A major championship broke out at the 99th PGA

By Will GrayAugust 12, 2017, 1:15 am

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For much of the afternoon, it appeared that Kevin Kisner would carry a healthy cushion into the weekend at the PGA Championship as he looks to secure his first major title.

But then came the rain, transforming Quail Hollow Club from a burly obstacle course into a supple dart board. The bogeys that had dominated the scoreboard quickly turned into birdies, and suddenly Kisner has plenty of company near the top of the standings with the second round still in progress.

In other words, a major championship has finally broken out at the year’s final major.

Three of the world’s top 10 players will wake up Saturday in position to challenge for the Wanamaker Trophy. Chief among them is world No. 3 Hideki Matsuyama, fresh off his five-shot romp at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, who managed to draw even with Kisner by nightfall.

Matsuyama’s claim to the cringe-inducing title of best player without a major has always included a hiccup because he has yet to truly challenge for a title coming down the stretch. His runner-up this year at Erin Hills still saw him finish four shots behind Brooks Koepka, and he hasn’t felt the pressure of hitting a critical shot with a major trophy hanging in the balance.

But the Japanese phenom is in the midst of perhaps the best stretch of his career, having already won three times this season and coming off a course record-tying 61 at Firestone. A 103-minute weather delay Friday did little to stunt his momentum, as Matsuyama closed out a bogey-free 64 that seemed to require little effort and equaled the low round of the week.

Now tied with Kisner at 8 under, this undoubtedly represents his best chance for major glory that would provide a watershed moment for his homeland.

“I’m probably not playing as I did at the end of last year. However, I’m riding the momentum from the round that I had on Sunday,” Matsuyama said through a translator. “Hopefully I can keep that going for 36 more holes.”


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But Matsuyama is not the only big name who cut into Kisner’s advantage in the waning daylight. Jason Day described his year to date earlier this week as “very, very poor,” and the Aussie is now improbably 15 months removed from his most recent win. But Day seems to save his best stuff for this event, having won two years ago at Whistling Straits and second last year in defense of his title.

Day was well off the radar before coming to life with an eagle on the par-5 seventh hole, which sparked a seven-hole stretch during which he was 6 under. In the span of a few minutes, Day went from also-ran to a title contender within two shots of the lead, one who appears to have once again discovered the confident stride that helped him start the year as the top-ranked player in the world.

“It’s been slowly building,” Day said. “It was nice to be able to drive the way I did today, and set myself up with the opportunities and being able to capitalize on those opportunities felt even better. Because they were the two things that were missing pretty much the whole year is my driving and my putting, and being able to combine that today just felt like the old days, which is only last year.”

Rickie Fowler is contending at a major for the third time this year, and having taken a tactical approach over the first 36 holes he sits five shots off the pace at 3 under. So, too, does Justin Thomas, who bounced back from six weeks of middling play with a second-round 66 under the watchful eye of his father, Mike, who still works as a PGA professional.

And if you needed any more proof that a major is officially up for grabs, Louis Oosthuizen has even come out of hiding and trails by only three.

The themes that started the week – Jordan Spieth’s Slam ambitions and Rory McIlroy’s effort to rekindle an affinity with Quail Hollow – have been shoved to the back burner.

But in their stead, a tantalizing collection of storylines have converged. The PGA Championship has produced a steady supply of weekend drama dating back to the twilight finish three years ago at Valhalla, and the 99th edition should be no exception.

Kisner could very well still leave Charlotte with the trophy, especially given his level of comfort through two rounds on a difficult track. But this much is clear: it won’t be as easy of a waltz to the finish line as it once appeared.

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 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.

“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 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.