Merritt (61) upstages Spieth (62) on Friday at RBC

By Associated PressApril 17, 2015, 11:18 pm

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Little-known Troy Merritt one-upped Masters champion Jordan Spieth at the RBC Heritage on Friday.

Merritt shot a 10-under 61 to tie the course record at Harbour Town Golf Links, only a few hours after Spieth wowed the gallery with a bounce-back 62 to match his lowest PGA Tour round.

Merritt tied David Frost's tournament mark set in 1994 and topped the leaderboard at 12-under 130, a stroke off the 36-hole event record shared by Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson.

Merritt, who opened with a 69 on Thursday, saw Spieth's score in the morning and knew the opportunity was there to go low.

''Anytime that you match shot for shot with the Masters champ, with the way he's playing, it's a pretty good feeling,'' said Merritt, whose career best in four seasons on the PGA Tour is a tie for second last year at the St. Jude Classic.

Spieth looked like the headliner Friday, following a 74 on Thursday with the 62 – which tied his career low set at the Deutsche Bank Championship in 2013.

The 21-year-old Texan has been on a major roll the past month, winning the Valspar Championship and finishing second in San Antonio and Houston before capturing his first major title at Augusta National last week.

Spieth birdied his final two holes, electrifying the crowds with the lowest tournament round at Harbour Town in 10 years – until Merritt did him one better.


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Merritt had nine birdies over his final 10 holes, surging to the top of the leaderboard and leaving Spieth six shots behind on a day of low, low scoring. Merritt ended his round with four straight birdies, including a 5-footer on the signature lighthouse hole, No. 18, to tie the course record.

Merritt sits four shots ahead of Matt Kuchar and John Merrick. Kuchar had a 66, and Merrick shot 65.

Past RBC Heritage winners and U.S. Open champions Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk are 7 under, along with Kevin Kisner. Furyk had a 64, Kisner shot 67, and McDowell 69.

Spieth is tied for seventh in a pack that included former British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen, who shot a 67.

Harbour Town has rarely shown such little bite as low scores were everywhere. Brandt Snedeker, Bryce Molder and Russell Knox had 64s like Furyk. Kevin Streelman, Blake Adams, Brian Harman and John Peterson joined Merrick with 65s.

In all, 62 players, including 11 who didn't make the cut, shot sub-70 rounds. The second-round scoring average of 69.641 was the second lowest in tournament history, only surpassed by the 2000 third round (69.162).

Spieth had the lowest round since Peter Lonard opened the 2005 event with a 62 on the way to capturing the title. It was a distinction that lasted just a few hours. Still, Spieth showed the energy and skill missing in Thursday's struggles.

''That's just better golf,'' Spieth said. ''I told you guys yesterday, no excuses, I just played poorly.''

Spieth said he corrected his ball position and cured the slice that kept him off target Thursday.

''I went back to posture, ball position, hand position and tempo,'' he explained. ''And I struck that ball quite a bit better.''

Most had figured a highly-fatigued Spieth wouldn’t last long at the RBC Heritage. Along with a grueling week of grinding for a green jacket, Spieth spent two frenetic days in New York on an interview and appearance tour.

He arrived Tuesday night and took the course yesterday without playing a hole of practice. But Spieth said he was motivated to improve on his poor first-round showing.

''I don't want to go home early,'' he said.

He won't have to. But he's still chasing plenty of skilled players in his attempt to become just the second player to follow a Masters victory with one at the RBC Heritage. Bernhard Langer accomplished that double in 1985.

Divots: Tom Watson birdied the 18th hole for a 70 to make the cut. Watson made the cut at the age of 65 years, 7 months, 13 days. Sam Snead is the oldest player to make a PGA Tour cut at 67 years, 2 months, 21 days. ... There were 76 players who made the cut at even-par 142. That equals the lowest cut ever at the tournament. It has been done eight times previous, the last in 2011.

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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.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.