Tiger-esque: Day adds Players title to dominant run

By Randall MellMay 16, 2016, 1:26 am

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There was a time players trying to close out a victory didn’t want Tiger Woods in their heads.

They didn’t want him trashing things in there, rattling focus, smashing confidence and busting up their plans to win a trophy.

Tiger is in Jason Day’s head now, but this Tiger, the circa-2016 Tiger, is a welcome guest.

For Day, having his idol as a mentor is a good thing, but not so much for all those players Day is learning to beat with regularity.

With his four-shot victory Sunday at The Players Championship, Day has now won seven of his last 17 PGA Tour starts. Three of those were wire to wire, including this week’s virtuoso performance at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. Day showed the growing versatility of his game this past week, navigating through changing conditions so extreme it seemed as if he won on two entirely different golf courses.

Day, 28, won pounding driver and attacking flagsticks in a record assault on a soft course over the first two days. He won tying the course record with a 63 on his way to setting the 36-hole scoring record of 14 under. And he won scrambling on the weekend, holing one clutch putt after another to save important pars as the course grew firmer, faster and more severe.

In the end, Day led the field in both driving distance (311.6 yards per drive) and scrambling.

That’s seven titles over the last nine months for Day, five more victories than Jordan Spieth and Adam Scott, the only other players to win more than one PGA Tour start over that span.

“Well, that's Tiger-esque, that kind of a run,” said Scott, a fellow Aussie. “I try to imagine how good Tiger felt playing five years into his pro career and having won 50 events. Imagine how you'd feel confidence-wise?

“Jason must be feeling something like that at the moment. That’s an incredibly nice way to walk out on the golf course, and you can see it with Jason.”

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Scott played a practice round with Day this week.

“You can see there's that calmness inside him, calm confidence,” Scott said. “The way he's walking around, he's got that kind of unbeatable look about him.”

Colin Swatton, Day’s caddie and swing coach, said he isn’t privy to what insights Woods may be passing along to Day, but he sees real benefits showing up in Day’s game. He says the benefits are intangible, things you can’t necessarily define.

“I’ve definitely seen a change, not necessarily in how Jason plays, or how he goes about his business, but I definitely see a little bit more trust and belief in himself,” Swatton said. “I can see a lot more confidence, and that’s a very, very hard thing to get, especially if winning would make you confident, but it doesn’t always do that. I guess Tiger’s a very, very good person to go to. He’s arguably the best player in the world, and that has been my advice to Jason in the past, to lean on people who can make you better. I definitely think Tiger can do that.”

Day didn’t look so confident on the front nine Sunday, where his ball striking wasn’t crisp. He hit just three fairways on the front nine and just three greens in regulation and didn’t make a single birdie.

At the ninth, Day looked like he might be channeling the wrong Tiger Woods, when he chunked and fluffed three consecutive chips from the greenside rough. Day took three swipes to advance his ball 25 feet to the green.

“Felt like an amateur chopping my way to the pin,” Day said.

Day holed a 6-foot putt for bogey there. He called that putt the most important shot of his round because a miss would have shrunk his lead to a single shot.

“If I walk away with double bogey, I let in everyone in the field,” Day said. “That gives them a boost of energy.”

Day said the putt settled him down and helped him close hard on the back nine. He made his first birdie of the day at the 10th and didn’t give the field another opening. He refused to beat himself, closing with a bogey-free 33 on the back side.

That finishing flourish, it was as if Day wanted to impress Tiger.

“I don't know Tiger’s record for closing 54-hole leads out, but I think it's very high,” Day said. “I think he's only lost maybe one or so.”

Actually, Woods has held the 54-hole lead in 45 PGA Tour events and closed 43 of them.

Day said Woods offers him more than generous advice in their texts and phone calls. Woods motivates him to keep strengthening his hold on the world No. 1 ranking. Day widened his gap over No. 2 Jordan Spieth while extending his run atop the rankings to eight consecutive weeks.

“Tiger says he's going to kick my butt when he comes back, so I'm going to try and extend that gap, so if he does come back and he has turned into Tiger Woods again ... I've got to kind of watch my behind,” Day said. “Yeah, that's the main goal and main reason why I'm trying to extend that lead, so that I stay on top.”

Day isn’t the first player of this generation to connect with Woods, but he’s the first to parlay Woods’ reservoir of knowledge into something Tiger-esque.

Woods’ influence on Day can be overstated. Day is his own man. He plays his own game. He carries the No. 1 ranking his own way, with refreshing candor and openness. He’s different in Tiger in so many ways, and yet Tiger is the model of excellence that continues to shape Day’s dreams.

Day’s thinking big now. He said this victory was important to him because of its Hall of Fame ramifications. He says he’s burning with ambition.

“I look at that 10 PGA Tour wins, and I say to myself, `That’s not enough,’ and it isn't enough for me,” Day said. “It's just 10. I want more than 10.

“I look at Tiger, and he's got 79, or whatever it is, and Phil [Mickelson] is up there. I'm like, `OK, I want to be looked back on as one of the greats in the game.’ I'm going to try my best. I have the opportunity to do that right now, to try and work as hard as I can to really leave my footprint in this game, that has given me so much.”

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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.