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Monahan deserves credit for strength-of-field success

By Rex HoggardOctober 11, 2017, 4:15 pm

More times than not your scribe uses this space to address some wrong that the PGA Tour should right or simply lament a general lack of interest from the circuit on whatever hot topic is stirring the social media pot at the moment.

But this week isn’t going to be like that. This edition, in the name of fair play and demonstrated success, is an ode to finding a solution that, for decades, seemed hopelessly out of reach.

As far back as anyone can remember, the Tour has wrestled with the reality that its schedule was a collection of have and have-nots; and there was little reason for the game’s top players to alter that reality.

Players being the ultimate independent contractors resisted even the slightest suggestion to change their schedule, and the tournaments that needed the boost from an occasional cameo by a star were reluctant to allow themselves to be officially labeled “B” tier events.

The solution was introduced for the 2016-17 season and dubbed the strength-of-field regulation. Like many things produced out of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., the new requirement initially seemed overly-complicated; but after a full season to digest, the verdict is in – the new rule works.

“I don’t have an issue with the rule. I feel like it’s already paid some tournaments back, look at Travelers [Championship] this year,” Paul Casey said. “It was great. It probably won’t be Travelers next year, it will be someone else who wins.”

Actually, there were two metaphorical winners last season.

This year’s Travelers Championship, which is played the week after the U.S. Open and has historically struggled to draw a marquee field despite one of the circuit’s more popular courses and arguably the Tour’s most dedicated sponsor, featured eight of the top 30 in the world rankings - including Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. Overall, the Travelers strength of field in June was 348, it’s highest mark in over a decade.

“What I found with Rory and Jordan when I first talked to them [the new rule] was part of the conversation, I don’t think it was the only thing,” Travelers Championship tournament director Nathan Grube said. “As a tournament, any time you can get a player thinking about your event that’s all you want. That’s all you can ask for.”

Last season’s Safeway Open also received a much-needed boost from the new rule, with a collection of players who probably wouldn’t have penciled the season opener down on their schedules, including Casey.

Essentially, the new rule has allowed the Tour to venture into a touchy area without drawing the ire of players or tournament directors.

The rule requires a player to add an event to their schedules that they haven’t played in four years – a list that doesn’t include the majors, Players Championship, World Golf Championships or FedExCup Playoffs – if they didn’t play at least 25 events the previous season. Players can sidestep the new requirement if they play 25 events in the current season, but even that small print serves the larger narrative of getting players to play more.

“Whether it’s Hartford or other events early in the season that hadn’t had certain players play before it just brings really good energy,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “It’s challenging when you make a change like that but as a collective whole we’re pleased with where it is.”

All total, 50 players were a part of the program in 2017 and all 50 played a new event, according to Monahan. That’s a list that included nearly all of the game’s best players from Spieth and McIlroy to Dustin Johnson and Jason Day.

This year that number has climbed to 53 players who must add a new event, or commit to play 25 events. Players who don’t meet the new requirement are subject to a “major penalty,” which under the Tour’s regulations would be a fine in excess of $20,000 or possible suspension.

It’s a sign of the policy’s widespread appeal that it’s been the carrot - not the stick - that’s motivated players to expand their horizons when it comes to scheduling.

Although Casey conceded that adding a new event for this season is a bit more “complicated,” players are given a list of options by the Tour and have found the process relatively painless and straightforward.

“I’ve contemplated something early in the fall, Las Vegas, Mexico, one of those. Las Vegas is easy and I’ve never played it,” said Casey, who fell one event short of the 25-tournament minimum in 2016-17.

McIlroy is reportedly considering adding the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am or the Dean & DeLuca Invitational, neither of which he’s ever played, to his schedule this season, or maybe both; while Adam Scott allowed himself to become a little overzealous last season and added two events, the St. Jude Classic and Shell Houston Open, to his dance card in 2017 that would have met the requirement.

“I kind of shot myself out of them for next year,” Scott laughed. “Actually really enjoyed going back to both those courses. It will be interesting to see where I might add next year. I would like to go back to the [AT&T] Byron Nelson, things like that are on the radar.”

And that was the Tour’s ultimate goal. Mandating starts was always going to be a delicate proposition for the circuit and maybe there’s room for improvement under the new guidelines. But given how far back and how contentious this debate has been, Monahan and company deserve credit for finding a solution to a problem that not long ago seemed unsolvable.

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.