The curious case of Mickelson's overnight WD

By Jason SobelSeptember 6, 2014, 2:32 pm

Call me old school, but I prefer mid-tournament withdrawals to occur when a player comes down with a slight case of pre-round broken leg. Or maybe when – apologies for the mental image - he can’t keep any food down on the course. Or even in the rare circumstance when he’s going to become a father and chooses being in the delivery room over 18 holes.

Hey, that’s part of the allure of being a professional golfer – as an independent contractor, you don’t need to explain to a general manager or coach why you can’t play on a given day. In fact, you don’t need any explanation at all. Players can withdraw mid-tournament without reason and without any penalty, which prompted one of their brethren to refer to a recent spate of early exits as an “epidemic” just a few months ago.

All of which leads us to Phil Mickelson, who WD’d from the BMW Championship in the wee hours of Saturday morning based on this theory: He needs time to prepare for the Ryder Cup.

“Without a chance to contend at the Tour Championship,” he said in a statement, “the most important thing for me now is to prepare for the Ryder Cup.”

The first issue here is that Mickelson stole away from Cherry Hills like a thief in the night, leaving a tournament he had constantly maintained he was excited about while mired in a share of 63rd place in the 69-man field.

On the scale of poor form, this ranks somewhere between societal faux pas and unlawful surrender. Over the past two decades, no player has better understood the business of building a brand and protecting an image. By fleeing like the old Baltimore Colts in their Mayflower trucks (do they make private jets, too?), Mickelson undoubtedly knows he triple-bogeyed this latest public relations test.

Mell: Fatigued Mickelson ends season with PR blunder

BMW Championship: Articles, videos and photos

The bigger issue is that it contrasts everything we’ve always known about the unsinkable lefthander. This is a guy who rarely misses a Shell Houston Open or FedEx St. Jude Classic or Scottish Open, because he prefers to prepare for big events by being in the heat of competition.

“The more I play, the sharper I get and usually the second or third tournament is when I play my best,” he explained last year. “That’s why I like to have a tournament before a major, because a major’s penalty for a miss is so severe you’ve got to be sharp on each shot right from the gate.”

The Ryder Cup will begin exactly three weeks after Mickelson’s final competitive round of the season, which means his WD is the antithesis of his usual preparation. It also comes across as disingenuous based on recent comments.

He’s been uncharacteristically indecisive in recent weeks. After missing the secondary cut at The Barclays, he insisted, “I’m barely keeping my sanity, I’m so frustrated.” Days later, before the Deutsche Bank Championship, he maintained, “I don’t have high expectations. My game will be a crapshoot.” And yet, after finishing T-45 there, he claimed, “I haven’t driven the ball this well in a long time and my putter felt great.”

Yes, he can turn his game on in a hurry, which is why it’s puzzling that he would forgo his final 36 holes of the season in favor of preparing for an event three weeks away.

Unless it isn’t, really.

Mickelson has never been shy about using his actions to help his agenda. He was never happy about four straight weeks of FedEx Cup playoff events, saying recently, “I want to do everything I can to support the PGA Tour … But I don’t ever play four weeks in a row, outside of weeks that I’m staying at my house. To play four in a row is very difficult for me.”

Maybe he’s using his status as a pulpit to get this point across. Maybe he really feels like two more days at home will leave him better prepared for the Ryder Cup. Maybe he’s just burnt out on golf right now and needs to get away from it. Maybe there are other factors at play that he simply didn’t want to make public. For a man who has dealt with his own health issues as well as those of close family members, we can only hope he isn’t masking any further problems in that area.

We can only take him on his word, though, and he contested that he needed to be fresh for the Ryder Cup. For a player who has spent a career doing and saying the right thing so often, one who whips galleries into a frenzy based on his aggressive nature, this maneuver feels like a risk-reward that wasn’t worth the risk.

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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.