Alternate shot cranks up pressure at Zurich

By Ryan LavnerApril 27, 2017, 10:53 pm

AVONDALE, La. – Most successful partnerships made a pact this week at the Zurich Classic.

“We agreed that we weren’t going to apologize to each other,” said John Peterson, who has teamed up with former LSU teammate Andrew Loupe. “We think that’s the coward’s way out. We said that we were going to sack up and go hit the next shot. There’s no sense in sitting there and apologizing to your partner; then it becomes a sob story.”

And the mood at TPC Louisiana was anything but glum.

What is normally a difficult format for scoring actually proved quite favorable Thursday as the PGA Tour’s first official team event since 1981 kicked off with warm temperatures and little wind.

Texans Jordan Spieth and Ryan Palmer shared the lead at 6-under 66, along with Kyle Stanley and Ryan Ruffels, who met at an Australian event two years ago and share the same management company. Forty-three other teams broke par on Day 1. Those hoping for train wrecks will have to wait until Saturday, when the wind is forecast to gust up to 40 mph – the worst opening-round score was 77.

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In some respects, players have yet to fully embrace the team component – most played only nine holes of alternate shot in practice, and there is neither team warmup sessions nor wardrobe scripting – but they definitely seemed to enjoy the competitive change of pace, laughing off bad shots and high-fiving after birdies.

“This was the most fun I’ve had on a Thursday all year long,” Peterson said.

“It was really refreshing,” said Ben Martin, who shot 67 with Ben Crane, “because I think sometimes, even though it’s great what we get to do, it can get monotonous. You do the same thing over and over every week. I think it was a great idea for the event and you can get some more excitement, not only for the people watching, but all of us were excited to play the format.”

Only a handful of players in the field had played alternate shot before, either in a Ryder, Presidents or World Cup.

It’s an awkward game to play, for two reasons:

1. It’s hard to get in a rhythm. Players can go through stretches when it seems like they only hit some chips and putts. If they hit a bad shot, they have to wait another 15 minutes before they can make another full swing. Their speed control can be lacking, too.

“It was harder than I originally envisioned it being,” said Daniel Berger, who shot 73 with Thomas Pieters. “You’re only hitting so many shots at a time. I feel like I only hit, like, three mid-irons today.”

2. There is more pressure. Not only do players feel pressure for themselves, but they also want to impress their partner and leave them in a good position to succeed. Every shot carries a little bit more weight.

“Foursomes is a game of pressure,” said Geoff Ogilvy, after an opening 69 with Ian Poulter. “You feel guilty constantly, even with a good shot, because you always think it could have been better to leave your guy in a better spot. Foursomes is tough mentally.”

Most players agree that alternate shot is the format that can lose teams the tournament – they fire a bad score and get lapped – while fourballs, to be played Friday and Sunday, is the format that can win the event.

Tuesday was the first time that the 18-year-old Ruffels had ever played alternate shot. It was hard to tell in the opening round, when he and Stanley made eight birdies, including four in a row to start, to share the early lead.

“I found it quite easy,” Ruffels said, “because whether the shot is good or bad, you don’t have to worry about the next shot. You can go up there, freewheel it, and think, I want to hit a good one here, but if I don’t, Kyle has to deal with it.

“We made a mutual agreement that we weren’t going to say sorry. We’re both trying our hardest on each shot, and we were going to hit bad ones and good ones.”

But deep down, they’re praying for more of the latter.

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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.''