Tseng, Garcia battling inner demons on the course

By Randall MellSeptember 4, 2013, 2:24 pm

They grapple more openly with their demon doubts.

They make public confessions about the battles waged between their ears more than most professional golfers dare.

Sergio Garcia and Yani Tseng are such different personalities, but they are so much alike in how they will bare their souls to the world in sharing their struggles. Whether you’re endeared to the honesty, or think it weakness, there’s no denying we’re more intimately connected to the kind of struggle the game presents its top players because these two have intimately connected us.

They let us into their pressure-packed worlds between the ropes in ways we don’t normally have access.

They make winning and losing more visceral, maybe even more human to the rest of us.

That’s why there was something so compelling in the way the stars were aligned over golf last week.

Garcia and Tseng were linked to the same disappointing fate. Though they played on opposite coasts, some 3,000 miles apart, they endured the same agonizing experience. They blew chances to win. They took 54-hole leads into the final round and collapsed.

Their demons beat them.

That’s the thing about both of their losses. Garcia and Tseng didn’t look like they got beat so much as they beat themselves. That’s not to take anything away from winners Henrik Stenson and Suzann Pettersen. It’s just that Garcia and Tseng never gave themselves a chance with their wayward final-round starts.

It was gut-wrenching, because they both looked so poised to break out of funks.

First, on Sunday at the Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore., Tseng, 24, looked shaky from the start. She made double bogey at the second hole, then bogey at the third and another bogey at the fourth. A day after shooting 63 to take a three-shot lead, the former Rolex world No. 1 stumbled to a 78.

Tseng’s winless spell now stretches over 37 LPGA events.

Then, on Monday at the Deutsche Bank Championship, Garcia, 33, was doomed by his own shaky start. He bogeyed the second hole, the fourth and made the turn in 3 over for the round. He was never a factor with players going low on the soft TPC Boston setup. He shot 73. Nobody who finished T-35 or better shot a higher score in the final round.

Garcia hasn’t been the same since he got himself in trouble with his racial crack about Tiger Woods in late spring. He made the remark after tying for eighth at The Players Championship in May, and hasn’t been a factor in an event since, not until Boston.

“I just wasn’t comfortable,” Garcia said of his Monday stumble “I just wasn’t able to trust myself as I did the first few days. It was hard, but I tried.”

It was difficult to watch, because Garcia looked so ready to win after shooting 65, 64 and 65 in the first three rounds. Same with Tseng, who shot 67 and 68 before her 63 leading into the final round.

In so many ways, these two players wear their hearts on their sleeves. There’s no hiding what they’re feeling. It makes them both fun to watch when they’re at their best, but almost as compelling when they’re struggling. They are like open books, easy to read, their body language so colorfully articulating what their hearts are filled with.

And that’s really the question looming over their games in the wake of their final-round failures. What are their hearts filled with these days? The promise that came in the way they got themselves into contention? Or the self-loathing that can come with blowing a chance?

Tseng’s heart took a beating in her slump and free fall in the world rankings. She confessed early this year that the pressure to meet expectations as the Rolex world No. 1 overwhelmed her. She said the criticism and second guessing when she began to swoon hurt her.

“Everybody wants to be No. 1, but nobody understands how hard it is,” she said earlier this year. “I looked at the media, what fans were saying, and it drove me crazy.”

Back in April at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup, on the night before Stacy Lewis ended Tseng’s 109-week run at No. 1, Tseng confessed she welcomed shedding the burdens that go with the top ranking.

“It will be a good release for me,” Tseng said back then.

In Portland last weekend, Tseng was asked about the challenge of shaking her slump.

“It’s a really long story,” Tseng said. “I go through a lot of things, and my life has been really tough. It’s not just about golf.”

Garcia told the whole world back in ’09 that his heart was broken by his breakup with Greg Norman’s daughter, Morgan-Leigh. His game swooned so much that he announced he was taking a break from the sport and didn’t play in the Ryder Cup in 2010.

At the Masters last year, Garcia’s frustration in failing to win a major got the best of him when he shot himself out of contention in the third round at Augusta National.

“I’m not good enough,” he famously said. “I don’t have the thing I need to have. The conclusion is I need to play for second or third place.”

It was a low moment, but the words have dogged him because they so powerfully revealed the nature of the demon doubts that challenge him.

You’ll hear golfers talk about how winning is often about a player’s ability to get out of his own way. Nobody embodies that more than Garcia and Tseng these days. They seemed to get in their own way in those final-round failures, blocking and frustrating themselves.

Winning, of course, is tough at the highest levels. There’s ridiculously so much more losing than winning in golf. It has to be the sport with the most scarred athletes, albeit scars you can’t see.

The game beats players up, but Garcia and Tseng are still in there fighting, looking to beat their demons as soundly as they beat fellow competitors. They manage to make that fight more meaningful in the way they’ve drawn us into the struggle with them.

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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.