Justin Wins Without Long Ball
Leonard is a supremely talented golfer who has only this one little problem ' he just doesnt conk the ball out there far enough to seriously contend week-in and week-out. Hes a wonderful putter and a sure iron player. But when it comes to tee-shot launches, he normally has to take a back seat while the big boys have their fun.
Of course, last week was the Bob Hope Chrysler Championship. The courses at the Hope are fairly short by tour standards. And, the greens are superb. It was an ideal formula for J. Leonard.
Now, Leonard has occasionally done very well in big championships. But they werent exhibitions for the big bashers where anyone could just line up and let it fly. There was the British Open at Troon ' which Justin won. There was the British Open at Carnoustie, where he went into a playoff before losing to Paul Lawrie. There was the Players Championship in 1998 ' which he won. And there was the PGA Championship last year, where Leonard got into a playoff before losing to Vijay Singh.
In each instance, the tournaments required careful iron play more than howitzers off the tee. As Tom Kite, never a long hitter, used to say, As long as everyone is forced to hit driver, make the course as long as you want to. Ill hit drivers with any of em.
Meaning that, Kite could play with anyone when it came to having to hit the clubs straight. Where Kite missed out was on courses where everyone else could hit 3-wood or 2-iron while he was having to hit the driver. If there isnt enough rough to narrow in the fairways, Kite knew he was facing long odds.
So, too, is Leonard. But there are three or four tournaments a year where length is very little advantage. And putting is a great advantage. Hel-lo, Hope tourney!
This year, sure enough, there stands Justin at 149th on the list of driving distance after just seven rounds. But he stands second in putting, and you can just about forget any lapses with the driver. Which stat is more important? You decide.
Leonard made a big switch is the off-season, giving up his Ben Hogan clubs which he had used since turning pro 10 years ago for a set of Nikes. Its still too early to tell what that means ' after all, Leonard was pretty darn successful with the old sticks. But he adjusted to the Nikes fairly quickly, winning with them in just his second outing after missing the cut at San Diego. A secret for you, though ' Hogans old club designer, Tom Stites, is now the big dog at Nike. See the semblance?
The list of Bob Hope winners has been pretty impressive, despite the fact that the courses are short and amateurs are playing four of the five rounds. Just since 98, the list has included Fred Couples, David Duval, Jesper Parnevik, Phil Mickelson twice and Mike Weir, with Joe Durant thrown in during a particularly hot spring in 2001. The last two Hope winners, incidentally, were also the last two winners at the Masters ' Weir and Mickelson.
And now, Leonard, perchance?
I would say it's coincidence, said a smiling Justin. But look at the two players who won this tournament the previous two years (Weir and Mickelson.) Two pretty good players that probably set up pretty well for Augusta.
I love playing Augusta. I'm looking very much forward to it. I certainly hope to keep that stream alive. I may write that in my yardage book to give me a little boost of confidence.
Confidence was something he couldnt have had much off coming into the Hope, since at Leonards only other outing this year ' the Buick Invitational ' he missed the cut after shooting 74 the first day. But he blames that on what was for him a long off-season (two months), plus the equipment change.
But I felt like as the week went on (at the Hope), my practice sessions got a little better, said Justin. It didn't necessarily transfer over to the golf course, but I just seemed to hit the ball more solidly as the week went on.
You know, I enjoy coming to this event. I enjoy playing with the amateurs, enjoy the golf courses, the weather. And so, I felt like after my practice sessions on Friday and Saturday during the fog delays where I hit balls for about two hours maybe only being able to see it for about 60 yards had something to do with it.
Of course, maybe the Bob Hope courses had something to do with it, too. But then, so much is new with the old Justin. Maybe there will be new results, as well.
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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.