Park's closing 61 helps break 11-month drought

By Randall MellJune 8, 2014, 9:27 pm

Inbee Park fired back with an exclamation point.

A week after watching Stacy Lewis win the ShopRite Classic to take the Rolex world No. 1 ranking from her, Park answered dramatically Sunday, closing fiercely with a 10-under-par 61 to win the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. 

"It definitely took a little pressure off me," Park told reporters after winning. "At the same time, I needed a little motivation."

Though Park couldn't take back the No. 1 ranking with her impressive finish at Grey Silo Golf Course, the timing of her first LPGA title of 2014 adds to the storybook season the tour is delivering. Park will head to the U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in a week with confidence and momentum in her bid to defend her title and take back the No. 1 ranking. 

"My last win on the LPGA tour was last year, about this time a year ago, and it really felt longer than a year," Park said. "After winning the U.S. Open in 2008, and not being able to win another tournament for another four years, I didn't want that to happen again. The longer you don't have the win, the longer time you have, the harder it gets to hold the trophy. So, I'm just really happy that I got that done."

It seems as if all the best players in women's golf are on their games going to U.S. Women's Open.

Rolex No. 1 Lewis, No. 2 Park, No. 3 Lydia Ko and No. 4 Suzann Pettersen all posted top-10 finishes in Canada.

Manulife Financial LPGA Classic: Articles, videos and photos

"Last year, it seemed like it was easier to win, but this year, obviously, it's been tough," Park said. "I feel that I played very good golf compared to last year, but I couldn't win until this week. That tells you how competitive the LPGA tour is and how players are playing great this year. 

Even a light rain couldn't cool Park, with her putter heating up Sunday. Her 61 was the lowest score she's posted in her eight LPGA seasons, three shots lower than her previous best in 169 tour starts. It tied the Grey Silo course record.

Two shots back at day's start, Park won her 10th career LPGA, title overtaking Shanshan Feng with 10 birdies and no bogeys. At 23-under 261, Park finished three shots ahead of Cristie Kerr (63) and five ahead of Feng (68).

Kerr, who closed with a 63, didn't look at a leaderboard until she putted out on the 17th hole. She couldn't believe she was three shots behind Park.

"I was stunned," Kerr said. "You think you'd be close." 

While Park dominated the LPGA a year ago, winning the first three majors of the season, she had gone 50 weeks without winning on the tour. Though she won the Mission Hills World Ladies Championship on the Ladies European Tour in March, she had not won an LPGA event since claiming the U.S. Women's Open at Sebonack Golf Club in New York.

"I got a confidence boost before going back to the U.S. Open," Park said. "I really wanted to have a trophy, before I played the big major tournaments."

The victory didn't just end a drought for Park. It broke a rare winless spell for the South Koreans, marking their first LPGA title this year. It broke the longest winless drought to start a year for the South Koreans since 2008.

When Park heads to Pinehurst No. 2 next week, she will be looking to win South Korea its sixth U.S Women's Open title in the last seven years.

Park's title creates a remarkably tight battle for the Rolex No. 1 ranking going to Pinehurst. Park will move within three-tenths of a point of Lewis in the rankings going to the U.S. Open.

Park, one of the best putters in the world, has an uncanny ability to demoralize her competition with the flatstick. Though she led the LPGA in putting average going into the Manulife Life Financial, she wasn't happy with her stroke. Everything, though, seemed to be going in at Grey Silo. She took 25 putts in the final round after hitting all but one green in regulation.

"The putter is definitely the key," Park said. "I've been hitting the ball consistently all year, my putter's just not been wanting to do its job. This week, obviously it did its job.

"I really tried to go back to what I was doing last year, how I putted last year, looking at the videos and stuff like that, trying to see what was different, trying to see what I did different this year and really trying to go back to the old way."

The old winning ways.

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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.