Notes: Like Sneds, Watney trying to get back in top 50

By Doug FergusonFebruary 18, 2015, 3:17 am

LOS ANGELES – One month into the new year, Nick Watney already is putting last year out of his mind.

Watney was hampered early by a back injury that forced him out of the final round at Doral, and the birth of his first child the following week.

But those should have been merely speed bumps. He didn't need to elaborate on a season that produced only two top 10s and knocked him out of the FedEx Cup playoffs after one event.

''I didn't play well. I putted awful all year,'' Watney said. ''It was just kind of a snowball thing - putting bad and then you try to hit it closer and you miss short-side, you make bogeys.

''Then you try to make birdies and you make more bogeys. I thought about it, and for whatever reason, I played poorly last year and I know that. I know what I needed to work on. I'm doing it. And so the more distance I can put between myself and last year, the better.''

Watney tied for seventh in San Diego, just two shots out of the playoff, and he was runner-up at Pebble Beach where he opened with four straight birdies until making enough mistakes for Brandt Snedeker to pull away.

His five career victories include a World Golf Championship and a FedEx Cup playoff event at Bethpage Black. He hasn't missed a major in six years, but much like Snedeker, he started the year with no status in the big events. He fell out of the top 100 for the first time in six years.

Most painful for Watney? Watching the HSBC Champions in Shanghai on TV.

''I hate not being able to compete,'' Watney said. ''I hate not being qualified for tournaments. I want to play against the best guys, so it's very motivating.''

His recent run moved him to No. 75 in the world.

Watney's daughter, Harper, was at Pebble Beach. He is living in Austin, Texas, though plans to spend half the year in Las Vegas.

PRESSEL HONORED: Morgan Pressel has been selected to receive the Charlie Bartlett Award from the Golf Writers Association of America, given to a professional for unselfish contributions to the betterment of society.

She is being honored for the Morgan Pressel Foundation that is aimed at fighting breast cancer, which claimed her mother, Kathryn Krickstein.

Pressel has two victories, including a major, and earned just under $6 million in her career. In six years, her foundation has raised more than $3.4 million. It also has led to Kathryn Krickstein Mammovan, which operates out of Boca Raton Regional Hospital in Florida and travels throughout the county to provide affordable breast exams for those who might not be able to afford it.

Two years ago, the hospital's Lynn Cancer Institute opened the Morgan Pressel Center for Cancer Genetics to study individual risks for developing certain cancers with hereditary links.

''Carrying out the mission of the Morgan Pressel Foundation is a team effort, and an honor like this would not be possible without the hard work of many, especially my family and my community at St. Andrews Country Club,'' Pressel said of her home course in Boca Raton. ''The work that my foundation does in the area of breast cancer is very meaningful to me on a deep, personal level.''

She will be honored April 8 in Augusta, Georgia, at the GWAA's annual awards dinner.

STRENGTH OF FIELD: Most of the international stars have stayed away from America so far this year. Rory McIlroy won't play on the PGA Tour until next week in the Honda Classic. Adam Scott just had a daughter and won't play until Doral. Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer have yet to play in America this year.

It doesn't help that the Match Play Championship has moved to the end of April in San Francisco, instead of being the anchor event on the West Coast Swing.

Even so, the West Coast hasn't suffered as much as predicted.

All six PGA Tour events have had a stronger field than the previous year, based on the ranking points awarded to the winner. Both Hawaii events had their strongest field ratings since 2011. Pebble Beach had its strongest rating since 2010, and that includes the year Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson played in 2012.

The Northern Trust Open is one event that was hurt by the move of Match Play because several players typically came over a week early before the first World Golf Championship of the year. Even without those players, Riviera is expected to be the strongest field of all West Coast events.

EARNING HIS WAY: The Northern Trust Open added a wrinkle to qualifying this year.

It added a Monday qualifying spot to a college player who competed at Riviera alongside an alum. Among the pairing was Jordan Spieth playing with Kramer Hickok, interesting because the 21-year-old Spieth said they used to be roommates.

The start of the Northern Trust Open Collegiate Showcase was Will Zalatoris of Wake Forest, the only player out of 14 in college to break par. The 18-year-old freshman shot a 67 to earn a spot in the field this week.

Zalatoris finished five shots ahead of George Cunningham (Arizona). He will be making his first PGA Tour start.

''I'm really not even nervous about it. I'm only 18 and I'm learning,'' Zalatoris said. I'm here to play golf, not think about winning the tournament. It's my first PGA Tour event, so I'll see how my game stands up and we'll go from there.''

Zalatoris won the U.S. Junior Amateur, the Texas State Amateur and the Trans-Miss Championship last year.

''Will played as beautifully as I've seen any tour player play all year,'' said Haas, high praise considering Haas won the Humana Challenge. ''He could have given me three a side and taken me. We were out there for fun, and he was all business, so it was great to see him get the job done.''

DIVOTS: The PGA Tour is bringing its ''Live At'' production to perhaps the most interesting par-4 in golf - the 10th at Riviera during the Northern Trust Open. Coverage of the 10th and the par-3 16th holes at Riviera can be viewed at ... Former Riviera winner Bill Haas is at the Northern Trust Open and hopeful of staying all four days - not because of his game, but because his wife is in South Carolina expecting their second child. She is due Friday. ... Fred Couples is making his 33rd appearance at the Northern Trust Open.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Americans have won the past 11 times at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the longest streak of any PGA Tour event.

FINAL WORD: ''It's when the game is the most fun.'' - Nick Watney on being in contention.

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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.