Final Ryder Cup singles match mattered to Olazabal

By Rex HoggardOctober 3, 2012, 5:57 pm

Amid the mayhem of the closing moments at last week’s Ryder Cup, with Europe’s victory celebration in full bloom some 160 yards away and these matches over, in form if not function, Francesco Molinari cast a desperate glance in the direction of European captain Jose Maria Olazabal.

Without a hint of ambiguity, Ollie put both hands on the Italian’s face and informed him what should happen next, “Get focused and do your best,” the captain shouted above the chaos.

Martin Kaymer’s putt on the 18th hole moments earlier sealed a 1-up victory over Steve Stricker and assured the Continent a 14-14 tie, which under Ryder Cup rules meant Europe would retain the cup.

Olazabal, however, had no interest in the tie. Neither did Tiger Woods, who was 1 up on Molinari at the time. Therein rests the distinction that made Sunday’s anchor match such a surreal scene.

Unlike the Presidents Cup, which declares all matches halved in the event the outcome is decided before play is completed, they play them out at Samuel Ryder’s member-member.

“We both, the PGA of America and European PGA, feel that the Ryder Cup is made up of all the matches and even if the result of the overall trophy is known player records are part of golf and part of the Ryder Cup,” said Kerry Haigh, managing director of championships and business development for the PGA of America. “We don’t feel it is right or appropriate if everyone walks off the golf course when the Ryder Cup is done. Not fair to the golf or the fans.”

Woods and Molinari played their approach shots to the final green, which was fully engulfed in the European celebration, and after the American’s par attempt slipped past the hole he conceded the Italian’s par effort, which meant the two would halve their match and Europe would win the cup outright, 14 ½ to 13 ½.

“It was over,” said Woods, who failed to win a match for the first time in his Ryder Cup career (0-3-1). “We came as a team and the cup had already been retained by Europe, so it was already over.”

Molinari was of a similar mindset until being given his marching orders by Olazabal. If the captain wanted a win then he would honor that.

“I thought about giving him the halve on the fairway, but then the captain was there. (He) told me, it's not the same, winning or halving,” Molinari said Sunday. “I just tried to win the hole, to win the tournament, basically.”

It is a subtle distinction that is likely rooted in cultural differences. Americans, as a rule, have no use for ambiguity in sport. U.S. fans deplore gray in the record books and for Woods, as well as captain Davis Love III, there was no solace to be found in a tie.

In fact, the rule to play the matches out is listed in the captain’s agreement, which Love studied and was briefed on before the matches, but in the dark moments after Kaymer’s putt he had no use for small print.

“Whatever Tiger and Molinari do we don’t get the cup. We’re stunned anyway. I stood there thinking, ‘Why isn’t it over? Why isn’t it good-good?’” Love said.

Unofficial protocol suggests it was Molinari’s choice to concede the final match in the name of sportsmanship, although in the Italian’s defense it was the captain’s decision to press on despite precedent to concede the match.

At the 1969 matches Jack Nicklaus famously conceded a 2-foot putt to Tony Jacklin that resulted in a halve and the first tie in Ryder Cup history and just one of two draws in match history. In that instance a tie, which meant the U.S. retained the cup, was fine for everyone involved, yet on Sunday it seems Olazabal had a different plan.

Perhaps for Ollie, raised in a soccer, eh, football culture where nil-nil ties are a way of life, it was a distinction worth playing for. Or perhaps he was not clear on the rules, telling reporters this week, “I know some people might think Francesco should have given Tiger that short putt, but at the end of the day the rules are the rules. It was important to finish the match.”

Or maybe the Spaniard was searching for a measure of redemption following Europe’s loss in 1999 at Brookline, when bedlam ensued following Justin Leonard’s 45-footer for birdie with Ollie still facing a 25-foot birdie of his own.

The appalling American breach of etiquette aside, the difference between the two incidents was Leonard’s bomb ultimately guaranteed a half point (after the Olazabal miss) and an outright U.S. victory, 14 ½ to 13 ½, while Kaymer’s 6 footer at Medinah was for the tie. But at that point Love & Co. clearly had little interest in a consolation prize.

For Haigh, an Englishman and a longtime PGA of America official, the distinction between a tie and an outright victory is very real, albeit utterly lost on the American side late Sunday.

“There certainly is (a difference) from a score standpoint, but in terms of who retains the trophy, obviously that’s clear from the captain’s agreement,” he said.

Late Sunday at Medinah, Love, who was already starting to feel the wrath from armchair quarterbacks everywhere, was pressed for an answer. Why concede Molinari’s 4 footer? Why not play for the tie?

Resolute and, for the first time all week, clearly agitated with the line of questioning, Love wrestled with the notion for a moment, “I have one question, what were we playing for?” he asked reporters. “The cup and they got it.”

In this instance, former New York Jets head coach Herman Edwards had it right, “You play to win the game. Hello.”

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Defending champ Gana co-leads Latin America Amateur

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 11:20 pm

Toto Gana moved into early position to try to win a return trip to the Masters Saturday by grabbing a share of the first-round lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship.

The defending champ posted a 3-under-par 68 at Prince of Wales Country Club in his native Chile, equaling the rounds of Argentina’s Mark Montenegro and Colombia’s Pablo Torres.

They are one shot ahead of Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz and Mario Carmona, Argentina’s Horacio Carbonetti and Jaime Lopez Rivarola and the Dominican Republic’s Rhadames Pena.

It’s a bunched leaderboard, with 19 players within three shots of each at the top of the board in the 72-hole event.

“I think I have my game under control,” said Gana, 20, a freshman at Lynn University. “I hit the ball very well, and I also putted very well. So, I am confident about tomorrow.”

The LAAC’s champion will get more than a Masters invitation. He also will be exempt into the The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event he is eligible to play this year. 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.

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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.