Couples on Ryder Cup: 'It's all about the players'

By Rex HoggardFebruary 5, 2015, 12:00 am

SAN DIEGO – Dressed in board shorts with an Air Jordan hat pulled low on his forehead, Fred Couples ambled up the ninth fairway on Torrey Pines’ North Course joking with Tiger Woods and making fun of Joe LaCava, his former caddie.

Couples said he ventured out to Torrey Pines this week to pay off a few Super Bowl bets that went south for him.

“It was ugly,” smiled the lifelong Seattle Seahawks fan who estimated he lost about 10 bets with various friends, including LaCava.

Few, if any, from outside Woods’ inner circle are afforded an entire morning with the former world No. 1. Couples moves just as easily around Phil Mickelson as he does Michael Jordan and disarms all with equal parts charm and chumminess.

It’s why Freddie emerged as the clubhouse favorite to captain the next U.S. Ryder Cup team before the European victory celebration had wrapped up.


Farmers Insurance Open : Articles, videos and photos


“You have to have the ability to let your ego down and let a system that has worked in the past, that allows us to be more prepared, like the [Paul Azinger] system in 2008,” Mickelson said on Wednesday. “Fred is absolutely one of the guys that would fit that bill.”

Players en masse threw their support behind Couples to be the next American skipper both publicly and privately. It’s why he had a meeting with PGA of America chief executive Pete Bevacqua in early December to talk about a Couples captaincy.

While Couples can at times go astray in conversations, rambling off topic with amusing anecdotes and observations, on this he was very direct when asked about the opportunity.

“I’d love to do it. Whoever is the next captain I believe they want other players involved who would be the next few captains,” Couples said. “It would be fun.”

Fun has been a central theme in all three of Couples’ victorious turns as a Presidents Cup captain and the Ryder Cup task force, which met on Monday in San Diego, has touched on everything he would bring to the table.

In his signature style Couples said he is content to let the process unfold at its own pace as he awaits a second meeting with PGA president Derek Sprague in the next few weeks

“I haven’t asked. I’ve played a couple of rounds with Phil and I just walked nine holes with this cat (Woods),” said Couples of the two task force members. “You know, they know what they’re doing.”

And Freddie knows what he is doing when it comes to team competitions.

At the root of the American Ryder Cup woes, at least as far as Couples is concerned, is a format that forces captains to juggle lineups and sit players during the team portion of the competition.

“The Presidents Cup is easier. At the Ryder Cup you have to sit someone,” he said. “I think there is sometimes animosity when our guys are sat, and I’m not talking about Phil [who at the 2014 matches sat an entire day for the first time in his career]. It’s hard when everyone wants to play every single match.”

There are parts of the gig that don’t exactly fit with Couples’ laidback persona, including a two-year window of intense media exposure and a hectic week during the matches filled with off-course obligations.

“Well, I was Presidents Cup captain and flew to Australia for a media day. That didn’t really interest me,” he said honestly.

But for Couples, being a captain is not complicated. It’s all about the players in the weeks leading up to the matches and when the first tee shot goes in the air it’s about letting them play.

“If I was the captain I would have nothing to do with Minnesota [site of next year’s Ryder Cup]. What am I going to tell them? I can’t tell them to chip better or putt better or drive it better. They are doing the best they can,” he said.

He also made it clear that whatever the PGA has been doing the last 10 matches, a span in which the U.S. has won just twice, needs to be fixed.

No endless dinners, no time-consuming team meetings, just golf.

“When we go to Augusta you don’t go to black-tie dinners, you do everything on your own. I’m not saying the Ryder Cup needs to be that way but I’m saying it should be catered to the players,” he said. “It’s all about the players.”

Even the closing ceremony is an obligation Couples would rather do without, explaining as only Freddie can that no one wants to sit through another hour or so of speeches, win or lose.

“I saw a fistfight at the end of the New England-Seattle game, I mean do we want to go sit and listen to a closing ceremony? When and if we win in Minnesota will they [Europe] want to go listen to that? I don’t think that should happen but I’m not running it,” he said.

Most of all, Couples thinks the decision should be up to the players whether that choice is Freddie or someone else.

“The next guy they choose will be someone the players want,” he said. “I know that sounds harsh, but I think if you sat with our top 50 players and had them write who they wanted as a captain two years ago, I don’t think many guys would have chosen Tom Watson.

“I idolize Tom Watson, he’s helped me with my game, but I’m just talking about the players.”

In short, Couples would be the ultimate players’ captain, a leader who owns the team room with a smile and a joke. Maybe even a few friendly wagers.

He does, after all, need a few bets to go his way after the Super Bowl.

Getty Images

McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.