A tale of two years for McDowell and Woods

By Rex HoggardDecember 6, 2010, 6:24 am

Chevron World ChallengeTHOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – For the second time in just over a year Tiger Woods rode a commanding lead into Sunday and for the second time he spit up that advantage to a scrappy challenger. That’s where the similarities between the 2009 PGA Championship and 2010 Chevron World Challenge end.

Woods, the competitor, will stew on that reality until he sinks a peg in his next PGA Tour tee next year at Torrey Pines. For Woods, the comeback, Sunday at Sherwood Country Club was nothing short of one giant leap in the right direction, one small step for rebuilt legacies.

That it was Graeme McDowell doing the chasing only added to a script already rich with storylines. For Woods and G-Mac it’s been a tale of two vastly different years.

It was 12 months ago that McDowell was holed up in a Los Angeles hotel room, fresh from China, waiting to hear the news that he would replace Woods – embattled by a scandal that had erupted just days earlier – in the 18-man field. 

Tiger Woods
All that was missing from Tiger on Sunday was a trophy. (Getty Images)

From there one would go on to a career year, win a major, the Ryder Cup and exceed all expectations. The other was Woods.

Seems about right then that for two SoCal days it was the prince and the punch line, one happily closing out 2010, the other still waiting to exhale.

“2010 has been the stuff of dreams, I’m not sure why,” said McDowell, who began Sunday four strokes back, closed with 69 and holed 55 feet of putts over his last three holes to clip the host. “It felt like a year like this one was coming, but obviously a script like this is amazing.”

Fitting that McDowell’s journey, which began and ended in Tinseltown, would be categorically rejected by the Hollywood establishment – too farfetched even for the City of Angels.

McDowell’s climb started when he replaced Woods in last year’s Chevron field, finished second to Jim Furyk to crack the top 50 in the World Ranking and never looked back.

Even on Sunday at Sherwood McDowell was at ease with whatever the golf gods had in store for him. “I figured he had more to lose then I did. Whatever happened I was going to have a cold beer tonight,” he said.

The Northern Irishman lives in Orlando, Fla., but considering his SoCal record of late he may want to consider property in the other Orange County. Following his runner-up last year at Chevron he won the U.S. Open up the coast at Pebble Beach and Sunday’s shootout makes him 2-for-3 on the Left Coast.

McDowell want so far as to compare his final-round play at the Chevron to the U.S. Open and Ryder Cup – dubbing his 20 footer at the 72nd hole to force extra holes and 30 footer to clip Woods in extra frames the “two greatest putts I’ve ever made.”

That’s not to mention the 5 footer he made from Ventura after airmailing the 17th green and scrambling for bogey to keep pace with Woods.

Not that McDowell’s heroics at No. 17 looked as if they would matter when Woods carved his 8-iron approach shot to the 72nd green off a hanging lie to 2 feet. It was quintessential Woods, fist pump and all, and will help validate the world No. 2’s ongoing swing change with Sean Foley.

“The shot I hit at 18 in regulation, especially after struggling in the middle part of the round when I wasn’t swinging very good, was something,” said Woods, who closed with a 73, his only over-par card of the week, for a 16-under total. “When I needed it the most it was there. That’s a good feeling.”

Even in the playoff Woods split the middle of the fairway and hit a similar approach shot to 12 feet only to come up one clutch putt short.

For Woods, the Chevron was a “silly season” event in name only. The host needed this one, not for the Tiger Woods Foundation or even to get off the victory schnied, but for his own piece of mind heading into the off season.

Just ask his stable mates. As Woods rehearsed his swing to the last hole in regulation Hunter Mahan, another Foley charge, watched intently.

“Under pressure to do that, wow,” Mahan said. “You can tell a win means a lot right now.”

The OT loss will linger for Woods. They all do, it’s in the DNA. And on Sunday the man who has preached “baby steps” since he started working with Foley at this year’s PGA wasn’t enamored with the long view, but the progress is unmistakable.

“It was an excellent week I thought,” Foley said. “Tee to green was great. We just have to keep working hard and smart.”

Woods’ runner-up, his best finish of the year, combined with Lee Westwood’s runaway, eight-stroke victory at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa guarantees that Woods will finish the year No. 2 in the World Ranking.

It will mark the first time since 2004 someone not named Eldrick finished a calendar atop the mathematical mantel. Either way, Woods would have only been renting the space and would have gotten the boot before the end of the year because of the math.

Still, there was progress. Solid ballstriking, missing for much of the season, returned. As did the twirl, Woods’ signature move following good shots that had been MIA. Asked the last time he enjoyed so many twirls Woods could only laugh, “Usually it's pointing which way the ball is going to go, incoming somewhere.”

Now it seems Woods’ game is finally going somewhere.

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Defending champ Gana co-leads Latin America Amateur

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 11:20 pm

Toto Gana moved into early position to try to win a return trip to the Masters Saturday by grabbing a share of the first-round lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship.

The defending champ posted a 3-under-par 68 at Prince of Wales Country Club in his native Chile, equaling the rounds of Argentina’s Mark Montenegro and Colombia’s Pablo Torres.

They are one shot ahead of Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz and Mario Carmona, Argentina’s Horacio Carbonetti and Jaime Lopez Rivarola and the Dominican Republic’s Rhadames Pena.

It’s a bunched leaderboard, with 19 players within three shots of each at the top of the board in the 72-hole event.

“I think I have my game under control,” said Gana, 20, a freshman at Lynn University. “I hit the ball very well, and I also putted very well. So, I am confident about tomorrow.”

The LAAC’s champion will get more than a Masters invitation. He also will be exempt into the The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event he is eligible to play this year. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

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LAAC returning to Casa de Campo in 2019

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 8:23 pm

The Latin America Amateur Championship will return to Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic in 2019 (Jan. 17-20), event organizers announced Saturday in Chile, where this year’s championship is underway.

The LAAC champion receives an invitation to play the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club every spring.

The champion is also exempt into The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event for which he is eligible to compete. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The championship got its start in 2015 with Chile’s Matias Dominguez winning at Pilar Golf in Argentina. In 2016, Casa de Campo hosted, with Costa Rica’s Paul Chaplet winning. At 16, he became the first player from Central America to compete in the Masters. In 2017, Chile’s Toto Gana won the title at  Club de Golf de Panama.

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Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 6:07 pm

An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.

It was too much “socializing.”

“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”

Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.

“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.

His plan for doing that?

“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.