On Ryder Cup Friday, nothing like No. 1 tee

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 28, 2012, 2:15 pm

MEDINAH, Ill. – The first tee on Ryder Cup Friday is one of the most pressurized scenes in all of sports. It’s Game 7 of the World Series, a do-or-die game in the NBA Finals, the final moments of the Super Bowl . . . all on a swath of closely mown grass some 10 yards wide.

Who cares that so many European players now live in the U.S., that they have become fixtures on the PGA Tour? These biennial matches haven’t lost any of their intensity, at least not among fans. They still wrapped themselves in their country’s flags like blankets. They stomped and sang songs even with the competitors still warming up on the range, nowhere in sight.

They arrived early, too. It was 6:39 a.m. local time when this correspondent arrived. The air smelled of hot coffee, hamburgers were already on the grill, and fans jammed eight rows deep along the sides of the first tee. Everyone could see their breath. It's 51 degrees.

The setup around No. 1 tee is such that players must walk from the practice green over scaffolding to arrive at the tee – gladiators entering their arena, only this venue had lush green grass, bunkers and a MetLife blimp hovering overhead.

It’s 6:58. The Euros’ “Ole, ole, ole!” chant suddenly was met by screams of “U-S-A!” – a minute-long clash of vibrant and impassioned noise, like a fight between teenaged siblings.

It wouldn’t be long before U.S. assistant captains Jeff Sluman and Fred Couples arrived on the first tee, sparking another “U-S-A!” chant. Freddie lifted both arms in exultation, then was reduced to a gray-haired, cool-kid mascot, clapping and flipping hats to the fans.

It’s 7:15. Team Europe – well, a few of the team members who weren’t playing (Martin Kaymer, Nicolas Colsaerts) on Friday morning – made their way to the back of the first tee, for moral support. Not far behind was U.S. captain Davis Love III, who extended his left fist into the air. The crowd roared.

Soon, Love and the rest of the assistant captains gathered on the teeing ground for a group picture – this year’s Christmas card.

The first player in the first group to arrive was Jim Furyk, and he wore a snow cap. Walking toward the tee, he held his left hand to his ear – I can’t hear you! His partner, Brandt Snedeker, a Ryder Cup rookie, was next, and he clapped and high-fived and smiled wide – hey, the guy just won $11.4 mill.

It’s 7:19. Furyk walked over and kissed his wife, Tabitha, and Sneds smooched his bride, too. Photogs rushed to grab their cameras.

As Europe’s Graeme McDowell was introduced, the Golf Gods hit the mute button on the universal remote – the crowd fell silent, immediately. And the first tee shot of the 39th Ryder Cup sailed way left, clipping a tree some 75 yards ahead, and fans scrambled to get a proper view of the ball. Furyk then pegged it, the crowd cheered, he set up right, and then overcooked it left, too. Nerves.

It’s 7:25. On the tee, Love conducted a TV interview, the equivalent of an NFL coach being asked his thoughts after the first media timeout in the first quarter. A few fans sang “Old MacDonald” as Luke Donald’s wife, Diane, slipped to the left side of the tee.

It’s 7:28. Here came Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley – frequent practice-round partners, gambling buddies, mentor and mentee. Lefty flashed a few thumbs-up, as is his wont, and not far behind came Sergio Garcia and hometown favorite Luke Donald. Luuuuuuuuke. They took an awkward photo – U.S. team on the left, match official in the middle, Europe on the right – that could feature the caption, “House divided!”

The moments before this star-studded match were tense, and the players exchanged pleasantries. Fortunately, a few clever fans provided the levity, chanting, “Ma-jor win-ners!” referring to this Euro duo’s oft-discussed oh-fer in golf’s biggest events.

It’s 7:33. Donald stuck his tee in the ground and waited for the go-ahead. Silence, again. His tee shot with a 3-wood faded down the right side, but received a favorable kick into the fairway.

Bradley, another rookie, played first for the Americans. He’s a big hitter, with a nervy pre-shot routine, but in a few short moments he would select driver, visualize his shot and hammer one down the center. He walked toward the front of the tee, turned back and high-fived Mickelson.

It’s 7:46. After a 10-minute intermission, Zach Johnson and the laconic Jason Dufner walked across the bridge. Zach waved his arms; there were unconfirmed reports that Duf smiled.

As he waited to play, Dufner squatted and stretched, swung and spat, but his only acknowledgement of the crowd was a tip of his cap, like in those Comcast commercials.

It’s 7:50. Lee Westwood smashed a drive down the middle, and Dufner, after seven waggles, pulled his tee shot into the bunker. Advantage, Europe.

About 10 minutes later, Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan ambled over to the tee, awaiting the final group. Before long, Europe vice captain Miguel Angel Jimenez – Golf’s Most Interesting Man – greeted Jordan, and they chatted for a few moments. Discussing their love of cigars, perhaps?

It’s 8:02. The final group made its way toward the tee, the crowd now thinning a bit, only five rows deep along the sides.

Justin Rose and Ian Poulter were first to arrive, and then came Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods, the latter playing his first home Ryder Cup since 2004. His left hand stuffed in his pants pocket – surely the first time he’s worn blue plaid pants in competition – Woods doffed his hat to the crowd.

“Fourteen majors in this group!” a fan yelled.

Poulter found the first fairway, per usual in the Ryder Cup, but it was a different story for Woods. Setting up to hit a fade, he hit an ominous, ghastly, double-crossed snap-hook that nearly hit the tree and eventually came to rest near a fence – the worst tee ball of any of the eight competitors. Stricker walked ahead, eager to see the lie.

Now it was 8:07, and everyone in the morning foursomes was out on the course. A warm morning sun had lifted the temperature to 58 degrees, fans scrambled to find their next-best viewing area, and the day’s possibilities seemed limitless. 

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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McIlroy remembers Arnie dinner: He liked A-1 sauce on fish

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 1:06 am

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.’”

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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.”