Things I Cant Believe
Its the best sport you can cover for so many reasons. The most impressive is the class that some players exhibit in the midst of competition ' the self-policing of themselves as they compete for millions of dollars.
Along the way ' there are the things that make you go wow. And as we head toward Augusta and the Masters Tournament in just a couple weeks, Ive seen and heard some things I just cant believe this year.
So heres my list, beginning with the PGA TOURs most recent winner.
* How in the name of the World Golf Rankings is Vijay Singh ranked seventh? Are you telling me that Adam Scott (fourth) is better? Or what about Henrik Stenson and Ernie Els (fifth and sixth?) Els hasnt won on the PGA TOUR for years, not months. Itll even out eventually but this is ridiculous.
* Whens the last time Tiger Woods got to within one shot of the lead on a Sunday during the front nine and didnt end up winning the tournament? It happened at Bay Hill on Sunday. That double-bogey and triple-bogey down the stretch lead to an inward nine of 43 and 76. I still cant believe it. Now the question is is the meltdown a sign of things not going his way at Augusta? I cant believe it is.
* Can you believe players are second-guessing the potential of a shortened field at the newly created AT&T National? A.K.A. - The Tiger Woods Invitational. some are chapped at the possibility. I can believe theyre hurt, but I cant believe theyd make such a public fuss about any event Woods brings to the table. Last years 125th on the money list made almost $661,000. Add in endorsement money and its plenty more than that. These days you can lose your card and still pay off your mortgage with a check ' thanks to Tigers presence. Rocco Mediate said last week on GOLF CHANNEL that the rank and file need to shut up. That comment from Mediate, I can believe.
* Two weeks from the Masters and no honorary starter? I cant believe it. Arnold Palmer is reportedly giving it a second thought after being offered the role after his record 50th (and final) Masters appearance three years ago. Lets hope he takes it and brings Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus along with him in the coming years.
* John Rollins is currently fifth among Americans on the Presidents Cup standings. Hard to believe when I looked at it. But Rollins is for real. Hes seventh in scoring average and third in total birdies and the all-around ranking. Then again, I couldnt believe Brett Wetterich made the Ryder Cup team, so Ill need to warm on Rollins quickly.
* What happened to Ernie and Retief? I still cant believe theyre missing among PGA TOUR winners this year. Heck, I cant believe they didnt win last year. Five years ago if youd have told me Ernie Els was going to injure his knee, Id have said his talent was good enough to win on one leg. Now Im confused.
* I picked Justin Leonard to win again this year. So far, seven starts and just one cut made. He earned about $10,000 at Arnies Invite which doesnt exactly make me feel confident about things. I hope he does.
* Cant believe neither Annika nor Lorena didnt win in Mexico a few weeks back. I figured Annika would do it. I couldnt believe Ochoa didnt factor and I really cant believe Meaghan Francella ended up stealing the show.
* This is the first week for the Nationwide Tour in the states? Cmon. I cant believe we cant get a few events before late March. Given that Mark Wilson made it 200 former Nationwide Tour winners in the winners circle on the PGA TOUR, Im ready to see whos going to be next years Charley Hoffman or Boo Weekley. Lets go already!
* Can the 'Florida Swing' be any better? I cant believe how good things have gone over the last few weeks. The Honda Classics move to PGA National was a home run and the finish was a Grand Slam. The PODS Championship is another great test and the Calcavecchia story was terrific. The Arnold Palmer Invitational made it three great courses in three weeks. Suddenly the run to the Masters is like a marathon if you play them all. Every course feels like a major. Well see about Doral this week.
* What I cant believe is that Houston is now the week before Augusta. It felt strange when the schedule came out. Im guessing that by next week it will feel completely wrong. And thats no slight on the folks in Houston who know as much about hospitality as any group on the PGA TOUR.
* And I cant believe the Masters is almost here and I really cant pinpoint a favorite. Sure, Tigers the guy to beat. But do you feel safe in picking him? I cant believe he wont get it figured out, but I also cant believe youd feel safe in taking him against the field right now.
* Cant believe my vacation is over and its back to work this week. Sunburn after a ski trip to Colorado where the temps were near 60 degrees???? How does that make sense?
And finally, I cant believe the number of you who chime in with your comments each week. It's great and I appreciate it. See you on the Sprint Pre/Post Game this week.
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.