Spieth in major weekend spotlight once again

By Ryan LavnerJune 20, 2015, 12:43 am

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Chambers Bay is roughly 2,800 miles from Augusta National, but it might as well be on another planet. 

This is a moonscape, not a cathedral. The greens here are seemingly half fescue and half dirt, not perfectly manicured bentgrass. And the sounds emanating from the sprawling links are grunts, groans and gripes, not roars.

Two wildly different venues, setups, mindsets, vibes, leaderboards, views, greens, logistics, crowds, grasses, climates and styles of play … but this year’s U.S. Open and Masters do have one similarity:

Jordan Spieth is the favorite to win. Again.

The 21-year-old phenom had a healthy five-shot cushion midway through the Masters, and he cruised to a four-shot win and a size-44 jacket. He isn’t running away with this 115th U.S. Open, not yet anyway, because the expectation is that the USGA will crank up the Menace Meter and drive the field back toward level par.

“I know it’s going to get tougher and tougher,” said Spieth, who shares the 36-hole lead at Chambers Bay with Patrick Reed. “My patience level has to be even that much higher.”

Indeed, if he’s to become the sixth player in history to capture the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year, Spieth knows he will have to get the job done differently.

At Augusta, he split fairways and knocked down flags and rolled in every putt he saw. 

That hasn’t been the case so far at Chambers. Every hole is a grind. Spieth isn’t hitting his driver flush on the center of the face, and his ball-striking was so shaky late Thursday that it sent him to the range for an emergency session. With a brutal weekend setup on deck, he has to put himself in better position off the tee to give himself shorter clubs into the green.

“I’ve got to be a little more methodical,” he said.

Full-field scores: 115th U.S. Open

Well, Spieth sure looked disciplined Friday.

Starting out on the more scoreable back nine, he birdied Nos. 10, 14, 15 and 17 to grab the solo lead at 6 under. Then came the 18th, which was set up as a 514-yard par 4, much to the players’ chagrin. There is only a small window to land the ball and keep it in the fairway, and Spieth tugged his tee shot left, into a bunker, leading to an ugly double.

“It was a dumb hole today,” he grumbled.

His frustration continued to build on the par-5 first, after overcooking his tee shot into the left rough. Caddie Michael Greller sensed it was time to tell his boss to simmer down. 

“Sit back, you’re still very much in this tournament, don’t let this get to you,” Greller told him. “The second something gets to you, you’re in trouble in a U.S. Open.”

On cue, Spieth regained his composure, laid up with a 6-iron and wedged to 13 feet for birdie.

There aren’t many – any? – good birdie opportunities on the inward nine, so Spieth was content with that lone birdie. Patience, remember. He was willing to accept that 3 under was the lowest score he could possibly shoot Friday.

He dropped a shot on the difficult seventh, after racing his downhill birdie putt about 15 feet past the hole, but rebounded with an unlikely birdie on the last. 

It was unlikely for a couple of reasons: (1) From the upper tee, the ninth plays as a 237-yard par 3, with a back-right pin and more than 100 feet of elevation change; and (2) Spieth waited out a lengthy delay after a scary incident involving Jason Day.  

Day, who has suffered from vertigo-like symptoms since 2010, collapsed to the left of the green after becoming lightheaded. As medical personnel rushed over to treat Day, Spieth stayed close to his friend and barked at photographers to put away their cameras. He said afterward that he simply wanted to “clear the scene” and “let him just rebound from being dizzy.”

After about a 10-minute delay, and after Day splashed out of the bunker and missed a 10-foot par putt on a similar line, Spieth confidently stepped in and drained his 8-footer to shoot 67 and post 5-under 136.

“That was one of the better birdies I’ve ever made given the situation,” he said.

It was suggested to Spieth that this kind of grind-fest suits his style, that the bounce back has almost become the trademark of his game, that with an otherworldly short game he just fights and scraps and wills the ball into the cup.

“It’s definitely something I’ve improved on,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s my trademark, but it’s something that maybe a few years ago may have gotten to me a little bit more.

“But my patience and realization that this golf course is going to test your nerve and it’s how you rebound from it, my knowledge having played in a few (Opens) certainly kicked in there.”

Spieth is back near the top of a major leaderboard, and of course he will now draw on the experiences of his record-breaking week at the Masters – how he handled the late tee times, the media responsibilities, the pressure.

But this is an entirely new challenge. He isn’t the runaway leader. His game isn’t flawless. And he likely needs only to shoot around par the next two days to win.

Doesn’t matter. He’s ready to conquer this type of test, too.

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.