College players marvel at Spieth's meteoric rise

By Ryan LavnerOctober 21, 2013, 10:49 pm

WINDERMERE, Fla. – A year ago this week, before the fame and the records and the money games with Phil, Jordan Spieth was here, at the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational, as just another student-athlete on the University of Texas golf team.

Funny thing, too: Spieth didn’t even win the event last year. (He finished fifth.) It was his final start before bombing out at Q-School’s second stage, which became the unlikely starting point for arguably the best rookie campaign since the ’90s.

Now, a year later, his former college and amateur opponents marvel at the ascent of an American golf superstar but also believe that they, too, can produce similarly eye-opening freshman campaigns.

“It’s crazy to think that somebody, basically a peer of mine, is out there doing that,” said Texas freshman Beau Hossler, 18, who was nipped by Spieth for low-amateur honors at the 2012 U.S. Open. “I think it motivates everybody in the field. I think it provides a good steppingstone to try and achieve.”

This fall, the Longhorns Spieth left behind gathered in the lounge at the University of Texas Golf Club and watched his tournaments on TV – they watched as he birdied his way into contention again, and cashed another big check, and let his legend grow.

Ask just about anyone in college circles about Spieth, and they’ll say they’re surprised not by his rise – it was coming somehow, some way, and at some point – but rather the velocity with which he rose. Mind-bogglingly meteoric.

Granted, all the signs of a superstar-in-waiting were already there.

In 2008, Cory Whitsett and Spieth, then 15, were vying for one of the most prestigious AJGA titles at the Ping Invitational. Whitsett had a four-shot lead to start the final round at Karsten Creek, but Spieth stormed out of the gates early, burying four putts of 30-plus feet during a front-nine 31 on his way to a final-round 68 – easily the best score of the day – and a two-shot victory. Never mind, of course, that it was chilly, and it was breezy, and the course was already one of the most difficult venues a junior can play.

Spieth went on to win multiple U.S. Junior titles, and he was the youngest member of the 2011 U.S. Walker Cup team. He didn’t lose a match at Royal Aberdeen, thanks largely to one of the most spectacular shots that Texas coach John Fields had seen in years. Paired with Patrick Rodgers, Spieth sank a slippery, left-to-right, 18-footer on the 18th hole to halve the match.

“That guy loves that moment,” Fields said. “For some reason he’s able to achieve in those kinds of situations and rise to the occasion.”

That’s what happened at Texas’ home tournament, the Morris Williams Invitational, in spring 2012. Down by one shot to teammates Julio Vegas and Dylan Frittelli, and with only the 517-yard, into-the-wind, par-4 18th to play, Spieth had a 4-iron left into a tucked pin that was surrounded by water.

“The area to land it,” said Texas’ Toni Hakula, raising his hands about shoulder-width apart, “was about this big.”

Spieth airmailed the green, his ball rolled into a grassy patch in the hazard, and his chances for victory seemed slim. Only he calmly assessed his situation – downhill chip, with about 15 feet to work with – and then knocked in his third shot to share medalist honors.

“It was just like, this guy,” Hakula said. “We should have seen that coming. In his head, he knew that he was going to make that.”

That’s what happened at the 2010 Azalea Invitational, where Spieth flagged a long iron into the final green to post a top-5 finish against players who were four, five and sometimes six years older.

And that’s what happened at the 2012 NCAA Championship, where on the 15th hole of a hotly contested match against eventual Player of the Year Justin Thomas, Spieth holed his second shot into the long par 4 and helped propel Texas to its first national title in more than 40 years.

“I’ve seen it so many times, nothing really surprises me,” Fields said. “He has that intangible to hit an amazing shot at the right time.”

The latest, and most memorable, highlight-reel shot, of course, came at the John Deere Classic, where Spieth holed a bunker shot on the 72nd hole to force a playoff.

That day, Hakula flew back home to Finland and went to bed early. At the time, Spieth was down three with three holes to play. Hakula figured it’d be just another good finish in a year full of them, but when he woke up and saw his mother downstairs, she screamed, “Jordan won!”

“I was kinda pissed I missed that,” Hakula said, “but obviously I’ve seen the highlights a million times.”

There’s no simple way to explain how a player, in one year, can go from finishing fifth at a college event to winning a PGA Tour event, banking nearly $4 million in earnings, representing his country at the Presidents Cup and becoming the biggest teen sensation since Tiger. But if nothing else, it gives these players hope that they’re not too far removed from the PGA Tour’s biggest stages.

Said Hossler, “If you know him really well, you could see exactly how this rise happened. He’s probably the most confident guy I’ve ever met. He believes in himself and makes confident and risky decisions, and it always seems to work out for him.

“What separates him is when he gets it going, he fires on all cylinders and really gets it going; he goes low. It’s hard to go low like that. But he makes a lot of bold decisions when he’s playing well, and they always seem to pay off.”

“He’s just been great at any level he’s ever been,” said Whitsett, now a senior at Alabama. “I didn’t see it coming this fast, and I figured he’d get there eventually. But he possesses more confidence than any person I’ve ever seen. His self-belief. It’s a toned-down cockiness. I think that’s his biggest attribute and what got him to where he is. He’s had it forever.”

Indeed, the peers he raced by remember it vividly. 

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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.