Monday Scramble: Loss of the King looms on RC week

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 26, 2016, 4:10 pm

Golf loses a legend, Rory McIlroy steals the FedEx Cup, Ryan Moore makes the U.S. team, Ryder Cup mania begins and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

The sport is worse off today, after the heartbreaking news Sunday night that Arnold Palmer, the King, had died at age 87.

It was a life well lived. Arnie was the most transformative figure in golf history, and the most important, his impact stretching far greater than his 62 wins or his seven major titles. No one did more to popularize the game. He was beloved, appreciated, revered. He was, in every sense of the word, an icon. 

Everyone has an Arnold Palmer story, so here is mine: It was Bay Hill, March 2010, his tournament – and my first day on the job at Golfweek magazine. I was nervous. Hesitant. I was 22 years old, in my first pro gig.

A colleague and I wandered out onto the course. Waiting in a cart behind the first green, the very first person I saw, was Arnold Palmer. We locked eyes, and he gave me a big smile and a thumbs up, and immediately I felt at ease. That's what I'll remember most. He was disarming. 

He made everyone feel special, even with the tiniest gesture. There will never – ever – be another superstar like him.

1. There are so many wonderful tributes to Arnold Palmer today. Please take some time to read some of ours, including this, this and this.

2. As Sunday night turned into Monday morning, Golf Channel went deep into the night, bringing in some of golf's biggest names to share their memories of the King. Some reflections were particularly poignant. Grab a Kleenex for these eight minutes with Fred Couples:

3. When you’re Rory McIlroy, even lost seasons still turn out OK. 

What had been a year filled with frustration ended Sunday in unlikely fashion – with majestic shots and clutch putts and, best of all, fist pumps and primal screams. It was the McIlroy we’d grown accustomed to seeing. The alpha dog. 

Add it all up, and this season he won twice, had eight top-10s and cleared nearly $5.8 million in earnings. Only two seasons (2012, 2014) have been more profitable.

No, it wasn't the year he hoped for, especially in the majors. But after sweeping the FedEx Cup/Tour Championship titles, he said: "I've made it no secret that it's one of the last things I feel like I had left on my golfing CV."

4. McIlroy has been so brilliant, so often, that it's easy to lose perspective. Not yet 28, he now has 13 PGA Tour titles. 

The only players in the past 25 years with more wins at this point in their careers? Tiger and Phil.

5. It took 10 years, but the FedEx Cup finally has its signature moment.

Sure, there were other points over the past few years when you thought, “Hey, this playoff thing is pretty cool.” Jim Furyk's backward hat. Bill Haas’ splash from the water. Jordan Spieth’s putt from downtown Buckhead.

But none was better than what transpired Sunday at East Lake, with McIlroy stuffing a long approach shot to 6 feet on the first playoff hole and then celebrating in the gloaming a few holes later after running in his winning putt.

The Tour Championship won’t ever be able to compete against the behemoth that is football – a Labor Day finish, anyone? – but the final round was the best reminder yet that meaningful, exciting golf can still be played long after the majors are over. 

6. The much-maligned Ryder Cup task force finally got one right when it was announced that Moore had received the 12th and final spot on the U.S. roster. 

We likely couldn’t have typed these words a week ago, but there would have been a mini mutiny had Moore been left home. 

Quite simply, he was the only player who stepped up late. Since the PGA, he led the Tour in combined score (57 under), birdies/eagles (122) and rounds in the 60s (18).

Even more important for his bid was the spirited duel at East Lake with McIlroy, matching him shot for shot despite spotting him 50 yards off the tee. Throw in his strong match-play reputation (albeit from a dozen years ago), and Moore was the only choice. 

7. Seriously, let’s give the task force just a little bit of credit here: They pushed back the deadline for the final pick until after the Tour Championship, so the PGA leadership wouldn’t get skewered again for leaving off a player like Billy Horschel, who in 2014 won the final two tournaments of the season. 

They said they wanted the players who were playing the best at the time, because good form doesn’t disappear over four days, no matter if the next tournament is held in Minnesota or Malaysia.

The final spot seemed certain to go to Bubba Watson, who could wail away on driver at long, rough-less Hazeltine. But Moore forced Love and Co. to call a late audible. Credit to them for adapting, using the new rule to their advantage and adding a player who can help them win. 

8. Left out, of course, was Watson, which was stunning only when you look at his lofty world ranking: No. 7.

Much will be made about the perceived chemistry or partnership issues with Watson, but the reason he wasn’t picked was actually quite simple: He's struggling with his game. He doesn’t have a top-10 in a full-field Tour event since early March, and his Ryder Cup record (3-8) didn’t help his cause.

Sure, it was a bold move, leaving off a player of Watson’s pedigree, but it was the proper decision. 

9. That’s not to suggest that this whole situation was handled properly. Far from it, in fact.

Not only did Love put Watson in an awkward position by failing to address him by name during the initial picks announcement, but the waiting game created an unnecessary melodrama that provided endless fodder for the Europeans.

Even task force/committee member Phil Mickelson conceded that it was a mistake to wait so long: “It’s kind of hard to get all the game plans and so forth in sync when the team is not quite finalized.”

The European team, meanwhile, has been finalized – and gelling – for the past four weeks ... 

10. Dustin Johnson’s field-worst 73 in the final round of the Tour Championship was costly – like, $8.5 million. 

In line for a season-ending, $11.44 million sweep, DJ instead finished second in the FedEx Cup, taking home $3 million, after shooting his worst final-round score since March. Had Moore or Kevin Chappell won the playoff, Johnson still would have claimed the big bonus. 

“It still wouldn’t have felt right just because I didn’t win the Tour Championship,” Johnson said. 

His accountant might disagree. 

11. Jason Day’s season came to an abrupt end when he withdrew from the Tour Championship with more back issues.

It makes you wonder about his long-term prospects.

Day has been plagued by injuries ever since he broke on Tour. His swing is so violent, and creates so much stress on his lower back, that he’s bound to break down. When he’s healthy, or at least able to manage the preexisting condition, he’s able to play sublime golf – after all, he has won eight times over the past two years, more than any other player. But like his famous idol/mentor, he’s also a risk to withdraw at any moment. Among the activities during which Day has thrown out his back: changing a diaper, snatching his tee and picking up a pillow. Ugh.  

12. NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller suggested that the Europeans have, on paper at least, the “worst team they’ve had in many years.” 

He cited the loss of Ian Poulter as one of the main reasons, which was curious, because the Englishman hasn’t played particularly well for years and only went 0-1-2 in his most recent Ryder Cup appearance. 

The American team should be favored – the home-course advantage is real – but it likely won't be a blowout. The Europeans still have the Masters champion, Open champion, Olympic champion and FedEx Cup champion, after all, and more top-12 players than the U.S. team. 

The only way Europe loses by five points is if the stars don't show up. 

Davis Love III, Southern gentleman, isn’t prone to hyperbolic statements or trash talk. And yet there he was last week, popping on SiriusXM radio, channeling his inner Hal Sutton and declaring that this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team – the one that, outside of Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, has combined for just three wins this year – was the “best golf team maybe ever assembled.”

Yeah, uh, maybe not.

In 1981, the U.S. team consisted of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, Raymond Floyd, Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Larry Nelson, Jerry Pate and Bill Rogers. They didn't need a task force, either. 

Such an uncharacteristically brash, arrogant comment leaves many questions, including this: What on earth are you doing?

Love showed a lack of respect for his opponent, and the Europeans will surely use that as bulletin-board material. (Rory: “They’ve definitely assembled the best task force ever, that’s for sure.”) It's not like the Americans need any more pressure – they already play tight having lost eight of the past 10 cups.

Why add to that?

This week's award winners ... 

He Did What?: Phil Mickelson. Trying to gain more distance in advance of this week’s Ryder Cup, Lefty tried out three new drivers at East Lake that were an inch longer than normal. Tinkering before the most pressure-packed week of the year is a bad idea for a number of reasons – namely: why not stick with what’s led to a resurgent season? – but he hit only six of 28 fairways over the first two rounds, the worst start of his Tour career. Who knows what type of form he’ll bring to Hazeltine. 

Swell Move: Changing the routing for the Tour Championship. By switching the nines at East Lake, the finish now includes a watery par 4 and a final-hole par 5 that brings an eagle into play. That definitely beats a 210-yard par 3 that never produced much drama. Now players can win the tournament, as Rory did, rather than lose it. 

Oh, So It IS Possible …: Kevin Na. One of the slowest players on Tour hustled around East Lake as a single on Sunday, checking in at 1 hour, 59 minutes while running between shots and making birdie on the last four holes. So maybe everybody else is slowing him down?

Random Thought of the Week: East Lake rough. They needed penal, hack-out rough for the 30-man season finale … why exactly? 

Apropos of Nothing (or Something): Tour Championship performance. Excluding Moore, the other eight U.S. Ryder Cup members were a combined 11 over par for four days at East Lake. That includes Patrick Reed, J.B. Holmes and Jimmy Walker, who occupied three of the last four spots on the leaderboard. Uh-oh. 

Oy, Oy, Oy: Australia’s amateurs. The three-man Aussie team put a beatdown on the field at the World Amateur Team Championship in Cancun, matching a tournament record at 38 under par, finishing 1-2 in the individual race (including U.S. Amateur champion Curtis Luck as the runner-up) and lapping the field by 19 shots. The U.S. squad tied for sixth, marking the first time since 1998 that it didn’t medal.  

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jordan Spieth. A win and a runner-up in two of his last three years there, approaching the week like a major, plenty of motivation to try and salvage a what-could-have-been season … and a tie for 17th? Sigh.  

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LAAC returning to Casa de Campo in 2019

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 8:23 pm

The Latin America Amateur Championship will return to Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic in 2019 (Jan. 17-20), event organizers announced Saturday in Chile, where this year’s championship is underway.

The LAAC champion receives an invitation to play the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club every spring.

The champion is also exempt into The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event for which he is eligible to compete. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The championship got its start in 2015 with Chile’s Matias Dominguez winning at Pilar Golf in Argentina. In 2016, Casa de Campo hosted, with Costa Rica’s Paul Chaplet winning. At 16, he became the first player from Central America to compete in the Masters. In 2017, Chile’s Toto Gana won the title at  Club de Golf de Panama.

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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.