Finally, nobody beats the Kiz

By Rex HoggardNovember 22, 2015, 11:09 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – It was only apropos that Kevin Kisner’s island hoping ended on a blustery Sunday at the RSM Classic.

It was on another island just up the coast from this week’s stop, Hilton Head, where his near-miss madness began, a series of close calls that appeared to reach a crescendo earlier this month when he finished two strokes outside the winner’s circle at the WGC-HSBC Champions.

Throughout it all he never wavered, never worried, never wondered if his time might never come. The way he figured it, the stars would align as long as he kept plodding along on the path he began two years ago with swing coach John Tillery.

When Jim Furyk beat him in a playoff at the RBC Heritage it was a sign his work was moving him in the right direction. When Rickie Fowler outdueled him in extra frames at The Players things appeared to have reached a new level, and when he closed with a 64 in July at the Greenbrier Classic but dropped another playoff to Danny Lee he maintained his resolve that an elusive first PGA Tour title was within reach.

But the WGC-HSBC Champions loss appeared to be a different animal after he began the final round with a share of the lead. Even the most self-confident player can succumb to the internal voices of doubt when faced with repeated negative feedback.

Not Kisner.

“I hadn't been in that position with that big of a lead. I was as jumpy or ready to go today,” said Kisner, who closed with weekend rounds of 64 at the RSM Classic for a tournament-record 22-under 260 total and a six-stroke victory.

“You know, only thing you can do is win or fail in that position. It’s hard to keep yourself not thinking what if it doesn't work out. So I just wanted to go out and make birdies early and try to keep playing the way I was playing.”

After The Players loss to Fowler, Kisner took solace in the notion that “one day I’m going to fall into one of these things,” but there was no such anti-climactic ending on Sunday.

After starting the final round three strokes clear of Kevin Chappell, Kisner birdied No. 2 from 6 feet, No. 4 from 10 feet, No. 5 from 15 feet, No. 8 from 7 feet and the ninth from 31 feet to turn with a touchdown advantage.

Kisner added an 8-foot par save at the par-5 seventh hole after finding the dunes with his second shot to total 83 feet of putts made for his first nine holes, nearly equaling his total for Saturday’s round.

There would be no cruise control, no playing defense after coming so close so many times this season. Kisner had watched enough players “win” tournaments this year to know better than to play not to lose.

“We were talking on the way home last night and he said, ‘It’s good I have that lead but I know how good these guys are,’” Tillery said. “He’d been here so many times and armored up with all those previous battles.”

Scar tissue can be a funny thing. While defeats are said to make one stronger there is always the possibility that continued failure can chip away at one’s confidence, but that was never an option for Kisner.

It never has been.

When Russell Henley was an 11-year-old attending the University of Georgia junior golf camp, Kisner, who was a freshman on the Bulldog team at the time, was his counselor.

“I remember him telling me, ‘You can’t play golf scared,’” Henley recalled. “I think ‘Kiz’ never has any regrets because he plays so aggressive all the time and just leaves everything out there.”

The best example of that was Kisner’s scrambling par at the seventh hole in the worst of the day’s winds. With Graeme McDowell, who was fresh off a victory last week in Mexico, sizing up a 14-foot birdie putt and the potential for a two-stroke swing, Kisner calmly converted from 8 feet for par.

Tillery, who has been working with Kisner for about two years and is credited with transforming the Tour’s most recent champion into a bona fide ball-striker, said it’s an example of Kisner’s “bulldog-ishness.”

Scott Brown sees that side of Kisner on a regular basis back home in Aiken, S.C., where the two have been friends since they first picked up a club.

“We’re undefeated playing together,” smiled Brown, who introduced Kisner to Tillery. “We’re always partners and always have each other’s back. He’s going to be a strong choice for the Ryder Cup and maybe they should just put me on that team to play with him. We’ll get you three points.”

Because of the revised points list for next year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, Kisner won’t gain any ground to make the U.S. team for his victory at Sea Island, although he did vault to 17th in the Official World Golf Ranking, and RSM Classic host and U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III admitted to taking “mental notes" this fall in preparation for next year’s matches.

Until Sunday at Sea Island Resort the defining moment of Kisner’s year may have come on the eve of the final round at The Players when he was asked if he would be intimidated heading out against the likes of Fowler on Sunday.

“If we've gotten here, we've done Tour [Q-School], we've won tournaments. Just because it's a bigger stage doesn't mean we're going to suck all of a sudden,” he said in his signature style.

If his weekend show on the Seaside Course was any indication, just because Kisner finally has that Tour trophy he’s waited so long for doesn’t mean he’s going to be appeased.

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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.