WGC events gaining some traction

By Doug FergusonMarch 6, 2012, 11:09 pm

DORAL, Fla. —Tiger Woods already has left his own mark in world golf.

History will decide what it means.

The number that defines greatness in golf is 18. It has been that way since 1986, when Jack Nicklaus won his 18th professional major at the Masters. And it will stay that way unless—or until—Woods wins the five more majors he needs to pass him.

“While he has been gone for 2 1/2 years, these guys who have all learned how to play, or all learned how to win, are probably no longer afraid of Tiger,” Nicklaus said. “In my opinion, I still think Tiger will regain what he does. He will come back and play very, very well. Whether he breaks my record is another issue. I still think he will. But he still has to go do it.”

If not, Woods might have to settle for another standard.

The next step below the majors are the World Golf Championships and Woods has amassed an amazing record. When he last won a WGC at Firestone in 2009 that gave him 16 world titles out of the 32 he played, at an astounding rate of 50 percent.

What does that mean?

For one thing, he has padded his bank account. Woods has made more than $22.2 million in the WGCs alone, which is nearly 25 percent of his career PGA Tour earnings. His official WGC money is more than all but 25 players have made in their careers.

More than money, and more than trophies that probably are packed away in a box, it means that Woods won 16 events against the best players in golf. The fields are small, and they tend to include players from overseas who are just getting started (Louis Oosthuizen) or might never be heard from again (Shiv Kapur). But for most of their 13-year existence, they have included at least the top 50 in the world.

The World Golf Championships are still not what they should be.

Along with bringing together the best players from all corners of the globe, it would help to take the tournaments around the world. And if they are mostly going to be in America, it would be better to move them to iconic venues instead of merging them with former PGA Tour events, which is what happened at Doral.

They deserve a higher status based on the players they attract and the winners they produce.

Hunter Mahan joined elite company two weeks ago when he won the Match Play Championship and became only the sixth player to win multiple WGC events. The others are familiar names—Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy and Darren Clarke.

Martin Kaymer won the HSBC Champions last November and became the 10th player with a WGC title and a major. He joined Woods, Mickelson, Els, Ogilvy, Clarke, Mike Weir, Stewart Cink, David Toms and Vijay Singh.

The WGC event this week at Doral used to travel to Europe every other year until 2006. Woods has won it six times on six courses in four countries. That gives it a little more punch than winning the Bridgestone Invitational seven times, all at Firestone.

“I think Tiger gave them credibility by winning 14 of the first 20, or whatever it was. He won almost every one of them,” Ogilvy said. “If you do look at the list of guys who have won them, generally, at that time they were one of the best in the world.”

That’s because the best in the world are there.

In that respect, it can make them the most difficult events to win next to the majors. The majors have history and prestige, and with that comes pressure that cannot be compared with other events.

Paul Azinger is famous for saying cash and prestige are the only things that made him choke. The WGCs are heavy on cash.

These aren’t the best 74 players in the world at Doral, rather 74 top players who qualified through the world ranking of the money lists on the six major tours.

Then again, the majors have their share of players who can’t be considered serious contenders —aging champions at the Masters, amateur qualifiers at the Opens, club pros at the PGA Championship.

What might boost the credibility of the WGCs is to expand the field and introduce a cut. To some, the WGCs have the appearance of free money. The courses? No one can argue with Firestone, which once hosted a PGA Championship. And while Doral has produced a winning score of at least 16-under par the last four years, a course doesn’t have to have high scores to be a good test.

“I don’t think Doral is close to being a top 100 course, but it finds good players,” Ogilvy said.

Asked the difference between majors and World Golf Championships, Clarke said there was “absolutely no difference whatsoever,” except for the title.

One is a major. One is not.

“The title is the obvious thing,” he said. “As players, we are judged by major championships. We’re not judged by World Golf Championships. We’re not judged by regular tournaments. We’re judged by majors. It’s easy for me to say now that I’ve got one, but I would have told you the same if I hadn’t got one.

“It means more because of tradition and history. There’s added pressure because of that.”

The notion of how many world titles Woods has won doesn’t grab anyone’s attention beyond the fact it reflects the dominance he once had in this game. Over time, that might be a standard behind the majors.

“People that speak to me, especially Europeans, say, `You’ve won the Open, and you’ve won two WGCs.’ So there is an importance placed on it,” Clarke said.

Perhaps another example is the joking reference to Phil Mickelson when he won his first world title at Doral three years ago: He no longer was the best player to never win a World Golf Championship.

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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.