McIlroy still trying to clear Masters 'mental' hurdle

By John FeinsteinApril 13, 2016, 1:00 pm

One of the more fascinating aspects about observing Rory McIlroy is watching him answer questions. Unlike many athletes, McIlroy actually listens to every question.

He never responds quickly, because he actually thinks about the question before answering. He will pause, tilt his head and then nod when he’s decided what to say.

Sunday, after he finished a roller-coaster final round at the Masters – seven birdies and six bogeys en route to a 1-under-par 71 – McIlroy was asked a simple question: Assess your week.

Most players react to that sort of broadly general query by looking at the bright side, trying to find the glass as close to half-full as possible. McIlroy didn’t go there.

“I was in great position going into the weekend and I just didn’t play the golf I needed to play when it really mattered,” he said. “I felt very tentative, played very defensively, felt very similar to how I played the last round at Doral playing with the lead.

“You’re just trying not to make mistakes instead of attacking and making birdies. Trying not to make mistakes is not my game. That’s not what I do.”

It absolutely isn’t what he does. And, it’s pretty clear watching him play at Augusta National that he is still trying to figure out the puzzle that the golf course can be. Five years ago, he made it look easy for three rounds, bolting to a four-shot lead after 54 holes before a final-round 80 dropped him to 15th place.

He admitted that day that he had played defensively, trying to protect the lead and said he had learned a lesson from it. Perhaps he did. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had the chance to put that lesson to use, since he hasn’t led at the Masters since then. He’s finished in the top 10 the last three years: T-8; 4th; T-10, but that’s not what he’s after. He wants to complete the career Grand Slam and he wants to do it soon. Before it becomes, ‘a thing.’

The question now is this: Has it already become ‘a thing?’ Clearly, McIlroy has given that some thought.

“I’ve been in position (at the Masters) before and I haven’t got the job done when I needed to and I don’t think that’s anything to do with my game,” he said. “I think that’s more me mentally and I’m trying to deal with the pressure of it and the thrill of the achievement if it were to happen. I think that’s the thing that’s really holding me back.”

Players would usually rather try to play standing on their heads than admit something may be grinding on them mentally. McIlroy isn’t like that. Prior to the start of the tournament last week, he readily admitted that he had been distracted by all the talk about completing the career Grand Slam a year ago and that had led to a poor start. He was 3-over-par for 27 holes, before playing the last 45 holes in 15 under. The rally got him to fourth place but never within shouting distance of the runaway train that was Jordan Spieth.

This year, he did exactly what he needed to do for 36 holes, hanging in under the sort of windy conditions that he doesn’t like. Five years ago at the Open Championship, he sent much of the British media into a tizzy when he admitted after the third round at Royal St. George’s that he didn’t like playing in adverse conditions. For someone from Northern Ireland to make such an admission was akin to someone from Kentucky saying they weren’t wild about college basketball. Or a New Yorker saying he wasn’t crazy about thin-crust pizza.

But, in spite of the windy conditions, he walked to the tee on Saturday afternoon one shot out of the lead and paired with Spieth in the final group. This should have been a challenge that McIlroy relished. He’s made it pretty clear that he has no desire to cede his spot as the world’s best player to Spieth or Jason Day. He’s always played well in the past when paired with Spieth and here was his chance to teach the kid a lesson or two on golf’s grandest stage.

Except he didn’t do that. He fizzled completely, hitting the ball all over the place, never making a putt and finally trudging up the hill to the 18th green to finish with a 77 that included zero birdies. Rory McIlroy playing 18 holes at Augusta National without a single birdie?

Impossible. Except, on Saturday, not only possible, but true.

He talked Saturday about still believing he could win thanks to the fact that Spieth’s bogey-double bogey finish meant he was only five shots back. As it turned out, he was only one shot behind Danny Willett, the man who ended up with the green jacket on Sunday, so if he had been able to go low, he still could have won.

But he didn’t go low. Every time he made a birdie, a bogey followed soon after. And so, he spent the day running in place. He began tied for 11th place and finished tied for 10th.

McIlroy won’t be 27 until next month. Plenty of players haven’t won a single major at that age – Phil Mickelson, remember, was 33 before he won one – but McIlroy doesn’t want to be plenty of players. He wants to be the player. He wants to be No. 1 in the world again and he badly wants the career Grand Slam.

The fact that he’s not in denial about the pressure he feels at Augusta is probably a good thing. So often, players try to claim they aren’t bothered by something when clearly they are. Colin Montgomerie repeatedly said it didn’t bother him not to have won a major. “If I never win one, I’ll still have had a great career,” he often said.

He did have a great career. And he never won a major.

McIlroy has already won four majors and his spot in the Hall of Fame is assured. But that’s not enough for him. He is still trying to become a more consistent putter and he very badly wants a green jacket. One with the Augusta National crest on it.

He still has plenty of time to take care of that one hole in his golf resume. There’s little doubt, though, that with each passing year he is more and more aware of the need to get it done – sooner, rather than later.

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McCoy earns medalist honors at Q-School

By Will GrayDecember 11, 2017, 12:30 am

One year after his budding career was derailed by a car accident, Lee McCoy got back on track by earning medalist honors at the final stage of Tour Q-School.

McCoy shot a final-round 65 at Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler, Ariz., to finish the 72-hole event at 28 under. That total left him two shots ahead of Sung-Jae Im and guaranteed him fully-exempt status on the developmental circuit in 2018.

It's an impressive turnaround for the former University of Georgia standout who finished fourth at the 2016 Valspar Championship as an amateur while playing alongside Jordan Spieth in the final round. But he broke his wrist in a car accident the day before second stage of Q-School last year, leaving him without status on any major tour to begin the year.

McCoy was not the only player who left Arizona smiling. Everyone in the top 10 and ties will be exempt through the first 12 events of the new Tour season, a group that includes former amateur standouts Curtis Luck (T-3), Sam Burns (T-10) and Maverick McNealy (T-10).

Players who finished outside the top 10 but inside the top 45 and ties earned exemptions into the first eight events of 2018. That group includes Cameron Champ (T-16), who led the field in driving at this year's U.S. Open as an amateur, and Wyndham Clark (T-23).

Everyone who advanced to the final stage of Q-School will have at least conditional Tour status in 2018. Among those who failed to secure guaranteed starts this week were Robby Shelton, Rico Hoey, Jordan Niebrugge, Joaquin Niemann and Kevin Hall.

Els honored with Heisman Humanitarian Award

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 11:41 pm

The annual Heisman Trophy award ceremony is one of the biggest moments in any football season, but there was a touching non-football moment as well on Saturday night as Ernie Els received the Heisman Humanitarian Award.

The award, which had been announced in August, recognized Els' ongoing efforts on behalf of his Els for Autism foundation. Els received the award at Manhattan's PlayStation Theater, where Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy.

Els, 47, founded Els for Autism in 2009 with his wife after their son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism. Their efforts have since flourished into a 26-acre campus in Jupiter, Fla., and the creation of the Els Center for Excellence in 2015.

The Heisman Humanitarian Award has been given out since 2006. Past recipients include NBA center David Robinson, NFL running back Warrick Dunn, soccer star Mia Hamm and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.

A native of South Africa, Els won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and The Open in 2002 and 2012. He has won 19 times on the PGA Tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.

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Monday finish for Joburg Open; Sharma leads by 4

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 8:57 pm

Rain, lightning and hail pushed the Joburg Open to a Monday finish, with India’s Shubhankar Sharma holding a four-stroke lead with 11 holes to play in Johannesburg.

Play is scheduled to resume at 7:30 a.m. local time.

South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen will have a 3-foot putt for birdie to move within three shots of Sharma wen play resumes at the Randpark Golf Club. Sarma is at 22 under par.

Tapio Pulkkanen of Finland and James Morrison of England are tied for third at 14 under. Pulkkanen has 10 holes remaining, Morrison 11.

The top three finishers who are not already exempt, will get spots in next year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.



Stricker, O'Hair team to win QBE Shootout

By Will GrayDecember 10, 2017, 8:55 pm

It may not count in the official tally, but Steve Stricker is once again in the winner's circle on the PGA Tour.

Stricker teamed with Sean O'Hair to win the two-person QBE Shootout, as the duo combined for a better-ball 64 in the final round to finish two shots clear of Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry. It's the second win in this event for both men; Stricker won with Jerry Kelly back in 2009 while O'Hair lifted the trophy with Kenny Perry in 2012.

Stricker and O'Hair led wire-to-wire in the 54-hole, unofficial event after posting a 15-under 57 during the opening-round scramble.

"We just really gelled well together," Stricker said. "With his length the first day, getting some clubs into the greens, some short irons for me, we just fed off that first day quite a bit. We felt comfortable with one another."

Full-field scores from the QBE Shootout

Stricker won 12 times during his PGA Tour career, most recently at the 2012 Tournament of Champions. More recently the 50-year-old has been splitting his time on the PGA Tour Champions and captained the U.S. to a victory at the Presidents Cup in October. O'Hair has four official Tour wins, most recently at the 2011 RBC Canadian Open.

Pat Perez and Brian Harman finished alone in third, four shots behind Stricker and O'Hair. Lexi Thompson and Tony Finau, the lone co-ed pairing in the 12-team event, finished among a tie for fourth.