Glory, Glory, Hallelujah

By Rex HoggardAugust 15, 2011, 2:20 am

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Without the benefit of a Tiger Woods, who still appears four cylinders shy of a full block, and a Phil Mickelson, whose golf has appeared more recreational of late, the year’s final major championship received an unexpected boost late into Sunday afternoon via an eclectic combo of fire and ice tea, with an assist from a hard-as-nails golf course that doled out pleasure and pain with equal abandon.

Fire, the golf world is rapidly learning, was the excitable Keegan Bradley; while Jason Dufner gamely played the part of flatliner until the bitter end at the 93rd PGA Championship.

And it all unfolded in 1 hour, 55 minutes. That’s how long it took for Bradley to make up five shots in just three holes and mow down decades of tradition. In order, the Tour rookie became the first player to hoist Grand Slam gold with a belly putter, a breakthrough that promises to send rules types into a tizzy, the first player since Ben Curtis to join the major club in his first Grand Slam start and the first to win a major the year after graduating from the Nationwide Tour.

“It seems like a dream and I'm afraid I'm going to wake up here in the next five minutes and it's not going to be real,” said Bradley, who closed with a 68 to tie Dufner at 8-under 272 and force overtime.

As he tapped in his clinching par putt at the 18th to clip Dufner by one stroke in a three-hole aggregate playoff Bradley smiled widely into the setting sun. It was a celebration that seemed so unlikely just two hours earlier.

Trailing Dufner by two strokes, Bradley’s 4-iron tee shot at the par-3 15th hole settled into the deep Bermuda grass rough and as his chip raced across the green and into the pond he appeared on his way to also-ran status.

“We got to the 16th tee and I told him to keep fighting,” said Bradley’s caddie, Steven “Pepsi” Hale. “But this guy is the gutsiest player I’ve ever worked for. I can’t teach heart and heart won this golf tournament.”

Well, heart and a steady putter that drained putts from 8 feet at No. 16 and 35 feet at the par-3 17th hole. Dufner took care of the rest.

How hard was Atlanta Athletic Club playing? When Dufner stepped to the 15th tee he was leading by four strokes and proceeded to fan his hybrid tee shot into the water behind Bradley. Before he took his drop he was leading by five, courtesy of a late bogey by Anders Hansen. Dufner scrambled for bogey at the 15th, wilted from a greenside bunker at the 16th, and three-putted the 17th to drop back into a tie with Bradley.

“The course is so tough that no lead is safe,” Bradley said. “I kept trying to tell myself that because I knew that that was the case, especially if you got a big lead, you might get a little tight coming down the end.”

That both players managed to par the closing hole showed an astonishing level of grit, but in the Hotlanta heat “Fire” was too much for the Auburn iceman. Bradley birdied the first extra hole and when Dufner three-putted the 17th green for the second time in 30 minutes not even the feared closer could change the outcome.

“I was thinking about trying to win the thing,” said Dufner (69) of his miscues at Nos. 15, 16 and 17. “They are tough holes. Everybody has struggled on them. It’s disappointing, (No.) 16, being in the middle of the fairway. I should hit that green. Didn’t. Probably one of the worst iron shots I hit all week.”

But then the frenzied playoff, the second consecutive overtime at the PGA, was almost a foregone conclusion considering how the day unfolded. Sunday’s final turn was a free-for-all in major championship clothing, with a dozen players within six strokes of the lead at the turn, including Robert Karlsson who teed off 40 minutes and five strokes outside the lead but closed with a 3 under front nine and a 10 footer for eagle at the 12th hole.

For 68 holes uncertainty ruled with the Wanamaker Trophy earmarked for cash compensations and a player to be named later, until the last four, “Calamity Lane” as one announcer dubbed the diabolical stretch, began dispatching all comers with ease. First it was Karlsson, who finished bogey-bogey-bogey, then Hansen, who bogeyed the 16th and finished alone in third place at 7 under.

Coming into Sunday Dufner was 3 under on the last four, Bradley was even par, but that changed dramatically as the rookie played the stretch in even par counting the three-hole playoff and Dufner limped home in 3 over.

The only thing missing was Woods.

On Wednesday Woods’ swing coach Sean Foley was cautiously optimistic, “What we have now is Tiger’s blueprint and getting his swing in the position where he can be himself – a creative artist, a feel player.”

Thursday morning Woods played his first five in 3 under, his last 13 in 10 over and hit the same number of bunkers (14) as he did fairways and greens combined. It was all enough to likely make Bryon Bell relieved his status on Woods’ bag was interim.

“I just thought, this is a major, and you peak for these events. And once you get to a major championship, you just let it fly, let it go. And I did and it cost me,” a frustrated Woods said.

The next time Woods resurfaces remains almost as much of a mystery as his game. His early exit from AAC guaranteed he’d miss the FedEx Cup playoffs and he offered a vague “I might” when asked if he’d play a Fall Series or European Tour event before November’s Australian Open, his next scheduled start.

The uncertainty doesn’t stop there, thanks to Rory McIlroy’s youthful actions adjacent the third fairway on Thursday. The injury the Ulsterman sustained when his 8-iron powered into a root seemed innocent enough, but as he closed with rounds of 70-73-74-74 and bolted Atlanta to spend time with his physical trainer there was a measure of concern.

In hindsight, Rory vs. the root probably wasn’t a risk worth taking, and the 22-year-old acknowledged as much. “Looking back on it, it probably wasn't the right thing to do.”

But even the specter of the game’s two biggest needle movers on equally uncertain paths wasn’t enough to rob “Glory’s Last Shot” of a dramatic finale thanks to Bradley.

The victory assured the 25-year-old membership in the game’s “young guns” club, if his victory earlier this year at the Byron Nelson Championship didn’t already gain him status. And his emotions on Sunday made him an instant classic with the sweet-stained masses. Not that Bradley has ever had a hard time showing his emotions.

“We’ve tried to temper that a little bit. It’s part of the learning curve. That was part of the dialogue this week after what happened at Firestone,” said Hale of Bradley’s tie for 15th following a closing 74 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “I told everybody that we are going to find out how much we learned last week.”

The answer surprised everyone, maybe even Bradley, and wrenched the PGA Championship out of a frenzied funk – just in time.

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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.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.