Even Spieth's bad shots turned out well

By Nick MentaJuly 12, 2015, 1:33 am

SILVIS, Ill. – Jordan Spieth stood in the trees left of the 17th fairway and didn’t really care for his options.

“I didn’t like that opening, the punch-out opening,” he said. “There really weren’t many places to go unless I went backwards.”

That’s when his eyes started wandering left, through the trees and in the direction of the 18th hole.

And that’s when Spieth and his caddie Michael Greller had something very much resembling a Phil Mickelson-Jim Mackay conversation.

“He’s trained to say punch out, work for par, go on to the next,” Spieth said.

Instead, the 21-year-old, two-time major winner picked his spot, told Greller, “Trust me,” and navigated a 5-iron 200 yards through a narrow gap in the trees, over a bunker, and back into the 17th fairway.

“It wasn’t a big window at all that it went through,” he said. “It climbed right up over the tree and split the other two. After I hit it and it got through there, I gave Mike the little fist pump, because it could have gone very poorly if it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to.”

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Spieth left himself 106 yards to a tucked-right pin. He pulled a sand wedge – that he will tell you was “the wrong club” – made impact, mis-hit it, put too much spin on it, followed through with a displeased one-handed release, flew it about 10 feet past the pin, and …

… Made it.

Spieth, who five minutes beforehand was surveying potential chip-outs with his caddie, holed out from the fairway at 17 for an eagle-3 that gave him sole possession of the lead.

It was the highlight of a birdie-eagle-birdie finish that secured him the lowest round of his PGA Tour career, a 10-under 61 that has him two shots clear of the field at 17 under par heading into Sunday’s final round at the John Deere Classic.

Even after the eagle, Spieth needed one more birdie to set his new personal best, a fact he was plenty aware of standing over an 18-footer on his final hole.

“I had that fist pump on the last, because walking up after the second shot, I said, ‘Mike, I just saw the board and I think this for the lowest round I’ve shot on the PGA Tour.’ And I said, ‘That’s pretty cool.’

“And he said, ‘It doesn’t matter where you’re at. Just keep on trekking.’

“I said, ‘Yeah, but I appreciate this, and I really want to make this thing.’”

He did. In fact, there weren’t many times he looked at a putt and didn’t make it. Spieth needed just 23 putts in his third round after needing only 25 the day before. One of his rare misses Saturday came at the short par-4 14th, when he missed a 7-footer for birdie and then leaned forward, looking at the ball like there was something wrong with it – which there must have been, considering it didn’t go in.

Since playing his first 12 holes 2 over on Thursday, Spieth has played his last 42 holes 19 under par. Over that stretch, he’s made 14 birdies, three eagles and just one bogey. Saturday marked the first time in his Tour career that he’s recorded two eagles in the same round, with the other one coming after a 260-yard 3-wood at the second hole stopped 2 feet from the cup. It also marked the second straight day he’s played a three-hole stretch in 4 under par, after a birdie-birdie-eagle run on Nos. 18-2 Friday.

All this from a guy who after an even-par 71 in Round 1 spent the bulk of his time complaining about his short game and chastising himself for playing nothing more than a Wednesday pro-am in the weeks following his win at the U.S. Open. Two days after “a little rusty start,” he’s one-handing wedges past the hole, off the flagstick, and underground.

“A shot that was mis-hit,” he called his sand wedge at 17. “Not extremely mis-hit. I pull off one-handed even if I don’t miss by a lot. I probably should watch out for that, because it looked bad, because the shot looked pretty good in the air.”

The only things he has left to criticize at this point are his body language and his driver, which did its best to get him into trouble over his last four holes. Spieth’s last three drives were fore right, fore left and fore right. He played those holes 3 under par, thanks in part to missing the fairway so badly off the 15th tee that his ball came to rest behind a scoreboard between the 15th and 17th holes, allowing him a free drop.

“It’s been the concern as I’ve come back from this stretch,” he said, referring to his driver, before quickly correcting himself. “I wouldn’t call it a concern. I’d call it just – it’s the one club in my bag I need to fine-tune the most.”

Spieth is so fine-tuned with his other clubs that he actually damaged the hole at the par-4 eighth after his approach with a pitching wedge clipped the flagstick on the way down and rolled 24 feet away.

“I mean, it happens to everybody ,” he said. “You hit a shot exactly how you want to, and some people wind up in the water.”

He’s not most people. He made the putt for birdie.

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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.