For Day, the tougher the course, the better

By Will GrayJuly 1, 2016, 11:43 pm

AKRON, Ohio – Consider it Oakmont Light.

Two weeks after players battled the elements on what is considered by many the toughest course in the country, they have gathered this week at Firestone Country Club for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

A compacted schedule has bumped this event from early August to the heart of the summer. The rains that have often plagued this event are nowhere to be seen; the fairways are firm, the greens are fast and the winds are swirling.

In other words, it’s not offering much of a U.S. Open letup.

“On a scale of 10? Ten,” said William McGirt, who held the opening-round lead but backed up with a second-round 74. “Trying to figure out the wind was impossible.”

The stat line bears out the notion that even the players near the top of the leaderboard are simply holding on for dear life. Jordan Spieth has found only 15 of 36 greens in regulation, relying instead on par saves - many improbable, but which Spieth seems to pull off with stunning regularity.

It was a similar story for David Lingmerth, who hit only six greens Friday but still managed a 3-under 67 in the second round to vault into second place.

“It’s a grind,” Lingmerth said. “You have to really pay attention to every shot, because any little mistake and you put yourself in a terrible spot and your number can easily get away from you.”

The South Course is an old-school brute of a layout. Over the course of 36 holes, it has weeded out several competitors, even among an elite field.

WGC-Bridgestone Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

But it has also created a situation that plays right into the hands of the best player in the world.

Jason Day set a major scoring record with his win last year at the PGA Championship. He can go low – really low, as he showed with wins earlier this year at Bay Hill and TPC Sawgrass.

But deep down, the Aussie embraces a difficult test. He thrives on the grind-it-out approach required in the game’s biggest events, and he brought that mentality with him this week to Ohio, where he holds a one-shot lead over Lingmerth after a second-round 69.

“If I had to pick, if I could play a lot of U.S. Opens every year, I’d love to because I feel like I play the U.S. Opens good,” Day said. “This field is starting to feel that way because it’s difficult to hit fairways and you have to get it up around the greens to save yourself.”

As Day sees it, a difficult course means players are tested as much mentally as they are physically. A two-part examination gives him an extra opportunity to distance himself from the pack.

“Sometimes you’re out there and you’re not quite, not quite in it, and you’ve got to refocus and readjust yourself and push out all the negative thoughts,” he said. “Everyone goes through it out there on the golf course, and that really shows how much grit you have deep down inside to get that thing done, and trying to want it more than everyone else.”

Based on the results of the last year or so, it’s clear that Day lacks neither grit nor desire. He has rallied for some wins and coasted to others, but the message throughout his rise to the top spot in the world rankings has remained the same: He simply wants more.

A search for more wins turned into a quest for a major. That begat a chase for the world No. 1 ranking, and now Day, having ticked off each of the previous boxes, is looking at bigger-picture items like Hall of Fame credentials and the influence he can have on his peers simply by racking up hardware.

“I’ve just got to really try to focus on winning, and if I can do that and win a lot, then hopefully over time it happens, and then you get that kind of aura effect, I guess, and people know that you’re around,” he said. “Greg Norman had it, Tiger Woods had it. There’s been a few people in this world that have had that in this game of golf. It’s difficult to attain, but definitely the only way to do it is to win.”

He has a great chance to add to his trophy collection this weekend, and to become the first player since Woods in 2013 to win two WGC events in the same season. But that opportunity has not come easily, as even Day has not been immune to the difficult conditions and swirling winds.

Par, though, is a good score this week. It’ll continue to be a good score on a course expected to remain firm and fast for the weekend.

It’s a scenario that is reminiscent of the most recent major, and it’s one where Day is now in the driver’s seat in his quest for, simply, more.

“If I can give myself the opportunities, I’m hoping I can stretch that lead over 54 holes,” he said. “And then hopefully by 72, I can stretch that lead even more.”

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 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 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.