English-McIlroy II: A vastly different result

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2014, 12:22 am

MARANA, Ariz. – The first time Harry met Rory, things didn’t go to plan.

It was two years ago next week when young Harris English, some six events into his PGA Tour career, climbed to the first tee at PGA National for a Sunday shootout with golf’s new prince, Rory McIlroy.

Had that Sunday pairing been a match-play ordeal, McIlroy would have rolled over the rookie, 4 and 3. The stroke-play line wasn’t any better with McIlroy – who ascended to No. 1 in the world with his victory at the Honda Classic – carding a 69 to English’s 77 that included three double bogeys and three bogeys.

“I wasn’t mad,” English recalled of his Sunday swoon, “it was more disappointment. I felt like I was ready for the moment, but it seemed like everything was moving so fast and I couldn’t control it.”

By comparison English’s Round 2 match at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship against McIlroy on Thursday felt like super slow motion. From the first tee the tall Georgia native looked at ease, almost aloof.

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If every match at the Match Play comes complete with Sunday pressure, as the company line goes at Dove Mountain, it appeared as though that fourth round in 2012 in south Florida was much more than 24 months and a few hundred miles away.

English never trailed at the Match Play, turning in 2 under with a 1-up advantage, and arrived at the 14th tee 2 up when Rory, being Rory, ripped off three consecutive birdies – including a 4-iron to 4 feet at the 16th that English called “unbelievable.”

The two traded pars at Nos. 17 and 18 to force overtime until English, the man who wilted under the glare at PGA National, made a gritty par at the first extra hole to advance and amend that dark Sunday in 2012.

Over the last two calendars English has grown, both competitively and psychologically, winning twice on Tour and establishing himself as a five-tool player.

“I asked him what he learned at the Honda Classic and he said, ‘I have to belong out there. I need to play my game,’” said Mike Taylor, English’s Sea Island, Ga.-based swing coach. “That was his first opportunity to be in the mix and in the last group and he felt like he needed to fit in and now he does.”

Even McIlroy, who has done a fair bit of growing of his own over the last 12 months, acknowledged how far English has come since 2012.

“He’s a couple years more experienced and he’s a very solid player and doesn’t do a lot wrong,” McIlroy said. “Experience counts for an awful lot and he’s used to playing with his peers now as opposed to a couple years ago when he wasn’t that comfortable.”

When it comes to these two, age is relative. Although they are both 24 years old, and two of only three players under 25 to have multiple Tour wins, McIlroy and English are viewed in a vastly different light and justifiably so.

The Ulsterman has won two majors by a combined 16 strokes and after a difficult 2013 appears poised to return to the top of golf’s marquee, while English is still very much an unknown commodity to many fans.

But that has been changing over the last year. At the urging of Jimmy Johnson, Steve Stricker’s caddie, English added veteran looper Brian Smith to his team last season and has continued to refine his game despite his success, the ultimate sign of progress for a young, successful player.

Taylor, who worked with English last week, said his short game and wedge play have greatly improved and, unlike that fateful day at the ’12 Honda Classic, he now has a “go to” shot off the tee when the pressure is on.

“Choke up on the club a little, tee it low and swing left,” smiled English. “It’s a little cut and I didn’t have that at the Honda. Sometimes you don’t have your A-game and you need something.”

It was the shot English used on the first extra hole, which was playing into the wind. Although he narrowly missed the fairway on the 19th hole, English was able to put himself in position to make a relatively easy par while McIlroy pulled his approach into the desert, airmailed the green with his third shot and made the conclusion stress-free for English.

Even compared to Thursday’s faux Sunday pressure at Dove Mountain, English acknowledged how far he has come since the last time he went head to head with McIlroy.

“I feel I belong now. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into back then. I knew I could do it but I didn’t know how to finish it off,” said English, who will play Jim Furyk in Round 3 on Friday. “I’ve learned so much about myself and how to handle certain situations. How to breathe better and eat better, just little things.”

He would never say it himself, but there has been nothing little about English’s climb from PGA National to Dove Mountain.

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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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.

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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.