Shelton: The best 'Bama has, and only a freshman

By Ryan LavnerMay 29, 2014, 2:32 pm

HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Maybe we should have seen this star-making NCAA performance coming.

At the 2010 U.S. Junior Amateur in Michigan, Robby Shelton was a baby-faced, painfully shy 14-year-old with a peach-fuzz mustache and gold Titleist hat. Ranked 229th in the country, he took down a hotshot prep named Jordan Spieth, who was only weeks removed from an auspicious debut at the Byron Nelson Championship.

Despite giving up at least 40 yards off the tee and nearly three years of experience, Shelton dinked-and-dunked his way to a stunning victory. His local caddie at Egypt Valley CC was Brian Barkeley, and even though he’d just met the kid earlier that week he sensed a star-in-waiting.

“It doesn’t matter who he’s playing against,” Barkeley said then. “He’s just so steady.”

The looper believed so deeply in Shelton, he told everyone he knew to come out and watch his early matches. “He’s going to do something special this week,” said Barkeley, and sure enough Shelton did, knocking off another top player, Anthony Paolucci (now with USC), in the quarterfinals.

“You just felt like he was going to find a way to win,” Paolucci said at the time. “It was a weird feeling.”

And it’s a feeling that his opponents have experienced ever since.

Within a few years of that breakout performance, Shelton blossomed into the No. 1-ranked junior player in the country and the most highly sought-after prospect. He was a three-time state high school champion in Alabama, a multiple AJGA invitational winner and a member of the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team.

“He’s been a finisher his whole life,” said ’Bama senior Bobby Wyatt, who grew up about 20 minutes away from Shelton’s hometown of Wilmer, near Mobile. “He’s always been a winner.”

Shelton was still a reserved kid with a monster game when he arrived in Tuscaloosa, but during his first season with the Tide he slowly came out of his shell. Soft-spoken with a camera in his face, he’s genuine, down-to-earth and wonderfully sarcastic in small, comfortable settings.  

“(Assistant coach) Mike McGraw always gives us grief,” senior Cory Whitsett says, “like, ‘Look what you’ve done to the freshman! He didn’t talk like that coming in!’”

A few weeks ago, Alabama’s trainer thought it’d be fun to measure the players’ biceps. Shelton’s teammates had begun calling him “meathead,” because of his strict diet and near-obsessive habits in the gym. One day they went to Smoothie King for a post-round snack, and every player ordered a fruity drink … everyone, that is, but Shelton, who opted for the Carrot Kale Dream.

Anyway, Shelton stood up in front of his unimposing teammates and flexed. “It was just a rock, with a vein protruding at the top,” Whitsett says, shaking his head. “We’re all like, ‘Oh my God.’ He loves it. He loves trying to look good.”

Though he likely will get carded for the next 20 years, Shelton has turned his once-boyish physique into the build of a prototypical tour player – tall, lean and broad-shouldered, with a powerful, sturdy base.

More than his twice-a-day workouts, though, it is his range sessions that have become the stuff of legend at ’Bama. Like most great players, Shelton has a few quirks with his practice – in his case, he loathes seeing his shadow. So, in the late-afternoon sun, he’ll rotate his body nearly 90 degrees and hit balls to the left edge of the range, just to avoid seeing his action. On cloudy days, his teammates joke that he’s probably flustered being able to hit from anywhere.

The ribbing stops, of course, once the stripe show begins.

“I literally just sit there and my jaw drops,” says redshirt sophomore Tom Lovelady. “Straight up and straight down. The ball doesn’t move.”

Indeed, it didn’t take long for Shelton to earn his teammates’ respect and trust. He was Alabama’s best player this season, winning in his first start at Olympia Fields, adding another title in the spring at Reynolds Plantation and posting eight other top-10s.

In the NCAA stroke-play qualifier here at Prairie Dunes, Shelton shot 72-65-68 to tie for third individually, one shot out of the playoff. Then the fun began.

In the Tide’s quarterfinal match against SMU, Shelton was 2 down with seven holes to play when he chipped in from behind the green on 15, made another birdie on 16, and got up and down from the knee-high grass right of 17 to eventually win, 2 up.

Later that afternoon, he was all square with three to go against LSU’s Stewart Jolly when he holed a chip shot on 16, then knocked a 4-iron to 10 feet on the par-5 17th. Match over, 2 and 1.

The legend was growing, fast, but Shelton somehow saved his best for Wednesday’s NCAA Championship final against Oklahoma State. On the same day that he was named the Phil Mickelson Award winner as the nation’s top freshman, Shelton outdueled Zachary Olsen in what proved to be a pivotal point for the Tide.

In a wildly entertaining match, Shelton ripped off six birdies in his last seven holes – and nine of his last 13 – and shot 7 under to win, 1 up. On the final green, on live television, he sank a cold-blooded 12-foot birdie putt with his opponent in tight and looking to send the match into extras.

“Something just mentally clicks inside of me,” Shelton said afterward. “I know that I have to pull it off, and I know that I’m going to do it.”

McGraw walked all but five rounds this season with senior Trey Mullinax, but the partnership grew stale at Prairie Dunes. For match play, McGraw switched over to Shelton, per the kid’s request, and what the coach witnessed for the past two days was the “most impressive performance I’ve ever seen in a national championship.”

“There’s a calmness and confidence and composure that you don’t have as an 18-year-old,” McGraw said. “He does the best job of letting his clubs do the talking that I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t say anything about his game; doesn’t need to. All I did was remind him of how great he was and how he was going to get it back.”

Shelton delivered the second point for top-ranked Alabama on its way to a 4-and-1 victory over No. 2 Oklahoma State. In all three matches he trailed late on the back nine. Each time he prevailed.

“I never thought I could have as much faith in a freshman as I had in Robby Shelton,” Whitsett says. “It was like, ‘Well, we’re going to win that one.’ It didn’t matter how many he was down.”

Said Mullinax: “It was almost like a weight was lifted off of you when he’s out there playing because you know he’s going to do everything he can to win that match and that he will not quit until he does. He’s a fighter, he’s a competitor, and I’m glad that he’s on our team.”

This week’s NCAAs marked the final event for the Tide’s trio of seniors. The two-time defending champions will undoubtedly be Robby Shelton’s team for the next three years, or until he decides to test the pro ranks.

That leadership role brings new responsibilities – in the gym, in the classroom, in the team room, in the lineup – and Shelton says that he’s prepared to “carry the team on my back,” if needed.

“I’ve never met anybody who sees golf the way he sees it,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “He has a vision of what a ball should do, and then it actually happens. He wills it in, and he’s done that forever.”

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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.