His Breather Behind Him Ernie Marches On

By George WhiteOctober 5, 2004, 4:00 pm
Ernie Els is getting close now, ever so close. If he doesnt watch it, he will have the Greg Norman tag of unluckiest golfer on the planet after two or three more of these jobs. Last week he won a big one, but already this year he has had enough heartache to last two lifetimes.
At the Masters, he loses when Phil Mickelson makes a 20-footer on the last hole. He was only two off the pace at the U.S. Open going into the final day, then ran afoul of the USGAs misguided attempt at setting up the course and shot 80. He lost in a playoff at the British Open, having only 10 feet for birdie on the last hole in regulation while Todd Hamilton walked up to his ball 40 yards out in the fairway. And at the PGA Championship, he finished one shot out of a playoff when he three-putted the final hole.
So-o-o ' instead of the possibility of winning all four majors, Els finished the year 0-fer the majors. No wonder he was so fried when he went to the WCG-NEC the following week after the PGA. He shot three 72s and a 77 and finished way, way back, tied for 65th.
After playing golf in five of the six continents this year, after losing the four majors in such a teeth-gnashing manner, Ernie took a step back to look at the big picture. And he decided that what was wrong was what a lot of people decided a long time ago ' that he was tired of golf.
So, he flung the clubs in the garage at his London home and didnt get them out for two weeks. Two weeks! When the worlds busiest golfer got to the tournament last week in Ireland, he had recouped.
Voila ' look what happened. It was just what the swing doctor ordered. And once again, Els is winning.
Obviously, being human and being an athlete, you play to succeed and play to win, Els tried to explain what has happened the past month. And when it didn't happen, I was quite disappointed.
But I'm fine now. As I say, I've had two weeks off and had some time to reflect. I've just got to dedicate myself and get back into the swing of things, and I'm busy doing that.
Els plays golf like a drunk out on the town for a prolonged binge. He careens all over the place - starting out this year in Hawaii, heading to Thailand, swooping down to Australia, then hitting Dubai in the Middle East.
He came back to the U.S. for a couple of months, then headed to England when the season there got into high gear. He played in Germany, in Scotland, in the U.S. again, back across the Atlantic to Switzerland, then finally last week in Ireland.
Are you exhausted just reading about it?
And, to top it all off, he played a very high degree of excellence until the wheels came flying off at the NEC. His performance in the four majors rivals anyone. Were it not for the exceptional manner that Vijay Singh has played the last couple of months, Els would be world No. 1 today.
For a while there, myself and you guys were putting a negative spin on the whole thing, he said after the American Express. Notice he said myself before he said you guys ' politeness has always been his middle name.
If I look at it from a positive way, I came so close to winning four majors this year, and I've never been in that position before. I definitely did do something right. In three of the four, I was there right till the death. I've got to feel encouraged about what happened, more so than really being very negative.
Theres no question about the credentials of Singh to be No. 1. But a sneaking suspicion lurks that it could just as easily be Els if Els would settle down and concentrate his golf on one continent. But he has determined to be a world player. He plays in all four corners, regardless of what the many hours on a jet means to his game.
And for now, hell just continue to play the majors game of almosts. He feels as if he righted the ship again with his Sunday victory. The long, unbroken string of disappointments was becoming unbearable. The feelings came bubbling to the surface with the T65 at the NEC, and at that time, he wouldnt have guessed that he would have been in the winners circle at the AmEx in October.
Back at Firestone, no, admitted Ernie. I was nowhere. I should not have played that week.
I mean, I spoke to you after the Sunday round. I was nowhere. You know, I was very disappointed back then, and even when I got to Europe, the Swiss Open, Swiss Masters, I was still disappointed about my season or the summer.
But as I said to you guys the other day, I really wanted to draw a line and make the switch. I needed to make the switch. I did that the last two weeks.
And draw the line he did. In the meantime, Singh has broken out on top. All hats off the Vijay, says Els. But that line in the sand has been drawn, and Ernie has stopped the slide.
You know, I needed to do it, he said of the two-week vacation, and that's what I had to do. I needed to get that out of my system and start over. Otherwise I'm going to get left behind.
I don't want to do that. I want to go forward in my career, I want to win tournaments, I want to get to my goals, and the only way you can do it is to move forward. You can't keep looking back.

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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.