Anticipation builds for Masters

By Doug FergusonApril 4, 2012, 11:22 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods couldn’t see the green through the trees, though that was only a minor obstacle. He choked up on a 5-wood and played a sweeping draw around the pines, over the water and onto the back of the green.

As he approached the Sarazen Bridge to the 15th green Wednesday, the grandstand rumbled when fans suddenly rose in unison to see him walk by. Some of them held cameras as high as they could, clicked and hoped for the best.

Woods is worth watching at the Masters for all the right reasons.

All it took was one win at Bay Hill two weeks ago for Woods to even remotely resemble the guy who once dominated golf. He won by five shots, and, just like that, was elevated to the favorite at Augusta National.

“Everything is headed in the right direction at the right time,” Woods said.

But he’s not the only star of this Masters.

Rory McIlroy has all the traits of the heir apparent – an easy swing that produces enormous power, a U.S. Open title at age 22, a tennis star for a girlfriend, and an engaging personality – something that Woods is not. In his last 12 tournaments, McIlroy finished third or better eight times, including two wins and a brief stay at No. 1 in the world.

“I’m in a great place,” McIlroy said. “I feel like my golf game is in great shape.”

There is so much anticipation about this clash of generations it’s as if they were the only two players competing for a green jacket, much like the days of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

Far from it.

“There probably hasn’t been a Masters with more legitimate chances,” Geoff Ogilvy said before heading out for a final practice round. “I can understand people seeing this as a two-man race, but it’s never been further from the truth. There are more horses in this race than ever before.”

Luke Donald returned to No. 1 in the world three weeks ago by winning at Innisbrook. He is one of eight players among the top 20 in the world who have won this year, a list that includes Woods and McIlroy, along with Hunter Mahan (twice), Steve Stricker, Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson, a threat at Augusta even when he’s not playing well.

“And you’ve got a guy like Keegan Bradley,” Ogilvy said, referring to the PGA champion who won the first major he ever played. “Nobody ever talked about a Masters rookie with a chance. There’s more people in the conversation, isn’t there?”

One conversation that was kept short Wednesday was Masters chairman Billy Payne refusing to discuss the all-male membership at Augusta National. The topic returned this year because IBM appointed Virginia Rometty its CEO, and the last four chief executives of Big Blue were invited to be members.

“All issues of membership are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations of the members, and that statement remains accurate, and remains my statement,” Payne said.

Despite a few more attempts – including a tense moment when Payne cut off a series of questions by saying, “Thank you” – the focus at Augusta quickly shifted back to golf.

Still fresh are memories from last year, when eight players had at least a share of the lead in the final round – McIlroy early, Woods in the middle, Adam Scott late – until Charl Schwartzel finished with four straight birdies for a two-shot win.

It could be anyone this year – not just Woods and McIlroy.

“Rory has never won here,” Lee Westwood said. “Tiger has not won here since 2005. So I think everybody in this room would have to be naive to think it was a two-horse race, wouldn’t they? There’s more. I think Phil might have a little bit of something to say about that. Luke might. I might.”

Adding to the wide-open feel is the weather.

An unseasonably warm spring, which caused the azaleas and dogwoods to already lose their blooms, gave way to storms that dumped 1 1/2 inches of rain on the course before dawn Wednesday and toppled a few trees, including one that crashed onto a restroom.

Another storm arrived in the afternoon and cut short the Par 3 Contest, along with making Augusta National even softer. Mickelson said to brace for birdies in such soft conditions. His fear was that players could fire at pins, instead of thinking their way around a course that can require so much strategy.

The forecast was for occasional storms the opening two rounds, followed by sunshine on the weekend. That’s all it takes to change the dynamics of this major. The greens are more receptive, yet a soft course also becomes a longer course.

Soft conditions might favor McIlroy. Remember, Congressional also received plenty of rain at the U.S. Open last summer when Boy Wonder set the championship record at 16-under 268.

“He plays without fear, which is a great way to play,” Mickelson said. “When you get soft conditions like at the U.S. Open, he’s going to light it up. And I think that he’s going to continue his great play. If he ends up learning this golf course, I think he’s going to win here a number of times.”

Then again, that’s what Nicklaus and Palmer said about Woods when they first saw him at Augusta as an amateur and predicted he would win as many green jackets as they had combined – 10. Instead, he is stuck on four Masters.

McIlroy will be playing with Angel Cabrera the first two rounds, a replay from last year. They were in the final group, when McIlroy shot 80 on the final day to go from a four-shot lead to a 10-shot deficit.

Asked if he felt sorry for McIlroy going through such a meltdown, Cabrera said:

“No, because when I play bad, nobody feels sorry for me. It was a shame, but I didn’t feel bad for him. I knew it was going to be hard for him. When we got done, I told him, `This is a tournament you can win many times.’ “

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in four months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014. 

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"


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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."