Old Course doesn't always make good first impression

By Ryan Reiterman July 14, 2015, 8:30 pm

The Old Course at St. Andrews is on every golfer’s bucket list, and it’s often listed by the game’s biggest stars as their favorite course.

But it’s not always love at first sight with the Home of Golf.

Waves aren’t crashing against the course like at Pebble Beach. There isn’t the “I-can’t-believe-I-made-it-inside-the-gates” feeling of Augusta National. And outside of the Road Hole 17th and No. 18, none of the holes really stick out.

You can't even curse the architect when your ball lands in a pot bunker, because, well, it's not exactly clear who designed the course in the early 1400s.

Bobby Jones famously became so frustrated by St. Andrews at the 1921 Open that he stormed off the links after 11 holes in the third round. Sam Snead said it looked like an “old abandoned golf course."

Jones and Snead would both go on to win the claret jug at the Old Course, but St. Andrews still doesn’t leave a good first impression with many of today’s players.

“Hated it,” Rory McIlroy said last year at the Dunhill Links. “Thought it was the worst golf course I've ever played … I just stood up on every tee and was like, ‘What is the fascination about this place?’ But the more you play it and the more you learn about the golf course and the little nuances, you learn to appreciate it. Now it's my favorite golf course in the world, so it's definitely a course that grows on you.”

“Honestly, I wasn’t a fan in the beginning,” said Kevin Na. “I didn’t understand why the golf course was designed like this. I couldn’t see the holes, I couldn’t see the bunkers. I thought 17 and 18 were cool, but besides that I didn’t think it was very good. But the next time I played it … I knew a lot more about golf courses and architecture and I remember playing the first practice round and the second practice round, and I was like, ‘You know what? This place is really cool. I get it now. I get why this is one of the coolest places to play in the world.’ So it took me two tournaments to figure that out.”

However, not everyone had a bad first experience.

“For me it’s the most special place in golf,” said Shane Lowry. “We’re lucky enough on the European Tour we get to play there every year in the Dunhill Links. The first time I played it it was amazing. I was lucky the second time I played it was in the Open Championship in 2010. I’m not sure how the golf course would rate if it wasn’t where it is, but as regards to the whole aura about the place. That’s what makes it for me.”

“It’s always been a magical place,” said Justin Rose. “That atmosphere on holes No. 1 and 18, you feel like the walls are watching. There could be not a soul around, but it has that magical vibe about it, and you almost feel like your adrenaline is going and you could be the only person around. And very few places have that magic.”

It certainly helps to try and gain a little course knowledge before arriving. Jordan Spieth, who is trying to win the third leg of the Grand Slam, said last week he had been prepping for the Old Course by playing it on the simulator in his home in Dallas.

While simulators weren’t available in Ben Crenshaw’s day, he also studied up before his first round at St. Andrews.

“I had seen pictures of it before and kind of knew a little bit of what I was going to see,” Crenshaw said. “I must say when you see it for the first time just off the side you go, ‘God, where’s the course?’ Because it’s encased in two other golf courses. And it’s a narrow strip within these courses, and you’re looking up, ‘Where is it?’

“But when you see it and play it for the first time it’s not like anything else in the world. If you talk about knowing a golf course, there is a lifetime of knowing about that course, and discovering different ways to play it is the fascination of it. I’m looking forward to watching the British Open this year because a British Open at St. Andrews is extra special. I’ve always enjoyed watching how people get around it because there’s a million ways to play it and it changes all the time and you have to know it. You have to have a knowledge of it unlike any other. It’s very difficult [for a] first-timer to win there.”

But no one had a first experience with the Old Course quite like Gary Player. So we’ll leave you with the Black Knight’s equivalent of a mic drop for first impressions of St. Andrews.

“My first experience at St. Andrews was far from the typical trip a professional golfer will have today, and my first impressions of the Old Course were forgettable,” Player said via email. “It was 1955, and my golf club in South Africa took up a collection to fund my ticket to the UK. “Not being able to find affordable accommodations, I went and slept on the beach the first night. I put on my waterproofs and my sweater and I slept curled up in a sand dune. That is quite unfathomable in today’s game, but there I was on my first trip sleeping under the stars! “You have to remember that St. Andrews is not a typical Open Championship course. The fairways are wide and generous, and there is not a great premium for driving the ball. That did not stop me from missing it completely on my first shot. I missed it so bad that the starter asked, ‘What’s your handicap?’ I am certain that I could never forget my first time teeing it up at St. Andrews even if I tried.

“Although my first round at the Old Course left a sour taste in my mouth, St. Andrews is a place you grow to love – especially the town and the people. The golf course was built hundreds of years ago, but continues to stand the test of time. Incredible. It is a golf course that you have to play a couple times to understand and fully comprehend the strategy of the course, and I truly think that the designers were ahead of their time.”

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 a trip to Augusta.

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).

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.

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.