Mickelson's winless year still a success

By Will GrayOctober 17, 2016, 1:56 am

A 4-foot par putt amid a drizzling rain at the Safeway Open closed out of the strangest years in the long career of Phil Mickelson.

In many ways, Mickelson's maiden appearance in Napa served as a microcosm for his past 10 months. He did a lot of things well, and left with a respectable T-8 finish. But he also made enough errors along the way to keep himself from ever getting closer than the fringe of contention.

Mickelson was making a rare fall start this week, his first since the 2013 WGC-HSBC Champions. He's unlikely to tee it up again until the CareerBuilder Challenge in January, meaning that his year - from a competitive standpoint - is now over.

Make no mistake, Mickelson's 2016 was nothing short of a renaissance. After combining for only four top-10 finishes in the 2013 and 2014 seasons and struggling with consistency, Lefty notched six such results last season and added a seventh on Sunday in soggy Napa. At age 46, he seems as devoted to his craft as ever.

"I don't feel like it's been physically more demanding, because maybe it's just because I'm in better shape this year than I have been," Mickelson said to start the week. "My energy level is up, and I'm excited to play."

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There were plenty of highlights on the Mickelson 2016 reel, notably led by his 10-birdie performance in his epic match against Sergio Garcia at the Ryder Cup earlier this month. It was a tournament in which Mickelson was incredibly invested, for better or worse, and an outcome that he relished as a result.

But on the stroke-play side, Mickelson's best performances were tinged with disappointment.

There was, of course, his unforgettable duel with Henrik Stenson at the Open Championship, where Mickelson's score was good enough to win all but a handful of Opens - but not enough to match the Swede. And there was Pebble Beach, where Mickelson rekindled a bit of his old magic on a familiar layout but missed a short putt on the 72nd hole to lose to Vaughn Taylor.

They are results that kept a good year from becoming a great one. Mickelson's winless drought became a notable storyline many months ago, as his most recent victory remains the 2013 Open. For perspective, that spell is three weeks longer than the winless drought of Tiger Woods, who withdrew earlier in the week and whose return to competition remains in question.

The lack of hardware continues to be a sticking point, but it shouldn't distract from the fact that Mickelson made significant improvements in a variety of areas at an age when many players are simply counting the days to the Champions Tour.

While his short game has been a trademark for more than two decades, Mickelson found a way to improve his putting: from 52nd in strokes gained in 2014 and 41st in 2015 to ninth this past season. There was an even more pronounced spike in his strokes gained on approach shots, where Mickelson vaulted from 104th to fifth on Tour in a single season.

The area that remains a concern, and the issue that continued to nag him this week at Silverado Resort & Spa, is the driver, and it's an issue Mickelson fully intends to address in the coming months as he steps away from competition.

"I feel like from the irons on in after the drive, my game is as good or better than just about anybody in the world, but off the tee I'm playing from such a disadvantage that I have to fix that," Mickelson said Wednesday. "If I can fix my drive and drive it effectively, I'm very confident in my abilities thereafter, so it should hopefully be a good year."

Few knew what to expect from Mickelson entering this year, and given his stat line and performance in several of the biggest tournaments, you might have expected him to have a couple tournament victories to reflect on this holiday season.

But while the wait continues for career win No. 43, Mickelson was able to make clear and substantial strides after beginning the year with more questions than answers.

It's not the end result he would have liked, but it's certainly a start.

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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.