Els Final Countdown

By Associated PressFebruary 5, 2008, 5:00 pm
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- After one of his many crushing losses to the world's No. 1 player, Ernie Els once described Tiger Woods as a legend in the making. Woods was 24 at the time with only two majors.
'He's probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he gets into his 40s,' Els said after losing to him in a playoff at Kapalua.
Now if he can only get Elvis to leave the building.
Because that looks to be the only way the Big Easy can achieve his grandiose goal of becoming No. 1 in the world.
Whether he was simply trying to motivate himself or he truly believed it, Els said toward the end of the 2006 season that he was giving himself three years to reclaim the No. 1 ranking, a spot he has not occupied in nearly 10 years.
The demons were gone from 2004, when he had a chance to win all four majors and came up empty.
The scars were healed from torn knee ligaments the following year.
'It's a hell of a task, but I really believe I can do it,' Els said on the eve of 2007.
Then he watched Woods win seven times, including another major, and build such an enormous lead in the ranking that a three-year plan looked out of reach even in dog years.
'Let's get serious,' Els said in a preview to his 2008 season. 'I have got two years left of my original plan. I have got to start winning tournaments -- fast!'
Then came another devastating blow in Dubai.
Els had the 54-hole lead and was four shots clear of Woods until a finish that was all too familiar.
Woods dropped five birdies over his final seven holes, while Els twice missed par putts inside 6 feet to slip behind. Els' last chance came on the par-5 18th, where a birdie would have forced a playoff. He had 240 yards to the green, but his 5-wood caught a gust and found the middle of the lake, not the ripple effect Els had in mind.
Els walked toward the drop area with his head down and his spirits even lower.
He wrote of his disappointment the next day in his weekly diary on his Web site, but the real frustration was evident by the fact Els never mentioned Woods by name.
'I have to put behind me what happened last week in Dubai,' Els said. 'It's history. There's nothing I can do about it now.'
Els has been runner-up to Woods seven times, more than any other player, and only a bogey at the final hole that dropped him into a tie for third kept that number from going even higher.
The knee is fine. The game is healthy.
The mental scar issue is another matter.
'It's definitely more mental now than physical,' swing coach David Leadbetter said Tuesday at Pebble Beach. 'It's getting aggravating now. It's happened a number of times in different locations. But as I've said to him, he can't get down on himself. It's not as if he played badly. But when Tiger is in that mood, it's tough.'
There have been plenty of audacious comments that relate to Woods over the last couple of years, and Els' stated goal to be No. 1 in three years has to rank among them. What separates it from Rory Sabbatini saying Woods looked 'beatable as ever,' or Ian Poulter saying that when he reaches his full potential 'it will be just me and Tiger,' is that Els has a track record.
Since Woods first became No. 1 in the world, Els is one of only three players to hav.e replaced him, although for the shortest time (nine weeks). The others were David Duval (15 weeks) and Vijay Singh (32 weeks).
Els had every reason to believe he could return to No. 1 based on his ability.
What he didn't take into account was Woods.
There is no denying that the three times Woods lost the No. 1 ranking, he was in the middle of changing his swing -- after winning the '97 Masters (Els, Duval) and in 2003-04 (Singh).
'People ask why we don't stand up to this guy,' Thomas Bjorn said. 'The fact is we are not as good as he is. It all depends on Tiger.'
Woods now appears to be in full flight. Since he tied for 12th at the British Open, he has won six of his last seven tournaments. The exception came at the Deutsche Bank Championship, where he tied for second.
How are you going to beat that?
Els was a victory away from returning to No. 1 in the world in 2004, and he had splendid chances until losing a playoff to Todd Hamilton at the British Open and three-putting from 100 feet on the 72nd hole at the PGA Championship to miss a playoff by one shot.
Padraig Harrington is among those players who do not share their goals. He was asked Tuesday if he ever aspired to be No. 1 in the world, and the Irishman smiled and said, 'If I have, I wouldn't tell you.'
'You never get your goals out there, because you'll be judged by them,' Harrington had said in an interview the day before. 'By trying to motivate himself, he's put more stress on himself.'
That's what Els now faces.
His biggest battle is against time, and not just the two years remaining on his goal to catch Woods. He is 38, and he doesn't have the body or the fitness discipline of Singh, who played his best golf after turning 40.
But the bigger problem is Woods.
'We're in the era -- probably -- of the greatest player ever,' Nick Faldo said Tuesday morning. 'It's a tough time for these guys. He is forcing players to change.'
The one thing Els might need to change is his goal.
What also motivates the Big Easy is to win the career Grand Slam, which for Els means winning the Masters and PGA Championship. Right now, that would be far more realistic to attain than No. 1 in the world.
The sooner Els drops his obsession with Woods, the better his chances.
Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.