Greenbrier headed for a free-for-all finish

By Will GrayJuly 4, 2015, 11:39 pm

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – Even after the final sparkler fizzles out on the lawns near the Old White TPC, there will be plenty of fireworks still to come at The Greenbrier Classic.

A Sunday shootout looms, with a packed leaderboard set to battle it out on a course synonymous with low scores and final-round theatrics.

Eight players are separated by a single shot through 54 holes, with another 23 names within four shots of the lead. Each will wake up with realistic thoughts of hoisting the trophy, from rookies seeking a breakthrough to veterans looking for validation.

Granted, the winner will not have to slay a murderer’s row of recent champions. Of the top eight players, only three have won on the PGA Tour. The most recent of those victories was Bryce Molder’s win at the 2011 Open.

Sean O’Hair had a victory that year too, the latest of his four career wins. He holds a tenuous grip on a share of the lead, alongside Molder, Jason Bohn and S. J. Park, with one round separating him from a victory that would complete his return to the top levels of the game.

O’Hair had just turned 29 when he captured the RBC Canadian Open, seemingly set to enter a golfer’s prime with equal parts accomplishment and potential. Instead he watched his game desert him, bottoming out with a two-year stretch in 2013-14 that cost him his card.

Greenbrier Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Equipped once again with full-time status, the 32-year-old has flourished this season, with six top-25 finishes including a playoff loss to Jordan Spieth at the Valspar Championship.

“I feel like I’ve got my best golf ahead of me. I really do,” O’Hair said. “I just felt like the last couple years when I’ve struggled, I haven’t really owned my game. I’ve tried a lot of different things, a lot of different methods, and really just got back to me hitting a lot of balls and just going back to basics and kind of, like I said, just owning it.”

O’Hair’s four victories are one more than the combined total of his seven closest competitors, but he plans to draw inspiration from an unexpected source.

“I think your failures actually help you better than your successes,” O’Hair said. “Going into tomorrow, I know what I’m probably going to feel like when I wake up in the morning. I know what I’m going to feel like when I step up on the practice tee and on the first tee, so it’s not like I haven’t been in this situation before.”

At age 42, Bohn is one of the few players near the top with more seasoning than O’Hair. He likely didn’t expect to add to his dossier of high finishes after barely scraping past the 36-hole cut. But then again, a third-round 61 can change expectations considerably.

“I just wanted to sleep in, to be honest,” said Bohn, who will play alongside O’Hair in Sunday’s final pairing. “Now I don’t have to get up early in the morning.”

Bohn has two wins, most recently the 2010 Zurich Classic, while the final member of the foursome at the top is an unheralded rookie. But Park’s record of one top-25 finish in 20 starts this season doesn’t dampen his confidence entering what could be the biggest round of his career.

“I think I’m going to really have fun tomorrow,” said Park, who was a runner-up at the Humana Challenge in January. “I’ve had this situation before, been in this position, so it’s always going to be the same. It’s going to be another round for me.”

The Greenbrier has rewarded rookies in the past, notably Scott Stallings in 2011 and Ted Potter Jr. the following year, and Park isn’t the only freshman in the mix. Justin Thomas headlines the group of players at 10 under, just one shot off the pace, eyeing a title that would cement his status as one of golf’s latest can’t-miss prospects.

“I’ve been ready to win since I was playing as an amateur,” Thomas said. “I’ve just put myself in more positions now. Just whenever it’s meant to be, it’ll happen.”

Within these West Virginia mountains, it’s often better to come from behind than to try to protect an advantage. Stuart Appleby set that tone with a final-round 59 en route to victory in 2010, with similar late heroics from Stallings, Jonas Blixt and (nearly) George McNeill in the years since.

There will be plenty of final-round roars, and perhaps even more fluctuations to the leaderboard.

“I just feel like this field every week is just so strong, and it’s really anybody’s game any given Sunday,” said O’Hair. “It’s exciting.”

“It’s becoming more and more common out here, I think,” added Molder. “If nobody decides to run off and leave everyone, then you kind of get that bunched-up feeling.”

It should prove difficult to separate from the pack during the final trip around the Old White TPC, where nearly half the field remains in the mix. The only certainty seems to be that someone will emerge with enough final-round fireworks to earn what could be a watershed victory.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.