Fuzzys First Win a Major Triumph
'There's no greater feeling in the world,' said Zoeller, who pocketed a career-best $360,000 for the win. 'I know these guys are a little older but victory lane is just something special.'
Zoeller had not won anywhere since the 1986 Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic. He won 10 times on tour, including the 1979 Masters and the 1984 U.S. Open, but never won a PGA Championship. Zoeller finished second to fellow Senior Tour member Larry Nelson in the 1981 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.
'I wasn't sure I'd ever win again,' he said. 'Every time I got close, somebody seemed to play a little better.'
Hale Irwin, a three-time Senior PGA Champion, shared second place with overnight leader Bobby Wadkins. Irwin posted a 68 Sunday while Wadkins carded a 1-over 71 to join Irwin at even-par 280.
Jim Thorpe, the winner of the tour's first major, The Tradition, tied for fourth with Roy Vucinich at plus 1.
Japan's Seiji Ebihara put his name in Senior Tour record books Sunday. He opened the round with seven consecutive birdies and added another at No. 9 to fire an 8-under 27 on the front-nine holes, matching the tour record set by Jay Sigel in the 1998 Bell Atlantic Classic.
'For the past three days, I have gone over par - 3-over, 3-over, 5-over,' Ebihara said through a translator. 'I was thinking I wanted to get under par. That's how it started.'
Ebihara stumbled home with three back-nine bogeys for a 5-under 65, the lowest round of the championship. He tied for 18th at 8-over-par 288 alongside the previous two champions of this event, Tom Watson (2001) and Doug Tewell (2000).
Zoeller made up the one-stroke difference between himself and Wadkins early with a 10-foot birdie at the first. Zoeller held the lead throughout Sunday's round and reached 2-under-par after a five-foot birdie putt on No. 11.
Wadkins, who played with Zoeller Sunday, ran home a birdie from three feet a hole later to get within one shot of Zoeller's lead.
At the 13th, Zoeller pulled his tee shot badly, landing in the left rough. He was unable to advance the ball only 50 yards but he wedged his approach to 10 feet. Zoeller stepped up and holed the putt to keep his one-shot lead over Wadkins.
'It seemed like every time I was out today, my putter saved me,' said Zoeller. 'That putt at 13 was very crucial. Those are the things that happen when you win tournaments.'
'I was seeing somebody doing his job,' Wadkins said. 'He hit a bad tee shot and then a bad second shot. He caught a good break when it hit the tree and came straight down into the lighter rough. Then he got up and down for par.
'Not having won for a while, if he makes double bogey there, it's a different ballgame.'
Both players parred 14 but the advantage clearly landed with Zoeller at the par-3 15th. Wadkins landed in a bunker and could not get up and down to save par. Zoeller roped a 3-iron seven feet from the hole where he two-putted for par and a one-shot lead.
Zoeller was erratic with the driver again on 17 when he pushed his tee ball into thick rough on the right side. He had no shot at the pin with trees in his way so he played long and left of the green where he chipped to eight feet. Zoeller once again holed a big par save and played 18 with a two-shot lead.
Zoeller found the fairway at 18 and knocked his approach to 10 feet. At that point, Zoeller raised his arms and the large gallery voiced their approval, a sign that Senior Tour officials like to see.
When Zoeller joined the elder circuit earlier this year, it was thought that he could provide some star power to an organization sorely lacking in that department. Television ratings and attendance are down but Zoeller downplayed what impact he can have on that.
'I'm just one person. We're doing a lot of positives for the game of golf on the senior tour,' Zoeller said. 'We don't want people to think we're clones. We want to show them we're human. I know I am.'
Final results from the Senior PGA Championship
McIlroy gets back on track
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.
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.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
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.
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.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
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.
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.
McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call
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.
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.