Cut Line: Follow along, if you can

By Rex HoggardApril 14, 2017, 4:36 pm

Sergio Garcia highlight’s this week’s edition with a victory at Augusta National that was long overdue, while those who have argued for a longer off-season probably won’t look forward to this fall’s abbreviated break.

Made Cut

Major inspiration. Few things in sports are celebrated as much as perseverance and Garcia’s breakthrough on Sunday at the Masters was the textbook example of tenacity.

He drove down Magnolia Lane last week 0-for-73 in major championships, had openly figured as recently as 2012 the best he could do at Augusta National was finish in the top 5 and had famously blamed the golf gods for his poor fortune in Grand Slam play.

Yet under the most intense pressure at the major that many believed to be the least-likely option for the sometimes putting-challenged Spaniard, he persevered to win his first.

In many ways, Garcia’s victory is something of a paradigm of hope for those with similarly pedestrian records in the majors.

“I was thinking about [Lee] Westwood as I watched and was thinking what this could do to his mentality?” Graeme McDowell said. “You see another guy do something, I wouldn’t be surprised if he won at Royal Birkdale [site of this year’s Open]. Just that little something that kicks off in the back of your brain – maybe we can do it.”

Imagine Garcia’s legacy if his Masters victory transforms the title “best player without a major” into a “next man up” mentality.

Tweet of the week:

Fowler’s tweet on Sunday held a little more meaning after he began the final round at the Masters a stroke off the lead but struggled to a closing 76 to tie for 11th place.

Fowler quickly rebounded from his tough closing round at Augusta National, tweeting two days later, “#SB2K17 is on!” Yes, the boys are back at tony Baker’s Bay in the Bahamas for another week of hijinks.

One PGA Tour player, who asked not to be identified, said he received an invitation to attend this year’s edition but would do so only if the crew put away their phones and stayed clear of social media. Luckily for those of us who live vicariously through the frolicking foursome’s annual spring break gathering that was never going to happen.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

Storm assessment. When Hilton Head Island, S.C., took a direct hit from Hurricane Matthew last October, officials initially worried that salt water from the storm surge would damage the 18th fairway, but it was the storm’s winds, which reportedly reached 90 mph, that caused the most damage at Harbour Town, site of this week’s RBC Heritage.

Harbour Town lost about 300 trees, which has ironically led to better turf quality and the best conditions many players have seen in years but has altered some of the playing characteristics of the iconic layout.

A large pine tree that used to loom about 50 yards short of the ninth green down the left side of the fairway was lost and a number of trees down the right side of the 10th fairway are now gone.

“At No. 10 you used to have to significantly hug that lake [down the left] to get to a back-right hole location and now I believe you can just bust driver down the right-hand side and hit it on the green,” said Jason Bohn after an opening-round 67. “Those are big differences.”

Although time will tell the actual impact of the lost trees, the par-4 ninth played to a 3.85 average on Day 1 and was the 14th toughest hole; while the par-4 10th had a 4.03 average and was the sixth toughest on Thursday. Both of those averages were higher than they were for Round 1 last year.

Augusta’s loss, Wells Fargo gain. Dustin Johnson’s 11th-hour withdrawal from last week’s Masters with an ailing back was certainly not a best-case scenario for either the world No. 1 or the year’s first major, but that episode has added a measure of excitement to next month’s Wells Fargo Championship.

Because this year’s PGA Championship will be played at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C., the Wells Fargo has relocated to a new venue in Wilmington, N.C., a logistical necessity that has had a negative impact on the field.

Earlier this week Johnson announced he plans to return to the Tour at the Wells Fargo, joining the likes of Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott, giving the event a much-needed boost.

Missed Cut

Out with the off-season. In recent years players, the press and fans have lamented the lack of any real off-season in golf with the introduction of the wrap-around schedule in 2014.

This might be tough to fathom, but there’s going to be even less time off this fall.

The Tour announced this week the dates for the CJ Cup, a limited-field event that will be played in South Korea. According to various sources and many tournaments’ own websites, the addition of the Asian event will shorten an already abbreviated off-season.

The last two years there have been two weeks between the Tour Championship in September and the start of the new season. But this fall there is only one week between seasons, with players going directly from East Lake to the Presidents Cup (Sept. 28-Oct. 1) followed by the season opener at the Safeway Open (Oct. 5-8).

From there the Tour will go to Asia for three events – CIMB Classic, CJ Cup and WGC-HSBC Champions – before returning to the United States to finish the year at the RSM Classic (Nov. 16-19).

Rumors of a dramatic schedule overhaul that would see the Tour season end on Labor Day continue to build. If the alternative is an off-season that spans the life expectancy of a mayfly those changes can’t get here soon enough.

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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.