Making a leap is goal of tightly packed leaderboard

By Randall MellApril 3, 2016, 2:56 am

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – So who is going to make the big splash on Sunday?

The candidates lining up for a chance to make the traditional leap into Poppie’s Pond intrigue with all their star power.

Lexi Thompson moved to the head of the line early Saturday evening with her brilliant finish at the ANA Inspiration, but she has a strong and deep cast of challengers to hold off.

Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko, In Gee Chun and Ariya Jutanugarn are each one-shot back. Ko, 18, and Chun, 21, are already major champions. Jutanugarn, 20, was a can’t-miss phenom until a shoulder injury derailed her three years ago, but she looks like she’s regaining the form and confidence that made her such a formidable newcomer.

Former world No. 1 Ai Miyazato and young English star Charley Hull are two shots back.

Major championship winners Michelle Wie, Suzann Pettersen and Hyo Joo Kim are among 15 players within four shots of the lead.

They all marched past Poppie’s Pond Saturday on the way to the 18th green wanting to make the leap on Sunday.

“The special thing about this event is that you get to jump in there, not only yourself, but with your team, with your parents, with the caddie,” Ko said. “It will be a jump that I would love to take. I don't know if that's tomorrow, or if it's ever going to happen, but if it does, I think it'll be a very special moment.”

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Chun, the reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion, grew up in South Korea on the other side of the world watching the Kraft Nabisco before it became the ANA.

“That small pond looks so attractive,” Chun said. “Before I finish my career, I definitely want to jump in there.”

If Hull wins, we might see the most memorable leap ever.

“I looked at it the other day, and it didn't look that deep to do a dive,” Hull said. “So, I thought `belly flop,’ leave a mark on my face.”

Thompson, 21, is seeking to win the ANA Inspiration for the second time in three years. She took a one-shot lead into Saturday, but her new red-hot Cure putter cooled in the middle of the round. She missed a 5-foot putt for birdie at the fifth, a 4-footer for par at the eighth, a 7-foot birdie chance at the ninth and an 8-footer for par at the 10th. She slipped three shots behind in that stretch only to seize the lead back with a bold, late blitz.

Thompson birdied the 15th and 16th holes and eagled the 18th. With the tees ups to 490 yards at the last, Thompson bombed her tee shot and then carved a 5-iron to 15 feet.

“I was hitting it well, just couldn't get the putts to drop,” Thompson said. “I was just putting a little timid but then hit a few good shots coming in, so I had a few short birdie putts. To knock it in on 18 is always the most amazing feeling here at the ANA.”

Thompson has been working on dealing with adversity in the game. She brought South Florida sports psychologist John Denney onto her team at the start of last year to help her.

“I knew it was something I needed to work on,” Thompson said. “I was just getting too down on myself, and I needed to be more positive out there. It was holding me back, so I needed help. Honestly, he has just helped me be more positive on and off the golf course and just realize that I'm blessed to be playing a game for a living that I truly love, and just to be grateful for my family, my fans and my friends and just enjoy life.”

Thompson showed a resolve on the back nine Saturday that should serve her well in her final pairing Sunday with Jutanugarn. Ko will be playing in the pairing right in front of Thompson. Last fall, Ko and Thompson played together in the final round of the Evian Championship, the last major in women’s golf. Ko became the youngest winner of a major (18 years, 4 months and 20 days old) there. She closed with a 63 and beat Thompson by six shots.

“I'm just trying to focus on my own game,” Thompson said. “All I can control is my attitude, my game on the golf course, and going into tomorrow I'm just going to have the same mindset, be positive, focus on doing my routine on every shot, take it slow, and just try to visualize my shots out there.”

The Dinah Shore Course at Mission Hills isn’t Evian Resort Golf Club. Thompson seems built for the course as the LPGA’s longest hitter this year, but this isn’t a two-woman showdown with so many players having a chance.

“There's so much history and tradition behind [this major],” Thompson said. “It’s always an honor to put your name on that trophy. But there's a lot of golf to be played, and you’ve just got to focus on your own game and see where it goes.”

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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.