Things to Look Out for in 2008

By Brian HewittOctober 20, 2007, 4:00 pm
If anybody had asked me, I would have told them:
 
  • Look out for Tiger in 2008. More than ever.
     
    I know, I know. The guys he plays against are always looking out for Tiger Woods. But Im talking about the big stages in 2008.
     
    Woods, for the foreseeable future, will always be the favorite at Augusta National where he has won the Masters Tournament four times. The more they change the golf course there, putatively to protect it against his talents, the more it plays into his hands.
     
    The 2008 PGA Championship will take place at Oakland Hills, a golf course that got the better of Woods at the 1996 U.S. Open where he played as an amateur. And Woods didnt especially distinguish himself at the 2004 Ryder Cup matches at Oakland Hills. But the subsequent Rees Jones re-design has lengthened the course Ben Hogan famously called a monster to 7,303 yards. Thats long enough to give Woods more of an advantage but not too long to keep him from hitting his more easily-controllable 3-woods off a lot of tees.
     
    The 2008 Open Championship returns to Royal Birkdale where Woods came within a cats whisker of chasing down winner Mark OMeara on the final day when they played the British there back in 1998. Birkdale, like St. Andrews, fits Woods eye more than rota courses like Carnoustie.
     
    The 2008 U.S. Open comes, for the first time, to the South course at Torrey Pines near San Diego. Another Rees Jones re-design, Torrey South in June will play differently, and longer, than it perennially does early in the year at the Buick Invitational. But it wont be that different. Woods has captured the Buick Invitational five times, including the last three in a row, and has been playing the course competitively since he was a junior. Can you say Calendar Grand Slam?
     
    Finally, the 2008 Ryder Cup will be played at Valhalla in Louisville. Valhalla is where Woods engaged Bob May in a memorable duel before winning out in a playoff. This will be the first time in six Ryder Cups the event will be staged at a venue where Woods has previously won an event. Kentucky is a state that knows, better than most, about horses for courses.
     
    And in case you hadnt noticed, Woods is golfs answer to Secretariat.
     
  • Look out for Annika in 2008.
     
    Not too many people have noticed that the engaged-to-be-married Sorenstam doesnt plan on getting to the altar until 2009. That leaves all of this off-season to completely recover from the neck and back injuries that slowed her this year.
     
    It also could mean, especially if starting a family is a priority in 2009, that 2008 will be the last year she devotes solely to competitive golf.
     
    That is not good news for the rest of the women; although world No. 1 Lorena Ochoa likes the taste and feel of sitting atop the womens game.
     
    So before you get ready to anoint Paula Creamer or Morgan Pressel as the next big thing; and before you buy into Ochoa vs. Norways Suzann Pettersen as golfs next big rivalry, pay proper respect to Sorenstam. Theres a lot of game left there.
     
  • Dont look out for Michelle Wie.
     
    The volume of e-mails received by this reporter after the recent resignation of Wies agent, Greg Nared, was huge. And there was, to be redundant, complete consensus: People want Wies parents to leave her alone and let her lead the life of a normal student at Stanford.
     
    So the less we see of Michelle in 2008, the better it could be for her future as a person and a player.
     
    Meanwhile interest in Wie from PGA TOUR tournament directors looking to spike their gates, is pretty much dead. A recent inquiry from GOLF CHANNEL regarding a 2008 sponsors exemption, to an official with the Sony Open in Wies home state of Hawaii was met with a short reply.
     
    Sponsors exemptions, came the response, wont be considered until November. Hardly a ringing endorsement for Wies chances of playing there early next year.
     
  • The Stack and Tilt is alive and well.
     
    Teaching pros Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett continue to win PGA TOUR converts to their idiosyncratic method of striking a golf ball.
     
    Meanwhile theres no truth to the rumor that the FedExCup will present a non-deferred $10 million first prize, in cold cash, at the 72nd green of next years TOUR Championship. Now THAT would have been a stack and tilt.
     
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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.