The King of Wentworth

By Brian HewittOctober 15, 2007, 4:00 pm
All the important stuff in professional golf now is viewed through a prism. Its that time of year to be looking ahead to next year.
What did George McNeills smooth cruise to victory in Las Vegas Sunday mean to his confidence for next year now that his status on the PGA TOUR is no longer in question? Where will the remaining bubble boys finish in the final three Fall Series events?
What did the Sunday duel in the desert at the Samsung World Championship between Lorena Ochoa and Suzann Pettersen'won this time by Ochoa'mean for 2008 when we consider what looks to be the best new rivalry in the womens game?
Is Northern Irelands 18-year-old Rory McIlroy, with two top-5s in his last two Euro starts, the next big thing on the other side of the pond? And if so, how big?
And maybe the most compelling subject of all at the moment is the question of the immediate and intermediate term future of Ernie Els.
Els turns 38 Wednesday and it has been almost three and a half years since he won on the PGA TOUR at a venue in the States. There has been a knee injury and a prolonged recovery. There has been the renewed ascendancy of Tiger Woods. And there has been the incipient renaissance of Phil Mickelsons game under the tutelage of golf teacher/savant Butch Harmon.
Thing is, Els has still got it.
What it is is a glorious combination of power, touch, timing, tempo, athleticism, fundamentals and a keen distaste for defeat.
Never were all of his inordinate talents more on display than Sunday at Wentworth near his London home, where Els dispatched U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera, 6 and 4, in the finals of an endurance contest called the HSBC Match Play.
This was the seventh time Els has won this event, whose format demands 36 holes of match play four straight days from the survivors in an elite field limited to 16.
Just minutes after dusting Cabrera, Els was quick to point out that a certain Mr. Woods wasnt here this week.
But in the next breath Els was quicker to point out, If I can play this way, obviously I can give anybody a go.
You can be sure Woods people will relay that quote to Tiger, who is on an extended break from golf since last months Presidents Cup and Decembers Target World Challenge.
And it should be pointed out that the tone of Els comments were more of a slap on the side of the leg to himself than they were a challenge to Woods. I need to play more golf like this, Els said. I wish I could move Wentworth around the world with me.
Cabrera, who actually played better golf than Els in the earlier rounds of the HSBC, agreed. He lives here, Cabrera said of Els and Wentworth, a splendid old Harry Colt parkland design. He knows the course and the greens like his own back yard, which it is'his own back yard.
Before the advent of Woods on the play-for-pay scene, the whole world was Els own back yard, He won one of his two U.S. Opens and a few dozen other events worldwide before Woods turned pro late in 1996.
No other top player other than Els has had more difficulty adjusting to Woods dominance. Perhaps no other top player has more potential to take Tiger down when both are playing their best.
Els win Sunday was about more than just his love affair with Wentworth and home cooking and home field advantage. Remember, if Boo Weekley hadnt chipped in twice in a row late Sunday at Harbour Town in April, Els U.S. dry spell would have ended. And remember, Els was right there with the more written-about Woody Austin getting in Tigers face down the stretch at Southern Hills in the final round of the PGA Championship won by Woods in August.
Prior to the HSBC, Air-knee, as he is referred to by the delightfully knowledgeable and erudite Scottish golf broadcaster Renton Laidlaw, had quietly clawed his way back to No. 5 in the world rankings. By Monday morning he had inched past Steve Stricker and into the No. 4 slot.
Looking ahead to next year, its no stretch to envision Els leapfrogging No. 3 Jim Furyk. It will take prolonged work to get past Mickelson at No. 2.
But as long as were talking about 2008, would having a Big Three of Woods, Mickelson and Els elbowing each other for all the big checks and major championships be such a bad thing? And is that an unrealistic expectation?
I think not. I hope not.
Email your thoughts to Brian Hewitt
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    Davies not giving up on win, HOF after close call

    By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 3:06 am

    PHOENIX – Laura Davies knows the odds are long now, but she won’t let go of that dream of making the LPGA Hall of Fame.

    At 54, she was emboldened by her weekend run at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. She tied for second, five shots behind Inbee Park.

    “The more I get up there, I might have a chance of winning again,” Davies said. “I'm not saying I will ever win, but today was close. Maybe one day I can go closer.”

    Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, but she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in 2001. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

    Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

    Over her career, she has won 20 LPGA titles, four of them major championships. She was the tour’s Rolex Player of the Year in 1996. She probably would have locked up Hall of Fame status if she hadn’t been so loyal to the Ladies European Tour, where she won 45 titles.

    Though Davies didn’t win Sunday in Phoenix, there was more than consolation in her run into contention.

    “Now people might stop asking me when I'm going to retire,” she said.

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    Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill

    By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:20 am

    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.

    Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

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    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.”

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    Rory almost channels Tiger with 72nd-hole celebration

    By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:11 am

    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.

    Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

    Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

    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.”

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    A performance fit for a King

    By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:08 am

    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.”

    Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

    Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

    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.”