Vijays 31st Flavor

By Brian HewittMarch 19, 2007, 4:00 pm
ORLANDO, Fla. -- This is the time of the year when PGA TOUR victories automatically move players onto the short list of who to watch at the Masters Tournament, which begins three Thursdays from now.
 
Not that Vijay Singh, who earned a green jacket in 2000 and is suddenly the first player to win twice in America in 2007, wasnt on everybodys watch list already.
 
Vijay Singh
Vijay Singh is finally the King of Bay Hill. (WireImage)
Singh, who turned 44 just last month, captured the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard Sunday at Bay Hill by two shots. It was his 31st PGA TOUR victory. And as flavors of victory go, it was a sweet one.
 
I feel, Singh said afterward, like Ive got my game back.
 
Singh had arrived here with distinctly sour-tasting memories of Bay Hill. He had finished with at least a share of second place on three different occasions, the most recent being two years ago.
 
On that Sunday in 2005 he rinsed a 7-iron on the 72nd hole to hand the tournament to Kenny Perry. Afterward Singh admitted he had selected the wrong club. Even though he moved back into the top spot in the world rankings that day, it was small consolation. And it didnt help his confidence much that he had missed a 3-footer the previous week that allowed Padraig Harrington to beat defeat him at the Honda Classic.
 
This Bay Hill felt more like Bay Hell for Singh Thursday when he bogeyed his first two holes. But a Friday 68 followed by a Saturday 67 followed by an outgoing Sunday 31 put him in full command with a three-shot lead at the turn.
 
That was right about the same time Tiger Woods, a four-time champion at Bay Hill, was double-bogeying the 11th hole to fall from 5 under to 3 under. Tiger had sent a jolt through the galleries when he birdied his first two holes in the final round. A bogey on No. 3 blunted the charge and the 11th (drive in rough, lay-up still in rough, three putts) ended his hopes.
 
And it got worse for the worlds No. 1. Woods followed a bogey on 16 with a double and a triple to finish with a final nine of 43 that sent pressroom statisticians scurrying to find out if Woods had ever shot that high a number for a final nine in his professional career that began in 1996.
 
Turns out the 43 tied for the worst nine-hole score for Woods since the front nine of the second round of the 1996 TOUR Championship at Southern Hills in Oklahoma. At that event Woods had spent the entire night in the hospital with his father who had suffered a heart attack.
 
Woods did not stop and talk to the media after his round Sunday. And who could blame him?
 
Meanwhile, 54-hole leader Vaughn Taylor labored mightily much of the day. He began the last round with a two-shot lead over Ben Curtis, three ahead of Singh and Tom Lehman. But bogeys on the second and fourth holes pretty much killed his buzz. And it was not unexpected. Taylor arrived this week ranked 166th in final round scoring average.
 
And he was still fighting a reputation for being too hard on himself, a tendency that PGA TOUR players must learn to curb if for no reason other than a desire for longevity. Its almost like a disease Taylor confessed of his quest for perfection.
 
Taylor did birdie the last hole to finish solo third behind runner-up Rocco Mediate and it was good enough to earn Taylor a berth in next weeks WGC-CA Championship at Doral.
 
Singhs three-shot lead at the turn had shrunk to just one momentarily when Mediate, the 36-hole leader, birdied the 14th hole while Singh was making bogey at 11. But Singh responded immediately with a clever third from behind a tree on the par 5 12th followed by a 20-footer for birdie.
 
The lead was still two when Singh got to the 72nd hole which had punched a hole in his memory bank two years ago. It was a good feeling standing on 18 knowing you dont have to make par to win the tournament.
 
Par, thanks to a one-putt, is what Singh made.
 
Coming in, Singh had quietly slipped all the way down to No. 9 in the Official World Golf Ranking. The Bay Hill win moved him back up to No. 7.
 
So Im all excited, yeah. Singh said at the prospect of the approaching Masters.
 
Not too many others who faced the stern test of Bay Hill last week can say the same.
 
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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.