Luck finds Spieth, and he takes advantage

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2017, 8:53 pm

SOUTHPORT, England – Jordan Spieth is leading The Open. He’s 6 under par, two shots clear of the field following a gritty 69 on a windy and wet day along the Irish Sea. He was lucky.

Given Friday’s conditions and his play relative to the rest of the field, the 23-year-old’s play should be appreciated, cheered even. He avoided the kind of links pitfalls that awaited so many of his frat brothers, like the fate of his friend Justin Thomas, who might still be playing the sixth hole from the thick hay if not for a merciful drop that led to a quintuple-bogey 9.

Spieth converted crucial putts when he had to, largely kept his emotions in check and finds himself atop a Grand Slam field after a round for the 12th time since the beginning of 2015.

But make no mistake - he was lucky.

He was lucky that Friday’s forecast, an apocalyptic outlook that called for a 100 percent chance of rain and the kind of wind that turns decent shots into disasters, never materialized.

“I would have gladly stayed on the couch. I was watching the coverage this morning and for even par I'd still be there right now,” he smiled. “I knew it was going to get windy. It was up to 95 percent by 4 [p.m.], chance of rain 100 percent 4 or 5 [p.m.].”

Instead, Spieth and the other afternoon starters were met with only periodic bouts of showers, with one particularly strong deluge causing a short suspension of play, and gusts that eased to more manageable levels than those faced by players in the early wave.

He was lucky at the 10th hole when he chipped in for par after making a mess of the par 4.

“Obviously stole one there,” he said.

He was lucky at No. 15 when he caught his 3-wood second shot from the first cut of rough off the heel of the clubhead, but watched in amusement as his ball trundled around a pot bunker to 20 feet.

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“I mis-hit the shot, which is probably why it looked so gross on the ShotTracker,” he acknowledged. “It just one-hop scooted around the group of bunkers there, and then it was obviously fortunate to get all the way to the green and keep on going towards the green instead of over towards the left bunker.”

Spieth easily admitted that luck played a factor in his round, but then he also understands that luck has a tendency to favor the prepared.

He was poised, for example, to endure anything and everything Mother Nature had in store for him despite starting the day secure in the knowledge that he’d probably ended up on the wrong side of this week’s draw.

Instead, he caught a break. Call it luck, fate, karma, whatever you want, because even though Spieth knew fortune smiled on him on Day 2, he’s also keenly aware that those kinds of bounces are worthwhile only if you take advantage of them, and he did.

After making the turn in 1 over for the day and tied for the lead with Matt Kuchar at 4 under, Spieth followed his chip-in at No. 10 with a 35-footer for birdie at the 11th and a tee shot to tap-in range at the 12th. Although he stumbled with bogeys at No. 14 after finding a greenside bunker and the 16th where he three-putted, the world’s third-ranked player finished with a hard-fought 69.

“To chip in for par after being in trouble on 10, and then he holes a 35-footer or something for birdie across the green and then hits it stiff on the next,” said Henrik Stenson, who was paired with Spieth on Friday. “That could have easily been three, four shots difference over those three holes. If it’s your week and you’re going to be up there, a lot of times you need one of those kind of momentum keepers.”

There have been so many accolades heaped on Spieth over the years – endearing, focused, thoughtful – but the one trait that stood out on Friday on his way to the halfway-house lead was how resolute he remained throughout a difficult day.

“I felt like we were toughened a bit by today,” Spieth said. “My patience wore a bit thin around the turn. I was able to regroup.”

Although this is just his fifth Open Championship, the links learning curve for Spieth has been fast-tracked, highlighted by his near miss two years ago at St. Andrews when he finished a stroke out of a playoff, and a Friday 75 in similarly brutal conditions last year at Royal Troon.

“We played in that afternoon on Friday in the worst stuff I've ever played in. It was just absolutely sheets of sideways rain is how I described it,” he recalled. “I thought that was very important last year going through it. I actually talked to [caddie Michael Greller] a bit about it during the round; this isn't even how bad it was at Troon. We've got spots to play out here that we can hit greens from.”

At this rate, Spieth will likely need a little more luck to add the claret jug to his major portfolio. He managed to find just four of 14 fairways on Friday and ranks 124th this week in driving accuracy. On a links course like Royal Birkdale that kind of wayward play can catch up to you quickly.

But he proved on Friday that he’s prepared to take advantage of those fortunate bounces, and that’s the most important part of being lucky.

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 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 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.