s take – which, depending on whom you ask, was either an ill-timed coup d’etat or a much-needed fork in the road for the PGA of America – simply wrapped up the concept in Twitter form.

“We have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best,” Mickelson said in a post-mortem press conference that turned into a movement.

In this politically charged season, ’Zinger is a double-digit frontrunner to captain the next U.S. team in 2016, gaining support almost daily from players and fans alike, and as the PGA’s blue-ribbon task force gets to paving a new path, it seems apropos to revisit everything Captain America did well at Valhalla.

Detractors, a group that seems to include Tom Watson, have focused on Azinger’s use of a vaunted “pods” system. “You know it takes 12 players to win. It's not pods. It's 12 players,” this year’s captain said.

But in ’08, there were no motivational speeches, no confusion, no guessing; just a detailed plan, with myriad contingencies, and a belief that given the right environment, the American side had more than enough fire power to defeat the European juggernaut.

“Everyone knew what there job was,” said Hunter Mahan, who played his first Ryder Cup in 2008.

For the majority of Azinger’s dozen, the plan began well before they arrived in Kentucky when the captain contacted those who had already qualified to explain his “pods” system and the concept that each pod, not the captain, would make the captain’s picks.

There are those who contend a captain’s only meaningful job is his picks, and most captains will say it’s the most difficult part of the gig. But Azinger flipped the script and put it on the players.

“When the picks were made, I already knew the system was going to happen like it did,” said Stewart Cink, who played his fourth of five Ryder Cups in Louisville. “He let us have a say so in the picks. He gave us ownership.”

What Azinger didn’t allow was any second-guessing. Unlike with Watson last month, when some players were still unaware of when or with whom they might play, Azinger arrived at Valhalla with the most valuable of assets – knowledge.

“He had a clearly defined game plan,” Cink said. “Just like if you went to play a golf tournament. He had different scenarios mapped out and he knew how he was going to react. By definition it became not a reaction but an implementation.”

Azinger’s pods made possible pairings a simple question of mathematics. If you played your practice rounds with a player there was a chance you’d be paired with that player.

It was particularly effective, considering that Azinger arrived in Kentucky with six Ryder Cup rookies; for a first-timer, there is no greater confidence killer then uncertainty.

“He had a good scheme,” said Boo Weekley, one of Azinger’s rookies. “He was a great captain. The way he set things up for us with the pods he put us in, the rookies took it [as], 'OK he’s talking to us.'”

Azinger’s persona, and with it his current status as captain-in-waiting, has grown with time. Much like hindsight is always 20/20, those who played for Azinger in ’08 have grown to appreciate his meticulous approach to the job even more.

“Few captains, if any, have had as big an impact on the team and the result as he did,” Mahan said. “He did so much work beforehand that when the week started, he did less than other captains. He set the teams and said this is what we’re going to roll with.”

But perhaps the greatest compliment paid to Azinger by those who played for him in ’08 is the almost unanimous agreement that his actions six years ago were worth at least a point to the American effort.

For all those who have rushed to Watson’s defense in the post-Ryder Cup fallout, claiming that a captain never hits a shot and often receives a disproportionate amount of blame in defeat and credit in victory, consider the take of Azinger’s own players.

“He was worth at least a point the way he set things up for us and the way he talked to us behind the scenes,” Weekley said.

While Cink added, “His system was [worth a point]. Any captain who came with the same plan would have as well. It’s not a ’Zinger thing, it’s a system thing.”

Which cuts to the heart of what Mickelson was trying to do in the Scottish gloom last month. Lefty’s take was neither mean-spirited nor personal, just an honest reaction to the U.S. team’s eighth loss in the last 10 matches and an apparent loss of direction.

Azinger didn’t make his 12 players better, he just gave them the best opportunity to perform.

“It’s not like he went out and coached us to greatness,” Cink said. “We played the way we played. But that’s what he did; he unlocked us to be who we are every week. We hold up great 51 weeks out of the year against the Europeans and then Europe seems to outshine us at the Ryder Cup.”

Whatever the PGA’s task force comes up with, it should begin and end with that simple concept.

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.

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McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and 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.”

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''