Day 1 loss will put players in deep hole at Match Play

By Ryan LavnerApril 29, 2015, 12:09 am

SAN FRANCISCO – The biggest story Wednesday won’t be which players won their opening match at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play.

It’ll be those who lost and now can’t afford another miscue if they want to reach the knockout stage at Harding Park.

That there even is a possible safety net for the world’s best is what makes this week’s event one of the most intriguing tournaments on the schedule.

Since its inception, the Match Play has peaked on Wednesday, when the top seeds squared off against guys with nothing to lose. Upsets ruled the day, and it only got less interesting from there. 

That win-or-go-home mantra is a hit in college basketball, but only because there is a greater disparity between the Nos. 1 and 16 seeds. Golf is a star-driven sport, and it doesn’t benefit anyone – particularly the fans – when the best players are sent packing early.

Remember 2013? Both Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy had skipped town by sundown Wednesday. Last year, three of the top four players in the world didn’t even bother to show up at Dove Mountain, ranked near the bottom of everyone’s list of favorite venues.

Now everyone gets at least three cracks, for better or worse. 

“I can see why we’re doing it – there’s been some big upsets and disappointments over the years,” Henrik Stenson said. “But for me, match play is do or die. You lose, you go home. When you’re done, you’re done. Whoever is the strongest and playing the best and having the best breaks for the week, he’s the one who wins it.”

This new system may be less Darwinian, but it at least promises three days of exposure for the world’s best while keeping the thrill of single elimination when the stakes are the highest.

This pleases the international players, because they won’t fly across the world just to play one lousy round. This pleases the Tour’s stars, because it means that one bad day – or one buzzsaw opponent – won’t necessarily be enough to end their stay. And this most certainly pleases the big-pocketed sponsors, because all 64 players stick around until Friday night.

“If you go out and shoot 67 or 66, and you get beaten on the first day, it still gives you an opportunity,” McIlroy said.

WGC-Cadillac Match Play: Articles, videos and photos

Any of the 64 players assembled here are good enough to win seven consecutive matches, but the format change would seem to favor the better player. The best individuals and teams tend to rise to the top the longer they play. That’s why tennis majors are five sets as opposed to three, and why NBA playoff series are seven games instead of five.

That said, it’s not as though the world’s top player got lucky this week. In the traditional 1-vs.-64 bracket, McIlroy would have, statistically, the easiest route to the finals. Because of the lottery draw, however, he has to face reigning FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel (world No. 19), Pebble Beach winner Brandt Snedeker (36) and former PGA champion Jason Dufner (56) over the first three days.

McIlroy’s has the lowest combined world ranking of any group (112). On paper, at least, he has the most difficult road to traverse.

“But if you are playing well,” he reasoned, “that’s able to show in a round-robin format like this.”

So what would an opening loss here mean? Two things: A player would likely have to win his next two matches and get some help to advance. Since few will go 3-0 in group play, a two-way tie would be settled by the players’ head-to-head match.

“You certainly have a chance to get lucky if you lose one, but our mindset can’t be like that,” Jordan Spieth said. “In my mind, it’s win or go home.”

The opening day here won’t have quite the same intensity, but only because it’s all building up to Friday. That’s when the A and B players from each group go head-to-head in what could essentially be a play-in game. Even better is the potential for a series of sudden-death playoffs, which would occur if three players in the group had the same record after group play.

“There could be a couple of fun scenarios,” Stenson said.  

The European Tour’s Volvo Match Play Championship switched to the round-robin format a few years ago. Though that event hosts only 16 players and there’s more pressure here – a boatload of prize money and world-ranking points are at stake, after all – the goal remains the same.

“You don’t want to lose that first match,” Justin Rose said, “because then it’s an uphill struggle.”

Which is why the losers, not the winners, will be the story on Day 1.

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 what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

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).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the 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.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

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 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.

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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.