Tiger Will Wear a Different Crown Than The King
On the green? says a bystander.
His green, someone else says.
He hitches a little, sets up, waggles the driver, grimaces briefly as if wishing for the momentary return of that youth that still lives in his eyes, and swings. The ball sails back down the fairway on a trajectory any of us would be pleased to own. But its not good enough for him. He wants it to be like 1964. He feels like he can do it the way he did in 1964.
Oh, and by the way: He left not a mark on that green.
Arnold Palmer has made his mark in many other ways over thousands of days like this one. The occasion is a commercial shoot at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Fla., and Palmer, the star of the commercial, is also the clubs founder and owner. The impromptu drive was a time-killer between takes. Now that the film crew has reset and the next shot is ready, Palmer changes shirts (even in October the humidity here is still stifling) and heads toward the camera.
His eyes still smile as if they simply dont know any other way. Even he has been unable to dodge the inevitable heartbreak episodes of advancing age: He is a widower and a prostate cancer survivor (indeed, part of todays commercial shoot concerns Palmers efforts to increase prostate cancer awareness, thereby saving the lives of more men.)
But the smile remains in the eyes, and everyone from sound guy to camera operator to P.R. girl is drawn to his natural friendliness. No question: Whatever he feels he has lost off his drive, Arnold Palmers human appeal ' and commercial viability as an endorser ' refuses to decay.
Those of you rushing to the discussion boards or the e-mail to excoriate me for praising Palmer ' how can I say this politely? Save it. Every time I write something nice about Palmer, I hear that it is because he allegedly signs my paycheck. But while he is indeed the chairman of the board of The Golf Channel, he has no influence over my work. I cover golf business news; Palmer continues to make golf business news ' thats all the motivation I need, or have.
Besides, praise isnt really the objective here. Rather, it is to note that at 74, Palmer is 30 years past his last regular PGA Tour win, still an endorsement blockbuster, and probably the last of a breed.
Timing had a lot to do with Palmers endorsement success. If you trace the explosion of television-driven mass culture in this country back to the advent of the Beatles in 1962, then Palmers first Masters win of four, in 1958, couldnt have been scheduled any better. Palmer helped golf on television, and golf on TV helped him.
Then there was the personal touch. Legions of people have testified about how Arnold looked right at them, reached out his hand to shake their hands. He made a personal bridge every time he extended an arm over the ropes. (As a matter of fact, it was because of the crowds Palmer brought to golf tournaments that organizers even had to use ropes.)
It wasnt an accident. Palmers father Deacon instilled gentlemanliness in him from an early age, and made sure the lesson stuck. And the late Mark McCormack, realizing that no athlete can win all the time or forever, positioned Palmer as a winner at life, as McCormack liked to put it.
It worked. And because it worked, Palmers appeal has survived the onslaught of a speedy, impatient culture, including the immense popularity of other sports stars. Palmer continues, to this day, to be among the top 20 athlete-endorsers in the world, according to Forbes magazine.
The young man with the fire in his eyes, who is No. 1 on that Forbes list and who makes a habit of winning Palmers PGA Tour event at Bay Hill each March, has teed up a new era of endorsement power. But those who thrill to the golf expertise of Tiger Woods sometimes sigh that whatever his gifts, Woods will never be another Palmer. The less charitable blame Tiger for this, saying he should be warmer, more personable ' more like Arnold.
But its not Tigers fault that in being himself, he is something different from (or less than) the hero we remember Palmer to be. Its not that Tiger doesnt have the ability to build those same bridges Palmer built ' Woods has been unfailingly polite in my contacts with him, and he has a wicked, dry sense of humor that is often the hallmark of extreme intelligence. He runs a charitable foundation, and he has put a great deal of money where his mouth is in that regard. He is a good example for children.
But although Woods is the best opportunity for Palmer-like stardom since the generation that brought us Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, the world into which Tiger was born is irrevocably changed.
Was 1964 kindler and gentler? Perhaps. For certain, there were not as many concerns about security. There were less people vying for an athletes time. Sports stardom earned respect, but not deification. We had not yet coined the term stalker. The commercial machinery that had been built by Palmers time didnt yet have the privacy-destroying capability is does today.
Within the unfriendly confines of these challenges, Woods has done pretty well. His handlers know his presence, image and likeness are assets that must be protected. But the charitable goals remain. And although it might be a stretch to believe Woods fathers mid-1990s prediction that Tiger will outdo Gandhi, its perfectly reasonable to believe Woods will use his extraordinary focus and will to do some lasting good in the world.
Kind of like his annual host at Bay Hill. Between swings, Palmer brought smiles to the faces of millions, and continues to do so. And while we wont see him on the Nobel Prize list this week, we owe him a lot.
Woods may be able to accomplish the same thing. But it might be a lot to ask if we expect him to do it the same way.
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McIlroy gets back on track
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.
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.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
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.
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.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
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.
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.
McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call
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.
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.