Mickelson loses Open without doing anything wrong

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2016, 8:45 pm

TROON, Scotland – Even for a man accustomed to major-championship heartbreak, Phil Mickelson had no idea how to digest this loss Sunday at the 145th Open.

It wasn’t the 2006 U.S. Open, where he butchered the 72nd hole.

It wasn’t the 2012 Masters, where he clanked a tee shot off a grandstand in the final round.

It wasn’t the 2013 U.S. Open, where he misjudged two wedge shots late on the back nine.

This was … maybe even more dispiriting?

“It’s probably the best I’ve played and not won,” he said.

Mickelson lost to a sublime Henrik Stenson and had nothing to second-guess. Not a different club off a tee. Not a different yardage with an iron shot. Not a different line with a putt.

Vying to become the oldest Open winner since 1867, the 46-year-old Hall of Famer shot a bogey-free 65 Sunday, tied the second-lowest score in a major by a non-winner (267) and carded the lowest final-round score of his career. He found fairways with ease and saved par from the heather and made only four bogeys all week at Royal Troon.

And yet he still lost. By three.

“I’m not sure how I’m going to feel about that,” he said. “I’m proud of the way I played. I played what I feel was well enough to win this championship by a number of strokes, and yet I got beat by three strokes.

“It’s not like I have decades of opportunities left to win majors, so each one means a lot to me. And I put in my best performance today. Played close to flawless golf and was beat.”

And so here comes another test of his legendary resilience. Throughout his 25-year career, no one has learned how to deal with failure better than Mickelson. His 11 runners-up in majors are the second-most all time, behind only Jack Nicklaus (19). The narrow defeats, many of them self-inflicted, are a significant part of Lefty’s legacy, as much as his five majors or his 42 PGA Tour titles.

After the most crushing loss of his career at Merion, after it finally appeared that he was damaged goods, Mickelson summoned arguably his greatest performance just a month later, a flawless Sunday 66 to capture the Muirfield Open. In the aftermath, he raved about how he was playing the best golf of his life, at age 43.

That didn’t pan out, of course, and his game deteriorated over the past few years. After recording at least six top-10s in 16 consecutive seasons, and 10 in a row with a victory, he has mustered only four top-10s the last two seasons combined. His world ranking tumbled outside the top 30.

During the offseason, he made the difficult decision to leave legendary swing coach Butch Harmon, with whom he’d enjoyed the most success, in favor of little-known Andrew Getson, who helped put Mickelson’s long, free-flowing swing back on plane. “It’s taken him a fair amount of time to play golf instead of swing,” said Mickelson’s longtime short-game coach, Dave Pelz, “but he looks great now.”

Never better than at Royal Troon, where Mickelson came within a fraction of an inch, or a pebble, from shooting the first 62 in a major. A day later, in pounding rain, he grabbed his first 36-hole lead in a major in three years. And even when his swing abandoned him during a blustery third round, he turned a 77 into a 70 with his magical short game.  

Caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay reported that Mickelson’s warmup Sunday was “incredible,” similar to Muirfield in 2013, and then Mickelson put on a ball-striking clinic for four unforgettable hours.

Unfortunately for him, so did Stenson. They matched birdies, opening 32s and swapped the lead five times on the front nine. Mickelson climbed back into the lead on 11 and scrambled to an all-world par on 12, but Stenson, better known for his ball-striking prowess than his putter, caught fire coming home. An 18-footer for birdie on 14. A 50-footer on 15.

“I had to make 30-, 40-footers just to try to keep pace with him,” Mickelson said.

It appeared that he might pull even on the par-5 16th, but his 25-foot eagle putt took a peek at the cup and dove left at the final moment. “I really thought that was going to go in,” he said.

Stenson poured it on with a birdie of his own on 16, a macho long iron to 8 feet on 17 and then an exclamation point on the last to shoot a two-bogey 63 and set the major aggregate scoring record of 20-under 264.

Mickelson’s four-round total of 267 would have won or forced a playoff in 141 of the 145 Opens played. So superb was his golf, he was 11 shots clear of the third-place finisher, J.B. Holmes.

“We’ll never see perfection on a links like that ever again in our lives,” said Nick Faldo, a three-time Open champion. “There’s no way. For them to match each other, it was links perfection. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

That’s little solace to Mickelson, of course. Though players are staying competitive longer – a combination of better technology, better equipment and better fitness – it’s reasonable to wonder how many more chances he’ll have to add to his collection of five major titles.

“The only good thing is he didn’t lose it,” Faldo said. “You’re going to lose majors, but Phil will say that I did everything I could, I was just faced against a man who outscored me at the end.

“There’s no discrediting that at all. You won’t be scarred by that loss. Sure, you’ll look back at the bits and bobs, but one man won it, the other man didn’t lose it.”

Said Mackay: “That’s as good of a tournament as I’ve seen him play, if ever.”

Mickelson looked dazed when he emerged from the Recorders’ Office, two Ziploc bags full of snacks in his right hand. He smiled his way through a trophy presentation, praised Stenson and answered 15 questions during a packed news conference. Still, he labored to find the right words, to come to grips with how he could play so well and lose.

“Do you now finally know how Jack Nicklaus felt in ’77?” a reporter asked, alluding to the famed Duel in the Sun at Turnberry, where Tom Watson (65) nipped Nicklaus (66) on the final day in one of the game’s greatest head-to-head clashes.

“I understand how it feels,” Mickelson replied. “It’s bittersweet.”

Afterward, Mickelson, flanked by his longtime manager, Steve Loy, made a beeline for his room at The Marine Hotel, which overlooks Troon’s 18th fairway. He signed yellow replica flags for teenaged volunteers decked out in the R&A’s blue rain suits. He breezed past the hubbub on the front lawn of the clubhouse, where Andrew “Beef” Johnston, wearing a Scottish cap, was taking swigs from a Heineken and posing for pictures. He walked all the way to the far end of the player parking lot and onto Crosby Street, past two unsuspecting fans. And, never breaking stride, he climbed over a short rock wall and sped toward the back entrance of the hotel, despite the “No Entry” sign printed on the window.

Slapping Loy on the back, Mickelson stepped inside, the beginning of what figured to be a restless night. Another major week was only eight days away.

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 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.

“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 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.

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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.