Goosen puts back injury behind him

By Jason SobelFebruary 22, 2015, 1:38 am

LOS ANGELES – At its most elite level, golf is growing younger right before our eyes. The man who will chase the career grand slam in two months, Rory McIlroy, is just 25. Jason Day’s recent win vaulted him to fourth in the world at 27. Patrick Reed has a win this year at 24; so does Brooks Koepka. Jordan Spieth won twice late last year at 21. It’s almost enough to send seasoned veterans leaping into the nearest water hazard in hopes of finding a fountain of youth.

Retief Goosen, though, has always been a man of modest means. He isn’t greedy. He doesn’t pine for being an up-and-coming twenty-something once again.

“I wish I was 10 years younger,” the 46-year-old said with a wry smile.

That’s because he’s finally healthy – and so, too, is his game, as evidenced by scores of 66-70-69 that have given him a two-stroke advantage at the Northern Trust Open going into the final round.

Northern Trust Open: Articles, videos and photos

A two-time U.S. Open champion and seven-time PGA Tour winner, it wasn’t so long ago that Goosen had neither the health nor the game to contend at this level. A back injury suffered some five years ago continued to linger. Injections didn’t help. On Aug. 24, 2012, he underwent surgery in London during which a titanium disc was inserted in his back. It was four months before he could even swing a club again.

“When I went in for surgery,” he recalled, “I was talking to my wife that I physically can't play golf anymore, so if surgery is not a success, I'm still in the same boat. So I'm very happy with the way that's turned out. It's now been pretty much almost 2½ years since surgery. My back's feeling great. I have zero back pain.

“The surgery has given me a second life, and hopefully I can continue to play on Tour for a few years to come.”

Call it his own version of the fountain of youth.

To further the metaphor, rather than make one big splash, he’s been mostly treading water until now.

“I feel great,” he beamed. “I mean, five years ago, the way my back was, I felt 46. And now I feel 36. I must say, my body's feeling good. I really can't complain what condition my body is in.”

He can’t complain about his performance so far this week, either.

The man famous for his major triumphs at Southern Hills and Shinnecock Hills is setting the pace on a course which hasn’t held a U.S. Open in 67 years, but feels like it is this week.

Goosen can see the parallels; he can understand how the experience of those long-ago wins could translate into success this week. But he also warns that we should remain wary of connecting the dots too linearly.

“Patience is a big, big key on a course like this,” he explained. “Yeah, I have the experience, but it's been quite a long time ago now, 14 and 11 years ago since I won a U.S. Open.”

That patience paid off on the back nine Saturday, in the form of a pair of big-time bounce-back birdies. After his first bogey of the day on the devilish 10th hole, he reached the par-5 11th in two and two-putted for birdie.

After bogeying three of his next four, Goosen found himself with an awkward stance just off the par-3 16th green, but stabbed at the ball, semi-buried in the rough, and popped it out to perfection, watching it disappear into the bottom of the cup.

“I felt I could get close,” he said. “I knew I couldn't leave it short unless I hit it in the rough in front of me. It just came out perfect and just went in perfect speed.”

The famously stoic South African barely cracked a smile, but that demeanor might help to explain his advantage so far this week.

Following the round, playing partner Graham DeLaet – who at two shots back will pair with him again on Sunday – marveled at Goosen’s ability to maintain such a calm disposition.

“He's a great guy to play with, especially under pressure circumstances, because you can just kind of look at him and see how cool and collected he is, with that just kind of silky smooth bomb that he hits off the tee,” said DeLaet. “He's a fun guy to watch play. I'm a little bit more of an emotional player than that, but I've learned over the years to not get too amped up or too down low. I think playing with him is a good way to just keep the calm and just go about business.”

Whatever happens on Sunday, Goosen will once again just go about his business.

It’s a business that, not so long ago, he thought he might be done with, the back injury keeping him from competing at a high level ever again.

When asked what he’d be doing if the surgery hadn’t been successful, Goosen pondered for a few seconds and smiled.

“I’d be sitting on a beach with a glass of wine,” he surmised.

By the end of Sunday’s final round, he could be lifting that glass to an unlikely victory toast instead.

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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.