No doubt about it, Bubba makes a statement at Riviera

By Rex HoggardFebruary 22, 2016, 1:37 am

LOS ANGELES – For a guy who freely admits that he has all 158 episodes of “Boy Meets World” on his phone to watch during long flights, the headline writes itself.

Bubba Meets World.

Not that Bubba Watson needed another Hollywood ending at the Northern Trust Open to solidify his status as the PGA Tour’s most complex iconoclast, but his whirlwind tour of Tinseltown certainly fits with his celebrity narrative.

Last week Watson visited the set of Disney Channel’s “Girl Meets World,” a spinoff of the original series, for a cameo role in a future episode; and the set of the CBS sitcom “2 Broke Girls.” He spent time with Justin Bieber and sat courtside at the L.A. Clippers game on Saturday night. He passed a kidney stone.

And he emerged from a leaderboard as crowded as the 405 at, well, any time, to claim his second Northern Trust Open title in three years.

Even in L.A. that’s considered a good week.

“I get a good, excited feeling here,” said Watson, who ended Sunday where he began it, one stroke clear of the year’s deepest field, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking, following a closing-round 68 that featured two birdies over his final three holes.

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“I love coming here, the history of this place. You know, the history that you've seen, the great champions ... and a couple times in the last few years, my head's in the right spot and it's worked out.”

Not that this tale remained on script throughout a picture-perfect Southern California afternoon.

Adam Scott stormed out to a quick start with an eagle at the first hole and when he rolled in a 4-footer for birdie at the sixth to move to 15 under, one stroke clear of K.J. Choi, the Australian appeared poised to claim his second title at Riviera, and his first “official” bottle cap.

“I would like to have an official victory here. A guy like Bubba, he's very tough to beat,” said Scott, who won the 2005 Northern Trust Open but because it was shortened to 36 holes it is not considered an official Tour victory. “He's proving tough to beat from that position. He's wearing the course out on the toughest day.”

Scott stumbled with a double bogey-6 at the eighth hole and three-putted the 14th hole from 17 feet on his way to back-to-back bogeys, but he chipped in a 25-footer for birdie from the fringe at the last to move to 14 under and within a stroke of Watson.

It wouldn’t be enough with Watson making a routine par at the last to secure the title, but even without a bookend L.A. title it was still something of a mandate week for the Australian.

His play on Riviera’s greens may finally begin to quell questions regarding his putting after he finished the week ranked 15th in strokes gained-putting.

For all the handwringing over this year’s ban on anchoring and Scott’s long-term competitive outlook with a traditional-length putter, the irony wasn’t lost on Scott that he won his first title in L.A. using a short putter in 2005.

“I think I putted pretty good this week. I missed a couple today, but I'm sure heaps of people missed a couple today,” he said. “I feel like it's all in a really good spot. I'm excited about going into the Florida stretch and then getting to Augusta where I feel the greens are really the kind of grass that I like a lot and feel most comfortable on. I'm excited about what's coming up.”

Jason Kokrak held the lead for much of the day thanks to a bogey-free, 3-under opening nine, but a three-putt bogey at the 15th hole dropped him out of the lead and he was unable to birdie that par-5 17th hole after a wayward drive.

But then at least Scott and Kokrak were in the conversation late into Sunday afternoon. The same couldn’t be said for Rory McIlroy, who rocked the leaderboard early with a 23-footer for eagle at the first for a share of the lead, but the world No. 3 played his next 17 holes in 6 over par to tie for 20th place.

“I didn’t have the pace at all on the greens. Off the tee I was much better and that was one of the things I wanted to do,” said McIlroy, who was playing Riviera for the first time this week. “I felt like I played three solid rounds of golf. I turned a chance to win into a top-20.”

In true Los Angeles fashion, Watson turned his eventful week into a story of redemption and resilience.

Although Bubba’s always been something of a polarizing figure, he’d been typecast in recent weeks as a villain following a media miscue prior to the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Whether it was his miscue or the media’s remains a topic of much debate, particularly for Watson.

“You know, Phoenix, it was a bad headline that said I didn't like the community, I didn't like the golf tournament, which was a lie, which I'm going to say. I'm man enough to take the bad press now,” said Watson, whose comments prior to the tournament were focused on his dislike of the redesigned TPC Scottsdale layout, not the tournament nor the community.

Watson, who has never hidden his emotions from the press or public, said the fallout from that story has lingered well after he endured the slings and arrows of fans on Saturday at TPC Scottsdale.

“I'm not over it. It's heartbreaking that a city or community or local press would put a headline to spur on a bad image. So it's hurtful,” Watson said. “I'm pretty mad about it, but I've got to get over it. I've got to man up and be a better man, and with those comments, I've got to figure out how to answer things better, all the stuff going on in my head we've been working on.”

For Watson this was something of a Riviera redemption, a chance to put another difficult chapter behind him and improve, both as a player and a person. His victory shows progress for the former, but he openly admits the latter is a work in progress.

Considering his recent issues with the fourth estate, Watson was asked to write the headline for Sunday’s finish: “Bubba Loves This Community and People and Course and Fans and Everything Else,” he smiled.

Or if that’s too wordy, try "Bubba Meets World."

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.