Breakups! Scandals! 2014 season full of soap operas

By John FeinsteinDecember 9, 2014, 9:30 pm

A lot of soap operas played out in the golf world in 2014.

Tiger Woods, still the game's most transcendent figure, hurt his back and had surgery in March. He came back in June. He hurt his back again in August. He came back the next week. He missed the cut at the PGA Championship and then said he actually was still hurt and took off almost four months.

He came back again in early December looking healthy – and like a 20-handicapper around the greens.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Ryder Cup team imploded, first on the golf course, then off the golf course.

Tom Watson, one of the game's most revered figures, was thrown under the tires of an 18-wheeler by Phil Mickelson, one of the game's best-liked and most respected figures.

Then, just in case anyone thought the one-sided loss to Europe and the embarrassing aftermath wasn't enough, Ted Bishop, the president of the PGA of America, got himself fired for a reckless tweet defending – of all people – Nick Faldo.

Heard enough?

Wait, there's more.

Dustin Johnson, who would have been on the U.S. Ryder Cup team and might have played a key role, suspended himself from the Tour in August just prior to the PGA Championship, saying he needed to take a break to deal with "personal issues." The PGA Tour denied a report that he had been suspended because of drug infractions. Johnson is expected to play again at Torrey Pines, teeing it up – purely by coincidence no doubt – six months and four days after he last played.

All of which reminds us that the No. 1 soap opera of the year could have been – perhaps should have been – Rory McIlroy's decision to break off his engagement from Caroline Wozniacki a few days after the wedding invitations went out.

On the day he made the announcement, McIlroy showed up at a scheduled pre-tournament news conference in London and did not play the "I don't want to talk about my personal life" card. He answered questions, took the blame for the break-up and then went out and won the golf tournament five days later.

Coincidence or not, that week was the beginning of one of the most torrid streaks golf has seen since Woods stopped being Woods. McIlroy went on to win the British Open and the PGA. Sandwiched between those two majors, he won the WGC event in Akron and reclaimed the world No. 1 ranking.

Then he helped Europe win the Ryder Cup and said his No. 1 goal for 2015 was to complete the career Grand Slam by winning the Masters – which will end three weeks before he turns 26.

In short the McIlroy soap opera was cancelled by his brilliant golf. While Woods, the Ryder Cup and Johnson were left with cliff-hangers: Can Tiger ever be Tiger again?; Can the U.S. ever win the Ryder Cup again?; Will Johnson ever live up to his vast potential and find happiness with Paulina Gretzky?

The answers may – or may not – come in 2015. There will be no Ryder Cup answer next year; although, there should be a U.S. captain for 2016 at some point in the near future.

McIlroy's story is also far from over, but clearly he had several happy endings in 2014. More important, he emerged as the first serious, potentially long-term No. 1 player since Woods came off the pedestal he sat on for most of a dozen years.

Since the early morning when Woods' Escalade collided with the fire hydrant in late 2009, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald and Adam Scott have all held the No. 1 ranking. All are fine players, and only McIlroy had a better year in 2014 than Kaymer. But McIlroy is a star in ways that none of those four can or will be.

Westwood and Donald have never won a major and are now deep into their careers and may never win one. Kaymer has won two, but is so quiet and un-assuming he is unlikely to ever be a huge star – especially in the U.S.

Scott has won a major and has the movie-star looks, but he is 34 and may never putt well enough – regardless of what putter he is using – to win multiple majors.

McIlroy has already won more majors – four – than those four players combined. He's 25 and understands that along with the perks of stardom come responsibilities. He's had one truly bad moment on the golf course, his walk-off at the Honda Classic in 2013, and he instantly apologized for his behavior and admitted that his agent's excuse – a bad tooth – was a bunch of hooey.

"I lost my cool," he said. "It won't happen again."

In all likelihood, it won't happen again because McIlroy learns from his mistakes – on and off the golf course. It is easy to forget how young he is because of all he has already accomplished and because he is so mature. He's probably going to make more mistakes – blow some tournaments, say something he shouldn't – because everyone who lives in the public eye and competes at the highest level of any sport has those moments.

But he isn't likely to blame any of those moments on others. He's likely to keep getting better. Regardless of what any numbers say, it is not fair to compare him to Woods. What Woods accomplished between 1997 and 2008 was mind-boggling, the kind of dominance that isn't likely to be seen again. As remarkable as McIlroy's 2014 was, he won four times worldwide. Woods has won at least five times in a year 10 times in his career.

The Woods soap opera of 2014 was minor compared with what has happened in his past in that it was entirely centered on his golf. That's the good news. What will happen with the Johnson soap opera is anybody's guess.

And the Ryder Cup? Who knows what brilliant decisions the 11-man PGA of America task force will reach. One thing's for sure, though – that's a story that isn't going away for a long time.

Then again, neither is McIlroy. And that may be the best news there was in golf in 2014.

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

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Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.

Getty Images

McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

Getty Images

Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''