In some minds, Day could challenge Spieth for POY

By Rex HoggardSeptember 2, 2015, 3:43 pm

Before the first tee shot split the hot, humid air last week at Plainfield Country Club an informal poll of players seemed to quickly and quietly put to rest any thought of an actual race for this year’s PGA Tour Player of the Year Award.

“It’s [Jordan] Spieth, isn’t it?” Paul Casey shrugged when asked who would get his nod for Player of the Year. “There’s no one else even close, is there? He’s won like $11 million already, it’s obscene.”

Casey was hardly alone in his assessment of the 22-year-old’s season, which includes four Tour victories, two major triumphs (Masters and U.S. Open) and, actually, $10.3 million in earnings.

It only adds to Spieth’s legend that he finished a putt outside the playoff that was won by Zach Johnson at the Open Championship and beat everyone not named Jason Day at Whistling Straits on his way to one of the most dominant major championship seasons of the modern era.

Although players will not vote on the Player of the Year candidates until after the Tour Championship later this month, most of those polled at The Barclays figured the Tour could box up the Jack Nicklaus Award and send it along to Dallas, c/o Spieth and save the postage for ballots.

Some players, however, paused a moment when asked if there was anything that could transpire during the FedEx Cup Playoffs that could change their minds regarding the POY vote.

“If someone goes four in a row it could change, but it would have to be one of the top guys,” allowed Casey.

A top player like, say, Day? “I think if Jason won three out of four and the [FedEx Cup], I think you’d have to think about it,” Casey said.

While some players did allow for a late playoff run, last Wednesday that option seemed wildly farfetched.

“It’s got to be [Spieth] because of the two majors. I mean, Jason Day is close because of how well he played in the majors, but when you actually win two I don’t see how anyone else can take that from you,” Greg Owen said.

Now fast-forward four days to a slightly different reality.

On Sunday, Day cruised to his third Tour title in his last four starts, lapping contenders that included the likes of Henrik Stenson and Bubba Watson by six strokes. It was a field that no longer included Spieth, who missed his first cut since May.

In a tale of the tape, Spieth and Day’s seasons are not that dissimilar. The Australian also has four Tour titles, including his breakthrough major triumph last month at Whistling Straits.

Day also came within a putt at St. Andrews of making it into the playoff and began the final round at the U.S. Open tied for the lead before succumbing to the effects of vertigo at Chambers Bay.

By the time Day put the finishing touches on his victory at The Barclays on Sunday, Spieth’s landslide in the POY race had become something closer to a legitimate duel in some players’ minds.

“If Jason Day wins the FedEx Cup he is my Player of the Year,” Jason Bohn said on Sunday at Plainfield. “To win the FedEx Cup he’s had to win one of the events and to win this event [The Barclays] this is probably the strongest field in golf behind The Players. The Barclays in my opinion is the sixth major based on the strength of the field.”

As impressive as Day’s post-season victory was, the idea that he could clip Spieth at the wire for the Player of the Year hardware taps into a more esoteric debate regarding the importance of the post-season.

After eight years, the FedEx Cup playoffs appear to still be searching for an identity.

“What’s bigger, the playoffs or a major? If you win The Barclays does it count as a major, no? If Jason were to win three out of four playoff events and a major, maybe, but right now Jordan has it,” Owen said.

Rory McIlroy was in a similar position last season after winning two majors, as well as the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. The Northern Irishman failed to win the FedEx Cup, or a playoff event, but was voted Player of the Year in what, by most accounts (the Tour does not release vote totals), was a walkover.

That Billy Horschel, who won last year’s FedEx Cup, narrowly made it to the second post-season event after a relatively pedestrian year at least partially explains why McIlroy was such a clear-cut choice.

If Day continues to give the rank-and-file a reason to consider other options, Spieth may not have that same luxury.

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.