Ryan Fox at this week’s Andalucia Masters – photo European Tour

New Zealand’s Ryan Fox has had a solid, if unspectacular, season to date on this year’s European Tour having made 15 of 19 cuts to date but on only one occasion, has he finished inside the top ten, that coming when 6th in Saudi Arabia in February.

There have, however, been five other top fifteen finishes and thus he is in 50th place in the Race to Dubai standings and has no concerns about his immediate future but this week’s Estrella Damm N.A. Andalucía Masters in Spain could turn a solid season into something significantly better.

Fox added a second round of 69 at the famed Valderrama to his opening 70 to be just one back of the Frenchman, Romain Langasque, and finds himself sharing second place with England’s Matt Fitzpatrick and Laurie Canter and Sweden’s Sebastian Soderberg.

Despite a rather roller-coaster start to his second round, which included an eagle, a birdie and three bogeys in his opening five holes, Fox steadied the ship to be very much in the thick of things in the €3 million event.

“My patience and the score (has pleased me most), said Fox. “This place has beaten me to a pulp the last time I played it. I came in with no expectations whatsoever.

“You know you get some bad bounces and a few funny things happen around here, I’ve just gone with the flow and that’s helped me a lot scoring-wise. On top of that, I’ve hit the ball solid the first two days.

“There’s not a lot of shots you can relax over, even a two-foot putt around here has nightmare written all over it, if it’s a little downhill you know you can have a four-footer coming back if you make a mistake.

“I kind of like it, in that sense, where you have to think about shots. A lot of times you’re forced to hit a shot, move it around a tree, my brain enjoys that, but you come off a little tired. I’m looking forward to dinner and getting to bed.

“The whole year I felt like I’ve played solid but not spectacularly. Every week there’s been something that hasn’t quite been there, whether I’ve putted poorly, chipped it poorly or hit my irons bad – it’s not been the same thing every week. This week I’ve done everything pretty solid, hopefully it’s the start of it for me even though I’ve got one more week in the season next week.”

The notoriously demanding layout has claimed many victims this week including the world number one, Jon Rahm, who, playing in front of an adoring home crowd, finished his opening 36 holes at 10 over par to miss the cut by five shots.

West Australian Jason Scrivener is the next best of the down under brigade, the 32 year old in a share of 10th place after an impressive second round of 68, the second best round of the day.

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Guan Tianlang – with the trophy that got him to Augusta National – photo APAC

In 2012 I was contracted by Augusta National to join host Bill Macatee and analyst Frank Nobilo on the commentary team for the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship at the Amata Springs Golf Club outside on Bangkok.

Augusta National had funded the event since first being staged in 2009, the winner on each occasion being invited to play the Masters at Augusta National the following year.

It was a great gig for me and led to being involved in the role as on course commentator in the event over the next six years.

In that first event in Thailand a young 14-year-old would dominate the event from an opening round of 66 and eventually win by one shot over Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan with another two shots back to Australian Oliver Goss.

The two aspects of Guan’s game that stood out to me that week were his uncanny ability to manage his way around the layout despite being significantly shorter from the tee than most of his rivals and, secondly, being desperately slow in his decision making for and execution of shots.

Guan had already developed a reputation by being the youngest player to play in a European Tour event at the age of 13 when doing so at the 2012 Volvo China Open and he entered the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship few months later as one of the more favoured players but hardly the favourite.

Not only did he win but it was the dominant manner in which he led from the start that so impressed and although only just scraping home with a beautiful six foot sliding left to right putt for par at the last it was a victory that would open many doors.

This writer interviewing Guan after round three in Thailand

The most significant of those doors was a start at the Masters the following year. In earlier years Hideki Matsuyama had taken full advantage by making the cut at the Masters following his wins at the Asia Pacific Amateur in 2010 and 2011. Matsuyama played at Amata Springs in 2012 and finished five shots behind Guan in 4th place and not long after would turn professional.

And so it was on the Augusta for the Dongguan (S.E. China) youngster. Practice rounds with Tiger Woods and Ben Crenshaw did not appear to faze the debutante and so to the event itself where an opening round of 73 was impressive enough given his age (14 year and five months), lack of experience at Augusta National and that many felt his game was nowhere long enough to tackle the regularly extended Augusta National layout.

Guan’s second round of 75 was enough to see him make the cut on the number and although he would go on to finish 56th out of the 61 who made the cut it remains in this writer’s eyes one of the most underrated performances in the history of the game.

He became the youngest ever player to make the cut at the Masters, surpassing the effort of Italy’s Matteo Manassero who at the age of 16 years and 11 months became the then youngest person to make the cut at the 2010 Masters.

That he was able to do so despite being penalised one shot for slow play during his second round further highlights what a magnificent achievement it was that week. I had written a piece on him just prior to the event highlighting my concern for his pedestrian approach to preparing for a shot and it was no real surprise that his M.O. had come under scrutiny.

He would also make the cut at the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic soon after but, since, Guan has experienced a chequered career, finally turning professional in 2020 after some time at the University of Arizona.

In 2020 he qualified for and played events on the China Tour and, importantly, he is still only 22 with a world of experience behind him and hopefully ahead of him.

His performance at Augusta National more than eight years ago however remains as one that I believe deserves more recognition than it received.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Zealand’s Steve Alker – records his 6th consecutive top ten

In recent weeks I have written on several occasions on the deeds of New Zealander Steve Alker in events on the PGA Tour Champions and, today, the 50-year-old added another chapter when he finished tied for 7th at the Constellation Furyk and Friends event in Jacksonville in Florida.

One look at many of the players who finished ahead of and behind Alker this week, tells the story of just how quickly he has adapted to playing in events restricted for the 50 and overs, six of the leading 12 players this week major champions and several others in the field either major champions or Hall of Famers.

Phil Mickelson won the event by two shots over Miguel Angel Jimenez, the victory Mickelson’s third on the PGA Tour Champions.

Alker needed a birdie at the final hole today to force his way into the top ten, an important milestone as it qualifies him to play this coming week’s SAS Championship in North Carolina.

This was Alker’s sixth consecutive top ten in his first six starts, each finish earning him a start the following week after Monday qualifying for his debut event, the Boeing Classic in late August.

This week’s finish improves Alker to 56th in the Charl Schwab Cup standings and although not yet exempt for next season he is well on track to finish inside the top 54 and earn the right to play in as many as half the events in 2022 and a big finish in the next week or two could see him inside the top 36 who have full status next year.

The lottery that is qualifying for the PGA Tour Champions is one to be avoided at all costs as only five players earn a card if required to negotiate that stern test.

Given the quality of play on the PGA Tour Champions it is hard to overstate the performance of Alker, especially given his lack of success on the few occasions he played on the PGA Tour.

Alker has won several events on the Korn Ferry Tour, Canadian and Australasian Tours  however and, importantly, remained competitive on the Korn Ferry Tour right up to turning 50 in July.

Rod Pampling was 38th this week. Stuart Appleby in just his second Champions Tour event 46th, Robert Allenby 57th, John Senden 63rd, Stephen Leaney 72nd and David MacKenzie 78th.

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Brett Coletta a winner of the Queensland Open as an amateur chasing Korn Ferry Tour status again

The long and winding road to earn the right to play the PGA Tour continues this week when Stage 2 qualifying for the 2022 Korn Ferry Tour gets underway at the first of five venues across the USA with several Australasians hoping to play their way into the Final Stage in early November at which point places on the 2022 Korn Ferry Tour are determined.

Each venue carries a field of around 75 with those successful, graduating to the Final Stage where they will be joined by players whose standing on the Korn Ferry or PGA Tour has given them the right to try again.

There has already been pre-qualifying at seven venues and Stage One qualifying at eleven venues across the USA just to get this far, highlighting the tremendous task involved in just getting to the Korn Ferry Tour, never mind the 2023 PGA Tour which can now only be accessed through a good year on the Korn Ferry Tour.

Australasians such a Victorian Brett Coletta and NSW’s John Lyras tee it up at the first venue in Brooksville in Florida this week, Coletta a winner of the PGA Tour of Australasia’s 2016 Queensland Open as an amateur and actually going close to gaining his PGA Tour card via the Korn Ferry Tour in 2020.

Lyras a 25 year old from Sydney actually pre-qualified to play the Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour in 2019 and performed a similar feat when playing the AT&T Byron Nelson in Texas earlier this year.

Other than a 4th place in a Tier 2 event on the PGA Tour of Australasia earlier this year however it has been a battle for the man from the St Michael’s Golf Club but he gets an opportunity to make further progress this week.

Others likely to tee it up over the next ten days include former Australian Open Champion Stephen Allan, former PGA Tour event winner and Presidents Cup team member, Mark Hensby, former PGA Tour player James Nitties, Tasmanian Mathew Goggin, who was also a member of the PGA Tour for several years,  NSW’s Travis Smyth, West Australian Jason Scrivener, who has been playing so well in Europe over the last three years or so, Ryan Ruffels and New Zealand’s Denzel Ieremia and Nick Voke.

Su Oh – photo Steve Dykes Getty Images

Victorian Su Oh has continued her improved form of late when finishing in a share of 7th place at this week’s Shoprite LPGA Classic in Galloway in New Jersey.

The finish was just the second top ten of the season for 25-year-old but comes just two weeks after a runner-up result at the Cambia Portland Open and will advance her to 40th in the Race to the Globe ranking.

It will also all but ensure her a place in the field for the season ending CME Group Tour Championship in November.

Oh produced a final round of 68 to finish four shots behind the winner and former Victorian Open champion Celine Boutier of France who won by one shot over Brooke Henderson and former world number ones Inbee Park and Jin Young Ko.

Boutier required her best-ever LPGA Tour round of 63 to edge ahead and win her second LPGA Tour victory.

The LPGA will remain in New Jersey for this coming week’s Cognizant Founders Cup before the tour heads to Korea and Japan in late October then returning to Florida for two end of season events.

 

 

Minjee lee – file photo

Australian Minjee Lee has been unable to convert the three shot lead she enjoyed through 12 holes of her final round of the Hana Bank Financial Group Championship, eventually losing a playoff at the third extra hole to 20 year old Korean LPGA Tour rookie, Song Ga Eun.

It was Lee’s second consecutive runner-up placing having finished in a share of that position in Arkansas last week.

Lee took a one-shot lead into day four but was quickly challenged throughout the opening nine before birdies at the 10th and 11th holes swept her to a three shot lead.

A bogey at the 15th would prove costly for Lee however as Song birdied the 13th and 18th to draw level.

And so it was to a playoff, both players parring the first two extra holes before tournament officials made the unusual decision to switch hole locations on the par 5 18th, moving it from back left to a position nearer the front of the green.

Song responded with a stunning 3rd shot to 2 feet on the third playoff hole and although Lee responded with a solid approach of her own to 10 feet, her attempt to effectively keep the playoff alive failed when her birdie putt slipped by and it was left to Song to claim the title by holing her short putt.

The playoff pair finished one shot clear of the 3rd placed Ji Yeong Kim and Su Ji Kim with New Zealander Lydia Ko finishing in a share of 5th with two others.

Song won $A315,000 (equiv) for the win while Lee added another $A190,000 (equiv) to her already bulging bank balance.

For Lee, however, her impressive week will no doubt reward her corporate sponsors Hana Bank whose parent company, the Hana Financial Group, were also the tournament sponsors, the conglomerate also a sponsor of Lydia Ko.

Song, in her first season on the KLPGA Tour has now moved to 8th place on their money list with earnings of $A550,000 equivalent.

Ga Eun Song – photo Hana Financial Group

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minjee Lee – file photo

Perth’s Minjee Lee is on track to add a second victory of 2021 when she takes a one shot lead into the final round of the Korean LPGA Tour’s Hana Financial Group Championship at the Pocheon Adonis Country Club in Pocheon in Korea.

Lee, who is currently ranked 7th in the Rolex World Ranking, added a third round of 67 to edge ahead of locals, Ga Eun Song and Su Ji Kim, in the event sponsored by her long-term sponsors, the Hana Bank of Korea.

Just last week, Lee finished runner-up in an LPGA Tour event in Arkansas, that coming after a break of one month to recharge the batteries and the rest has proven beneficial with her near miss last week and now this impressive follow up.

No doubt playing the A$1.75 million Australian event due to her arrangements with Hana Bank, Lee’s involvement in the event means she misses this week’s Shoprite event in New Jersey on the LPGA Tour.

Lee is using the services of Korean based Australian caddie, Dean Herden, who has enjoyed prolific success with Korean golfers in the past having caddied for players such as So Yeon Ryu when she was successful in the US Women’s Open and was on the bag when Jin Young Ko won the Australian Women’s Open.

New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, another who is playing the event as a result of her commercial arrangement with the Hana organisation, is just three off the lead and tied for 7th.

 

Denzel Ieremia – gets a rare chance – file photo PGA of Australia

The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews has long provided an opportunity for Australasian golfers without European Tour status to play one of the most popular and lucrative events on that tour.

One of the entry criteria for the event is based on the leading ten players from the top 30 of money lists from the Australasian, Sunshine (South Africa) and Asian Tours.

Players such as Dimi Papadatos, Travis Smyth, Brett Rankin and New Zealander, Denzel Ieremia, therefore, get the chance to join more regular European Tour players such as Min Woo Lee, Scott Hend, Jason Scrivener, Ryan Fox, Maverick Antcliff, Bryden Macpherson, Josh Geary and Deyen Lawson in a 12 man Australasian line-up in the US$5 million event.

The pro-am format for the 72 hole event, a concept proving hugely popular in events on the PGA and Korn Ferry Tours and the New Zealand Open in our region, utilises multiple golf courses over the opening three rounds, allowing for a larger than normal field and opening the door for a field with wider diversity than a typical European Tour event.

The tournament proves popular with not only those without status on the European Tour but also for many of the leading European Tour, even players such as two time winner, Tyrrell Hatton and Shane Lowry, who just a few days ago battled it out over Whistling Straits in their forlorn battle against the Americans.

The timing of the event in 2021 so close to a draining week in Wisconsin has perhaps precluded an even stronger field but given that it is played over three outstanding courses in the St Andrews area (St Andrews Old, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns) the tournament attracts a lot of interest from players and golf fans worldwide.

Ieremia is one player who will warrant attention. He has not played a world ranking tour event since March of 2020 but in late 2019 he displayed an indication of his considerable talent when recorded top ten finishes in the NSW Open and the Australian Open and PGA Championships.

The Waikato (New Zealand) raised Iowa State University graduate is a significant talent and his showing this week will be of interest to many.

An Australasian has yet to win the event but the likes of Min Woo Lee, Jason Scrivener and Maverick Antcliff have played well in 2021 and this might be an opportunity to grab a share of the significant prizemoney on offer.

 

 

 

 

The USA side enjoying the moment – photo Darren Carroll PGA of America

Ultimately it was the weight of numbers that counted in the final analysis of the 2021 Ryder Cup, those numbers involving the world rankings of the USA side as they tackled and comfortably defeated a European side who were not the dominant force they have been in recent years in the biennial event.

Heading into this week’s event, all but one of the US side were inside the top twenty in the world ranking, the highest ranked being Scott Scheffler who was only just outside that group in 21st place.

The Europeans on the other hand boasted only four inside the top twenty with a lowest ranked player at 63rd in the world.

While such disparity has regularly been the case in the past and allowed a David and Goliath mentality for the Europeans to feed on, the US side appeared very much united as they took on a European side which perhaps should have been more at home on the windswept and exposed Whistling Straits layout than their opponents.

After all, in the two most significant events held at Whistling Straits previously, the winners have been non-Americans but, despite many thinking differently, the Americans have historically shown a capacity to handle windswept layouts far more than they are given credit for.

The USA won by 19 points to 9 after an 8 points to 4 victory in Sunday’s singles in which only Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood were able to stem the tide of an even greater winning margin by the rampant US side.

Matthew Fitzpatrick and Viktor Hovland also recorded a half point each for the European side today.

McIlroy was up against Olympic Gold Medallist, Xander Schauffele in the opening match of the day, European captain Padraig Harrington no doubt keen to provide some momentum for the almost impossible turnaround needed for the Europeans to claim the improbable nine points they required to retain the 94-year-old trophy.

McIlroy somehow found the resolve to turn around a horror week for him personally, having earlier lost all three of his team matches, and raced to an early lead against Schaufelle and remaining in front to win 3&2. It gave the Europeans a brief glimmer of hope but the out on the golf course the reality of the situation was kicking in.

Slowly but surely the inevitable became reality and when Collin Morikawa tied his match against Viktor Hovland the Americans had officially put Europe out of their misery, the Americans then with the 14.5 points they needed to secure the victory.

Harrington perhaps summed up the week and the gap between the two sides.

“The U.S. were very strong,” he said. “They got it right, whatever their plan was, they got it right this week, and a strong team, played well. Kept the momentum. And they would have been tough to beat at the best of times, let alone when they are at top form. It’s a great win for them.

“I can’t say we were surprised by it. I think we were as prepared as we could be. It’s maybe difficult to come to a golf course that the players haven’t played for a few years in that sense, but I think the players knew the course well enough. The U.S. were well-prepared. Good team. Played well.”

Steve Stricker has been low key but thorough and diligent throughout his reign as the US captain and the players responded.

“Speechless,” he said when asked for a response. “Everything about it, these guys all came together. Two weeks ago they came together. Showed me a lot about this group of guys. They all showed up for the practice rounds, all the assistant captains showed up at the practice rounds (tearing up).

“They had a mission this week and you could tell, they played great and they came together. I just can’t tell you — I mean, Brooks and Bryson wanted to play together; that’s how much it came together. That shows a lot about this whole team.

“From day one, it was about out-preparing, right, getting the guys here, getting them on the same page. This is a new era for USA golf. They are young. They come with a lot of passion, a lot of energy, a lot of game. They are just so good. So it’s exciting to see these guys and exciting for us in Wisconsin to experience this.”

Stricker’s success had double meaning for him given he is a native of Wisconsin.

Foes but friends, Ryder Cup captains Steve Stricker and Padraig Harrington photo PGA of America

Perhaps, though, it was Rory McIlroy, who, in an emotional interview, so aptly described just what golf’s greatest and arguably one of sport’s greatest contests means to those involved despite being on a losing side.

“Yeah, incredibly proud to be a part of this team, to be a teammates of all these guys, the captain, the vice captains, said the man playing in his 6th Ryder Cup.

“We’ve had a great time. You know, it looks like it’s not going to pan out the way we want on the golf course. I’ve been extremely disappointed that I haven’t contributed for more the team. I’m glad I got a point on the board today for them.

“It’s been a tough week. And the more and more I play in this event, I realize that it’s the best event in golf, bar none. I love being a part of it. I can’t wait to be a part of many more. Yeah, it’s the best. (Tearful).

Yeah, I don’t think there’s any greater privilege to be a part of one of these teams, European or American. It’s an absolute privilege. I’ve gotten to do this six times. They have always been my greatest experiences of my career.

“I have not — never really cried or got emotional over what I’ve done as an individual. I couldn’t give a s—. But this team, and what — and what it feels like to be a part of, to see Sergio break records, to see Jon Rahm come into his own this week, to see one of my best friends, Shane Lowry, make his Ryder Cup debut.

“All that, it’s phenomenal and I’m so happy to be a part of it. As I said I’m disappointed that I didn’t contribute more this week, but you know, in two years’ time, we’ll go again and try to, obviously it’s not over yet but we’ll give it another go again. Sorry for swearing, as well.

“I love being a part of this team and I love my teammates so much I should have done more for them this week. I just can’t wait to get another shot at this. It is by far the best experience in golf, and I hope little boys and girls watching this today aspire.”

The respective teams will reassemble in two years time in Rome where the Europeans will be effectively on home soil and enjoy the luxury of a partisan crowd to urge them on just as the US fans had this week.

Rory McIlroy sets out today. His emotional interview (below) tells the story of what the Ryder Cup means to those involved – photo PGA of America

 

 

 

 

Steve Alker – file photo Bruce Young

New Zealand’s Steve Alker has continued the remarkable start to his career on the PGA Tour Champions when again finishing inside the top ten in an event on the tour for the over-fifties.

Just over a month ago Alker began his PGA Tour Champions career without status and Monday qualified for the Boeing Classic in Washington.

Since then has reeled off five consecutive tens, each allowing him to play the following event and that will be again be the case as a result of his 5th place at this week’s Pure Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach.

Alker’s final round of 67 improved him from 12th overnight to his share of 5th and the money he earns this week will take his earnings in five on the PGA Tour Champions close to US$400,000 for his 7th place at the Boeing Classic, his 3rd place the following week at the Ally Championship, his 9th place at the Ascension Championship, a 7th place at the Sanford event and this week’s 5th place.

Alker has moved to 59th in the projected standings in the Schwab Cup and while that will not yet earn him full status for next season, he is well on his way to doing so.

If he is to move inside the top 54 by season’s end, he will have access to as many as half the events in 2022 and if he was to finish inside the top 36 he will be eligible to play all events next season.

Even now, he might have the occasional event to play in 2022 but gaining full status without having to tackle the demanding tour qualifying school will be the initial aim.

A game built around fairways and greens has worked well for the just turned 50 year old and even though he struggled to keep pace with the longer hitters on the Korn Ferry Tour in recent seasons, now that he is playing PGA Tour Champions events he is proving more than competitive once again.

“I’ve just been out there grinding with the young guys, and it (The Korn Ferry Tour) really deserves a lot of the credit for keeping my game where it’s at,” Alker told Bob McLellan of the PGA Tour from Pebble Beach this week.

“I’m one of the shorter hitters out there, but on PGA TOUR Champions I’d probably says I’m at least above average, probably in the top 30 off the tee.”

Alker, a four times winner on the Korn Ferry Tour including when his win at the 2009 NZPGA Championship was part of that tour, lives with his family in Arizona and has continued to compete on the Korn Ferry tour since although he did play on the PGA Tour in 2003 after a good year on the then Nationwide Tour in 2002.

West Australian Stephen Leaney finished as the next best of the Australasians this week when he finished in a share of 13th and moved to 44th in the Schwab Cup standings.

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