Amateur hour: The kids are all right

By Ryan LavnerMarch 15, 2016, 7:33 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Few stories capture the imagination of golf fans quite like an amateur contending in a professional event, but these days there’s more than just the underdog appeal.

Sure, the amateurs still have the lively interactions with the crowd, the charming personalities, the mismatched wardrobes and the university stand bags.

But they can’t be so easily dismissed anymore. The kids have proven over the past few years that they’re here to compete.

Let’s put this recent stretch in perspective:

It’s been 25 years since a 20-year-old Phil Mickelson won as an amateur on the PGA Tour. Two decades after Lefty’s victory in Tucson, only two players – Justin Rose (1998) and Chris Wood (2008) – earned top-five finishes on Tour as amateurs.

Over the past two seasons, three players have accomplished the feat, most recently Georgia senior Lee McCoy, who finished fourth last week at the Valspar Championship. That group doesn’t even include Oklahoma State senior Jordan Niebrugge, who had arguably the most impressive performance, a tie for sixth at last year’s Open Championship. He was one of three amateurs who finished in the top 20; Paul Dunne, a month removed from competing in the NCAA Championship, shared the 54-hole lead at St. Andrews, the youngest player to hold that position at the Open since 1927.

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There are several reasons for this explosion of amateur success.

Technology has helped level the playing field. Coaching, fitness and competition have never been better. And the courses they play in college are Tour-caliber, set up like a major to protect par. Tournament directors also have paid attention to the influx of young talent, with an increasing number of officials – from the Travelers, John Deere and Puerto Rico, in particular – extending a spot to top up-and-comers instead of aging warriors who haven’t been competitive in years.

Why there hasn’t been another amateur winner – the fourth in Tour history – has been harder to pinpoint.

“It’s most likely because they don’t train at the same level as professionals and they don’t have the mindset as professionals,” Illinois coach Mike Small said. “How many Tour events did Tiger Woods play as an amateur (14)? If he didn’t win any, it would be hard for anyone else to.

“But almost the minute he turned pro, he won, which makes me thinkthat the mindset and expectations are huge factors in the ability to close the deal. Closing the deal is very difficult in these times because more professionals are more prepared than ever before.”

This recent run by the amateurs began with Arizona State’s Jon Rahm at the 2015 Phoenix Open, when he tied for fifth. Five months later, at the Tour’s opposite-field Barbasol Championship, Alabama’s Robby Shelton was among the leaders on the back nine before tying for third.

The latest star turn came last week in Tampa, when the 22-year-old McCoy, playing in his hometown tournament, outplayed Jordan Spieth on Sunday and finished fourth, three shots out of a playoff.

“You would have thought he was out here for years,” Spieth said afterward.

McCoy has never been short on confidence, but he epitomizes the current crop of young players who are fearless, hungry and motivated. Their expectations have shifted, from relishing an opportunity to play alongside the world’s best to trying to beat them.

“Back in the day when I was playing, I was like, Oh, I’m just happy to make the cut, especially as an amateur playing in a professional event back in Australia,” world No. 3 Jason Day said. “But these guys are talking about winning. It’s not that easy, but these guys, they’ve got that fearless approach and they’re talking about winning tournaments.”

It also helps when the top-ranked player on the planet is Spieth, who is already a two-time major winner at age 22. Had the Texan graduated, he would only be a year removed from college. That means many of the top players coming through now competed against Spieth on the junior and amateur level – and probably beat him a time or two.

“You have to praise the young guys on Tour who have helped the current collegians have the confidence that a young player, pro or amateur, can go out and contend or win,” Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton said.

The copycat effect was very real for Bryson DeChambeau, who watched in 2012 as rookie Derek Ernst – who had attended the same high school in Clovis, Calif. – won at Quail Hollow at age 22. At the time, DeChambeau was only a freshman at SMU, but “that was inspiring to me, because I knew it could be possible. It’s an accumulation of all these amateurs playing well that gives all of us confidence.” Last fall, he tied for second in a pro event in Australia.

Stanford junior Maverick McNealy doesn’t need to search hard for inspiration this week at Bay Hill. Two weeks ago, the reigning NCAA player of the year teed it up alongside McCoy for the first two rounds of a college event in Cabo. McNealy said Tuesday he wasn’t surprised at all by his friend’s success on Tour – McCoy was striping it and beat him by five that week.

But McNealy is unlike many of his ultra-talented peers in that he doesn’t arrive here expecting to contend. He concedes that every aspect of a pro tournament – the crowds, the rough, the greens, the hole locations – is still a step outside of his “comfort zone.”  

“But it’s really powerful to come out here with no expectations,” he said, “and just expect that I’m going to have a lot of fun and do my best and in terms of confidence, that’s the best I can do for myself.”

A different mentality, yes, but it could lead to another big week for the amateurs.

At this point, it wouldn’t rate as a surprise.

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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.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.