McIlroy still getting used to scrutiny as he climbs out of slump

By Doug FergusonApril 3, 2013, 12:31 am

HUMBLE, Texas – When the scrutiny becomes suffocating, it's a good time for Rory McIlroy to get as far away as he can.

So he went to a practice range on a public course.

Imagine the surprise of the paying customer at Miami Municipal Golf Course a few weeks ago who looked over to his left and saw McIlroy, still at No. 1 in the world and a two-time major champion, plop down a carry bag with a Manchester United logo.

''Why was that such a big deal?'' McIlroy asked with a mixture of amazement and bemusement.

This was Wednesday at the Houston Open, where morning frost had caused a two-hour delay in the pro-am. Instead of retreating to the clubhouse dining room at Redstone Golf Club to order from the omelet station, McIlroy found a spare booth in the caddie trailer, where the fare ranged from scrambled eggs to peanut butter on toast.

Just one of the lads.

He made the cut on the number last week – his first cut against a full field this year – and was making a run up the leaderboard in the third round when he three-putted for bogey from 5 feet on the par-5 13th hole. McIlroy dropped two more shots and returned toward the bottom of the pack.

After lunch, it was back to work. He could have sought privacy at the far end of the range. Instead, he set up shop in front of a grandstand where 30 people took a seat to watch. Tom Gillis, a runner-up to McIlroy a year ago at the Honda Classic, came over and gave Boy Wonder a playful push.

There were more smiles than drops of sweat in this practice session.

McIlroy was hitting driver toward the end, picking out a barren tree on the horizon as a target for his draw. He was getting dialed in when caddie J.P. Fitzgerald said, ''End it with a good one.'' The shape looked to be perfect, and the caddie said, ''Beautiful.''

''One more,'' McIlroy said with a smile, and then he hit that one even better.

He walked over to the railing where a dozen kids had gathered, took out a pen and began signing. One of them was a photo of McIlroy posing with the U.S. Open trophy from Congressional, brown curls spilling out from under his cap.

''I can't believe I looked like this,'' he said. His hair is much shorter now. He's more grown up. He turns 24 next month.

This is the state of McIlroy.

He tied for 45th in the Houston Open, and while that would normally be considered a pedestrian week, he considers it progress. He signed up for the Texas Open this week, wanting more competition before going to the Masters. Perhaps more telling was how much happier he looked than in recent weeks.



That wasn't the case at the start of the year.

McIlroy is no stranger to attention, and he brought that on himself. Winning the U.S. Open with a record score. A relationship with Caroline Wozniacki, who was No. 1 in women's tennis when they first started dating. Winning the PGA Championship by a record eight shots. Climbing to No. 1 in the world, and then winning three more tournaments against the strongest fields, made it look as if the kid would stay on top for years to come.

And yes, the Nike deal.

With blaring music and a laser show in Abu Dhabi, he was introduced as the latest global star to market the swoosh and made a commercial with Tiger Woods. Then, he plunged into a slump. That's not unusual for McIlroy, except the expectations have never been this great, the number of eyeballs on him never this many.

A year ago, there was one stretch in the late spring when he missed the cut in four of five tournaments, the last as defending champion at the U.S. Open. This year, he missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, lost in the first round of Match Play and quit out of frustration after 27 holes of the Honda Classic.

In Houston, his shoulders never sagged even as he was on the verge of another weekend off.

''I learned from the last few weeks that I've got to keep my spirits up. There's no point in getting down on yourself,'' McIlroy said. ''I felt like I was doing that a bit too much at the Match Play and Honda, and you saw what happened there.''

If there was a moment that showed the state of his game, it was early in the second round at Houston. McIlroy was some 20 yards behind Dustin Johnson and Keegan Bradley off the tee as he played tentatively and tried to avoid bogeys. After back-to-back birdies, he swung more freely and blasted a tee shot some 15 yards beyond Johnson.

He's not that far off.

Asked what will be written about him at the end of the year, a smiling McIlroy said:

''Hopefully, the same things that were written about me at the end of last year.''

There's a phrase back home in Northern Ireland that goes, ''Catch yourself on,'' which loosely translated means wise up or don't get a big head. McIlroy concedes that has been put to the test this year.

''I've learned when you get into this position, you have to remember what got you to this point in the first place, which is practice and playing,'' he said. ''Sometimes, you have to do the right things for yourself.''

He also is guided by wise words from his father, Gerry, who tells him it doesn't cost anything to be nice to people. That remains his hallmark.

McIlroy was in a starter's tent next to the 10th tee Saturday, looking into a trash container where his caddie had dropped a piece of the shaker used to mix a protein drink. A volunteer interrupted by trying to speak a phrase in Gaelic.

McIlroy looked at him blankly and said, ''I don't speak Irish.''

There was awkward silence as the volunteer, sensing this conversation was going nowhere and probably shouldn't have been started, looked for a graceful exit. ''Play well,'' he said as he backed out of the tent.

McIlroy smiled and looked the volunteer right in the eye.

''Now that,'' he said, ''I understand.''

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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."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.

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Tour's Integrity Program raises gambling questions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 17, 2018, 7:00 pm

The video begins with an eye-opening disclaimer: “Sport betting markets produce revenues of $1 trillion each year.”

For all the seemingly elementary elements of the 15-minute video PGA Tour players have been required to watch as part of the circuit’s newly created Integrity Program, it’s the enormity of the industry – $1 trillion annually – that concerns officials.

There are no glaring examples of how sport betting has impacted golf, no red flags that sent Tour officials into damage control; just a realization that with that kind of money it’s best to be proactive.

“It's important that in that world, you can operate not understanding what's happening week in and week out, or you can assume that all of our players and everybody in our ecosystem understands that that's not an acceptable activity, or you can just be proactive and clarify and educate,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan explained earlier this month. “That's what we have attempted to do not with just the video, but with all of our communication with our players and will continue to do that.”

But if clarification is the goal, a copy of the training video obtained by GolfChannel.com paints a different picture.



Although the essence of the policy is straightforward – “prohibit players from betting on professional golf” – the primary concern, at least if the training video is any indication, is on match fixing; and warns players to avoid divulging what is considered “inside information.”

“I thought the questions were laughable. They were all like first-grade-level questions,” Chez Reavie said. “I would like to think everyone out here already knows the answer to those questions. But the Tour has to protect themselves.”

Monahan explained that the creation of the integrity policy was not in reaction to a specific incident and every player asked last week at the Sony Open said they had never encountered any type of match fixing.

“No, not at all,” Reavie said. “I have friends who will text me from home after a round, ‘Oh, I bet on you playing so-and-so.’ But I make it clear I don’t want to know. I don’t gamble like that. No one has ever approached me about losing a match.”

It was a common answer, but the majority of the video focuses on how players can avoid being placed in a compromising situation that could lead to match fixing. It should be noted that gamblers can place wagers on head-to-head matchups, provided by betting outlets, during stroke-play rounds of tournaments – not just in match-play competitions.

Part of the training video included questions players must answer to avoid violating the policy. An example of this was how a player should respond when asked, “Hello, buddy! Well played today. I was following your progress. I noticed your partner pulled out of his approach on 18, looked like his back. Is he okay for tomorrow?”

The correct answer from a list of options was, “I don’t know, sorry. I’m sure he will get it looked at if it’s bothering him.”

You get the idea, but for some players the training created more questions.

How, for example, should a player respond when asked how he’s feeling by a fan?

“The part I don’t understand, let’s say a member of your club comes out and watches you on the range hitting balls, he knows you’re struggling, and he bets against you. Somehow, some way that could come back to you, according to what I saw on that video,” said one player who asked not to be identified.

Exactly what constitutes a violation is still unclear for some who took the training, which was even more concerning considering the penalties for a violation of the policy.

The first violation is a warning and a second infraction will require the player to retake the training program, but a third violation is a fine “up to $500,000” or “the amount illegally received from the betting activity.” A sixth violation is a lifetime ban from the Tour.

Players are advised to be mindful of what they post on social media and to “refrain from talking about odds or betting activity.” The latter could be an issue considering how often players discuss betting on other sports.

Just last week at the Sony Open, Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas had a “friendly” wager on the College Football Playoff National Championship. Kisner, a Georgia fan, lost the wager and had to wear an Alabama football jersey while playing the 17th hole last Thursday.

“If I'd have got the points, he'd have been wearing [the jersey], and I was lobbying for the points the whole week, and he didn't give them to me,” Kisner said. “So I'm still not sure about this bet.”

It’s unclear to some if Kisner’s remark, which was a joke and didn’t have anything to do with golf, would be considered a violation. From a common sense standpoint, Kisner did nothing wrong, but the uncertainty is an issue.

Much like drug testing, which the Tour introduced in 2008, few, if any, think sport betting is an issue in golf; but also like the anti-doping program, there appears to be the danger of an inadvertent and entirely innocent violation.

The Tour is trying to be proactive and the circuit has a trillion reasons to get out in front of what could become an issue, but if the initial reaction to the training video is any indication they may want to try a second take.

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.