Match Play, McIlroy have unfinished business

By Rex HoggardMay 3, 2015, 3:52 am

SAN FRANCISCO – In sports terms it’s best to consider the WGC-Cadillac Match Play firmly entrenched in a transition year. You know, like the Chicago Cubs every season for, say the past century.

An unpopular new format, a Sunday field that wouldn’t move the needle in Reno, Nev., and the misfortune of competing for eyeballs on arguably the most crowded weekend sports calendar this year with the Kentucky Derby, the Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao fight, NBA playoffs, NHL playoffs and NFL draft.

It’s telling that the most exciting thing that’s happened this week at Harding Park involved two players (Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez) who had no chance of advancing to Saturday and were in desperate need of a timeout.

The gray gloom that has gripped Harding Park for two days was a fitting metaphor for an event mired in transition and virtually bereft, at least when play was called on Saturday because of darkness, of the kind of marquee one would expect at a World Golf Championship.

WGC-Cadillac Match Play: Articles, videos and photos

The ultimate fate of this WGC-Match Play hangs in the balance early Sunday when world No. 1 Rory McIlroy will set out at 6:45 a.m. (PT) to complete his heated quarterfinal match against Paul Casey.

Otherwise, the standard will fall to Jim Furyk at fifth in the Official World Golf Ranking to carry the marquee, which – with all respect to the ageless and endearing champion – is not exactly a riveting answer to Mayweather/Pacquiao.

Match play is fickle and even without McIlroy this would not be the lowest-ranked Final Four in event history. That honor belongs to the 2006 edition when Nos. 23, 41, 52 and 59 squared off on Sunday.

Still, when the world No. 1 bounced his approach shot off an empty grandstand adjacent to the 14th green on the 19th hole of the match, in near darkness it was a fitting metaphor for an event that continues to be mired in an identity crisis and in desperate need of some buzz.

“You know, it's been like that before,” said Gary Woodland, who at 52nd in the world is the lowest-ranked player to advance to Sunday. “I remember being at the World Cup in 2011 and people saying, you know, America didn't have the best team there. That fuels me, that's fine. That's one of the best weeks I've ever played that week, too.”

Woodland may well breathe life into the WGC-Match Play thanks to a fearless game that has forged an impressive path through the field.

Just once in five matches has he been challenged, a 19-hole victory on Day 1 against Jimmy Walker, and on Saturday he never saw the 18th hole, rolling through the Australian contingent of Marc Leishman, 2 and 1, and John Senden, 2 and 1.

Early Sunday he will face Danny Willett, a little-known Englishman who has battled back from a back injury and may well become a household name on both sides of the Atlantic, but just not this week.

This week depends on McIlroy, who was sloppy from the outset in his match against Casey. He missed the fairway left at No. 1, the green right at No. 2, the green left at No. 4. He did hit the sixth green. Unfortunately, he was playing the par-5 fifth hole at the time.

It was a tough 1-2 combination for McIlroy to endure. Not only is he in danger of being bounced from the Match Play, he was also unable to attend the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight.

“That's fine. I have to do it. It's the position I'm in and I'll be here at 6:45 in the morning,” McIlroy said. “I'll try and come out fast and win that hole and try to advance to the last four.”

Even Furyk, who ended a 100-event winless streak with his victory last month at the RBC Heritage, conceded that the new-look Match Play, which included round-robin group play for the first three days, needed some work.

“I think there can be tweaks, but I like the format better than in the past,” Furyk said. “That's a little bit of a homer thing, too, because I've never made it this far.”

The Match Play transitions to a new venue, Austin (Texas) Country Club, and a new spot on the calendar, late March, next year and there appears to be a strong desire to assure success.

“We’ll talk to the players, we’ll probably get some fan input, we’ll talk to our television partners, we’ll evaluate the telecast and it will be all part of the setup for Austin because Austin is a different kind of golf course,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said this week. “We want to have a good start to that run in Austin.”

There will be a winner on Sunday. He may even be named Rory, which would be an undeniable boost for an event that has felt like a bust all week. But even that doesn’t change the fact that this is very a much a transition year for the Match Play.

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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.