POY race coming down to Day, DJ

By Rex HoggardSeptember 4, 2016, 12:11 am

NORTON, Mass. – In between high-fives and unrestrained cheers Steve Stricker contemplated the question.

Actually, he tried his best to split his attention between the topic at hand - who would get his nod for PGA Tour Player of the Year, and the LSU vs. Wisconsin game, which was won by his beloved Badgers.

“I don’t know. Who would you vote for?” Stricker shot back while anxiously watching the closing minutes of the Wisconsin game.

It was a common response to a strangely difficult question, at least by Tour standards.

Most years, players have already made up their minds – or at the least penciled in the leader in the clubhouse – by the time the Tour arrives in New England for this week’s Deutsche Bank Championship. But that status quo is largely a nod to Tiger Woods’ dominance, as well as the play in recent years by the likes of Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.

But whether it’s the newfound parity that has gripped the game since Woods began his competitive swoon or the FedEx Cup, which in its 10th year has taken on a unique importance to players, this year’s race for the Jack Nicklaus Award is very much in play – at least for two players.

The two leading candidates for Player of the Year, and to be honest the only two candidates, are Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, but a brush of the resume doesn’t exactly reveal a clear front-runner.

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Johnson won a major, the U.S. Open, and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational the following week; while Day has three victories: The Players, WGC-Dell Match Play and Arnold Palmer Invitational.

When pressed, most of those players polled by GolfChannel.com at TPC Boston gave the nod, however slightly, to Johnson.

“You’d probably lean to the guy who has a major, and I’m sure Jason Day would rather have a major,” Stricker said. “But you can’t snuff The Players and the WGC and the extra win. It’s like a flip of the coin there.”

A further examination of the two players’ seasons would also suggest that Johnson would have a narrow advantage with three events remaining in the season.

Johnson has two more top-10 finishes (12) than Day, and is second in strokes gained tee to green while the Australian is 54th in that category; but Day is first in strokes gained putting to DJ’s 44th rank on the greens.

“[Johnson] seems to play good every single week,” Russell Knox said. “One of them is going to win again the next three weeks, but right now my vote would be Dustin Johnson.”

But then Day has earned more ($7.9 million) than Johnson ($7.3 million) and leads the American in the FedEx Cup race, with the duo ranked second and third, respectively.

If the uncertainty of those polled is any indication, it will be that FedEx Cup list that ultimately decides the Player of the Year race.

If either player were to win one of the final three events and take the season-long race that would give them the advantage in the balloting, which will occur after the Tour Championship later this month.

If recent form is any indication there’s no clear-cut leader on that front, either.

Day finished tied for fourth place in the playoff lid lifter, five strokes ahead of Johnson. But Johnson is currently tied for fifth place at TPC Boston after a second-round 66 despite a double bogey-7 to finish his round on Saturday; while Day narrowly made the cut and is tied for 62nd.

“I would go Dustin, right now,” Brendan Steele said. “Those two guys have separated themselves from everybody else, for sure. But it depends on the next three weeks. It could change.”

That tie breaker, however, may depend on FedEx Cup front-runner Patrick Reed, who won The Barclays and is currently tied for seventh at the Deutsche Bank Championship.

If neither Johnson nor Day were to win the FedEx Cup, the ultimate tipping point may come down to the value of winning The Players, which is considered in some circles the game’s “fifth major,” compared to a proper Grand Slam.

“The Players is a pretty big win. I don’t know, that’s a tough question,” Stricker said.

It’s an esoteric debate that hasn’t come up since 2013 when Woods won The Players, along with four other Tour titles but no majors, and was voted the Player of the Year over Adam Scott, who won only twice but that list included the Masters and The Barclays.

For now, players are content to let the rest of the season be the ultimate arbiter of success, hoping that one of the leading men separates himself over the playoff stretch.

“I think it would come down to the last tournament,” Steele said.

As tough as the decision seems to be for most players, it might be more accurate to say those casting votes are hoping it comes down to the last tournament.

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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.