Choi, Brown tied; Walker, Woodland 1 back

By Doug FergusonJanuary 30, 2016, 11:46 pm

SAN DIEGO - Scott Brown and K.J. Choi, both of moderate length off the tee, are tied for the lead at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where the South Course is the longest all year on the PGA Tour. It helps to hit it straight.

One shot behind was Jimmy Walker, who has plenty of power, but he hit only three fairways Saturday. It helps to make putts.

The mystery of this tournament adds another element for the final round with a nasty forecast. Bracing for increasingly heavy rain and gusts up to 40 mph, the PGA Tour moved up the tee times as early as possible to try to avoid the worst of it.

With 16 players separated by three shots, this could be anybody's tournament.

''I enjoy the grind of it. And I like tough golf courses,'' Brown said. ''And I think we're going to have both tomorrow.''

Choi one-putted his last six holes to salvage an even-par 72 and a share of the lead with Brown, who missed three good birdie opportunities late in his round of 70.

They were at 9-under 207.


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One shot behind were Walker and Gary Woodland, who shared the 36-hole lead with Choi and didn't see anything go in until late in his round. Woodland made two birdies over the last four holes for a 73.

''You want it to be as tough as you can,'' Woodland said. ''You want to go out there and earn it. So I hope it's tough, and I hope I have a good day.''

Choi was headed the wrong direction until he made a pair of birdies, saved par on three straight holes and then hit wedge to 3 feet on the par-5 18th for one last birdie.

''The last birdie will help, because tomorrow it's going to be tough,'' Choi said. ''So it was a very good round today.''

Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler each missed the cut, though Torrey Pines still has a local favorite to cheer. That would be Michael Kim, the Cal grad who went to Torrey Pines High School and grew up watching Mickelson and Tiger Woods win here. Kim had a 70 and was among four players at 7-under 209.

Another shot back was a group that included Dustin Johnson, who didn't make a birdie until the 13th hole and still managed to limit the damage to a 74.

Choi hasn't won since The Players Championship in 2011, which gave him a five-year exemption that ends this year. He was an assistant captain in the Presidents Cup in October, and showed he still has plenty of game. Giving 30 yards off the tee to Johnson and Woodland, he rarely was out of play and dropped shots mainly on a three-putt bogey at No. 5 and a poor chip across the green at No. 7 that led to double bogey.

But he got back into the mix with his strong finish, particularly the par saves on the 15th and 16th holes.

Brown appeared to be the most relaxed, maybe because of his home life. His wife, Allison, gave birth to their second daughter a week ago Tuesday. Brown said that might have put him at ease this week, and he recorded back-to-back top 10s on the PGA Tour for the first time in 2012 right after their first daughter was born.

But he did not dismiss the work he put in over the offseason with swing coach John Tillery, or even the inspiration from good friend and Aiken, South Carolina, neighbor Kevin Kisner, who has been among the best players on Tour over the last year and who routinely beats him in games at Palmetto Golf Club.

Walker already has two victories on California courses - Pebble Beach and CordeValle - and loves Torrey Pines. He just wishes he were hitting the ball where he was aiming.

''It hasn't been real fun,'' Walker said. ''But you got to deal with what you brought with you, so I'm doing the best I can. Just a lot of up-and-downs today. A lot of putts. So all that feels good. So that's a good thing.''

Even with the lead groups struggling with the South Course, there were plenty of fireworks.

Jason Gore had an albatross when he holed out with a 3-wood on the par-5 18th hole. Ben Crane was stuck behind a tree and punched it out on the 15th, only to watch it bound onto the green and into the cup for an eagle. A short time later, Freddie Jacobson holed out for eagle on the 15th.

Based on the forecast, the final round might be more about surviving with pars.

''If it's as bad as everybody says it's going to be, it is going to be a grind,'' Walker said. ''Is it going to be a ton of fun? Probably not. Just going to be out there getting slammed and attendance is probably going to be down. There's not going to be a lot of people out there, because it sounds like the apocalypse is coming.''

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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.