Annika a Perfect 10 in Stellar Season

By Sports NetworkDecember 14, 2005, 5:00 pm
Even as young up-and-comers commanded headlines during the LPGA Tour's 2005 season -- and they did, almost weekly -- a steely veteran was still able to defend her turf as the best women's golfer in the world.
 
Resilience to challenge may be Annika Sorenstam's most invaluable quality, the one that has enabled her to be so good for so long. And for that alone she could be considered one of the most dominant athletes in the world.
 
But for us, it's just one of many reasons we consider her the best.
 
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
That Sorenstam won 10 times on the LPGA Tour in 2005 is not surprising. In fact, nothing she accomplished during the season -- not winning her sixth Vare Trophy for scoring average, nor earning better than $2 million for the fifth straight year while no one else has even done it once -- could be considered so.
 
But it's exactly that almost robotic consistency which elevates Sorenstam to a level of excellence enjoyed by similarly dominant athletes like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Tiger Woods.
 
Annika Sorenstam
Annika Sorenstam's win at the season-ending ADT Championship was her 10th triumph of the year.
She deserves to be mentioned in the same breath, and not just at the end of the exhale. So let's look at her year.
 
Sorenstam shot under par in 52 of her 70 rounds in 2005, and her 10 victories came in just 20 starts. She finished in the top 10 in 15 of those tournaments.
 
Her first three wins came in three straight tournaments in March -- the MasterCard Classic, the Safeway International and the first LPGA major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, which she won by eight shots.
 
Sorenstam then won the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship and the ShopRite LPGA Classic by a combined 14 shots, before beating teenager Michelle Wie by three strokes in the year's second major, the McDonald's LPGA Championship.
 
Three months later, in September, Sorenstam edged rookie Paula Creamer by a shot in the John Q. Hammons Hotel Classic for her seventh title of the year. Her eighth win also came against Creamer, an eight-stroke victory in the Samsung World Championship.
 
Sorenstam then finished off her year with two victories in November, at the Mizuno Classic and the season-ending ADT Championship.
 
The win at the ADT Championship -- her 66th title in 12 full seasons on the LPGA Tour -- did not come without controversy. Sorenstam was involved in a bit of a row with Creamer over a drop at the 18th hole during the first round; her fierce defense that she should be allowed a drop, despite Creamer's insistence that she should re-tee, exemplified not only her unparalleled knowledge of the rule book, but also an unwillingness to cede even a sliver of the high ground she has earned as the best women's golfer in the world.
 
Some might call such displays arrogance -- and some of us have -- but to watch it unfold live was to watch an athlete at the peak of her career, with 65 titles in her pocket, battling tooth-and-nail for No. 66.
 
TOURNAMENT OF THE YEAR
Sorenstam's dominance in 2005 extended somewhat to the Solheim Cup -- she lost just once, in the Saturday morning foursomes matches -- but it didn't keep the United States from improving to 5-0 on home soil with a 15 1/2 - 12 1/2 victory at Crooked Stick.
 
The Solheim Cup is a chalk pick for Tournament of the Year, but a good one nonetheless. This year's edition included good storylines.
 
United States captain Nancy Lopez took her duties seriously, orchestrating a campaign of bonding between the American women, some of whom were part of a bad loss to the Europeans in 2003. She organized practice rounds and several dinners, and gathered the 12 women together for wine and movies.
 
It paid dividends.
 
Paula Creamer
Paula Creamer helped lead a new wave of American women to a Solheim Cup victory.
The patriotism which is always a feature of the fashion -- temporary tattoos on cheeks, appropriately-colored hair accoutrements -- spilled over into a nationalistic fervor at this year's Solheim Cup, displayed by players and fans alike and fueled by a tangible feeling of togetherness among the teammates.
 
Christina Kim emerged as a loud, feisty competitor. Creamer boldly guaranteed victory, and then went 3-1-1 in her Solheim Cup debut. Both players, along with fellow first-timer Natalie Gulbis, helped the U.S. Solheim Cup rookies go 8-3-2.
 
It was, as Lopez offered afterwards, like a dream.
 
'They were ready,' she said. 'The players played their hearts out.'
 
SHOT OF THE YEAR
When Meg Mallon rolled in a six-foot par save at the 16th on Sunday, she halved the hole with Karen Stupples and went 2-up with two to play. That assured the American side a half point, which was enough to give them the 14 1/2 points needed to win the Solheim Cup.
 
Mallon became the all-time leading point winner in American Solheim Cup history with her defeat of Stupples. But more than that, her putt provided a sigh of relief for the Americans, who needed just a half point to win, but were behind in most of the final matches.
 
'What a great feeling,' said Mallon, who was in the opposite spot in 1992 when Europe clinched the Solheim Cup in her singles match. 'I'm so proud of [my teammates]. We had to play exceptional to beat them. What a match.'
 
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
And what a rookie year for Mallon's teammate, the 19-year-old Creamer.
 
Creamer's list of accomplishments in 2005 is impressive: a two-time winner and the youngest champion on the LPGA Tour in 52 years; second to Sorenstam on the money list with more than $1.5 million; 11 top-10 finishes in 25 starts; first in putting average; and, maybe most importantly, the most-successful of the LPGA's young up-and-comers.
 
Michelle Wie may have garnered headlines for playing with the guys while being too young to drive a car, among other things, but she was one of two players who finished second, by eight strokes, to Creamer at the Evian Masters.
 
That win alone would make Creamer a good choice for Rookie of the Year.
 
GOOD YEAR
Lost in the shuffle somewhat were the good seasons put together by some other LPGA pros.
 
Cristie Kerr finished third on the money list with better than $1.35 million and was the only player besides Sorenstam and Creamer to win twice (at the Michelob Ultra Open and the Wendy's Championship).
 
Jeong Jang played alongside Sorenstam in the final round of the Women's British Open and finished off a wire-to-wire victory for her first career title. She put together 15 top-10 finishes in 27 starts and finished fifth on the money list.
 
Natalie Gulbis had her best year as a pro -- she placed sixth on the money list with more than $1 million and had her reality show debut on the Golf Channel -- but is still seeking that elusive first win.
 
BAD YEAR
Sherri Steinhauer, a 20-year pro, managed just one top-10 finish in her 25 starts during the 2005 season. She finishes in the top 20 in just one major statistical category.

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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.