The Players a Pickem

By Mercer BaggsMarch 29, 2003, 5:00 pm
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Open a door and youre sure to find something you like. A 40something fan? Looking for something familiar or something new? Past champion your choice? Craving international flavor?
Just open a door; behind one is the 2003 Players Champion.
There are several doors from which to choose, because there are several players in contention with one round remaining in The Players Championship.
Padraig Harrington is tied for the 54-hole lead with Jay Haas at 11-under-par 205. The Irishman shot 2-under 70 Saturday, while the 49-year-old American had a 67.
'I was hoping I would shoot a low one and get away from the field and take a lot of players out of contention, but that didn't happen. Second best thing, I'm still leading,' said Harrington, who is trying to join Sandy Lyle (1987) as the only European-born winners of this event.
Three past winners are tied for third. Defending champion Craig Perks (70), 1984 and 96 winner Fred Couples (69), and 92 champ Davis Love III (70) are all at 9-under.
Love and Couples will play together in the penultimate group. The good friends battled one another for several titles in the '80s and '90s, and won four consecutive World Cups as a team (1992-95).
'It will be a fun pairing. It'll be like old times, like 1992 all over again,' said Love.
Love and Couples had their share of highs and lows in round three, but nothing compared to that of Perks.
The Kiwi finished birdie-double bogey-birdie-eagle-birdie-bogey. He played the final three holes eerily reminiscent to the way he did when he won.
First, he chipped in for eagle at the par-5 16th ' just as he did in the final round a year ago. He then birdied from over 20 feet at the par-3 17th ' just as he did a year ago.
He had a chance to complete the similar cycle at the par-4 18th. After pulling a 3-wood into the water off the tee, he had 40 feet remaining for par. Last year, he chipped in to save par at the last and claim his first and thus far only PGA Tour victory. This time, however, he missed the putt and settled for a satisfying bogey.
'I have a bit of a flair for the dramatic,' Perks said. 'Obviously, there's some magic out there for me on 16, 17 and 18.'
In all, nine players are within four shots of the lead, and that doesnt even include Tiger Woods.
Woods sported a Cheshire-sized grin on his face after completing a round that could have been a little bit lower ' or a whole lot higher.
Probably turned a 71 into a nice little 68, said the 2001 champion. And that was a conservative estimate.
Woods made eight par putts ' totaling 35 feet, and seven birdies ' adding up to 62 feet. Hes five back heading to Sunday, with the expected weather wet, windy and cold.
With the conditions tomorrow, if you go out and play a good solid round of golf, you are going to move up and you are going to challenge for the tournament, said Woods, who won last week's Bay Hill Invitational by 11 shots under a constant downpour in the final round.
The second round had to be completed Saturday morning because of two days worth of suspensions. Harrington entered an ideal round three with a two-shot lead.
He held that advantage until the par-4 seventh, where he skulled a bunker shot and made double bogey.
That created a congealed leaderboard that never really settled.
Harrington and Haas spent most of the day battling for the top spot, with several others keeping a close chase.
Haas came home in 4-under 32, despite not making birdie at the last.
The nine-time PGA Tour winner, who almost won this year's Bob Hope, drove his ball right of right off the tee at the par-4 18th. It could have finished among the trees, but instead hit a spectator in the backside, kicked off the cart path, and came to rest in a perfect lie in the rough.
From there, he caught another break when his approach shot rolled through the thick grass short of the green and stopped 15 feet from the hole, from where he two-putted.
'Every year for the last 10 years one of my goals is to win a tournament,' said Haas, who is winless since 1993. 'Where would this rank? I guess it would be my biggest win.'
Harrington, who led the European Tour in scrambling last year, kept his composure following his blunder at 7. He birdied the ninth, 11th and 12th holes before parring out.
The six-time European Tour winner has had success in the U.S. before. He tied for fifth in last year's Masters, and tied for eighth in the U.S. Open, when he played in the final group in the third round. He also won the unofficial Target World Challenge over Woods.
'Does it give me confidence? Yes, it's always good to be there before,' he said. 'I tend to build and learn from experiences. I seem to be doing that.'
Woods experienced a little L.A. dj vu Saturday. He entered the third round of the Nissan Open trailing by six strokes and then promptly snap-hooked his first shot of the day out of bounds en route to a double bogey.
Fast-forward five weeks and Woods, trailing by seven to start the day, again hit his opening shot left. This time he salvaged bogey, and set the tone for the day.
Unlike the Nissan, where he eventually shot himself out of contention with a third-round 73, he quickly recovered, birdieing his next two holes.
After a routine two-putt birdie at the par-5 16th ' thats right, he actually started a weekend round on the back nine ' Woods made a 17-footer for par at 18.
He picked up two strokes with birdies on Nos. 2 and 3, only to give both back with bogeys at 5 and 7. He would have dropped another shot at 6, but after driving his ball into the right trees, he used a sweet little wedge to split the lot of them, placing his approach in the back greenside bunker. He got up and down for a par ' remarkable for many, but standard on the day for Woods.
Even that, though, wasnt nearly as impressive as what he did on his final two holes.
After making an 18-foot birdie at the par-3 eighth, Tiger buried his second shot on the par-5 ninth in the hay well right of the green. Barely able to see the ball, he hacked out 24 feet from the hole.
Of course, he made the birdie putt and offered an emphatic fist pump.
Two birdies on the last two holes were huge, he said. I wanted to get back into it and not put myself too far behind the leaders.
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    Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill

    By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:20 am

    ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.

    The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?

    “Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

    And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.

    After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

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    Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.

    “Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”

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    Rory almost channels Tiger with 72nd-hole celebration

    By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:11 am

    ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy’s final putt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational felt awfully familiar.

    He rolled in the 25-footer for birdie and wildly pumped his fist, immediately calling to mind Woods’ heroics on Bay Hill’s 18th green.

    Three times Woods holed a putt on the final green to win this event by a stroke.

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    McIlroy was just happy to provide a little extra cushion as the final group played the finishing hole.

    “I’ve seen Tiger do that enough times to know what it does,” McIlroy said. “So I just wanted to try and emulate that. I didn’t quite give it the hat toss – I was thinking about doing that. But to be able to create my own little bit of history on the 18th green here is pretty special.”

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    A performance fit for a King

    By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:08 am

    ORLANDO, Fla. – Five hundred and 40 days had passed since Rory McIlroy last won, and since golf lost one of its most iconic players.

    So much has transpired in McIlroy’s life since then – marriage, injury, adversity – but even now he vividly recalls the awkward end to the 2016 Tour Championship. He had just captured the FedExCup and $11 million bonus, but afterward, in the scrum, he was asked instead to reflect on the passing earlier that day of Arnold Palmer, at age 87.

    “Obviously I had a great win and it was a great day for me, but in the big scheme of things, that didn’t matter,” he said. “The game of golf had lost an icon, a legend, an inspiration to so many of us. I probably wasn’t as ecstatic as maybe I would have been if Arnie hadn’t passed away.”

    But there was McIlroy on Sunday at Bay Hill, at Arnie’s Florida home, summoning the kind of charge that would have made the King proud. With five birdies in his last six holes, he broke away from a stacked leaderboard to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first victory on Tour in 18 months, since that bittersweet evening at East Lake.

    “Kind of ironic,” he said Sunday.

    But the connection between McIlroy and Palmer runs deeper than that.

    Palmer and McIlroy’s wife, Erica, shared a birthday – Sept. 10.

    Palmer wrote letters to McIlroy after each of his many victories.

    Palmer had lobbied for years to get McIlroy to play this event, even threatening him. “If he doesn’t come and play Bay Hill,” Palmer said in 2012, “he might have a broken arm and he won’t have to worry about where he’s going to play next.”

    McIlroy kept all of his limbs intact but didn’t add the event until 2015, when Palmer’s health was beginning to deteriorate. That week he sat for a two-hour dinner with Palmer in the Bay Hill clubhouse, and the memories still bring a smile to his face.

    “I was mesmerized,” McIlroy said.

    And entertained, of course.

    Palmer ordered fish for dinner. “And I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A.1. Sauce?’” McIlroy said.

    “And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ And he said, ‘No, for me!’"

    McIlroy chuckled at the exchange, then added somberly: “I was very fortunate to spend that time with him.”

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    McIlroy has been telling anyone who will listen that he’s close to playing his best golf, but even he was surprised by the drastic turn of events over the past 10 days.

    During that 18-month winless drought, he endured an onslaught of questions about his wedge play, his putting, his health and his motivation. Burnt out by the intense spotlight, and needing to rehab a nagging rib injury, he shut it down for four months last fall, a mental and physical reset.

    But after an encouraging start to his 2018 campaign in the Middle East, McIlroy was a non-factor in each of his first four Tour starts. That included a missed cut last week in Tampa, where he was admittedly searching.

    “The best missed cut I’ve ever had,” he said.

    McIlroy grinded all last weekend, stumbling upon a swing thought, a feeling, like he was making a three-quarter swing. Then he met for a few hours Monday in South Florida with former PGA Tour winner and putting savant Brad Faxon. They focused on being more instinctive and reactionary over the ball.

    “He just freed me up,” McIlroy said.

    Freed up his stroke, which had gotten too rigid.

    And freed up his mind, which was bogged down with technical thoughts and self-doubt.

    “The objective is to get the ball in the hole,” he said, “and I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”

    All McIlroy did at Bay Hill was produce the best putting week of his career.  

    Starting the final round two shots back of Henrik Stenson, McIlroy made the turn in 33 and then grabbed a share of the lead on the 11th hole.

    Tiger Woods was making a run, moving within a shot of the lead, but McIlroy answered with a charge of his own, rattling off four consecutive birdies – a 16-footer on 13, a 21-footer on 14, a chip-in on 15 and a two-putt birdie after a 373-yard drive on 16 – that left Woods and everyone else in the dust.

    Then McIlroy finished it off in style, rolling in a 25-footer on the last that was eerily similar to the putt that Woods has holed so many times at his personal playground.

    “I know what the putt does,” McIlroy said, “so it was nice to make my own little bit of history.”

    Justin Rose has played plenty of meaningful golf with McIlroy over the years, but he’d never seen him roll it like he did Sunday.

    “He turned on the burners on the back nine,” he said. “He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

    It’s little wonder McIlroy pulled ahead of a star-studded leaderboard, closing with a bogey-free 64 and winning by three shots at 18-under 270 – he led the field in driving distance, proximity to the hole, scrambling and strokes gained-putting.

    “It’s so nice that everything finally came together,” he said.

    Over the next two weeks, there figures to be plenty of conversation about whether McIlroy can channel that fearlessness into the major he covets most. The Masters is the only piece missing from a career Grand Slam, and now, thanks to Faxon’s tips, he’s never been in a better position.

    But after a turbulent 18 months, McIlroy needed no reminder to savor a victory that felt like a long time coming.

    There was a hug for his parents, Gerry and Rosie.

    A kiss for his wife, Erica.

    A handshake for Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, and then a fitting into the champion’s alpaca cardigan.

    The only thing missing was the King himself, waiting atop the hill behind 18 with his huge smile and vice-grip handshake.

    “Hopefully he’s up there smiling,” McIlroy said, “and hopefully he’s proud of me with the way I played that back nine.”

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    McIlroy remembers Arnie dinner: He liked A-1 sauce on fish

    By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 1:06 am

    ORLANDO, Fla. – Fresh off a stirring victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy offered a pair of culinary factoids about two of the game’s biggest names.

    McIlroy regretted not being able to shake Palmer’s hand behind the 18th green after capping a three-shot win with a Sunday 64, but with the trophy in hand he reflected back on a meal he shared with Palmer at Bay Hill back in 2015, the year before Palmer passed away.

    “I knew that he liked A-1 sauce on his fish, which was quite strange,” McIlroy said. “I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A-1 sauce?’ And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ He said, ‘No, for me.’”

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    A few minutes later, McIlroy revealed that he is also a frequent diner at The Woods Jupiter, the South Florida restaurant launched by Tiger Woods. In fact, McIlroy explained that he goes to the restaurant every Wednesday with his parents – that is, when he’s not spanning the globe winning golf tournaments.

    Having surveyed the menu a few times, he considers himself a fan.

    “It’s good. He seems pretty hands-on with it,” McIlroy said. “Tuna wontons are good, the lamb lollipops are good. I recommend it.”