Fowler vs. Kang: 'It's time to battle'

By Will GrayApril 2, 2017, 12:00 am

HUMBLE, Texas – Sung Kang is closing in on his first-ever trophy at the Shell Houston Open, but Rickie Fowler is determined to make him earn it – if not take it with him down Magnolia Lane.

Staked to a rare lead after a pair of hot putting performances, Kang looked the part Saturday despite the blustery winds that buffeted the Golf Club of Houston. Unfortunately for him, Fowler seemed immune to any adverse conditions for nearly the entire afternoon.

Beginning the day seven shots back, Fowler drew even with Kang after just 14 holes, carding eight birdies across that span. While a trio of late putting miscues turned an other-worldly 64 into a 67, Fowler was still able to get within three shots of Kang heading into the final round.

While Russell Henley also sits one shot further back, Fowler feels like he has Kang in his sights.

“It will be a match-play situation,” Fowler said. “I’m starting the day three back, and it’s going to be fun. I like the challenge of coming from behind and then potentially being able to put pressure on the guy.”

Fowler held the 54-hole lead a few weeks ago at the Honda Classic and managed to convert that into a victory. But the lion’s share of his PGA Tour wins have come from the chase position. While Kang holds the top spot, Fowler’s name could be the one that many players watch on the leaderboard after he bent the Tournament Course to his will for the first 16 holes Saturday.

Of course, his remaining task would have been considerably easier were it not for a bogey on No. 17 and a shocking four-putt double on No. 18 when he missed a pair of putts from inside 5 feet.

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“You can’t really dwell on the last two holes,” he said. “It was a great day of golf. I put myself in a position to go win a golf tournament tomorrow, so we go get some rest, sleep and there’s 18 holes in front of us to go play.”

Fowler came to Houston to build some Masters momentum, just as he did in 2014 when he finished T-6 here before a T-5 finish at Augusta National. So far so good, and he would dearly love the confidence boost of a second win before heading into the season’s first major.

For Kang, 29, there’s considerably more to play for. Having bounced year-to-year between the PGA and circuits since 2011, he could earn some serious job security with the two-year exemption afforded to the winner.

Then, of course, there’s that final golden ticket into the Masters that begins in five short days.

It’s a compelling incentive, but with Fowler hot on his heels, he plans to focus instead on the stellar form that created the cushion he now enjoys.

“I’ll play my game. I don’t care, I don’t really care what they do,” he said. “I think I’m still being a little more defensive because I still have a three-stroke lead.”

Kang views the first few holes of Sunday’s finale as pivotal, eyeing a handful of birdie holes where he can remain on offense. It’s a similar mindset to the one he carried into the third round, where he led by six shots and nearly holed his opening approach, instead settling for a kick-in birdie.

But that six-shot lead has now been cut in half, and instead of Henley or Hudson Swafford behind him, Kang now sees Fowler in his rear-view mirror. In fact, he’ll be right next to him as the two will share the morning’s final tee time.

Then there’s the factor of the weather, which appears sure to complicate things. Play has been moved up to avoid significant storms that are expected around lunchtime, all of which could necessitate this tournament’s first Monday finish since 2004.

Such a delay would complicate Fowler’s travel plans to Augusta, and it could certainly keep Kang from closing out on his first-ever Masters invite. But both players are putting any meteorological concerns at bay and will instead focus on the duel that awaits.

“It’s fun. It’s time to battle,” Fowler said. “It’s down to a few guys. If we go play good golf, it will be nice to get off to a good start and put some pressure on him. I’ve got a lot of work to do to get the job done.”

“I’ll do my best tomorrow,” Kang said. “I’m going to try to make some birdies and see what happens after that.”

There are 93 players currently set to tee it up next week at Augusta National. If Fowler’s match-play assertion proves true, there will either be a 94th invite printed or he’ll sneak in one more trip to the winner’s circle before heading off to smell the azaleas.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials contacted Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial.