'Unlucky' break brought Palmer, Owen together

By Rex HoggardMarch 14, 2017, 7:45 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – A few years ago Greg Owen walked into Arnold Palmer’s office at Bay Hill to drop off a letter requesting a sponsor exemption into the King’s PGA Tour event.

Owen had done this before, but this time was different. This time he was asked if he’d like to hand deliver the letter to the tournament host.

“It was really unusual for me, I was speechless,” Owen said. “He was sitting behind his desk, he started the conversation because I didn’t know what to say.”

Nearly everyone has an Arnie story, and this week’s event at Bay Hill, the first since Palmer passed away last September, will be a celebration of those stories as much as it will be a chance to honor one of the game’s most endearing players.

But Owen’s story is a little different.

On Tuesday, Danny Willett talked at length about a letter he received from Palmer following his victory last year at the Masters. Rory McIlroy tweeted a similar letter the King sent him in 2011 after he’d won the U.S. Open.

Owen didn’t get one of those letters, but his correspondence may have been even more memorable.

The Englishman’s first encounter with Palmer came in 2006, his second year on Tour, after he’d played three solid rounds at Bay Hill. He birdied the 10th hole on Sunday, added another at No. 14 and took a one-stroke lead with a birdie on the 16th hole.

Owen joined Bay Hill about five years ago and like many who were lucky enough to be in regular contact with Palmer, he marveled at his ability to connect with everyone, from fellow professionals to his legend of fans.

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But Owen’s connection was profoundly different.

“You’d see him in the locker room and he knew who you were,” Owen said. “One time he introduced me to his wife and said, ‘This is Greg Owen, he was the unlucky guy.”

The unlucky guy had stood over a 3-footer for par at the 17th hole at the ’06 Arnold Palmer Invitation that would have given him a two-stroke lead. Owen pushed the putt and the comebacker from 18 inches danced around the hole and refused to fall for a double bogey-5. He bogeyed the 72nd hole after airmailing the green with his approach shot and finished a stroke behind Rod Pampling.

Unlucky, indeed.

Palmer sent Owen a letter following that loss at a moment when he needed it the most. His runner-up showing to Pampling had moved him to 48th in the Officical World Golf Ranking and the next week at The Players he finished 22nd only to drop to 52nd in the world, two spots outside a start at that season’s Masters.

“It obviously wasn’t a very easy time for me,” Owen recalled. “I was really disappointed and then I got this letter. You could see it was personal, every word he’d thought about and wrote on. You could tell.

“The fact that he’d lost majors from a winning position, that he‘d been through it you could tell he was talking from the heart. What situation in golf hadn’t he been in? He understood how it was.”

The single-page letter gave condolences, but also congratulations for how he’d handled defeat, a part of the Palmer persona that was as appealing as any victory celebration.

By the time Owen became a member at Bay Hill, Palmer wasn’t playing much golf because of age and injury. But Owen would see him on the practice tee from time to time, tinkering with a new driver or wedge. “He’d always have a bunch of clubs with him,” he recalled.

Sometimes Palmer would be tooling around in a golf cart and stop behind Owen who was hitting balls on the range. He would stop practicing. “I didn’t want to be critiqued,” Owen laughed.

Everything about Bay Hill is a testament to Palmer, from the sign requesting players remove their hats before entering the clubhouse, to the daily “shootout” among members.

Many days Palmer would be waiting when players finished the regular game in Bay Hill’s rustic locker room with words of encouragement and the occasional needle.

“He’d sit around the table with the guys playing cards asking questions, ‘How’d you play?’” Owen said. “He was such a nice guy, there’s no other way to put it. He never forgot, he was just great with everybody.”

For Owen, that connection was very real. At perhaps the lowest point of his career, the man who was so seamlessly connected to greatness made the realities of failure something to be embraced and learned from.

It at least partially explains why Owen gravitated to Bay Hill in an attempt, subconscious or otherwise, to be closer to that kind of gravitational pull. On Tuesday, as he made his way down the 10th fairway during a practice round, Owen shrugged at the thought. For the 45-year-old, it was a little more straightforward then that.

“Playing at a club with Arnie, watching him up there hitting balls, that’s pretty cool,” he smiled.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

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

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.