Missing Arnie just a little more on Wednesday of API

By Rex HoggardMarch 15, 2017, 3:50 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – For more than four decades, this has been the best Wednesday in golf. There were no competitions, faux or otherwise, no ceremonies or announcements, just a few minutes and the undivided attention of a legend.

Wednesdays at Bay Hill meant Arnold Palmer was coming to the media center for his annual “State of the King” news conference. These were always free-flowing affairs defined by the host’s unfiltered honesty and his ability to address any topic – from Tiger Woods’ most-recent accomplishments to the distance modern professionals hit the golf ball.

Whatever the subject, Palmer would answer, sometimes with an anecdote or a joke, sometimes with a wink and his signature thumbs up.

But this Wednesday at Bay Hill, there was no media meet-and-greet with Palmer, who passed away in September. Tour commissioner Jay Monahan spoke, so did Palmer’s grandson Sam Saunders, who was so eloquent last year at the King’s funeral, but it wasn’t the same.

This week is being billed as a celebration of Palmer’s incredible life, so it only makes sense that today should be a celebration of those incredible Wednesdays with the King by revisiting some of his best stuff.

Although Palmer’s association with the tournament dates back to the 1970s, his first brush with Central Florida began well before that, as he explained in 2008:

I came here the first time I think in ’48. I was a sophomore at Wake Forest and we played the men's golf team at Rollins [College].

“Our coach said, ‘What do you guys want to do? You can practice here or we can go on to the next match.’ We all voted to stay at Rollins because we were playing the girl's golf team and for the next two days we played the girl's golf team. That was a hell of a lot more fun than playing the men's golf team.”

There were always questions about Tiger Woods. So many Tiger questions, like in 2010:

“For me to tell Tiger what he should do, there's only one thing I can say and that's practice and confidence. Regain the confidence he had when he was starting out.”

Or in 2014 when Woods missed Bay Hill with a back injury, although the same answer could have applied to this year’s event:

“He didn't tell me how bad his back is. . . . I think he wanted to play golf this week. He just feels that he needs to take, whether it's this week, next week or the following week, to get ready for Augusta.”

There was a patented story he’d tell whenever a young player would ask him for advice:

“My father said when I left for the Tour, he wasn't too anxious for me to go on Tour. He said, ‘I'll tell you what, you go out there and listen to all those guys [swing coaches] out there and that tractor [at Latrobe Country Club] is still sitting down there and you can drive it when you come back. Well, I never went back because I did what he told me. Basic fundamentals.”

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

He would regularly be asked the state of his game, and he regularly dismissed those questions like he did in 2011:

“I hit it so far these days that I hear it land.”

Or in 2009:

“I play here in the ‘shootout’ [at Bay Hill] and most of these guys are accountants or stockbrokers or engineers or home builders, and they all beat me. And that tells you something about my golf. And I hate it, but I still love golf.”

One year he was asked what it’s like to be Arnold Palmer when someone orders an Arnold Palmer:

“I'm a little embarrassed. The guy says, ‘I'll have a Palmer,’ I don't think about it in first person. I think about, hey, thank you, have a couple.”

And, of course, he always told the best stories, like when he was asked the loudest cheer he ever heard on the golf course:

It was probably on the 16th hole at Augusta in ’62 when [announcer] Jimmy Demaret was talking about the shot that I had. Demaret said, ‘He's got an impossible shot here, and to get it up‑and‑down will be a small miracle.’ I'm listening to him saying all of this and then I chipped it in [and won the Masters], and that was a loud cheer.”

Or the first time he played a practice round match against Ben Hogan at Augusta National in 1958:

“We got in the locker room and Dow [Finsterwald] and I had collected $35 [for winning the match], Hogan sat at another table and said, ‘How in the hell did he get in the Masters?’ Meaning me. Then I won the tournament.

“Hogan never called me by my first name. Never. I was ‘fella,’ or ‘hey,’ or something in that order. That didn't mean anything except that he probably didn't give a shit who I was.”

There would always be questions about the Arnold Palmer Invitational and his role as host:

“Last night, I entertained. You didn't know that, did you? I played a piano concert for them, very proud of it, too. And I will not elaborate.”

In 2004, Palmer played the event for the final time, an emotional week that included a magical par at his final hole:

“I suppose that I can't deny that I was thinking about this is probably the last time I'll do that. That's tough to think you're finished playing on the PGA Tour as a competitor.”

But most of all he relished the chance to talk about what the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his tournament, was really about:

“About 45 years ago I was asked if I'd put my name on the tournament for the hospital. I thought about it and I gave my rules for my name being on the hospital and the tournament.

“The Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies has come just thousands of miles over what we had anticipated.”

They were always the best Wednesdays and they will be missed. Arnie will be missed.

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.