With Harmon's help, Pettersen a winner again

By Randall MellJune 8, 2015, 12:13 am

Suzann Pettersen tends to win in bunches.

You can look it up.

When she wins, she can become a raging fire, consuming whatever’s in her path.

Her first victory under her new swing coach, Butch Harmon, couldn’t have come at a better time Sunday at the Manulife LPGA Classic. Pettersen will head to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship this week radiating with confidence. It’s the first of three major championships scheduled over the next eight weeks.

Harmon loved what he saw watching Pettersen end a 19-month winless drought.

“Suzann’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around in the golf business,” Harmon told GolfChannel.com in a telephone interview after her victory. “She’s very conscientious about her work. She puts in the time, and she loves the work. It’s great to see her get the benefit of all that hard work.”

It was Pettersen’s first victory since she went to work with Harmon last December. He watched the new swing they’re building together hold up under final-round pressure on the back nine at Whistle Bear Golf Club. After squandering an early lead, Pettersen eagled the 12th hole and then birdied two of the final three holes to beat Brittany Lang by a shot.

“I think something you’re going to see the rest of the year is that Suzann really believes in herself now,” Harmon said. “She was kind of lost when she came to me in December. She was lost with her golf swing, and she was lost with her confidence. She is 100 percent confident now. She really believes in the things she’s doing, and this win is just going to give her more confidence."

Pettersen made a bold move late last year. Nearing her 34th birthday, she decided to start over.

She left her swing coach, David Leadbetter, who helped her groove a swing that brought her to the brink of one of her dreams, to within hundredths of a point of the Rolex No. 1 world ranking. She won five times with Leadbetter in 2013, including her second major, the Evian Championship. She put on a clinic at Evian, knocking down flagsticks in a brilliant ball-striking performance. As a team, they were on fire together that fall.

There were frustrations, though, trying to follow up in 2014. There were setbacks.

There was Pettersen’s nagging back injury, and there were confidence-jarring final-round failures with chances to win at the Ricoh Women’s British Open and LPGA Championship. She squandered chances to win those majors closing with a 75 and then a 76.

Nearing that 34th birthday, Pettersen knew time was beginning to tick on her desire to finally reach No. 1, to win more majors and to win a gold medal with golf returning to the Olympics next year. She has been No. 2 behind four different players in the Rolex world rankings without being able to reach the top. There was great frustration in that. And while she has won two majors, she has finished second or third in nine others. She burns for a gold medal and knows if she doesn’t win one this next year, she’ll be 39 the next time the Olympics come around.

“She’s on course to accomplish all those things,” Harmon said.

Late last year, Pettersen decided it was “now or never” if she was going to make a big change. She huddled with Greg Norman and Darren Clarke in a pro-am in China in the fall of 2013. She picked their brains about Harmon, and then she asked for his help.

“I’d always been very curious about Butch,” Pettersen said.

Harmon limits his stable, but he welcomed Pettersen aboard.

“I have only good things to say about Butch,” Pettersen said after hoisting the Manulife trophy.  “He's been a great inspiration to me, to take my game to a new level. He definitely has the belief, and he's no sugar coater. He gives me what I need every single time, and what we've done so far is good. This is, hopefully, just a start.”

The KPMG Women’s PGA  will be played at Westchester Country Club in New York. It’s a special place for Harmon. “My old stomping grounds,” Harmon said. His father, Claude, won a bunch of times at Westchester, including nine Westchester Opens and Westchester PGAs.

“It will be a good course for her, the way she’s driving it,” Harmon said. 

When Pettersen wins an event, there’s typically another win right on its heels. She won three times in October of 2007. She won twice in August of 2011. She won in back-to-back weeks in October of 2012, twice in the spring of 2013 and three times in the fall of ’13.

Pettersen says Harmon has made the arc of her swing wider and more shallow. While she fights wanting to be more technical than she should, Harmon says she picked up his changes quickly. Her progress was slowed in the spring, when she battled more back and shoulder issues. She withdrew in the middle of the Lotte Championship with an inflammation of her left shoulder. She WD’d again from the Swinging Skirts Classic with the injury.

Through it all, Harmon said he saw a lot of progress.

“This has been coming for awhile,” he said. “She’s played so much better than her results have shown, even before her shoulder started bothering her.”

Healthy and pain-free again, Pettersen is eager to see what else she can do with this new approach.

“For me, it was a good move, just in time to kind of get going,” she said. “I'm excited to start playing well with a lot of majors lined up for the summer.”

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.