Day still in search of that No. 1 magic

By Rex HoggardMarch 16, 2017, 8:14 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – When Jason Day arrived at Bay Hill to play last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, he was fielding a predictable set of questions.

What’s the state of your game?

How close are you?

Are you trending in the right direction?

It’s no real surprise that he’s heard many of the same questions this week following a similar start to his year. Before Bay Hill in 2016, the Australian had finished T-10, missed cut, T-11 and T-23. This year his road to Arnie’s place is virtually identical, with a T-12, missed cut, T-5 and T-64.

If you follow trends, you’d think Day could take some solace from those similar paths to Bay Hill, but you would be wrong.

“I came off a season [2015] that I won five times, I won a major championship, two wins in the playoffs,” he reasoned on Thursday after an opening 70 lifted him into a tie for second place. “I came here [this year] and I would say that I just don't quite have enough confidence in my swing right now.”

He went on to explain that his putting is close but not quite there either, and that he’s doing all the same things he did last year, and the years before that, but he’s still missing that crucial element that’s needed to separate himself from the rest of the field.

“I can tell you that I'm trying my best. Some years are going to be great and some years are going to be down and unfortunately that's just how it goes,” shrugged Day, who is all too aware that confusing results for the process can be an extremely dangerous slope.

Although Day’s health is always a point of concern, consider that in recent months he missed the 2016 Tour Championship (back injury) and the ’17 WGC-Mexico Championship (flu and double ear infection), his dedication and desire is beyond reproach. He’s driven to win, like most world-class players, but unlike many of his A-list frat brothers he’s also keen to reclaim the top spot in the World Golf Ranking that Dustin Johnson took from him last month.

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“Dustin is playing tremendous golf, Jordan [Spieth] is playing good golf, Rory [McIlroy] is obviously back from injury, so there's a ton of good golfers that are trying to get back to that spot and I'm trying to do the same,” Day said. “I just have to try and do my best to forget about what has happened in the past and just try and keep moving forward and do my best and get the process right.”

Day can’t overtake Johnson in the world math this week, but he can certainly make things more interesting next week at the WGC-Dell Match Play with another big week in central Florida. But then that wouldn’t be part of the process.

It may appear as if he’s at a similar crossroads this year at Bay Hill, but his outlook is distinctly subdued. Remember, after winning last year’s API, his first PGA Tour victory in Florida, he won his next start at the WGC-Match Play and The Players a month later. It was what we’ve come to expect from the 29-year-old, at least when he’s healthy.

His health may be contributing to his measured outlook on Day 1 at Bay Hill. Asked how his back was feeling, he joked, “I have the back of a 70-year-old.” But after teeing off early in blustery cold conditions the joke didn’t seem to cheer him up.

The nostalgia of this week may also be adding to his outlook. On Wednesday, Day spoke at length about winning last year’s stop at Bay Hill and his place in the record books following the passing of Arnold Palmer in September.

“Having the celebratory drink with him after the win last year, no one else gets to do that anymore and it's unfortunate, it's sad, but that is something that I'll hold very, very special in my heart, because I was the last guy to do it,” said Day, who led wire-to-wire last year at Bay Hill on his way to a one-stroke victory.

The similarities aside, the relatively identical records heading into the final Florida swing stop, the monotony of questions focused on all the familiar areas of interests – his health, his game, his focus – for Day it seems this year at Bay Hill simply feels different.

Not better or worse, just different.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.