Stenson (64) leads Tour Champ.; Scott one back

By Doug FergusonSeptember 19, 2013, 11:13 pm

ATLANTA – Henrik Stenson changed his attitude and chose a different target at the Tour Championship.

Instead of smashing a driver and a locker, he demolished the front nine at East Lake on Thursday with five birdies over a six-hole stretch that carried him to a 6-under 64 and a one-shot lead over Masters champion Adam Scott.

It was a big turnaround from Monday at Conway Farms, not only on his scorecard but between the ears.

''I just needed to realize the world is a good place again,'' Stenson said.

Stenson was playing his seventh tournament in 10 weeks when the BMW Championship was extended a day by rain. He slammed his driver so hard into the ground on the final hole that the head snapped off, and then he took out his frustrations on his wooden locker at Conway Farms.


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Playing all 18 holes at East Lake for the first time, it looked like he couldn't miss. On the opening seven holes, he had only one iron shot outside 10 feet, and he converted five of them for birdie.

''I really knew I had to be in a good frame of mind coming out there if I wanted to play good golf this week,'' he said. ''As some of you noticed, I wasn't that on Monday when I finished up in Chicago. So it was a good turnaround mentally. I stayed very level-headed – kept the head on, both myself and drivers, and played a great round of golf.''

Tiger Woods didn't make a thing.

Woods missed a short birdie putt on his opening hole that set the tone for the day. He was the only player in the 30-man field to go without a birdie. On the par 5s, Woods three-putted for par on No. 9 and missed a putt just inside 10 feet on No. 15.

It was only the seventh time in his PGA Tour career – and third time at East Lake – that he went an entire round without a birdie. Woods shot a 73, matching his highest opening round of the year. He walked past reporters without comment.

Scott did his damage on the back nine, making six birdies in seven holes for a 29 that had him tied for the lead until Stenson finished off his remarkable round with a 5-iron from 223 yards to 4 feet for birdie on the par-3 closing hold.

''It was a tale of two nines, there's no doubt,'' Scott said. ''I missed three greens with wedges on the front nine and wasted all my chances to score. I hit two good shots into 10 and rolled a putt in, which calmed me down. And then I just went and played, and played the way I felt I could.''

Stenson, the No. 2 seed and the hottest player in golf over the last three months, and Scott (No. 3) only have to win the Tour Championship to capture the FedEx Cup and the $10 million prize. Even more is at stake for Scott, who would be a strong candidate for PGA Tour player of the year if he were to win this week. That would give him three wins, compared with five wins for Woods, though Scott would have a major and the FedEx Cup.

''There haven't been too many guys who have been in the position the last 12 years to even warrant thinking about it,'' Scott said. ''So it's an opportunity that might not come along too often. I'm going to be working hard to try and make my case for it.''

More than feeling better about his attitude, Stenson was helped by feeling no pain in his left wrist.

He suspects he slept on it wrong last weekend, and it reached a point where it hurt to hold a toothbrush. He played only nine holes of practice – the front nine – on Tuesday and iced his wrist and took anti-inflammatories. It seemed to have worked.

The biggest change was his attitude.

Stenson is known for public displays of frustrations – remember that poor tee marker at Carnoustie in 2007? – but this was peculiar because he had just won the Deutsche Bank Championship in his previous tournament. That capped off an amazing summer that began with four straight tournaments in the top three, including two majors and a World Golf Championship. He said he apologized to the club and told the locker-room attendants to keep in contact, presumably so he can pay for the repairs.

Why so much anger so soon?

''I can tell you don't have much experience with Swedes, do you?'' Stenson said, handling it with his dry humor. ''No, I'll tell you I've always been a bit of a hot-head, and I just haven't been able to get any rest. I was looking forward to that Monday back home and lying on the couch – the kids in school and me just doing nothing, and I ended up playing golf again on that Monday. I was just tired, and I pushed myself over the edge there.

''That's not the best place to be and not the best frame of mind to play good golf,'' he said. ''I'm really delighted with the change I made to today.''

In his Tour Championship debut, his head was in the right place, his wrist felt fine and Stenson was on top of his game like never before. He had one stretch of three birdies all within 4 feet, capped off by a 6-iron from 207 yards over water to a right pin that settled a foot away.

And he did it all in the presence of Woods, the No. 1 player in the world.

''It's a nice feeling to hit those kind of shots playing with the world's best player,'' Stenson said. ''Normally, it's him who does it to everyone else. But it was kind of nice to throw a couple at him.''


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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.