Notes: How long is long enough on Tour?

By Doug FergusonJanuary 28, 2015, 12:44 am

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Tim Clark was wrong about one thing. He's not the shortest hitter on the PGA Tour.

Justin Leonard earned that distinction last season on the PGA Tour by finishing at No. 177 in measured drives at an average of 270.3 yards. Clark was three spots better at 272.2 yards. Either way, he quit worrying about driving distance a long time ago, realizing he can make up for it with other parts of his game.

But it led to a question: How long is long? And when is it long enough?

Russell Knox has the reputation of being on the short side, even though he feels he can get it out there far enough. Knox was at No. 120 in driving distance last year. He believes there are three categories of length.

''Guys that are a little short. Everyone else. And guys who bomb it,'' Knox said. ''And there's probably 10 guys who bomb it.''

There were 25 players who averaged 300 yards off the tee last year, though that group included Charles Howell III and Lucas Glover. They are power players, but probably not in the same ''bombers'' class as Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Gary Woodland or Rory McIlroy.

''I played with Bubba a couple of years ago and I almost cried,'' Knox said. ''I was like, if this guy hits it straight, I might as well try to caddie for him. But the reality is, distance is maybe 10 percent of golf. If those guys hit it so much further than me, there's obviously part of my game that is better than theirs or I'd never beat them. I need to focus on those parts.''

Knox might be too stingy by saying there are only about 10 guys in the A-plus power group. He also thinks there are no more than 10 players who are seriously short.

''Most guys that are short have been out here a long time,'' he said. ''They're absolutely geniuses. They have great short games. They're great putters.''

Clark referred to players like Adam Scott who could be in the A-plus group if he wanted to except that Scott tries to play more under control.

''There's a lot more real bombers than we think,'' Clark said. ''If you're just looking at the stats, it doesn't give a true picture of how long these guys are. ... That's almost as big of a group as the medium guys.''

One ''medium guy'' might be Russell Henley, who was No. 61 in driving distance last year. Henley said there were five levels of power on the PGA Tour, and he put himself somewhere around the middle because the smashers - Watson, Johnson, Holmes - ''are probably two levels above me.''

Henley offered this definition of his driving distance: ''When you're short, it puts pressure on your drive because you've got to hit the fairway. I need to hit the fairway, but it's not the end of the world if I don't.''

Henley already has two of the 10 drives that have been measured at 400 yards or more this year, all of them at Kapalua. One of them was on the 17th hole, all the way to the bottom. He still made par.


MOVING ON: Phil Mickelson is more interested in the next decade or two in the Ryder Cup, not what happened the last time in Gleneagles. Mickelson made his first public appearance last week since he spoke openly in the closing press conference at Gleneagles about the lack of a communication between U.S. captain Tom Watson and the team.

Mickelson is part of a Ryder Cup task force geared toward creating a model. It already has met once, with another meeting expected next week.

Would this open dialogue have occurred had Mickelson not spoken up after the loss to Europe in September?

''I just think there's a lot of great input. I'm excited about what we're doing moving forward,'' Mickelson said last week. ''How we got there, doesn't matter. We're there now and we're going to make it a really great experience for the next generation of players as they go through the next decade or two.''

Watson, too, is ready to move on.

He played the Champions Tour opener last week in Hawaii and was excited to see two Ryder Cup players, Patrick Reed and Jimmy Walker, win the Hawaii events.

''I'm proud of Jimmy and Patrick, and the way they played at the Ryder Cup,'' Watson said. ''I'm proud of the way all the players played on the Ryder Cup team. They gave it their best shot. The other team just played better is the bottom line. It was a great event for the Europeans. It was not a great event for us, although we had our moments.''

When asked if it was time to move on, Watson replied, ''Sure. Because there's nothing we can do about it now.''


SPIETH DEAL: One new deal, one long-term renewal. Jordan Spieth has made quite an impression since the end of the last PGA Tour season, all very quietly.

First was the deal with AT&T, significant because the Dallas-based telecommunications firm not only is one of the strongest corporate partners on the PGA Tour, but because it has not signed any golfer to a personal endorsement since it cut ties with Tiger Woods in 2009.

The deal shows a lot of trust in the 21-year-old Spieth.

And then last week, Under Armour announced a comprehensive, 10-year extension with Spieth.

Spieth first signed with Under Armour in 2013 when he turned pro and is the first golfer to be outfitted head-to-toe in Under Armour gear. The company plans international marketing with Spieth, and he is involved in a golf shoe that is to debut in the spring.


BASEBALL FEAT: Rob Manfred took over Sunday as commissioner of MLB, and during a guest appearance on the league's network he was asked his greatest athletic achievement. After taking a mulligan (he played two years of tennis at Le Moyne College), Manfred said he has made a hole-in-one - twice, on the same hole.

Manfred said he used a 6-iron to ace the third hole at Sleepy Hollow.

''And the next year I was older, used a 5-iron,'' he said.


DIVOTS: Juli Inkster has selected Wendy Ward to be one of her assistant captains at the Solheim Cup in Germany this year. ... Frank Nobilo is joining CBS Sports as a golf analyst. Peter Oosterhuis announced last week he was retiring. Nobilo will continue his work at Golf Channel. ... The USGA has selected James R. Hansen for its Herbert Warren Wind Book Award. Hansen wrote ''A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf.''


STAT OF THE WEEK: Starting with the final round at Kapalua, the low scores in each of the last nine rounds on the PGA Tour have been 62, 62, 62, 62, 63, 63, 61, 63 and 63.


FINAL WORD: ''I lost a few world ranking points, a trophy and some money. But I can handle all of those three things.'' - Martin Kaymer, on losing a 10-shot lead with 13 holes to play in Abu Dhabi.

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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.