On Ryder Cup Friday, nothing like No. 1 tee

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 28, 2012, 2:15 pm

MEDINAH, Ill. – The first tee on Ryder Cup Friday is one of the most pressurized scenes in all of sports. It’s Game 7 of the World Series, a do-or-die game in the NBA Finals, the final moments of the Super Bowl . . . all on a swath of closely mown grass some 10 yards wide.

Who cares that so many European players now live in the U.S., that they have become fixtures on the PGA Tour? These biennial matches haven’t lost any of their intensity, at least not among fans. They still wrapped themselves in their country’s flags like blankets. They stomped and sang songs even with the competitors still warming up on the range, nowhere in sight.

They arrived early, too. It was 6:39 a.m. local time when this correspondent arrived. The air smelled of hot coffee, hamburgers were already on the grill, and fans jammed eight rows deep along the sides of the first tee. Everyone could see their breath. It's 51 degrees.

The setup around No. 1 tee is such that players must walk from the practice green over scaffolding to arrive at the tee – gladiators entering their arena, only this venue had lush green grass, bunkers and a MetLife blimp hovering overhead.

It’s 6:58. The Euros’ “Ole, ole, ole!” chant suddenly was met by screams of “U-S-A!” – a minute-long clash of vibrant and impassioned noise, like a fight between teenaged siblings.

It wouldn’t be long before U.S. assistant captains Jeff Sluman and Fred Couples arrived on the first tee, sparking another “U-S-A!” chant. Freddie lifted both arms in exultation, then was reduced to a gray-haired, cool-kid mascot, clapping and flipping hats to the fans.

It’s 7:15. Team Europe – well, a few of the team members who weren’t playing (Martin Kaymer, Nicolas Colsaerts) on Friday morning – made their way to the back of the first tee, for moral support. Not far behind was U.S. captain Davis Love III, who extended his left fist into the air. The crowd roared.

Soon, Love and the rest of the assistant captains gathered on the teeing ground for a group picture – this year’s Christmas card.

The first player in the first group to arrive was Jim Furyk, and he wore a snow cap. Walking toward the tee, he held his left hand to his ear – I can’t hear you! His partner, Brandt Snedeker, a Ryder Cup rookie, was next, and he clapped and high-fived and smiled wide – hey, the guy just won $11.4 mill.

It’s 7:19. Furyk walked over and kissed his wife, Tabitha, and Sneds smooched his bride, too. Photogs rushed to grab their cameras.

As Europe’s Graeme McDowell was introduced, the Golf Gods hit the mute button on the universal remote – the crowd fell silent, immediately. And the first tee shot of the 39th Ryder Cup sailed way left, clipping a tree some 75 yards ahead, and fans scrambled to get a proper view of the ball. Furyk then pegged it, the crowd cheered, he set up right, and then overcooked it left, too. Nerves.

It’s 7:25. On the tee, Love conducted a TV interview, the equivalent of an NFL coach being asked his thoughts after the first media timeout in the first quarter. A few fans sang “Old MacDonald” as Luke Donald’s wife, Diane, slipped to the left side of the tee.

It’s 7:28. Here came Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley – frequent practice-round partners, gambling buddies, mentor and mentee. Lefty flashed a few thumbs-up, as is his wont, and not far behind came Sergio Garcia and hometown favorite Luke Donald. Luuuuuuuuke. They took an awkward photo – U.S. team on the left, match official in the middle, Europe on the right – that could feature the caption, “House divided!”

The moments before this star-studded match were tense, and the players exchanged pleasantries. Fortunately, a few clever fans provided the levity, chanting, “Ma-jor win-ners!” referring to this Euro duo’s oft-discussed oh-fer in golf’s biggest events.

It’s 7:33. Donald stuck his tee in the ground and waited for the go-ahead. Silence, again. His tee shot with a 3-wood faded down the right side, but received a favorable kick into the fairway.

Bradley, another rookie, played first for the Americans. He’s a big hitter, with a nervy pre-shot routine, but in a few short moments he would select driver, visualize his shot and hammer one down the center. He walked toward the front of the tee, turned back and high-fived Mickelson.

It’s 7:46. After a 10-minute intermission, Zach Johnson and the laconic Jason Dufner walked across the bridge. Zach waved his arms; there were unconfirmed reports that Duf smiled.

As he waited to play, Dufner squatted and stretched, swung and spat, but his only acknowledgement of the crowd was a tip of his cap, like in those Comcast commercials.

It’s 7:50. Lee Westwood smashed a drive down the middle, and Dufner, after seven waggles, pulled his tee shot into the bunker. Advantage, Europe.

About 10 minutes later, Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan ambled over to the tee, awaiting the final group. Before long, Europe vice captain Miguel Angel Jimenez – Golf’s Most Interesting Man – greeted Jordan, and they chatted for a few moments. Discussing their love of cigars, perhaps?

It’s 8:02. The final group made its way toward the tee, the crowd now thinning a bit, only five rows deep along the sides.

Justin Rose and Ian Poulter were first to arrive, and then came Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods, the latter playing his first home Ryder Cup since 2004. His left hand stuffed in his pants pocket – surely the first time he’s worn blue plaid pants in competition – Woods doffed his hat to the crowd.

“Fourteen majors in this group!” a fan yelled.

Poulter found the first fairway, per usual in the Ryder Cup, but it was a different story for Woods. Setting up to hit a fade, he hit an ominous, ghastly, double-crossed snap-hook that nearly hit the tree and eventually came to rest near a fence – the worst tee ball of any of the eight competitors. Stricker walked ahead, eager to see the lie.

Now it was 8:07, and everyone in the morning foursomes was out on the course. A warm morning sun had lifted the temperature to 58 degrees, fans scrambled to find their next-best viewing area, and the day’s possibilities seemed limitless. 

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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.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

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.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


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.