Furyk proof you can win without a long ball

By John HawkinsAugust 8, 2013, 11:42 pm

PITTSFORD. N.Y. – Jim Furyk isn’t exactly a dance-in-the-end-zone type, so when he went out of his way to say he was getting “really comfortable” with his driver while working on his short game Wednesday afternoon at Oak Hill, somebody should have been paying closer attention.

Easy to overlook, hardly dynamic, a fixture in golf’s top tier for the better part of 15 years. Furyk may not be the player he once was, but anyone who builds a hall-of-fame career while basking in the woodwork – a guy who still ranks among the straightest drivers in the game – isn’t likely to disappear at the 95th PGA Championship.

If one thing became clear during Thursday’s opening round, it’s that nobody will claim a Wanamaker Trophy from the rough. Oak Hill’s high grass isn’t the thickest stuff these guys have seen, but it’s tangled and somewhat spotty. On a course with numerous elevated greens, where calculating and executing approach shots is made much harder by the constant terrain changes, distance control can be achieved only from the fairway.


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Do you believe in horses for courses? How about menus for venues? “Kiawah wasn’t wide open, but it definitely had more [room to miss] and there was a much greater benefit to being long,” Furyk said, referring to last year’s PGA host. “Bethpage is like that at the U.S. Open. There is going to be a give-and-take on every course. This is not short by any means, but I can see where the longer players have to hit a lot more irons off the tee.”

Translation: Furyk is in the game. His 5-under 65 start only drives home the point. In a league where the value of hitting fairways has steadily depreciated over the years, his 16 PGA Tour victories make him the rarest of birds: an ultra-successful control player who has survived equipment technology more than he has benefited from it.

By far and away, pun intended, he is the most successful short hitter of his era. Furyk has ranked outside the top 150 in driving distance every season since 2003, the year he picked up his lone major title (U.S. Open). You have to go back to 1998 to find him in the top 120. In this case, payback = position. Since emerging as one of America’s best young players in 1996, Furyk has never finished worse than 36th in driving accuracy.

In 10 of those 17 seasons, he landed in the top 10. Furyk isn’t quite Fred Funk, but from 2001 through 2007, he hit far more greens in regulation than any player of his kind. Thursday at Oak Hill, he hit his driver seven times when others were using theirs once or twice. The 30 yards he gives up on every par 4 at some ballparks is of no consequence here.

“I’m happy I played a good round,” Furyk assessed. “Trust me – I’ll be in a good mood the rest of the day. but I’m wise enough and been here enough to know that it’s only Thursday. You don’t win the golf tournament on Thursday.”

In a harsh twist to a career that had long defined him as one of the game’s best finishers, Furyk didn’t win them on Sunday last year, either. His late collapse at Olympic wasn’t quite as unsightly as Adam Scott’s a month later, but it was hard to see a decorated veteran look so helpless down the stretch.

Seven weeks after the U.S. Open falter, it happened again at Firestone. Furyk’s double bogey at the 18th handed a WGC victory to Keegan Bradley, who did charge with a spectacular 64, but it was Furyk’s trophy to lose, and lose it he did. Competitive scar tissue? It’s still hard to tell. Furyk hasn’t really contended at a premium-field event since.

At age 43, maybe he has another major title in him. Few major sites will offer Furyk a better chance to finish the job than this one. I’ve known the guy for years – since we collaborated on a lengthy Q&A for Golf Digest after his U.S. Open triumph in ’03. We’re talking about a guy who flies in coach class on his own dime to watch his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get man without an ounce of pretentiousness in his bloodstream.

Furyk is always so serious, so businesslike, which is why I asked him if he’d dress up in a clown costume for a photo shoot that would accompany a feature I wrote on him in 2009.

Much to my surprise, he said yes. The big red nose, shabby tuxedo, floppy shoes – it was 90 degrees that afternoon and the photographer must have taken 300 pictures. You thought you knew Jim Furyk? Ha ha. The joke’s on you.

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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.