Punch Shot: Better year - Mickelson or McIlroy?

Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy make their 2014 debuts at this week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on the European Tour. Mickelson, who turns 44 this year, won three times around the world, including the British Open. McIlroy, who turns 25, was winless on the two major tours in '13, but claimed the Australian Open in December. So, which one will have a better campaign this year? GolfChannel.com writers weigh in.

By REX HOGGARD

With a monsoon of respect for Phil Mickelson, who may be bound for a historic and emotional U.S. Open victory this year to complete the career Grand Slam, 2014 will be Rory McIlroy’s rebound year.

It was roughly 12 months ago when the Ulsterman made his theatric debut as a Nike Golf staffer, complete with a laser light show, in Abu Dhabi and he fell off the rails almost immediately – missing the cut in his first start, getting bounced in Round 1 at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and succumbing to a tooth ache at the Honda Classic.

Along the way he posted just five top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, but as the year slowly progressed his life, both on and off the golf course, began to realign.

As fall turned to winter, numerous legal issues with former sponsors and managers started to be resolved, he was engaged to longtime girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki and he closed the season with top-10 showings in Korea, China (WGC-HSBC Champions), Dubai and at the Australian Open, where he outdueled hometown favorite Adam Scott for his first - and only - victory of 2013.

Without the pressure of a multi-million dollar endorsement contract hanging over him, McIlroy is poised to reassert himself; while the pressure facing Mickelson may turn out to be the most intense of his career.


By RYAN LAVNER

Barring another legal snafu, this is shaping up to be a monster bounce-back season for Rory McIlroy, an opinion emboldened by his late-season play that saw him get off the schneid in Australia. After a year of turmoil and transition – the new clubs, the spotlight as world No. 1, the battles in the courts – McIlroy should be decidedly more at peace as he begins his 2014 campaign this week in Abu Dhabi.

Finally, the questions lobbed at McIlroy should have little to do with his new equipment, or whether he’s distracted by the relationship rumors, or who is making his off-the-course decisions. No, it is simply this: whether the 24-year-old can return to the form that saw him nab majors in consecutive years, and in record-setting fashion.

The boy wonder has dropped all the way to seventh in the world, the lowest he has been ranked since June 2011. With finishes of 11th or better in five of his last six starts, however, it’s looking increasingly likely that he won’t be ranked that low for long. 



By WILL GRAY

While I expect both players to have successful campaigns in 2014, I’m giving the edge to the elder statesman – Phil Mickelson.

You have to go all the way back to 2003 to find a PGA Tour season in which Lefty didn’t record at least one victory. That’s a remarkable stretch of consistency, one that Rory McIlroy failed to emulate last season. While Mickelson will likely judge his season as a success or failure based on his outcome at Pinehurst No. 2, a year that ends without the elusive U.S. Open trophy will still likely include at least one win and a handful of title contentions, even on an abbreviated playing schedule.

McIlroy no longer has the pressure of the world’s top ranking around his shoulders, and he’s had a year to grow more familiar with his new equipment. Both factors should help him return to form in 2014. But it feels like more than 18 months have passed since the Ulsterman was dominating the PGA Championship and FedEx Cup Playoffs, and his upcoming year will not be without distraction, whether fielding questions about his recent engagement, getting his fledgling agency off the ground or fighting courtroom battles with his former representatives.

Both will certainly show signs of brilliance across the next nine months, but Mickelson’s body of work will prove more impressive by year’s end.


By RANDALL MELL

Rory McIlroy didn’t hit a lot of greens and didn’t putt well most of last year. He was 86th on the PGA Tour hitting greens in regulation. He was 122nd in strokes gained-putting.

Of course, when you’re playing in a fog, it’s not unexpected you might get lost along your way. That’s really what last year was like for McIlroy, with a battle going on over his management and with lawsuits following. You factor in the ratcheted expectations after signing a huge new deal with Nike, and there was a lot of haze and mist to play through last year.

With a year’s transition behind him and with a victory late last year in Australia, McIlroy is too talented not to find his way out of the fog. While Phil Mickelson, 43, is perfectly capable of delivering something big again this year, McIlroy, 24, has already shown he has the tools to dominate, to deliver a Player of the Year performance. Mickelson has never been POY.


By JASON SOBEL

Rory McIlroy will have a better season than Phil Mickelson.

If for no other reason, this will happen because Mickelson has already announced he will dial back his appearances by about 25 percent, while the younger McIlroy should be primed to compete as much as ever on two different tours. Wisdom tooth permitting, of course.

There are other reasons, too.

Simply put, Rory is too talented to duplicate a 2013 that saw him win just one late-season event and finish top-10 “only” nine times in 25 starts. How quickly we forget that this is a player who in the two previous years not only won majors, but won them each by eight strokes. Now that he’s got his equipment, management team and love life in order, the fewer distractions should lead to greater successes.

Meanwhile, Phil is at a point in his career where he’s going to place all of his eggs in four baskets. It’s no secret that he’d give up however many more regular-season PGA Tour wins for another major – especially if that major is the U.S. Open. More than ever before, expect these other events to serve as warmups for the bigger ones, which means we should expect less from him when playing ‘em.

They are two of the game’s most proficient players, but their careers have reached an intersection. Expect McIlroy to start playing even better, while the slight beginning of a decline happens for Mickelson this year.

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Spieth, McIlroy to support Major Champions Invitational

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:25 pm

Nick Faldo announced Tuesday the creation of the Major Champions Invitational.

The event, scheduled for March 12-14, is an extension of the Faldo Series and will feature both male and female junior players at Bella Collina in Montverde, Fla.

Jordan Spieth, Rory Mcllroy, Annika Sorenstam, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Jerry Pate and John Daly have already committed to supporting the event, which is aimed at mentoring and inspiring the next generation of players.  

“I’m incredibly excited about hosting the Major Champions Invitational, and about the players who have committed to support the event,” Faldo said. “This event will allow major champions to give something back to the game that has given them so much, and hopefully, in time, it will become one of the most elite junior golf events in the world.”

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Rosaforte: Woods plays with Obama, gets rave reviews

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:15 pm

Golf Channel insider Tim Rosaforte reports on Tiger Woods’ recent round at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., alongside President Barack Obama.

Check out the video, as Rosaforte says Woods received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon. 

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Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:50 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.

Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.

Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.

Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA. 

New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.



FALLING

Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.

Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.

Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.

Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.

Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions. 

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”


Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)


Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”