Spieth sporting green, but he's not the Golden Child

By Doug FergusonApril 15, 2015, 2:46 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The green jacket is all Jordan Spieth needs for an identity. He is the Masters champion.

It's just not going to help him get rid of a nickname he picked up late last year from a few PGA Tour players that goes against the way he was raised and irritates him more than a three-putt bogey.

Golden Child.

''It was either Colt Knost or Robert Garrigus ... I'm not sure who started with the nickname,'' Spieth said Tuesday during a break in his New York media tour. ''But it's not nice what I say to them when they say it to me. I've been working on trying to keep it quiet. And this week isn't going to help.''

It surfaced again even before he teed off in his record-setting win at Augusta National.

Brooks Koepka was talking about a Tuesday practice round in which Spieth could do no wrong. They were walking off the 13th tee when they looked over at James Hahn hitting his tee shot to the par-3 12th. As the ball was in the air, Spieth told his group, ''This is going to be a hole-in-one.'' And it was.

On the 17th, Spieth hit a shot that was an inch from rolling down to the bottom of the green. It stayed up, and he rolled in a 30-footer to close their match. If that wasn't enough, he has a game with caddie Michael Greller in which they toss a ball on the green toward the cup. Spieth made it on the first try.

Koepka finished the story, smiled and said, ''He's the golden child.''

No doubt, Spieth has done some extraordinary things for a 21-year-old.

The stories have been told countless times, yet they are no less amazing.

Spieth started his first year as a pro with no status on any tour and ended it playing alongside Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the Presidents Cup. The first time he played with Mickelson, he closed birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle for a 62. Playing with Woods for the first time in a practice round at the Presidents Cup, he made a hole-in-one. In his Masters debut, he played in the final group at age 20.

And now a green jacket for the golden child.

''He'll be fabulous for the game,'' Graeme McDowell said.

Most appealing about Spieth is the simplicity of his life and the toughness in his game. He is 21 and old school.

Spieth has had the same swing coach since he was 12 and his father took him to see Cameron McCormick at Brook Hollow in Dallas. He uses social media instead of being consumed by it. Spieth has the same girlfriend he met in high school, Annie Verret, who graduated from Texas Tech in December and now works on fundraising projects for a youth golf program in Dallas.

He spent last week with three of his best friends from Dallas – seniors at Texas, TCU and LSU. They became what Spieth described as ''white noise'' during the evening when he wanted to take his mind off golf.

''It felt like we were back home on a random weekend,'' Spieth said. ''I couldn't partake in what they were doing. But it was fun to watch.''

His father played baseball at Lehigh. His mother played basketball at Moravian College in Pennsylvania. His younger brother, Steven, is a 6-foot-6 shooting guard at Brown. And then there's Ellie, his 14-year-old sister with neurological issues that place her on the autism spectrum. Ellie reminds Spieth and the rest of the family what matters in life.

She was at the TPC Boston last year with the whole clan, bragging about her big brothers, having a ball. Players have to take a shuttle through the woods to the eighth tee. When Spieth spotted Ellie in the gallery, he called to her. She ran to the cart and sat on his lap for the ride, and it was hard to tell who was having more fun.

Golden child? Maybe. More than a Midas touch, however, Spieth has Texas grit.

Look back at the events leading to the Masters.

  • He made three straight par saves, all that had the look of bogeys, to get into a playoff that he won at the Valspar Championship.
  • He made four straight birdies that made Jimmy Walker sweat out a victory at the Texas Open. ''I'm going to have nightmares about that guy,'' Walker said.
  • He holed a 12-foot par putt on the final hole of the Houston Open to make a playoff.

Augusta National members will talk for years about his shot from a tight lie on a knob above the 18th green on Saturday. Spieth had a seven-shot lead on the 17th tee and it was down to four shots and about to get even closer – three shots probably, two shots possibly. ''Two shots can be made up in one hole,'' Spieth said.

His caddie lobbied for a safe chip. Spieth took a full swing for a flop shot, pulled it off and made par. Spieth called it the most important shot he hit all week.

More than a golden moment, this was about guts.

It's worth remembering what Ben Crenshaw said about Spieth before teeing off in his 44th and final Masters.

''When I first met him, I tell you, I'll never forget it,'' Crenshaw said. ''I looked right at him and he looked at me, and I thought I was looking at Wyatt Earp. He just had that look about him. Just wonderful.''

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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.