All Roads Lead to Vegas

By Rich LernerApril 25, 2003, 4:00 pm
Hooks and Cuts on Golfs Winding Trail, Part Three
 
Editor's Note: This is the final installment of a three-part Lerner's Journal, as Rich recounts his recent road trip covering the Masters, the Hootie & the Blowfish tournament and the LPGA in Las Vegas.
  • Part One, 'The King and His Scribes'
  • Part Two, 'A Cruel and Beautiful Game'
     
    Monday after the Masters found me back in Myrtle Beach, where Id started the journey eight days prior at the GWAA banquet.
     
    I was a bit groggy. After finishing our work at Augusta at nearly midnight Sunday, Kelly Tilghman and I drove 3 1/2 hours to her hometown of North Myrtle Beach.
     
    By mid-morning we were about to embark on a much different assignment'the annual Hootie and The Blowfish Celebrity Pro-Am, which will air as a one-hour special May 12th on The Golf Channel.
     
    Former Baltimore Raven lineman Tony Siragusa played, swinging the club, according to an amateur whod seen him, like a caveman killing his dinner.
     
    Super Bowl bad boy Jim McMahon couldnt think of a reason not to relieve himself just off the 13th hole. Someone suggested it be roped off as casual water. Looked more like a case of rub and tug of the green.
     
    John Daly entertained as usual. Before a sizable gallery on the first tee, he smashed his ball off the top of a coke can about 320 yards. He wore untied shoes, Bermuda shorts and an un-tucked shirt. John says in his home state of Arkansas that qualifies as a three piece suit.
     
    The day rolled like this for hours, the soothing sun and loose atmosphere the perfect way to begin to restore my tired mind and body.
     
    Then I hopped the 7:20 out of Myrtle Beach that night to Atlanta, and then another bird to take me to another kind of madness.
     
    Las Vegas.
     
    Talk about the powers of rejuvenation. What time was it anyway? Not far from sun up in the East, but Vegas loans you those three hours. I was more than happy to take em back, along with some hope and a little more cash than I usually withdraw from the ATM.
     
    Gambling at one time in my life held some excitement, back in college when Atlantic City was rising and wed make the trip from Philadelphia. But I dont have the patience for it any more.
     
    Either you have to commit to sitting for the long haul, diligently playing the percentages, hoping to outlast the house. Or, you have to throw caution to the wind and take a few chances, stepping up the bet, trying to hit a home run.
     
    As I said, I dont have the patience and most of the dealers I ran into in the brief 90 minutes I sat at the blackjack jack table at the Bellagio werent of the mind to give up any home runs to big swinging players. Matter of fact, they were a bit like Roger Clemens in that respect - hard to hit.
     
    Easier to read would be the LPGA Takefuji Classic, the reason my ticket said Las Vegas.
     
    The LPGA Tours getting better pub these days. Annikas been on Leno, The Today Show, 60 Minutes. Sports Illustrated even likes the buzz surrounding the circuit.
     
    But long term, after Annikas Colonial experiment is past, theyll need to keep the momentum alive.
     
    Most observers agree that the tour would get a giant boost if a young American could step forward in a significant and consistent manner. Laura Diaz has shown flashes, but shes not yet elite. Hopefuls like Natalie Gulbis and Beth Bauer are promising and look the part, but they havent even won yet.
     
    All the while, the Asians continue to assert themselves. Their names are everywhere in a single days telecast of an LPGA event. Their junior golf programs deliver, and the players on the whole are highly skilled, focused and determined.
     
    What they generally are not is overly emotional or outwardly ebullient. The language barrier makes interviews somewhat difficult. So ultimately, those two factors conspire, on occasion, to overshadow the brilliant golf. This is a form of television entertainment, after all.
     
    This is not in any way to be construed as a knock against the Asian players. This is not their issue. This is simply to say that this is the current state of affairs. This is to say that the powers that be at the tour would dearly love to see a fresh American player with the personality to match the game.
     
    I seem to recall it happened 25 years ago. Remember Nancy?
     
    Finally, the week at an end, Id begin my journey back to real life with simple goals. The first was to give up those three hours Id found on the way out.
     
    One way or the other, you always pay in Vegas.
  • 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.

    Getty Images

    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.

    Getty Images

    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.

    Getty Images

    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.