Spieth has Sunday edge after clawing way back

By Ryan LavnerApril 9, 2017, 12:33 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Jordan Spieth has adopted a new mentality this week, ever since he took a 9, ever since he hovered near the cut line, ever since his redemption tour was briefly suspended.

Swing freely. Play confidently. Keep grinding.

And not give a – well, you know – about anything else.

“It’s win or go home,” he said. “So if you pull off the shots and you make the putts, then I want to give myself a chance for that to be enough. And if I don’t, then so be it.

“Finishing fifth versus 10th doesn’t mean much to me. So that frees me up a bit tomorrow.”

When he entered the media building Saturday evening, Spieth stared intently at the leaderboard.

He was two shots back.

Tied for fourth.

Spieth never changed his expression, but he could have been excused for a double take.

For the first time in his career, Spieth won’t take at least a share of the lead into Masters Sunday – and yet he’s feeling just as dangerous.

The master of the Masters was left for dead after he took a quadruple-bogey 9 on his 15th hole of the tournament. At the end of Day 1, he was 10 shots off the lead. Midway through Day 2, with Charley Hoffman pulling away, Spieth was in danger of being sent packing.

But he never panicked, because around here, with his level of comfort, it’s a waste of energy. He came home in 33, including birdies on Nos. 16 and 18, and practically floated into the scoring center.

“It gave me that chance,” he said. “I went to bed with my heart pumping faster last night.”

And then he played with renewed purpose on Saturday, ending his front nine with three birdies in a four-hole span. His lethal short game took over from there, with nifty par saves on the 10th and 12th holes, and then one of the boldest shots of his young career, into the par-5 13th.

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With Spieth’s ball on a sidehill lie in the pine straw, and with 228 yards to the well-guarded green, his caddie, Michael Greller, pushed for a layup.

“What would Arnie do?” Spieth asked, and they both knew the answer. He ripped a 4-iron into the middle of the green, leading to a two-putt birdie. He shot 68.

From out of the tournament to another chance at a green jacket, all in 27 holes.

“After the first round,” he said, “I couldn’t ask for much better than this.”

If Spieth truly strikes fear into the rest of the field, we’ll find out Sunday. He’s right there, again, the continuation of a historic four-year run of excellence here. 

Of the 15 rounds he’s played, he’s been in the top 5 after 12 of them.

His career record is 2-1-2. Adding to that tally Sunday, with either a win or a runner-up, would match Jack Nicklaus (1963-66).

“We have a great history here,” said Spieth, in the understatement of the day, but his dominance isn’t as easy to quantify. He cracked that, unlike in the early 2000s, there is no way for Augusta to “Jordan-proof” this place. He doesn’t overpower the course. He’s not always down the center stripe of each fairway. He’ll occasionally hit some errant approaches. But his short game is magical. And he never quits. Never believes he’s out of it.

“Jordan Spieth is a huge threat to this tournament," Adam Scott said. 

“He’s got a great golfing brain,” said Justin Rose, who is tied with Sergio Garcia at 6-under 210. “This is a very strategic golf course, and you have to make good, smart decisions out there. It tempts you at times. It can dangle the carrot. You need to be on top of your thinking, and he’s very good at that.”

Rose and Garcia may have 31 Masters appearances between them, but they never have experienced the suffocating pressure of holding a lead and turning toward the back nine.

In that respect, Spieth holds a massive edge.

Three years ago, he eased off the gas and got lapped by Bubba Watson.

Two years ago, he stiff-armed the field during a historic romp.

And last year, well, last year he endured the biggest collapse in tournament history, going from five ahead to three behind in less than an hour.  

Important lessons, all of them.

“I know that anything can happen,” he said with a wry smile.

Indeed, the question that hovered over Spieth as this Masters approached – will the back nine haunt him forever? – now gives him confidence as the pursuer.

“I’ve been on both sides of it now,” he said, “and I like the winning side better. So I’m certainly going to go for broke.”

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.