Season-opening epic a relic of the past

By Jason SobelJanuary 8, 2015, 6:50 pm

Welcome to the 2015 golf year, which shouldn’t be confused with the 2015 season that has already started, nor compared with the big-bang beginnings of other sporting calendars. Mahalo to the good people of Maui for hosting the annual rainbow-infused, whale-outlined kickoff, but let’s face it: This is really more of a soft launch.

It wasn’t always this way.

Fifteen years ago this week, the year began with an epic battle against the backdrop of paradise. Millions of jealous snowbound fans huddled under blankets in prime time as two of the game’s superstars parried on their television screens. Tiger Woods eagled the final hole of regulation; Ernie Els matched him. Els birdied the first playoff hole; Woods matched him. Woods rolled in a 40-foot birdie on the second playoff hole, punctuated by his habitual massive fist pump; Els, finally, couldn’t match him.

The local Honolulu Star-Bulletin called it “The Duel of the Century,” a tongue-in-cheek paean to not just the first golf tourney of the new millennium, but the back-and-forth battle that erupted from within.

Its result was proof positive of Woods’ dominance – it was his fifth straight win dating to 1999 and his ninth in 12 starts – and epitomized the struggle for his fellow pros. It was becoming clearly apparent that even their best was no longer good enough.

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One day after the famed “Music City Miracle” and just hours following a Dan Marino-led fourth-quarter comeback, the tournament rocked the opening of sportscasts and back pages of newspapers around the country. It wasn’t just an event. It was a happening; it was an awakening; it was the biggest thing going on.

On the hierarchy of golf tournaments, the Mercedes Championship (now known as the Hyundai Tournament of Champions) ranked behind the four major championships and The Players and even the newly formed WGC events, but it was still an A-lister, its status secure as an enticing favorite for players ready to start anew and millions of fans looking to block their own winter doldrums for a little while.

All of which should leave us asking one question on the eve of this year’s edition of the opener: What happened?

The quick answer, of course, revolves around Woods. Moments after that momentous victory, he joked about already qualifying for the next go-round at Kapalua, promising, “I’ll be here next year.” And he was, for that one and each of the next four afterward. A decade ago, though, Woods flew home from a T-3 result and never returned.

It would be too easy, though, to place all of the credit for this tournament’s long-ago success and all of the blame for its current status on Woods. He didn’t even qualify for this week’s winners-only festivities; neither did old staples Els, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker.

Instead, the list of qualified players includes the likes of next-gen ballers Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Martin Kaymer, each of whom is currently ranked in the top 12 on the world ranking – and each of whom opted to remain home this week.

It’s not just that the game’s best players are choosing to start their years elsewhere. It also serves as an exemplification of the state of today’s game. This week’s field owns a world ranking average of more than 15 spots higher than that of 15 years ago, just one simple statistical example of the parity which has enveloped the game.

Other factors have similarly contributed.

Three years ago, the PGA Tour curiously adopted a Monday finish – curious because the rationale was to avoid NFL playoff game conflicts, even though those conflicts didn’t previously exist; curious because the final round actually did conflict with the BCS Championship game; and curious because Sunday is the traditional day for tournament finales.

It also used to represent a true beginning. Not only is that no longer the case with the recent implementation of a wraparound schedule, but the old notion of a silly season has evolved – or devolved, depending on your viewpoint - into a 12-month period filled with world-class events. The last time most of the game’s best players gathered together was less than a month ago at the Hero World Challenge, mammoth paychecks and world ranking points included.

The world has changed in 15 years, and the golf world has changed along with it. That statement shouldn’t conjure any negative connotations, but those developments have left some shrapnel along the side of the winding road.

This annual opener used to be an event of grandiose proportions, gratifying a mid-winter prime-time audience with promises of the game’s best players competing in one of its most special tournaments. It remains a prime-time respite from the cold and snow, but over the last 15 years, that status has clearly been diminished.

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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.