Spieth faces tall task after setting bar so high in rookie season

By Jason SobelJanuary 1, 2014, 12:35 pm

KAPALUA, Hawaii – It’s damn near impossible to walk the Plantation Course here at Kapalua, a living, breathing definition of poetry in motion, with the breaching whales in the nearby Pacific and rainbows emerging in the sky literally out of thin air, and feel any semblance of pessimism. This is where negative thoughts suffer a heinous death, where the improbable feels probable again.

It is similarly futile to watch a swing from Jordan Spieth, all 20 years of him, lean and confident and all sorts of talented, and conjure any cynical outlooks. This is a kid who entered last year a college dropout and Q-School flameout with no status on any major tour, only to finish it with a victory and a Rookie of the Year trophy and a place within the game's elite on the world ranking.

As if the message needed any greater symbolism, here is Spieth, standing on the 13th fairway during a practice round for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the boundless ocean a few cozy 3-woods in the distance, on Jan. 1, a day of new beginnings, of hopefulness, of optimism and idealism and anticipation. By the time he reaches the green and notices corporate signage from the title sponsor that reads, “NEW THINKING. NEW POSSIBILITIES.” the metaphor is oozing with transparency.

No. 9 Newsmaker of 2013: Jordan Spieth

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Good vibes reign supreme in Camp Spieth and on this day, at this course, that feeling might be at an all-time high. The kid who still can’t order a Mai Tai in the clubhouse bar, who is still driving a 2007 Yukon with 110,000 miles on it during the rare weeks he’s back home in Dallas, has good reason to be so upbeat. As his caddie Michael Greller says, “We’re still playing with house money.” Last year, Spieth was never expected to win the John Deere Classic or earn nine top-10 finishes or jump into the world’s top 30, so every step of the way was gravy, each achievement considered a pleasant surprise rather than the culmination of predictability.

Cue a few piddly dark storm clouds over Kapalua. That’s because Spieth won’t be overlooked as he charges into his sophomore season, instead competing with increased expectations of success for the first time. If a win and nearly $4 million in PGA Tour earnings were part of last year’s story, then those numbers are simply the low end for public presumption this year.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe he’ll fulfill those lofty expectations and then some, exceeding what any of us could imagine for a 20-year-old, even one with such immense talent.

Chances are, though, he’ll see ebbs and flows, just like every other golfer who has ever played the game. The highs of contending for a tournament on a Sunday afternoon will be offset by the lows of slamming the trunk shut on a Friday evening. That’s not negativity in this world of optimism. It’s just the truth.

Rory McIlroy found this out two years ago. This was when the young Northern Irishman was on the verge of winning Player of the Year on two separate tours, just one season removed from winning a major by eight strokes and two seasons removed from the exact same feat. But at the Memorial Tournament, he was coming off – gasp! – two straight missed cuts and on his way to a third. It was cause for front-page headlines in golf circles, and he was asked about dealing with this kind of attention.

Q: Have you found the more success you've had in your career the more scrutiny there is?

A: Yeah, of course. I think that is the way of life in anything if you're in the spotlight, you're in the public eye. If I'd have missed two cuts in a row a couple years ago, no one would have batted an eyelid, but nowadays it's a little different.

As we stand on the 13th hole, I read McIlroy’s comments to Spieth and ask him how he believes he’ll deal with similar increased scrutiny, especially during those low periods.

“I guess I’ll just try not to miss three cuts in a row,” he says with a smile.

Then he turns serious.

“There are going to be ups and downs. This past year, there weren’t many downs. When they happened, they came at the biggest events, the ones I wanted so badly, so I felt terrible. But there wasn’t any outside influence. Nobody expected anything from me at the majors.

“This year, I’m going to expect more out of myself, because I know what to expect. So yeah, I don’t know what’s going to happen if things don’t go my way if I don’t play well in the majors, which is a big emphasis, or I don’t make the Ryder Cup team, which is a big goal of mine. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Not that Spieth minds a little pressure. Just check out his round-by-round scoring averages from last season. Thursday: 70.17; Friday: 69.30; Saturday: 71.33. But on Sunday, when the pressure was greatest and the focus more intense, he posted an average score of 69.22, good for fourth place amongst an entire membership that owned more final-round experience than him.

If the statistics alone aren’t enough to convince, then listen to the stories.

Greller recalls one from the first time he worked with Spieth at the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur that articulates the point perfectly.

“We were on the eighth hole at Gold Mountain during match play and he was struggling. He says, ‘I just need the cameras to come out. I always play better when there are cameras. I’ll get some nerves and when I have good nerves, I play better.’ Most guys are the opposite, but he wants a little bit of that pressure. He thrives on that. That’s been true for the three years I’ve known him.”

External expectations can often eclipse internal aspersions – just ask Tiger Woods – but Spieth has some tangible goals he’s set for the impending season. Some he’s keeping private, others he’ll willfully divulge, such as claiming a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team and making the cut at all four major championships while contending in at least one of them.

Those easily outsize last year’s New Year’s Day goals of wanting to win a professional tournament – any professional tournament – and trying to earn some sort of PGA Tour status.

“Last year was weird, because there were some tangible goals at the beginning of the year, but they had to be adjusted,” he explains. “Hopefully the same thing happens this year. Hopefully we accomplish some things early and we’re able to adjust later in the year to some bigger goals. I don’t think there’s a lot bigger than what I’ve set for this year, but there is another step up. I need to get into contention at a major and see how it feels. Not many people win the first time they contend at a major. Ultimately there will be bigger goals, but I’m just trying to set some tangible ones this year that are baby steps.”

He looks toward the ocean, admiring the view aloud. This is his maiden voyage to the Hawaiian Islands, but even surrounded by all this apparent optimism, Spieth understands that a little negativity can go a long way.

Not that he reads articles about himself or watches the pundits predict his upcoming fate. Other than checking his Twitter feed – “if anybody is beating me up on there, I’ll see it,” he says – like many players he keeps himself in a protective bubble from such antagonism. He realizes, though, the benefit of learning from his failures and trying to improve upon them.

“I understand there will be more expectations; I understand that last year was incredible and people can get caught up in the past and not what the next step is,” he contends. “In my mind, the easiest way to deal with that is to look at how I failed this past year. Instead of looking at the good things – I mean, yeah, I’m excited by everything that happened – if I look at last year’s majors or specific stats that need improvement and build a gameplan around them, then I feel like everything else takes care of itself.

“I didn’t get any lazier; I’m not taking anything for granted; I’m not spending any money. So all in all, nothing’s really changed. Last year, I had a lot of things I needed to focus on and a lot of outside pressures. Now that’s all taken care of. The pressure’s off as far as where I’m going to be playing the next week or what kind of status I’ll have. Now I can specifically focus on parts of the schedule and parts of my game.”

By this point, Spieth has been speaking for a while, taking about 10 minutes to not only answer one question, but answer one question thoughtfully and honestly, his maturity clearly superseding his age in matters other than golf.

He then circles back to that McIlroy comment about added scrutiny and how he intends to address it this year.

“To answer your question, I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it if things don’t go well, but just like in the past I’m going to pretend that they’re little things,” he says. “Ultimately, I’m not too concerned about it.”

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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.

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 trophy was out of reach.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.

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Garcia cruises to five-shot win in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:10 pm

SINGAPORE - Sergio Garcia played 27 holes on the last day without dropping a shot to win the Singapore Open by five strokes Sunday in an ominous display of his newfound self-belief as he prepares to defend his Masters title.

Still brimming with confidence after claiming his first major title at Augusta National last year, Garcia started his new season with a runaway victory at the Sentosa Golf Club, finishing at 14-under 270.

Returning to the course just after dawn to complete his third round after play was suspended on Saturday because of lightning strikes, Garcia finished his last nine holes in 4 under for a round of 66 to take a one-shot lead into the final round.

With organizers desperate to avert the constant threat of more bad weather and finish the tournament on time, Garcia promptly returned to the first tee shortly after and fired a flawless 3-under 68, cruising to victory with 10 straight pars as his rivals floundered in the stifling humidity.

''It may have looked easy, but it wasn't easy. You still have to hit a lot of good shots out there,'' Garcia said. ''It's always great to start with a win, to do it here at this golf course against a good field in Asia on conditions that weren't easy. Hopefully I can ride on this momentum.''

Garcia's closest rivals at the end were Japan's Satoshi Kodaira (71) and South African Shaun Norris (70). Both birdied the last hole to share second spot but neither was ever close enough on the last day to challenge the leader.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

''I could not reach Sergio. I was thinking, 12 or 13 under for the win, but he went beyond that,'' Kodaira said.

Jazz Janewattananond (71) and his fellow Thai Danthai Bonnma (73) finished equal fourth at 8 under, earning themselves a spot in this year's British Open, while American Sean Crocker, who was given an invitation to the event after turning pro late last year, also won a place at Carnoustie by finishing in a tie for sixth.

Garcia made just three bogeys in 72 holes and his victory provided the 38-year-old with the 33rd title of his professional career and his sixth on the Asian Tour.

He has also won three titles in the last 12 months, including the Masters, and his game looks to be in better shape now than it was a year ago.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for Augusta National because of the steamy conditions and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament, which is regularly stopped because of inclement weather.

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

"I'm extremely happy with how the week went. It was a tough day and a tough week, with the stopping and going. Fortunately, the weather held on. Still, it was hard to play 27 holes under this heat and I can't wait to get a cold shower,'' Garcia said. ''I came with some good confidence and wishing that I will play well. I hit the ball solid the whole week and didn't miss many shots.''

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Kelly beats Monty with two-shot swing on final hole

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 3:21 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Jerry Kelly made an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole, Colin Montgomerie missed a 6-footer for par and Kelly turned a one-shot deficit into a victory Saturday in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

After Kelly drove it well right into lava rocks on the par-4 16th, leading to bogey and giving Montgomerie the lead, Montgomerie made a mistake with his tee shot on the last, finding a fairway bunker. Montgomerie's approach went over the green and after Kelly converted his birdie, the 54-year-old Scot jammed his par putt well past the hole.

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

It was the third win on the over-50 tour for the 51-year-old Kelly, who finished tied for 14th last week at the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Honolulu. That gave him confidence as he hopped over to the Big Island for his tournament debut at Hualalai. The limited-field event includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Kelly closed with a 6-under 66 for a three-day total of 18-under 198. Montgomerie shot 69. David Toms shot 67 and finished two shots back, and Miguel Angel Jimenez was another stroke behind after a 66.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, closed with a 70 to finish at 10 under.