Tiger Revives Fear Factor

By Mercer BaggsJuly 17, 2005, 4:00 pm
Weve been here before. Not an era of Tiger Woods domination; though, it seems we are witnessing the reawakening of such a time.
Where we are now is where we were exactly five years ago: a time of fear.
Colin Montgomerie
Colin Montgomerie was one of many players who all but admitted defeat after the first two rounds.
You could hear it in their words as early as Thursday afternoon.
Ominous, Colin Montgomerie said of Tiger Woods position atop the leaderboard after the first round of the 134th Open Championship.
I played with him a few days ago and he was birdying every other hole, said Fred Couples. When he plays like that
It was Thursday ' Thursday! And he had a two-stroke lead ' two strokes! And yet players were reacting as if they had been given a death sentence and they were just awaiting execution on Sunday.
The tone was gloomier than the bruised Scottish skies after the conclusion of Round 2.
People are scared to say it, but its true: If hes playing well, were all playing for second, said Mark Hensby.
No, Mark, players werent sacred to say it. They were, in fact, quite open about it. They were just scared of Tiger.
If Tiger plays the way Tiger is capable of playing, its over, said Monty, who was just four back of Woods and playing alongside him in the final group on Saturday. We know that; you know that.
Obviously, the whole tournament depends on Tiger, added Darren Clarke.
Ernie Els, the No. 3 player in the world, was begging for weather assistance to hinder Woods, not believing his talents were enough to make up eight shots over two days.
After beating Woods by a stroke head-to-head in the third round, and closing to within three of the lead entering the final round, Montgomerie said: Its probably not enough. It will be an awesome task to overtake Tiger from three shots down.
This from a man who had won seven consecutive Order of Merit titles and was playing before one of the most partisan crowds in major championship history? He sounded more like a self-deprecating Rich Beem before the final round of the 2002 PGA Championship.
Defeating Tiger Woods from arrears is an awesome task. But its not Mission: Impossible.
This isnt meant to imply that Woods is no longer worthy of issuing a great measure of apprehension and trepidation. He most certainly is. But apparently what he did 3-5 years ago still weighs heavily in his peers minds. Those past performances have immensly enhanced his present perception.
Woods has earned a great deal of respect. But that respect should not be immeasurable. At least it shouldnt have been before this events conclusion.
When players were speaking gravely after the first two rounds this week, they werent thinking about how Tiger nearly blew this years Masters or how he did blow this years U.S. Open; they were thinking about St. Andrews 2000, and the damage done.
Woods inflicted such deep psychological scars on his peers in the first few years of this decade that they may never fully heal ' particularly with what he did in the 2000 U.S. Open and Open Championship.
Just as many in the field feared, Woods proved insurmountable this week. But, unlike five years ago, when he shot a major record 19 under par and prevailed by eight strokes, he wasnt unbeatable.
Tiger left open the door to defeat this time. He could only manage a 1-under 71 on Saturday, cutting his four-stroke overnight advantage in half. And on Sunday, he missed a pair of birdie putt inside of 6 feet on Nos. 7 and 8. He was only 1 under on his round through the first eight holes, yet no one was able to so much as tie him for the lead.
This Sunday was quite reminiscent to that of three years ago at Augusta National, when six of the top seven players in the world comprised the top six spots on the leaderboard through 54 holes of the Masters Tournament.
For fans, there was great anticipation, great excitement. And ultimately, great disappointment.
Woods, who shared the third-round lead with Retief Goosen, shot 1-under 71 that day and still won by three strokes.
This time it was a two-stroke lead at the beginning of play for Woods, with the likes of Jose Maria Olazabal, Montgomerie, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia, U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell and Vijay Singh all giving chase.
And this time it was a 2-under 70 and a five-stroke victory.
From a fans perspective: more great anticipation, more great excitement, and more great disappointment.
All things equal, it would have taken a 68 by Olazabal, a 67 by Monty and Goosen, a 66 by Garcia, and a 65 by Campbell and Singh ' just to tie him.
'Well, it's hard,' Olazabal said of trying to beat a front-running Woods on Sunday of a major championship. 'Nothing's impossible. But it's close.'
But what would have happened if just one of them ' just one ' had applied some pressure to Woods? What would have happened if Monty, with that overwhelming crowd support, had tied Woods, or even surpassed him?
How would Woods have handled the pressure coming home ' had there been any?
He certainly didnt manage the situation well on 17 and 18 in regulation at the Masters, in which he bogeyed both holes. And he struggled down the stretch at Pinehurst, bogeying 16 and 17.
Well never know, because it never happened. Because too many players believed it could never happen.
Woods led by two at the turn, shot even par on the back side, and still won by five.
Olazabal and Montgomerie, each of whom got within one of Woods at some point during the final round, both closed in 3-over 39.
'There's no disgrace finishing second to the best player in the world,' said Montgomerie after shooting even-par 72.
Certainly not. But Mongtomerie and so many others had relegated themselves to second place after Day 1.
It can be said that many in the field were mentally defeated after the first round. But the origins of this loss can be traced back five years.
Woods has now finished first-second-first in the three major championships this season.
You think they were scared before? After this victory they are no longer dealing with a lingering nightmare dreamt years ago. They are once again dealing with the Boogeyman himself.
They now have good reason to fear.
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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.

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    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.