2008 The Year of Game-Improvement

By January 31, 2008, 5:00 pm
Adam Scott won the Qatar Masters last Sunday, shooting a final round 61 which featured a flawless 18 greens in regulation. What is even more interesting is that Scott accomplished this remarkable feat with the new cavity back Titleist AP2 irons. Scott was previously a dedicated muscle back iron player. Whatever the reasons were that precipitated the change, Scott must have liked the new irons and felt tangible advantages since he claims to never change a club unless it is broken. But Scott is not an isolated case. Titleist is predicting the AP2 to be the most popular choice among their PGA Tour staff in 2008. In fact, all across the PGA Tour, more players are beginning to switch to more forgiving clubs, but will 2008 be the year of the game improvement club?
This trend hasn't happened overnight. Changes in golf ball designs have significantly reduced spin over the wound balls of yesteryear. In order to maintain the same ball flight, something must be done to increase spin. Almost every club has had to adapt to accommodate this desired change. Drivers now have more loft than ever before, the center of gravity in irons is placed lower and farther back, and wedges now have grooves milled to the maximum dimensions, all to increase the amount of spin that has been lost over time. Hybrid clubs have now replaced long irons, increasing launch angle, spin, and distance which was previously unattainable through traditional long irons.
From recent tournaments, PGA Tour players are moving toward game improvement models. In addition to Adam Scott, K.J. Choi won the Sony Open making a mixed set between Nike's game improvement Ignites as his long irons and traditional blades as his short irons. K.J. also had incredible success in 2007 with Nike's high MOI Sumo Square driver, winning twice with it. Even Tiger Woods himself has made some changes, frequently rotating his two iron with a five wood depending on the course and conditions.
But will the average golfer take note? Traditionally, forgiving clubs have had a distinctive 'look,' thicker top lines, wider soles, and more offset. With many cavity back irons, the cavity is visible in clubs with the lowest lofts. However, that is now changing. In 2008, they might well be hard pressed to not add some forgiveness into their bags perhaps without even knowing it. Companies are becoming incredibly adept at incorporating things like perimeter weighting, wide soles, and low center of gravity into shapes even the most ardent traditionalists can accept. Titleist's AP2 is a perfect example. At address, the cavity is invisible and is filled with a rubber compound giving it the look and soft feel of a traditional blade. Bridgestone has also worked hard to introduce a better looking, more forgiving iron the J36 Pocket Cavity. Similar to the AP2, the Pocket Cavity features a channel cut into the cavity which increases perimeter weighting while still giving the iron a clean look with a thin top line and sole.

Among drivers, the geometry driven MOI craze has gained a lot of publicity. However, even traditionally shaped drivers are becoming incredibly forgiving to off-center hits. Engineers are coming up with new ways to redistribute weight around the club head to help increase forgiveness. Ping's G10 features a newly designed crown which has thinner areas to save weight which can be repositioned lower and further back in the club head. Other companies are looking to composite materials to help minimize weight and move it lower and further back. Some golfers have tried new high MOI drivers, but found them to have unpleasant sound and feel. Companies are paying close attention and are refining previous designs to provide traditional feel golfers are used to. Cobra has added internal baffles to their new 2008 Speed LD driver to give it a more muted, solid sound rather than the loud, high-pitched tone the previous model had. So if the tin can sound of high MOI models has been scaring you off, there is now good reason to give them a try in 2008.
However, forgiveness is alive and well on the greens as well. Many people think putters are one place where they don't need forgiveness. However, attach some impact tape to the face of your putter and you might change your mind. Companies are addressing this in a variety fo ways. TaylorMade's unique Spider may not win any beauty contests. However it is beginning to win over players on the PGA Tour. Twelve Spiders were put into play in last week's Buick Invitational. The putter's ability to move weight far back and to the outside allows for excellent distance control on off center hits. Many golfers struggle with lag putting and more often than not, it is their contact on the face which causes them to struggle with speed. Moving to a higher MOI putter can help since hits toward the heel and toe don't lose energy they travel closer to their intended distance.
If you're considering adding clubs into your bag, chances are good you can find a model with more forgiveness than what you're currently using. Its still very early, but signs are pointing to a strong year for game-improvement clubs in 2008.

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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.