Finally, DJ shakes the monkey off his back

By Ryan LavnerJune 20, 2016, 4:08 am

OAKMONT, Pa. – Of the many ways Dustin Johnson has lost a major championship – poor decisions, untimely swings, rotten luck, even head-scratching negligence – this U.S. Open had the potential to be the most soul-crushing.

Yes, there was the self-immolation at Pebble Beach.

And the inadvertent grounding of his club in a Whistling Straits bunker.

And the shank out of bounds at Royal St. George’s.

And the three-putt on the bumpy 18th green at Chambers Bay.

But for golf’s most gifted and cursed star, none of those blunders compared with what transpired Sunday at Oakmont during one of the most bizarre final rounds in major-championship history.

After all of Johnson's stumbles, now there was a disputed ruling that left players wondering where they stood on the back nine of a major?

“Just one more thing to add to the list, right?” he said with a smile late Sunday. “It’s nothing new at this point. It’s happened so many times, I’ve kind of come to expect it now.”

Yet this time, the outcome was different. This time, a four-shot deficit, an on-the-edge setup and a controversial decision by the USGA didn’t stop Johnson in his ill-fated pursuit of that elusive major. This time, the very attribute for which he is most often criticized – a lack of mental fortitude – was the reason why he closed out this 116th U.S. Open amid the most unusual circumstances.

“To finally get it done on Sunday in a major, it’s a huge monkey off my back,” he said. “I’ve put myself in this position many times, and to get it done is definitely sweet.”

After the recent near misses, and after the rules snafu Sunday, it’s hard to imagine a more popular or satisfying major winner than Johnson.

The initial confusion began on the fifth green, where Johnson lined up a 5-foot par putt. He made a few small practice strokes next to his ball, lifted his putter, and noticed that his ball moved slightly. He called over the USGA rules official to discuss the situation, and he, fellow playing competitor Lee Westwood and the official all agreed that because Johnson didn’t ground his putter, he couldn’t have caused the ball to move. They played on.

But nearly two hours later, after Johnson had moved two shots clear of a floundering Shane Lowry, he was informed on the 12th tee that the rules issue was still under review.

“Is there anything you could have done that caused the ball to move?” the USGA’s Jeff Hall asked Johnson.

“No, I don’t think so,” he replied.

And so the matter, Hall said, would be resolved following the round. That uncertainty didn’t sit well with Westwood, who voiced his displeasure with the three rules officials in the group.

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“I’m his playing partner, I’m his fellow competitor, and I’m not going to come down on his side and be biased if something happened that shouldn’t have happened,” Westwood told as he walked to his courtesy car late Sunday night. “But he didn’t cause it to move. It’s a shame it got revised.”

Naturally, social media exploded, with tweets from Rory McIlroy to Jordan Spieth to Rickie Fowler blasting the USGA’s actions. Their issue was two-fold: It was obvious that the severely sloping greens pushing 15 on the Stimpmeter, not Johnson, had caused the ball to move; and the USGA decided to inform Johnson and the walking scorers that there was only a possibility that he’d be docked a stroke at the end of the round under Rule 18-2/0.5, creating confusion for the rest of the field.

“Golf is a game of honor,” Jack Nicklaus said afterward behind the 18th green. “When you have a situation where an official is there and said, 'Did you cause it to move?' He says, 'No.' That should be the end of the story.”

Johnson has already become a sympathetic figure after his many major crackups, but as word of the potential pencil-whipping spread across Oakmont, the sun-burned spectators were even more boisterous in their support as they tried to push him across the finish line.

After the official interference, Johnson responded with five pars and a bogey to take what appeared to be a three-shot lead over Lowry and Scott Piercy. Despite his tortured history with 72nd holes, Johnson piped a 302-yard drive down the center on 18, then stuffed his 192-yard approach to 5 feet, sending fans in the packed grandstands into a tizzy. He would play his last seven holes in even par to shoot 69.

“The ability to shake off stuff like that, I still haven’t figured it out,” said his brother/caddie, Austin. “I’ve been trying to do that for 29 years now and I can’t figure it out. He’s unique when it comes to that. Nothing fazes him.”

With his approach in tight, Johnson slinked to the 18th green like a jungle cat. Fans rose to their feet and chanted, “Dee-Jay! Dee-Jay!” When his short birdie putt dropped, when his victory was secure no matter the penalty, he hugged Austin, scooped son Tatum into his arms, and smooched fiancée Paulina, prompting a slew of catcalls from the crowd.

Waiting behind the green was USGA executive director Mike Davis, who delivered the buzzkill that Johnson was still needed in the clubhouse for the rules review. After a 15-minute meeting with the four-person committee, Johnson was assessed the one-shot penalty, but it mattered little. He won by three, not four, and so he sauntered back toward the 18th green, hand in hand with Paulina, his trophy awaiting.

“I thought it was great,” Westwood said. “He held himself together and didn’t let it get to him.”

The trophy presentation was awkward at best.

Before Fox’s Joe Buck could even finish his question about how Johnson overcame the rules controversy, fans surrounding the green unloaded a chorus of boos so loud that it drowned out the inquiry. In the background, Davis wore a pained smile; USGA president Diana Murphy stood stone-faced behind the podium, her eyes begging Buck to change his line of questioning.

“This means absolutely everything,” said Johnson’s manager, David Winkle. “It’s validation for all of the work he’s done.”

That Johnson captured his first major a year after his most crushing loss was even more remarkable.

Perseverance never has been Johnson’s problem; his ability to put himself in position to get his heart broken over and over again was admirable, if not a bit depressing. But since Chambers Bay, he’s looked particularly vulnerable down the stretch, coughing up leads, exposing his flaws and offering even more ammunition for a growing legion of critics.

In the past year alone, there was a 75-75 finish at St. Andrews after holding the 36-hole lead. And there were weekend wobbles at Firestone … and Torrey Pines … and Doral. Even last week, at a mid-level PGA Tour event in Memphis, he threw up a 73 while in contention. His final-round scoring average (70.67) was more than two shots higher than Round 1 (68.33). Not one for introspection, Johnson shrugged off his Sunday woes as simply part of the game.

“It’s hard to win,” Nicklaus said, “particularly when you’ve been there a lot and don’t win. We’ve all been through it. You learn from that. If you don’t take it and learn from it and use it for your benefit, then it becomes a problem. If it continues to happen, then all of a sudden it gets in your head and you can’t really get it out.”

Oh, it's out now. Johnson's reputation as the best player not to win a major, as golf’s immensely talented but star-crossed sensation? It's gone, forever, after this unforgettable Sunday.

“I always knew this would happen, and I think it’ll happen multiple times,” Winkle said. “But it doesn’t matter who you are: You have to get the first one before you can get the second one. This was a huge hurdle.

“He’s always processed all this stuff differently than everybody else. But the clock is ticking, the questions grow and grow, and now he’ll have a little bit of relief from people wondering if he’ll ever get it done. A lot of people might have lost faith as to whether he was going to close one of these out, but he never did.”

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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.

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Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.

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McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and 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.”