New Talent and New Challenge

By Tom AbbottJuly 1, 2008, 4:00 pm
What a pleasure it was to watch the final three days of the Open de France Alstom in the hosts chair and witness the arrival of Pablo Larrazabal. A week earlier the production team and I had expected an easy Sunday of sitting back and enjoying Martin Kaymer cruise to victory as he led by six going into the final round. But the 23-year-old German kept us on our toes all morning, eventually winning in a playoff over Anders Hansen.
 
No such problems for Larrazabal. He was a joy to watch and his demeanor was Seve-esque ' wearing his emotions on his sleeve, putting like a genius and going after every shot as if it were his last. I found it marvelous to watch, a breath of fresh-air. The celebrations were fitting as his fellow countrymen from the European Tour tossed him in the lake. If you held your breath for a second when they let go of him, so did I; some of those lake arent very deep and it would be devastating for a player to get hurt, something to consider as the celebrations get more and more boisterous.
 
Thats for another discussion, though; Larrazabal is the talking point and so he should be. The French Open was just his 17th European Tour start in this his rookie season. He has plenty of time to develop as a player and its hardly as if hes been steadily building a career. He did represent Spain at boys and youth levels, but didnt grab any large piece of amateur silverware like his brother Alejandro, who won The Amateur Championship in 2002.
 
Pablo featured a handful of times on the Challenge Tou,r having done a stint on the family fish-farm, then went to Q-school and qualified for the main tour. Coming into the Open de France his best finish was T15, not bad for a rookie but hardly a warning sign of what was to come at Le Golf National ' which, by the way, is a terrific course and should be considered as a potential Ryder Cup venue. Well watch young Pablo ' hes 25 but looks 17 ' with eager eyes over the rest of the season and see whether he can delight us once again with that wonderful form in the coming few months.
 

Taylor to Return This Week:
On January 9, 2008, Ladies European Tour professional Kirsty Taylor was due to return from Spain having played a pro-am with some fellow LET professionals. The day would change her life. Taylor suffered a mystery fit. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor and nine days later was having surgery. Further procedures followed as did six weeks of radiotherapy.
 
The recovery process has been tough. Taylor has still not received the all-clear yet, and is unable to drive. Recently though, shes been able to cycle to the her local course, Minchinhampton, trying bravely to resume a normal course of action. That includes teeing it up at the Oxfordshire English Ladies Open this week. Its more of a test to see where I am fitness wise and concentration wise; to enjoy the week and see everybody, she says.
 
Hubby Alistair will be on the bag; hell also act as chauffeur on the hour-and-15-minute drive from home. If I get tired and get a headache Alistair will encourage me to come in as it will be daft to carry on.
 
Kirsty will undergo further tests in August to see how shes progressing. If things go well then she hopes to make an appearance at the S4/C Wales Ladies Championship of Europe where she was champion in 2005.
 

Around Europe:
The European Tour visits a new venue for the European Open this week, The London Club, which is not in London at all but south east of the capital in the county of Kent, nicknamed the Garden of England. Colin Montgomerie defends.
 
The Challenge Tour is in France at the AGF-Allianz EurOpen de Lyon. Seve Benson is now leading the standings.
 
The European Seniors Tour heads east to Russia for the Russian Seniors Open at the Pestovo Golf and Yacht Club. Ian Woosnam, Sam Torrance and Jim Colbert are in the field; however, no Russian players are entered.
 
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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.