Notes: Fowler would use mulligan at PGA

By Doug FergusonDecember 30, 2014, 8:56 pm

Rickie Fowler ticked off every goal this year except winning, which is not to say he didn't have his chances. It was another reminder that winning isn't easy. Players like Tiger Woods only made it look that way.

Give him one mulligan for the year, and it would be in the final round of the PGA Championship, his one good shot at winning a major.

''The 5-iron on the 14th,'' he said.

Fowler was tied for the lead on the back nine at Valhalla. He made a pure swing on the 12th that he thought would be tight, only it came up a yard short of the green. No matter. It was a swing that told him, ''I was ready to step on the gas.''

But he hung out his 5-iron well to the right of the par-3 14th and failed to get up-and-down. Fowler closed with pars the rest of the way, including a nifty save on the 16th with a tee shot that went into the 15th fairway. That bogey on the 14th - and Rory McIlroy's birdie on the 17th - cost him.

REDEMPTION TOUR: Michael Greller, who left his job as a math teacher to caddie for Jordan Spieth, has often said dealing with 30 sixth-graders for 10 years helped prepare him to work for a 21-year-old golfer who ended the year at No. 9 in the world.

Not to be overlooked in his training was an adventure to Australia more than a decade ago.

Greller was reminded of that last month when Spieth essentially ordered him to take a week off during the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan (his agent caddied for him) so Greller and his wife could take a second honeymoon Down Under ahead of the Australian Open.

Greller had another name for the trip.

''The redemption tour,'' he said.

In 2002, Greller already had been accepted to graduate school and had a six-month window before the start of classes. He had never been outside the United States, so he saved money and decided to go to Australia for six months, staying in hostels and carrying nothing more than a back pack.

''My only goal was to meet people from other cultures,'' he said.

He never met the 10 people with whom he shared a room in Bondi Beach, a road house so seedy with so much ''extracurricular activity'' that Greller covered his head with a pillow. He woke up the next morning and realized his wallet (and about $200) had been stolen.

The scariest moment was when he got sick with what later was diagnosed as ulcerous colitis.

''I'm with this Aborigine guide in the middle of the desert, fighting this disease, no clue what's going on,'' he said. ''My parents were very worried. I traveled for about four months until I ran broke in Perth.''

Greller already had booked a flight from Darwin to Perth, and he already had his train ticket from Perth to Sydney, a journey of some 80 hours. And then the train broke down halfway there. But the goal was to meet people from different cultures, and he found plenty to like about Australia.

''I was on the train with $50 and a credit card, nothing in my savings,'' he said. ''I was sitting by two 80-year-old women who fed me meat pies the whole way across Australia. We played cards. I played gin with them. And they had homemade meat pies, which I had never had. They got me to the finish line.''

Greller had one more day in Sydney before flying home to Seattle, and he had planned on a nice meal on his last day to celebrate.

''I had $20 left,'' he said. ''I went to McDonald's. And then I got on the plane.''

The most recent trip was different. Greller got his ''redemption,'' along with some reflections.

''In a lot of ways, it prepared me for caddying,'' Greller said about his first trip Down Under. ''I carried a back pack for four months. I was living as cheap as I could. I had no expectations. I didn't know where I would be sleeping. And I operated on the fly, which I did all of last year.''

Greller and his wife, Ellie, were married a year ago and spent their original honeymoon at Kapalua, Hawaii, a week before the 2014 season. In two years, the former school teacher has been on the bag for a kid who already has over $8.5 million in earnings and three wins worldwide.

So the accommodations were better for this trip. And he didn't run out of money.

MCCORMACK AWARD: Add one more trophy to Rory McIlroy's collection this year.

McIlroy won the Mark H. McCormack Award for being No. 1 the most weeks during the year in the closest race since the award began in 1998. McIlroy returned to No. 1 with his victory at Firestone and stayed there the final 22 weeks of 2014. He won over Tiger Woods, who was at No. 1 for 19 weeks at the start of the year. Adam Scott was atop the ranking for the 11 weeks in between.

The award doesn't get the attention it once did, perhaps because Woods won the award 13 straight times from its inception. It's not even listed in the ''Awards'' section of the PGA Tour media guide.

But it was the second closest race in the last three years.

McIlroy and Luke Donald took turns at the top in 2012, and McIlroy wound up being No. 1 for 28 weeks compared with 24 weeks for Donald.

DIVOTS: The U.S. Women's Amateur will be played at Portland Golf Club the same week as the Portland Classic on the LPGA Tour. ... Baby developments involving PGA Tour players were posted to Twitter in the last week. Masters champion Bubba Watson announced he is in the final stages of adopting a girl (Dakota), while the wife of Dustin Johnson said they are expecting a boy. ... There are 24 Americans among the top 50 in the world at the end of the year, compared with 21 last year. ... Jim Furyk went over the $60 million mark in career earnings this year. In other career money milestones, David Toms went past $40 million and K.J. Choi went past $30 million.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Adam Scott is the only player to finish in the top 5 in the world ranking in each of the last four years.

FINAL WORD: ''This is the best year I've had in my life so far. A little girl, two wins, skyrocketed in the world ranking, played in four majors, the Ryder Cup. Everything has fallen into place.'' - Patrick Reed.

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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.