Short game propels Senden to second Tour title

By Ryan LavnerMarch 17, 2014, 12:09 am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – In this era of titanium-denting bombers and bold, brash youngsters, 42-year-old John Senden has come to realize this:

“You really have to do everything great to win.”               

Funny thing, then, because in the final round of the Valspar Championship, one of the game’s pre-eminent ball-strikers needed to rely on a sublime short game to notch his first PGA Tour title in nearly eight years.

“When a good ball-striker starts putting good,” said his caddie of 12 years, Josh Cassell, “it’s a pretty nice combo.”

No kidding. 

Struggling with his long game on Innisbrook’s claustrophobic Copperhead Course – he hit just five fairways and 10 greens in the final round – Senden was able to summon the short-game magic that for some many years has been missing.   

Valspar Championship leaderboard

Valspar Championship: Articles, videos and photos

Coming down the stretch, he rammed home a 15-foot birdie putt on 14, chipped in on 16 and then sank a 21-footer on 17. He played the downwind 18th conservatively, taking iron off the tee and finding the middle of the green with his approach. From 37 feet he nestled his birdie putt within a few inches, leading to a stress-free, tap-in par for his first (and only other) Tour victory since the 2006 John Deere Classic. 

At 42, Senden is the oldest winner on Tour this season by five years. He also punched his ticket to the Masters for the third consecutive year. 

“I’ve been doing a lot of things great,” said Senden, who is expected to move to about No. 60 in the world rankings, “it’s just about continuing to believe that I can actually do it.”

Senden has always known how to dissect a golf course – he was ranked inside the top 12 in ball-striking for a decade (2002-2012). But what has held him back has been his work around the greens. Since the Tour began keeping the strokes gained-putting statistic in 2004, he has finished outside the top 100 seven times. He’s never been better than 64th. 

Recently, though, he enlisted the help of seemingly every putting guru with an opinion – Ian Triggs, Pat O’Brien, even Ian Baker-Finch has offered a few tips. His posture improved. He lightened his grip pressure. But most important was a mental adjustment. 

“I had to believe that I’m hitting good putts all the time, rather than just some of the time,” said Senden, who entered this week No. 11 in putting.

Sure, it helps too that he is healthy after dealing with an assortment of injuries in the past 16 months. 

He suffered a rib injury in either late 2012 or early 2013, making it difficult for him to fire through the ball. As a result he overcompensated with his hands, and soon he developed wrist soreness. He wound up 120th in 2013 earnings.  

“It was hard work last year,” he admitted.

The last seven-plus years haven’t been easy either, as Senden fought to rediscover that championship form. 

So, he was asked: Is the thrill of victory any different now than it was back in 2006? 

“It is something that makes you believe that you can get it done more than just once,” he said. “Thinking back in 2006, was it something of a flash in the pan? I don’t believe so. It feels good to do it again after seven years. Lots of good things to come.”

Getty Images

Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

Getty Images

DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

Getty Images

Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

Getty Images

Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials contacted Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial.