Open coming down to Mickelson, Stenson

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2016, 7:48 pm

TROON, Scotland – At the risk of offending the other 79 players remaining at Royal Troon, Sunday’s finale will be a two-man act.

Sure, Phil Mickelson can always have, well ... a Phil moment; and Henrik Stenson remains a quirky Swede desperately looking to crack the major ceiling for the first time.

It’s always dicey making the early call, particularly at a major where a single gust of wind off the Firth of Clyde can ruin one’s day, but this 145th Open has become a two-ball. The other 79 will make the rounds on Sunday, but barring a Van de Velde-like meltdown Mickelson and Stenson will have the run of the place.

Rory McIlroy knew it. “Henrik and Phil are sort of playing their own tournament right now,” the Northern Irishman said following a 73 on Sunday that left him a dozen strokes adrift of the lead.

Jordan Spieth even conceded he plans to use Sunday’s final turn as a tuneup for the PGA Championship in two weeks.

“I’ll try to take momentum tomorrow, but understanding that we're going to be working towards the PGA now,” said Spieth, who was 17 shots back when a blustery day drew to a close.

Even Stenson, who got the best of Lefty on Day 3 with a 68 to grab a one-stroke lead over Mickelson, allowed what everyone else with an internet connection and a passing interest sensed.

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“As of now you’d think it’s a battle between Phil and myself,” said Stenson, who briefly took the lead early on the front nine on Saturday and pulled away for good with a birdie at the 17th hole and finished at 12 under par.

In fact, it seems the only person who wasn’t willing to buy into the notion of a two-man show was Mickelson.

Asked if he considered Sunday’s final pairing a match-play setting, Mickelson was concise, “No, not at all.”

But then the southpaw has been here before. Literally he’s been here, at Royal Troon, in a similar position only to watch the engraver etch Todd Hamilton’s name into the claret jug.

Mickelson began the final round in 2004 along the Ayrshire coast two strokes off the lead and finished one shot out of a playoff between Hamilton and Ernie Els.

This week, after two days of “easy” golf, the game’s most eclectic left-hander endured a game that, at least early in his round, was downright hard.

Mickelson said his rhythm abandoned him early in Round 3, the byproduct of a helping wind on the outward loop and a closer’s desire to put the competition away as quickly as possible.

“I was a little bit jumpy and my rhythm wasn't very good today,” Mickelson said. “Today could have been a day that got away from me, instead I shot under par and kept myself right in it heading into tomorrow's final round, so I'm proud of that.”

By the time he reached the turn, however, Lefty rediscovered his touch for a 1-under 70 to assure a late afternoon pairing with Stenson at 11 under par.

Although Phil was reluctant to allow himself the luxury of a mano-y-mano match with Stenson, the bright yellow leaderboard told a different story.

No one is closer to the two leading men than five strokes (Bill Haas), and the only players with any real experience on a major Sunday are Sergio Garcia (2 under) and Dustin Johnson (1 under).

That’s not to say Sunday’s matinee will be devoid of the kind of give and take that makes major championships so compelling, at least if Saturday’s bout was any indication.

Mickelson pulled two strokes clear of Stenson with a 30-footer for birdie at the 13th hole, rattling off fist pumps like he was at his beloved San Diego Chargers’ season opener.

But within a 40-minute window there were a pair of dramatic two-stroke exchanges, first at the 14th when Mickelson three-putted, missing a 3-footer for par, and Stenson rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt; followed by another at the 17th when the Swede converted from 20 feet for birdie and Lefty posted his second bogey of the day.

“On 14 without making birdie you don't know how it's going to finish up, but the one on 17 certainly put me in front and gave me that little edge going into tomorrow,” Stenson said. “I've always been of the thought that it's better to be one ahead than one behind, because that means Phil's got to play better than I do tomorrow.”

On paper, another Open title for Mickelson would do little to further Lefty’s legacy other than to spike the sale of binder clips as makeshift hat fasteners, but on second brush the context of the accomplishment would be remarkable.

At 46, Mickelson would be about a month younger than Jack Nicklaus when he won the 1986 Masters to set the standard for timeless accomplishment in golf.

It’s been three years, exactly, since Lefty last won on the PGA Tour and he’d drifted so far from his normal form that Jay Haas had to make him a captain’s pick for last year’s Presidents Cup.

But then age is a relative ideal in golf today and 40-something champions are not exactly unheard of in the modern game.

“I'm 25 pounds lighter, I'm in better shape, I'm physically stronger than I was. I feel better and I'm playing well, now that my swing is back on plane,” he said. “I'm starting to hit some shots like I did 10 years ago and starting to play some of my best golf again.”

Whether it would hold the same historical significance as Jack in ’86 is a debate for another day. What isn’t up for debate with 18 holes remaining at Royal Troon is that this is now officially a two-man race. 

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Rahm beats Landry in playoff to win CareerBuilder

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:00 am

John Rahm birdied the fourth extra hole Sunday to defeat Andrew Landry in a playoff, win the CareerBuilder Challenge, and moved to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Here’s how things played out in overtime at PGA West:

Leaderboard: Rahm (-22), Landry (-22), John Huh (-20), Adam Hadwin (-20), Martin Piller (-20), Kevin Chappell (-19), Scott Piercy (-19)

What it means:

This is Rahm’s second PGA Tour win and his fourth worldwide victory in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. Rahm took the early lead Thursday with an opening 62 and after rounds of 67-70, he started the final round two back. On Sunday, he made five birdies without dropping a single shot on the intimidating Stadium Course. In the clubhouse at 22 under, Rahm watched as Landry made birdie on 18 to force a playoff. Rahm had missed birdie putts that would have ended the tournament on the final hole of regulation and on each playoff hole. Finally, on his fourth trip down 18, his birdie bid found the cup.. With the victory, Rahm passes Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, trailing only Dustin Johnson. He enters next week at Torrey Pines looking to defend for the first time.

Best of the rest:

A two-time winner playing his second full season on the PGA Tour, Landry shot 68 Sunday, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force extras. Once Rahm finally made birdie on the fourth playoff hole, Landry's putt slid by on the right side of the hole. This is his best career finish on the PGA Tour. Had he won, he would have secured full Tour status through the 2019-20 season and earned invites to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championships.

Round of the day:Sam Saunders fired an 8-under 64 to register this best finish of the season, a tie for eighth at 18 under. The reigning Tour Championship winner was 9 under par through 12 holes before making bogey at 13 and parring his way into the clubhouse.

Biggest disappointment: Overnight leader Austin Cook was eyeing his second win of the season but never contended. The RSM champion carded two double bogeys Sunday en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him from the 54-hole lead to a tie for 14th.

Shot of the day: Rahm's putt to win:

Quote of the day:

"One of us had to do it and either one of us would have been a well-deserving champion." - Rahm on
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.