Woods, McIlroy leave Abu Dhabi with more questions than answers

By Rex HoggardJanuary 18, 2013, 5:38 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Ubiquitous building-sized posters across Abu Dhabi proclaimed this the week “When Giants Returned.” The European Tour’s desert swing opener was billed as the unofficial start of 2013, the week when Tiger and Rory embark on the game’s next great rivalry.

But as darkness rapidly descended on the desert, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy were unceremoniously embarking to their respective next ports of call. For Woods that’s Torrey Pines and his PGA Tour debut. For McIlroy it’s home to south Florida, or perhaps Australia to support better half Caroline Wozniacki.

Both, however, will spend the long hours to points beyond searching for answers.

For Woods it’s a simple question of mistaken identity. His wayward tee shot at the fifth hole on Friday was supposed to be wedged into a plugged lie – playing partner Martin Kaymer confirmed it as such in quick order. But it turns out the world No. 2 had himself an unplayable lie, so instead of a free drop and a grinding back-nine 34 that the world thought kept him inside the cut by a shot, he was told to add two and travel safe.

“It was tough because I didn’t get off to a very good start today and I fought and got it back,” Woods said of the two-stroke penalty he was informed of by officials after his round. “I was right there and I felt that if I had closed to even par I had a chance going into the weekend. Evidently, it wasn’t enough.”

Video: Tiger takes illegal drop

Video: Woods discusses rules infraction

Before we micro-analyze Woods’ bad drop consider that Kaymer took less than 10 seconds to confirm the ball was indeed plugged and, under the Rules of Golf, he was entitled to relief without a penalty.

Also consider that after initially reviewing the area where Woods’ tee shot at the fifth ended up, a European Tour rules official came to the same conclusion. It wasn’t until later that the official began second guessing the drop and the wheels of justice began moving.

“Tiger called me over and said, ‘Is it embedded?’” Kaymer said. “I said, ‘I think so.’ He just wanted to check and it was embedded and then I walked away.”

This was an honest mistake, pure and simple. Happens all the time in golf, just not that often to Woods, who signed for second-round 75 after the penalty was added to his card and missed the cut by a stroke.

Best guess is as Woods wings his way to Torrey Pines for next week’s start, it won’t be his mishandling of the drop on No. 5 that keeps him awake. He has bigger items to lament, including the fact he hit less than 40 percent of Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s fairways in two days (11 of 28), a little more than half its greens in regulation (19 of 36) and had 58 putts.

It all sounded like more of a spring training card then what we’ve come to expect from Woods in his debuts.

“I didn’t hit it particularly well. I putted great but just didn’t hit it very good,” said Woods, who missed a cut in a regular European Tour event for the first time in his career. “I was struggling with that . . . I have some work to do.”

Still, as Woods headed out of town it seemed the only thing he really needed was a return to the friendly confines of Torrey Pines, which he hasn’t played since 2011 and where he has seven victories including the historic 2008 U.S. Open.

High crosswinds and narrow fairways were the culprit on Day 1 when he carded an even-par 72, while Friday’s card featured a spirited finish that included three birdies over his final five holes. And that was after officials informed him walking off the 11th green that there could be an issue with the drop on No. 5.

McIlroy on the other hand may be doing a tad more soul searching.

With a bag full of new equipment and Monday’s rock show announcement that he was joining the Nike Golf fold behind him, the Ulsterman proceeded to post pedestrian rounds of 75 and kick-started his career with the Swoosh with a last-minute audible to switch back to his old Titleist Scotty Cameron putter for Round 2.

Nike Golf did not disclose the fine print of its new deal with McIlroy and it seems likely there are addendums penciled into the deal that would allow him to make such a move. But if that is the case then why not ease into the new bag from the outset?

It took Woods the better part of a decade to play his way into all 14 Nike clubs, with the last piece (the putter) falling into place at the 2010 British Open. It seems like a similarly languid pace would have been prudent for McIlroy.

Besides, he enjoyed only slightly better results with the old model (30 putts) then he did with the new one (31).

Video: McIlroy talks putter switch

“The greens that I’ve been practicing on in Florida are a lot faster than these,” McIlroy said. “The Nike putter is great on that. But then getting here it’s just a weight issue more than anything else. I can feel the head of this one I used today a little bit better. On fast greens, the (Nike putter) works fine.”

Perhaps the old driver would have worked better on wider fairways.

“Fore left!” McIlroy barked as his final tee shot of the day sailed into the gallery adjacent the 18th hole. It was a common theme in Abu Dhabi, where he connected with just 13 of 28 fairways for two days, and probably McIlroy’s primary concern more so than a last-minute putter switch.

Both players bolt the Middle East with more questions than answers, but for the suddenly thin marquee one thing is for certain – Rory v. Tiger may be poised to move to the next level, preferably on a major championship Sunday, just not this week.

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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.