Scott-Williams reunion yielding big dividends

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2015, 7:58 pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – So how did Adam Scott persuade Steve Williams to come out of retirement and caddie in these four summer events?

Flattery, of course.

“I don’t really want to have to say how great he is,” Scott said with a smile Friday, “but I did butter him up a little bit.”

Their success was undeniable: They teamed together for four years, for 12 top-15 finishes in 15 majors, for a memorable Masters victory, for three other PGA Tour wins, for the rise to world No. 1. But wanting different things at different points in their lives – Scott wanted a full-time looper; Williams, who turned 51 last winter, wanted to race cars and coach rugby – they split last September.

During the fall, Scott held tryouts for his next bagman, seeing what he liked, and what he did not, and who could provide the same spark as Williams. Eventually, last December, he hired veteran looper Mike Kerr, but they never really jelled. Not like he had with Williams.

This year, Scott played eight events and only once finished inside the top 20 – the kind of slump he never had endured with Williams on the bag. As Scott wandered through a listless season, in the prime of his career at age 35, Williams was back in New Zealand, completely removed from the game. When asked how closely he tracked his former employer’s results over the past few months, Williams said, “I don’t follow golf. Don’t watch it. Couldn’t tell you one thing. I don’t watch golf. Never have, never will.”

Scott said that, like any old friends, he checked in every so often: “But it wasn’t like I was calling him every day.” Besides, Williams was adamant that nothing could bring him out of retirement.

Open Championship tracker: Day 2

Open Championship full-field scores

But one of the many things Williams taught Scott over the years was that, “if you don’t ask, you’ll never get.” And so finally, with his world ranking tumbling out of the top 10, and his putting statistics nearly last on Tour, Scott made the desperate phone call.

“I was begging and pleading for him to come out here,” he said. “Unfortunately I have to admit that.”

What helped persuade Williams to return was the fact that this year’s Open was being held at St. Andrews, where he guided Tiger Woods to decisive victories in 2000 and ’05. After a few long chats, Williams gave his old boss the OK.

“Then,” Scott said, “I had to go practice really hard so I was going to play as good as he’d expect.”

The move paid immediate dividends, as Scott closed with 64 at Chambers Bay to backdoor a top-5 finish at the U.S. Open. And now here at the Open, Scott is in line for yet another run at the claret jug, the one that got away in 2012, when he finished with four consecutive bogeys at Royal Lytham to hand the title to Ernie Els, the beginning of three consecutive top-5s at the year’s third major.

“I’m very motivated,” he said. “I definitely let that one slip, and I would love to be sitting here having won the Open … I think I’m playing with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder."

Williams appears motivated, too. At 5:30 a.m. Friday, and with only one other caddie in sight, he trudged out on the Old Course to chart the day’s pins. The process takes about an hour, and while on his way back toward the range, he got caught in the biblical storm that dropped several inches of rain and forced a three-hour delay.

“I was thinking there’s just no way we can be playing golf today,” he said. “I stood on No. 2 fairway and watched it flood in seven minutes. You couldn’t walk into the wind.”

Fortunately for Scott, the conditions weren’t quite as severe by the time he stepped to the first tee. Fighting a steady 20-mph breeze all day, he missed only one green en route to a bogey-free 67 that moved him only two strokes off the clubhouse lead.

His best two shots of the day came on the Road Hole, which finally yielded a few birdies Friday after the opening-round oh-fer. Scott’s drive that sailed over the last ‘L’ on the Old Course Hotel sign elicited a few gasps from the gallery, but he knew the strike and the line – the farthest right he could comfortably go – were perfect. With 196 yards to the flag, and just 176 to the front edge, it’s normally a stock 6-iron shot. But with a strong right-to-left wind, Scott “chipped” a 4-iron that trundled onto the green and settled about 20 feet from the flag.

“That was a very pleasing shot,” he said.

Scott nearly drove 18, and after two swats with that familiar broomstick putter, he was in the house with a flawless round, his name once again near the top of the big yellow leaderboard.

Yep, it’s just like old times, and Scott marveled at how “it feels like we’ve really hit our stride quickly.”

Good thing, because the stakes couldn’t be any higher during this three-major sprint, and their time together is running out, and both men are keenly aware of the history here, of the list of Open winners on the most revered links in the world. From Snead to Nicklaus to Ballesteros to Faldo to Woods, no course in the world has crowned elite winners quite like the Old Course.

“It’s just a golf course that requires complete control of your game,” Williams said, “and the best players in the world are the guys that have all the shots and have the complete control of their game. This course has never produced any unusual winners. St. Andrews is a great course, it’s had great champions, and this year will be nodifferent.”

The only question now is whether the Aussie can join them.

Toward the end of a Stevie-centric news conference, Scott was asked what could have been an uncomfortable question:

If Williams is not on your bag this week, are you sitting here right now?

“I’d like to think so for my own sake,” he replied, “but it was the right call for me to make at this point in the year, to get him back out and instill a bit of confidence in my game and get back in that flow.”

And now, with the team back together, everything feels possible again.  

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Defending champ Gana co-leads Latin America Amateur

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 11:20 pm

Toto Gana moved into early position to try to win a return trip to the Masters Saturday by grabbing a share of the first-round lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship.

The defending champ posted a 3-under-par 68 at Prince of Wales Country Club in his native Chile, equaling the rounds of Argentina’s Mark Montenegro and Colombia’s Pablo Torres.

They are one shot ahead of Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz and Mario Carmona, Argentina’s Horacio Carbonetti and Jaime Lopez Rivarola and the Dominican Republic’s Rhadames Pena.

It’s a bunched leaderboard, with 19 players within three shots of each at the top of the board in the 72-hole event.

“I think I have my game under control,” said Gana, 20, a freshman at Lynn University. “I hit the ball very well, and I also putted very well. So, I am confident about tomorrow.”

The LAAC’s champion will get more than a Masters invitation. He also will be exempt into the The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event he is eligible to play this year. 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.

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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.