Hawk's Nest: Snedeker a stand-up guy, but among the elite?

By John HawkinsSeptember 24, 2012, 2:47 am

THE BALL IS going farther, the clubface is getting hotter – and my handicap keeps going up. Maybe the computer knew I was a lousy 3 and decided to invoke some GHIN-related provision that would help prevent me from losing $120 every weekend. In any case, I’m more convinced than ever that a guy playing off low single digits is really a 6 on his way to the ATM.

Especially at my club, where the 13s are liable to shoot a 75 on you. Now more than ever, it’s a low-net world ... and I just applied for citizenship. Back when I hit my 6-iron 155 yards, lost one ball a month and could shoot a 73 with my putter’s consent, I also lost five ways on any given Sunday.

This way is much easier. A little pride can take you a long way, but a total absence of it can make you some decent money.

Speaking of decent money …

IT WAS PRO-AM Wednesday at Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course – the perfect time and place to work a practice green full of Tour players. A tall guy in an old-school visor walked up and asked if I had a few minutes. Of course, I said to Brandt Snedeker, although I had no idea why he’d come out of his putting stance and want a word with me.

Situations like this usually arise because a guy didn’t like something I’d written or said. Snedeker was annoyed about a spot I’d done seven weeks earlier for a radio show – he’d beaten Kyle Stanley in a playoff at Torrey Pines after Stanley triple-bogeyed the 72nd hole, then arrived in Scottsdale and heard me yapping about how Stanley had given the tournament away.

What specifically bothered Sneds was my assessment that he was a good player, although not likely to become a top-tier performer by PGA Tour standards. I didn’t see him reaching double digits in career victories or claiming a couple of major titles. There was a slight difference of opinion on what I’d actually said that Monday back in January, which is fairly common, but it didn’t come into play here.

All that mattered was that a Tour pro had a gripe over the way I’d done my job, and I wanted to resolve it. My strongest lasting impression of the conversation was that Snedeker couldn’t quite summon a level of anger sufficient enough to drive home his point. Clearly, this was a kindhearted dude who wasn’t fond of taking exception to an honest appraisal, certainly not to the point where it would escalate into a confrontation.

And it didn’t. Other than replying, “Look, Brandt, I just don’t think you’re gonna be a superstar,” which didn’t come out of my mouth, there wasn’t much I could (or wanted) to say. We eventually agreed to disagree, although I did go out of my way to clarify Snedeker’s point that I was “ripping” him for beating Stanley, which simply wasn’t the case.

Never in my life have I ripped anyone for winning a golf tournament. I’ve never ripped anyone who didn’t present themselves to me as a piece of paper, with instructions to use both hands. And when I’ve seen Snedeker at events since, which has been only a couple of times, I’ve walked over, said “hello” and wished him luck.

Now he’s the 2012 FedEx Cup champion – a worthy winner in that he has played excellent golf for an extended period of time, since the British Open, actually. Three high finishes (sixth or better) earned him a captain’s pick from U.S. Ryder Cup skipper Davis Love III. His victory at the Tour Championship obviously validates the selection.

Maybe he’ll prove me wrong on my career assessment, which wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. Maybe this is as good as it gets for him, which has nothing to do with my opinion of the guy. Not only do I like Snedeker, I appreciate his willingness to leave his comfort zone that day at Innisbrook and address the issue man to man. From conflict, a strong positive impression was formed.

WHAT SCARES ME about the points reset before the Tour Championship is that the farfetched scenario – no matter how far or whom it might fetch – is even possible when determining the overall winner. Snedeker certainly played his way to the grand prize, but with a little bit of give and take from the projections board, we could have ended up with Ryan Moore, who was squarely in the hunt until faltering down the stretch Sunday.

Moore had four top-10 finishes during the regular season, his best being a T-4 at Bay Hill. He came to East Lake off back-to-back T-10s at the Deutsche Bank and BMW, which is good golf, if not the stuff FedEx champs should be made of. Most alarmingly, Moore played in just one major (PGA) all year. He wasn’t in the field at any of the three WGCs, meaning he failed to qualify at six of the eight biggest tournaments on the schedule.

Commissioner Tim Finchem can talk all he wants about how the postseason accomplishes its mission, but it’s nothing more than necktie nonsense. This isn’t a season-long process by any rational stretch. The bottom-heavy nature of the current playoff format simply has to be tweaked before the concept can achieve an appropriate level of competitive credibility.

If the St. Louis Cardinals lead the New York Yankees 12-3 in Game 7 of the World Series, before the Yanks score five runs in the eighth and ninth to lose 12-8, they’re still popping champagne corks and hoisting a trophy in the Cards’ clubhouse. The solution in our game is fairly simple: if you insist on a reset prior to East Lake, don’t flatten the landscape so that it looks like Iowa.

I’m not asking for Colorado, just a little topography to distinguish those who have climbed to the highest altitude.

IT’S OLD NEWS by now, for sure, but any storyline featuring Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and claims of intimidation can’t get too dated. Greg Norman’s Tiger-fears-Rory theory had a bit of revisionist history in it, but the real afterword on the matter has nothing to do with 15-year intervals or whether Jack passed it to Greg.

Woods shot a 66 while playing with the Irish Lad in the opening round at East Lake, then ballooned to a 73 when the two were separated in the second round. As for Tiger and Rory looking like best buds in recent weeks – giggling on walks down the fairway together and doing a post-round interview as a tandem – I don’t think it has anything to do with a kindler, gentler Woods passing the torch.

I’m more inclined to believe the persistent whispers that McIlrich is about to sign a huge endorsement deal with Nike. If the two are on the verge of becoming Swoosh bunkmates, Red Shirt had to have been told of the impending deal. Perhaps Nike even asked Woods for his willingness to share the commercial stage with golf’s newest superstar.

That makes more sense than the notion that a 14-time major champion walks to the first tee shaking in his work boots. Norman has been poking a stick in Tiger’s cage for well over a year now – at least since Woods moved to the same Jupiter Island, Fla., neighborhood – and Woods still hasn’t dropped in for a cup of coffee at Chateau du Shark.

Norman’s candor should be greatly appreciated, his opinion respected, but there are times when a man’s outspokenness leaves you to wonder about a motive. As for McIlroy’s handling of the situation, he couldn’t have done a better job of defusing the issue with some sarcastic humor during his pre-tournament news conference last week. No question, the Irish Lad is learning how to play the game.

EVERYBODY LOVES the Ryder Cup. The transition from individual stroke play to a team-match format creates can’t-miss competitive drama and tons of compelling strategic buzz in the cafeteria line. I won’t be in the team room, but I’ve seen enough to know which U.S. matchups I like. Even if the captain couldn’t care less what I think.

Snedeker and Dustin Johnson (fourball): Johnson’s partnership with Phil Mickelson didn’t work at Celtic Manor, as the two were waxed in both matches together. I pair Big D with the hottest putter on my squad in an attempt to get him some early confidence mojo.

Mickelson and Keegan Bradley (fourball): A no-brainer if there is one. Lefty’s overall upside includes a willingness to pair up with a Ryder Cup rookie, and Bradley loves Philly Mick. The kid is long, steady and ultra-emotional.

Mickelson comes off a weak performance in Wales but shined with Anthony Kim (remember him?) at Valhalla in ’08.

Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson (foursomes): A successful tandem at last November’s Presidents Cup, as Simpson carried Bubba through some rough patches. Watson’s jumpy, risk-taking disposition works with this guy, and besides, you don’t mess with positive recent history.

Woods and Steve Stricker (foursomes): I’m going back to the scrapbook here. Woods has driven the ball exceptionally well this year, and though Stricker hasn’t played to his highest standard of late, he still makes putts, which has earned him Tiger’s highest level of trust. I can’t leave ’em together if they lose early, but this pairing definitely is worth another try.

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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.