If this is it for Doral, it's an all-star send-off

By Rex HoggardMarch 2, 2016, 9:20 pm

DORAL, Fla. – Whatever your preferred standard of measurement – Big Three, Fantastic Four, Fab Five, Sensational Six – they’re all assembled.

Jordan, Jason, Rory, Rickie, Bubba . . . even The Donald. Well, the potential Commander In Chief and current Candidate In Course Owner won’t show up at Doral until Sunday, but if the week goes according to script, Trump won’t be the only topic of interest when Doral hosts what could possibly be its final PGA Tour round.

For the first time since last September, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy – Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, in the Official World Golf Ranking – find themselves on the same tee sheet, and for just the second time on Tour, the threesome will be grouped together.

“The next two days are going to be enjoyable. It will be good out there, hopefully a little bit of buzz around that group,” McIlroy said of the potential heavyweight title bout.

As compelling as that three-ball may be, it’s the undercard that makes the WGC-Cadillac Championship the year’s most anticipated event to date. While the basic narrative of Jordan, Jason and Rory remains the same, the broader ensemble has spent the last few months chipping away at the Big Three's exclusive club.

Enter the Fantastic Four.

With his victory two weeks ago at Riviera, Bubba Watson reminded everyone that he might not be the most consistent player but that he is arguably the most entertaining, and his third-place showing at bomber-friendly Doral last year suggests he’s much more than a bit player in the larger scheme.

Then again, Bubba isn't interested in the added attention. He'd rather be left out of the discussion.

“No, it doesn't bother me at all. Like I said, I play a lot better when the media is not asking me questions,” Watson said. “At the end of the day, it's not about what people say about me. It's what's in my head. I'm trying to get better at the game of golf, trying to get better at the game of life. So I'm not worried about Big Three, Big Four, Big Five.”


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Of course, Watson prefaced his answer by interjecting, “It's ‘Big Four’ now because of Rickie [Fowler].”

Ladies and gentlemen, the Fab Five.

Fowler has been elbowing his way into the conversation for two years now but raised the stakes with his victory over Spieth and McIlroy in January at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and his runner-up showing at the Waste Management Phoenix Open last month.

Fowler has as many worldwide victories (three) as Spieth the last three months and, by his own assessment, is a major away from officially joining the game’s marketed elite.

However many more you include atop golf’s billboard depends on your point of view.

Dustin Johnson, winner of last year’s WGC at Doral, has been consistent but not clutch when he has needed to be on Sunday; his closing 69 two weeks ago at Riviera serves as his most recent crunch-time lapse.

Adam Scott has emerged from what some predicted would be a career nadir with a runner-up at the Northern Trust Open and a win at the Honda Classic.

“Sometimes when you're starting further down the list, you're more driven to kind of get back up to the top, and I'm kind of on that path again like I was maybe a few years ago,” Scott said.

However many seats there are at the big table, and however reactionary the obsessive desire to label has become, having all of the principals in the same zip code for a week is a reason to take notice.

Not that the game’s top players need extra motivation.

“I don't think any of us are buying into any added motivation or excitement based on a pairing. I don't think we would at any point,” Spieth said.

“For me personally, I would say, sure, it's going to be a lot of fun, because I enjoy playing with both of them. But I don't think anyone's buying into the Big Three, because I've spent a good amount of time on this stage saying that I don't think that's a necessary comparison when you look at the Big Three from the past.”

The members of golf’s most exclusive club seem to find incentive elsewhere.

“There's going to be a lot of people out there. I've just got to try to get in my own little world out there,” said Day, who in 16 rounds at Doral has only two rounds in the 60s. “I really want to play well this week. I don't know if it's the last -- is it the last time we're going to be playing here at Trump? I'm not sure.”

With Cadillac ending its sponsorship of the Miami stop this year, the future for Doral depends on the circuit finding a new title sponsor willing to share the spotlight with Trump – which is proving more difficult than one would think.

But if this is Doral’s exit from golf’s top stage, at least there is an all-star cast, however many may be in that group, to send it off in style.

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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.