Stenson proving playoff system is far from wrong

By Jason SobelSeptember 21, 2013, 7:16 pm

ATLANTA – If you close your eyes and try with all your might, you can probably picture PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem trying different playoff systems on for size, like a modern-day, buttoned-up, brand-speaking Goldilocks in a quest to find perfection in the house of the Three Bears.

Since its inception in 2007, the FedEx Cup format has often resembled a bed that’s too soft or porridge that’s too hot. In effect, it seems there is always some sort of problem with it.

“This system is too weak!” “This system is too volatile!”

Never has it been “just right.”

Of course, that notion may speak to the fact that Goldilocks is too finicky rather than the Three Bears owning an imperfect porridge recipe. In more direct terms, since there’s no singular system that will please everyone, there will always be some preaching for improvement.

With just 18 holes left to play in the 2013 campaign, the classic example of consternation is staring back at us from atop the FedEx Cup standings.

Henrik Stenson, who failed to win a tournament during the PGA Tour’s regular season, owns a 2,027-point advantage based largely on winning the second playoff event and holding a four-stroke lead here in the finale. Tiger Woods, who in no uncertain terms enjoyed the best season of any player this year with five victories, finds himself in second place in the standings, dropping a spot by ranking in a share of 26th place on this week’s 30-man leaderboard.

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All of which could lead to potential grousing from all angles.

There are those who will argue that Stenson doesn’t deserve to win the FedEx Cup because he wasn’t the best player all year.

(Counterargument: Playoffs aren’t supposed to reward the best performer for the entire year.)

There are those who will argue that Woods deserves to win because he was the best player all year.

(Counterargument: Again, that’s not the true idea of a playoff system.)

There are those who will argue that Woods doesn’t deserve second place because he’s played so poorly in the finale.

(Counterargument: The eventual standings shouldn’t simply mirror those of the closing tournament.)

It should come as no secret that since the FedEx Cup was instituted, the PGA Tour has been trying to serve two masters.

Those in the circuit’s Ponte Vedra Beach offices want to reward the players who have enjoyed the best season. But they contrastingly want to provide a thrilling finish for the fans that can ultimately prove volatile.

What’s left is a system that is a little of both. Not too hot, not too cold – but maybe not exactly “just right,” either.

“I don't know where I need to finish, and it all depends on where Tiger and Adam [Scott] finish and so on,” Stenson said after a third-round 69. “Well, Tiger in particular, I guess at this point. But it's still an open ballgame, I'm sure. First of all, I'm interested in winning the tournament. And I know if I do that, then I'm going to win the FedEx Cup.”

His words recall those of Bill Haas from the 2011 edition of this tournament. After getting into a playoff and winning the tournament, he maintained that he didn’t know his standing as far as the $10 million grand prize for winning the FedEx Cup, too.

Therein lies another sensitive issue with the system. After all, the Baltimore Ravens don’t win the Super Bowl without knowing it; the Miami Heat don’t win the NBA Championship without knowing it. But yes, Stenson can win the FedEx Cup without having a clue.

That said, he’s also proving what those teams proved in their given playoffs, as well.

Just get in, then anything can happen.

Stenson was ranked ninth in the standings prior to the playoffs. He’s gotten hot at the right time, which is the very strategy behind succeeding in any playoff format. And now, with one final round left to be played, he owns the best chance to win the whole thing.

That can even happen if Stenson blows his four-stroke lead on Sunday and loses the tournament title. The math behind the system shows he could very well still win the FedEx Cup in this scenario.

Despite contending throughout the week that his main goal is to win the event, Stenson admitted that he’d celebrate – albeit a bittersweet celebration – if he finishes, say, runner-up at the tournament, but wins the FedEx Cup.

“I'll still be pleased to a degree, yes,” he explained. “Of course I want to win two. If I can't win two, I'll be very pleased to win one. If I'm winning nothing, it will probably be not so sweet from this position. But I didn't have anything when I came here, so we'll see what we'll leave with.”

If that happens, expect more hand-wringing and consternation over the FedEx Cup format.

“This system is too weak!” “This system is too volatile!” 

It may never be “just right,” but it’s far from wrong.

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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.