Punch Shot: Who needs Masters momentum in Texas?

The PGA Tour hits Texas for two weeks as players get a final fortnight to either qualify or find their form for the season's first major. Who most needs to gain some Masters momentum in the Lone Star State? Our writers weigh in:

By RYAN LAVNER

With all of the will-he-or-won’t-he questions surrounding Tiger Woods, and the doubts about Rory McIlroy’s form, and the possibility of Bubba Watson repeating as champion, one superstar has gone virtually unnoticed during this Masters run-up: Phil Mickelson.

You remember Phil, right? The three-time Masters champion? The 42-time PGA Tour winner? The guy who was supposed to be competitive at Augusta into his 50s?

Things haven’t gone so well of late. He has finished outside the top 10 in 30 of his last 32 PGA Tour starts. He’s down to No. 21 in the world, or a spot ahead of Kevin Na. This season, he’s regained some pop in his driver but is still hitting it crooked. He’s not finding many greens. He’s not finding the bottom of the cup, either.

All of which has lowered expectations for Mickelson entering this year’s Masters, a tournament he won three times in a seven-year span but has either missed the cut or finished outside the top 50 in the last two editions. For the first time in forever, he’s under the radar, which is probably how he’d prefer it as he works out the kinks.

His first chance to show some form comes this week in San Antonio, where he’s making just his second start since ’92. A better barometer will come next week in Houston, where he’s fared well each of the past four years, finishing inside the top 16 each time, including a win in ’11.

If Phil has another Masters run in him, then it’s time to come out of hibernation. 


By REX HOGGARD

For every player, the drive down Magnolia Lane is a reason to get out of bed in the offseason, a reason to go to the range when it’s cold and empty.

So when Harris English finished 36 holes last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational tied for second place, the pressure understandably mounted.

English needed to finish tied for sixth or better at Bay Hill to move into the top 50 in the world rankings and qualify for the Masters. He struggled on the weekend to rounds of 72-75 to slip back to 29th place.

So instead of preparing for his second start at the year’s first major, he headed west to play this week’s Texas Open, where the ultimate deadline looms.

For a kid raised in south Georgia, who played four years at the University of Georgia, a tee time at Augusta National in early April transcends just another start.

It’s similar to the pressure he endured last year when he played his first Masters. He’d started the season with a victory in Mexico and five top-10 finishes and headed to Augusta with dark-horse status.

Last spring he let the pressure of the moment get to him, carding rounds 74-76. A year later he has a chance to see how far his game has progressed.


By RANDALL MELL

You can’t win if you’re not in.

Paul Casey is showing flashes of a return to the form that once helped the Englishman rank as high as No. 3 in the world, but it won’t help him at the Masters if he isn’t playing. Casey is No. 49 in the world today with a weak grip on an invite to Augusta National. To guarantee his first trip there since 2012, Casey has to remain among the top 50 in the world rankings when they come out at the conclusion of this week’s Valero Texas Open. Casey, though, isn’t playing the Texas Open. So, he’ll be holding his breath this week, hoping Marc Warren (No. 52) and Harris English (No. 53) don’t take his invite away. They are both playing the Texas Open, and nobody’s more motivated to make it than English, who was raised in Georgia and played for the University of Georgia.

If Casey doesn’t get in via the world rankings, he’ll still have one more possible route to Augusta. He is committed to playing the Shell Houston Open next week, the last chance players have to earn a Masters invite. If he falls out of the top 50 this week, Casey will need to win in Houston. The upside if he is in that desperate position is that he has won the Shell Houston Open before. He won it in ’09, his lone PGA Tour title.

If Casey does gets his Masters invite this week, his showing in Houston will still matter. After missing the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week, Casey will want to take as much as confidence as he can to Augusta National, where he has shown he can play. He was T-11 at the Masters in ’08, T-10 in ’07 and T-6 in ’04.


By NICK MENTA

After the neck issues and the haircut and the weight loss, at this point neither Jason Dufner nor his game are recognizable.

It’s been roughly 18 months since anyone has seen the ball-striking machine that was knocking down flagsticks at Oak Hill. Since losing to Adam Scott in a playoff last year at Colonial, the 2013 PGA champion has just one top-10 finish in 13 Tour events. In five starts in 2015, he’s been cut twice and finished no better than T-17. He’s 120th in total driving, 120th in ball striking and 97th in strokes gained-putting. Not exactly a recipe for success on Tour, let alone at Augusta.

Winless since his lone major victory, Dufner has gone from eighth in the Official World Golf Ranking in August 2013 down to 50th at present. If he wasn’t guaranteed a Masters invite through 2018, he’d be fighting just to get in the field.

Dufner hasn’t played the Valero Texas Open since 2008, before the tournament’s move to TPC San Antonio, but he’ll be in the field this week with the option of playing the Shell Houston Open – known for its vaguely Augusta-like setup – the week before the Masters.

People go to Texas to find themselves all the time, right? Right.

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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.