Notes: China Tour series ahead of schedule

By Doug FergusonNovember 2, 2016, 2:20 am

SHANGHAI – The PGA Tour China Series began in 2014 and by all accounts is ahead of schedule in developing local talent.

Last year, Li Haotong was one shot out of the lead going into the final round of the HSBC Champions and played in the penultimate group with reigning Masters and U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth. After a rough start with a nation watching, he shot 72 and tied for seventh.

This year, the honor went to Zhang Xinjun, who opened with rounds of 68-69. He received a larger gallery than he would have expected because he was in the same group as Rory McIlroy. Zhang matched McIlroy with a 70, and then he faded to a 76 on the final and tied for 21st.

''It's great for the tournament,'' McIlroy said. ''I knew the atmosphere of the day was going to be a bit bigger than it has been, especially playing with Zhang. It's nice they have a local. They came out to watch him and support, and I was along. So it was a bonus that we both played together.

''All the kids watching, it can only inspire them to try to emulate the local hero, as well as guys like us.''

Li won four times in China in the inaugural year to advance to the Tour, where he was 49th on the money list. He was playing the Tour again this year until he won the Volvo China Open to secure his European Tour card. He now is at the Turkish Airlines Open this week as part of the Final Series on the Race to Dubai.

Zhang is No. 5 on the China money list, hopeful of staying there for the second half of the season so he can advance to the Tour.

''This is what we hoped would happen,'' said Paul Johnson, head of international affairs for the PGA Tour. ''It just happened sooner than we thought. When we built the platform, we thought it would take five years. Some of these guys have shot through more quickly.''

Next in line is Zecheng Dou. He already has won four times on the PGA Tour China Series to easily lead the money list. Zecheng is virtually a lock to be on the Tour next year, and he should have status all year.

For Zecheng, coming to America won't be too great of a shock to the system. He once lived in Canada, and he played several junior events in America growing up. He saw the PGA Tour China Series as his best route to the PGA Tour.

''It's developing fast,'' he said of the 3-year-old circuit. ''It seems like every winning score was 20 under. It's getting harder, and there's more foreign guys coming to play. A lot better players are coming over.''

The second half of the season resumes this week with the Clearwater Bay Open.

WALK-UP MUSIC: Expect the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship to be a little bit louder next January.

At least before the first shot is struck.

Giles Morgan, the global head of sponsorship for HSBC, plans to have music on the practice range at Abu Dhabi. Players would choose the playlist. Music also was blaring on the range at Hazeltine during the Ryder Cup.

Morgan also wants to create a little more atmosphere as players approach the first tee.

''We want to celebrate the moment,'' he said. ''We're looking at them coming from the putting green with the soundtrack they choose, and that sound feeds up from the hill when it's their time to go up. They've chosen their walk-up music. It happens in other sports, and it seems to work. It allows them through their choice of music to connect with the fans, and it humanizes them.''

TRAVEL PROBLEMS: Tyrrell Hatton of England nearly parlayed a pair of strong finishes in the majors to a PGA Tour card.

Some of the blame can be attributed to a bad day of travel.

Hatton tied for fifth in the British Open. He tied for 10th in the PGA Championship, which got him into the Travelers Championship the following week. He closed with a 66 and tied for 17th. All he needed was one good tournament to finish in the equivalent of the top 125 on the money list and earn his PGA Tour card.

The Wyndham Championship helped out by giving him an exemption. It was getting there that proved to be the problem. ''A shocker of a journey,'' Hatton said.

He flew from Hartford, Connecticut, to Greensboro, North Carolina, via Philadelphia. But when he reached Philadelphia, his flight to Greensboro was canceled and he was routed through Washington, where that flight was nearly canceled.

''It should have taken me 14 hours from leaving the hotel, and it took 34,'' Hatton said. ''I managed eight holes of a practice round. I was just a zombie.''

He missed the cut and headed back to England. He's not sure the travel issues cost him a chance in the tournament, though it didn't help.

''Just one of those weeks,'' Hatton said. ''But I'm looking forward to playing more events out there.''

RYO'S BACK: Hideki Matsuyama has been on such a tear that it's easy to overlook the return of longtime friend Ryo Ishikawa.

Ishikawa sat out most of the PGA Tour season with a back injury. He returned to the Japan PGA Championship and missed the cut, took an additional six weeks off and now is starting to roll. Ishikawa has posted five straight top 10s in Asia. The streak began with the 14th victory of his career. He followed with a runner-up finish, third at the ANA Open, a tie for seventh at the Japan Open and a tie for 10th at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia.

Next up for Ishikawa is Las Vegas.

Later this month, he will join Matsuyama in Melbourne to represent Japan in the World Cup at Kingston Heath.

DIVOTS: One of the highlights at the HSBC Champions is a party to celebrate the ''HSBC Caddie of the Year.'' This year's winner? Austin Johnson, the brother of U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson. It was a vote of the other caddies at the HSBC Champions. ... Gary Woodland married Gabby Granado before playing the Asia swing. ... Three left-handers have won on the PGA Tour this year, none of them with the nickname ''Lefty.'' Bubba Watson won at Riviera, Greg Chalmers won in Reno and Cody Gribble won in Mississippi. ... The John Deere Classic raised a record $10.5 million for 491 local and regional Quad Cities charities, ranking it among the top three in charitable giving on the PGA Tour. ... The FedEx Cup playoff event at the TPC Boston will be called Dell Technologies Championship.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Chesson Hadley (No. 92) at the 2014 Puerto Rico Open was the last player in the top 100 to win an opposite-field event on the PGA Tour.

FINAL WORD: ''When I got to six ahead I was thinking, 'If I blow this, it's not going to be good.' I felt a bit of pressure with that thought.'' - Hideki Matsuyama, on his seven-shot victory in the HSBC Champions.

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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.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.