Tiger's coming back, but which Tiger?

By Rex HoggardApril 3, 2015, 8:15 pm

Tiger Woods will return to competitive golf at Augusta National ... again.

In a statement posted on his website Friday, Woods explained, “It’s obviously very important to me, and I want to be there. ... I’ve worked a lot on my game and I’m looking forward to competing. I’m excited to get to Augusta and I appreciate everyone’s support.”

While the Masters doesn’t exactly scream “ease your way back into it,” Woods has been here before, back in 2010 following another self-imposed hiatus from the game. After five months away from the playing field he tied for fourth place. It was his best finish, along with a T-4 at the U.S. Open, that season.

While he’s talked about the importance of “reps” in recent years, after 74 tournament trips around the old fruit nursery Woods has proven himself open, and adept, at heading down Magnolia Lane cold.

But as news surfaced early Tuesday that Woods’ Gulfstream G5 had been spotted at an Augusta, Ga., airport, the question turned from whether the former world No. 1 would play the year’s first men’s major to how he will fare.

According to various reports that first test drive didn’t go well – Golfweek reported he shot 74 on Tuesday – and that likely prompted a mulligan on Friday, when Woods returned to Augusta National for a second scouting trip.

He hasn’t hit a shot that counted since walking off Torrey Pines’ North Course 11 holes into the opening round at the Farmers Insurance Open in February with a tight lower back.

A few days later Woods revealed via his website that the injury “is not related to my previous surgery,” and that he needed “a lot of work on my game.”

It was all new territory. Going behind the ivory gates to rest and recover from injury is one thing. Going on lockdown to relearn how to hit a two-skip-and-stop chip is an entirely different matter altogether.

As best as anyone can tell he’s spent the last month and a half searching for answers, short game and otherwise, in the South Florida dirt, conferring with swing consultant Chris Como and confidant Notah Begay.

Last week Begay said there was a “50-50” chance Woods would play the Masters, but that number always seemed low.

Last year Woods missed the Masters for the first time as a professional after undergoing back surgery for a pinched nerve and he never seemed to have squared himself with that decision.

Augusta National, more than any other venue, has always been central to the Tiger narrative even before he slipped a skinny arm into a green jacket for the first time in 1997.

“Arnold [Palmer] and I both agreed, that you could take his Masters and my Masters, and add them together, and this kid should win more than that,” Jack Nicklaus said ... in 1996, a year before Woods won for the first time at Augusta National.

Nickalus won six Masters. Palmer collected four. You do the math.

For a time that prediction seemed famously foreboding, with Woods winning three times in his first nine trips down Magnolia Lane as a professional, including that 12-stroke romp in ’97.

But things started to change, slowly as they always do at Augusta National. Officials began the process of “Tiger-proofing” the course with the first significant changes in 2001 and his advantage, either real or perceived, began to wane.

Next week will mark a decade since Woods last emerged victorious on a Masters Sunday and the memories of that epic duel with Chris DiMarco in ’05 have been clouded by near-misses in 2007 and ’08.

More recent accounts are of epically bad bounces and curious drops (2013), poor ballstriking (2012) and untimely miscues (2011) have become Woods’ Masters highlight reel for a generation.

Still, even during his prolonged winter Augusta National has always brought out the best in Woods – who is ranked outside the top 100 in the world. He has finished in the top five more times (six) than not (two) since 2006. It’s why Nicklaus, who is not prone to hyperbole, made that bold prediction all those years ago and why it always seemed destined to be Augusta National where Woods went back on the clock.

“When Tiger was younger we would talk about, ‘You’re going to win this thing so many times it’s unreal,’” said Butch Harmon, Woods’ swing coach for eight of his 14 major victories. “The golf course suited him because of how far he could hit it and how far he drove the ball in those days. Rory [McIlroy] is like that now.”

Of course he would emerge from hibernation just as the azaleas went to bloom. The only real question is which guy would make the trip – the champion who won three times in his first nine starts or the perennial bridesmaid for the last decade?

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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.