#AskLav: The year ahead for Tiger and Phil

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 30, 2014, 4:00 pm

Finally, the fans’ favorite week of the year has arrived. 

You’ve read the preview stories, listened to the analysis from the talking heads, endured the endless hype leading up to the big event.

You’ve coughed up the money for a ticket.

You’ve ordered the first of several overpriced drinks.

You’ve crammed into an uncomfortable seat. 

And now, you’re finally ready to roll up your sleeves (to ensure a nice, even tan, of course) and cheer lustily (and obnoxiously) for your favorite player while being entirely too close to thousands of sweaty spectators. 

Super Bowl week? Puh-leeze. It’s time for the best party on Tour.

And this year should be no different: The forecast at TPC Scottsdale calls for mild temperatures with light winds and occasional beer showers. Sounds glorious.

The mailbag: 

 

 

Mickelson, for one, has been surprisingly durable throughout his career – last week was just his fourth career WD, and only his second since ’07. His back has flared up in each of his last two starts, and if Lefty is intent on making this a career year, he needs to shut it down until he’s absolutely 100 percent. As for Tiger, it’s fair to say he’s an old 38. He’s been in the spotlight for more than two decades, which takes its toll, and he continually pushes his body to the brink; in the past few years, his body has started to break down – elbow, neck, Achilles, knees (four operations). Their poor performances in Week 1 were about more than getting older, though. Last week I wrote about their respective war against Father Time, and how, over time, bodies and games must evolve when physical skills diminish. Phil and Tiger will be able to summon brilliant golf at times, but they’ll begin to have more off-weeks like Torrey as well. 


Instagram#AskLav: Who is more likely to win a major this year, Kuchar or Sergio? – via Daniel Jaramillo, on Instagram

Matt Kuchar’s best bet to win a major this year will be at the Masters, where he has finished in the top 10 each of the past years. Look at his stats – he’s short (116th) and crooked (124th) off the tee, which usually isn’t a recipe for success at the majors, except for Augusta, where the rough is a non-factor.

Right now, Sergio Garcia’s a better pick, because he’s happy and in love off the course (for now), which means he’s dangerous on it. He has won two of his last three starts, he seems to be frowning less, and his putter has gone from being his biggest liability to his best friend. Sergio was ranked eighth – EIGHTH! – in strokes gained-putting a year ago. If he can wield the flat stick like that again, he should be able to break through in the Big Ones … so long as nothing conspires against him. 


Instagram#AskLav: I believe Tiger will win a major this year, if not 2. Do you believe he will? And if so do you think it will ‘open the floodgates’ on his major drought? – via Kinley Lee, on Instagram

Do I believe he will win one? Yes – this foursome of major venues is too favorable for him not to add to his major haul. If he doesn’t win one in 2014, it’s reasonable to wonder if he’ll ever get to 15, let alone 18. But opening up the floodgates? No, not like the old days. Majors are harder than ever to win because golf is deeper than ever. These days, winning a major requires superior ball-striking, sublime putting and even a little luck. One little mishap on Friday – see: 15 at Augusta – can affect the outcome on Sunday. The days of expecting multiple-major seasons are long gone.


The most noticeable thing about Tiger at Torrey was that he definitely had gained muscle mass – the guy looked like he could suit up Sunday for the Broncos. As for his swing, well, I have no clue. Compared to my action – little lower body rotation, hands outside on the takeaway, awful impact position – Tiger’s looked flawless. 


Instagram#AskLav: Do you think Jordan Spieth’s performance on Sunday at the Farmers showed he’s not quite ready to win the big tournaments yet? – via Ben Ehrlich, on Instagram

Wrote about this Sunday from Torrey, but the kid is still learning how to win at the highest level. It’s easy to anoint him the Next Big Thing because he had a decorated junior and amateur career and, a year ago, he had a lot of top 10s, backdoored a win at the John Deere, advanced to the Tour Championship and played on the Presidents Cup team. Huge potential. But Spieth himself admitted in San Diego that he “wasn’t really mentally ready to win this week,” and that, under the gun, he didn’t have a go-to shot for the first time in a tournament. A month earlier, he had a shaky back nine at Kapalua with an ice-cold putter. Remember, he is just 20 years old, with one full year under his belt, and he’s already been in a position to win a dozen times. The wunderkind is too talented not to figure it out soon.


Instagram#AskLav: Hey Ryan, do you think Phil Mickelson will be No. 1 this year? – via Todd Peters, on Instagram

Short answer: Um, no. He’s never been No. 1, and it’s likely not coming in his age-43/44 season, either. Tiger, Rory and Adam Scott all will have better years than Phil, who won’t play enough in late summer and fall to make up ground in the OWGR. 


Instagram#AskLav: When will Bubba Watson win another tourney? Been a lot of starts since his Masters win – via Charlie Lallas, on Instagram

Indeed, the 2012 Masters winner has gone silent. He had just three top 10s a year ago, a hugely disappointing campaign as he transitioned to life as a major winner and, more importantly, as a father. His stats weren’t much different from 2012 to ’13 (still top 5 in driving distance and greens hit), and he actually improved in putting (157th to 119th). Bubba will always be a streaky talent who can catch fire and notch a W at any time. He just needs to be properly motivated. 

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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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.