World Challenge could jump-start 2013 for winner

By Jason SobelDecember 2, 2012, 12:55 am

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – For most competitors in the World Challenge field, this week marks the last real tournament of the season. Well, as real as an 18-man field with guaranteed six-figure paychecks can be.

It is the anchor leg in a year-long race, the final mile in a considerable journey. And because of that, many are already looking ahead to the upcoming offseason – abbreviated as it may be – with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.

There’s still plenty at stake, though.

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Forget the $1 million paycheck and the porcelain tiger trophy and the unofficial victory. Even though this tournament takes place near the end of one calendar, it has proven to provide a necessary confidence boost for many winners once the year turns.

Back in 2005, Luke Donald salvaged a winless season by claiming this title, then triumphed in his fifth official start of the next season.

Three years ago, Jim Furyk wrapped up a disappointing two-year drought by winning this event, then followed with a three-victory Player of the Year campaign.

And last year, Tiger Woods won for his first victory anywhere in more than two years, and used that as fuel toward his three titles this season.

All of which leads to current leader Graeme McDowell, who owns a two-stroke advantage entering the final round. He already understands what a strong performance here can yield, his runner-up finish to Furyk in 2009 qualifying him for the next year’s U.S. Open, which he won at Pebble Beach.

Now he finds himself in a predicament similar to those of Donald, Furyk and Woods in previous years. Without a victory in 2012, this stands as his final opportunity to claim some hardware before the year ends.

“It would be nice to kind of get the reward, because I feel like I've been playing pretty solidly for a couple months and got nothing from it,” said McDowell, who posted a 4-under 68 on Saturday. “But this game, there's no such thing as deserving things, and you've got to earn it. I'll go and see what happens tomorrow and, like I said, it'll be a nice way to finish the year if I can get a good win.”

Not that he’s the only one hoping to mirror the blueprint of a win here serving as a springboard to greater success next year.

Trailing McDowell on the leaderboard are Keegan Bradley, Woods and Bo Van Pelt. Just behind them, a half-dozen strokes off the lead, stands Furyk, who is still holding only hope that a victory could serve as a silver lining to a dark cloud of a season.

“This tournament has been different for me in different years,” said Furyk, who shot 1-under 71 in the third round. “I think it was a springboard for me in some years when I was looking ahead. I’ve also had years when I was worn out. Right now, I usually take a lot of time off from the end of the season until here, and from the end of the season until AT&T. So for me, it’s just a reminder. It makes me get a club in my hand, it makes me practice. It kind of bridges the gap between two seasons, because I’ll take so much time off.”

His struggles this year have been well documented. Furyk faltered down the stretch at the U.S. Open, lost on the final hole of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and shouldered much of the blame in the United States' defeat at the Ryder Cup.

He knows a win here could lead to a much more successful season next year, largely in part because he’s proven it before.

“What was nice about winning in ’09 was that I had struggled to get a win in both 2008 and ’09,” he added. “I was flustered. And then to come here and birdie down the stretch, win the tournament, it was a nice pick-me-up. It ended up giving me a nice feeling and a good start to the 2010 season.”

Whomever wins on Sunday – whether it’s a player who is in desperate need of a victory like McDowell or Furyk, or one adding to previous success this year like Woods or Bradley – will definitely have that nice feeling. Based on past experiences, he may have a jump on getting a good start next season, too.

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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.