Woods has reason to smile after final-round 67

By Will GrayJuly 5, 2015, 9:02 pm

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – Try to look beyond the buzzwords.

Get past the release patterns, the baseline shifts, the feels. Sift through the ever-changing lexicon and you’ll come to two conclusions about Tiger Woods following The Greenbrier Classic: Some progress has been made, but a very long road still lies ahead.

Woods managed to clear more than a few benchmarks during his week, from baby steps like not bogeying the opening hole to larger keys like making the cut and shooting three rounds in the 60s. His final round, specifically, was the closest Woods has appeared to his former self in quite some time.

He missed only two fairways and three greens, shooting a 3-under 67 that was probably the highest possible score he could have gotten out of ball-striking that harkened back to sunnier days.

“It’s the best I’ve hit it in a very long time,” Woods said. “I had it shaped both ways, right to left, left to right. I had it all on call today.”

Combined with an opening-round 66, Woods left the Old White TPC with a handful of superlatives: his first bogey-free scorecard in 55 rounds, his lowest 72-hole score in relation to par since the 2013 BMW Championship and his fewest strokes for four rounds since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, site of his last victory.

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He missed only 16 greens in regulation all week, and Woods’ average approach shot ended up less than 24 feet from the pin – the best proximity of the entire field.

Woods had reason to smile after his final round, seemingly a rarity these days, and was jovial in his post-round comments despite a frustrating day on the greens. After speaking with the media, he walked up the brick patio that skirts the first tee box at The Greenbrier and jumped into a courtesy car.

But only a few yards away, Justin Thomas and David Hearn were getting set to begin their rounds, with the quartet of overnight co-leaders still to tee off. For the third time in his last four starts, Woods completed his final round before the tournament really began.

Woods’ finish this week will finally earn him a few world ranking points, the first time he has added to that ledger since the Masters, but it won’t be enough to stop his tumble down the OWGR, where he entered the week at No. 220. 

He’ll earn a handful of FedEx Cup points, but still faces a nearly insurmountable deficit with the playoffs now only eight weeks away.

This was incrementally better, sure. But even Woods admitted that such a slant is due to just how far he has lowered the bar this year, especially after bottoming out at Chambers Bay.

“Made a little bit of progress since last time I played,” Woods said Wednesday before the tournament began. “Obviously not really saying much.”

Woods insisted throughout his post-round comments Sunday that his turnaround began last month at Muirfield Village, where he suffered through a third-round 85.

“I’m excited about what I was able to do at Memorial,” Woods said. “Even though I shot those high numbers, by shifting the baseline like I did, consequently I’m here now, in this position, so I’m very excited about that.”

That would certainly create a compelling narrative should it come to fruition: that in the midst of one of his worst performances, Woods found the spark to ignite his return to form. But he’s still a long way from turning that into reality.

We’ll know more about the strength of his game in two weeks, as Woods heads to a course where he has dominated like few others. St. Andrews is one of the game’s best litmus tests, and there Woods will face a high-stakes opportunity.

A high finish against a strong field in the season’s third major could jump-start his ascension in the world rankings, but a disappointing effort would only plummet him further down the standings with only two more official starts left on his 2014-15 schedule.

After his game appeared in shambles in Seattle, Woods showed this week that all is not yet lost. But the gap between where he now stands, and where he wants to be, is bigger than the ocean he’ll travel across 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.