Day, McIlroy set for a rare heavyweight duel

By Ryan LavnerMarch 26, 2016, 11:29 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Savor this while we can, the blockbuster clash between two of the top three players in the world.

It doesn’t, and won’t, happen very often.

For dimpleheads, it’s the barroom debate that has raged since last summer: At the peak of their powers, who's the best: Jason Day, Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth?

Spieth withdrew himself from consideration this week with a loss in the round of 16 at the WGC-Dell Match Play, much to the disappointment of the partisan crowd here that has lustily cheered the three-semester Longhorn. But Day and McIlroy both won their quarterfinal matches in convincing fashion Saturday, setting up a rare duel between two of the most physically gifted players on the PGA Tour, between the last two winners of this grueling, five-day, seven-match slugfest.

“I’d really relish it,” McIlroy said, when the matchup wasn't yet guaranteed. “I’d really be up for it.”

“I’m looking forward to being able to play against Rory, especially in this format,” Day said about an hour later. “We don’t get to do that too much.”

No, they don’t. It’s only the second time in the event’s history that two of the top three players in the world have faced off in the semifinals (No. 2 McIlroy beat No. 3 Lee Westwood in 2012).

And to think, four days ago they seemed so unlikely to meet.

Four days ago, Day was hobbling up the 16th fairway, holding his back, dropping to one knee, his bulging disk inflamed and putting the rest of his week – and his Masters readiness – in doubt.

Four days ago, McIlroy was coming off a sloppy performance at Bay Hill and in a dogfight with the unheralded Thorbjorn Olesen, in need of a par on the last for a 1-up victory in his opening match.

WGC-Dell Match Play Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Since then, Day has lived on the massage table while still finding a way to drive par 4s, and McIlroy’s confidence has grown to the point that, whatever happens Sunday, he believes he is fully prepared for the rigors of the year’s first major, now just 12 days away.

As often as they’re linked by fans who crave a rivalry and a modern Big 3, Sunday’s semifinal match will provide a deeper look into their similar games and disparate styles.

Yes, they boom tee shots, launch sky-high irons and rack up birdies. But Day is violent, and aggressive, and tenacious. McIlroy is an insouciant ball-striker who struts around the course.

“On the green is going to be the biggest difference tomorrow between me and Rory,” Day said. And if that’s the case, if their match becomes a putting contest, the Australian would enjoy a significant advantage, for he is the No. 2-ranked putter on the PGA Tour this season, while McIlroy, who recently switched to a cross-handed method, is ranked 95th.

Though Day says he is still limited by a sore back that has required treatment, stretching and good rest each night, he has played 19 fewer holes this week than McIlroy (69-88), a byproduct of stellar play, slumping opponents and Paul Casey conceding after six holes Friday because of a stomach virus.

“Any sort of advantage I can take,” Day said, “I need against him. He’s obviously a fit-looking bloke, so I don’t think he’s going to have any trouble with that.”

But the back soreness doesn’t appear to be hindering Day’s game, either.

One up against Brooks Koepka, he smashed a 367-yard drive, then hit a towering 8-iron from 189 yards to 10 feet for a conceded eagle on 12. On the next hole, the short 13th, he drove the green. Two holes later, he took a seemingly unthinkable line over a hospitality tent, a 368-yard bomb that all but secured his quarterfinal victory.

Funny, because his week that began with him nearly withdrawing because of injury culminated Saturday with his return to world No. 1.   

“It’s the weirdest thing,” he said.

There’s been nothing odd about McIlroy’s week. After steamrolling Chris Kirk with four back-nine birdies, McIlroy now has a 12-match unbeaten streak and is just two more wins from joining Tiger Woods as the only players to defend their Match Play titles.

All spring, McIlroy’s goal was to get a win before Augusta. Sunday is his final chance, and he’ll have to get past not only Day, but also the winner of the Louis Oosthuizen-Rafael Cabrera Bello match.

“Getting wins, you do get momentum with every single round that you get through,” McIlroy said. “You can feel it build and you can go with it.”

Obviously, one 18-hole match won’t provide a definitive answer about who is better, McIlroy or Day, but these head-to-head battles between stars are increasingly rare, especially in this fickle format.


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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.''