Glover, Levin trying to move on from disappointment

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 8, 2015, 1:17 am

SAN DIEGO – Not every career follows the script. Spencer Levin and Lucas Glover know this.  

For every prospect that rockets to superstardom, there’s a can’t-miss kid who flames out.

For every major champion who goes on to capture multiple Grand Slam events, there is one who spends the rest of his competitive years searching.

Remember … 

Levin seemed poised to take the next step in his career before a death in his family, then a fluky thumb injury.

Glover seemed poised to build on his U.S. Open victory, only to hit rock bottom with his putting and his game.

Now, both are among the seven players within a shot of the lead heading into the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open, and there is a massive opportunity at stake – a chance to forever banish what has been a turbulent few years.

“There’s a saying that you hear a lot,” Glover said, “that when the Tour player is playing well, the golf seems so easy. And when you’re playing poorly, it seems so hard. That is confidence.”

And lately, it’s been in short supply.

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Start with Levin. He was the chain-smoking, swaggering 20-year-old who burst onto the national scene at the 2004 U.S. Open. His 13th-place finish at Shinnecock was the best Open finish by an amateur in 33 years, and he was ranked as high as No. 2 in the world, but professional success proved elusive.

Sure, he’s carved out a nice living for himself, earning nearly $6 million in 5 1/2 full seasons on Tour, but the 30-year-old has taken plenty of knocks over the past few years – probably too many for someone his age.  

After near-misses in Phoenix and Columbus, Levin was enjoying one of his best years on Tour in 2012 when he received news that his stepbrother, Blake, had died unexpectedly at the age of 28. Levin tried to play the following week, but he withdrew after an opening 80. The two had grown up together and were only six months apart. (Spencer's grandfather also died in 2012.)

Two days after the WD, on Sept. 5, Levin stopped smoking, cold turkey. To fans he was known mostly as the diminutive, cocky 20-something who would blow through a few packs per round, the smoke billowing under his visor. But since, Levin doesn’t spend much time in the gym, nor does he adhere to a strict diet, he wanted to “feel like at least I did good for myself.” So he quit.

There wasn’t a temptation to smoke because he wasn’t playing competitively. A few weeks after Blake’s death, while playing with friends, Levin felt something pop between his wrist and thumb. The pain was so intense that he couldn’t grip a club, and an MRI confirmed that he had torn a ligament in his left thumb. He underwent surgery and sat out eight months.

When he returned, his attitude was awful. He didn’t enjoy being out here.

“And that only got worse on my mind,” he said, “because I should enjoy playing golf. I’ve got a great job, and I do love what I do, but it kind of snowballed.

“I’m feeling like myself again and trying to make things a little easier.”

Entering this season with eight starts remaining on his major medical extension, Levin needed to earn $317,703 or 122.837 FedEx Cup points. An 8-foot par putt on the 72nd hole in Mexico – the final round before the Tour takes a seven-week winter break – secured full status for this season.

With the turmoil of the past few years behind him, maybe now is the time for Levin to fulfill the lofty expectations that were thrust upon him as a hotshot amateur.

“It’s a weird thing,” he said, “because people always say, ‘This guy should have won more.’ I never really believed in that. When you play competitive golf and you’re out there when it’s happening, when somebody says they didn’t reach their potential, who’s to say? Maybe that’s just how good that guy was, or there’s something that holds that guy back from not doing it.

“Relative to a lot of people it’s been good, and relative to a lot of people it hasn’t. It’s all timing. Maybe tomorrow will be a good day for me.”

There haven’t been many good days for Glover over the past few years.

Consider where he was in 2009: a U.S. Open champion, with $3.69 million in earnings and a top-10 spot on the money list.

“Sometimes it seems like yesterday,” he said of Bethpage, “and sometimes it seems like 20 years.”

Glover won again at Quail Hollow in 2011, but over the past 3 1/2 years he has combined for two top 10s and 44 missed cuts (73 starts).

His troubles can be traced to an ice-cold putter. In 2013, he was ranked 178th on Tour in strokes gained-putting. Last year, he was dead last, at No. 177,losing nearly a stroke and a half (1.472) to the field on the greens.

An epiphany came Tuesday of Humana week. Glover’s caddie, Don Cooper, suggested that his man widen his stance and hit putts, not stroke them – like in the old days. It worked, because Glover shot four rounds in the 60s and finished T-15 that week, his best result in 10 months.

Here at Torrey Pines, Glover hasn’t been spectacular on the greens, but it’s been plenty good enough. After a 5-for-14 effort off the tee on Thursday, his first stop after the round wasn’t to the putting green but to the range.

“My putter has bailed me out,” he said. “It’s the first time in a couple of years that I’ve been able to say that.”

Sunday is an important day for Glover, who is in the final year of his exemption for winning the Open. (An extra year was added for his ’11 Quail title.) Last year he was 185th in FedEx Cup earnings, and he needs to capitalize on the good weeks when they come.

When asked if there’s any added pressure this year, knowing that at age 35 he’s reached a critical juncture in his career, he said, “If I start thinking about that, you start thinking about having to make the cut and having to make a check and you forget about winning golf tournaments. Every guy shows up on Monday trying to win. That’s the mindset I have to have. I can’t think about it any other way.”

Because there is still plenty of time to rewrite the script.

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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.