Re-focused McDowell starts new season with a bang

By Will GrayNovember 16, 2015, 6:06 pm

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – Given a second chance to win the OHL Classic, Graeme McDowell took dead aim and did not falter.

Describing his final approach as one of the best 5-irons he has ever hit, McDowell carved a shot from 215 yards to within 3 feet on the first playoff hole. The subsequent putt gave him a victory over Russell Knox and Jason Bohn, his first PGA Tour win in nearly three years and a much-needed highlight to end what has been an otherwise disastrous year inside the ropes.

McDowell entered this week at No. 85 in the world rankings, 70 spots below where he stood in January. His exempt status that dates back to his win at the 2010 U.S. Open was set to expire at the end of this season, and he was facing the prospect of missing the Masters for the first time since 2008.

Thanks to one final birdie, McDowell can now book trips to Kapalua and Augusta National next year, and his PGA Tour credential is good until 2018.

McDowell said his focus shifted this year to his wife and 1-year-old daughter, a welcome change but one that admittedly took a toll on his game. Without a win since the 2013 RBC Heritage, the 36-year-old found himself in the midst of a candid self-examination.

“There were multiple times during the year where I was losing belief in myself, where you’re asking yourself questions like, ‘Am I good enough anymore? Am I finished with this game? Do I have long left?’ Questions like that,” McDowell said. “When you’re out there for five and a half hours on the golf course and not playing well, these are the types of questions you ask yourself.

“I think that’s why golf is the ultimate mental sport, because you have all the time in the world to ask yourself all the crazy questions in the world.”

Those questions were all answered emphatically on Monday in Mexico, where McDowell began the final-round re-start tied for the lead with five holes to go. After a three-putt bogey on No. 16, he faced an 8-footer for par on No. 18 to remain within a shot of Knox.

The putt was center-cut the whole way.

“I thought if I had any threat of a chance, I had to make that putt,” he said.

McDowell’s watershed would not have been possible were it not for a reprieve from Knox, who bogeyed the final hole to forfeit his one-shot advantage. Eyeing back-to-back PGA Tour wins, Knox pulled his final drive into a fairway bunker and missed a 12-foot par save that would have won the tournament.

“It was unfortunate to hit a bad drive, since ultimately it cost me the tournament,” Knox said. “Because I didn’t, I don’t deserve it.”

That opened the door for McDowell, whose winning approach was keyed by advice from two fronts. First, caddie Ken Comboy talked McDowell into hitting a 5-iron, whereas his player favored a 6-iron because of adrenaline.

The second source was a bit more unexpected: Greg Norman, who sent McDowell a few swing tips via text following the third round. The Ulsterman put the advice into use Sunday, and added that he relied on it when hitting the shot that ultimately won him the tournament.

“He reminded me of some stuff,” McDowell said. “Obviously he’s one of my big heroes, both on and off the golf course, and that was nice to get a little positive reinforcement from the Shark.”

McDowell has shown signs of his old form throughout the year, but he has struggled to string four rounds together and suffered from what he described as “Sunday afternoon letdowns” at several recent events. But there was no letdown this time, as McDowell flashed the same determined look that earned him a major championship at Pebble Beach and has helped steer the Europeans to multiple Ryder Cup wins since.

McDowell missed the FedEx Cup Playoffs entirely last season, and while he was a surprise entry into the field this week, he explained that it was part of a revised plan of attack after traditionally beginning his season with the Florida swing.

“I basically lost my card this year. Thankfully, I had another year of exemption, but I couldn’t be in this position this time next year regardless,” he said. “Being at Mayakoba was a part of re-prioritizing and a re-focus.”

What he originally hoped would be a chance to earn a few extra FedEx Cup points turned into something much more meaningful. McDowell is back in the winner’s circle, back in some of the game’s elite events and trending back toward the place in the world rankings where he feels he belongs.

“There’s no doubt I doubted myself many times this year, but the last few months has been much more where I want to be,” he said. “This is big for me. I dreamed of this day coming again sometime, maybe I thought it would not be quite as soon as this. And I said to myself that I was really going to appreciate it, and I do appreciate it. This feels really nice.”

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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.