Get ready for another grind in PGA finale

By Rex HoggardAugust 13, 2017, 12:59 am

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Remember when Nick Faldo made 18 pars during the final round to win the 1987 Open Championship?

Yeah, most people don’t; but for those astute historians that do recall that most mundane of majors 30 years ago the 99th PGA Championship is starting to feel a little bit like that – a sweaty, sweltering grind that left the field pretty much in the same position they were in when they started the day.

Playing the role of Faldo at Quail Hollow is Kevin Kisner, a bulldog of a player and a former Georgia Bulldog who didn’t manage 18 pars on Day 3 but his position at the end of the round had remained virtually unchanged.

Collectively, the top five players on the leaderboard were 1 over par on a day that wasn’t exactly separation Saturday, with Kisner maintaining his spot atop the field with a 1-over 72 for a one-stroke lead over Chris Stroud and Hideki Matsuyama.

In his prime, Sir Nick would have fit in perfectly at this Quail Hollow, all 7,600 yards of willowy rough and grainy deception. He also would have appreciated Kisner’s moxie.

The two-time PGA Tour winner went 25 holes around Quail Hollow without a bogey until his misstep at the 12th after wildly missing a fairway, which is itself wild considering Kisner’s consistency off the tee this week.

Two birdies at Nos. 14 and 15 padded his lead, which he never lost, before he found the water with his approach on the 16th hole for a double bogey-6. A bogey at the last set the stage for what promises to be survival Sunday.

This new and improved Quail Hollow will do that, even to the world’s best.


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Defense may win championships in team sports, but when Tour pros are relegated to putting for pars it makes for something less than awe-inspiring golf.

Unless Sunday brings a dramatic weather change, like the one that led to Friday’s scoring matinee, or the PGA of America suddenly goes inexplicably soft, it will likely be more of the same on Sunday.

“You have to play away from the hole on so many shots throughout the day, and then all of a sudden they give you a couple holes in a row on each side that you've got to attack,” said Kisner, whose stock in trade this week has been his driving (he’s fourth in the field in fairways hit) and greens in regulation (first in the field). “You've got to be able to take 30 feet and take your medicine. I think that's one of the biggest things out there.”

All you need to know about the PGA Quail Hollow is that the layout’s 18th and first holes are the first and second toughest frames this week, respectively. Those two holes would also rank as the third and fifth toughest on Tour this season. Consider it bookend round busters.

Kisner, who likes to “wheel” putts in on the high side with dying speed, relishes the role of dark horse, tackling Quail Hollow the way a chess master would go after Bobby Fischer, methodically with a plan and a purpose.

He estimated in his practice rounds there were four birdie holes each round, Nos. 7, 8, 14 and 15, while the other 14 required tentative precision, a drive that finds a fairway even if that leaves a lengthy approach. He’s hit a lot of 6-iron approach shots this week. He loves his 6-iron.

“Think his 6-iron has got a hole in it ... right in the sweet spot,” joked Kisner’s swing coach John Tillery.

The saving grace may be that unlike Muirfield in ’87 for Faldo, there are birdies to be had at Quail Hollow, which has been softened to a less-demanding version of its new Bermuda grass self by two days of on-again, off-again downpours.

Graham DeLaet cracked the code, however temporarily, when he nearly aced the 13th and 14th (a par 4) holes, added an eagle at the 15th and finished his run with a birdie at the 16th to go 6 under in four holes.

“It was difficult. It's a really, really, really challenging test out there, especially with the greens being as firm as they are. It's just so hard to get birdie looks,” said the guy whose 68 moved him into a tie for seventh.

It’s also a bit of a buzz kill following the last two majors where low scoring has been the rule rather than the exception.

Although there is a segment of the golf public that savors the old Grand Slam grind, where par is a good score and Tour professionals regularly look foolish, those types of slugfests don’t necessarily bring out the best in the brightest, as evidenced by a leaderboard that has exactly one top-10 player in the world ranking (Matsuyama) within six strokes of the lead.

“The PGA Championship I think is going to be the toughest for me,” said Jordan Spieth, who played his way out of the tournament, not to mention a chance to become the youngest player to win the career Grand Slam, with a third-round 71. “If we look historically back on my career, I think I will play this tournament worse than the other three majors just in the way that it's set up.”

Now whether Spieth was talking about this particular PGA or all of them will only be decided by time, but there was no denying that the relative difficulty of Quail Hollow is not a perfect fit for the game’s current marquee.

“The way they set the golf course up this week, it's made you play cautious golf. You have to be happy with 25, 30 feet,” reasoned Rory McIlroy, who also did little to help his title chances with a 73 on his way to a tie for 47th. “Kevin Kisner led [he’s actually fourth in the field] in proximity to the hole with 36 feet. That is sort of the way of this golf course.”

That the tournament will in all likelihood be decided on the layout’s Green Mile, Nos. 16, 17 and 18, is only fitting, as foreshadowed by Saturday’s finale for the anchor threesome which played that stretch in a combined 7 over par that included Jason Day’s quadruple bogey-8 at the 18th hole.

This Quail Hollow is not for the timid, nor does it inspire the kind of scoring frenzy fans cheered at the U.S. Open or Open Championship. This PGA is relentless and may well be won by the player who, like Faldo, can make 18 pars and survive.

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.