SHO 'nuff: Fowler gathering steam on way to Augusta

By Will GrayMarch 30, 2017, 9:34 pm

HUMBLE, Texas – Weeks ago, Rickie Fowler carefully crafted a plan.

Every player constructs their own path leading into the year’s first major, an annual attempt to sharpen the game but not overextend the body.

For Fowler, it was important to play in the first Arnold Palmer Invitational since the death of the tournament’s namesake. But he refuses to play four weeks in a row, especially with the Masters on the back end of that stretch.

That left a choice among the two-week swing in Texas, where he opted for an unconventional approach. Fowler skipped the guaranteed payday and world ranking points offered last week at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, choosing instead to make his final prep start at the Shell Houston Open.

So far, so good.

Fowler breezed through his opening round at the Golf Club of Houston, firing an 8-under 64 that was three clear of the next best score from the morning wave.

Shell Houston Open: Articles, photos and videos

Fowler broke through for a much-needed victory last month at the Honda Classic, and he hasn’t slowed since. He tied for 16th in Mexico, finished 12th at Bay Hill and hasn’t been outside the top 20 since Torrey Pines. At a spot on the calendar when momentum becomes a highly-sought commodity, Fowler appears to be carrying more than his fair share.

“It’s definitely been trending and building this way. I felt very good the last few months,” Fowler said. “It’s been great. I’ve had a lot of confidence in the swing and the game. Kind of continue to tighten up.”

Fowler regularly plays his way into the Masters, and he has gathered up positive vibes in Houston before. He tied for 10th here last year, and notably finished T-6 in 2014 before starting his run of four straight top-5 finishes in the majors.

Even with a quick glance at Fowler, the confidence is apparent. He walked with purpose throughout the round, then laughed after it about his duties Thursday night throwing out the first pitch at a Houston Astros’ exhibition game.

Things are sure to tighten up a bit once he takes that trip down Magnolia Lane, but for now Fowler continues on an upward ascent that has been weeks in the making.

“He’s playing some good golf,” said Phil Mickelson. “It’s great to see because he’s such a talented player and, more than that, he has such an appeal to the public. To see him play well is a real asset to the game.”

Fowler spent last week far away from Austin Country Club, opting instead for some “down time” with friends. But he was quickly back to work this week at nearby Lochinvar Golf Club, practicing under the watchful eye of swing coach Butch Harmon alongside fellow Harmon disciple Jimmy Walker.

It’s a similar routine to the one that preceded his victory at PGA National, and one he hopes leads to another trophy in a few days.

“Really when you get that kind of one-on-one time, especially going out and playing on a golf course and just kind of going through and trying to simulate actual tournament rounds, it’s very beneficial,” Fowler said. “Very happy that we’re able to do that, and nice to kind of see that pay off with the start today.”

But it’s not just that Fowler has been able to wear his familiar grin while dropping birdie after birdie. The key to his recent stretch, and one he continued Thursday, is his ability to avoid trouble.

Fowler was bogey-free during his opening 64, and dating back to the third round at the Waste Management Phoenix Open he has now gone without a blemish in five of his last 15 competitive rounds.

“Just trying to stay away from making mistakes and getting in bad positions, because water is definitely in play on a lot of holes,” Fowler said. “That’s where I felt like my caddie, Joe (Skovron), and I did a good job of managing our way around.”

Even with a victory here, Fowler likely won’t crack the upper echelon of favorites to slip on a green jacket in 10 days’ time. But as he continues to rack up circles while steering clear of the squares, it’s evident that the itinerary he put into place last month is already paying dividends.

He has three more days to build upon that burgeoning momentum before heading east for the ultimate litmus test.

“I like playing my way into majors,” he said. “Just playing and going through the process and getting ready, makes things a lot easier when you go to tee it up Thursday next week.”

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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.