Koepka further proof young stars have taken over

By Jason SobelFebruary 2, 2015, 12:48 am

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Don’t believe the headlines. Don’t give in to clichéd opinion. Don’t buy all the hype about this week’s PGA Tour event representing some sort of “changing of the guard” or “young gun uprising” or “end of an era” or “the future of golf.”

What happened at the Waste Management Phoenix Open – where a 24-year-old prevailed over a 22-year-old, with a 21-year-old and a 20-year-old in hot pursuit after two other 21-year-olds had stolen the spotlight during first two days, which also featured a 44-year-old superstar and 39-year-old mega-superstar looking stiff and tired and fragile in a few different ways – isn’t the future.

On a weekend when 25-year-old Rory McIlroy reaffirmed that he’s far and away the world’s best golfer with a seemingly easy win in Dubai, and 17-year-old Lydia Ko reached No. 1 in the women’s rankings, Brooks Koepka’s victory doesn’t symbolize a new world in the game and it isn’t emblematic of any seismic shift.

No, this is the present. This is golf. Deal with it – or get left behind like so many seasoned PGA Tour veterans have lately.

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“Just playing against each other for years and years, since about 14,” explained Koepka about their collective knack for appearing so comfortable. “We have played against these guys for years and years, and it's fun. We enjoy it and they are all really good players.”

If the last three weeks had been the PGA Tour's soft launch to this calendar year, this tournament was to be its grand opening, a celebrated ribbon-cutting that represented hope-springs-eternal optimism at the game's biggest keg party.

Tiger Woods was returning to TPC Scottsdale for the first time in 14 years; favorite son and three-time champion Phil Mickelson was here, too. Before the weekend, though, each had been relegated to slamming his trunk after a missed cut.

And yet, the optimism didn't subside. It just shifted.

The old stalwarts were replaced by young upstarts all over the leaderboard. For two rounds, rookies Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger lingered atop the leaderboard. They gave way to more experienced youngsters. Jordan Spieth notched a share of seventh place. Hideki Matsuyama was in it until the final hole. Even an Arizona State amateur named Jon Rahm impressively navigated himself to a T-5 result.

Then there was Koepka, who used brute strength to overpower TPC Scottsdale, including a 331-yard drive that split the fairway on the final hole.

So much for nerves. So much for inexperience. So much for toiling amongst the rank-and-file, learning the ropes before contending and, finally, winning.

There’s no statistic to measure this, but this generation’s young stars are more fearless than ever before. Koepka appeared as comfortable in the final group as fellow 24-year-old Patrick Reed was inspired during his fourth career win just three weeks ago.

The amount of young players with serious game is so significant that even one of the game’s so-called “up-and-comers” already sees himself in a different light.

“I don't know if [I’m] considered to be a vet yet or if I'm still young,” Rickie Fowler, 26, philosophized earlier in the week. “I guess I'm kind of in the middle. Yeah, last year and this year I have had a couple groups where I have been the oldest player. Maybe that's veteran territory. I don't know.”

It’s not just that this next generation of players is talented. It’s that they’ve changed their goals. They’re reaching higher. It’s not enough for them to treat the first few years of PGA Tour life as graduate school. They want to skip right to the real world and take over the corner office.

It wasn’t so long ago that players in Koepka’s situation – he was technically a rookie last season, while playing most of his golf on the European Tour – would speak of keeping their cards as a major goal. Now those objectives have been elevated.

“Winning on the PGA Tour was the one thing that I wanted to accomplish,” he said afterward. “I wanted to come out this year, get a win, make Presidents Cup and further down the road make the Ryder Cup. … That's the goal. I don't see why I can't. I feel like my game is ready for that. I was ready to compete for majors and win them.”

It’s one thing to aim high. It’s another to reach those goals.

Koepka certainly appears to be on the right track so far, with his first PGA Tour title now matching his one from the European circuit just three months ago. He’s not alone, either.

This isn’t the future of golf. It’s already the present. Get used to it.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.