Woods' opening-round 70 includes 35 putts

By Rex HoggardJanuary 26, 2012, 12:02 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – In Australia it was a tip from Steve Stricker that set Tiger Woods right on the greens. He may want to place a call to whatever deer stand Stricker is holed up in for a follow-up after Thursday’s opening round at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Woods hit 17 of 18 greens on a calm, cool morning, needed 35 putts and signed for an opening 2-under 70 to begin his 2012 campaign that could have been much better had a few more putts dropped.

Woods missed birdie attempts from 5 and 3 feet at Nos. 13 and 18, respectively, to begin his round and didn’t miss a green, or make a putt over 4 feet, the rest of the way to finish three strokes behind Rory McIlroy, whom he was paired with on Thursday, and Robert Karlsson.

In Australia the problem was mechanical, but on Day 1 in Abu Dhabi the issue appeared to be material.

“Today I hit a lot of good putts, but I just didn’t read them well at all,” Woods said. “I really struggled with the speed and the reads. On some of the putts the grain snagged it hard and on other putts it didn’t move at all. I just had a hard time seeing it. I could see it at the hole, but I had a hard time seeing the blades and how they are laying.”

Woods also struggled on the greens at the Australian Open and early in the week at the Presidents Cup late last season, and that led Stricker to offer his frequent Ryder and Presidents Cup partner an impromptu tip.

Video: Tiger highlights from Round 1

Video: Reading greens trouble for Tiger

“He just had me move the ball back, basically,” said Woods, who continues to use the same Nike Method putter he finished last season with. “I was undercutting it and I couldn’t quite cover the golf ball like I wanted to, so he said just move it back a quarter of a ball. I did and I would start making the contact that I would want to make.”

About the only putts he made at December’s Chevron World Challenge came on the 71st and 72nd holes to clip Zach Johnson by a stroke and a textbook ball-striking round on Thursday, not to mention perfect scoring conditions, was derailed by pedestrian putting.

In short, if Gareth Maybin, your leader for much of the morning, putted for Woods on Thursday he would have posted 65. Instead, he’s three back and searching for answers.

“The problem is I just play (the ball) too far forward,” he said. “(Stricker) got me in a position and when I got to the World Challenge I just kept doing the same thing. I got back to my natural alignment with the ball back from where I had it. I was able to start seeing my lines.”

Still, if Woods was overly concerned with his 35-putt effort there were no signs of alarm as he bolted the property just past noon and even McIlroy, who rolled in numerous putts, including a winding 40-footer from off the green at the eighth hole for birdie, admitted he has been confused by Abu Dhabi’s grain in the past.

“I’ve always struggled to read the greens here,” McIlroy said. “There’s quite a lot of grain here but it’s not very apparent. The green doesn’t change color as much as they would in Florida.”

Even Woods’ driving, often his Achilles’ Heel under both Hank Haney and current swing coach Sean Foley, was nearly as flawless as the clear desert sky. He hit five of his last seven fairways and even his misses were manageable.

“I controlled it well all day. Probably the best tee shot I hit all day was on the first hole (No. 10). I didn’t think I could get to the bunker – it’s 310 (yards) to the bunker and it’s cold – and I got it in there,” said Woods, who consistently outdrove McIlroy and Luke Donald, the third member of the high-profile threesome. “I thought, ‘this is probably a good sign.’”

Following a seven-week break and what Woods called his first true offseason in perhaps a dozen years it was also a good sign that, despite his troubles with green and grain, he remained within a field goal of the lead at what will likely be the deepest field until February’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

It’s also a good sign that throughout myriad change in his life and game in recent years, Woods spent his offseason covering familiar ground on the practice greens. “I work on the same drills. Nothing changes. It’s the same drills I’ve worked on since I was 8 (years old),” he said.

It’s certainly a formula that’s worked in the past, but he may want to keep Stricker’s phone number close just in case.

Watch live coverage of Tiger Woods' second round beginning at 3AM ET Friday. Saturday and Sunday action airs live from 4-8AM ET.

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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.