Classic Sunday shaping up amid messy circumstances

By Rex HoggardJune 21, 2015, 4:05 am

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – If not for a 54-hole leaderboard that touches on all the right notes, the 115th U.S. Open would be in danger of giving the Evergreen State a dusty yellow eye.

Players have groused, quietly at first but at an increasingly more vocal pace in recent days; legends have lambasted the faux links land; fans have lampooned the layout’s restricted access and even viewers across the globe have balked at Chambers Bay’s crusty curves and brownish hue.

But through it all, through the building crescendo over the increasingly poor condition of some greens and even a chorus of safety concerns as players and fans attempt to navigate the rugged terrain, the old sand quarry has risen above the din of criticism to produce all of the essential elements of a classic final round.

It’s part and parcel of Chambers Bay that the same rough edges that have drawn so much scrutiny are the same elements of the Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that sifted through 156 players and left us with the high-profile likes of Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day all tied atop the leaderboard at 4 under par and vying for Sunday’s title.

Full-field scores: 115th U.S. Open

Consider that Spieth and Patrick Reed stepped to the second tee on Saturday tied for the lead and walked off the green 15 minutes later separated by three shots following a 40-footer for birdie by the Masters champion and a messy double bogey by Reed.

Similarly, Spieth drifted back to the pack after going bogey-bogey at Nos. 4 and 5, all in a Tacoma minute. But that’s the way things roll at Chambers Bay, where danger and discontent loom around every dusty hump and hill.

“‘Appalled’, was the word I used,” said Spieth (71) when asked his reaction after missing the fairway at the par-4 eighth hole. “I couldn't have hit a better tee shot. I thought my ball was in the middle of the fairway. And then I’m in the rough and there was a clump of grass behind it. This is a joke.”

On Sunday, Gary Player said this championship was the most “unpleasant” he’d ever seen, and this is a man who once won a U.S. Open (1965) without ever breaking par in a single round.

The cascade of criticism has ranged from the USGA’s decision to swap par on the first and 18th holes this week to greens that Henrik Stenson said were akin to putting on broccoli.

“I don't think they're as green as broccoli,” said Rory McIlroy following a third-round 70. “I think they're more like cauliflower.”

In simplest terms, a handful of the fescue greens have been infested with poa annua, considered by many a Tour type a West Coast weed, leaving unreliable, and by some accounts unacceptable, putting surfaces.

Those agronomic issues have been compounded by USGA executive director Mike Davis’ insistence on pushing the set-up envelope this week, playing a dramatic game of roulette with vastly different teeing grounds and a sliding par on the first and closing holes.

At the beginning of the week, Spieth figured it was just Davis’ attempt to “get inside our heads,” and after three demanding days it seems the executive has set up shop in the field’s collective consciousness.

As a result of all that creativity, however contrived some believe it to be, Davis seems to have lost the locker room this week, with player concerns slowly building along with the temperature and winds along the Puget Sound.

“Most players are a bit too afraid to say what they think, we’re living in a politically correct world where people can’t voice their opinions, but I think if we had a hidden microphone and camera in the locker room you’d hear a few things that you’re not hearing in public,” Lee Westwood said.

The result has been the most contentious U.S. Open since officials were forced to nurse some of Shinnecock Hills’ greens back to life midway through the final round at the 2004 championship.

With apologies to Day, who collapsed on Friday with what was diagnosed as benign positional vertigo yet produced an inspiring performance on Saturday (68) to move into a share of the lead, Chambers Bay is not for the faint of heart.

Nor is it for a player who is not 100 percent, which Day certainly was not on Saturday on his way to an inward loop of 31.

“I said to him on [No.] 18, ‘That is the greatest round of golf I’ve ever watched.’ It was a superhuman effort,” said Day’s caddie and swing coach Colin Swatton. “I said to him after the round that they might make a movie about that round. It’s up there with Tiger Woods playing with a broken leg at the [2008] U.S. Open.”

Day will set out on Sunday in the anchor group with Johnson – who is an equally compelling story but for drastically different reasons following his self-induced hiatus from the game earlier this season – preceded by Brenden Grace and Spieth, who will be vying to become just the sixth player to win the first two legs of the single-season Grand Slam following his triumph in April at the Masters.

White dots were needed this week to define where greens end and fairways begin at Chambers Bay, and while many in the field appear on the brink of waving the metaphorical white flag, it’s just as telling that the layout has produced a foundation for what is shaping up to be an unforgettable Sunday.

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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.