Thomas refuses to let disastrous hole derail him

By Rex HoggardJanuary 9, 2017, 2:26 am

KAPALUA, Hawaii – At no other stop is the style of victory as much a personality trait as it is at the SBS Tournament of Champions.

All 32 are champions, card-carrying members of the game’s most exclusive club and all are somewhat defined by those varied accomplishments.

William McGirt, for example, won the Memorial last June in a gutsy playoff for his first PGA Tour victory, a testament to perseverance and pluck; while Justin Thomas’ ticket to Kapalua was punched just a few weeks ago with an impressive three-stroke statement over red-hot Hideki Matsuyama at the CIMB Classic, a lofty victory to go along with all that untapped potential.

In simplest terms, you are what your victory says you are – be it a gritty journeyman or a prodigy with something to prove. So on Sunday with a fresh wind giving the Plantation Course some much-needed teeth, Thomas’ play and pluck spoke volumes.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard, not when the 23-year-old began the final round with a two-stroke lead, a mountain of momentum and one of the most powerful swings pound-for-pound in the big leagues.

Thomas was virtually business-like for nine holes with birdies at Nos. 3, 5 and 8 to turn at 21 under and five strokes clear of McGirt. Matsuyama, widely considered the hottest player in golf at the moment following three victories in his last four global starts, stumbled early with a series of poor putts that would come back to haunt him.

That’s when things became interesting.

On Saturday, McGirt said he felt like he would have "putted better blindfolded.” When he four-putted the 10th hole from 49 feet on his way to a double bogey-6 the entire affair started to have a firing-squad air to it as the veteran faded from contention.

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At the Plantation Course, however, not even five up with nine to play is safe. The final loop began to resemble the final two minutes of an NBA game with three dramatic swings over the closing stretch.

The first came at the 14th hole when Matsuyama eagled the par 4 and Thomas could only manage a birdie. At the next hole, Thomas hit what he called a “fat-hooked” 4-iron into a hazard on his way to a double bogey-7.

“I told [caddie Jimmy Johnson] walking up to 17 tee, I was like, we would have taken this spot before the week started,” said Thomas, whose lead had been trimmed to a single stroke. “I was still playing great. I was hitting a lot of good shots. It was just a lot slimmer lead than it could have been.”

The final swing came at the 17th hole when Matsuyama three-putted from 29 feet for bogey and Thomas converted from 3 feet for birdie to pull a field goal clear.

For Thomas it was his third Tour victory and moves him into the top 15 in the world ranking. But just as it is with all victories, the subtext of his accomplishment was much more meaningful, if not a tad more difficult to quantify.

Infinitely talented and considered by many a future superstar, Thomas’ play hadn’t been as consistent as some would have expected, including Thomas. The golf swing has never been a question, but his ability to withstand the pressures of contending has been.

But on Sunday after his worst swing of the week on the 15th hole, he never showed any signs of frustration, not a hint of impatience.

“He didn’t even flinch. He didn’t say anything, he just keeps playing now,” Johnson said. “A year and a half ago he would have kept playing but there would have been more turmoil in his head. His head was clear the whole day.”

Thomas was not as kind when asked how he would have reacted to the dramatic turn of events on No. 15 just two years ago. “I probably would still be out there crying or whining about it,” he conceded with a smile and a shrug.

Instead, he’s now won twice in his first four starts of the 2016-17 season and solidified himself as one of the game’s established players. At 23, some would consider that ahead of schedule, but in some ways Thomas has suffered by association.

A longtime friend and frequent practice-round partner of Jordan Spieth, the external comparisons between the two always felt unfair, not because Thomas was an inferior player but because few in the history of the game have been able to develop, and deliver, as quickly as Spieth.

But moments after Spieth congratulated him for his victory on the Plantation Course’s 18th green, Thomas conceded the internal pressure had been the most difficult over his first two seasons on Tour.

“I wasn't mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating sometimes seeing some friends and peers my age do well,” Thomas said. “Not because I wasn't cheering for them, [but] because I feel like I was as good as them. It's just immature of me. I mean, the fact of the matter is, over the course of a long career, we're going to beat each other. That's just how it is.”

It was his victory in October at the CIMB Classic, his second consecutive triumph at the Asian stop, where Thomas said he started to truly feel comfortable in his Tour skin, but it will most likely be his three-stroke coronation at Kapalua that propels him to that coveted next level.

“I think it's potentially floodgates opening,” Spieth said of Thomas’ victory. “The guy hits it forever. He's got a really, really nifty short game. He manages the course well ... I’m really excited for him. It's awesome. He's going to be tough to beat next week [Sony Open], too.”

Each victory has a personality, and Thomas’ eventful triumph in Maui fits the new champion perfectly – confident, surprisingly cool and comfortable.

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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.

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Garcia cruises to five-shot win in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:10 pm

SINGAPORE - Sergio Garcia played 27 holes on the last day without dropping a shot to win the Singapore Open by five strokes Sunday in an ominous display of his newfound self-belief as he prepares to defend his Masters title.

Still brimming with confidence after claiming his first major title at Augusta National last year, Garcia started his new season with a runaway victory at the Sentosa Golf Club, finishing at 14-under 270.

Returning to the course just after dawn to complete his third round after play was suspended on Saturday because of lightning strikes, Garcia finished his last nine holes in 4 under for a round of 66 to take a one-shot lead into the final round.

With organizers desperate to avert the constant threat of more bad weather and finish the tournament on time, Garcia promptly returned to the first tee shortly after and fired a flawless 3-under 68, cruising to victory with 10 straight pars as his rivals floundered in the stifling humidity.

''It may have looked easy, but it wasn't easy. You still have to hit a lot of good shots out there,'' Garcia said. ''It's always great to start with a win, to do it here at this golf course against a good field in Asia on conditions that weren't easy. Hopefully I can ride on this momentum.''

Garcia's closest rivals at the end were Japan's Satoshi Kodaira (71) and South African Shaun Norris (70). Both birdied the last hole to share second spot but neither was ever close enough on the last day to challenge the leader.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

''I could not reach Sergio. I was thinking, 12 or 13 under for the win, but he went beyond that,'' Kodaira said.

Jazz Janewattananond (71) and his fellow Thai Danthai Bonnma (73) finished equal fourth at 8 under, earning themselves a spot in this year's British Open, while American Sean Crocker, who was given an invitation to the event after turning pro late last year, also won a place at Carnoustie by finishing in a tie for sixth.

Garcia made just three bogeys in 72 holes and his victory provided the 38-year-old with the 33rd title of his professional career and his sixth on the Asian Tour.

He has also won three titles in the last 12 months, including the Masters, and his game looks to be in better shape now than it was a year ago.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for Augusta National because of the steamy conditions and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament, which is regularly stopped because of inclement weather.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore a year ago, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

"I'm extremely happy with how the week went. It was a tough day and a tough week, with the stopping and going. Fortunately, the weather held on. Still, it was hard to play 27 holes under this heat and I can't wait to get a cold shower,'' Garcia said. ''I came with some good confidence and wishing that I will play well. I hit the ball solid the whole week and didn't miss many shots.''