Pursuit of No. 1 unites new Big 3

By Randall MellSeptember 3, 2015, 7:52 pm

They are from such different parts of the world.

There’s the Ulsterman, Rory McIlroy, and the Texan, Jordan Spieth, and the Australian, Jason Day.

They speak with distinctly different accents from cultures with such different views of the world, and yet they’re alike in so many ways.

These three young stars atop the world of golf share a charm, an eloquence and an openness that make the game feel accessible in ways it hasn’t since Arnold Palmer ruled over it. They’re Palmer-esque in so many ways.

Day, 27, feels that in the youthful energy running through the top of the sport.

“I think it’s kind of refreshing for the game of golf right now,” Day said Thursday at the Deutsche Bank Championship. “The kids these days, especially Jordan, Rory and Rickie [Fowler], it’s a very approachable group of kids, who you can easily be fans of.

“I feel like back in the days 10 or 15 years ago, it was harder to approach the top players in the world. For me to be able to be in that trio, it’s neat.”

McIlroy, Spieth and Day may share a certain charm, but it’s another quality that is driving their names together.


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They share an ambition that belies their generous dispositions. They share an ambition that doesn’t want to share this grand stage in golf at all. Day will tell you this in the same breath he shares his admiration for his rivals. He wants to rule more than he wants to share.

“I want to be on top of the trio,” Day said. “That’s what I’m shooting for. It’s going to be tough for me to do that, but it’s going to be a lot of fun trying to top those guys.”

We heard McIlroy, 26, and Spieth, 22, present the same bold desires in the same gentlemanly language.

“Golf is in a cool place right now with young guys who aren’t afraid to win,” Spieth said.

McIlroy returned to No. 1 in the world rankings this week, with Spieth falling back to No. 2 and Day holding firm at No. 3.

They’re here at TPC Boston, though, to take what the others covet most.

They’re here to plunder trophies, FedEx Cup points, money and rankings.

“No. 1 is my No. 1 priority in life,” Day said of his career goals. “Rory and Jordan are the two I’m shooting for. I’m just a little bit behind them. It makes me hungry to try and go catch them.”

Spieth said Day is probably already the real No. 1 in the game, given his current form. Day is looking this week to win for the fourth time in his last five starts. Spieth is enjoying a terrific year, too. He won the Masters and the U.S. Open and was in the hunt until the end of the Open Championship and the PGA Championship.

McIlroy, who missed much of the summer with an ankle injury, won the last two majors of last year.

Together, this trio has combined to win five of the last six majors.

“Seeing Jordan and Jason being in contention so much over the summer, definitely it's motivation for me to get out there and try to play the best that I can,” McIlroy said. “I'm with those guys for a little bit, and I'll obviously try to surpass them.”

McIlroy said one of his goals this year was to build his world ranking average to further separate himself from challengers.

“The guys are coming at me,” McIlroy said. “I don't mind being in this position. It's a good thing. It makes it competitive. It gives you guys a great narrative to run with. I'm just enjoying being part of that conversation.”

Last week, Spieth downplayed giving the No. 1 ranking back to McIlroy, but he acknowledged Thursday he didn’t part with it as well as he made it appear.

“It stinks to lose that position, it really does,” Spieth said.

Spieth finds the Big Three talk motivational.

“It's enjoyable,” he said. “It was the Big One. And after the Masters, it was the Big Two. And Rickie won The Players, and then it was the Big Three. The U.S. Open happened, and it was the Big Two again. And Jason won three out of four weeks, and it was the Big Three again. I just hope I stay in the `Big’ moment, whenever it changes next. I hope I'm the one staying in that space.”

Or, preferably, atop that space.

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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.