With revamped stroke, Steele fires 'basic' 63

By Ryan LavnerOctober 15, 2015, 10:21 pm

NAPA, Calif. – Brendan Steele had just poured in his third 20-footer in the last four holes when one of his fellow playing competitors decided he had seen enough.

“Just hang in there, it’s a long season,” Steve Wheatcroft quipped as they walked off the 15th green at Silverado. “You’ll make one eventually.”

Oh, Steele made more than a few Thursday during a 9-under 63 that gave him a one-shot lead over Jhonattan Vegas at the season-opening Frys.com Open.

With the anchoring ban now just two-and-a-half months away, Steele is relieved just to watch a few putts drop.

He went to the belly putter because he believed it was a better way to putt, but he conceded that he wouldn’t have gone to the method if he’d known it eventually would be banned.

“It put everybody behind,” he said.

Steele was one of several players forced to make the switch, though the 32-year-old decided to transition in spring 2014, once he’d locked up his card. So, for the first time in eight years, he ditched the belly putter and went back to a conventional-length putter with a claw grip, which he has used since college.

“It was scary,” he said, before adding, “but I figured there was nothing to lose. If I putted well, I would be ahead of the game.”

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That turned out to be the case, at least initially, as he finished fifth in his next two starts. But by no means did he light up leaderboards last season – he was ranked 121st in strokes gained-putting.

“Keegan (Bradley) and I have talked about this a lot,” he said. “Basically, everybody is thousands of hours of practice behind with the short putter. So that’s where everybody has to kind of catch up. We have to outwork everybody now to pick up those little idiosyncrasies that we’ve missed over the last eight or 10 years.”

At times, the greatest battle was mental. The anchoring brigade felt increased scrutiny every time they made a switch and played an event.

“You know everybody is paying attention,” Steele said, “so when you have a 4- or 5-footer on your first hole, you’re like, 'Just don’t miss this one,' instead of, 'OK, what do I need to do here?' You start thinking about, What is everybody going to say if I miss this one?'”

Steele is over that stage fright now, his confidence surging after what he says was his best season as a pro, even better than his breakout in 2011, when he won his first (and only) event and shared the 54-hole lead at the PGA.

He has been stunningly consistent in each of his five full seasons on Tour – a similar number of starts (24-27), a similar number of top 10s (2-4), a similar paycheck at the end of the year.

But in 2014-15, he posted more good finishes in fewer events. He had a better made-cut percentage (20 of 24). He even played well overseas.

A number of factors contributed to that, whether it was his continued work with swing coach Rick Smith and putting guru Chris Mayson, a reliable caddie in Christian Donald, or the time spent in the gym that has seen his driving distance spike 13 yards in the past two years.  

“Maybe each one is worth a quarter of a shot a round,” he said, “and it ends up being a big deal at the end of the year.”

His season ended three weeks ago in Chicago, and he couldn’t wait for the restart.

Last week, he shot 62 in a casual round with friends. In the Wednesday pro-am here, he felt in total control of his game and started to get antsy.

“I hate it when I’m home and I feel really good; it’s hard to keep it,” he said. “I always say your game is either coming or going. So when it’s coming, you want to be in the right place.”

Like, you know, wine country?

On a postcard day, Steele went out in 29 and made par on his last four holes for his lowest opening round in 16 months. With that revamped putting stroke, he brushed in nine birdies, six of which came from inside 7 feet.

“Kind of a basic 63,” he shrugged.

It's a long season with an auspicious start. 

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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.