Despite recent success, Euros play underdog card

By Randall MellSeptember 24, 2014, 5:15 pm

GLENEAGLES, Scotland – Something ancient stirred the air Wednesday with Stephen Gallacher on the back nine of a practice round for the Ryder Cup.

As the only Scot in the matches, Gallacher couldn’t be more at home at Gleneagles, where bagpipers in kilts near the clubhouse squeezed soul-tingling notes through the rolling country side.

Here, on the edge of the Scottish Highlands, Gallacher can do no wrong in his preparation, even when his golf ball isn’t cooperating.

At the 12th tee, he hooks his drive hard left, where it scatters the gallery near a berries-and-cream stand. He re-loads and hits another right back into the gallery. The fans there couldn’t be more pleased, because they know it means Gallacher will be wandering into their midst. When he gets there, they swarm him for autographs.

“Wurrr all prrrowed of ye,” Gallacher hears in a thick Scottish burr as he signs.

Europeans could say the same thing about the entire European team. They’re proud of the way their home-grown talent is dominating the Ryder Cup, which has become the Super Bowl of team golf. They love the chance to root their team on in Europe’s bid to win the Ryder Cup for the sixth time in its last seven tries and for the eighth time in the last 10.

Ladbrokes makes Europe a 4/6 favorite to do just that.

“We’re here without Tiger Woods,” Phil Mickelson said. “We’re without Dustin Johnson. We’re without Jason Dufner. And we’re playing a team that has players like [Rory] McIlroy and Henrik [Stenson], who have played just incredible golf over the years. They’re going to be extremely tough to beat, whoever gets paired against them. Certainly, we are the underdog.”

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Don’t tell that to Scots and their fellow European supporters this week.

No matter where this is played, no matter what British bookmakers post as odds and no matter who boasts more highly ranked players, Europeans will always see their team as underdogs. That’s because this is essentially the European Tour vs. the PGA Tour. That’s the dynamic that trumps everything else. 

Yes, most of the European team plays the PGA Tour, even make their homes there now, but it doesn’t matter. Their roots are in Europe, in the European Tour. In that regard, Europeans will always be David in a battle with Goliath. They’ll always be the children of the little tour that could. They’ll always be from a circuit dwarfed by the PGA Tour and its giant purses, sponsorships and international TV presence.

“The whole world, when it gets a chance to beat the United States, it’s a big deal,” NBC’s Johnny Miller said. “I just think it’s so much fun for Europe to beat the United States.”

If you don’t think the Ryder Cup is becoming the Super Bowl of team golf, read the British tabloids in the morning. Mickelson was trying to be funny in his news conference here Wednesday, but the little crack he made is sure to make for some big headlines in Europe.

Mickelson was asked if the Americans have struggled to win because they aren’t as close as the Europeans.

“Not only are we able to play together, we also don’t litigate against each other, and that’s a real plus,” Mickelson cracked.

Ouch. Mickelson was making light of litigation that has pitted McIlroy against Graeme McDowell in a legal wrangling over contracts McIlroy had with an agent he used to share with McDowell, but it’s headline fodder now. 

It’s also silly bulletin-board fodder that feeds perfectly into Europe’s feeling that the giant can’t fall hard enough.

Europe’s proud of its boys, and you can’t make fun of them in their own backyard, can you?

“I couldn’t resist, sorry,” Mickelson said.

The first tee on opening morning of a Ryder Cup is the most raucous and entertaining scene in golf. There will be singing, chanting and revelry. Surely, there is something special in the works now for Mickelson. He opened the door for that.

“The first hole is always amazing,” Europe’s Sergio Garcia said. “It’s definitely the most impressive first hole we play throughout our careers.

“It gives me goosebumps thinking about it." 

The first tee dynamic is enhanced this week. That's because Americans and Europeans will pass through a tunnel beneath a roadway before making a long walk to the first tee. There are blue flowers for the Euros flanking the hillside on one exit to the tunnel, red flowers for the Americans on the other.

It makes for a more dramatic entrance to these matches.

“A bit like gladiators walking into the arena as you walk up that hill, coming out of the tunnel,” European captain Paul McGinley said. “It should be an electric atmosphere.”

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.