Watson holes out, ties course record, leads Hero

By Doug FergusonDecember 5, 2015, 8:15 pm

NASSAU, Bahamas - Bubba Watson holed out with a 7-iron for eagle, made seven birdies and tied the course record with a 9-under 63 on Saturday to take a two-shot lead over Paul Casey going into the final round of the Hero World Challenge.

Watson's tied the record at Albany Golf Club that had been set 10 minutes earlier by Casey, who had nine birdies on a clean card.

It was an example of what can happen with a world-class field on a course that featured pure greens and virtually no wind. The tee times were moved up to avoid afternoon thunderstorms, and most of the 18-man field had its way with the Ernie Els design.

''As we're seeing, when there's no wind - light wind - we can score,'' Watson said. ''We're all good players, don't get me wrong. We're all top 50 in the world. But with no wind, this golf course is a little bit easier to make birdies. Obviously, 20 mile-an-hour winds, this golf course becomes a beast.''

Watson was at 19-under 197, one short of the 54-hole tournament record Jordan Spieth set last year at Isleworth in Florida.

This is the first time the World Challenge is being played at Albany after one year at Isleworth and 14 years at Sherwood Country Club in California.

Spieth, in a three-way tie for the lead with Jimmy Walker and Bill Haas at the start of the day, had a 68 and fell four shots behind.

''I shot 68 and got lapped,'' Spieth said. ''It was a day where you really needed to shoot lower. Par for the course is 5 under, especially in these conditions.''


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Casey made nine birdies in his opening 13 holes, and then had to settle for par for a third straight day on the reachable par-4 14th. He is among four players who have yet to win anywhere in the world this year.

Casey wants to support the Tiger Woods Foundation for its work with children and education. He also mentioned the world ranking points and the prize money ($1 million) for the winner. And he would like a trophy to show for his good play this year.

''So there's multiple reasons, about four really good reasons,'' he said about the importance of winning. ''Five if you count (Christmas) shopping.''

Even with the low scoring, Watson didn't get that much separation. Chris Kirk and Patrick Reed each had a 66 and were three shots behind, followed by Spieth and Haas, who also had a 68.

Woods is the tournament host and followed along the final group throughout the front nine, occasionally giving good friend and NBC Sports reporter Notah Begay a lift.

Watson started the third round one shot behind and made up ground in a hurry with birdies on the first two holes. He faced a little wind from 168 yards in the fairway on No. 4 and chose to take off a little on his 7-iron, which turned out to be a wise move when he holed it for eagle.

He never saw it go in, and there isn't much of a gallery this week.

''I heard a yell,'' he said. ''At least it wasn't my mom yelling. I heard somebody.''

Reed was going nowhere with one birdie on the front nine when he saw the scores and figured he better get in gear. Wrapping up his worldwide tour, Reed ran off three straight birdies and then had an eagle on the par-5 15th to get back in the game.

''I finally made a putt and it just kind of propelled me from there,'' he said.

Spieth is playing his final round of the year Sunday, and he said he would fire at every flag.

''It will be a sprint,'' he said. ''And then relief.''

Justin Rose, who now makes his primary home at Albany, finally got it going until a triple bogey on the 18th dropped him to a 70. He was 16 shots behind. The tough finish belonged to Anirban Lahiri, whose tee shot hit and bloodied a spectator on the final hole.

Two hours after the round, Lahiri was still looking for the man to make sure he was OK and perhaps invite him in for lunch.

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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.