Hawk's Nest: Rough times for Rory McIlroy

By John HawkinsJuly 1, 2013, 12:57 pm

A lot of serious golf fans don’t like a weepy champion, so when Bill Haas came down with a case of the man sobs after winning the AT&T National, the anti-criers had yet another reason to go kick the dog. This wasn’t a full-blown, Steve Strickeresque breakdown, mind you, but Haas, who recently became a father for the first time, was draped in emotion within 30 seconds after holing out on the 18th green.

Perhaps David Feherty should bring a box of Kleenex to the post-round interviews. My guess is that most female viewers enjoy seeing tears in a guy’s eyes – and that most men consider it a misdemeanor punishable by fine or trophy confiscation. Worse than jaywalking, not quite as bad as selling military secrets to a foreign government.

I am not one of those insensitive males. In fact, I am a closet-case softie who can’t watch “Miracle” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” without bawling like an unfed infant. My boy Jeff Rude likes to say that Ben Crenshaw has been known to cry at supermarket openings, and indeed, Ben’s heart spent more time on his sleeve than in his chest.

Since I’m still searching for my first PGA Tour victory, I’m not sure how I’d react, but I doubt I’d start crying until Uncle Sam took his share of the winner’s check. Supermarkets don’t get me, but a video montage of American soldiers returning from Afghanistan to surprise their wives and kids? Gotta watch that by myself.

NOBODY ON MY side of town has been more forgiving of Rory McIlroy’s lousy play this season, but after a missed cut at The Irish Open, his admission of “feeling a bit lost” and lingering equipment issues with a company paying him a reported $250 million over the next 10 years, it’s time to dial 911 and have the ambulance take us directly to the office of Dr. Perspective.

First and foremost, McIlroy is 24 years old. Fame and fortune didn’t exactly blindside him, but the reverberations of success take a kid out of his routine, altering his schedule to the point where practice time is compromised, if not deprioritized. Add the globetrotting, tennis-playing girlfriend. The kid’s own trans-Atlantic work responsibilities. The Oregon-based clubmaker feeding him all that money.

Not all of this stuff happened at the same time, but fame and fortune have a way of magnifying change. The parameters that allowed you to become the world’s best golfer no longer exist. You hire someone to handle all the external factors, to mitigate the interference. In May, however, McIlroy parted ways with his management firm for the second time in 19 months.

Those duties have been assigned to friends and family members, turning the clearance back into interference. Just last week, McIlroy said he wasn’t comfortable with the specifications of his Nike driver, which is an odd thing to hear from a tour pro six months into a mega-money relationship. He added an event (Valero Texas Open) to his playing schedule right before the Masters, but that didn’t help. Now he’ll go almost three weeks without competing before teeing it up at the British Open.

My 10-year-old can go online and find a gaggle of stories applauding McIlroy’s strong work ethic, his mission to greatness, his enormous natural ability. Alas, nothing prepares you for life in the fishbowl. You can’t climb into a simulator and experience the minute-to-minute ramifications of being a superstar. You learn it all on the fly, usually on a private jet.

We’re talking about 1.4 strokes a day here – the difference in McIlroy’s stroke average from 2012 to 2013. One 8-footer that doesn’t go in plus one drive that bounces into the rough instead of stopping on the first cut. It’s not a lot, but at golf’s highest level, 1.4 is a gap of estimable proportions, leading to a tricky game of cause and effect that invariably prompts some to blame the new clubs.

Tiger Woods has won a ton of majors with Nike equipment. Lots of tour pros have played excellent golf while gripping products from the Swoosh Dynasty. Nobody makes bad stuff anymore, and besides, if McIlroy’s swing is so pure, shouldn’t he be able to shoot a 67 with a bag full of bunker rakes?

The kid ranked 156th on driving accuracy last year and won four times. He’s 89th this year and can’t get out of his own way. In the curious case of the Irish Lad Gone Bad, the only piece of malfunctioning equipment is the three-pound tangle between his ears. It’s hard enough to win golf tournaments when it’s your only focus. When life becomes one giant distraction, you start missing cuts on your native soil and using the word “suffocation” to describe the trip home.

He’ll be back, of course, but it may get worse before it gets better.

IT WAS LATE 1999, another mild afternoon at the season-ending Tour Championship in Houston, and Tiger Woods was putting. And putting. And putting. His girlfriend at the time, a young lady named Joanna Jagoda, was sitting on a brick partition adjacent to the practice green at Champions GC, reading a book while waiting for the dude to refine his stroke to the point where they could go have dinner.

I had a quick word with Tiger before heading to my car and finding a Radio Shack – laptop issues – and it took a while. Maybe 45 minutes on Route 1960 alone, another 15 minutes in the store, so I got back to Champions at least an hour later. Jagoda was still reading. Woods was still putting, and the seeds that would turn into the greatest season in golf history were being planted on a Saturday in October at a tournament Tiger would win the next day.

Payne Stewart’s death had cast a massive pall over the event; the field played 27 holes Thursday and Saturday so it could attend the funeral service in between. Tiger had to be tired, but he’d gone almost 2 ½ years before winning his second major title at the PGA Championship that August.

 Sergio Garcia was rocketing to stardom. David Duval had held the No. 1 spot in the world ranking before Woods reclaimed it at Medinah. After a lackluster 1998, Tiger was winning tournaments again – he came to Houston off back-to-back victories at Firestone and Disney and had won five times since early June. Still, his chief rivals were right there. He could rest later.

Before he became one of the world’s biggest rock stars, the Dude in the Red Shirt was a tireless worker, a really good golfer who never stopped trying to get better. Nothing got in the way. Nobody was going to stop him, not even a hungry girlfriend. To plant those seeds of greatness, you must follow Ben Hogan’s advice and dig it out of the dirt first.

Still listening, Rory?

AS HEARTILY AS I applaud the USGA’s plan to hold the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens on back-to-back weeks at Pinehurst next June, I wonder about the practicality of scaling back a golf course taken to such obvious extremes for the big boys a few days earlier. One of the biggest differences in the two levels of play is the ability to gauge proper speed on the greens.

The women leave far more putts 5 feet short or run them 6 feet past the hole than do the men. No venue will exacerbate this factor more than Pinehurst No. 2, home of the world’s most famous domed putting surfaces. I think back to 2005, when heat and stress left the greens close to unplayable seemingly overnight.

Ever wonder why Michael Campbell won? The golf course was utterly ridiculous on Sunday – neither guy in the final pairing (Olin Browne, Retief Goosen) broke 80. Every putt became an exercise in total precaution, and when you neutralize natural ability to that extent, something funky is bound to happen.

Here’s to hoping both gatherings turn into terrific tournaments, and that my friends in Far Hills overdose on common sense on all their preparatory trips to North Carolina.

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Rahm beats Landry in playoff to win CareerBuilder

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:00 am

John Rahm birdied the fourth extra hole Sunday to defeat Andrew Landry in a playoff, win the CareerBuilder Challenge, and move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Here’s how things played out in overtime at PGA West:

Leaderboard: Rahm (-22), Landry (-22), John Huh (-20), Adam Hadwin (-20), Martin Piller (-20), Kevin Chappell (-19), Scott Piercy (-19)

What it means:

This is Rahm’s second PGA Tour win and his fourth worldwide victory in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. Rahm took the early lead Thursday with an opening 62 and after rounds of 67-70, he started the final round two back. On Sunday, he made five birdies without dropping a single shot on the intimidating Stadium Course. In the clubhouse at 22 under, Rahm watched as Landry made birdie on 18 to force a playoff. Rahm had missed birdie putts that would have ended the tournament on the final hole of regulation and on each playoff hole. Finally, on his fourth trip down 18, his birdie bid found the cup.. With the victory, Rahm passes Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, trailing only Dustin Johnson. He enters next week at Torrey Pines looking to defend for the first time.

Best of the rest:

A two-time Web.com winner playing his second full season on the PGA Tour, Landry shot 68 Sunday, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force extras. Once Rahm finally made birdie on the fourth playoff hole, Landry's putt to extend slid by on the right edge. This is Landry's best career finish on the PGA Tour. Had he won, he would have secured full Tour status through the 2019-20 season and earned invites to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championships.

Round of the day:Sam Saunders fired an 8-under 64 to register this best finish of the season, a tie for eighth at 18 under. The reigning Web.com Tour Championship winner was 9 under par through 12 holes before making bogey at 13 and parring his way into the clubhouse.

Biggest disappointment: Overnight leader Austin Cook was eyeing his second win of the season but never contended. The RSM champion carded two double bogeys Sunday en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him from the 54-hole lead to a tie for 14th.

Shot of the day: Rahm's putt to win:

Quote of the day:

"One of us had to do it and either one of us would have been a well-deserving champion." - Rahm on his playoff victory over Landry
Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.