Tiger Looks Like Tiger Again
It was last year, of course, when he did the same thing. The sl- , er, winless period hadnt lasted quite as long ' his final win was the Bell Canadian in 2000, the final one in 2001 two weeks earlier at the WGC ' NEC Championship. It bothers Tiger to hear the word slump in concert with his string of performances, and indeed with anyone else this winless skein would be merely a momentary lapse. However, we are talking about a player here whom we believe will be the greatest in history, and these winless skeins are a bit more than business-as-usual. Tiger himself may not buy into the greatest thing, but his father certainly does. So while Tiger is permitted to get angry about the slump talk, many others who have professed him potentially the greatest ever certainly cannot.
Look at what hes done, though. Win No. 30 came a full four years earlier than anyone else had ever done it. There is no proof, of course, but the suspicion is that Woods did it against the most skillful opposition in history. Certainly there are more skilled opponents than there has ever been. At this point in his career, Woods has outshone everybody who has ever played the game.
Hes 26 years old now, and thats right on the cusp of his prime years. If history is an indicator, the best years are between now and 35-36, a 10-year stretch that everyone who has gone before him has hit their prime. It will be interesting to see if he follows the trend ' though it will be hard to do better than nine wins in 2000 or eight wins in 1999.
Tiger was raised in Southern California, but the last couple of years he has shown a decided preference for the grasses and conditions of the East and Midwest. This year the soliloquy might have reached its peak when he couldnt help but let slip concerns about the turf on the West Coast. His putting statistics were poor on the Western swing, but lo and behold, just like he said, he got on Bermuda and he started making serious inroads. Warm weather is here and he looks like its time to get rolling.
You know, he said, I thoroughly enjoy it. I thoroughly enjoy coming back down here to Florida and playing. This is where I live now.
Last year, Woods used his Bay Hill victory to win four in a row. The Players is this week, his second win in succession last year. He then won the Masters and The Memorial for his four straight wins.
As Ive gone on throughout the year, I have gained a greater appreciation for four in a row, he said. It is a pretty neat accomplishment, and to be able to say that Ive done it, Im very proud of that.
Tiger plays a dangerous game with his constant tinkering of the swing, though. Refer to Ian Baker-Finch, Chip Beck and a wide assortment of others who won big tournaments, tweaked the swing to get a little more distance or accuracy, and the whole thing blew up in their face. Woods last swing change, though, paid huge dividends ' he fashioned it in mid-1999 and has been near-unstoppable since.
Tiger says, however, that those who question yet more swing tweaks just dont understand golf.
The game of golf ' if you understand the game of golf ' you never really have it, Woods says. It just ebbs and flows. And you are always working on something. I dont care how good you hit it one day ' shoot, like I shot 59, I still hit a couple of bad shots, you still go out and work on those things.
The game of golf is very unique that way. You always try to get a little bit better.
He insists hes working on the same things he has been since 1997. If so, eight wins in 99 and nine if 2000 seem to suggest he is already there. He says no he isnt, and heaven forbid what would happen if he ever got it exactly right. He plays about 20 tournaments a year, and obviously he wants to win 20. Yes, Tiger is being Tiger again.
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.