International Mix at NEC Invitational

By Mercer BaggsAugust 22, 2002, 4:00 pm
SAMMAMISH, Wash. ' Retief Goosen didnt let the ill-effects of a weekend wreck in last weeks PGA Championship linger Thursday at Sahalee.
 
The serene South African steered clear of the vertigo-inducing fir trees in shooting a bogey-free 6-under-par 65.
 
He shares the opening-round lead in the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational with Japans Toshi Izawa. The 65 matched the course record aggregate score. However, it was a record in relation to par, as Greg Kraft and Nick Price shot 65s in the '98 PGA Championship when the course played to a par-70.
 
World No. 2 Phil Mickelson, who has finished inside the top-10 all three years of this event, is tied with Ryder Cup teammate Davis Love III and Cup opponent Darren Clarke at 5-under.
 
Clarke said he inspired by watching Rich Beem win last week's PGA.
 
'I had a good think after the PGA. I saw the way Rich Beem won his first major. I hit my driver nearly everywhere today. It's much more fun that way,' said Clarke, who added he has a throbbing left big toe after dropping a suitcase on his foot when packing to leave Minnesota.
 
'The strongest part of my game is driving, or has been in the past. I have tended to throttle, but now I have decided to go for it again.'
 
Three-time defending champion Tiger Woods was just two off the pace before finishing at 3-under-par 68. Woods double bogeyed the par-3 17th after plunking his tee shot in the water right of the green. But after missing the fairway and finding the greenside bunker on the par-5 18th, Tiger made a 12-footer for birdie to salvage the round.
 
It was nice to end up on a birdie like that; I felt like I played well all day and I just threw away three shots on the back nine ' three-putted (the 12th) and hit a ball in the water, Woods said.
 
Izawa was in the first group out Thursday at Sahalee Country Club, which last hosted the '98 PGA. The 34-year-old, ranked 36th in the world, made seven birdies and one bogey.
 
I havent played well this year in the States and in Japan, so the first day of the tournament, where I am, I am very satisfied and I am very happy to be here, said Izawa, who lost in a six-man playoff in the 2001 Nissan Open and tied for fourth in his Masters debut the same year, through a translator.
 
Opposite of Izawa, Goosen has had his share of fortune this season. He won the BellSouth Classic and finished runner-up at Augusta. But his major showings have been more thorns than roses.
 
The 2001 U.S. Open champion was tied with Woods going into the final round of the Masters, where he shot 74 and lost by three. He then missed the cut in his title defense at the U.S. Open. After a tie for eighth at Muirfield, he shot 79-75 over the final two rounds at the PGA Championship to fall from a share of the 36-hole lead into a tie for 23rd.
 
I think pretty much to win a tournament (you have to) putt the best, Goosen said. I have been playing well, but over the last few months, I dont really feel like Ive been putting as well. Ive worked quite hard on my putting the last couple of days.
 
The dedication paid Thursday on a sun-soaked day outside of Seattle.
 
Goosen made a 10-footer for birdie at the 10th ' his first hole of the day. He then made 20-foot birdies on each of the par-3s on the back, 13 and 17.
 
At the par-5 second, he hit a 4-iron to 10 feet and converted the eagle effort, and ended his day with a seven-footer for birdie at 7.
 
Love was also the beneficiary of a solid putting stroke in round one.
 
Love made a 20-footer at the third; a 40-footer at the seventh; a 30-footer at 10; and another one from 30 feet at 13.
 
I hit a lot of shots in the right place where I could putt at it, and I putted very, very well, Love said.
 
Mickelson had one of his steadiest rounds of the season, while Clarke posted a scorecard with which the lefthander is all too familiar.
 
Mickelson made four birdies, one eagle and a bogey Thursday; Clarke, attacking the narrow tree-lined fairways with his driver, birdied his first four holes, made three bogeys and two birdies in a six-hole stretch midway through the round, and closed with back-to-back birdies.
 
For Mickelson, Thursday was a continuation of a final-round 68 at Hazeltine.
 
'I have been striking it really well from Sunday in the PGA, and then practice rounds I started hitting the ball pretty well, and came out in the round continuing that,' he said.
 
As Mickelson did, Tiger eagled the second. He bombed a 3-iron from 235 yards to four feet. He birdied Nos. 7 and 10, but three-putted the aforementioned 12th for bogey.
 
Following another birdie at the par-4 14th, Tiger hit a 6-iron from 206 yards on the par-3 17th. The ball landed short and right of the green, rolled down the embankment and into the water hazard. He regrouped with the birdie at the last.
 
I wasnt exactly in the best frame of mind ' still am not ' but hit a good drive on the tee (at 18), just turned it a bit too much; hit a nice 3-iron out into the right bunker and hit a terrible bunker shot, but I recovered and hit a nice putt there, Woods described.
 
Full-field scores from the WGC-NEC Invitational
Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.