Aiken Sets Early Pace in Swaziland
Aiken fired a 6-under-par 66 around the par-72 layout of the at Royal Swazi Sun Country Club, but will face stiff competition from the group of breathing down his neck, only one stroke back.
Ireland's James Loughnane, Zimbabwean Mike Lamb, England's Stuart Davis, Natalians Bradley Davison and Jaco van Zyl from Natal, as well as Mark Murless from Johannesburg are all poised to strike at the lead after rounds of 5-under-par 67.
'I'm very pleased with my round today,' Aiken said afterwards. 'It went a lot better than my debut performance at Dimension Data'.
Aiken is no stranger to the layout of the Royal Swazi Sun course, having played here in the All Africa Cup amateur event in November last year.
Playing off the championship tees in that tournament, Aiken finished in second place with a total score of 15-under-par.
The 18-year old started confidently on the back nine, with birdies at the 11th, 12th and 13th holes, before running into trouble at the par-4 15th.
His drive finished to the right of the fairway, landing among some trees and from a bad lie, he could only punch it short of the green. He chipped it over the back of the green into the bunker and an up-and-down from the bunker brought the only blemish to his otherwise perfect scorecard.
At the par-4 16th, Aiken bounced back with a birdie, then added three more on the front nine, at the first, fifth and seventh holes.
'There were certainly more birdies to be made out there today. If you can keep your drives in the fairway and find the middle of the green, you have every chance of making birdies,' said Aiken. 'I could have added at least four more to my score, at six, 15, 17 and 18'.
Aiken's game is obviously reaping the rewards of improved health.
'I suffered with bronchial pneumonia from the beginning of January and only recently started feeling better. I am much more confident this week than in Sun City; I feel on top of my game for the first time in a while'.
Having turned professional this year during the Dimension Data Pro-am on the Sunshine Tour, Aiken first qualified, but then missed the cut by two after posting rounds of 74-74.
'I was doing fine through the first 15 holes of the second round, then lost my rhythm and ended up with bogeys on the last three holes.
'Although I was very keen to turn professional, I was surprised at the extend of the adjustment from amateur to professional. It's a whole new stage, with a new set friends to be made, almost a different game all together'.
The defending champion Bradford Vaughan, who won the tournament last year with a staggering 25-under-par 263, did not enjoy a welcome return to the hilly layout.
Bogeys on the first and fourth holes were remedied by birdies on the seventh and eighth, but an expensive double bogey followed on the par-4 11th, and left Vaughan drifting toward the bottom of the leaderboard.
Vaughan fought back with birdies on the par-5 12th, par-4 13th and the par-5 17th holes to take his total to 1-under-par 71.
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.
Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title
The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.
Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.
Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.
Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.
Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.