Down to a Single Shot

By George WhiteMay 14, 2002, 4:00 pm
Tom Watson was Tiger Woods before there was Tiger Woods. In the late 70s and early 80s, he went through a six-year stretch when he won 26 times ' maybe not Tiger-esque numbers, but certainly far better than anyone else who was playing during that time.
Watson, curiously, had a reputation as a bridesmaid for the first five years of his career. He had a frustrating habit of being unable to finish off a victory until 1977, when he broke through for four wins. His 34 PGA Tour victories and five British Opens gave him a career total of 39 wins, and he dressed that up with a total of eight major championships and three Vardon Trophies.
The last of his regular-tour wins came in 1998 at the MasterCard Colonial. Watson was 48 then, nearly at the end of his glittering PGA Tour career. I had to learn to win by hating to lose, he said. He has gone on to the Senior Tour where he has played sparingly but successfully. Forever he will remember, however, his Colonial where he emulated a hero of his, Ben Hogan.
Watson hit one of the greatest shots of his career at Colonial in 98. Tom himself believes it ranks among the top four of his long and illustrious career ' the 60-foot birdie putt at the 16th green which helped defeat Jack Nicklaus in the 1977 British Open; the chip-in at the 17 at Pebble Beach to defeated Nicklaus in 82; his 2-iron to the final green at Royal Birkdale which clinched the 83 British; and the approach shot at the ninth hole at the 98 Colonial.
Watson had hooked up with Jim Furyk in a tense duel, and they were deadlocked at the 391-yard ninth when Watson hit his drive into a church-pew bunker on the right side of the fairway. The ball was only 132 yards from the pin, but it was too close to the lip for him to stand in the bunker. He would have to stand outside, on the grass a foot above the ball, to make contact.
To make the shot more treacherous, there is a menacing pond directly in front of the green. Watson would have to crouch over, swing on a level plane, and catch the ball crisply enough to carry the pond.
The whole tournament boiled do to that one shot on No. 9, said Watson. I was just trying to make contact and not hit it fat. I caught it flush, in the back of the ball. I was worried before I struck it. Not after, though.
The ball popped out exactly as he had hoped. The 8-iron caught it flush and he delivered a crisp blow, the ball rolling up to within 10 feet. One putt later, Watson had turned a bogey into a birdie. When Furyk bogeyed the 15th to fall three behind, Watson galloped home a winner.
In Watsons early days, he was a superb putter. I had the line, I hit the ball where I was looking, and the ball went in the hole, he said. I aimed the putter and I knew the ball was going right along the line.
But in the 90s, the putts mysteriously stopped dropping. At first it was mystifying. It became a little comical, the way the ball would stay out of the hole. Then it became pure frustration as yet another short one would slide futilely by. The agony of the missed short putt made a great ball-striker into only an average scorer. Had he had a putting game in his later years to match his long game, he would have won at least 10 more tournaments.
In 1988, he missed a three-footer in a playoff and lost the Hawaiian Open. In 1993 at the U.S. Open, he was in contention until he started missing short putts Saturday. That led to a 73 and meant that the 69 he shot Sunday would only get him a tie for fifth. In the 93 PGA, his first three rounds of 69-65-70 left him just one off the lead. But in the final round he began the day with missed four-footers on two of the first three holes and finished fifth.
Generally, my last rounds were pitiful, he says frankly. Mostly, its the inability to get the ball in the cup when I really had to. Of course, when youre under pressure, thats when your nerves take over. And they took over too many times.
With all the glory that has come Watsons way, there is one telling statistic: he has entered the final round of PGA Tour and British Open events 19 times within three shots of the lead ' and hasnt won. Thirty-nine times, he has been successful, but if he could have 11 of those 19 near-misses, he would have had 50 wins.
Another legendary golfer had the same problem ' Sam Snead. Another ' Arnold Palmer. Yet another - Ben Hogan.
You followed Hogan all those years and watched him suffer after hitting the ball just beautifully and not being able to take the putter back, said Watson. Its not to the point where I cant take the putter back ' the putter goes back in funny places. It doesnt go back where it should go back. Doesnt go through the way it should go through on the short putts, and the longer putts where I can use a little bit more of this and that, it works better.
The short misses, though, are the only blemish on what has been a wonderful career ' typified by his brilliant shot at the 98 Colonial. Today, there is Tiger Woods. In the 1980s, there was Tom Watson.
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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.