Tiger And The Leaders

By Brian HewittApril 12, 2008, 4:00 pm
At the outset of Sundays final round of the 2008 Masters there will be two tournaments to follow.
 
The first one will revolve around the efforts of World No. 1 Tiger Woods to storm back from a six-shot deficit and win the first leg of what billions of golf fans hope will be a calendar Grand Slam.
 
The second tournament will be the one that centers around the current leaders. After 54 holes Trevor Immelman sits at 11-under par thanks to a gritty Saturday 69 at Augusta National that moved him to 11-under par. He will be paired in the final grouping, for the second straight day, with 2007 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year Brandt Snedeker. Snedeker survived three straight bogeys on the back nine and trails Immelman by two.
 
I put myself right back in the golf tournament, Woods said moments after posting a Saturday 68 that materialized with the help from the weather that never got as nasty as had been predicted.
 
Trouble for Tiger was he posted his score before Immelman, who struggled early, birdied 13, 14 and 18 to re-extend his lead and make Woods Sunday task more difficult.
 
An historical reminder here: Woods has won 13 major championships (including four Masters) but has never come from behind on Sunday to win a major.
 
The number one story line at the beginning of the week centered, of course, around whether Woods would win at all.
 
His Saturday tee time got delayed by 40 minutes when a strong but swift line of thunderstorms hustled their way through the Augusta hour during the lunch hour.
 
This was nothing like the four hour and 18 minute play that disrupted The Masters two years ago on Saturday. Phil Mickelson emerged as the winner that Sunday. And a lot of people believed he was the real leader of the golf tournament after 36 holes with his 5-under total.
 
Alas for Phil, he stumbled to a third round 75, three shots behind Woods.
 
All of this did a measure of disservice to Immelman, who had fashioned a pair of 68s to get to 8-under at the halfway mark. It also wasnt entirely fair to Snedeker who trailed Immelman by one at the halfway point.
 
Most of the smart money early Saturday was on Mickelson mainly because of history. Prior to last years T24 finish at Augusta, he had posted eight straight top 10s in this event. Besides winning in 2006, he had broken through at Augusta National in 2004 with a birdie on the 72d hole that edged Ernie Els and produced his first victory in a major championship.
 
All Masters are different, as upset winner Zach Johnson proved last year. But all Masters are members of the same family. And the history of the tournament has proven that, while longshots can run first, the favorites usually parlay skill with experience when the finish line nears.
 
The other topic of conversation that merited attention as the third round moved forward was Sundays course set-up. Masters officials had been hinting all week long that certain hole locations on Sunday would be benign, thus assuring a return to the so-called Sunday roars at the Masters.
 
The tumult and the shouting that emerges in waves from Amen Corner during the final round of a hotly-contested Masters are like nothing else in golf. But weather forecasters have predicted high winds which could, if they attack the players Sunday, make eagles and birdies scarcer than a face value ticket. We can only hope the paid professionals are wrong again.
 
Speaking of Amen Corner, traditionally the stretch that begins on the par 4 11th and concludes at the par 5 15th, its thunder was being stolen. Through 36 holes the most difficult hole on the golf course was the par 4 10th, followed, in order, by No. 11 and the par 4 9th. The fourth most difficult hole, in terms of average score over par, was the par 4 7th.
 
That meant the toughest stretch on the golf course was 7-11. Amen corner was becoming something of a breather.
 
Sunday, of course, will be a different. It always is. There will be Woods. And there will be the winner. If the two become one and the same, Tiger Mania once again will dwarf everything else in golf.
 
At least until the conclusion of the next major, the U.S. Open in California in June.
 
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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.