Youth on the Rise in World Ranking
Woods must be getting older.
Youth, which at this moment is defined as anyone younger than the 31-year-old Woods, showed some promise over the last two weeks. Charles Howell III (27) shot 65 in the final round and beat Phil Mickelson in a playoff at Riviera, then Henrik Stenson (30) continued his torrid stretch by winning the Accenture Match Play Championship for his third victory in the last six months.
Stenson climbed to No. 5 in the world, tops among Europeans and the highest position ever by a Swede.
That caused consternation in some quarters, for Stenson does not seem like he belongs in any conversation about the ``Big Five.''
At least not yet.
Stenson isn't sure himself, especially when he listened to the names ahead of him and behind him - Woods, Jim Furyk, Mickelson, Adam Scott, Stenson, Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh.
His name doesn't stand out as glaringly as the lineup of major venues in 2000 (Augusta National, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Valhalla), but he was asked nonetheless if he felt as though he belonged.
``I think I've just established myself within the top 20, and then just recently moved into the top 10,'' Stenson said. ``I mean, I can't say that I go straight out and say, 'I should be No. 5 or No. 6 in the world.' But obviously, that's where I am at the moment.''
And that wasn't a fluke.
Stenson might not be a household name in the United States (Memo to Americans: Golf is played in other parts of the world), but his record might be second only to Woods since September, with three victories and eight top-10s in his last 10 tournaments.
He won the BMW International Open in Germany to finish atop the European Ryder Cup standings. Three weeks ago, he went head-to-head with Els over four rounds at the Dubai Desert Classic to beat him by one stroke, with Woods another shot behind. And last week north of Tucson, he played 120 holes in five days to win his first World Golf Championship.
Stenson hit perhaps the most sensational shot of the tournament when his wedge from the hard pan (after taking a penalty drop from a cactus) spun back to 2 feet for par that enabled him to get through the quarterfinals. He showed his power on the decisive hole in the championship match against Ogilvy when he reached the 600-yard 17th hole in two shots, despite a slight breeze in his face.
So why is it so hard to wrap your arms around Stenson being No. 5?
For the same reason that Scott (26) seems slightly out of place at No. 4.
Stenson said as much when he was asked what to expect next. He didn't talk about No. 1 - that's not even in range for Furyk or Mickelson - but rather the four biggest weeks in golf's summer calendar.
``I wouldn't mind being the first Swede to win a major championship,'' he said. ``That's the two childhood dreams that I had - playing in the Ryder Cup and winning the British Open.''
He played in his first Ryder Cup last September, went 1-1-1 and got the distinction of holing the putt that clinched victory for Europe.
Winning a major might be a tad tougher.
``We've got the world's best out there for the majors, and we know a few of them sort of put subscriptions on the tournaments,'' he said with a smile. ``It's not obviously big chances that you're going to win, but you can just try and put yourself in position coming Sunday.''
The ``Big Five'' from two years ago consisted of Woods, Singh, Mickelson, Els and Goosen, all multiple major champions.
While this collection of youth from all corners of the globe is getting better, the real measure is majors. And of the eight players younger than Woods in the top 15, Ogilvy is the only one who has captured a Grand Slam event. Only two others, Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, have even contended in the final round of a major.
Garcia (27) played in the final group twice in a major, most recently in the British Open last year at Hoylake. Donald (29) was tied for the lead with Woods at the PGA Championship last year and finished five shots behind.
Scott closed with a 67 last year at Medinah to tie for third, his best finish in a major, even though he was six shots behind. Stenson has only played in seven majors, and his best was a tie for 14th last year at the PGA Championship.
Trevor Immelman (27), No. 12 in the world, tied for fifth in the '05 Masters (eight shots behind Woods). Paul Casey (29) is No. 14 in the world whose best major moment was a tie for sixth in the 2004 Masters. He started that final round two shots out of the lead and closed with a 74.
Howell moved up to No. 15 in the world. He has never finished higher than a tie for 15th in the majors. His goal at the start of the year was to simply get into the Masters, his hometown event. He has yet to show any mettle in the four biggest events in golf, although his game has never looked better.
Howell and Lucas Glover are the only Americans under 30 who are among the top 50 in the world, and while that might sound troubling, it's time to stop looking at golf from a nationalistic perspective.
It is not the United States against Europe (except for a wonderful exhibition held every two years), nor is it the Americans against the rest of the world. Golf is a global game, and has been the past several years.
What every player of every age and of every nationality has in common is the pursuit of Tiger Woods.
Right now, no one is winning that race.
Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
McIlroy gets back on track
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.
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.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
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.
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.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
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.
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.
McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call
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.
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.