Olympic countdown: One year to Rio

By Rex HoggardAugust 5, 2015, 12:00 pm

For Antony Scanlon, a vision and years of work have started to become very real. Twelve months from Wednesday, the opening ceremony for the 2016 Olympics will be held with 120 golfers joining the Parade of Nations for the first time in 112 years.

For Scanlon, the executive director of the International Golf Federation, the opening ceremony has been the ultimate goal since the International Olympic Committee announced golf’s return to the Games in October 2009. But it’s been the countdown’s impact on potential Olympic golfers that has created a buzz.

“They are excited. They realize this is a rare opportunity to be part of the national team and some of them will play a leadership role within that team,” Scanlon told GolfChannel.com. “It’s excitement and a little of the unknown, what does it mean to be part of an Olympics?”

Among players, who have, until recently, largely offered a lukewarm embrace of golf’s return, the opening ceremony is a very real and very familiar part of the Olympics.

“It's a great opportunity for us. It's going to be an exciting event, going to be a great opportunity to be a part of something huge, to be the first golfer in a long time, anyway, to win a gold medal,” said Justin Rose, who is currently qualified to represent Great Britain next summer.



“It's going to have a lot going for it. Who knows, in 100 years’ time that might be the most sought-after achievement in golf.”

With just one year before the start of the Olympics, some of those unknowns are starting to crystallize, including what the fields for the men’s and women’s competitions may look like.

Each field will consist of 60 players from the Olympic Golf Rankings, which are based on the Official World Golf Ranking with countries (like the United States) having as many as four competitors if those players are ranked inside the top 15 in the world. If they are not in the top 15, countries are limited to two competitors.

Currently that field includes the game’s bestfrom world No. 1 Rory McIlroy to Jordan Spieth and Jason Day for the men; Inbee Park and Lexi Thompson for the women.

“It’s got the strength of the field which is what the IOC wanted. We also have maximum participation and diversity among the different countries,” Scanlon said. “Right now, we have 35 different countries for the women and 36 for the men, so we are ticking the boxes in terms of diversity and strength of field.”

Scanlon said the current field is similar to the diversity and strength of field for the Olympic tennis competitions, which would be the closest comparison with golf.

Until recently, the biggest concern for Scanlon and other members of the IGF has been the Olympic golf course, which endured numerous construction delays and legal challenges but seems to be back on schedule.

“We have all the grass down. It’s a fantastic design and we are coming up with what could potentially be a masterpiece,” he said. “We’re excited about it.”

Officials plan to play a test event on the course early next year. Although Scanlon said the IGF hasn’t finalized what the event will be, he did say an announcement should be made soon and that the IGF hopes it will include a number of “top professionals.”

For many of the potential athletes, however, there has been more interest in the Olympic village than the Gil Hanse-designed golf course.

In fact, Scanlon said the first question potential Olympic golfers ask him almost always involves the village.

“That’s the biggest question and all we can do is point them to other athletes who have done that,” said Scanlon, who added that it’s up to each country’s Olympic federation to decide where its athletes stay during the Games.

Golf got a taste of what it may be like next summer in Rio when the game made its first appearance in the Pan Am Games last month in Toronto.

A group of four American amateurs (two male and two female players) competed in the Pan Am Games, with Andrea Lee taking the silver medal for the U.S. in the women’s individual competition.

“It was very much a dry run for the Olympics,” said Andy Levinson, the executive director of USA Golf. “Getting to the city, working through security, staying in the athlete village, it was all very similar to what it will be like in the Olympics.”

The biggest distinction between the Olympics and last month’s Pan Am Games has also been one of the central points of contention for some. Unlike the format for the Rio Games, there was a mixed-team competition that combined the lowest male and female scores each day, with the United States winning the silver medal.

Next summer in Rio the event will only be a traditional 72-hole stroke-play format, a decision that has been criticized in some circles. But as Scanlon explained, golf’s return to the Olympics required a conservative approach.

“That [individual stroke play] was what the players wanted and the Olympic Games are not an event where you experiment. [The IOC] wanted a tried and true competition,” Scanlon said.

Scanlon said the IGF will meet with the IOC following next year’s Olympics to review the competition, including the format and any potential changes for the 2020 Games.

But that meeting, which will be held in July 2017, will have far greater implications than a possible format change. IOC officials will approve the sports for the 2024 Games at that gathering, which essentially means golf’s only chance to remain an Olympic competition beyond 2020 is next summer in Rio.

“We’ve got one opportunity to assure we deliver a great competition,” Scanlon said.

The one-year countdown to the Rio opening ceremony means many things to many people. For potential players, it’s a chance to start dreaming of Olympic gold. For Scanlon and the IGF, it’s one final push to make sure they get it right.

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Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 6:07 pm

An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.

It was too much “socializing.”

“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”

Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.

“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.

His plan for doing that?

“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

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Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.

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McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”