Race to Dubai changes may discourage player participation

By Rex HoggardOctober 23, 2013, 5:42 pm

Early in the FedEx Cup era some scribes took to calling the PGA Tour’s transition to a faux post-season the Fix-it Cup because of the ongoing alterations to the format and formulas.

From point alterations to resets, the Tour found itself trying to please everyone. So when European Tour officials decided to overhaul its Final Series, a four-event, end-of-the-year run modeled after the FedEx Cup, it seemed likely they would fall into the same trap door. But if early reviews of the Final Series’ new format are any indication, the European circuit has succeeded in pleasing few.

To be fair, officials set out to create a system that would assure player participation in as many post-season events as possible – which would definitely please the sponsors of the four events. But the end result is a Draconian system that may actually alienate some top players.

“I think it has been dreadfully thought through,” said International Sports Management’s Chubby Chandler, whose clients include a who’s-who list of European Tour players including Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke and Charl Schwartzel. “They are making it more difficult to play (the Final Series).”

Chandler had just spent the better part of a dinner explaining the new format to Schwartzel last week when contacted by GolfChannel.com so he’d come by his frustration honestly.

In order to qualify for the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai next month, players must play two of the three Final Series events, which begin this week at the BMW Masters in China, leading up to the finale.

That creates a scheduling pile up for players like Schwartzel, who has already played 24 global events this year including all four FedEx Cup Playoff events and the Presidents Cup.

“He has had a horrific run and wants to play (the Turkish Airlines Open) and Dubai but they won’t let him play Dubai unless he plays two of the three before it,” Chandler said.

Schwartzel’s fix is hardly unique. Many of the European Tour’s top players, including Sergio Garcia, face significant schedule alterations if they are going to play the finale in Dubai.

It also doesn’t help that the limited-field WGC-HSBC Champions, the second leg of the Final Series, is co-sanctioned with the PGA Tour. Which means players who qualified for the Final Series, the top 110 from a season-long points list, are not assured a spot in the HSBC field.

“If you are not in the top 20 in the world or so you’re not going to know if you are in some of those events until the last minute,” said Rocky Hambric, president of Hambric Sports Management. “How can you hold someone to that kind of standard? You have to play two out of three and you may not be in one of them.”

Players like Mikko Ilonen (20th on the Race for Dubai list), Thorbjorn Olesen (No. 24) and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (35th) are all deep in the Race for Dubai but currently not in the field next week at the HSBC.

Imagine if Steve Stricker, who finished the 2013 regular season 20th on the FedEx Cup points list, wasn’t allowed to play the BMW Championship but had to participate in The Barclays and Deutsche Bank Championship just to earn a trip to East Lake.

“They do not have the qualifications correct for the HSBC is the problem,” Chandler said.

To complicate matters even more, some players outside the top 110 on the Race for Dubai can still compete in some of the post-season events, like American phenom Brooks Koepka who was exempt into this week’s BMW Masters, but their earnings would not count toward qualifying for the DP World Tour Championship.

“His money wasn’t going to count, so the European Tour changed their rules and encouraged him to stay in the U.S. and play,” said Hambric of Koepka, who tied for third at the Frys.com Open two weeks ago.

Confused yet?

And if all this sounds like administrative minutia, consider that the top finishers on the season-ending Race for Dubai list qualify for some of the game’s biggest events, like the WGC-Cadillac Championship (top 20), and under the new system the European circuit has started a 20-percent bonus pool for players who participate in all four Final Series events which could skew the final list.

Fundamentally, the European Tour’s new system will likely strengthen the Final Series fields. Some players seemed content to simply add to their schedules rather than miss the finale.

“Some of the new policies on the European Tour, where you have to play certain events leading up to Dubai, (but) you also get a 20-percent hike, so you would probably want to do that,” said Luke Donald, who is 60th on the points list.

But at what cost?

“Even the FedEx Cup doesn’t work like that. If you don’t play Barclays or BMW you can still play (the Tour Championship as long as you are in the top 30 in points),” Chandler said. “Go to Adam Scott and ask, ‘What can we do?’ That’s how they should be doing it. Instead they are making it more difficult.”

In the short term, European officials have, in theory, created a better product, but strong-arm tactics and a confusing post-season lineup could tip the delicate balance for players who ply their trade on both sides of the transatlantic divide. And that’s not good for the tour or its sponsors.

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.