Rory tops Tiger, rolls to Honda title and No.1 ranking

By Randall MellMarch 5, 2012, 1:07 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy didn’t blink.

He didn’t flinch.

He wouldn’t be wobbled, staggered or even distracted in his bid to win the Honda Classic on his way to seizing the world’s No. 1 ranking. That was half the twin marvel this thrilling Sunday finish gave us at PGA National.

It was Tiger Woods making like the champ of old, finding his lost powers in a brilliant charge, and it was McIlroy refusing to get out of his way.

A terrific start to the PGA Tour season just keeps getting better.

This Sunday finish gave us the rise of a new No. 1, a 22-year-old wonder boy from Northern Ireland who looks determined to claim a new era as his own.

It also gave us the promise of the return of Tiger.

That’s one hell of a 1-2 Sunday punch.

That raises the grand possibility that the game may be racing to exhilarating new heights again.

With McIlroy’s rise, with Woods’ return, the game crackles with the prospect that the best rivalry since Jack Nicklaus met Arnold Palmer is about to be fully engaged. Rory vs. Tiger. After what we saw Sunday, it’s more than wishful thinking. It’s a formula packed with the power to jolt another new wave of interest in the game.

“I think it’s great for golf,” McIlroy said. “It creates a lot of interest, and I’d love to be able to go down the stretch like that with him there a lot more.”

If Woods is regaining lost powers, and he sure looked like it with Sunday’s 8-under-par 62, his best final round in a PGA Tour event, then his dream of breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record for major championship triumphs is renewed. The question, though, will be whether Woods can get through McIlroy to claim his life’s ambition.

Woods sent a message this day with the way he closed, with the way he carved that clutch 5-iron from 206 yards to the foot of the 18th flagstick. The grounds quaked when Woods holed the eagle putt. Nine shots back at day’s start, he thrilled the giant galleries, improbably pulling within one shot.

Those Sunday failures at Pebble Beach, where Phil Mickelson whipped Woods in the final round, and at Abu Dhabi, where a guy named Robert Rock beat Woods head-to-head in a final-round pairing, now were distant memories.

Ernie Els, playing alongside Woods, saw a scary possibility Sunday.

“The old Tiger is back, the guy I remember, the guy I used to finish second to a lot,” Els said. “It was him again.”

The Tiger of old, though, didn’t have McIlroy to contend with.

At 22 years and 10 months, McIlroy is the second-youngest player to ascend to No. 1 in the world, second to Woods, who was 21.

“Tiger is back doing only the outrageous things Tiger can do,” Graeme Mcdowell said.

In almost the same breath, McDowell laid out the challenge for Woods.

“Rory is the best player I’ve ever seen, tee to green, period,” said McDowell, who also hails from Northern Ireland. “I didn’t have a chance to play with Tiger in the mid-2000s, when Tiger was the man, but Rory McIlroy is the best player I’ve ever seen.

“Rory is about to become the world No. 1, and he’s going to win multiple, multiple majors.”

If Woods keeps getting his mojo back, McIlroy will be heavily challenged to do that.

“I felt like I was close,” Woods said. “I’ve been close to shooting this score, or scores like this. It was just a matter of time until things all fell in place.”

Woods’ balky putter looked refortified in this bogey-free round. He needed just 11 putts on the back nine. He had seven one-putts back there. He had a pair of eagles on the day.

McIlroy’s putter was just as golden. He nervelessly holed one testy par save after another to preserve his lead along the front nine.

With Woods charging, McIlroy impressed with his refusal to flinch. Notably, McIlroy was looking over an 8-foot putt for birdie back at the 13th hole when he heard the explosion Woods detonated with his eagle at the finish. McIlroy didn’t have to see a leaderboard to know what happened. He knew Woods was within a shot of him.

“I wasn’t really paying much attention until he made that eagle on 18,” McIlroy said. “I heard the huge roar. It definitely wasn’t a birdie roar.”

McIlroy confidently rammed in his birdie putt to go back up by two.

It wasn’t the first answer McIlroy had to Woods’ charge.

At the eighth green, McIlroy got his first glimpse of Sunday’s leaderboard. He took a long, hard look there. It showed Woods charging. It showed Woods sitting in a tie for fourth.

McIlroy moved over a 10-foot birdie putt there and holed it.

“When I’m firing on all cylinders, I feel like I’m hard to beat,” McIlroy said. “I still feel like I can play better than what I did this week.”

Woods is likely thinking the same thing. Bring on the Masters.

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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.

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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.