Woods still the center of attention at Augusta

By Joe PosnanskiApril 8, 2015, 8:09 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The last time there was this much buzz about a golfer returning to play at the Masters was … well, yeah, it was when Tiger Woods returned in 2010 after his unfortunate detour onto the covers of more or less every supermarket tabloid in the world.

Before that, though, it was the return of Bobby Jones himself.

The big story of the first Masters in 1934 was that Jones – the Masters Tournament founder who had retired from golf in 1930 after the tickertape parade he was given for winning the Grand Slam – announced he would actually play. Jones returning after four years wasn’t just the big story. He was the only story. His return was the only reason that the biggest sportswriters of the time stopped in Augusta on their way north from spring training.

This time around, Woods’ layoff was only two months, not four years. But the mystery of the layoff, the secrecy of his sun-up-to-sundown woodshedding to right his game, the hunger to have a riveting Tiger Woods at the top of the golf world again … all of it has made his return to golf crush every other story at the Masters.

“I think everyone is just curious to see how he comes back,” says Rory McIlroy, who has his own compelling story. “As a golf fan, I’m sort of interested.”

“I know as much as anybody,” says Phil Mickelson, who has his own compelling story. “And I’m as curious too.”

“It’s been a dream of mine to be in contention with Tiger Woods in a major championship and at Augusta,” says Jordan Spieth who, yes, has his own compelling story too.

What can we realistically expect from Woods this week? That’s the fun and confusing part: There’s absolutely no way to know. The last time we saw Woods, he was walking off the golf course in San Diego and griping that his glutes would not activate. He seemed to be in some pain. And his game seemed to be in shambles. In Phoenix a week earlier, he had shot 82 and chipped so poorly that other players were rubbing their eyes in disbelief. He was playing poorly again before his unactivated glutes sent him back to Florida to endure intense daily remedial sessions of golf basics.

“I worked my ass off,” Woods says. “That’s the easiest way to describe it … People would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again.”

Many are expecting Woods to struggle, but it should be said that Woods’ contagious confidence – along with a good practice round on Monday – has some people entertaining the possibility that Woods could do something special this week. “When you’re talking about a world-class golfer, you just don’t know,” says 2013 champion Adam Scott. “I’m sure he has high hopes. His level of comfort around this golf course must be extremely high. … With Tiger, anything’s possible.”

Adam Scott is a great example of just how much of a shadow Woods is casting over the Masters this year: Have you even heard his name? Scott says he is enjoying flying low and relatively unnoticed. In years past, he has had to endure being the top story going into a Masters before. For several years, Scott had the awkward title as the best golfer to never win a major championship. That title has always been a magnet for pre-tournament stories.

This time around, the player who probably should receive the heaviest “When will he finally win a major?” scrutiny is Rickie Fowler, who last year became only the third player (after Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods) to finish top five in all four major championships in a year. Unlike Nicklaus and Woods, Fowler did not actually win any of them. You would expect the pressure on Fowler to be intense, but with so much focus on Woods, though, Fowler has been all but invisible this week.

“I don’t care if I’m the favorite or not or if the odds are with me or against me,” Fowler says. “I’m going to go out there and try to win myself a major.”

There has been similar indifference toward a collection of talented Americans – led by the world’s No. 4-ranked player, Jordan Spieth, along with Dustin Johnson (No. 7), Jimmy Walker (No. 10), J.B. Holmes (No. 12) and Patrick Reed (No. 15) – who have been playing superbly of late. None of them have won a major championship yet.

The most captivating of those players is Spieth, who has a victory and two second-place finishes in his last three tournaments. He’s probably playing better than anybody coming into the tournament. He also has some unfinished business here; he led the Masters by two shots on Sunday last year and then was passed by Bubba Watson. He finished as the youngest runner-up in Masters history but that was little consolation.

“I guess the hardest lesson I took from last year was that I had an opportunity to make a dream come true,” he says. “I had it in my hands. And then I was just a little anxious. You can make the excuse that as a first-timer and as, whatever, 20 years old, that’s likely to happen. But in my mind, I was playing the best … and I didn’t quite close it out.”

Even Phil Mickelson is generally being ignored this week; and Mickelson has been a reliable headline-making machine for two decades. He is a three-time Masters winner, and last week in Houston he actually showed a few signs of life by playing well in his first couple of rounds. Mickelson has had just one top-10 finish in the last year and a half, but it was when he finished second at the PGA Championship last year; big tournaments still seem to bring out his best. He turns 45 in June, but it’s Augusta, and it’s April, and this has been Mickelson’s favorite time and place.

“I think driving down Magnolia Lane is rejuvenating,” Mickelson says. “It gives me new energy. … The thing about Augusta is that, for me personally, I don’t feel like I have to be perfect. So it relaxes me. Even though I may not have my best stuff on any given day, I still feel like I can shoot in the 60s.”

And after all of that, yes, there’s the guy most people actually expect to win the golf tournament, the world’s No. 1 player, Rory McIlroy. He comes to Augusta having won the last two major championships, and he looks to become just the sixth player – after Woods, Gary Player, Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen – to win the career Grand Slam. If he does win, he sets himself up to become the second golfer (after you know who) to win the four modern major championships consecutively.

And even McIlroy’s amazing quest is being swamped by the Tiger Woods story.

“I don’t feel any less or any more pressure because he’s here,” McIlroy says of Woods. “You know, it’s great that he’s here. Does it give people something else to talk about? Yes. But I’m not necessarily listening to anything that anyone is saying. So it doesn’t really make a difference to me.”

McIlroy’s history at Augusta is a tortured one. In 2011, he led the Masters by four shots entering the final day, and then he had a nightmarish back nine that began on No. 10 when he pulled his drive into an area many longtime Masters observers did not even know existed. He shot 80 that day and fell to 15th place. He then finished 40th the next year, 25th the next, and last year he was eighth. But even that top-10 finish was disappointing. McIlroy was even par on the par 5s, where a player of his length and talent should dominate.

“I’ve been thinking about getting the eagle too much,” he says. “If I can just play the par 5s a little better …

“If you’re looking at the [major championship] courses, this is the one that should set up best for me with my ball flight … If I play the way I know I can around here and just have a good week on the greens, then there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have a good chance.”

So many storylines, and still the only one that seems to matter, at least for now, is Tiger Woods. Well, there’s a grand Masters history of such overshadowing. You might note that the first player to win the Masters was a Midwesterner named Horton Smith. He made a long birdie putt on the 17th hole to edge Craig Wood. Just about every paper in the country, though, led with the fact that Bobby Jones finished 13th. One columnist wrote that the only significant thing to come out of the tournament was just how much more fun professional golf was with Bobby Jones playing.

If Tiger Woods finishes 13th, or anything even close, you can expect more of the same.

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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.