McIlroy making his mark on golf history

By John FeinsteinAugust 12, 2014, 10:30 pm

On the last day of the 1960 U.S. Open played at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver, the following names appeared on the leaderboard: Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Hogan was 47 and that Open turned out to be his last serious run at a major championship. Palmer was 30, already a two-time Masters champion. He began the last round seven shots back, drove the first green and won his first and only Open title. Nicklaus was 20, still an amateur and had the lead on the back nine before two three-putts undid him. He was paired with Hogan, who said afterwards that if Nicklaus had had any idea what he was doing he would have won easily.

Clearly, Hogan knew from whence he spoke.

Only time will tell us if the remarkable theater we witnessed Sunday at the PGA Championship will be an equal part of golf history.

At the very least, the leading stars were a fascinating cast of characters.

On stage at Valhalla was Phil Mickelson, who is already in the Hall of Fame with five major titles and might – at age 44 – be nearing his last hurrah. He was paired on the final day with Rickie Fowler, who at 25 has become an important golfer and not just a successful marketing campaign.

Two groups ahead of Mickelson and Fowler was Henrik Stenson, representing golf’s middle-age at 38. Stenson won last year’s FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai. He has won a Players Championship and had six top-five finishes in majors when he got to Valhalla.

Last, and certainly not least, was The Next One.

Rory McIlroy has carried that label since his eight-shot victory at Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open and, in the minds of many, has had it on him since he was a teenage prodigy in Northern Ireland.

At 25 – even before this past weekend – McIlroy has emerged as Tiger Woods’ successor on golf’s throne. That does not mean he’s the next Tiger – no one deserves that overwhelming burden – but he is his sport’s next superstar.

He already had three majors in his pocket when he walked to the first tee late Sunday after a near-two-hour rain delay, but found himself in an unusual spot. He had a one-shot lead on a packed leaderboard on Sunday at a major. In his three prior major victories, he controlled the final 18 holes – never falling out of the lead. In his one epic meltdown at the 2011 Masters, he saw a four-shot lead disappear, shooting an 80 that landed him in a tie for 15th place.

“That’s the only time I think I’ve ever played defense with a lead,” he said last week. “I think I learned a lesson from that. You have to keep attacking.”

Knowing that and doing it are two different things. McIlroy was tentative for six holes on Sunday while Mickelson, Stenson and Fowler attacked. By the time he reached the 10th tee, McIlroy was behind all three.

It all changed on the par-5 10th, thanks to McIlroy’s power and a little bit of luck. After a huge drive, he took out his 3-wood. Having just watched Fowler make birdie in front of him, he was three shots behind the leader. McIlroy didn’t catch the 3-wood flush but, from 281 yards, it bounced just right and rolled to within 7 feet. From there he rolled in the eagle putt.

Game on.

McIlroy never missed another green and the drive he blasted at No. 16 will be replayed forever. One wonders what ran through Mickelson’s mind as he stood on the 16th green, tied for the lead, and saw McIlroy standing in the fairway 334 yards from the tee waiting to hit his second shot.

“It reminded me a little bit of Nicklaus on the 16th green at Augusta in 1975, only in reverse,” Golf Channel’s Frank Nobilo said. “Nicklaus made that putt and turned around and looked right at (Tom) Weiskopf standing on the tee. This time Phil looked down the fairway before he had that 10-foot par putt and there was Rory staring right at him.”

Mickelson’s putt came up inches short – his first bogey in 22 holes and his only one on the day. McIlroy had the lead and never gave it back.

Unfortunately, the bizarre ending in the dark may take away from the drama produced by all four players on the last day. Mickelson and Stenson both shot 66; McIlroy and Fowler 68. But it was McIlroy who went low on the back nine when the pressure was greatest, producing a 32. None of the other three shot lower than 35.

Palmer driving the first hole to start the last round at Cherry Hills in 1960 will never be forgotten. McIlroy’s drive on No. 16 at Valhalla – paired with the in-your-face birdie at No. 17 – may be remembered in much the same way.

It is possible that Valhalla will go down as the week that the sport became McIlroy’s. Woods hobbled off the stage on Friday evening, unable to even sniff the cut. If he can get healthy and become a relevant player again in the future he will be challenging McIlroy, not the other way around.

The same is true of Mickelson, who threw everything he had at McIlroy on Sunday and came up short. One could almost hear Mickelson roaring into the darkness after the round when he talked repeatedly about being excited about the next four or five years. Only when someone asked him how good McIlroy was did his true feelings come out – more in tone – than in words.

“He’s better than everyone else right now,” Mickelson said with a sigh. “He’s good. Really good.”

The question now is, how good will McIlroy’s long-term challengers be? Woods and Mickelson may block his way on a major Sunday or two before they’re done, but those who are likely to be around for a while are the likes of Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Justin Rose, Jason Day, Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama. Whether any of them are as good as Mickelson, Ernie Els, David Duval or Vijay Singh – Woods’ main challengers in his heyday – remains to be seen. That’s not to mention Gary Player, Tom Watson, Palmer and Lee Trevino, each of whom won at least six majors, during Nicklaus’s storied career.

That’s all for the future. For now, only one thing is certain: An invisible torch was passed on Sunday in Kentucky. The man holding it seems to be very comfortable with it in his hands.

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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.

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.