Woods builds on positive start with bogey-free 65

By Will GrayDecember 2, 2016, 10:07 pm

NASSAU, Bahamas – After getting off to a reasonable start for the second straight day at the Hero World Challenge, Tiger Woods encountered a quandary.

His tee shot on the par-3 eighth hole ended up in a waste area, the type of coarse, shelly sand that masquerades as a cart path at Albany Golf Club. His stance was impeded by a scrub bush, and he had a long carry to the hole with the green quickly running in the opposite direction.

What followed was a display of deft touch, a carefully crafted splash that landed off the green but nestled close to the hole. Two members of the gallery were still scooping up sand from where he hit the shot and placing it into plastic bags to commemorate the occasion when Woods rolled in his par putt.

He emphatically snagged the ball out of the hole, then turned to caddie Joe LaCava and said simply, “I’m not dropping a shot.”

The declaration was vintage Woods. The fact that he followed through on the promise shows that version may be more than just a distant memory.

If Woods offered reason for optimism in his first competitive round in nearly 16 months, his bogey-free 65 in the second round may as well have included measurements for a fifth green jacket. Woods appeared in control from the start, shaping shots and rolling in putts to the delight of the sparse crowds gathered in this secluded island alcove.

“Yesterday was a lot to build on. Through eight holes I had it, I lost it,” Woods said. “I made some silly mistakes there and bogeyed two par-5s. Today I did not do that. I turned those holes around, and consequently the momentum, the feel of the entire round changes.”

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The day got off to a curious start when Woods’ scheduled playing partner, Justin Rose, withdrew with a back injury. That left the tournament host in the awkward position of going out alone in the first group of the day, looking up in the standings at the other 16 players in the field.

But the 11th-hour audible may have been a blessing in disguise for Woods, who was able to go out without distraction or delay and feast on a course with smooth greens whose lone defense failed to show up.

“If the wind was blowing more, I was going to have (Albany head pro Damian Michelmore) play (as a marker),” Woods said. “But with the wind down I figured I could just go out there and just play it solo.”

Woods did just that, starting with a clinical birdie after bombing his drive on the opening hole and adding two more before making the turn. His issues off the tee were largely reduced, his iron approaches often found the target and his short game remained on point.

When Woods managed to convert a 20-foot par save on the 16th hole after escaping more scrub bush danger, it elicited a quick walk and fist pump that harkened back to the glory days. He may have been playing alone in an unofficial event, but Woods’ legendary focus allowed him to create a pressure-packed environment that he hopes will accelerate his return to form.

“I wanted to keep the card clean,” Woods said. “Somehow, I don’t know what it is about playing and competing, but keeping cards clean, there’s something really special and it feels pretty good doing that.”

Stepping to the microphone after the round, Woods recounted the physical toll his 40-year-old physique has taken: four knee surgeries, three on the back, with plenty of rehab in between. “My body’s been through it,” he admitted.

He noted that while he once ran 30 miles per week early in his Tour career, those days are long gone.

“There’s no way in hell I’m doing that now,” he joked.

Woods doesn’t pound the weight room like he once did, and while he has been looking back on his form as a junior for inspiration in recreating his swing, he realizes that he’ll never again have the supple flexibility of the young star in those photos and videos.

But therein lies perhaps the biggest reason for optimism as Woods looks to 2017 and beyond.

A low score and a bogey-free card are all well and good. But the Hero World Challenge does not a major make, as Woods’ admittedly strong performance still came on a course he knows well and one that offered little resistance in calm conditions.

The hope, though, is that this time might be different. That this time the biggest competitor the game has ever seen can take his foot off the gas and ease his way back into things.

It’s a test he has failed in the past. Too many times the draw of his former mindset and tactics proved too alluring, and his body broke down while trying to turn back the clock.

But Woods’ post-round candor displayed a level of reflection and self-awareness that should hearten golf fans near and far. Because while the show he put on Friday in the Bahamas was dazzling at times, the comeback trail from this point must be a smooth and steady one.

If Woods has actually come to embrace that notion, then there could be many more bogey-free 65s in his future.

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.