Hull Wins First Event as Pro
But the native of Queensland, Australia and three-time All-American at Pepperdine University fired a final-round 69 to edge Ju Kim of Seoul, Korea in a two-hole sudden-death playoff to win the $70,000 Aurora Health Care Futures Charity Golf Classic. The duo tied at 210 (-6) for 54 holes in the event's third consecutive staging at Ironwood Golf Course, where Kim posted three straight rounds of two-under-par 70 on the 6,114-yard, par-72 course.
'It's a dream start, really,' said Hull, 21, who recorded rounds of 71-70-69 for the week. 'I finished my rounds strong for the last two days and put that under my belt. I knew it was going to come down to the last couple of holes.'
Kim, who built a three-shot lead with six holes to play in Sunday's final round, made her only mistakes in a crucial span of holes late in her round. She bogeyed No. 13 when her chip rolled two feet past the hole and she failed to get up and down for par. That trimmed her lead to one shot. At the 14th, a short approach shot resulted in a wedge that rolled 15 feet past the cup. Again, Kim couldn't convert for par, which allowed Hull to gain a share of the lead.
'Today my shots were really great, but I missed a lot of putts,' said Kim, who moved to the top of the Futures Tour Money List with her runner-up finish and earnings of $24,002 after eight events.
Kim's round included five birdies and three bogeys. After the two back-to-back bogeys on holes 13 and 14, she regained the lead on the 15th hole with a seven-foot birdie putt. But Kim bogeyed again after three-putting at the 16th to drop back into a tie with Hull. As if the drama weren't building enough, Kim struck her approach to 18 feet on the 17th hole, while Hull's shot landed 15 feet from the hole.
'I thought that whoever won that hole would win the tournament, but we both birdied,' said Hull. 'Ju showed me the line and I told myself to put a good roll on it. When it went in, I thought, 'Here we go.''
And indeed, they did. Kim's putt on the 18th green from 32 feet burned the left edge of the cup and she tapped in for par. Once again from nearly the same downhill line as Kim's, Hull went for her 30 footer and rolled three feet past. She made her come-back putt for par to force the playoff.
But instead of appearing like a frightened rookie or a first-week pro, Hull, who carried her own golf bag all week, returned to the 18th tee for the first sudden-death hole. She seemed undeterred by the pressure, even 'stoked' by her first chance at a professional title. By the end of the day, the 5-foot-10 player, known in the collegiate ranks for her ball striking ability, proved she had some other key ingredients.
'People automatically see a powerful player and a good ball striker, but Katherine's putting has been what she could always count on in college golf and it will transcend into her professional career,' said Pepperdine coach Laurie Gibbs. 'She has a lot of confidence and she's a great competitor.'
The fact that she had won eight college tournaments and set two NCAA scoring records earlier this year for lowest 18-hole score (nine-under-par 63) and lowest 54-hole score (16-under 200) proved that the Australian had done her homework before she turned pro. She was steady and unrattled and eager to start the playoff against Kim.
But Kim showed she was giving nothing up to the rookie. She drove into a left fairway bunker at No. 18 in the first playoff hole, then hit a 160-yard, 6-iron approach to 70 feet to the front of the green. Kim's par save from eight feet kept her in the match. Hull, whose 9-iron approach from 127 yards, stopped 20 feet short of the cup. She just missed birdie to the right and tapped in for par to force a second playoff hole.
Hull and Kim moved to the adjacent 10th tee and hit tee shots no more than five feet apart. Hull's 9-iron approach landed nine feet below the hole while Kim struck a 9-iron to 12 feet.
'I knew it was going in when I stood over that putt,' said Hull, whose birdie clinched the win. 'Ju and I were up and down all day and she played awesome. But anything can happen in this game.'
Even with young pros who have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Hull's first payday moved her to No. 17 on the Futures Tour Money List. She plans to play the next three Futures tournaments, the U.S. Women's Open in early July, then will finish out the season on the Futures Tour for a chance to earn one of the five exempt LPGA Tour cards awarded to the top five money winners at the season's end.
McIlroy gets back on track
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.
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.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
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.
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.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
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.
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.
McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call
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.
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.