After injury, a hopeful McCoy returns to Valspar

By Will GrayMarch 7, 2017, 10:31 pm

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Prior to offering his assessment of the year that wasn’t, Lee McCoy adjusted his cap, sat back in his chair and unleashed a deep sigh.

McCoy was the darling of last year’s Valspar Championship, a fresh-faced amateur playing on his home course who stared down Jordan Spieth and didn’t blink. A fourth-place finish catapulted his name alongside guys like Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau in discussions of the next potential can’t-miss prospect, and it availed McCoy of a number of playing opportunities.

All of which makes his return to Innisbrook this year as the golfing equivalent of a nomad that much more difficult to stomach.

“I think I’m just as good a player, if not better,” McCoy said. “I’m just kind of back at the bottom of the totem pole.”

McCoy’s path since taming the Snake Pit last year is effectively broken up into three parts. In the immediate aftermath of his storybook finish – the best by an amateur at a non-opposite PGA Tour event since Justin Rose at the 1998 Open Championship – McCoy considered turning pro. But he opted to return to school to complete his senior season at the University of Georgia, where he helped his team win an SEC championship.

He made the jump to the professional ranks in the summer, but like Rose he experienced a rocky transition. With six sponsor invites still at his disposal, McCoy missed the cut in all six events.

“I just kind of had a really bad two-month stretch at the wrong time,” he said. “How many top 50-125 players out here could have a bad two-month stretch and nobody would say a word about it? That’s just it, I played bad for a couple months. It happens.”

Following a missed cut at the season-ending Wyndham Championship in August, McCoy went back to the drawing board and started to see his game progress. In his first start of the new season, he made his first cut as a professional and finished T-41 in Las Vegas.

Then the accident happened.

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On Nov. 7, McCoy was en route to Plantation Preserve Golf Club in South Florida with practice on his mind. The second stage of Tour Q-School was only days away, and he recognized it as one of the most pivotal weeks of his young career.

Advance, as a player of his caliber was likely to do, and you’re assured of at least some status on the Tour for the coming year. Miss out and you’re left to wander the mini-tour and Monday qualifier circuit.

McCoy got in a minor car accident en route to the course that day, and his right hand jammed against the steering wheel. His wrist soon began to swell, and the diagnosis came a few hours later: a fracture in two parts, one that would require a cast for six weeks and eliminate any thoughts of playing second stage.

Suddenly, McCoy’s well-crafted transition to the PGA Tour was thrown out the window.

“Crazy things happen in life, you just wish the timing wasn’t so bad,” McCoy said. “It’d be one thing if I didn’t have anything going on and I was playing like garbage, but I was really playing well and had the biggest week of the year a day away. Of all days, really?”

“I think it was pretty devastating,” said McCoy’s college coach, Chris Haack. “He was going into second stage riding high, knowing that he’s playing well. And that just kind of derailed him. I think anytime those type of things happen, it can set you back mentally as much as physically.”

True to Haack’s words, McCoy’s biggest hurdle proved to be mental. The cast that kept his right hand in place didn’t allow him to properly grip an Xbox controller, much less a golf club, and he struggled simply to pass the days.

But with time eventually came some perspective. McCoy focused on feedback from his orthopedic surgeon, who told him one of his fractures nearly ruptured every tendon in his hand – an injury that would have effectively ended his golf career before it truly began.

“I keep saying that I’m the luckiest unlucky guy ever,” he said. “It could always be worse, I guess.”

McCoy started testing his wrist with shots from deep rough in early January, and now declares the injury “absolutely, unequivocally 100 percent.” But without a professional tour to call his own, the 23-year-old has spent the last two months shuttling from one Monday qualifier to the next, without much success.

“It’s hard to do anything when you don’t have status,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter how good you hit it on the range, or how good you play at home, what kind of numbers you shoot. If you don’t have anywhere to play, it’s tough.”

All of which brings him back to his hometown event, where he accepted another sponsor invite and will make his first competitive start since October. He’ll likely return to a nomadic existence after this week, hoping to cobble together a start here and a start there.

But McCoy knows better than most that sometimes it only takes one week to break through, and the confidence gleaned from last year’s memorable performance remains.

“You always wonder, at home when you’re practicing and stuff,” he said. “Man, am I good enough? Can I really do this for a living? I can shoot 66, 67 at home, but do I really have what it takes to get out there and contend?

“Even though it’s been a year now, there’s a lot of guys out here that go a lot longer than a year without getting in contention. It’s nice to know that I can do it, and I’d like to think that I’ll do it again in the future.”

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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.