For his sake and theirs, peers want the Tiger of old

By Will GrayDecember 6, 2016, 1:10 pm

NASSAU, Bahamas – As Tiger Woods exited the scoring tent after completing his final round at the Hero World Challenge, he was quickly whisked next door to a makeshift stage a few feet away. There, nearly every credentialed media member that made the trek to Albany stood waiting, eager to pepper the man who was in front of them dressed in red and black for the first time in seemingly ages.

As Woods answered a wide range of queries, the group behind him quietly finished the 18th hole and strode to scoring with minimal fanfare. It was a twosome that included Jordan Spieth, someone for whom the media has many times stood waiting.

But in a week when Woods finally ended his competitive drought, if you weren’t the tournament host, you were playing second fiddle.

It’s a blunt assessment, and one that Spieth validated minutes later when the microphones finally turned in his direction.

“Tiger moves the needle,” Spieth said.

There was no shortage of interested parties who left the Bahamas pleased with the start of Woods’ comeback, from those within his camp to fans and television executives alike. But there was an unmistakable vibe throughout the week at Albany, whether walking the range or on the course, that Woods’ peers are genuinely excited to have him again inside the ropes.

“I don’t care what the score is, we want our champion back,” Bubba Watson said. “We want our Tiger Woods back, we want Tiger back. We want him playing again.”

Part of that sentiment is a nod to the opportunities created by the greatest player of their generation. Many acknowledged the fact that without Woods’ impact and influence, this week’s lucrative exhibition at a luxurious island outpost wouldn’t even exist.

But there is also a secondary motivation, especially for some of the game’s youngest stars for whom Woods has been more idol than adversary.

Spieth’s Rookie of the Year campaign in 2013 coincided with Woods’ last great season, one in which he won five times including The Players Championship. But Spieth never played alongside Woods during any of those five weeks, and the notion of seeing Woods at the top of his game is one that the 23-year-old has read about more often than he’s seen it with his own eyes.

In team sports, an upset win is always relished a bit more when the opponent is at the top of his game. No one celebrated beating Woods this week at Albany, but many salivated over the notion that they might soon be able to stand toe-to-toe with a full-strength Woods and take their chances.

“That’s why we got into this, not to play for second but to have a chance to take down the top, couple greatest to ever play the game. Call him tied for first, call him whatever you want,” Spieth said. “Even if it’s Tiger’s tournament next year, or it’s a major championship, we can say, ‘I battled Tiger when we felt like he was really on, and I was able to get the breaks and pull it off.’ That’s something you can tell your grandkids.”

The allure of duplicating Y.E. Yang’s takedown of Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship remains strong, and it was even a specific example cited early in the week by Spieth, who was just 16 years old when Woods lost a 54-hole lead at a major for the first and only time in his career.

The innate, competitive drive in the world’s best players seeks a worthy adversary; the confidence that propelled them to the top of the game fuels their belief that they would also come out on top.

“I still want to beat him,” said Patrick Reed before playing alongside Woods in the first round. “Tiger still wants to beat me. It’s just like everybody out here.”

For his part, Woods seems just as eager to give them a chance to earn their own stripes in the near future. He spoke early and often about the joy he derived simply from being back in the arena after 15 months of rehab and recovery in relative isolation.

“It feels good to be back out here playing again, competing and trying to beat these, the best players in the world,” he said. “I love it. I missed it.”

With 72 healthy holes now under his belt, Woods appears ready to take the next step in his long journey back. It’s one that his fellow Tour pros hope continues without further delay, as Woods still represents the largest tide available to lift all boats.

And after months of wait and speculation, they now believe they’re one step closer to a scenario so many envisioned on practice greens and driving ranges over the years: standing across from Woods, strength against strength, with the tournament on the line.

But if asked to offer a few words of advice, scores of Woods’ former foes might well sing out in unison: be careful what you wish for.

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.