The Week That Was
Like most of us, I was eager to see what security changes had taken place during the interim. I was not overly impressed. The taxi dropped me at the airports curb and I was shocked to see curbside check-in was available. I took advantage of the convenience and avoided that dreadfully long line inside which had awaited me.
I was informed a new regulation had just gone into effect and carry-on baggage would now be limited to just one piece, plus a purse or a laptop computer. I gave up the purse and kept the Toshiba. The line at the security checkpoint moved quickly enough perhaps, too quickly. As I approached the metal detectors and x-ray machines, we travelers were told to take our computers out of their bags; but we were not told to turn them on why not? How could that civilian looking at the scanner possibly know that it really was a harmless computer?
I took off my watch with its metal band and emptied my pockets of a complete handful of coins, with the full intention of putting them in one of those trays, to be passed around the detector. But the civilian employee refused my offering and said No, dont worry, go on through. I passed through without any alarm sounding. I wondered what else people were carrying through. No secondary search, either. Was this really safer than before?
Once on the plane, more questions. If youre going to take away metal knives, why allow metal forks? And how about wine bottles and real glass glasses. Weve all seen those movies where bottles and glasses were quickly transformed into weapons. Is there a problem giving everybody plastic cups?
The travel experience was more than just noteworthy; and not just for me. Many of the players in the Vegas field had not been on tour since before September 11. Kenny Perry had been home for the past seven weeks, proudly helping to coach his sons high school golf team. It felt funny to travel again, he said. To see those M.P.s with those M-16s over their shoulders was quite an eye-opening experience. Kenny was shaking his head. Ive seen them over in Europe and to see them in my own country was quite shocking.
The air raids on Afghanistan and the Taliban began last Sunday and continued every day as this golf tournament was played. The one-month anniversary of the September 11 attacks came on the day of the second round of play. Memorial services and funerals for the victims of terrorism ' our fellow Americans ' continued on a daily basis. Then came more anthrax and the warning from the F.B.I.
With all that is going on in our world with all of the angst how is it possible for these PGA Tour players to continue to play their game? How difficult is it to do their jobs? To focus on the task at hand?
Tom Lehman: Im completely committed, and believe in the fact that we should be doing exactly what we always have done. I dont want to be dictated to how Im going to live my life. Hey, were golfers and lets go play golf. Toms comments came after shooting 63, 62 in the first two rounds to lead the tournament. Do what you always do, he added. Dont let somebody else tell you how to live. I think thats really what courage is about ' over-coming your fears and getting out and doing it.
Like all of us, Kenny Perry has spent much of the last month glued to the news. When I get out here, thats kind of four hours away from the world and I really dont think that much about it until I get off the golf course and watch the news. Then I focus on the country. Perry says golfs fans and players have a great deal in common these days. This is my escape, right here. My four hours away.
John Cook has a 15-year-old son and hes worried what a war will mean for him in a few years. But like his peers on tour, Cook plays on. This is what we do. This is our livelihood. John echoes President Bushs wish for all Americans to live their normal lives. Obviously there are way more important things in the world than our golf, Cook says. But thats what we do and thats why our families are able to live the way they do, and thats how we take care of our families. With a look of determination, Cook adds, Thats the best thing that we can do. Keep that attitude, understand whats going on and give the President our support, give our troops our support, give our agencies all of our support. But go along and do our business that were supposed to do it.
During these times that try mens souls, is golf just a silly little game that has little purpose or meaning? Perhaps. To paraphrase our Declaration of Independence: All men are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among those, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Play away please.
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.