Blame who you want; U.S. loss was a group effort

By Jason SobelOctober 5, 2014, 12:38 am

As far as entertainment value is concerned, the aftermath of the Ryder Cup has easily eclipsed the lopsided Ryder Cup itself. While the victorious European team has focused on sobering up, the vanquished American squad has offered sobering thoughts of varied proportions, eliciting a passive-aggressive maelstrom of finger pointing in every direction, including directly at the finger pointers’ own chests.

First there was the post-competition news conference, during which the U.S. team awkwardly sat at the dais while Phil Mickelson insisted the players had no personal investment, captain Tom Watson insisted that wasn’t the only way to win and every other team member uncomfortably squirmed in his seat. Then there was the report, which cited numerous sources maintaining that Watson’s team room speech on Saturday night was less fire and more brimstone, as he singled out players for not playing better. And finally – for now, at least  there was Watson’s open letter, which attempted to save face and mend fences by taking responsibility for the loss six days after the fact.

In his 1986 book "The Politics of Blame Avoidance,” author R. Kent Weaver writes: “Politicians are motivated primarily by the desire to avoid blame for unpopular actions rather than by seeking to claim credit for unpopular ones. … Incentives to avoid blame lead politicians to adopt a distinctive set of political strategies, including agenda limitation, scapegoating, ‘passing the buck’ and defection (‘jumping on the bandwagon’) that are different than those they would follow if they were primarily interested in pursuing good policy or maximizing credit-claiming opportunities.”

Watson, Mickelson and the other (mostly) silent team members aren’t politicians, but each often plays one on TV.

In six days since the red, white and blue was outclassed by blue and gold, the blame avoidance has come full circle, especially from the captain. It started with finger pointing toward others and has transformed into taking full responsibility, which in turn has already resulted in many observers reassigning that responsibility.

To (sort of) keep the political theme, this is like the modern-day golf version of the George Washington cherry tree fable. Rather than redirect blame, the story goes, the young Washington accepted responsibility for chopping down the tree. (“I cannot tell a lie,” he says in the story. “I did it with my little hatchet.”) Rather than persecuted for the offense, the boy is praised for candor. Moral of the story? Honesty is the best policy.

In the current tale, Watson essentially chopped down the tree that is the American team, waited six days, then offered his own interpretation of, “I cannot tell a lie.” Essentially, he’s hoping the candor will transcend the offense. He’s hoping that by turning the mirror on himself, others will redirect the blame for him.

Not that he is fully responsible, nor should he take full responsibility. In his open letter, Watson admitted, “I take complete and full responsibility for my communication, and I regret that my words may have made the players feel that I didn’t appreciate their commitment and dedication to winning the Ryder Cup.”

That’s noble of him – again, six days after the fact – but communication is a two-way street. If the captain didn’t communicate his message properly, then it was up to his veteran team members – nine of whom had competed in previous Ryder Cups – to communicate their reaction in response.

And therein lies the gist of this very public, very awkward blame game. Losing the competition wasn’t fully Watson’s fault, nor was it fully the players’ fault. Nobody can - or should - be singled out for failing to come together as a team better at Gleneagles, and as a result, failing to win.

There still hasn’t been anyone to publicly make this point. It didn’t happen in Mickelson’s agenda-tinged post-tournament diatribe about better strategies and a lack of personal investment; it didn’t happen in Watson’s open letter nearly a week after the loss.

Nowhere has anyone said these words: “We traveled to Scotland as a team. We practiced as a team. We meshed as a team. We miscommunicated as a team. We played poorly as a team. We blamed each other as a team. And yes, we lost as a team.”

In the entertaining aftermath of a lopsided Ryder Cup, it’s this part of the blame game which has gone noticeably missing so far. Everyone involved has pointed their finger either at each other or themselves – or both alternately.

What hasn’t happened is anyone speaking with definitive candor about responsibility. What hasn’t happened is anyone admitting, "I cannot tell a lie: We all chopped down the cherry tree. Together.”

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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.