Cut Line: Doubling down in the desert

By Rex HoggardJanuary 30, 2015, 9:32 pm

With all eyes on Arizona for this week’s Super Bowl, the Waste Management Phoenix Open proves to be a compelling prelude with or without Tiger Woods, while Robert Allenby pines for answers ... just not from the media.

Made Cut

Super stop. Perhaps the “greatest show on grass” isn’t your brand of vodka, but there is no denying the reach of this week’s stop at TPC Scottsdale.

In tandem with Sunday’s Super Bowl, which will be played about 30 miles down the road at the University of Phoenix Stadium, the event finds itself at the epicenter of the sports universe.

The convergence of Sunday’s big game with Tiger Woods' and Phil Mickelson’s presence in the field was expected to generate record attendance at an event that rarely struggles to fill seats.

For a sport that largely tries to avoid the vast shadow cast by the NFL, the week’s festivities are a perfect combination of sport and entertainment.

Captain curiosity. While the PGA of America still appears a few meetings shy of naming the 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, the race for the ’16 European captain’s chair also seems to be heating up.

While Darren Clarke appeared to be the front-runner for next year’s matches, word surfaced last week from the Continent that Miguel Angel Jimenez is mounting a late charge.

“At the moment it would look as if it’s down to two of us, between Miguel and myself,” Clark told the Irish Golf Desk. “I’m sure whoever the committee decides will do a great job.”

There had been some who considered Jimenez’s limited English a liability, but it seems the selection committee has other ideas.

Cut Line doesn’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but just imagine how entertaining the matches will be with Jimenez on one sideline and Fred Couples on the other –  cigars and Merlot for everyone.

Tweet of the week: @RyanPalmerPGA (Ryan Palmer) “Ready for a fun day (at the Waste Management Phoenix Open). Twelve lucky fans on 16 get a beer on me today. Yes, ball wrapped in a $10 bill.”

For his effort Palmer enjoyed a bit of good karma, opening his week with a 64 for the first-round lead.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

The cost of justice. Rory McIlroy has tried to sidestep inevitable questions about his upcoming trial against his former manager, but this week in Dubai the world No. 1 conceded that the proceedings are taking a toll.

“It’s not something that I would want anyone to go through,” McIlroy said. “It’s a very sort of tedious and nasty process ... Yeah, look, I’m going to be heading to the States regardless with it off my mind and not having to deal with it or think about it. That will be it.”

For McIlroy this is a principled stand, but at what cost? He may save himself millions of dollars in commission fees but if he costs himself a green jacket will it have been worth it?

Tiger 4.0h! It’s too early to draw any real conclusions. It certainly seems a tad premature to use the “Y” word (yips), yet that was the consensus among many observers after Woods posted his worst round as a professional (82) and missed the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open on Friday.

Like at December’s Hero World Challenge, Woods’ short game was wildly substandard in his first official Tour start under the Chris Como program. While his ball-striking, and particularly his increased swing speed, was encouraging, there is no way to sugar-coat an 82 that left the former world No. 1 last in the field of 132 players.

Despite his pedestrian start to the Como era, it’s still best to avoid snap judgments. Golf is, after all, a game that defies instant analysis; but a few more weeks like this and Como will discover that some honeymoons can be surprisingly short.

Tweet of the week II: @KyleThompsonPGA (Kyle Thompson) “I battled the putting yips in 2012 on the PGA Tour and understand what Tiger is facing. It’s not something I’d wish upon my worst enemy.”

Missed Cut

Robert Allenby. The Australian returned to action this week at TPC Scottsdale and promptly called his own news conference to ask the media to let investigators do their job unraveling an incident that occurred on Jan. 16. Never mind that it was an incident he promptly told the world about via the media on Jan. 18.

“I understand the way the media works,” Allenby said on Tuesday. “You know, at the end of the day, what's happened has happened. The police will come out with the right story, so please, let them do their job, don't get in the way of them, and everything will be great.”

The Australian was angry with the media for attempting to unravel what happened during his harrowing 2 1/2-hour odyssey on Jan. 16 in Honolulu, when he told police he was kidnapped, robbed, beaten and thrown from the trunk of a car.

“What has been blown out of proportion a little bit is I was a victim, and all of a sudden you're putting all the blame on me,” he said.

Allenby is correct, he is a victim. Someone took his wallet, and phone, and has run up some $25,000 in fraudulent charges, according to Allenby. The rest of his story remains a mystery that Allenby, of all people, should want unraveled regardless of who is piecing the night together.

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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.