Golf back to business as usual Thursday at Sawgrass

By Jason SobelMay 10, 2013, 12:16 am

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It was just after 11 a.m. on another sun-splashed Florida morning when an older gentleman strode outside the ropes to the left of TPC Sawgrass’ second fairway, turned to his female companion and inquired, “What time does the cheater tee off?”

It would have qualified as the most damning question surrounding the current state of the game if not for the one she offered in response.

“Which one?”

Their accusations aside, nobody around here is accusing anyone of failing to play by the rules – either inside or outside the ropes – but these have been a wild last few months when it comes to hot-button issues around the game.

From the legitimacy and legality of deer antler spray to an exoneration based on a technicality to a quixotic lawsuit filed in a fuss, from a major rules decision to a convening committee to a full-blown controversy, golf has seemingly become about everything other than birdies and bogeys.

Or at least it had – until Thursday happened and everything old was new once again.

During the opening round of The Players Championship, there was no talk of spray from any animal, no lawsuits filed, no major rules decisions and – surprise, surprise – no full-blown controversies. Instead, there were legions of birdies and not quite as many bogeys, the result of a day that looked refreshingly like business as usual.

OK, so maybe “business as usual” doesn’t necessarily describe a little-known 27-year-old Georgia Tech graduate named Roberto Castro firing the third-ever 9-under 63 in tournament history, tying Hall of Fame members Greg Norman and Fred Couples in an unexpected yet brilliant display of golf.

Not that he has this course figured out after one spin around the track.

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“I don't think anyone's figured out what the secret is to this place,” he said after a round that included an eagle and seven birdies. “Davis [Love III] won 21 years after winning the first time, so I'm sure there were plenty of water balls in between those two wins.”

Other than Castro’s surprise visit to the top of the leaderboard, though, this was a day that appeared “as scripted” as they say in the television biz.

Not far behind the leader were Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, the world’s top two players, finally giving performances on this course worthy of their lofty status. McIlroy posted a bogey-free 6-under 66, leaving little doubt as to whether he will end his missed cut streak here at three. Meanwhile, Woods was one stroke further back, posting birdie on each of the four par-5 holes, an often overlooked secret ingredient to his success.

It’s still early, sure, but the start at least put Woods in contention to be in contention, so to speak, searching for his first serious title run since winning this event a dozen years ago.

“This is a tricky golf course,” Woods explained. “It doesn't take much to make a bogey around here. I think that's kind of what [course designer] Pete [Dye] had intended, and I'm sure that most of the guys throughout their careers really haven't had too many other days that are spotless on their cards.”

Others signs of regularity reigned, too. It was a leaderboard that boasted Zach Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker and Webb Simpson – four of the world’s top 30 players and four solid ball-strikers whose scores are hardly a shock.

But it didn’t stop there.

Phil Mickelson posted a birdie on the 13th hole … then followed by fading his tee shot on 14 into an awaiting pond en route to a double-bogey. Same old story.

Padraig Harrington opened par-eagle-double-birdie-bogey on his way to a 68 … as the noted tinkerer went with a belly putter and no glasses this time. Sounds about right.

Jason Dufner smacked a 9-iron into the devilish par-4 closing hole and found the bottom of the cup for eagle … and almost, sort of, kind of cracked a smile. Nothing new there.

Even Vijay Singh – he of the deer antler spray admission and ensuing exoneration and inexplicable lawsuit – got through the day in relative peace, save for a few fans who made their stances known about his tribulations from outside the ropes.

It was even peaceful for him after the round, when just as following every other round he’s played this year, he declined to speak with any media after a 2-over 74.

If that’s not business as usual, nothing is.

All of which should be considered comforting news amidst the recent tumultuous nature of the game. For one day, at least, golf was about birdies and bogeys again. 

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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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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.”

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DeChambeau comes up short: 'Hat’s off to Rory'

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 12:48 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Amid a leaderboard chock full of big names and major winners, the person that came closest to catching Rory McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational turned out to by Bryson DeChambeau.

While Henrik Stenson faltered and Justin Rose stalled out, it was DeChambeau that gave chase to McIlroy coming down the stretch at Bay Hill. Birdies on Nos. 12 and 13 were followed by an eagle out of the rough on No. 16, which brought him to within one shot of the lead.

But as DeChambeau surveyed his birdie putt from the fringe on the penultimate hole, McIlroy put an effective end to the proceedings with a closing birdie of his own to polish off a round of 64. DeChambeau needed a hole-out eagle on No. 18 to force a playoff, and instead made bogey.

That bogey ultimately didn’t have an effect on the final standings, as DeChambeau finished alone in second place at 15 under, three shots behind McIlroy after shooting a 4-under 68.

“I thought 15 under for sure would win today,” DeChambeau said. “Rory obviously played some incredible golf. I don’t know what he did on the last nine, but it was deep. I know that.”

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DeChambeau will collect $961,000 for his performance this week in Orlando, just $47,000 less than he got for winning the John Deere Classic in July. While he would have preferred to take McIlroy’s spot in the winner’s circle, DeChambeau was pleased with his effort in Sunday’s final pairing as he sets his sights on a return to the Masters.

“For him to shoot 64 in the final round, that’s just, hat’s off to him, literally. I can’t do anything about that,” DeChambeau said. “I played some great golf, had some great up-and-downs, made a couple key putts coming down the stretch, and there’s not really much more I can do about it. My hat’s off to Rory, and he played fantastic.”