More of the same has DJ on verge of golf's summit

By Rex HoggardSeptember 23, 2016, 11:30 pm

ATLANTA – With apologies to an instant analysis world, golf careers are measured in decades not days.

It would be easy, for example, to suggest the game is entering the "Age of DJ" after the bomber pulled away from the field on Friday at the Tour Championship with a second-round 67 that lifted him four strokes clear of everyone not named Kevin Chappell at East Lake.

A win this week in the Heart of Dixie would be his fourth of the season, his second in September, and secure the FedEx Cup title. Two more good days and he will claim the Vardon Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average and he essentially wrapped up the race for the PGA Tour Player of the Year Award by default.

Jason Day, slowed this postseason by an ailing back, withdrew after seven holes on Friday, leaving Johnson as the only viable candidate for the Jack Nicklaus Award.

There had been a school of thought, however narrow, that if Day were to win the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup it would give those who vote for the Player of the Year Award a reason to consider the alternative.

A successful Sunday would complete Johnson’s transition from long-hitting curiosity to crowned prince. The elite athlete who so often got in his own way has emerged as the dominant force many thought he would become.

Johnson is second in strokes gained tee-to-green, third in scrambling and sixth in strokes-gained putting this week - yeah, he's the complete package.

He knows it and those who found themselves suddenly playing for second place know it.

“When that guy gets going, he's tough to beat. He hits 70 yards farther than me and basically as straight as I do,” Ryan Moore said.

The bona fide bomber did what truly great champions do, reinvent themselves into a better version. If major championships are born from shorter backswings, as some once said of Phil Mickelson, true greatness for Johnson seems forged from a power fade and dramatically improved wedge play.

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But in an age of hot takes and kneejerk flybys, golf isn’t entering an era of Dustin dominance, it’s been trending in that direction for some time.

Johnson’s streak of seasons with at least one victory is at nine. Mickelson once went 10 consecutive seasons with a victory, Woods’ record is nine straight. Not a bad neighborhood if you’re scoring at home.

If he were to win the finale it would be Johnson’s 12th victory since 2008, tying him with Rory McIlroy for the second most in that span.

Johnson didn’t crack the code last offseason when coach Butch Harmon finally convinced him to trust a fade and improve his game from 150 yards and in, he just refined a package that was already impressive.

He didn’t start doing incredible things with the golf ball in 2016. Those skills stretch back long before he joined the Tour in 2008.

Kevin Kisner, Johnson’s second-round partner at East Lake, has seen this show for most of his golf career, from the duo’s days in junior golf and beyond.

“Only about 25 years,” Kisner said with a sigh.

If you can nitpick the game’s top players for particular performances, most would take some combination of Jordan Spieth’s putter, McIlroy’s driver and Jason Day’s long irons. But with DJ, the game might have a legitimate five-tool guy.

“He’s just playing that good right now. He shot 3 under today and it could have been four more [under] probably,” Kisner said. “He is putting it good, hitting it good, hitting it far, it’s hard to beat.”

It’s worth noting that Kisner didn’t qualify his take by claiming that Johnson is “hard to beat, right now.” There is essentially nothing new that Johnson is bringing to the table other than that most esoteric of elements – winning.

He’s making the game look easy, even though that assessment is blatantly unfair considering the work he’s put in to reach this pedestal.

“No. The game's never easy. I wish it was,” Johnson said in his signature drawl. “Obviously, I'm playing good right now. I've got a lot of confidence in my game. Every week, I feel like I bring the same game, which is nice.”

And that’s the biggest difference for DJ in 2016 compared to the version who joined the Tour in ’08. Johnson has been trending toward true greatness for nearly a decade, getting to that summit was nothing more than simply more of the same.

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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.