'Overrated' Fowler has last laugh in furious finish

By Rex HoggardMay 11, 2015, 2:00 am

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The most overrated player, at least according to a recent player poll, outdueled arguably the game’s most little-known player and the undisputed most complex player to win the PGA Tour’s biggest title.

Not bad for a tournament virtually devoid of the type of leaderboard that normally makes headlines heading into Sunday’s final turn.

A day that began with more questions then answers with 30 players within five strokes of the lead ended with an exclamation point that could be heard all the way to South Florida.

Rickie Fowler, who along with Ian Poulter was voted the game’s most overrated player in a recent player poll on Golf.com, rallied from three strokes down to begin Sunday at The Players with a bold stretch to finish his round and what could only be described as a brash performance in a playoff that stretched to dusk.

“Going into the playoff, it was almost like nothing to lose,” said Fowler, who defeated Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner on the fourth extra hole with his sixth birdie of the week on the iconic 17th hole. “I was out of the golf tournament through 12 holes today, and we managed to fight our way back in.”

Fowler began his charge with a birdie at the 13th hole in regulation, although he said it was a clutch par at No. 12 that set things in motion. He would play the Stadium Course’s final six holes in 6 under par, including an eagle at No. 16, to grab the clubhouse lead.

After that he watched and waited. He waited for more than an hour as potential challengers ebbed and flowed before two (Garcia and Kisner) matched his total and two (Ben Martin and Bill Haas) came up just short.

The Players Championship: Articles, videos and photos

At one point it appeared officials would have to go with a split-tee start for the playoff. There hadn’t been this much uncertainty in Ponte Vedra Beach since the Tour initiated testing for performance-enhancing drugs in 2008.

In the first aggregate, three-hole playoff in Players history, Fowler and Kisner birdied the second overtime hole (No. 17) and finished tied at 1 under par, a stroke clear of Garcia. At the first sudden-death playoff hole (No. 17) Fowler hit his tee shot to 4 feet and converted the birdie putt for his second Tour victory in his 142nd career start.

That’s three tee shots at No. 17 all within 7 feet for birdie ... in the same day.

Not bad for a guy who received 24 percent of the vote as the game’s most overrated player, a dig that fueled Fowler, who was already trending in an impressive direction.

Although Fowler had been reluctant to dwell publicly on the poll this week, when asked if he thought it gave his man extra motivation, caddie Joe Skovron conceded the obvious, “I’m sure it did. It’s always going to.”

The victory moved Fowler into the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking and sets the table for a potential “Big Three” in golf with Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy fresh off similarly high-profile victories.

Kisner’s climb will not be nearly as meteoric, but his runner-up showing will elevate the little-known player’s status beyond golf circles. In the last month he’s played six playoff holes in 2 under par and is 0-for-2 in that stretch.

At last month’s RBC Heritage, Kisner birdied the first extra hole against Jim Furyk but lost that overtime frame with a par at the second.

“[Fowler] was 8 under in the last 10 holes?” Kisner asked. “That’s pretty good. Feel like what I did at Hilton Head and still didn’t win. Golf is a hard and cruel game.”

There was no need to remind Garcia of that truth.

For the week, El Nino battled through two putting grips and two different putters, one of which ended up in the garbage can, but came up short in his quest for his second Players title.

For a time, it appeared Garcia had finally been saved by his putting, a line your scribe never thought we would pen, with a 43-footer for birdie at No. 17 to move to 12 under. To put that in context, his longest putt for his previous 70 holes had been 27 feet.

But in the playoff, the Spaniard missed from 16 feet, 38 feet and 18 feet and had no interest in silver linings following his near miss.

“It’s just, that’s the way it is,” said Garcia, who closed with a 68. “Some days you feel better with the game, some days you don’t.”

It’s a unique level of perspective that Fowler could relate to. Characterized in some circles for a perceived lack of toughness and an inability to “close,” he turned to swing coach Butch Harmon in December 2013 and was the only player to finish in the top five in each of the four majors in 2014.

Still, the questions persisted and seemed to reach a crescendo as word spread about the player poll. Although Fowler has never shied away from the media spotlight, the 26-year-old seemed uncomfortable with the narrative. There is, after all, no easy way to deny being overrated without sounding overrated.

That is, until Sunday.

“I laughed at the poll,” Fowler said Sunday at TPC Sawgrass. “If there was any question, I think this right here [Players trophy] answers anything you need to know.”

He also solidified all one needs to know about The Players. Historically the Tour’s grand soiree has been won by the player who fist-pumps last on the 17th hole. The only difference this year is it took three trips to the island green.

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.