Balance between technical, touch guiding Phil at AT&T

By Will GrayFebruary 13, 2016, 12:30 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – There may be a few extra wrinkles lining his familiar face these days, his visage a bit more weathered after traveling fairways and greens under the sun for more than two decades.

And recently, he may have incorporated a few new buzzwords to describe his swing, hinting at a more technical approach to a game he refined by feel for years  like a sculptor crafting a masterpiece from a single slab.

But make no mistake: the youthful spirit that propelled Phil Mickelson to unprecedented heights remains alive and well. The kid who trusted his touch without hesitation, the swashbuckler who took on every challenging shot with the same confident swagger? He’s in there, too.

It seemed like that persona had been in hiding over much of the last two years. But as he embarks on a new approach with a new coach, Mickelson has tapped back into those inner workings that helped guide him to the first 42 career wins.

And now, heading into the weekend at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am one shot off the lead, Mickelson is in prime position to record win No. 43.

Granted, Mickelson’s talking points of late have become increasingly technical, making it seem as though he had all but abandoned his innate touch and feel on the course.

At the CareerBuilder Challenge, where he finished T-3, he spoke of “face awareness.” During last week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open it was “shot dispersions” and “divot patterns,” hardly the diction of a player directed by feel and touch.

But as Lefty explained it after a 6-under 65 at Monterey Peninsula Country Club that followed a 68 at Spyglass Hill, the technical jargon is a necessary requirement to tap into those elusive elements as he continues the transition from Butch Harmon to Andrew Getson.

“The only way to have proper feel and that slight sensitivity to get a ball to fade 5 or 6 feet, or get it to draw 4 or 5 feet, that stuff, you’ve got to be on plane,” Mickelson said. “Now that I’m starting to be back on plane, all that touch, sensitivity and feel is coming back.”

That progression has been evident early this year, as Mickelson makes his fourth start in as many weeks. Outside of a poor round on the North Course at Torrey Pines that led to a missed cut, Mickelson has averaged 67.73 swipes per round in 2016.

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That includes Friday’s effort on the most remote of the three courses in rotation this week, a round that Mickelson started by playing his first 10 holes in 7 under before stumbling a bit down the stretch.

“I thought I was going to shoot a lot lower than I did,” he admitted.

In an era where Trackman is king, players now have instant feedback on precisely what their ball and swing are doing at any given time. Launch angles and spin rates – along with acronyms that seem better suited for baseball sabermetrics – are now commonplace on a practice range.

It’s a fine line, then, for even the best players: trust the gut instinct that got you to an elite level, or buy into what the numbers say about the state of your game.

It represents a battle that Mickelson has waged even this week, as his tinkering has continued despite recent strong results. He tried a new driver for his opening round at Spyglass Hill in search of extra run off the tee before quickly replacing it, and a similar experiment with a new 3-wood cost him on at least three holes during Friday’s inward nine.

Justin Rose trails Mickelson by a shot through two rounds, and he knows full well the temptation to mix science with skill. For Rose, though, that inner feel remains paramount.

“Basically you can have your swing looking up-and-down, but if you haven’t got the inside working well, if you’re not firing the right muscles at the right time … you can have a swing that looks pretty good on camera that kind of goes off in the wrong direction,” Rose said. “So I think that it’s more the feel and the kinetics that are the most important thing.”

Mickelson can derive an extra sense of comfort amid friendly confines this week on the Monterey Peninsula. After all, he’s already won this event four times – two more than the career win total of the four names surrounding his on the leaderboard.

“He seems energized, excited, talking about the game feels easy, he’s enjoying it again,” Rose said. “He seems hungry for it, so it’s great.”

But while he is trending in the right direction, Mickelson hasn’t gotten over the hump in quite some time. His most recent win remains the 2013 Open Championship, a victory that most viewed more as a watershed than one final moment in the sun.

When asked to evaluate the current status of his game, Mickelson paused for a moment before flashing a grin that golf fans know all too well.

“It’s pretty much there,” he said. “I’m very pleased with the way I’m striking the ball, the way I’m chipping, putting, all that stuff, the way it’s coming together.”

It was briefly the look of a much younger man, one who dazzled crowds for years by relying on feel that few have ever known. It was the look of a man who finally, after a pair of lean years, may have unlocked the key to his confidence.

“The last piece,” he added, “is mentally performing under the clutch.”

The opportunity to complete the puzzle awaits this weekend at Pebble Beach.

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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.