OK, so this was a really fun weekend in golf, especially for January. I was actually captivated by the action on both tours and excited about them, despite football playoffs happening at the same time. I guess that’s mostly because the Seahawks have been eliminated, but that’s a different subject.
When I went to bed Saturday night, I was already pretty disappointed that I wasn’t going to get to see the final round of the Abu Dhabi Championship. When I woke up in the morning and checked the leaderboard, I was even more bummed that I had missed what sounded like a riveting finish with four of the top players in the world all in the mix (to some extent) Sunday. And I was actually kind of surprised (without seeing anyone hit a shot in that round) that it was Rickie Fowler who rose to the top in what I can only imagine as a mesmerizing display of golf to clinch the title. Fowler held off challenges from Thomas Pieters, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson.
Three of the top six golfers on the planet partook in a massive battle at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, with McIlroy draining a huge eagle putt at the last to join Stenson in the clubhouse at 14-under.
Fowler ran into some trouble early and double-bogeyed the par-3 7th, but bounced back by holing out from a greenside bunker for eagle on the 8th. Coming down the stretch, he chipped in at the 17th just a moment after McIlroy’s strong finish. Fowler then watched Pieters burn the edge of the hole on 18th with his putt for eagle and tap in for birdie, which left Fowler needing to par for the win.
Fowler, who was safely on in regulation, two-putted to close out a final round, three-under 69, for a grand total of 16-under to secure a one-shot victory. This is the 27-year-old American’s second win on the European Tour, following his title at the Scottish Open last July.
“This was a big one,” said Fowler. “Last year, obviously having a multiple-win season, I wanted to come back and work on getting back in the winner’s circle after a successful season and keep moving forward – this is a great start.
“When something happens like that (shot at eight), it definitely gives you a little boost of confidence knowing that you’ve got a good break with that after having a bad break, and sometimes you need to little luck on your side to get some wins.
The win vaults Fowler to no. 4 in the world rankings behind (in order nos. 1-3) Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy.
“It’s the first time I’ve been inside the top five (in the rankings),” said Fowler. “I’ve gotten in the five, so this is the highest, or lowest, however you want to say it, I’ve been ranked. So it’s definitely nice to be up there. The ultimate goal this year is to go win a major and this is a step in the right direction for sure.
“I’ve got my eye sight on one (in the world), that would be the ultimate goal, but I’m up against some pretty tough competition.”
That said, it’s predictably created some real chatter about the “Big Four” in golf. Fowler needs a major to be seriously considered in the same class as the “Big Three” — which is something he has acknowledged by his own admission.
However, yes, he’s won quite a bit in the past year. Or, well, ever since the results of an anonymous poll revealed that Fowler was considered the most overrated by his peers early in the week of The Players Championship last May. Fowler, of course, went on to win in dramatic fashion in a playoff later that week. Since then, along with the Scottish, he’s also won the Deutsche Bank Championship.
Rickie, of course, already has Augusta on his mind.
“I’m excited,” he said. “There’s definitely some fine-tuning that we can do and we can always get better. I know all the players out here are always trying to get better, and that’s the goal moving forward, to be ready for Augusta.”
OTHER NOTABLE QUOTES:
“I guess it’s a case of what might have been, in way. I played a very, very average 18 holes. I guess on the back nine of the second round and the front nine of the third round — or the back nine of the second — there was an 18-hole stretch where I played maybe one-over par. In a tournament like this, you just can’t do that.
“I gave myself a lot of work to do going into the last 18 holes, and I just didn’t quite have it today. I think 68 is the best I could have done out there with the places I hit it.
“Thankfully, I gave myself a few more opportunities on the back nine and was able to convert some and finish with a nice eagle.”
“I’m a little bit disappointed, I played pretty good today. It doesn’t get much better – perfect weather, good company. I’ll just looking forward to next week now.
“I hit it really well. I drove it a little bit better this weekend, so I was going to give myself plenty of chances and could have dropped a couple more putts, but that’s how it goes.”
“I haven’t really been playing that good in the first outing generally – the last couple years I missed the cut in Abu Dhabi which never feels good.
“In that sense I was really happy with the first day and I putted well and hit some really good iron shots. All in all, it’s been a very good week in that sense, and the knee – it’s not given me too much pain. It just needs a bit more time to be 100 per cent.”
“I was talking with Michael up the 18th fairway saying, wow, a birdie here and we’re definitely Top-10, and I felt like we were off this week. I didn’t make anything. I didn’t quite give a few myself a lot of chances the first couple rounds.
“I didn’t get in a rhythm, and when I did have chances, they just wouldn’t go in. I was just a little off on the read or the speed, one of the two. Sometimes that happens during a week, and we kind of grinded out eight-under on the weekend in what really could have been something special, but it also could have been worse.”
The most intriguing part of Spieth’s post-round comments was the fact that he’s exhausted from traveling around the world and back — from Asia to the Middle East to Australia — over the past few months (all the while collecting gagillion of dollars in appearance fees, which are some serious #progolferproblems). Jet lag and flying (even private) across a bunch of time zones and exerting a ton of mental energy that comes with the grind of playing high-level golf, especially for a player as cerebral as Spieth, does even catch up to 22 year olds.
You know, that thought had crossed my mind — how much he’s traveled to compete around the globe after the summer ended. I know he didn’t want to stray too far from the winning formula of 2015, where he played well in the winter months of 2014, in terms of his schedule, but the year before, he wasn’t coming off five Tour wins, including two majors. He’s been through some life-changing events in the past year and that doesn’t help with fatigue, either.
“It won’t be something I’ll do in the future, to bounce back and forth from Asia as much as we did, or Australia,” Spieth said here Sunday. “I’m very tired. As a team we’re beat up mentally and physically. I’m not 100 percent right now. It shows in certain places.”
Spieth tied for fifth at 11-under 277, five shots behind countryman Rickie Fowler. Spieth probably would have put up a better fight if he’d had his A game with him.
“The first day I was here, I was striping it,” Spieth said. “Since then I have been a little weak, and my decision-making has been off.”
Spieth is now off to Asia, where he’s playing in the Singapore Open this upcoming week. There was some chatter about a possibility he was considering returning to the Phoenix Open again, but I highly doubt that’ll happen at this point. The kid needs well-deserved rest and a few good nights’ sleep in his own bed.
DUFNER’S “ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ”
Since Jason Dufner won his first and only major championship at the 2013 PGA Championship, he hasn’t had the best of luck, hitting some rough patches — back injury and personal issues (divorce last year) — which were inevitable distractions that negatively impacted his game. Well, Dufner finally broke out of his dry spell at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area. In fact, it appears as if his fortune has changed for the better as he beat David Lingmerth on the second extra hole in sudden death at PGA West’s Stadium Course.
Dufner was playing OK in the final round, but got off to a slow start. He was hanging in there. Problem was that Lingmerth was playing well. Like, really, really well. The 28-year-old Swede fired a seven-under 65, which included birdies in two of his last four holes, to safely get to the clubhouse at 25-under.
Dufner steadied the ship and hit some solid golf shots coming down the stretch that got him into a playoff against Lingmerth. On no. 16 he hit a fantastic second shot in the par-5 and two-putted from around 80 feet for an important birdie. But right when it seemed like he was safe, he had to face the par-3 17th, a replica of the famed island green hole at TPC Sawgrass, which is appropriately named “Alcatraz.” Well, Dufner had a great “escape,” so to speak, after he pulled his tee shot and it looked like it was headed for the water, but the rocks held it up and he was able to play it from the hazard with a decent lie.
“I thought I was in the water,” said Dufner in his post-round presser. “I was preparing mentally to hit my wedge shot, try to hit a good wedge shot in there. And be one back need to go birdie 18 to get in the playoff. The rules officials told me that it was up, maybe I wanted to look at it, possibly to play it.
“So I walked over and it looked like it was a pretty good spot. I didn’t know, when they tell you that, you’re like, man, do I have to negotiate a bunch of rocks or what do I need to do. But it was pretty clean. It was pretty lucky. The angle that I needed to go on, back swing was pretty clean. I could get a stance. So there was a lot of factors right there that were fortunate for me to be able to play that shot.”
Dufner’s chip hit the flagstick and lipped out, but he easily tapped-in for a stress-free par save.
WATCH (even if you have a dozen times already):
It was reminiscent of Victor Dubuisson’s ridiculous saves in a desert in a neighboring state during the playoff against Jason Day at the WGC-Match Play Championship in 2014.
“Today I hit an 8-iron,” Dufner deadpanned. “I was trying to hold it into that right-to-left wind. I pulled it and got a good break and made par. Moving on. Next hole.”
Dufner explained that the shot wasn’t as hard as it may have appeared.
“It was pretty clean,” he said. “It was pretty easy. I don’t want to make it sound like it was your basic pitch and run, but when I got over there, the ball was sitting pretty clean, there weren’t any rocks in the way.
“It’s something that I felt pretty comfortable with. That type of shot. Because I practiced it some. Especially over for The Open Championship. The only thing I wasn’t sure about was what the surface was like, because I hadn’t hit any out of that hazard this week. But it came out pretty clean.”
Pulling off that shot was huge for Dufner and perhaps it’s changed his fortune for the better all-around.
“That was definitely a turning point for me,” he said. “If that ball’s in the water I’m probably looking at 4, at best, maybe 5. And then probably not sitting here talking to you guys. So, I’m glad that the luck has turned a little bit for me this week and come my direction.”
He deserves it.
In the first playoff hole, the difficult par-4 18th, Dufner pushed his tee shot into the fairway bunker and had to wedge out, leaving him with another wedge into the green, which he knocked to 10 feet. He drilled it right in the back of the cup and in the hole to save par and extend the playoff.
“I like those situation putts,” he said. “It’s kind of like what we see in the Presidents Cup in match play. Because if I miss it, there’s no next putt, it doesn’t really matter.
“So I got real aggressive with my read, got real aggressive with my stroke, and I committed to it. I’m committed to the routine that I have before I hit putts, so it felt good to know that some of that work that I’ve been doing paid off in that type of situation. But I like those situations when there’s no, that’s the end game right there. You either make it or you miss it. There’s no, nothing else. So I usually do pretty good in those situations.”
On the second extra hole — back up the 18th — both Dufner and Lingmerth flared their drives right of the fairway in the rough. Lingmerth was up first and hooked his approach shot into the water hazard guarding the green. From there, it was a pretty routine par for Dufner to clinch his first victory since the PGA in 2013.
“I’ve always been under the thought process that if you work hard and you do the right thing, good golf will come,” he said. “A lot of guys deal with (the pressure of following up after winning a major). I dealt with many different things. I had some injuries, I had some personal stuff that set me back, but I never felt like I was, you know, that far off from playing great.
He’s optimistic for the upcoming year.
“I’m excited for this year, I’m excited to accomplish one of my goals this early in the year, I’m excited to keep playing well,” said Dufner. “I feel like I’m doing some really good stuff. Usually when you win tournaments you get really confident and that kind of breeds some more winning or some more chances to win. Which has kind of been the case for me.
So I’m excited about it. I feel it’s the best I’ve ever felt health-wise probably in the last four or five years, so hopefully I can stick to my schedule that I’ve set out and play a lot of golf this year and get back to that TOUR Championship and be a part that have Ryder Cup team.”
And we hope he does.
PHIL BEING PHIL
Phil Mickelson opened his year on the PGA Tour this past week. Mickelson, who turns 46 in June, went through a high-profile break-up with his former swing coach Butch Harmon in the off season, and he hired Andrew Getson, an instructor at Greyhawk in Scottsdale. Since Phil started working with Getson, he’s going through some swing changes and he’s happy with where he’s at with them. Mickelson posted four rounds in the 60s to finish at 21-under and tied for third.
“I’m excited, this is a really good week for me for validation that I’m on the right track and that it’s continuing to get better as I go along,” said Mickelson. “For the longest time I would get the swing on plane, but I didn’t have any face awareness because it was so different from what I had been doing in the past. Now the face awareness is starting to come in and it’s getting a little bit sharper and hopefully I — or I believe that I should continue to get better and better as the weeks, day, years, go on, because I’m back on plane and the touch should start to come back.”
Face awareness, guys.
“It’s interesting how my parameters, my vision when I look down the fairway and the trouble I’m looking at, how much smaller of an area I’m actually looking at,” said Mickelson, who was pleased with his driving this week. “There were a few that came right down on my target line and if I’m trying to hit a trunk of a tree, a couple came down on it. It was a nice feeling. It’s going to get better and better.
“I just think that this was a good start. It wasn’t until Monday or Tuesday that I felt even remotely close to starting the year because I didn’t have the face awareness. I had the swing on plane, but the face wasn’t coming. You and I played, you saw it. It was very poor ball striking a month ago, even though the swing looked probably similar to what it is now. Now the touch is starting to come back.”
TWEET(S) OF THE DAY
— Jason Dufner (@JasonDufner) January 25, 2016
Random fact about Dufner regarding the par-3 17th at Sawgrass…
Q. So, you’ve been talking about a little bit, but feel fortunate the rocks are there? You go on that tee and you look like, oh, my God, all these rocks, but ultimately this one helped.
JASON DUFNER: I think this one is tougher because it’s an elevated tee box. So the ball is in the air a lot longer. When I hit that shot it was left of where I wanted to, but it seemed to stay up there a really long time. And it flew a long way, for the club that I hit. So I think it’s tougher to gauge, especially when it’s a little bit breezy we had a little bit of wind today so I think it’s a tougher hole than 17 at Sawgrass. But, yeah, you can get a little break with the rocks. It looks a little bit different.
I’ve never had an issue at Sawgrass. I never hit a ball in the water at Sawgrass on 17. Jinx. But I never have seen — how about this. I’ve never seen a ball in the water on 17. Neither me or anybody I’ve ever played with. I don’t know how many years I played, has ever hit a ball in the water on 17.