Making Charlie Proud

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2009, 5:00 pm
Perspective is a peculiar thing, particularly viewed through the rose-colored optics of a 22-year-old with a greater depth of understanding than his abbreviated resume would suggest.
Vincent Johnson received a healthy dollop of the stuff early Tuesday morning at venerable Riviera Country Club when he ventured over to the first tee for a practice round.
Johnson, who is five events into a professional career and 24 hours away from the biggest tee shot of his life, was hoping to stumble into a game with one of the assembled Tour pros. I didnt have the stones to ask anybody (to play a practice round), he laughs.
Instead, he teed off alone and inadvertently in front of a threesome that included J.J. Henry, Chris DiMarco and Japanese Rock n Roller/teen phenom Ryo Ishikawa. The media zoo that ebbed with each hole was eye opening.
Every time I was going to hit my second shot all the photographers (following Ishikawa) would be running around and setting up, Johnson said. As big as this week is for me, I cant imagine how he deals with that.
Johnsons perspective offers the first glimpse into why his name was pulled for the inaugural Charlie Sifford exemption into this weeks Northern Trust Open. If those who wonder how a relative unknown whose greatest professional achievement is a tie for 22nd at a Gateway Tour event last week landed such a coveted start, perspective comes in leaps and bounds.
Forget his wanting resume and limited years, Johnsons qualifications jump from his memory the moment he is asked about the exemptions namesake.
Johnson met the trailblazing legend once, when he was 14 years old at golf clinic in Portland, Ore., in one of those snapshot moments that guide careers from crossroad to crossroad.
It was a blast because you know what hes meant to the game, said Johnson, who marched out after that initial meeting and purchased Siffords book, Just Let Me Play. Reading that book was so exciting because he talked about traveling and meeting all these people. And then other parts were very appalling and sad.
If depth of knowledge and a firm grasp on reality, more so than wins and losses, were the criteria for the Sifford exemption ' which was awarded to a golfer of high character and accomplishment who advances the cause of diversity ' then Johnson was an easy 5-and-4 winner.
When Johnson left Oregon State, where he was co-captain of the golf team and a two-time tournament winner, he re-read Siffords book. It was a refresher course on humility and perspective.
Last December, shortly after he joined the play-for-pay ranks, he received a phone call from Sifford, who is considered by many the Jackie Robinson of golf.
It was, Johnson admits, the second-best call hed ever gotten, a close runner-up behind the call he received two weeks ago from Northern Trust officials offering him the Sifford exemption.
Even at the discombobulating hour of 6:30 a.m. (PST) on Tuesday, Johnsons enthusiasm, as well as a healthy dose of nervous energy, is evident.
Mr. Sifford told me to keep grinding, laughs Johnson before adding, I mean he was the ultimate grinder.
He will take that advice to the Northern Trust on Thursday when he begins play in the same event Sifford won in a playoff in 1969. But if Johnson is heavy on perspective, hes managed to keep his expectations low heading into his first Tour bout.
You try to pick things up as best you can, he says. After a couple of days you start feeling a little comfortable, but its such a bigger level.
In short, the Northern Trust Open is an opportunity, not an end all, for a player that knows history favors the patient. Of course, Johnson reasons that it might be easier for him to take the long view considering his background in a game that has been slow to embrace diversity.
Golf came easier to Johnson and his three brothers than to most minorities thanks to his father, Darren, who has been a mechanic for 15 years at Glendoveer Golf Course. It was in many ways an idyllic place to learn the game, so much so that although hes doing his undergrad work on Arizonas Gateway Tour, Portland is where he lives when hes not trying to golf, says his mother Margaret.
My parents could have gotten different jobs making more money, but they wanted to make sure I had access to golf, Johnson says. If my dad didnt work at a course I probably wouldnt have played.
The cosmic tumblers continued to fall into place in 1996, when Johnson watched Tiger Woods march to his third U.S. Amateur title at Pumpkin Ridge just outside Portland. A few months later the future world No. 1 held a clinic and Johnson received a one-minute lesson from Woods. It was a fleeting 60 seconds that still gnaws at him.
Man, I worked so hard before that lesson trying to get my swing right, Johnson recalls. When I got there I was so giddy I just couldnt hit the ball and he was watching me. I was so disappointed.
Unfortunately, Johnson wont get a chance to redeem himself this week at Riviera with Woods back home in Orlando, Fla., nursing that multi-million dollar knee. But not even an absent idol could douse Johnsons enthusiasm.
The most important thing for me is to make the most of this week, Johnson gushes.
Sifford would be proud.
Email your thoughts to Rex Hoggard
Getty Images

Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

Getty Images

Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

Getty Images

13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

Getty Images

McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.