Spieth looks Tiger-esque in latest dramatic win

By Rex HoggardJune 26, 2017, 1:00 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Chasing ghosts.

That’s how Jordan Spieth described his game plan this week at the Travelers Championship. It’s the 23-year-old’s unique way of setting benchmarks when you find yourself sleeping on leads and winning tournaments in wire-to-wire fashion.

“Kind of chase a ghost which is normally the goal when you're in the lead is chasing score, that can be more challenging than chasing somebody else down,” Spieth said.

But beyond the immediate day-to-day goals, Spieth’s career at this early juncture could also be considered in the same context.

With his dramatic hole-out from a greenside bunker at the first extra hole at TPC River Highlands, Spieth moved into some historically elite company on Sunday.

Comparisons to Tiger Woods are always wildly unfair, if not patently unfounded. Most will tell you Woods’ career line is unrealistic even for the modern game’s best, but with his 10th PGA Tour victory on Sunday, Tiger is now the only competition for Spieth in at least one race.

Spieth’s overtime triumph over Daniel Berger made him just the second player to win 10 events before turning 24. Woods won 15 times before his 24th birthday, a mark that is out of Spieth’s reach since he turns 24 on July 27, but considering the company he’s keeping at this point in his career, it’s impressive nonetheless.

Spieth isn’t Tiger, but his performance at the Travelers Championship was unquestionably Tiger-esque.

“He’s going to hit it to 20 feet and make the putt. You know why?” asked Ryan Palmer as he watched the final dramatic moments. “Because Tiger would have made it.”

To be clear, Palmer – a regular practice round partner of Spieth’s and his partner earlier this year at the Zurich Classic – isn’t suggesting that Spieth is the next Tiger Woods. Nor is he insinuating that he’s destined for a similar career. But in the big moments, moments like Sunday at the Travelers, there is a quality that can only be compared to the 14-time major champion.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Spieth didn’t hit his approach to 20 feet at the 72nd hole as Palmer had predicted. Instead, he came up short from 115 yards in a greenside bunker and blasted out to 3 feet before making the par putt to finish at 12 under par.

The moment Palmer predicted came at the first extra hole against Berger after Spieth clipped a tree off the tee and ended up in the same bunker in two shots. This time, Spieth’s blast from the bunker dropped short of the hole, bounced once and trundled into the cup for an unlikely and dramatic birdie.

“He has that it factor,” Palmer said. “You watch the moments, he goes through struggles and he fights back. Not many guys can hit that shot out of the bunker [on the 72nd hole]. It was gutsy. The shot out [during the playoff] was destiny.”

It was the sixth playoff on Tour for Spieth and his fourth victory, an impressive clip made even more so by a game that wasn’t exactly perfect on Sunday.

After starting the day with a one-stroke lead, Spieth pulled away with back-to-back birdies at Nos. 1 and 2 and made the turn with a two-stroke advantage despite hitting just four fairways on the opening loop.

But Spieth bogeyed the 12th hole and added another at the 14th to drop into a tie with Berger. The two exchanged birdies at the 17th (Berger) and 15th (Spieth) holes to set the stage for the dramatic playoff.

But if the 2017 Travelers Championship is remembered for Spieth’s hole-out at the 73rd hole, the champion took solace in how he handled his emotions on a day when things weren’t exactly going his way.

“As we went from 15 to 16, and I could see Daniel, and I knew where I stood and I watched him kind of make that putt on 17, I would have been very pleased with my body language, which is very important,” said Spieth, who closed with a 70.

Berger, who began the day three strokes behind Spieth, could say the same thing after a final-round 67 that began with a bogey at his opening hole and an even-par opening loop.

As is almost always the case at this event, however, the closing nine produced plenty of dramatics - with birdies at Nos. 13, 15 and 17 for Berger to force overtime.

“I played great today. I played the playoff hole great,” Berger said. “He hit an unbelievable bunker shot, and Jordan does Jordan things. So there's not really much you can say. I'm obviously disappointed, but happy to be in the position I was in today.”

As players huddled around the television in the TPC River Highlands locker room to watch the finish, there was an anticipation that harkened back to the Tiger era.

“Wouldn't be surprised if [Spieth] just holed this bunker shot,” Justin Thomas tweeted moments before the game winner; and Boo Weekley, who began the day a stroke behind Spieth and paired with him in the day’s final group, watched in stunned silence.

“He holed out?” Weekley asked. When reminded that Spieth nearly did the same thing on the 72nd hole, Weekley frowned, “I know, I was there.”

Spieth isn’t Tiger Woods, but he can certainly create a moment to remember much like the guy in the red shirt.

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 a trip to Augusta.

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).

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.

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.