Spieth not second-guessing decision to play Deere

By Ryan LavnerJuly 7, 2015, 8:42 pm

Jordan Spieth has already landed two big prizes this season. He reeled in a third (and a fourth) last month in the Caribbean, where he was vacationing with friends following his stirring victory at the U.S. Open.

One afternoon in the Bahamas, Spieth and his buddies were out on a boat snorkeling when they threw in a few lines, just to see if they could catch anything. He wound up in a two-and-a-half-hour game of tug-of-war with a 12-foot-long, 300-pound black tip shark that had eaten the tuna he’d hooked. A 2-for-1 deal. 

“I had to take a break,” Spieth told reporters Tuesday. “My arm couldn’t move anymore.”

His pals offered to take over for a while, but Spieth, ever the competitor, didn’t dare lose his catch.

“I’m like, ‘You bet your ass you’re not taking over,’” he said, laughing. “’This is my fish. There’s no way you’re stepping on this. You’re going to lose it.’”

His arm was sore a few days after the trip but is fine now.

Good thing, because after the unfortunate injury news surrounding world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, the sport can’t afford another star on the disabled list – especially one with as much on the line as Spieth, who is trying to join Ben Hogan as the only players to win the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same season.

But how Spieth has prepared for that shot at history has come under scrutiny.

Some suggested that he should have headed over early and logged as many practice rounds as he could at St. Andrews, a course he has played only once, while on his way to the 2011 Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen.

Others argued that he should have teed it up at the Scottish Open, because then he would have gotten adjusted not only to the five-hour time change but also the weather, conditions and links golf.

Instead, Spieth stayed true to the John Deere Classic, the down-home Tour stop in Silvis, Ill., that features one of the smallest purses on the calendar but is a place that holds special meaning to him. The tournament first offered him a sponsor exemption the summer after his freshman year at Texas, a crucial time when he was deciding whether to make the jump to the pros. A year later, he holed a bunker shot on the 72nd hole and won the first of what is now four Tour titles.

“It never really crossed my mind to drop out,” he said.

Assuming Spieth makes the cut this week, he will board the Sunday-night charter that the Deere provides for players who are also in the Open. That leaves him only two-and-a-half days to prepare for the most pressure-packed tournament of his life.  

Yet to hear Spieth on Tuesday, his decision to play the Deere isn’t because of nostalgia, or simply because he made a commitment months before he won two majors. He’s playing the Deere because he believes it gives him the best chance to be successful in the year’s third major.

And doesn’t Spieth know his game best?

“I think this is good preparation for me to get good feels, to get in contention, and to find out what’s on and what’s off when I’m in contention,” he said. “I’m here because I believe I can win this week. I believe that it’s advantageous for me to try and win this week and to continue the momentum into the Open Championship.”

That formula seemed to work during the first two majors of the year.

He prepared for the Masters by finishing second in San Antonio and losing in a playoff in Houston.

He prepared for the U.S. Open by tying for third at the Memorial on the strength of a closing 65.

Now, he is preparing for the third leg of the Grand Slam at a place that has produced at least a 19-under-par winning score every year since 2009.

Besides, it’s a familiar routine. After his win in ’13, he flew across the pond for the Muirfield Open. Playing his fourth tournament in a row, he ran out of gas after an opening 69 and faded to a top-45 finish. Last year, he didn’t have his best stuff and still recorded a T-7 at the Deere, but then continued his mid-season swoon with a pedestrian showing at Hoylake.

“I just want to get in contention here,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where it is. I will certainly have enough energy. I will certainly have enough rest, and I will be as prepared as I can be by the time I tee it up at St. Andrews.” 

Spieth’s biggest challenge the past few weeks has been blocking out all of the “noise.” He can’t avoid the Grand Slam talk, but he’s trying his best to minimize it, whether that’s staying off of his phone or changing the channel when the topic comes up.  

“I’m ready to just get inside the ropes and start playing,” he said.

After his recent fishing adventure, a fifth big prize awaits.

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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.