Stefani keeps his card - barely

By Will GrayAugust 21, 2016, 10:51 pm

GREENSBORO, N.C. – For 72 holes at the Wyndham Championship, Shawn Stefani managed to steel his nerves. He kept his cool and focused on his craft.

But shortly after hitting one final, pivotal putt, the tears started to flow.

“It’s pretty emotional, actually,” said Stefani, his lip quivering as he dabbed his face with the towel draped around his neck. “Started to get a little emotional on 18. Sorry.”

Stefani had already hit 5,887 shots during the PGA Tour’s marathon regular season. But it was stroke No. 5,888 – a 6-foot birdie attempt on the 18th green at Sedgefield Country Club – that determined whether he would keep his card for next season and avoid a trip to the Tour Finals.

Such is life at the final event of the Tour’s regular season, one last pressure cooker for players to endure with status on the line and postseason bids up for grabs. But few have experienced the highs and the lows of those stakes quite like Stefani did during the final round.

Entering the week at No. 133 in the FedEx Cup points race, Stefani had played himself onto the fringe of contention and was projected to move to the coveted 125th spot based on the 54-hole standings. After curling in a 22-foot eagle on the 15th hole Sunday, Stefani was inside the number and appeared on the verge of accomplishing his goal.

But little about Stefani’s professional journey has been easy, and the final round at Sedgefield was no exception. A pulled drive on No. 17 led to a bogey, so he went to the final hole needing at least a par to make the playoffs and, more importantly, keep his card.

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With everything on the line and his playing privileges hanging in the balance, Stefani calmly delivered a 7-iron from 173 yards that rolled to close range. With his hands shaking, he stroked a putt that was center-cut – and carded a birdie that moved to No. 123 in points in the process.

“He was rock solid all day, man. He really was. I know he was nervous, but you don’t really see it in him,” said caddie Chris Callas. “Really the first time I saw him show any emotion or anything was right after he got done. All day long, we kind of did what we do every day. We tried not to change anything, and we played good. I can’t say enough about him.”

Looking back, Stefani admitted that his offseason wasn’t quite as productive as it could have been. He and his wife, Jaclyn, bought a new home in Texas, and his game received less attention as a result.

Stefani describes himself as a “glass half-full guy,” so he wasn’t worried even after a lackluster spring that included six missed cuts in seven starts. But as the summer months edged on, Stefani could feel the pressure beginning to mount.

“I kept telling myself, we still got events left, still have tournaments left,” he said. “But you know, when you say it in March and there’s 17 events left, and you look in July and there’s four events left, you’re like, ‘I don’t have a lot of time.’ But I really felt like I was close.”

Stefani was still 143rd in points entering the Travelers Championship earlier this month. But a putting tip from fellow pro Scott Brown led to a T-11 finish, and after his result at Sedgefield – just his fourth top-25 of the season – he can book a flight for The Barclays.

For Stefani, 34, it’s the culmination of months of hard work to get his game back on track and the latest chapter of a pro career that began 11 years ago after a stint at little-known Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

“I’m not an all-American story like a lot of these kids are, getting a lot of sponsor exemptions out of college,” Stefani said. “I wasn’t a great college player. I had to earn my way the hard way, mini-tours, 15-hour drives, driving across the country and, you know, it means more to me to keep my card than it does to some of the other guys who have won, because I’ve gone the hard road for the game.”

As Stefani spoke to a group of reporters, his caddie looked on with a weathered grin, having survived the Wyndham gauntlet and emerged on the right side of the bubble by the slimmest of margins.

“This week was a grind,” Callas said. “I bit some nails off this week, I promise you.”

One event, one round, one shot. Players often lean on clichés about focusing on the task at hand, choosing to keep their eyes from drifting toward larger goals.

But as Stefani can now attest, sometimes one shot can make all the difference.

“I’m very blessed to be where I’m at today, and I’ve worked hard. I feel like I deserve it,” he said. “The game doesn’t owe you anything, and I feel like the game gave me something today.”

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.