Annika No Longer a Certainty

By Mercer BaggsMarch 13, 2007, 4:00 pm
There are a few certainties in golf.
A few examples: 1) No one at NBC will ever ' ever ' disagree with Johnny Miller on air (play a drinking game in which you take a shot every time Gary Koch or Roger Maltbie says, Yeah, Johnny, youre right. Youll be schnockered within 20 minutes); 2) If I say that you will win, you will most likely lose; 3) Annika Sorenstam will roll right off the couch and into the winners circle.
Well at least 1 and 2 still hold true.
Annika Sorenstam and Meaghan Francella
Annika Sorenstam is now 15-6 in her LPGA career in playoffs. (Getty Images)
Bidding to win her first start for the fourth consecutive season, Sorenstam fell in a playoff at the MasterCard Classic to Meaghan Francella.
To say the result was surprising is to say that the 2008 Presidential race will get personal ' both are vast understatements.
Sorenstam has 69 LPGA Tour wins; Francella has six LPGA Tour starts. Sorenstam has 10 majors; Francella had one top-35 finish before this week. Sorenstam is arguably the greatest female player ever; Francella is honestly, up until this week I had no idea who Meaghan Francella was.
I thought this was March Madness time? Sixteen seeds dont beat No. 1s.
Ironically, it was a year ago on this very same day (March 12) that I wrote a column about Sorenstam winning in her season debut in Mexico (coincidentally, Francella won her first professional event on the Duramed FUTURES Tour on March 12, 2006).
I was gushing over Annika's performance. I believed her to be unbeatable. Even though common sense told me there was no way that she could win every single time she teed it up, I felt it possible.
Obviously, Im a little less enthusiastic a year later. Yet Im far more intrigued to see where the road will take her.
Even without much of an effort, Annika can win three times and even a major each season. She proved that last year.
After opening with her win South of the Border, she captured only two more titles (though, one was the U.S. Womens Open), falling victim to certainty No. 2.
I like to think, however, that the decline in production wasnt as much my doing as it was hers. Sorenstam has admitted that she lacked full desire last year. She didnt have the drive that she had in previous seasons.
She was focused on her personal life and her personal interests, like her new golf and fitness academy outside of Orlando.
Those things still seem to weigh heavy on Annikas mind. In her pre-tournament press conference this past week, Annika said, As long I enjoy the competition and as long as I feel motivated and wake up in the morning excited to go practice, I will continue to play. Im not really sure how long that will be. I do have other interests off the golf course that I've been pursuing more and more.
She added that she plans to play around 15 or 16 times this year. Shes never played fewer than 17 LPGA events since joining the tour in 1994, and competed in 20 tournaments each of the last two seasons.
Motivation, it would seem, is the key to Annikas ultimate success, the difference between a ho-hum ' by her standards anyway ' 3-win, 1-major season and one in which she wins about half of her starts, multiple majors, and a bevy of awards.
And motivation, it would seem, is still a bit of a question mark.
Right now, Annika herself is a bit of a question mark.
This seems like a different Annika than the one weve come to know. There isnt nearly as much talk about her accomplishing a seasonal Grand Slam. There is more talk surrounding other players. And even Annika is talking like an underdog.
When asked if she considered herself the favorite after a first-round 69 left her two off the lead, Sorenstam deferred to another.
I'm not really sure I'm the favorite, said Sorenstam, the only winner the tournament had ever known until Monday. I would think Lorena would be.
Lorena, of course, is Lorena Ochoa, the reigning Player of the Year and sporting icon in her native Mexico.
It almost seems unnatural that Annika would consider someone other than herself the player to beat, particularly when that player was two shots higher than she after the first round. Perhaps she was paying respect to Ochoa based on her accomplishments of a year ago. Perhaps she was just taking a little pressure off herself for once. Or, perhaps shes really a Jedi and she was playing mind tricks.
I figured it was the latter; so much so that I began writing my column assuming Annika would win. Oops certainty No. 2 rears up its ugly little head once again.
Having begun the weather-delayed final round three in arrears, Sorenstam shot 6-under 66 Monday to catch Francella and force a playoff. They then tied each of the first three holes of sudden death before Francella won on the fourth extra hole with a 4-foot birdie.
'Words can't describe how I feel right now,' Francella said afterwards.
'Today I got beaten, but I gave it a good run,' said Sorenstam. 'I felt really good about my game, so that's what I'm going to take out of this tournament.'
The most intriguing thing in all of this is how will Sorenstam respond? Will this just make her angry, more focused? Is this a good kick in the butt for her?
Or is it a kick in the teeth? Will this just deflate her? Will it sour her on competing even more?
A year ago, I wouldnt have thought the latter line of questioning fathomable. Now Im not so sure.
But, perhaps thats a good thing for Annika. It doesnt help her cause to have me thinking that she is going to win. That is a certainty.
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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.

    Getty Images

    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.