Fowler, Garcia show class in victory and defeat

By Randall MellMay 12, 2015, 12:01 am

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The Players Championship delivered a class act as its champion early Sunday evening.

The most boisterous of those fans at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course got a better winner than they deserved in Rickie Fowler.

Those who heckled Sergio Garcia through the back nine couldn’t have been golf fans because they would have known a derisively aimed barb in this game isn’t the same as it is in a baseball, basketball or football game. A taunt in a golfer’s backswing is more like a fan running onto the football field and tripping a running back racing up a sideline. It can unfairly interfere with the final outcome. It can mar the competition.

Most of us, I think, are tuning in to see the world’s best players decide who wins a championship, not some idiot fan with a belly full of booze.

As is usually the case, it was an obnoxious minority standing out Sunday, but more than the usual few in that natural amphitheater around the 17th island hole.

Both Fowler and Garcia handled the unique challenges this past week with a dignity that fans who care about the game’s special values appreciate. For all the grief Garcia has received for painting himself as a victim of bad fortune in the past, he navigated above the fray during and after his round. He may have learned the hard way, but he deserves credit. Garcia was a model of restraint and grace under fire.



Sunday wasn’t just a day the world’s best players got to show off their tremendous skill on a larger stage than their niche sport is accustomed. It was a day they got to show off how their sport aspires to be admirably different, even with barbarians at the gate.

No, this isn’t to say golfers are perfect. They’re as flawed and corruptible as athletes from other sports, but the honor is in how the game aspires to be different. It’s in how the game holds its participants to a higher standard. The sport aims for a standard of civility that matters more than ever.

At a time when blow-hard chest thumping, taunting and deflating footballs are the growing norm in a world where sportsmanship seems to matter less and less, Fowler and Garcia reminded us what’s still possible. They didn’t just deliver high drama along with Kevin Kisner and others. They delivered it nobly.

While there are sure to be folks rolling their eyes reading this, dismissing the message as naïve, prudish and even out of touch, the game’s line of civility moves when nobody cares to notice.

Competition is based on the Latin word competere, which means to strive together. Michael Josephson of the Josephson Institute of Ethics once instructed this writer that sportsmanship is based on the ancient Olympic ideal that you honor your opponent because you’re striving for excellence together. Your opponent makes you better.

Sportsmanship is civility’s first cousin.

“Manners are more important than laws,” British statesman Edmund Burke once wrote. “Upon them in a great measure the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex and soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe ... They aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

There was refinement in Fowler’s and Garcia’s efforts.

Fowler might have been privately angry over learning his peers voted he and Ian Poulter the most overrated players on the PGA Tour in an anonymous survey last week, but he was old school in the way he handled it. There was no knee-jerk rebuke. He didn’t shut down with his fellow players or media.

“Rickie doesn’t work that way,” Fowler’s mother, Lynn, said shortly after Sunday’s trophy presentation. “I don’t think he works like that, based on something negative, at all.”

Fowler obviously relished proving he isn’t overrated.

“I laughed at the poll, but, yeah, if there was any question, I think this right here answers anything you need to know,” Fowler said.

That’s as close as Fowler got to sticking what his victory means in anyone’s face.

Instead, Fowler let his clubs do the talking for him. And, wow, he couldn’t have designated more eloquent spokesmen.

That’s old school.

Fowler’s 3-wood at the 16th in regulation on Sunday – that was a statement. He carved a 240-yard shot over the edge of the lake to 2 feet to set up eagle. He made statements with all those wedges he hit in close making birdie three times at the 17th. He did again with those two 330-yard drives down the middle of the 18th fairway, maybe his best shots all week.

Garcia endured heckling on the back nine. His caddie even asked for extra security after making the turn. Garcia had to step off his shot at the 17th tee because of the abuse.

“Obviously, some guys there don’t deserve to be here watching golf,” Garcia said.

Like Fowler, Garcia kept answering with his clubs. He was at his most eloquent holing a 40-footer for birdie at the 17th to help him get in the playoff with Fowler and Kisner.

“We all three did some amazing things coming in,” Garcia said. “I thought it was a well-played championship.”

It was more than that. It was well conducted. That matters, too.

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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.