Hawk's Nest: McIlroy should have been forthcoming

By John HawkinsMarch 4, 2013, 2:40 pm

It pleases me to no end when I turn on the Florida swing and see everyone in the gallery wearing a jacket. The players are dressed in sweaters, the wind is howling like my seventh-grade science teacher, and all of a sudden, Connecticut in early March doesn’t seem like torture.

If you’re a cold-blooded type sentenced to life in an arctic climate, 2013 has gotten off to a great start. The season began with a Hawaiian hurricane. We snickered when 3 inches of snow fell in Tucson, and when the PGA Tour fled to West Palm Beach for last week’s Honda Classic, it found November in Nebraska instead.

They call Florida the Sunshine State, but after flying to Orlando every week for four years, walking out of the airport and feeling Mother Nature’s gnarliest breath hit me in the face, I know it’s just a tourist lure. Nicknames such as “Hell’s Real Kitchen” or “Perspiration Nation” probably wouldn’t sit well with the chamber of commerce.

So they came up with something a bit more positive. Oh sure, the sun does shine in the Sunshine State, usually after three hours of mean-spirited clouds and a biblical thunderstorm. Ninety degrees isn’t a golf-cart mandate – it’s a thermometer reading at 7:45 a.m. And when it gets chilly? Sorry, but you are unworthy of sharing my pain.

The temperature here climbed all the way to 38 today. Fahrenheit, not Celsius.

IT HAPPENS ALMOST every week in the auspiciously entitled world of professional golf. A player gets off to a lousy start, misses a 5-footer for bogey on the seventh green, then feels a tweak in his back or a twitch in his knee. Six players failed to complete 36 holes at last month’s Northern Trust Open, including Sean O’Hair, who fired an opening-round 83.

Dustin Johnson quit after 27 holes in Honolulu. Four guys withdrew before the cut at Torrey Pines. What Rory McIlroy did last Friday at PGA National was hardly uncommon, but when you’re 23 years old and you’ve won a pair of major championships by eight strokes apiece, you are never invisible.

You can’t walk off a golf course after eight holes and not expect everyone to notice. You certainly can’t figure that people will buy into your story that you WD’d because of a toothache, a dog-ate-the-homework explanation that ranks with the best in golf history. It’s not that McIlroy is held to a higher standard because he’s the world’s top-ranked player.

It’s just that nobody cares when Alistair Presnell walks off after nine holes, which was the case the day before.

The toothache isn’t really the issue. Pain is a purely subjective matter – it’s not something that can be measured, or in most instances, even questioned. That said, imagine this scenario: McIlroy shakes hands with Ernie Els and Mark Wilson, withdraws from the tournament, then admits:

“You know what? I was playing horribly, embarrassing myself and destroying my confidence with every swing. I was doing myself a lot more harm than good out there. If the PGA Tour wants to fine me or spank me on the buttocks for quitting in the middle of the round, I have no problem with that, but I’m not going to remain out there and play like a 7 handicap when I’ve got some things I need to work on, including my competitive disposition.”

Would you, the serious golf fan, find those comments honestly refreshing or outrageously unacceptable? Charles Barkley has turned candor into a pop-art form. At the end of the day, a lot of people would still call McIlroy a quitter. More, however, would view him as a realist.

WHAT YOU DON’T see every week is a first-round leader who misses the cut, which is what happened to Camilo Villegas at the Honda Classic. A 64-77 combo added up to Villegas’ third consecutive MC, but his substandard play dates back to the start of 2011, when he was disqualified from the season-opener at Kapalua for removing loose impediments.

At this point, Villegas’ decline has evolved into a full-blown tailspin. His best finish in 29 starts since the beginning of 2012 is a T-18 in New Orleans. He saved his Tour card with some decent golf during last year’s Fall Finish, but any confidence or momentum he gained amid that stretch appears to be lost.

While emerging as one of the game’s best young players from 2006-08, Villegas’ success surprised some of his fellow Tour pros. They saw a homemade swing with moving parts and a putting stroke that wasn’t always reliable inside 5 feet, but the kid from Colombia kept getting better and better.

Back-to-back victories in the 2008 FedEx Cup playoffs signified that Villegas had arrived. His slight build was stacked with muscle, and very few players were longer off the tee – Villegas averaged a career-best 302.1 yards per drive in ’06.

Nowadays, he looks smaller, and his drives are more than 10 yards shorter. Here’s a stat for you: In 2011, Villegas ranked 163rd in greens in regulation and finished 109th in the FedEx Cup standings. In 2012, he jumped all the way to fourth in GIR but fell to 148th in the FedEx derby, leaving him out of the playoffs.

The moral to this story? If you can’t putt, it doesn’t matter where you hit it.

GOD BLESS DAVID Duval. More than 10 years have passed since perhaps the greatest career collapse in golf history, but Duval keeps searching, entering tournaments while missing cuts at a prolific rate – 30 times in 37 starts over the last two years.

I got a nice text from him last Saturday night, just to say hello and ask how I’ve been. We had a brief exchange, but when I asked if we could speak briefly on the phone, the conversation went cold. I’m pretty sure the guy is tired of talking about his long-lost game, even to someone he’s known and trusted for 16 years, and I can’t say I blame him.

On the same day the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer quit in mid-round because of a toothache, a former No. 1 showed up for his Friday tee time after opening with a 78. For all the good and bad that has occurred in Duval’s life over the last decade, I have just one question as a journalist:

Why do you keep trying?

There isn’t an ounce of condescension or sarcasm in my inquiry. In fact, I find Duval’s continued efforts to regain his form exceedingly admirable. Other superb players have fallen on hard times over the years, but none fell further or faster – and none tried for so long to figure it out.

Just as pain cannot be measured, neither can mental toughness. Are you feeling me, Mr. McIlwithdraw?

Getty Images

G-Mac has Ryder Cup on mind with Genesis in grasp

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 2:12 am

LOS ANGELES – Graeme McDowell is four years removed from his last start in a Ryder Cup and golf is more than seven months away from this year’s matches, but then it’s never too early to start daydreaming.

Following a third-round 70 that left him tied for third place and just two strokes off the lead at the Genesis Open, McDowell was asked if the matches are on his mind.

“I feel like I've got a lot of things to do between now and getting on that team,” he said. “Standing here right now it's probably not a realistic goal, but if I continue to play the way I'm playing for the next few months, it may start to become a realistic goal.”

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

McDowell began his week at Riviera Country Club fresh off four consecutive missed cuts and has drifted to 219th in the Official World Golf Ranking. But his play this week has been encouraging and the Northern Irishman has always relished the opportunity to play for Europe.

“Deep down I know I'm good enough, but I've got to show, I've got to put some results on the board, I've got to take care of my business,” he said. “The greatest experience of my career bar none, and I would love to play another couple Ryder Cup matches before it's all said and done.”

McDowell does have a potential advantage this year having won the French Open twice at Le Golf National, site of this year’s matches.

Getty Images

Bubba on McGrady block: 'Just trying not to get hurt'

By Will GrayFebruary 18, 2018, 1:56 am

LOS ANGELES – A detour to the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game didn’t keep Bubba Watson from leading this week’s Genesis Open, although an on-court brush with Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady nearly derailed his chances for a third tournament win.

Watson enters the final round at Riviera with a one-shot lead over Patrick Cantlay after firing a 6-under 65 in the third round. The day before, the southpaw left the course around lunch time and headed across town to participate in the All-Star festivities, where during the celebrity game he tried to score 1-on-1 over McGrady.

Watson’s move into the lane went about as well as you’d expect given their five-inch height disparity, with McGrady easily blocking the ball into the stands. According to Watson, he had only one thought as McGrady came barreling towards him across the lane.

“When I saw him, all I saw was, ‘This is my moment to get hurt,’” Watson said. “This big tank is about to hit me, and I was like, ‘Just knock it into the stands. Just don’t touch me.’ So it worked out, he didn’t touch me so it was good.”

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

Watson’s attempt went against his wife Angie’s advice to avoid the paint area, but it provided a fun moment for a player used to carving up fairways and greens – not to mention the guy who played 15 seasons in the NBA.

“Well, he’s got like just under 800 blocks for his career, so I gave him one more, you know?” Watson said. “It was just, it was a blast. I wanted to see how good he was, see if he could miss it. He hasn’t played in a while.”

Watson took some heat on Twitter from his PGA Tour peers for the rejection, but few were still laughing as he rocketed up the leaderboard Saturday with five birdies and an eagle. Now he has a chance to win this event for the third time since 2014 – even if he doesn’t plan to go toe-to-toe with McGrady again anytime soon.

“Some guys wanted to try to win MVP, so I was trying to pass it and let them have their fun and their moment,” Watson said. “I was just trying not to get hurt.”

Getty Images

Spieth on third-round 69: 'Putter saved me'

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 1:37 am

LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth has spent the last few weeks talking about his putting for all the wrong reasons.

Two weeks ago when he missed the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open he lost 3.76 shots to the field in strokes-gained putting, and last week he wasn’t much better.

It looked like more of the same at the Genesis Open when he lost about a half stroke to the field on Day 1 with 29 putts, but since then his fortunes on the greens have gotten progressively better.

“I thought each day last week I progressed,” said Spieth, who needed just 24 putts on Friday and moved into a tie for 20th after taking 26 putts on Day 3.

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

Spieth said he started to feel things turn around at Pebble Beach after working with his swing coach Cameron McCormick and Steve Stricker, who has become something of a putting sounding board for players on Tour.

“I got set up really nice. I got really comfortable on the greens even though they were very difficult to putt last week and this week,” said Spieth, who rolled in a birdie putt of 14 feet at No. 12 and a par putt of 35 feet at No. 14. “Any putt, I either made it or I left it just short today. It was one of those days that with the way I struck the ball, it was an off day, but that putter saved me and allowed me to shoot the lowest score so far this week.”

Spieth’s third-round 69 is his best of the week and moved him to within seven strokes of the lead, which is held by Bubba Watson.

Getty Images

Bouncing back: Watson seeks a third Riviera win

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 1:25 am

LOS ANGELES – Yeah, but can Tracy McGrady smoke a 7-iron from 203 yards to kick-in range for eagle on Riviera Country Club’s opening hole?

The way Bubba Watson’s mind drifts there’s no telling if, as he began his day at the Genesis Open, he revisited his play from Friday night at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. If he did, it would have been an apropos conclusion after McGrady sent his weak floater into the cheap seats midway through the second quarter.

Either way, Watson made it clear playtime was over on Saturday. The eagle at the opening par 4 ½ sent Watson on his way to a third-round 65 and the outright lead at the Left Coast event that’s starting to feel like a second home for the lefthander.

In 11 starts at Riviera, Watson already has two victories. A third on Sunday could get folks talking about renaming the layout Bubba’s Alley. Or not.

What is certain is that Watson has emerged from a funk that sent him tumbling outside the top 100 in the world ranking and he’s done it in quintessential Bubba style.

If Friday’s detour to the celebrity game received worldwide attention it was only a snapshot of Watson’s Tinseltown itinerary. He taped a segment for Jay Leno’s Garage show, visited with Ellen DeGeneres and watched a taping of The Big Bang Theory. You know, L.A. stuff.

Oh, and he’s curved and carved his way around Riviera with signature abandon.

“You've got to hit shots from every different angle, you've got to move it right to left and left to right, so it's just fun,” said Watson, who also led by one stroke when he won here in 2016, his last victory on the PGA Tour. “Then the greens are the equalizer so it makes me look like I putt as good as the other guys.”

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

He “hammered” a 7-iron from 203 yards at the first to 1 ½ feet for his opening eagle, chipped in at the sixth to begin a run of four birdies in five holes and played the three par 5s in 3 under to move into a familiar spot after enduring his worst season on Tour in 2017 when he failed to advance past the second playoff event.

That he’s turned the tide in Los Angeles is as predictable as it is peculiar. Despite Watson’s record at the Genesis Open, Riviera wouldn’t seem to be the tonic for all that ails Bubba.

Ask a player - any player will do - the keys to playing Riviera and the answers range wildly from it being a bomber’s course to the need for ball-striking precision. But the word that comes up with regularity is "patience."

“Patience and pretty much just not being stupid, to be honest,” Justin Thomas said when asked the key to his third-round 67 that left him tied for eighth place. “Just stop trying to hit at pins with 5-irons and 6-irons, and when I hit in the rough, realize just try to make a par. When I get in places, when I'm out of position, realize that sometimes even bogey is what I need to make.”

While that thought dovetails with conventional wisdom, Watson’s not exactly known for his patience.

“Oh, for sure I do. Haven't you seen me in the last 12 years?” Watson laughed when asked if he had patience on the course. “The tougher the golf course, the more focus I have. The tougher the shot, I've been able to focus better. When I get my mind on something, I can focus and do pretty well at the game of golf.”

While Bubba drifts between artist and antagonist with ease, both on and off the golf course, his primary challenge on Sunday is the picture of thoughtful composure.

Patrick Cantlay, who returned to the Tour last season after struggling with back issues for years, began the third round with a share of the lead but quickly faded on the front nine. He rallied on the closing loop with birdies at Nos. 10, 11 and 18, where he capped his day with a 54-footer that assured him a spot in Sunday’s final threesome. Although he’s just 25 and playing his first full season on Tour, Cantlay’s approach to the game is patently different from Watson’s.

“I feel like if I can just engage and not worry about where I am on a particular hole or what's going on and I just engage and stay present in whatever I'm doing at that particular time, it all turns out better than what you would expect,” explained Cantlay, who attended nearby UCLA and played dozens of practice rounds at Riviera. “Making sure you stay present and having that confidence in yourself that if you just click in and focus, it all will be good and that's kind of the head space I'm in.”

It will be a clash of wildly contrasting styles on Sunday – Watson, who admitted he “(doesn’t) focus very well,” and Cantlay, whose approach to the mental side of the game borders on the clinical.

One player relishes the challenge of hyper-focus, the other is Bubba, but that’s not to say Watson is void of patience, only that he needs to be properly motivated.

“Like last night when Tracy McGrady was coming at me, I was focused on not getting hurt and I didn't, so it worked out,” Watson smiled.

And besides, T-Mac can’t bomb it like Bubba.