Wood set to defend Dick's Sporting Goods title

By Associated PressAugust 15, 2013, 10:21 pm

ENDICOTT, N.Y. – Willie Wood struggled for so long that when he finally notched that breakthrough victory he knew exactly where to celebrate. No need for anything lavish.

''I went to a Wendy's drive-thru for dinner,'' Wood said, recalling the aftermath of his triumph a year ago at the Dick's Sporting Goods Open after making the field as an open qualifier. ''That was exciting.''

And career changing. The Champions Tour win at En-Joie Golf Club ended a victory drought of more than 16 years.

''It boosted my confidence level,'' said Wood, who beat Michael Allen on the first hole of a playoff. ''It's fun to feel good about your game. Probably the worst thing is expectations change. Not just expectations for me, expectations from other people. I used to get texts from other people when I'd finish 25th in a tournament saying, 'well done.'''

''Now, if I finish 25th it's, 'Hang in there. It'll be OK next week.'''

Wood followed his first victory on the senior tour with a third-place finish at the Boeing Classic in Seattle, missing a playoff there by one shot, then came from five strokes back to win the inaugural Pacific Links Hawaii Championship.

Two wins in three starts. The reward: Wood was selected player of the month in August and September.

''Those three weeks were kind of life-changing for me,'' Wood said. ''It definitely was a career-changing month and a half. Having to Monday qualify and not know what your schedule is going to be for the week is stressful. It changed my schedule immensely. It's nice to be able to set a schedule. There's no cut, so you know you're leaving on Sunday. That's nice, and I'm hoping it lasts a long time.''

Whoever wins the Dick's Sporting Goods Open most certainly will cherish the moment. He will be the 1,000th tournament champion in the history of the Champions Tour, which began in 1980 at the Atlantic City Country Club in Atlantic City, N.J. Don January, who won that first tournament, will be on hand for the trophy presentation.

In that inaugural year, the schedule consisted of four events. The other three played that year were at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., Suntree in Melbourne, Fla. and Turnberry Isle North Miami Beach, Fla. The purse at the Atlantic City Senior International was $125,000 and the total prize money for the four-event season was $475,000. January took home $20,000.

Since that first season, the Champions Tour, the brainchild of former commissioner Deane Beman, has hosted tournaments in 38 states and visited eight countries.

''I know when we started all of this we just kind of felt like we still wanted to compete and play, but there really wasn't a place for us,'' January said. ''We thought we had a product to sell, but we didn't know how the market would react. Not any of us ever dreamed what it is today.''

One guy will relish just playing no matter where he finishes - Joey Sindelar, who grew up nearby and still lives in Horseheads, N.Y. A two-time winner at En-Joie in the 1980s when it hosted the old B.C. Open on the PGA Tour, Sindelar has a new look - he's dropped at least 50 pounds - and a new swing after undergoing back surgery in November to correct spinal stinosis.

Dealing with an arthritic back has been a stiff challenge for the affable 55-year-old Sindelar.

''It's been really almost more scary than frustrating because I honestly thought I was never going to stick a tee in the ground again,'' said Sindelar, who's made just five starts this year and has a scoring average of 73.27. ''It just wasn't getting better. Four months ago, I really still thought I wasn't ever going to play again, it was that bad.

''I'm not a golfer yet, but I have finished three tournaments in a row, which thrills me to death,'' he said. ''I'm not sure what kind of competitive ability I'll have this week. I'm certainly not at the top of my game.''

But he's here, and that's really all that matters.

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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.