Tiger, Rory and Jack

By Randall MellJune 20, 2011, 1:46 pm

BETHESDA, Md. – Rory McIlroy did more than win the U.S. Open in spectacular fashion Sunday at Congressional Country Club. He threatened to change the nature of the question that’s captivated the sport for more than a decade.

You know the question: Will Tiger Woods break Jack Nicklaus’ record for major championship triumphs?

If Woods regains his health, if he regains his winning form, there’s a compelling new dimension to the challenge.

If Woods is going to bounce back and mount a run at Nicklaus’ record, the question becomes whether he can get through McIlroy to claim his life’s ambition.

That’s the intrigue that holds the most potential for captivating a new generation of golf fans. It’s the formula packed with the power to jolt another new wave of interest in the game.

If Woods, 35, finds his way back, the sport is electrified with the possibility he’s on a collision course with McIlroy, 22.

Yeah, there’s a lot of hoping in that possibility, a lot of fervent hope, because it depends on Woods finding his way back and on McIlroy building on the promise he mesmerized us with at Congressional. Neither is guaranteed, but you’ve got to like the probability that neither of these giant talents is done wowing us. And you’ve got to believe McIlroy and Woods want to measure themselves against each other in the way that heavyweight talents always do.

“It would be great,” McIlroy said. “I've watched Tiger over the last 15 years. When I was growing up, I always had putts to beat Tiger Woods in the Masters or U.S. Open. So it would be great to be able to get in contention one day, whether it be a major, or just a regular event, and go down the stretch with him, because I've never really had that experience before. Hopefully, he can get healthy and can get back playing good golf, because the game of golf is a better place with him playing well.”

There’s respect there from McIlroy, but there’s no fear. We heard that in the lad from Northern Ireland’s bravado before The Ryder Cup last fall, when he said he would love to face Woods, and that given Woods’ erratic form, everyone on the European team “would fancy his chances against him.”

Woods didn’t like the sentiment, and he made sure McIlroy knew. So, there’s an edge to that relationship.

Though Woods has won 14 majors and McIlroy just the one, momentum is on McIlroy’s side. Woods missed the U.S. Open mending knee and Achilles injuries. There’s no certainty he’ll be ready for next month’s British Open.

Pros see McIlroy’s confidence growing while Woods’ confidence weakens in a 19-month winless struggle.

“When Rory can go out and dominate a field like this at a U.S. Open, he’s going to gain a lot of confidence from the event,” said Steve Stricker, the highest ranked American in the world. “Confidence is a great thing, and he’s going to have a ton of it.”

Woods and McIlroy share a common path in the way they both broke through in record-shattering fashion to win their first majors. Woods broke through winning the Masters by 12 shots in ’97, McIlroy by smashing some of Woods’ U.S. Open scoring records.

Stricker was asked Sunday if he believed Woods cared what McIlroy did at Congressional.

“For sure,” Stricker said with McIlroy still making his way on the back nine. “I think he cares. I think he’s at home watching, and I think he’ll gain some motivation from this.”

Woods vs. McIlroy. It’s a hope worth nurturing because it holds the magical possibility of being a reincarnation of Nicklaus vs. Palmer.

Well, Nicklaus vs. Palmer in a nebulous sense. It intrigues as Nicklaus vs. Palmer not in the way personalities factored in that terrific rivalry, but in the way two eras clashed, in the way that rivalry saw a dominant new force emerge to stifle the reign of an established star.

“I knew how good Tiger was in 2000 to win by 15 at Pebble,” McIlroy said in Sunday’s trophy presentation. “I was trying to go out there and emulate him in some way.”

If Woods still has Nicklaus’ records tacked on a wall in his home as motivation, he might want to pull them down. He might want to tack up the long list of U.S. Open records McIlroy smashed in his tour de force performance. He might want to put a photograph of McIlroy on his wall with a bull’s-eye on it, because it feels like McIlroy’s the real deal. It feels like Woods won’t be able to beat Jack’s record without beating McIlroy.

It’s projecting a burdensome load on McIlroy, to be sure, but if you can’t see the promise in the young man’s game, you can’t see.

Yes, nothing’s guaranteed in golf, but McIlroy’s locomotive momentum goes beyond his record-shattering performance at Congressional. It goes to the upward trajectory of his big-event performances. It goes to the fact that he’s had a real chance to win the last four major championships, that he’s led seven of the last eight rounds played in majors, that his final-round 62 to win at Quail Hollow last year felt like a quasi-major and that his U.S. Open triumph came in a character-building rebound from a Masters’ collapse two months ago.

The praise for McIlroy, as expected, is gushing a bit over the top, and that’s sure to get Woods’ attention.

Padraig Harrington said he expected McIlroy to make a run at breaking Nicklaus’ major championship record. TV analyst David Feherty said he believed McIlroy’s U.S. Open performance at Congressional was more dominant than Woods’ at Pebble Beach. Graeme McDowell, a fellow native of Northern Ireland and winner of last year’s U.S. Open, called McIlroy the best player he’s ever seen.

But even the most objective PGA Tour veterans see something special in McIlroy.

“Fundamentally, he’s as good as we’ve seen ever, in my era,” Stricker said. “When Tiger was going well, that’s as good as I’ve ever seen, and I think Rory’s in that same boat. His swing is mechanically sound, and he has a great short game, and he’s long. So he’s got all the tools.”

So does Woods, if he can reassemble them.

That’s what we’re waiting for, because when Woods does, if he does, the race to catch Nicklaus resumes with McIlroy looking like he’ll have something to say about how that race ends.

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.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.