Driving Off with a Win is Paramount
Lets start with No. 1 Vijay Singh. He ended last year with nine wins and nearly $11 million. Most importantly, he finished the year as World No. 1 and PGA Tour Player of the Year. All thats great, but you can bet hes heard the rumblings that Tiger Woods is more than just close. Vijay would like to have none of that talk as the year gets going. His first-round 66 here gave him the first-round lead and put players on alert that Singh wont surrender the ranking, the accolades or the spotlight without a fight. A Singh win this week would be huge for him ' making a big statement about what his role will be in the 2005 PGA Tour storyline.
As for No. 2 Tiger, he really is close. Im no swing analyst, but I consider myself a good listener. I believe what I hear and what I see makes sense. Having talked with Woods at the Target World Challenge last month, I noticed the smirk of confidence having returned to his face. Newly married and newly 29 years of age, Woods has been on the PGA Tour 10 years now, and until now, has begun each and every season as the man to beat. This years conventional thinking says that honor belongs to Singh. But with apologies to Vijay, I think its Woods. It wont take long to see if he is back. This week presents more than just an opportunity to get an official stroke-play win, it gives Woods and his fans a chance to really do some fist-pumping, and yell look out below to those whod finish below him on the final Mercedes Championships leaderboard!
How about No. 3 Ernie Els. Hes my pick for PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2005 (more on that later). Els is in his mid-30s now and appears more ready than ever to put the job of winning on the PGA Tour at the top of his priority list. Hes been dominant wherever hes played, but skeptics (including PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem) have said he hasnt played enough in the U.S. Well, the other day, Els, who's smoothed things over with the tour, said hell play the first three West Coast events in succession, and if things dont go as planned, may add an event early in the schedule. Ernie came closer than anyone last year to winning all four majors. He walked away with zero. A win this week puts him on the right track. Els and Woods dont play as often as Singh, making each start more critical. Big payday this week ' important if the money title is a goal.
No. 4 in the world is Retief Goosen. His late season win at the Tour Championship capped off a fantastic season. Later he won the big money Nedbank Challenge. Retief isnt the type to trumpet his wins or his goals. But hes the wildcard in all of this. A few early-season wins propel him in the right direction and give him plenty of publicity. A win here at Kapalua over Singh, Woods and Els gives us good reason to shout his name more often -- whether hes comfortable with that or not.
Here are a couple of other thoughts looking ahead this year. This weeks Mercedes Championships give us reason to forecast a little bit. Our 'Sprint Pre-Post Game' producer Eric Saperstein put us on the spot for picks. If you didnt catch them, heres mine.
Player of Year: Els. Easy to go with Woods, which my buddies Brian Hewitt and Mark Rolfing did. I gave it great thought, too. But Player of the Year comes down to major championship wins IF you win more than one. And I think Els gets two this year. I really like him at the Masters, and I like him even more at Baltusrol and the PGA Championship. A few other wins sprinkled in and Els becomes '05s Vijay and maybe World No. 1.
Comeback Player: Rocco Mediate. Id love to see David Duval hit the jackpot. A perplexing story without an ending yet, Duvals confidence will be the deciding factor. Mediate had injury trouble again last year. The back is always a trouble spot. Hes playing '05 on a one-time Top 50 Career Money exemption. Usually when guys dip into that bag to stay afloat they swim hard and fast. Roccos got plenty left in the tank.
First Win/Breakout Player: This is a fun category. Harrison Frazar is more due than a 10-year-old library book and I like his chances. But hes been so close so often its too easy to tab him. I like Briny Baird. A few tours of duty on the Nationwide Tour really seasoned this guy. Hes a straight shooter from the fairway ' one of the best in G.I.R. Hes contended and nearly won (John Deere Classic when David Gossett won), but has always been a consistent money winner. Money is nice; wins get you to Kapalua. Ill plan on seeing Briny here next year.
Thats all for now, gotta get some sun before I go to work. Aloha!
Email your thoughts to Kraig Kann
McIlroy gets back on track
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.
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.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
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.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
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.
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.
McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call
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.
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.