Cut Line: Big comings and goings this week

By Rex HoggardJuly 31, 2015, 11:15 pm

GAINESVILLE, Va. – The good news for Tiger Woods: He opened with rounds of 68-66 to put himself into contention at the Quicken Loans National. The bad news: If he were to win at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club it wouldn’t be enough to move him into the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking because of a relatively weak field.

The host with the most headlines this week’s Cut Line.

Made Cut

The power of patience. For months Woods has told anyone who would ask that the “process” was coming along. That the new “baseline shift” was still a work in progress.

For the majority of two days at the Quicken Loans National it appears Tiger finally may have reached that tipping point between progress and good play.

For the second time in his last three starts Woods pieced together back-to-back sub-70 rounds to move into contention at his own event and open the possibility that 2015 may not be another lost season.

“It takes a little time sometimes and you have to be patient with it and I know what I’m doing out there,” said Woods, whose second-round 66 moved him to within three strokes of the lead. “People want the immediate fix, the one tip that’s going to work for the rest of their life. It doesn’t work that way.”

Woods bristled at the notion that his two-round total of 8 under is an indication that he’s back. Maybe not, but he’s certainly better.

All for one. In the hyper-competitive world of professional golf it’s often easy to overlook the fact that being fair is just as important as being first.

Consider the plight of Sangmoon Bae, the 29-year-old two-time PGA Tour winner who was ordered back home to South Korea when a court denied his request to defer his mandatory military service last week.

In response to Bae’s plight, the Tour policy board on Monday approved an adjustment to its regulations that will now treat mandatory military service similar to the way medical exemptions are handled when it comes to future status.

The new Tour provision will give commissioner Tim Finchem the discretion to grant an eligibility extension for a “mandatory obligation,” like military service or religious obligation, which will assure that Bae will have status when he returns from his 21 months in the South Korean military.

“It makes sense given anyone’s situation,” said Jason Bohn, one of four player directors on the policy board who approved the adjustment to the Tour’s policy. “He has no control over the situation he has been put in and I think looking out for PGA Tour members is a good thing.”

Tweet of the week: @skovy14 (Rickie Fowler’s caddie Joe Skovron): “Just gave him the yardage and got out of the way.”

Skovron was referring to Fowler’s hole-in-one on the par-3 ninth hole on Thursday at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club. For the record it was a “choked down 7-iron” for Fowler’s second ace on Tour. As an added benefit, The Players champion sent a few cases of beer to the media center to celebrate. Have to give him credit, he knows his audience.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

An unscheduled stop. On Thursday the Tour released its 2015-16 schedule, a 47-event mass of moving parts due to golf’s return to the Olympics next year.

While everyone knew next year’s schedule was going to be different, even difficult for some, seeing it on paper was certainly an eye-opening experience.

Among the post-U.S. Open moving parts will be the Travelers Championship, which was moved from the week after the U.S. Open in June to the week after the PGA Championship in July; and the John Deere Classic, which will be played the same week as the men’s Olympic tournament in Rio in August.

For many tournaments the moves were less than ideal but the Tour made sure to lay the groundwork for the impending changes early and explain the importance of golf’s return to the Olympics.

“When we started talking about this to the Tour everybody bought in that the Olympics were going to grow the game and everybody was on the same page,” said Travelers Championship tournament director Nathan Grube.

Everyone, it seems, is rowing in the same metaphorical direction for the 2016 Games, but quietly some are hoping the waters aren’t quite as choppy when golf again finds itself in the Olympics in 2020.

Tough choices. It’s a crowded schedule for Tour players and you can’t compete in every event, but given Woods’ significance to the game it is surprising to see the relatively weak field assembled this week for Tiger’s Quicken Loans National.

Sunday’s winner at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club will receive 34 world ranking points, well below the norm for the event and squarely in the bottom half of Tour events.

Of the 36 stand-alone Tour events that have been played this season only one, the John Deere Classic (30), awarded fewer points to the champion.

The calendar has not been kind to the Quicken Loans and this year’s move to Robert Trent Jones likely didn’t help attract a better field, but the host deserves better.

Missed Cut

Being The Don. Whether you agree with his politics doesn’t matter, Donald Trump’s circus-like appearance on Thursday at the Women’s British Open was ill-advised.

Presidential politics can be an unsavory business and Trump has certainly added to that reality during his bid for the White House, which makes his cameo at Turnberry, which he owns and is the site of this week’s Open, perplexing.

Trump spent a small fortune to purchase the iconic seaside layout and he certainly has a vested interest in the success of this week’s championship.

“Everyone’s asking me to be here,” Trump said. “The tour has asked me. The world’s asked me to be here, and I have a big stake in this land.”

But given his polarizing nature and how his recent remarks regarding immigration have caused such a stir in golf it was an easily avoidable distraction.

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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.