Hawk's Nest: RC captain's role biggest with picks

By John HawkinsSeptember 2, 2014, 2:00 pm

NEWTON, Mass. – Once he’s hired a fleet of loyal assistants, finalized wardrobe details and signed off on the pillow mints, a Ryder Cup captain can bear down on his most crucial task: selecting the players who fill out his 12-man roster. No decisions made by either skipper will have a greater impact on the final outcome.

Compatible partnerships are obviously important, but there is no dictating how anyone will perform once balls are in the air. Months of preparation can become wholly insignificant. You spend hours in a golf cart watching, like everyone else.

“As a captain, you surrender control,” says Paul Azinger, who piloted the U.S. to victory in 2008. “The funny thing is, you control everything before it starts, then it all gets taken away.”

When Europe added a pair of captain’s picks to its team-composition process in 1979, it was partly out of desperation. The mighty Americans hadn’t lost a Ryder Cup in 20 years and would go on to win the next three, but as the series began to even out, then slide in Europe’s favor, the role of the skipper’s additions became a major cause for the turnabout.

Jose Maria Olazabal was 8-5-1 as a three-time pick, winning at least two matches in all three meetings. At the back-to-back Euro blowouts in 2004 and ’06, the four selections combined for an astounding 11-2-3 record. Then, of course, there is Ian Poulter, whose 8-1 mark as a captain’s choice tells us a couple of things.

He can look like dog meat from January through August, but put a flag on his back and he turns into a superhero.

If there’s a bright side to the American cause this year, it’s that Tom Watson’s picks as the 1993 skipper remain the most productive since the U.S. adopted the procedure in 1989. Raymond Floyd and Lanny Wadkins went 5-2-1 at The Belfry, which happens to be the last time the Yanks won overseas.

It also remains the best example of why experience is such a valued commodity at an event defined by intense pressure – Floyd was 51 at the time, Wadkins 43. When Lanny leaned hard on the same premise two years later, however, Curtis Strange lost all three of his matches and came apart down the stretch, losing a pivotal point to Nick Faldo.

Faldo, incidentally, had been added to the Euro squad by Bernard Gallacher. Wadkins was roasted for picking Strange well before that fateful Sunday at Oak Hill, but of all the memories I retain during my 20-plus years covering pro golf, Strange’s take-it-like-a-man confessional afterward ranks among the more poignant.

“Losing like this doesn’t hurt as much as winning feels good,” was the line that stood out.

AS A FEW cynical writers pondered what shapes up as the weakest U.S. team ever at TPC Boston this past weekend, the notion struck me: this year’s squad is so inferior, it might even beat the Euros at Gleneagles. Azinger’s group in ’08 was the first American side that wasn’t favored to win on U.S. soil, and then battered the bewildered visitors.

“Tiger not being there did a couple of things,” Azinger says. “It allowed us to play the role of underdog – Faldo [the opposing captain] said it unnerved him a bit. It also really helped us at a place [Valhalla] where you can hear things going on all throughout the back nine.

“Momentum is invisible. It’s like the wind. You can’t see it, but it’s really powerful.”

The problem with this U.S. team is that it has to play in Scotland, where love from the galleries will be very difficult to decipher. That would seem to make the value of Ryder Cup experience even more precious, although Rickie Fowler played pretty well as a rookie (and captain’s pick) in Ireland four years ago.

Regardless, it leaves Watson a bit cornered when he announces his three captain’s picks Tuesday evening. The practice of adding “hot golfers” is vastly overrated – the matches are still a month away. When you consider that Watson chose a couple of grizzled warhorses 21 years ago and emerged with a victory, there’s no reason to believe he’ll abandon the philosophy this time.

THE PGA TOUR’S on-site travel agent was as busy as I’ve ever seen him during the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship. Those still alive in the FedEx Cup derby (and not rich enough to own a private jet) were looking to hustle out to Denver for the third installment of the playoff series, and the Monday finish at TPC Boston obviously shortened the amount of time between the events.

We’re also talking about a site (Cherry Hills) a lot of players have never seen, making a practice round and acclimation in general more vital than usual. Add distance between the cities and the mile-high thin air, and you’re left with one big question: Why didn’t the Tour schedule an off-week – or move the Deutsche Bank up to a conventional Sunday finish?

Maybe that’s two questions. “Poor planning by our government,” griped one pro who rarely complains, although Camp Ponte Vedra was left in a tough spot this month. It basically comes down to this – do you take the bye week now and leave no gap between the Tour Championship and the Ryder Cup, or do you finish the season Sept. 14 and give America’s team some time to catch their breath?

The PGA of America isn’t going to move their shindig into October just so the Tour can hurl millions at everyone still standing in Atlanta. Move the Tour Championship to the week after the Ryder Cup? Now there’s an idea, but hey, we can’t do that. We’ve gotta get the second edition of the wraparound season off and running!

Just another reason to …

Oh, never mind.

TWENTY MINUTES AFTER I filed last week’s column, news broke that Tiger Woods had dismissed Sean Foley as his swing coach. Timing, anyone? Journalistically, I felt a bit deprived, kind of like the guy whose wife won’t let him attend his buddy’s bachelor party because it’s raining outside.

So the headline is eight days old. Which, in most cases, means I wouldn’t bother, but some people have been waiting three years for Woods to fire Foley. Which means eight days is more like eight minutes.

Some thoughts:

Red Shirt doesn’t need someone standing next to him on the practice range persuading him to overdose on mechanics. The Big Guy Upstairs (Earl) is his swing coach. At the age of 2, Woods was hitting golf balls on national television. He was blessed with an abundance of natural ability nobody else on earth can comprehend. Just go play, dude. Think shot, not swing.

That said, perhaps Woods’ increased reliance on a coach has become a crutch – or a convenient source of blame for shortcomings brought on by age, injury, a lack of practice, or all of the above. When Tiger was at his best, Butch Harmon wasn’t nearly as omnipresent as was Foley, who seemed to be constantly videotaping Eldrick’s move. Since when does a player-coach relationship have to be a 24/7 thing?

Woods’ search for perfection has gotten him nowhere. His visual memory, however, is ridiculously powerful, his instinct and sensory command almost otherworldly. Translation? He’s a feel player. Again, just go play.

As he approaches his 39th birthday, Tiger needs to come to terms with reality. His body keeps breaking down, his performance affected to whatever degree, and at this stage of the game, he needs to dance with whom he brung. Which is a pretty damn good-looking woman, regardless of how unsuccessful the Foley regime was.

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

Getty Images

Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.

Getty Images

McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

Getty Images

Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''