Notes: Clarke commits to McGladrey Classic

By Doug FergusonOctober 22, 2013, 6:04 pm

The McGladrey Classic still isn't sure what kind of field to expect as a regular PGA Tour event in November, about a month later than usual, and one week after most of the top players are in Shanghai for the HSBC Champions. For crowd appeal, the tournament received a boost from the commitment of Darren Clarke.

Considering the host at Sea Island – Davis Love III – that should not be all that surprising.

Clarke, a most popular British Open champion two years ago at Royal St. George's and for years the lovable, cigar-chomping, Ryder Cup regular, decided this year to take up PGA Tour membership and play a full schedule. His first stop in America is Sea Island.

The long friendship between Clarke and Love is best illustrated in match play on two occasions in 2004.

During the semifinals of the Accenture Match Play Championship, Love rallied to force extra holes. The greens were so bumpy at La Costa that Love, not wanting to see the match end with a missed putt, conceded par putts from 4- to 5-foot range on consecutive holes. Love won in 21 holes.

Later that year, in the Ryder Cup, Love put his tee shot on 18 in the rough. He could have widened his stance for a high cut shot and taken relief because his foot would have been on a sprinkler. He chose to play the ball where it was because such a shot would have been impractical. They halved the match.

''He said I was honest with my drop in the rough,'' Love recalled last month at Sea Island. ''Darren is just one of those guys like Freddie (Couples). Everywhere he plays, people like watching him.''

Love still isn't sure how Clarke decided on Sea Island. He said Scott Reid, the McGladrey Classic tournament director, heard a rumor Clarke might be playing and asked Love to try to close the deal. Too late. Turns out Clarke already had committed as Love was sending him a text.

THE PRO & THE AM: Rock singer Huey Lewis had to pull out of the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland, which might have been the best thing to ever happen to Bradley Neill in more ways than he can count.

The 17-year-old Scottish Boys champion was asked to fill in for the rock singer, meaning four days with former U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein. Neill watched Uihlein narrowly miss a shot at 59 at Kingsbarns, holed out for eagle at St. Andrews to take the lead and lose in a playoff.

And then it got even better.

Uihlein donated his prize from the pro-am – 10,000 pounds (about $16,000) – to the Scottish Golf Union to help pay for Neill's golfing expenses.

''Bradley was a pleasure to partner and I was very impressed with his performance,'' Uihlein said. ''He has a great chance of achieving success in the game if he continues to work hard. I will be following his career and hope the donation can play some small part in helping him progress in the right direction.''

Neill said he was nervous to being playing a European Tour event – Ernie Els was in his group - but that Uihlein made it comfortable and enjoyable.

''The experience will stay with me for a long time, and I hope it's not the last time we play together,'' Neill said.

AMBASSADOR WIE: Michelle Wie is getting her second taste of the Olympics – first as a spectator, next as an ambassador.

Wie has been chosen to be an ambassador for the Youth Olympic Games when golf makes its debut next summer. Wie was 10 when she qualified for the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links, and she became the youngest USGA winner of an adult championship when she captures the WAPL three years later in Florida at 13.

She turned professional at 16 and has two LPGA Tour wins.

''I'm hoping to teach young people to have fun with their game, to be competitive, to really want something and to realize the importance of having a dream,'' Wie said. ''I think it's really important to inspire young people to take up sports. It's important to be active and be outdoors.''

Wie said she was inspired to make the Olympic team in 2016 after attending the London Games last year.

''It's one of my biggest focuses, making the American team for Rio,'' she said.

SPECIAL MEMBERSHIP: Brooks Koepka has received a sponsor exemption to the OHL Classic in Mexico next month. That will be his third PGA Tour start out of four events in North America that will help toward earning special temporary membership.

In a change this year, temporary membership is awarded to players who earn the equivalent of No. 150 in the FedEx Cup last season – 278 points. It previously was based on the 150th player on the money list.

That would allow Koepka, who already has his European Tour card for next year, to take unlimited sponsor exemptions. For full membership, he would need to have equal points to the last player who qualifies for the FedEx Cup playoffs next August.

The FedEx Cup points for players like Koepka are kept on a special list. Koepka already has 134 points. Max Homa, the NCAA champion from Cal, tied for 30th in Las Vegas and already has 114 points.

SHOOTOUT: Lee Westwood is making the most of his new home in Florida by playing in Greg Norman's Franklin Templeton Shootout at the end of the year.

Westwood, Billy Horschel and Retief Goosen will be the newcomers to one of the oldest silly-season events – and about the only one left. It will be played Dec. 13-15 at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples. Sean O'Hair and Kenny Perry will return to defend their title. The field has four players from the top 10 in the world ranking - PGA champion Jason Dufner, Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar and Steve Stricker.

Still to be determined are two more players and the 12 two-man pairings.

DIVOTS: Bernhard Langer, Fred Funk and Kenny Perry will be the Champions Tour team in the Wendy's 3-Tour Challenge to be played Nov. 12 at Rio Secco outside Las Vegas. ... The Volvo Champions on the European Tour will return to Durban Country Club in South Africa on Jan. 9-12. The field is limited to winners from 2013, along with current tour members with at least 10 career wins. ... Don Padgett II is retiring next year as president and chief operating officer of Pinehurst. Padgett worked at Firestone before coming to Pinehurst in 2004. He will be general chairman of the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open, to be held next year in successive weeks at Pinehurst No. 2.

STAT OF THE WEEK: The winner of the opening two PGA Tour events of the 2013-14 season led the tournament in the key putting statistic.

FINAL WORD: ''I'm happy to be in the top 50, but I've only been there the last six months or so. The real test from now on is whether I can stay in the top 50. It's a lot easier to get there and a lot harder to stay there.'' – Hideki Matsuyama.

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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.