Blixt and Smith giggle their way to 54-hole lead

By Ryan LavnerApril 29, 2017, 11:31 pm

AVONDALE, La. – If a missed cut in a team event is a problem halved, then that makes a victory twice as fun.

And fun comes easily to the lighthearted pair of Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith, who laughed their way through another flawless round to take a four-shot lead into the final round of the Zurich Classic.

That margin seems even wider considering the upcoming better-ball format. With winds expected to again gust up to 35 mph, teams in pursuit likely will need a round in the low-60s to have any chance of catching Blixt and Smith, who now can share the pressure of holding the 54-hole lead.

“It’s just like having a backup,” Smith said.

Smith, a 22-year-old Aussie, moved to Jacksonville, Fla., less than a year ago and became good friends with Blixt, a 33-year-old Swede. They share the same trainer, even though they both look like they’ve never seen the inside of a weight room. “No, we don’t really work out,” Blixt said, “but we’ve got the same physio.”

Smith’s caddie, Sam Pinfold, lives with Blixt, and apparently he’s the genesis of this partnership. “We didn’t talk to each other,” Blixt chuckled. “We went through our caddies.”

Here in New Orleans, they’ve giggled their way through every interview and gotten into the team spirit by wearing similarly colored outfits. Sure, there was a slight mix-up with the scripting Friday – Smith had to return to his bedroom to change into white pants – but they could have won tie-dye shirts and jorts and still played well. Their better-ball 62 gave them a one-shot lead at the halfway point.

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More than any wardrobe choice, Blixt and Smith have gelled because of their comparable games. Both are average-length hitters with tidy short games; Blixt is one of the best putters on Tour, while Smith leads in strokes gained-around the green.

Through 54 holes, they have yet to make a bogey – a stat even more impressive when you consider that every other team has dropped at least three shots.

“It’s just fun,” Blixt said. “It’s like going back to play as a kid. You just go out there and have fun and try to make birdies, and I don’t feel like there’s any stress at all out there and there’s no pressure. He’s always got my back, and I try to have his.”

Tasked with chasing down the lead group are longtime pals and Aiken, S.C., residents Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown, who shot a Saturday-best 67 in alternate shot. The surprise wasn’t their score but that they weren’t near the top of the leaderboard sooner – they’re a formidable duo that has known each other since age 10.

“We play so much together,” Kisner said, “that we literally can talk to each other about every shot and know exactly what the other one is thinking.”

Charley Hoffman and Nick Watney, also four back, aren’t quite that close, but they’re rock-solid ball-strikers who can thrive in the gusty conditions.

“Somebody will probably shoot 9 or 10 under,” Watney said. “Hopefully it’s not the guys in front of us.”

A target final-round score of 62 (and a four-round total around 25 under) is what Jordan Spieth and Ryan Palmer expect to need to win on Sunday. The Texans should have been even closer to the lead, if not for four misses inside 5 feet on Saturday, including a demoralizing shorty on 18. Now, they’re five shots back and in need of a final-day rally – and some help – to become the first team champion crowned on Tour since 1981.

“We’ll just go for broke tomorrow,” Palmer said. “We have a good chance.”

But in better-ball, it’s easy for players to fall into the trap of playing too aggressively and forcing the issue. The key to the format is to have two putts for birdie on as many holes as possible, and also to “ham-and-egg” it – to make it a team effort and spread out the birdies at the right time.

“We’ve been doing that pretty good,” Blixt said. “Just need to keep doing that.”

Their victory celebration depends on it.

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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.