The bumpy, winding road to Augusta National

By Ryan LavnerMarch 3, 2014, 7:00 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – This Road to Augusta is littered with potholes, roadblocks and detours.

Tiger Woods is in need of a physiotherapist. Rory McIlroy could use a punching bag. Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson might want to cue a highlight tape of their 2013 seasons.

And at the end of a star-studded Honda Classic – which, you might recall, featured seven of the top nine players in the world – there was No. 8 McIlroy squaring off against No. 77 Ryan Palmer, No. 110 Russell Henley and No. 206 Russell Knox.

Not exactly the showdown we anticipated.

It’s easy to chalk that up to coincidence, a bad week for a lot of good players on a course that doesn’t always identify the best talent in the field. (Anyone remember the 2013 final group of Michael Thompson and Luke Guthrie?) But the biggest takeaway is that in the absence of a dominant star, golf is deeper and more unpredictable than ever, and the sport faces three major questions with Masters Monday now only five weeks away.

The biggest question, of course, is: What’s wrong with Tiger?

Already off to his slowest start ever as a pro, Woods bailed with five holes to play Sunday, citing lower back spasms. That’s the same injury that sent him to his knees in pain during The Barclays in August, and the same injury that forced him to shelve the clubs during the winter. Not particularly sharp in any of his three appearances this year, it’s unknown whether that suspect play is because of inactivity or injury, or perhaps a combination of the two.

What’s clear is that both his short- and long-term future is in doubt. His reign at world No. 1 could end this week at Doral, and his Masters prospects (and beyond) will grow even bleaker if his condition does not improve. Soon.

Will Woods, at 38, ever enjoy another injury-free season? Only once in the past seven years (2009) has he not had to skip a tournament or withdraw because of injury. That the official reason has been five different ailments (knee, Achilles, neck, elbow, back) only provides further proof that his brittle body is breaking down.

But with all of the focus on Woods, let’s not forget that his chief rival hasn’t exactly sprinted out of the gates, either. Since winning the Open last July, Mickelson has just one top-10 in his last 12 PGA Tour starts, including last week’s trunk-slammer at the Honda. After six starts he ranks 114th in putting – an ominous sign with the Masters fast approaching.

The phasing out of the old guard leads directly to the season’s second big question: Is the PGA Tour’s youth movement here to stay?

No doubt, as Henley, 24, became the eighth under-30 winner in 15 starts this season, following the triumphs of Webb Simpson, Chris Kirk, Dustin Johnson, Harris English, Patrick Reed, Scott Stallings and Jason Day. Henley is also now one of four players under 25 with multiple wins.

The best young player of them all, of course, is McIlroy, 24, and he hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in 18 months. That he was in contention in his third consecutive stroke-play event was encouraging, but his Sunday 74 at the Honda was his biggest setback since the mid-round walk-off a year earlier. In command all week, and with no one racing to catch him on the final day, McIlroy lost five shots to par during an 11-hole stretch and failed to birdie the par 5 in the playoff.

“It was a perfect opportunity to win,” he admitted afterward, and moral victories are of little interest to a former world No. 1 with grand ambitions.

Assuming he can dust himself off, McIlroy, a two-time major winner already, figures to once again be a factor at all of the year’s biggest tournaments. But for all of the talk about the Tour’s new breed of stars, he is one of the few 20-somethings who have enjoyed success in the majors in recent years. Of the 33 majors since the 2005 PGA, only nine have been won by a player in his 20s. Sure, there remains a learning curve, but the major championships are more wide open than ever before.

Oh, and speaking of majors, the season’s other big question: Who is the early Masters favorite, anyway?

In our instant-analysis world, the answer seemingly changes every week. First it was Jimmy Walker. Then it was 2012 champion Bubba Watson. Then it was Match Play champion and last year’s late leader, Jason Day. Now, it seems, it might be whichever big star can shake off the early-season doldrums and rise to the occasion.  

Hey, no one ever said the Road to Augusta was a straight shot north.

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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.