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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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.