Distance solution ideas a step in right direction

By Will GrayMarch 8, 2017, 10:10 pm

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Give Mike Davis some credit for thinking outside the box.

As executive director and CEO of the USGA, Davis often becomes the organization’s de facto spokesperson when defending its actions or addressing a variety of controversies. But this week at the North American Golf Innovation Symposium, Davis used his platform to float a novel concept that may someday save a number of classic courses that have otherwise been left in the dust.

Davis offered up the notion of a “variable distance” golf ball, an optional tool by which bombers like Dustin Johnson might use a ball built to 80 percent capacity. According to Davis’ reasoning, it would curb the current rush to perpetually lengthen modern courses and would bring some old-school designs back into play.

"Throw Dustin an 80 percent golf ball and say, 'Let's go play the back tees,' and guess what? It would be a great experience for him," Davis said. "He'd be able to play this wonderful, historic golf course that, by and large, he can't play anymore."

The optics of Davis’ proposal are a little questionable, considering it comes just weeks after his organization released a report insisting that distance gains among the professional game have been negligible since 2003. But the idea to focus attention not on the ever-evolving club, but instead on the ball, is certainly intriguing.

It’s also one that seems to have a fair amount of support from PGA Tour players, many of whom agree that some sort of adjustment must be made soon.

“The alarm bells start going off when they put the 17th tee at St. Andrews 50 yards back,” Graeme McDowell said Wednesday at the Valspar Championship. “You’ve got one of the most iconic golf holes, maybe in the world, being kind of torn up and having to be re-invented because the guys are hitting it too far.”

McDowell recalled times during his youth when his home course would be full and he would instead play an adjacent par-3 course with a ball originally designed for play in the Cayman Islands.

“It went like 60, 70 percent of the distance, so we could go play this little par-3 course with these Cayman balls,” he said. “It was a lot of fun. It didn’t really replicate the feel of a real ball, but it was an interesting way to play.”

The concept is, at this point, purely hypothetical, and would surely lead to a number of tangled webs with equipment manufacturers. Davis also made clear that it’s not an innovation that he would view as mandatory, but instead might become an additional option at a player’s disposal.

Valspar Championship: Articles, photos and videos

But multiple Tour pros surveyed pointed to innovations in tennis as an interesting parallel, as the International Tennis Federation has taken steps in recent years to throttle back the “power game” and has designed different balls for use on different court speeds.

Charl Schwartzel views Davis’ idea as an added opportunity to help pace of play if new tees built well beyond the course’s original design no longer have to be used.

“Now you have to walk 150 yards back and then walk this way, so you’re walking 300 yards and you’re still at the same place,” Schwartzel said. “If you can make the balls and clubs go shorter, and you can play the old courses, then the game will be 3 ½ hours again. It’s simple. But you’ve got to walk so far, how are you going to play quick? It’s impossible to play quick.”

Support on Tour for a shorter ball option is far from unanimous. Jamie Lovemark is one of the longest hitters in the game, averaging more than 302 yards per tee shot, and he believes an element would be lost if top pros were ever restricted.

“Amateurs like seeing guys hit it 330. They pay to watch people do things they can’t do,” Lovemark said. “It’s fun watching home runs. It’s not fun watching guys hit singles. I think the entertainment value would diminish if you were to scale back the ball.”

When discussion of a scaled-back ball begins, the phrase “Augusta National” is never far behind. The iconic course has continued to push its own topographical limitations in recent years in an effort to keep up with increased player power.

McDowell believes that Augusta National might be the only club that could impose a one-ball rule for an event and still have top players comply.

“I think if the USGA or R&A try to do it, there might be a lot of players kicking and screaming,” he said. “Somehow when it happens at Augusta, there’s a slightly different respect level there. Not sure why, it’s just something special about Augusta.”

Schwartzel has an annual invite to Augusta thanks to his 2011 triumph, and he didn’t bristle at the notion of someday using a special ball specifically for the season’s first major.

“I wouldn’t have an issue with it. I wouldn’t even have an issue if they bring us wooden clubs, as long as everyone plays with it,” Schwartzel said. “Give us all squash balls. We’re going to shoot 120, but at least everyone is going to do the same, so who cares?”

Debate and conjecture will continue to rage on, with a concept like the one Davis suggested likely years from possible implementation.

But it has players thinking, especially as they continue to put distance between themselves and the courses of yesteryear with each towering drive.

“Something’s got to happen,” McDowell said. “We’re starting to lose the integrity of some of the most beautiful courses in the world. They’re becoming outdated, which is just a little scary, really.”

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.