Woods, McIlroy start slowly in long race

By Jason SobelJanuary 18, 2013, 5:17 pm

This probably wasn’t what Phil Knight had in mind.

A week that began in Abu Dhabi with plentiful pomp and circumstance to introduce Rory McIlroy as Nike Golf’s newest foil to Tiger Woods, including a commercial featuring the world’s top two-ranked golfers playing a little game of one-upmanship called “No Cup is Safe,” ended with both of them heading home for the weekend after a pair of underwhelming rounds.

Well, at least it sets up a sequel to the original ad. Just call it “No Cut Is Safe.”

For his sake, let’s hope Knight has a pair of those trademark shades in rose-colored, too.

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Cynics will point to McIlroy’s recent equipment change and consequent missed cut as more than coincidence. They will allege that Woods’ willingness to pal around with his newest rival feels like a downshift in his competitive desire. They will contend that pessimism should reign in Camp Nike following an unsuccessful opening week for its two biggest stars.

There’s no doubt that the company wanted to make a major splash after its major announcement. You don’t wheel out the oversized screens and smoke machines without having high hopes of an immediate payoff. The idyllic scenario would have involved Rory and Tiger matching each other shot for shot down the stretch on Sunday afternoon, brothers in arms as they jabbed and giggled their way to a playoff showdown, replete in various swoosh logos.

This isn’t exactly inside information, but as much as company executives would have enjoyed that scenario, it isn’t paying big bucks to these players for total domination in a place like Abu Dhabi.

No, this was a long-term move, built to enhance Nike’s already high profile at the high-profile events. It will trade a few missed cuts in the Middle East for a title contention in Augusta; it would give up a prescient pairing in Palm Beach for match play at Merion.

The company didn’t hold Michael Jordan in such high regard because he owned an impressive record on Opening Night. The rings were the things.

It may have been an ominous start to their tenure on the same roster, but McIlroy and Woods are the unique elite players who judge their seasons and careers – and have their seasons and careers judged by others – based on major championship success. Missed cuts in Abu Dhabi may serve as a dual stumble out of the gate, but it doesn’t mean they still can’t win the race.

It also doesn’t mean Nike is at a total loss to start the season, either. Its inability to forge a friendly rivalry into Abu Dhabi contention aside, PGA Tour rookie Russell Henley won in his first start at last week’s Sony Open and newly signed Thorbjorn Olesen is taking the spot of McIlroy and Woods on the current leaderboard in Abu Dhabi.

They may come at varying degrees, but those ubiquitous swoosh logos will be pervasive at majors throughout this year and beyond, likely from its two most marketable performers. Even the world’s best players can struggle through equipment changes and swing changes, but talent will always overcome temporary obstacles.

So while the cynics will maintain that Week 1 of the Tiger-Rory Era – or Rory-Tiger Era, if you prefer – in the Nike regime was an abject failure, the optimists should land plenty of counterpunches, too. 

They will say that this tournament was a mere blip on the radar, an anomaly for the world’s two most talented players. They will contend that we’re still 83 days from the beginning of The Masters, one of those four annual tourneys which means so much more than all others. And they will point out that from here, there’s nowhere to go but up.

If Nike’s chairman is assessing the situation, if he takes stock of two men who are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from his company, he’s surely looking at it that way, through rose-colored glasses or otherwise.

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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 right 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."

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.