Hawk's Nest: Masters greats; McIlroy's good move

By John HawkinsApril 1, 2013, 2:15 pm

My bracket is a mess and the taxman is knocking, but I’m happy. We’re playing golf in the Northeast, swinging and cussing, and then exchanging Hamiltons and Jacksons over adult beverages and cigar smoke. It wasn’t so much a harsh winter – it was a late one. Still, our season has begun in March for the second consecutive year.

I’ve stuck a peg in the ground on many of the finest courses in the land, but for me, it’s not where you play, but with whom you play. I hadn’t seen my golf buddies in a few months and had plenty to yap about, but the conversation still turned to pro golf as we approached the sixth green.

“You know what you should write about?” Scully proposed, at which point I thought he’d pitch something irrelevant, perverse or worse. “How come every time a European guy gets to the top of the world ranking, he loses the No. 1 spot so quickly?”

I’ve got a 30-footer for birdie on greens that were covered in snow 10 days ago, which is no time to be taking questions, but this was a terrific one. I tried to explain that changes made to the ranking’s mathematical formula in recent years had resulted in more volatility, but the longer I talked, the more I realized I wasn’t really answering the query.

Luke Donald has since fallen to fourth, Lee Westwood to 13th, Martin Kaymer all the way to 31st. Along with Rory McIlroy, who recently relinquished the top spot to Tiger Woods, those four Euros were ranked first, second, third and sixth at this point a year ago. You can’t blame math for a decline like that. Actually, you can, but it’s the type of arithmetic largely frowned upon in golf – you add up the scorecard and realize you’ve turned a 68 into a 71.

American players have won all 13 events played on the PGA Tour in 2013, leaving me to wonder if a couple of those former No. 1s, all of whom now spend a significant amount of time in the United States, were getting fat on ranking points against those thinner international fields. The U.S. may not win many Ryder Cups, but they’ve got the most good players. Period.

Speaking of losing the top spot….

CADDIES ARE SUPPOSED to show up, keep up and shut up, but when veteran looper J.P. Fitzgerald spoke up to Rory McIlroy about the state of his game in Houston, the Irish lad listened. The result is a win-win that has McIlroy playing in the Valero Texas Open – the smartest thing he’s done as a golfer in 2013.

As one might expect, McIlragged’s poor start this season has been a consistently hot topic on the live chats I’ve hosted on this website. The kneejerk among theorists has been to blame his financially lucrative equipment switch from Titleist to Nike, but I haven’t bought into that simple explanation. Not yet, anyway.

My response has been the same all year: McIlrust needs to play more competitive rounds. Fitzgerald clearly saw the same thing, which led to this week’s unexpected commitment – a significant boost for a tournament that has struggled to gain attention and lure anything resembling star power during the FedEx Cup era.

Rory’s emulation of Tiger Woods has been well-documented in recent years, and we all know Woods plays a rather select schedule. I think McIlreplicate decided he should do the same thing to remain atop the world ranking. His first start of ’13 was at Abu Dhabi after a two-month layoff, and he missed the cut. Then he took another four weeks off and got bumped in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

He headed straight to the Honda Classic, where he walked off after 26 holes, then played for a third consecutive week at Doral, where a final-round 65 earned him a soft T-8. It was the first time McIlroy had played a full event on any tour in 3 ½ months. So what does he do? He takes another two weeks off.

You can hit those new clubs on the range all day, but at some point, you have to make money with them. When you look back on McIlready’s brief career, you see that his best golf has come during periods of high activity. When he’s away from the game for a month, which has been the case a couple of times, he takes a while to get going again.

Kids. They’re so hardheaded sometimes, even the good ones. Why hasn’t McIlrational noticed this trend? Greatness is a hard thing to manage on a day-to-day basis. You get people offering you $200,000 to show up here and $300,000 to show up there, and the next thing you know, you’re quitting on a Friday morning because your wisdom tooth hurts.

AFTER A STRETCH of clunkers, the Masters has produced three consecutive riveting tournaments. Here’s to hoping next week gives us something as good as this collection: my version of the five best Masters in the last 20 years, presented here in reverse order.

• 2011: It’s fifth in my countdown solely on account of its remarkable finish, a 90-minute homestretch full of remarkable play and constant shifts atop the leaderboard. Charl Schwartzel became the first man ever to birdie the final four holes and win, knocking off five or six other guys who were almost as good. A classic case of somebody shooting lights out to win a big tournament, not a handful of others finding a way to lose it.

• 1997: The polar opposite of two years ago; an overwhelming display of dominance that will forever remain one of the landmark performances in golf history. Woods didn’t just break Masters records – he basically rewrote the entire book. To open the week with a front-nine 40, then win by 12 shots at 18 under par is almost unfathomable. In retrospect, it was pro golf’s equivalent to the Beatles landing at JFK Airport in February 1964. 

• 1995: Ben Crenshaw’s second Masters triumph was the feel-great of feel-good stories: The aging, slumping ex-star pulling off the improbable shortly after the death of Harvey Penick, his coach since childhood? Who knew Augusta National also writes movie scripts? Crenshaw’s swing was a mess at the beginning of the week, but caddie Carl Jackson saw something that fixed it, turning Gentle Ben into the player he’d once been.

• 1998: Just a great tournament from start to finish, featuring a leaderboard stacked with big-name Americans and Mark O’Meara’s 18-footer at the buzzer to beat Fred Couples. What made this Masters super-duper, however, was the Sunday charge by 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus. Walking the grounds that afternoon, I will never forget the depth of the gallery roars as Nicklaus tore apart the front nine and worked his way into the hunt. I got married a week later, which was almost as good.

• 2004: I’ve covered Super Bowls, Final Fours, Wimbledons and a Winter Olympics, but this might be the best sporting event I’ve ever been to. Phil Mickelson’s heroic charge and game-winner on the 18th green ended a decade of questions about his ability to get it done at the biggest events. Get this: Ernie Els led by three on the 14th tee, played par golf over the final five holes and still lost in regulation. The final two hours that Sunday turned into an extended display of shot-making fireworks. I could live another 50 years and not see golf any finer.

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.

Love's hip surgery a success; eyes Florida swing return

By Rex HoggardNovember 22, 2017, 3:31 pm

Within hours of having hip replacement surgery on Tuesday Davis Love III was back doing what he does best – keeping busy.

“I’ve been up and walking, cheated in the night and stood up by the bed, but I’m cruising around my room,” he laughed early Wednesday from Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala., where he underwent surgery to replace his left hip. “[Dr. James Flanagan, who performed the surgery] wants me up. They don’t want me sitting for more than an hour.”

Love, 53, planned to begin more intensive therapy and rehabilitation on Wednesday and is scheduled to be released from the hospital later this afternoon.

According to Love’s doctors, there were no complications during the surgery and his recovery time is estimated around three to four months.

Love, who was initially hesitant to have the surgery, said he can start putting almost immediately and should be able to start hitting wedges in a few weeks.

Dr. Tom Boers – a physical therapist at the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga., who has treated Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Brad Faxon – will oversee Love’s recovery and ultimately decide when he’s ready to resume normal golf activity.

“He understands motion and gait and swing speeds that people really don’t understand. He’s had all of us in there studying us,” Love said. “So we’ll see him in a couple of weeks and slowly get into the swing part of it.”

Although Love said he plans to temper his expectations for this most recent recovery, his goal is to be ready to play by the Florida swing next March.