Winning Open further fueled Stenson's desire

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2017, 4:05 pm

SOUTHPORT, England – Pete Cowen will explain that Henrik Stenson has three distinct swings – good, very good and excellent.

“Two of those [good and very good] he doesn’t like to accept,” Stenson’s longtime swing coach explained following the Swede’s victory last year at The Open.

Stenson is a perfectionist, driven to exceedingly high levels by the notion that mediocrity is not an option even though he’s playing a game that is often decided by the thin margins between good and great.

Last year Stenson was perfect, at least by any reasonable standard, on his way to his first major victory over Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon, where he closed with a 63 in what was among the greatest major championship duels.

He hit 11 of 14 fairways, 16 of 18 greens in regulation and needed just 27 putts, but even that performance comes with an asterisk when Stenson strolls down memory lane.

“It was certainly a standout in terms of how we played, but also how I putted that day,” he said. “If I would have hit the same amount of shots, but I wouldn't have rolled in as many putts from 10, 15 feet, obviously the score would have been a whole lot different.”

It’s not as though Stenson is naturally a negative person. It’s just his standards have always been set ridiculously high and that’s not always a good thing.

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Following his tie for 26th last week at the Scottish Open, Stenson was downright dismissive of his chances of defending this week at Royal Birkdale.

“It's always that battle and I don't feel I have enough game to play the way I want to, and as soon as you go into practice mode you are losing the possibility to play your best,” he said on Sunday.

On Tuesday, his outlook was slightly more upbeat but was still a telling example of how hard the world’s eighth-ranked player can be on himself.

It’s been that kind of year for Stenson.

Outside of a runner-up finish to Sergio Garcia at the Dubai Desert Classic in February, he hasn’t contended and he begins this week after missing five of his last seven cuts on the PGA Tour, including missed weekends at the year’s first two majors.

 The double-edged benefit of holding one’s self to such a high standard is that there’s no room for complacency, but there’s also precious little space for anything approaching a benefit of the doubt.

“Henrik is a perfectionist,” Cowen said. “Can you play at your best all the time? Who plays at their best all the time? The only person that I know that does that is Usain Bolt, that’s why he wins everything. Winning majors is not easy.”

For most players, winning a major at age 40 would have been a license to savor the fruits of decades of work. Henrik isn’t most players.

Getting on the Grand Slam board only spurred him to want to do it again, replacing the pressure to win his first major with an even higher standard of collecting more before his career is over.

 “Once you win one, obviously that's off your shoulder,” he said. “And it's more about putting yourself in contention again and trying to win a second one. Given how long and successful a career I've had, I think that's pretty much what we're aiming for, a few more chances to win more major championships. That's really where that extra spark can come from.”

Predictably, Stenson has spent this week grinding on the practice tee with Cowen, but then he would be doing the same thing even if he’d won his last three starts. For Henrik, the struggle is real and the search never stops.

He can take some competitive solace from last year’s championship, when he admits he also wasn’t feeling great about his game. He can also take into account his history when he commits to a links fortnight.

Twice in the last four years he’s played the Scottish Open the week before The Open, in 2016 and ’13, when he finished first and second, respectively. In ’14 and ’15 when he skipped the Scottish he finished in the middle of the pack at The Open.

“For me it's crucial, both to play the week before the major is ideal for me, and also playing links because you just get in kind of that mindset of where you're going to land the ball and playing the three-quarter shots in the crosswinds,” he said.

Or, if Stenson is truly in need of a paradigm of hope heading into his 13th Open he can consider the finality that this week brings. Winning his first major brought a host of new media duties and unfamiliar attention, which only served to remind him of what he’s capable of doing if only he could perform at his absolute best week in and week out.

“I feel like it's a little bit easier to turn the page and look ahead, rather than speaking about what happened three, six, nine, 12 months ago all the time,” he admitted a day after handing the claret jug back to the R&A. “That's kind of where I feel I'm at.”

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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.