Cho Collects Futures Title
'It's just about anybody's day tomorrow,' said Johnson, 22, of Eau Claire, Wis. 'There's no cruise control in this tournament. You have to keep making birdies.'
She was right. Just when one player stepped up to lead, another player eclipsed her advantage. For most of the afternoon, a minimum of three players were tied for the lead with defending champion Stephanie George charging from behind with a front-nine 30 to join the leaders. You could almost feel a playoff coming and George, who won after two extra holes last year and carded a final-round 66 today, seemed destined for a repeat title.
But Hickory Point Golf Course also doubled as a roller coaster in today's final round with leaders coming and going. Two-shot swings were the norm in a day that included four eagles, with two scored on the fly from the 18th fairway by Meredith Ward of Crystal Lake, Ill., and Lindsey Wright of Albury, Australia, who had the day's low round of 65.
By the time 18-year-old rookie Aram Cho reached the last hole of the 54-hole event with a one-shot cushion, only Johnson, playing in the last group, could force a playoff. The left-hander's 6-foot birdie attempt grazed the left side of the cup. She tapped in for par and a share of second, giving Cho her first professional title. Cho fired a final-round 68 to finish at 11-under-par 205, while Johnson, posting a 2-under 70, tied for second with Wright, George of Myerstown, Pa., Sung Ah Yim of Seoul, Korea, and former Wisconsin teammate Katie Connelly of Beloit, Wis. Yim carded a final-round 67, while Connelly posted a 68 today on her 23rd birthday.
'I tried to take deep breaths to calm down and I was shaking a little bit,' admitted Johnson, playing in her fourth Futures Tour event as a pro following her senior season at the University of Wisconsin. 'I was thinking, 'Make this and go into a playoff.' I gave myself an opportunity. Next time, it might be different.'
But this time, it was Cho's day. It was a day she never dreamed would happen so soon in her young professional career. The native of Seoul, Korea turned pro last August and arrived in the United States in February with a baby face and a grown-up game. In nine tournaments this season, she has posted six top-20 finishes, three top-10s and has moved from seventh on the Futures Tour money list to No. 3.
'All the shots went the way I wanted to hit them today,' said Cho, with the translation help of Sung Ho Han, caddie for good friend Seon-Hwa Lee. 'I didn't really think about winning. I just needed to play well.'
Cho took the final-round lead on the 15th hole with a 3-foot birdie that took her to 11 under, but she didn't realize she was leading the tournament until she walked to the 18th green and looked over her shoulder to the main leader board. Cho broke into a huge smile and pumped her fists a couple of times while her caddie-dad tried to help her refocus on her last putt. The teen, called 'Pooh' by her friends, nearly made the 7-footer for birdie, but it lipped out. Now, she had to wait -- even though she was too nervous to watch Johnson's approach into the final hole in the last group.
'I've played well before out here, but I haven't scored so well,' said Cho, who recorded 27 putts this week and improved on her previous best finish of second place in early May in Albuquerque, N.M.
Defending champ George was the sentimental favorite at the tournament's 20th anniversary celebration and showed that once again, Hickory Point's 6,454-yard, par-72 layout suited her just fine. The Pennsylvanian birded holes 3 and 4, then holed out an eagle-2 on the par-4 fifth hole with a 52-degree gap wedge from 106 yards. With birdies on seven and eight, from 3 feet and a foot respectively, George felt her foot on the accelerator as she made the turn.
'I was really shocked that I was up there on the leader board at that point,' said George. 'But I also knew that I had to make a few more putts.'
George picked up two more birdies on holes 12 and 15, but missed the green on the par-3 17th and lost a shot to bogey. She needed birdie on the last hole to tie Cho, playing two groups back, but it didn't happen.
'The last five holes, I stuck it within six feet on every hole,' said George, who hit 16 greens and rolled in 28 putts in the final round. 'If I gave the tournament away, it was on the previous holes. I'm not upset about 17. To be in the hunt is nice.'
Playing in the same pairing as Cho, Connelly recorded three birdies in her last eight holes to move into a share of second. Her birdie-birdie finish and the large crowd's response left the rookie smiling for an hour after her round.
'God, this is cool,' she said. 'There are so many people here and today, it was anybody's game.'
But at the Tour's longest-running tournament with the season's largest galleries, it was Cho who beat the 140-player field at the finish. Presented by Ameren and Miles Chevrolet, Decatur once again played host to the event most likely to create drama -- right down to the last putt.
Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins
An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.
It was too much “socializing.”
“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”
Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.
“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”
Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.
Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.
His plan for doing that?
“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”
McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018
Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.
So much for easing into the new year.
So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.
McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.
“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”
McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.
If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.
After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.
“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”
A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.
McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.
“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”
It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.
“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”
A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.
A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.
Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.
To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.
Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.
McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.
“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.
A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.
“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”
A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.
Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open
SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.
The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.
Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.
Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.
''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''
The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.
Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.
''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''
Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.
''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.
Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.
He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.
Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.
Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.
He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.
Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.
McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54
Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.
McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.
McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.
McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.
Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.
“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”