Lets Look Ahead Shall We
First the COULD:
We could start off the year at the Mercedes Championships with a Tiger Woods vs. Vijay Singh battle royale, a la Tiger and Ernie Els a few years back. Wouldnt that be special and wouldnt that get our minds racing towards Augusta in a hurry.
We could just as likely see Stuart Appleby win at Kapalua for the third straight year and kick-start another season where all the 'name players' are ready to win and win early.
Could we see Phil Mickelson get off to a similar start as he produced in 2005? Remember the quick victories and the buzz about a Big 4, which led to the showdown at Doral and the Ford Championship?
We could see Ernie Els return to health and form in short order, which would be great for the PGA Tour and fans of dominance by the superstars. Many seem to think that time off has not only healed Ernies knee but also his mind and the motivation could be stronger than ever. Well see.
It seems to be popular thinking that we could see the very best of Jim Furyk in 2006, which might just lead to a major or two and a handful of victories. The Nedbank Challenge was a mighty victory. On the range here at Sherwood Country Club, Furyk (who flew straight from South Africa) is as happy as can be about things and echoed the thoughts about a big 2006.
We could very well see Colin Montgomerie get that first victory in the States. His game is in fine form and suddely he's gone from the man fans love to jeer to the man fans love to cheer. Imagine that first victory coming at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Monty's major in New York?? C'mon, tell me I'm dreaming.
We could see Chris DiMarco land the big victory in 2006, though he admitted on the 'Sprint Pre-Game' on Wednesday that winning a major wasnt at the top of his goal list for the coming year. 'Ive got 12 tournaments before the first major and thats where my focus is,' DiMarco said. Interesting thought, but you can understand that at this point hed take any victory to get the ball rolling.
On the ladies' side, we could very well see Ai Miyazato walk away with more majors in 2006 than Annika Sorenstam. Shes that good. And to hear it from TGCs Japanese reporters and commentators ' shes a bigger star than Ichiro (Seattle Mariners) or Hideki (New York Yankees) in her country. Six wins on the Japan LPGA means she arrives with a winning background. Look out Annika -- and Paula, you, too.
Now the SHOULD:
We should see a better putting performance by Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia in 2006. These two guys are among the best sharpshooters the game has seen from the fairways. But putting the ball close to the hole in 2006 wont be good enough and it sure wasnt the case in 2005. If they can improve the putting numbers, you should see each man win a major in 2006.
We should see Tiger take it to an even greater level, which is scary. On the range this week he admitted to being tired from 'hitting a lot of golf balls in 2005.' I responded with, 'a lot of good ones.' He followed that quickly with, 'not enough.' And that tells me all I need to know. Woods has been grinding on a new swing that produced six wins and two majors in 2005. Eclipsing the six victories is certainly possible, the two majors will be tougher. But we should see improvement ' and we should see him make every cut.
We should see a better season from the Nationwide Tour graduates than we saw in 2005. The number of Nationwide Tour stars to keep their cards was down, but this years class of 21 has some star potential in the form of Troy Matteson, Camilo Villegas, Steven Bowditch and Jon Mills. Add Q-school grad Bill Haas, who played the 2005 season on the Nationwide Tour, to the mix and you have a chance to have some players not only keep their cards, but also collect some wins.
We should see even more progress from John Daly, whose career seems to be back on level footing. Daly has come a long way in the last few years. No longer just the crowd pleaser, hes once again a contender every time he tees it up. And wouldnt it be great if he was among the top 12 on the Ryder Cup points list come August?
We should see a tighter money list and a tighter race for Player of the Year on the LPGA. Creamer and Kerr and Gulbis and Kim and Miyazato will make it interesting. Annika won the money title this year by about a million dollars over Creamer. But keep in mind that instead of SHOULD we also COULD see Annika runaway again. She loves competition.
And finally the BETTER:
For this I have just one and Im hoping you can help me with the rest. Wed BETTER see a more competitive Ryder Cup than we saw in 2004. The United States won the Presidents Cup with the great putt by DiMarco and some interesting pairings. Woods found company in the form of Furyk and DiMarco found a friend in Mickelson. Whether we see that again is up to captain Tom Lehman. Be assured that Ian Woosnams team will be stacked, loaded and ready to successfully defend.
Happy Holidays and thanks for allowing me a few words each week during the year. As always, your thoughts are welcome.
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.