Walker Cup hopeful Dale sees early exit from U.S. Amateur

By Ryan LavnerAugust 14, 2013, 10:59 pm

BROOKLINE, Mass. – After making a mess of the 16th hole Wednesday, Sean Dale exhaled, removed his visor and grabbed a fistful of his short brown hair.

His U.S. Amateur was over.

Now, he only hopes his Walker Cup chances aren’t doomed, as well.

There are two tournaments being played out this week at The Country Club – one for the Havemeyer Trophy, the other for the opportunity to compete on the U.S. Walker Cup team. 

The latter is the most intriguing early-week story here – late auditions can often be the best – and it became even more so Wednesday after three of the hopefuls were bounced from the Round of 64.

Four of the players who already have been named to the U.S. team (Michael Kim, Max Homa, Justin Thomas and Cory Whitsett) failed to even make it to match play here, opening the door for Jordan Niebrugge, Michael Weaver and Dale to stake their claim as to why they should don the team uniform.

In that race, Dale faced the most difficult obstacle in the Round of 64, drawing Stanford junior Patrick Rodgers, one of the best amateurs in the world and the only returnee from the 2011 team that will take on Great Britain and Ireland on Sept. 7-8 on Long Island.

A Dale victory Wednesday would have greatly impressed captain Jim Holtgrieve, who was on-hand to scout the prospects. After all, the former North Florida All-American won the Jones Cup earlier this season and reached the finals of the Western Amateur, and taking down a Walker Cupper twice in 2 1/2 weeks would show that he’s unafraid of a challenge. Instead, after a 3-and-2 loss in which he struggled on the back nine, Dale is left hoping that his resume is strong enough to secure one of the three available spots.

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“It’s just not the way I wanted it to go down,” he said. “Anybody could have beaten me on the back nine today.”

After the NCAAs, Dale was told by a few insiders that he had a chance to make the 10-man team. That alone was enough motivation to stay amateur through the summer, and he responded by going 2-1-1 at the Palmer Cup, tying for seventh at the Players Amateur and reaching the finals of the Western Am, which boasts the strongest field of the summer.

“It’s a huge honor to play for your country,” Dale said. “If I had a 95 percent chance or a 5 percent chance, I was going to stay amateur and give it a shot.”

Rodgers made the team in 2011 as a rising college freshman and recalled feeling the same pressure in the events leading up to the decision.

“It’s a secretive process,” he said. “You never know where you stand, and all you can do is try and play your best golf.”

The rest of the squad will be filled out after this week’s U.S. Amateur, and the selection process will prove to be especially interesting this year.

The USGA, citing the “positive influence” that the mid-amateurs bring to the competition, announced a new rule in January that at least two mid-ams (age 25 or older) must be selected to the team. The move was questionable for several reasons, not least because the R&A didn’t implement a similar policy for Team GB&I and also because the U.S. is now not necessarily sending out its 10 best players.

The end result: The top American amateurs are effectively fighting for eight (maybe even seven) spots, depending on whether there’s a U.S.-born Amateur winner here.

Weaver likely could have avoided this drama had he not lost the final three holes in last year’s U.S. Amateur final. On his resume instead is that runner-up at Cherry Hills, a 64th-place finish at the U.S. Open, a solo second at the Players Amateur and a sixth-place showing at the Western.  

But after losing his opening match here to Greg Eason, his fate now rests with the selection committee.

“There’s nothing I can do about that,” Weaver said. “It’s not objective; it’s completely subjective and they’re going to make the decision that they want.”

Then, unprompted, Weaver stated his case for why he should be selected.

“I hope I’ve done enough,” he said. “I’m ranked pretty high (No. 8 in R&A’s World Amateur Rankings) and didn’t get picked yet, so it’s not all off rankings and I needed to keep playing well.

“Hopefully (the Round of 64 loss) doesn’t make a difference and I get picked. I knew coming in that I could play well and not make the team. I felt like I’ve played consistently since this tournament last year. I think that’s something worthwhile to consider if they’re looking to pick me. … I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.”

At this point, that’s all Niebrugge can do, too. The Oklahoma State sophomore seemingly came out of nowhere to sweep the U.S. Amateur Public Links, Wisconsin State Amateur and top-notch Western Am in consecutive weeks. But on Wednesday, he kicked away a late lead and lost, 1 up, in his opener.

His will be the ultimate case study. Prior to this summer, he didn’t have the same championship pedigree of the rest of the Walker Cup hopefuls, but no one has performed better in the past two months.

“At the beginning of the summer I was nowhere near on his radar,” Niebrugge said. “We’ll see. There’s nothing I can do about it now.”

So, who, if anyone, benefitted from Wednesday’s opening round? The big winner was Alabama senior Bobby Wyatt. For months he seemed like a lock to join friends and teammates Cory Whitsett and Justin Thomas on the team, but he’s endured a rocky summer that put his spot in jeopardy. Wyatt, however, cruised to a 4-and-3 victory on Day 1.

“It’s been weighing on me this summer a little bit,” he said. “It’s a big goal of mine. That’s the pinnacle of amateur golf. You’ve just got to keep your head down and win your matches, and it’ll take care of itself.”

At this event, with two prizes on the line, that’s not as simple as it sounds. 

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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.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.