NTO champ Watson grateful for his blessings

By Randall MellFebruary 17, 2014, 2:18 am

LOS ANGELES – Bubba Watson couldn’t help himself in the end.

After seizing the Northern Trust Open by the throat in a spectacular display of weekend shot-making, Watson was closing out his first victory since winning the Masters two years ago in very un-Bubba-like fashion.

The guy who gets himself around with a hot pink driver, the General Lee car from Dukes of Hazzard fame and sometimes a Hovercraft golf cart was driving the speed limit coming home Sunday at historic Riviera.

The guy who won that Masters in spectacular fashion with a giant, hooking escape shot out of the trees in a playoff seemed determined to close out his fifth PGA Tour title with the kind of buttoned-up golf that would make a corporate banker proud.

He was closing out with an impressive run of pars at the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th holes.

In the end, though, Watson couldn’t help putting his signature flair on this win, too.

He did it without even trying.

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With Dustin Johnson waiting to see if a playoff might be in the making, Watson stuffed a wedge to 14 feet at the 18th hole. And then Watson buried the birdie putt, securing a two-shot win that ignited a roar through the gallery gathered under the picturesque Riviera clubhouse.

“I wasn’t even trying to make the putt, to be honest,” Watson said. “I was just trying to lag it in there so I could tap it in. Somehow, it fell in.”

Of course it did.

Watson was spectacular all weekend, shooting a pair of 64s without making a single bogey. Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Lanny Wadkins have all won at Riviera, but none of them closed out with a better weekend.

Watson’s birdie at the last was a fitting exclamation point.

“I love this place, this course,” Watson said. “The history behind this tournament, the people who’ve played in this tournament. It’s incredible. For me to be a part of this now is amazing.”

Who could have seen this coming?

Watson, 35, may love Riviera, but his record here wasn’t very good coming into this week. He didn’t make the cut three of the last four times he teed it up here.

This week didn’t start very well, either. Watson made double bogey at his first hole (No. 10) on Thursday and then double bogeyed his third hole in the first round, too. He made another double bogey in the second round.

Somehow, some way, Watson put it all together on the weekend. His 64 was the best closing round by a winner at Riviera since Doug Tewell closed with a 63 in 1986. There is no record of a better weekend finish than Watson’s pair of 64s.

“He played awesome,” said Brian Harman, who tied for third playing alongside Watson. “He hits it far, and that’s a big advantage around this place. The greens were firm, and he hits his irons farther and higher and that’s a huge advantage.”

Watson wasn’t just Bubba long. He was long and straight.

Watson led the field in driving distance (318.5 yards per drive), but, more remarkably, he was eighth in driving accuracy. He was third in greens in regulation and seventh in total putting.

All of that helped Watson break through to win for the first time since the Masters almost two years ago. He said that drought wasn’t really on his mind.

“I never felt down that I hadn’t won yet, but just kept plugging along,” Watson said. “Somehow it fell in my lap.”

Watson said he might have pouted a little bit after failing to close out the Waste Management Phoenix Open in his last start two weeks ago, but he was over that, too. He wasn’t dwelling on losing a two-shot lead there in the final round with a bogey at the last.

“Me and my caddie are calling this a year about rejoicing, thinking back on how blessed we are to play the PGA Tour, how blessed we are to have a chance to win trophies, win big checks,” Watson said.

Watson was counting those blessings with his wife, Angie, and his young son, Caleb, at his side in the end. It’s the first time his son has been at a tournament Watson won.

“What an honor, what a privilege, what a blessing,” Watson said.

What a spectacular weekend Watson delivered.

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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.

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.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.