Mickelson's road to title paved with challengers

By Randall MellJune 16, 2013, 2:01 am

ARDMORE, Pa. – Hold on to your wicker baskets.

If Phil Mickelson is going to win Sunday at Merion Golf Club, he will have to hold off a bunch of challengers as hungry to win their first major championship as Mickelson is to finally win his first U.S. Open.

Mickelson takes more than a one-shot lead into the final round. He takes the advantage of knowing he has withstood major championship pressure before and prevailed. Four times, he has won majors. It’s a substantial edge given so many of his closest pursuers have never won one.

Charl Schwartzel is the only other contender among the top 15 on the leaderboard who knows what it takes to win a major. Schwartzel’s lone major was the Masters two years ago.

While there’s a staggering lack of major championship pedigree on the board, there is a load of proven winners.

Amateur Michael Kim is the only player among the top 10 who hasn’t won a PGA Tour event.

U.S. Open: Articles, videos and photos

“Given that I've had some past major championships, and some success here, I feel as well equipped as I could be heading into tomorrow's final round,” Mickelson said. “I think it's going to be fun.”

Sunday feels like Mickelson’s big day in so many ways. It’s Father’s Day, and he proved how meaningful that role is to him flying across the country so he could be there when his daughter, Amanda, gave an eighth-grade graduation speech. This act of fatherly love meant flying back from his California home in the middle of the night to make his Thursday morning tee time.

Sunday is also Mickelson’s 43rd birthday.

Mickelson, though, knows as well as anyone what heartbreak the U.S. Open can deliver with his five second-place finishes.

His major-less challengers should be bolstered knowing Adam Scott broke through to win his first major at the Masters in April. They’ll be looking to make this The Year of the Breakthrough in major championship golf. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a little streak of breakthroughs going in the U.S. Open. The last four U.S. Open champs were all first-time major championship winners.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Hunter Mahan, who will tee it up with Mickelson in Sunday’s final pairing just one shot off the lead. “It's going to be a very, very exciting finish, because I don't think any lead is safe.”

Mickelson isn’t the only player with a special story to tell if he wins.

Mahan, 31, carries so much promise as a five-time PGA Tour winner, but there’s also the scar from that Ryder Cup loss three years ago in Wales, the tear-filled aftermath with Mahan feeling like he let his fellow Americans down losing a vital singles match to Graeme McDowell. And then the sting of being left off the last American team with no chance to redeem himself at Medinah.

With a victory Sunday, Mahan would claim the grandest prize in U.S. golf.

“I feel like my game has been good for a while, and I felt like this course suits me pretty well,” Mahan said. “The U.S. Open does. I'm a good ball striker, and I’ve just got to get my short game a little bit better to kind of save those big up-and-downs and make those 6-, 8-footers for par. I felt like I did that today. It feels good to be in the hunt and be in contention.”

Steve Stricker is seeking to break through in the majors at 46. If he wins, he’ll surpass Hale Irwin as the oldest U.S. Open champion. Irwin was 45 when he won at Medinah in 1990. Stricker will play in the second-to-last pairing with Schwartzel. They’re both one shot behind Mickelson.

Winning would make for a special Father’s Day for Stricker, too. He significantly cut back his schedule this year so he could spend more time with his wife, Nicki, and their two daughters back in their Madison, Wis., home.

“It would mean a lot,” Stricker said. “It really would, but it's going to be a challenge tomorrow.

“A win, it would be unbelievable, but I'm not trying to think about that yet. I'm just trying to execute the shots that I know how to do, and take one shot at a time, and go from there.”

Luke Donald, 35, and Justin Rose, 32, will go off together two shots behind Mickelson. They’ve got a special mission. As fellow countrymen, they’re bidding to give England its first U.S. Open title since Tony Jacklin won in 1970, and its first major championship title since Nick Faldo won the Masters in 1996.

For Donald, winning a major adds legitimacy to his 56 weeks at No. 1. He never got the full respect he deserved carrying that ranking despite winning Player of the Year and money titles on both the PGA Tour and European Tour in 2011.

“When you look at Phil, he started winning majors around 34 or 35,” Donald said. “Of course, that’s my goal. I want to win majors. I got to No. 1 in the world, and I’ve won a great amount of tournaments around the world, but I would dearly love to win one of these.”

Rose is looking for the same validation as Donald.

“The next thing missing from the resume is a major now,” Rose said. “But I think that winning more is a big goal.”

Billy Horschel, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler are all looking to break through as 20somethings. Horschel is 26, Day 25 and Fowler 24. Horschel starts Sunday two shots back alongside Day, who is three back. Fowler is four back in his pairing with the amateur, Kim, who is five back.

Mickelson wants his first U.S. Open title so much after so many close calls, there has to be the same kind of angst all these players feel seeking their first major.

“I don't think I feel any more pressure than anybody else who wants to win the tournament, a major championship, the U.S. Open,” Mickelson said. “But it would certainly mean a lot to me in this is a tournament where for years I've had opportunities, I've come close to. It would mean a lot tomorrow if I could play some of my best golf.”

Mickelson isn’t alone feeling that way.

Getty Images

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 right 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."

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.

Getty Images

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.''

Getty Images

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. 

Getty Images

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.