Positives for Tiger on Day 1 despite being 9 back

By Jay CoffinApril 10, 2015, 12:55 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods’ game either has been poked and prodded or hailed and lauded following every round of his professional life.

Perhaps for the first time ever, we should do none of the above regarding his opening 73 Thursday at the Masters. Sit back and appreciate the fact that an aging champion returned to his favorite playground and gave it a go.

Two months ago, when last we saw Woods, he was an absolute mess. He couldn’t hit a green with a pitching wedge from the middle of the fairway. The most elementary of chip shots provided hold-your-breath moments. He went out of his way to hit bump and runs from around the green instead of attempting flop shots for fear of hitting nasty skulls. And we will never forget the worst moment, when Woods withdrew after 11 holes at Torrey Pines because his glutes failed to activate.

Since Woods announced he was going to play the Masters last Friday, the golf world has gone haywire with prognostications. It was ratcheted up Monday when he played 11 holes in a practice round and was several shots under par. Some of that subsided Tuesday when he hit a few more wayward shots. Woods went for a back-nine stroll with Jordan Spieth and Ben Crenshaw on Wednesday and Gentle Ben gushed about how well Woods played.

Still, those practice-round performances coupled with a newfound happy-go-lucky attitude has seemingly made Woods the de facto Mayor of Augusta this week. The betting public was so smitten with Woods that his odds of winning dropped from 40-to-1 to 25-to-1 overnight.

Now that the first round is in the books, there’s no real hope that Woods is going to contend, especially with the New Kid on the Block doing his thing in just 64 shots at the top of the leaderboard. That Woods returned at the Masters, after missing last year because of injury, was the story.

“I felt good,” Woods said. “I felt like I hit the ball well enough to shoot 3 under par.”

That’s certainly one way of looking at it. Woods also played poorly enough to shoot 3 or 4 over par.

First, the positives.

Woods’ short game, of all things, bailed him out again and again. He short sided himself on the monstrous par-4 10th hole and got up and down from a bunker when he converted a 5 footer for par. On the next hole, he blew his approach well right of the green and got up and down again for par.

On the historic par-3 12th hole, Woods hit a terrible tee shot short and the ball rolled back into the water. After a drop he pitched the ball to kick-in range and made bogey. Next he hit his second shot left of the par-5 13th hole and got up and down for birdie by making a putt from 8 feet.

“It’s my strength again,” Woods said matter-of-factly about his short game, almost as if he doesn’t realize how poorly he played mere months ago.

“That’s why I’ve busted my butt. That’s why I took time off. That’s why I hit thousands and thousands of shots to make sure that it’s back to being my strength.”

Many of the mistakes can be chalked up to competitive rust. It’s also abundantly clear that Woods focused so much on cleaning up his horrid short game that he failed to pay more attention to some of the other aspect of his game. There was a sloppy three-putt on the first hole, a poor bunker shot on the fourth, two terrible swings on the ninth hole where Woods was lucky to escape with bogey.

Simply, though, it was a bizarre day at the office.

Is all of this progress? Considering where he was, absolutely it is. But this is still Tiger Woods and it’s exceedingly difficult to swallow that a 73 at Augusta National is an acceptable result. He’s hovering around the cut line for goodness sake. There used to be times when Woods could overpower these hallowed grounds, but we knew down deep, as much as we wish it weren’t true, that he was going to struggle to break par.

“I’m glad he’s back,” said playing partner Jimmy Walker. “He had some good pars where he got up and down. It was good to see him playing good.”

That seemed to be the theme of the day for everyone but Woods.

He grinded all day, blamed slow green speeds for the reason he didn’t putt better and threw out various expletives along the way. Those were all shades of the old Woods. Nothing, though, was more vintage Woods than a never-say-die comment in a post-round interview.

“You know, I’m still in it. I’m only nine back,” he said as he sits in a 41st-place tie. “And we have a long way to go.”

He’s come a long way already.

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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.

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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.