Breathing Golfs Cleaner Air
Major League Baseball lurches along to the halting beat of Barry Bonds pursuit of Hank Aaron, Americas all-time home run king.
Bonds, a San Francisco Giant, was one of the least popular superstars in baseball even before words and phrases like allegations, perjury, performance enhancing drugs, grand jury and indictments began circling his career curriculum vitae like so many verbal vultures.
Now the national pastime faces the prospect of Bonds breaking Aarons record of 755 home runs on the road, which could mean Bonds will be booed while rounding the bases. Nor is there a whiff of a convincing argument, in any precinct outside of San Francisco, that we should consider Bonds a sympathetic figure in any sense.
All of which has wedged MLB commissioner Bud Selig between a rock and a hard place. He was joined there recently by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who didnt have to wait long after replacing Paul Tagliabue as the czar of professional football, before the unholy Michael Vick mess landed in his lap.
Vick, once a massively talented college quarterback at Virginia Tech and more recently something of an underachiever for the Atlanta Falcons, actually IS under indictment on multiple counts in a U.S. District court in Virginia.
The indictment alleges, among other things, that Vick and two friends drowned, hanged and otherwise abused trained fighting dogs that didnt kill other dogs that Vick and his friends had pitted them against.
We should go no further here without emphasizing that neither Bonds nor Vick has been convicted of anything. But the point of this column is not to debate their innocence or guilt. It is to point out the dark clouds following them that have settled in over their respective sports.
And then theres NBA commissioner David Sterns latest nightmare: Allegations that one of his officials, in this case Tim Donaghy, was coerced into shaving points in games he officiated. This revolting development, if true, strikes to the very heart of the integrity of Sterns league.
All of which brings us, in a roundabout way, to professional golf.
All of a sudden Hall of Famer Gary Players recent charge that he knew of certain top golfers using performance enhancing drugs doesnt sound quite so ominous by comparison.
Player declined to name names last week which infuriated many of his games best players, including fellow South Africans Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. But it spotlighted the discussions, already underway between golfs governing bodies, aimed at establishing an anti-doping policy and a random testing mechanism.
Nobody, to my knowledge, has yet gone public with hard evidence of drug use in golf or convincingly explained exactly how performance enhancing drugs can benefit golfers.
That is not to say Player's information is wrong. But it is to say PGA TOUR commissioner Tim Finchems tempests these days are contained in a small teapot compared to the feeder bands of scandal coming in waves at Stern, Goodell and Selig.
Best I can tell is that Player, as much as anything, did Mike Weir a favor. Heres how:
Because of the backlash from golfs inner circle resulting from Players scattershot charges, Player is now aware he must placate his critics. And that probably means Player wont want to increase his enemies list by leaving popular Canadian Weir off the International Presidents Cup team he will captain against the Americans in September. The matches, after all, will be taking place in Canada.
Meanwhile back at Camp Ponte Vedra the generals remain vigilant. Player said this week PGA TOUR commissioner Tim Finchem has told him an anti-doping policy will be in place the end of the calendar year.
This wont be a minute too soon in the world of big money sports where it becomes more imperative by the month to attempt to keep ahead of the moral turpitude curve.
Sterns worst nightmare was always going to be a scandal that involved Michael Jordan, the games shining knight. Similarly, Finchems would involve Tiger Woods. Jordan had a gambling itch he managed (happily for Stern) to scratch away from the basketball arena. Woods'and this is where Stern, Goodell and Selig have to be privately envious'remains clean as a whistle on all fronts.
All sports commissioners live with the knowledge that they are just one days news cycle away from full damage control. The world is smaller and that means things are somehow more inter-related. Author Thomas Friedman offers the best explanation of this in his book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century.
There are fewer degrees of separation. Consider that Vick been replaced as the Falcons quarterback, for now, by Joey Harrington. Joey Harrington is a distant cousin of Padraig Harrington. Padraig Harrington just won the British Open in golfs most drama-filled Sunday of the year to date.
And the beats go on. Blood doping has reduced the Tour de France into a tour de farce. And the Olympics are about half a dozen positive tests away from losing their credibility as well.
The Roger-to-Padraig connection is nothing more than a happy accident (unless youre Vicks spin doctors in which case nothing is very happy these days).
But the R&A, meanwhile, might want to look into the opportunity that - unbelievably - still exists in the UK for players, caddies, friends, fans and assorted low-level creeps to walk into a bet shop during Open Championship week across the street from the golf course and place a wager on (for or against) pairings they can directly influence.
Its no coincidence that the PGA TOUR has long kept Las Vegas casino interests at arms length when those establishments have flashed their swag and offered title sponsorship.
Which is just part of the reason why Im guessing that Finchem, who watches all of these latest developments with keen interest during the day, sleeps better at night than Stern, Goodell or Selig.
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Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill
ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.
The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?
“Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”
And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.
After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.
“Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”
Rory almost channels Tiger with 72nd-hole celebration
ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy’s final putt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational felt awfully familiar.
He rolled in the 25-footer for birdie and wildly pumped his fist, immediately calling to mind Woods’ heroics on Bay Hill’s 18th green.
Three times Woods holed a putt on the final green to win this event by a stroke.
McIlroy was just happy to provide a little extra cushion as the final group played the finishing hole.
“I’ve seen Tiger do that enough times to know what it does,” McIlroy said. “So I just wanted to try and emulate that. I didn’t quite give it the hat toss – I was thinking about doing that. But to be able to create my own little bit of history on the 18th green here is pretty special.”
A performance fit for a King
ORLANDO, Fla. – Five hundred and 40 days had passed since Rory McIlroy last won, and since golf lost one of its most iconic players.
So much has transpired in McIlroy’s life since then – marriage, injury, adversity – but even now he vividly recalls the awkward end to the 2016 Tour Championship. He had just captured the FedExCup and $11 million bonus, but afterward, in the scrum, he was asked instead to reflect on the passing earlier that day of Arnold Palmer, at age 87.
“Obviously I had a great win and it was a great day for me, but in the big scheme of things, that didn’t matter,” he said. “The game of golf had lost an icon, a legend, an inspiration to so many of us. I probably wasn’t as ecstatic as maybe I would have been if Arnie hadn’t passed away.”
But there was McIlroy on Sunday at Bay Hill, at Arnie’s Florida home, summoning the kind of charge that would have made the King proud. With five birdies in his last six holes, he broke away from a stacked leaderboard to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first victory on Tour in 18 months, since that bittersweet evening at East Lake.
“Kind of ironic,” he said Sunday.
But the connection between McIlroy and Palmer runs deeper than that.
Palmer and McIlroy’s wife, Erica, shared a birthday – Sept. 10.
Palmer wrote letters to McIlroy after each of his many victories.
Palmer had lobbied for years to get McIlroy to play this event, even threatening him. “If he doesn’t come and play Bay Hill,” Palmer said in 2012, “he might have a broken arm and he won’t have to worry about where he’s going to play next.”
McIlroy kept all of his limbs intact but didn’t add the event until 2015, when Palmer’s health was beginning to deteriorate. That week he sat for a two-hour dinner with Palmer in the Bay Hill clubhouse, and the memories still bring a smile to his face.
“I was mesmerized,” McIlroy said.
And entertained, of course.
Palmer ordered fish for dinner. “And I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A.1. Sauce?’” McIlroy said.
“And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ And he said, ‘No, for me!’"
McIlroy chuckled at the exchange, then added somberly: “I was very fortunate to spend that time with him.”
McIlroy has been telling anyone who will listen that he’s close to playing his best golf, but even he was surprised by the drastic turn of events over the past 10 days.
During that 18-month winless drought, he endured an onslaught of questions about his wedge play, his putting, his health and his motivation. Burnt out by the intense spotlight, and needing to rehab a nagging rib injury, he shut it down for four months last fall, a mental and physical reset.
But after an encouraging start to his 2018 campaign in the Middle East, McIlroy was a non-factor in each of his first four Tour starts. That included a missed cut last week in Tampa, where he was admittedly searching.
“The best missed cut I’ve ever had,” he said.
McIlroy grinded all last weekend, stumbling upon a swing thought, a feeling, like he was making a three-quarter swing. Then he met for a few hours Monday in South Florida with former PGA Tour winner and putting savant Brad Faxon. They focused on being more instinctive and reactionary over the ball.
“He just freed me up,” McIlroy said.
Freed up his stroke, which had gotten too rigid.
And freed up his mind, which was bogged down with technical thoughts and self-doubt.
“The objective is to get the ball in the hole,” he said, “and I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”
All McIlroy did at Bay Hill was produce the best putting week of his career.
Starting the final round two shots back of Henrik Stenson, McIlroy made the turn in 33 and then grabbed a share of the lead on the 11th hole.
Tiger Woods was making a run, moving within a shot of the lead, but McIlroy answered with a charge of his own, rattling off four consecutive birdies – a 16-footer on 13, a 21-footer on 14, a chip-in on 15 and a two-putt birdie after a 373-yard drive on 16 – that left Woods and everyone else in the dust.
Then McIlroy finished it off in style, rolling in a 25-footer on the last that was eerily similar to the putt that Woods has holed so many times at his personal playground.
“I know what the putt does,” McIlroy said, “so it was nice to make my own little bit of history.”
Justin Rose has played plenty of meaningful golf with McIlroy over the years, but he’d never seen him roll it like he did Sunday.
“He turned on the burners on the back nine,” he said. “He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”
It’s little wonder McIlroy pulled ahead of a star-studded leaderboard, closing with a bogey-free 64 and winning by three shots at 18-under 270 – he led the field in driving distance, proximity to the hole, scrambling and strokes gained-putting.
“It’s so nice that everything finally came together,” he said.
Over the next two weeks, there figures to be plenty of conversation about whether McIlroy can channel that fearlessness into the major he covets most. The Masters is the only piece missing from a career Grand Slam, and now, thanks to Faxon’s tips, he’s never been in a better position.
But after a turbulent 18 months, McIlroy needed no reminder to savor a victory that felt like a long time coming.
There was a hug for his parents, Gerry and Rosie.
A kiss for his wife, Erica.
A handshake for Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, and then a fitting into the champion’s alpaca cardigan.
The only thing missing was the King himself, waiting atop the hill behind 18 with his huge smile and vice-grip handshake.
“Hopefully he’s up there smiling,” McIlroy said, “and hopefully he’s proud of me with the way I played that back nine.”
McIlroy remembers Arnie dinner: He liked A-1 sauce on fish
ORLANDO, Fla. – Fresh off a stirring victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy offered a pair of culinary factoids about two of the game’s biggest names.
McIlroy regretted not being able to shake Palmer’s hand behind the 18th green after capping a three-shot win with a Sunday 64, but with the trophy in hand he reflected back on a meal he shared with Palmer at Bay Hill back in 2015, the year before Palmer passed away.
“I knew that he liked A-1 sauce on his fish, which was quite strange,” McIlroy said. “I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A-1 sauce?’ And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ He said, ‘No, for me.’”
A few minutes later, McIlroy revealed that he is also a frequent diner at The Woods Jupiter, the South Florida restaurant launched by Tiger Woods. In fact, McIlroy explained that he goes to the restaurant every Wednesday with his parents – that is, when he’s not spanning the globe winning golf tournaments.
Having surveyed the menu a few times, he considers himself a fan.
“It’s good. He seems pretty hands-on with it,” McIlroy said. “Tuna wontons are good, the lamb lollipops are good. I recommend it.”