Horschel-McIlroy: Fire and reign

By Rex HoggardMay 1, 2015, 12:43 am

SAN FRANCISCO – In a special, #ThrowBackThursday moment at Harding Park, Billy Horschel was asked what he remembered about the 2007 Walker Cup.

“I don’t remember anything,” he deadpanned with only the slightest hint of sheepishness.

You may not know this about BillyHo, but he can trend to the Lewis Black side of boisterous, so when the 20-year-old version was sent afield to play for his country at the ’07 Walker Cup he openly admits he may have toed the line of decorum in what turned into a particularly heated match.

When pressed for more details from his week at Royal County Down, Horschel recalled playing Rory McIlroy three times (twice in singles). He remembers the emotions of playing for the United States and his teammates. He remembers wanting to win so badly that he may have let those emotions get the best of him.

“I was a very confident, could be called a cocky person, a very emotional person about things, especially in that match,” Horschel said Thursday at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play.

McIlroy – who would drop two matches to Horschel at that Walker Cup, including a Saturday singles match, before exacting a measure of redemption with a dominant victory over Horschel in Sunday singles – remembers things slightly differently.

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“His antics really pissed me off,” McIlroy told Golf Digest in 2008. “He was so loud and so obnoxious.”

By comparison, Friday’s final group match between the world No. 1 and the reigning FedEx Cup champion at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play will undoubtedly follow Queensbury rules, yet it still has all the markings of the week’s most compelling bout.

For all the misgivings of the new-look WGC-Match Play, confusion over the round-robin format being the primary culprit, it was the potential of just this type of scenario that made all of the mind-numbing math manageable.

“When I saw my group I was like, well, that’s not the easiest one,” Horschel said of McIlroy’s group, which includes Brandt Snedeker and Jason Dufner. “I thought if you can get out of that group you’ve done something special.”

To the delight of organizers, the cosmic tumblers delivered Friday’s title bout. McIlroy cruised to victory on Day 1, beating Dufner, 5 and 4, and he edged Snedeker, 2 up, on Thursday. While Horschel rolled past Snedeker in Round 1, 5 and 4, and was a 3-and-2 winner over Dufner on Day 2.

Whoever wins Friday’s match advances to the Sweet 16 and single elimination on Saturday.

It’s one of just four matches on Friday between unbeaten players, bringing a rare level of certainty to an event that seems to have lost a measure of intrigue with the endless permutations brought on by the new format.

That the Rory vs. BillyHo duel rekindles a rivalry that was born from those ’07 matches is only part of the Hollywood-ready script.

As recently as last fall McIlroy and Horschel were set against each other on another bright stage.

McIlroy, who began last year’s playoffs first in FedEx Cup points, was paired with Horschel the last two rounds at East Lake. The American beat the Northern Irishman by a stroke over those two days and, more importantly, won the finale and the season-long race.

“If he wins the Tour Championship and wins the FedEx Cup that’s probably one of the top-five greatest seasons of all time,” Horschel said. “I stopped him from that. If anything, he’s going to come out with a little bit more, not that he needs it, but a little more fuel to maybe redeem himself.”

Both players were clear that they put the contentiousness of the ’07 Walker Cup behind them long ago. When Horschel lost the Deutsche Bank Championship on the 72nd hole last year, McIlroy was there to console him. Horschel encouraged McIlroy when he was going through a slump in 2013.

“Back then we were a little bit younger and a little more emotional,” McIlroy said. “It was pretty heated. I don’t think tomorrow will be quite so much like that, but still you need to win or you go home.”

In signature Horschel style, he referred to himself as a “road block” to McIlroy this week, similar to last year’s Tour Championship and perhaps even the ’07 Walker Cup.

What’s different this time is that through age and injury both players have matured. There will be no histrionics like those on display eight years ago at Royal County Down.

At those matches Horschel’s teammates – a list that included Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson and Chris Kirk – nicknamed him “Steve O,” because his shaved head made him look like the main character from the TV show “Jackass.”

“You know what, I probably was a jackass back then,” Horschel smiled.

The difference this time is that on Friday he’ll simply be a world-class golfer playing a much-anticipated match that promises to be unforgettable.

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Day WDs from Farmers pro-am because of sore back

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 24, 2018, 12:07 am

SAN DIEGO – Jason Day has withdrawn from the Wednesday pro-am at the Farmers Insurance Open, citing a sore back.

Day, the 2015 champion, played a practice round with Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau on Tuesday at Torrey Pines, and he is still expected to play in the tournament.

Day was replaced in the pro-am by Whee Kim. 

Making his first start since the Australian Open in November, Day is scheduled to tee off at 1:30 p.m. ET Thursday alongside Jon Rahm and Brandt Snedeker.

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Farmers inks 7-year extension through 2026

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 24, 2018, 12:04 am

SAN DIEGO – Farmers Insurance has signed a seven-year extension to serve as the title sponsor for the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines, it was announced Tuesday. The deal will run through 2026.

“Farmers Insurance has been incredibly supportive of the tournament and the Century Club’s charitable initiatives since first committing to become the title sponsor in 2010,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said.

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“We are extremely grateful for the strong support of Farmers and its active role as title sponsor, and we are excited by the commitment Farmers has made to continue sponsorship of the Farmers Insurance Open for an additional seven years.

In partnership with Farmers, the Century Club – the tournament’s host organization – has contributed more than $20 million to deserving organizations benefiting at-risk youth since 2010. 

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Woods impresses DeChambeau, Day on Tuesday

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 11:27 pm

SAN DIEGO – Bryson DeChambeau played with Tiger Woods for the first time Tuesday morning, and the biggest surprise was that he wasn’t overcome by nerves.

“That’s what I was concerned about,” DeChambeau said. “Am I just gonna be slapping it around off the tee? But I was able to play pretty well.”

So was Woods.

DeChambeau said that Woods looked “fantastic” as he prepares to make his first PGA Tour start in a year.

“His game looks solid. His body doesn’t hurt. He’s just like, yeah, I’m playing golf again,” DeChambeau said. “And he’s having fun, too, which is a good thing.”

Woods arrived at Torrey Pines before 7 a.m. local time Tuesday, when the temperature hadn’t yet crept above 50 degrees. He warmed up and played the back nine of Torrey Pines’ South Course with DeChambeau and Jason Day.

“He looks impressive; it was good to see,” Day told PGATour.com afterward. “You take (Farmers) last year and the Dubai tournament out, and he hasn’t really played in two years. I think the biggest thing is to not get too far ahead, or think he’s going to come back and win straight away.

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“The other time he came back, I don’t think he was ready and he probably came back too soon. This time he definitely looks ready. I think his swing is really nice, he’s hitting the driver a long way and he looks like he’s got some speed, which is great.”

Woods said that his caddie, Joe LaCava, spent four days with him in South Florida last week and that he’s ready to go.

“Before the Hero I was basically given the OK probably about three or four weeks prior to the tournament, and I thought I did pretty good in that prep time,” Woods told ESPN.com, referring to his tie for ninth in the 18-man event.

“Now I’ve had a little more time to get ready for this event. I’ve played a lot more golf, and overall I feel like I’ve made some nice changes. I feel good.”

Woods is first off Torrey Pines’ North Course in Wednesday’s pro-am, scheduled for 6:40 a.m. local time. 

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With blinders on, Rahm within reach of No. 1 at Torrey

By Rex HoggardJanuary 23, 2018, 10:10 pm

SAN DIEGO – The drive over to Torrey Pines from Palm Springs, Calif., takes about two and a half hours, which was plenty of time for Jon Rahm’s new and ever-evolving reality to sink in.

The Spaniard arrived in Southern California for a week full of firsts. The Farmers Insurance Open will mark the first time he’s defended a title on the PGA Tour following his dramatic breakthrough victory last year, and it will also be his first tournament as the game’s second-best player, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking.

Rahm’s victory last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his second on Tour and fourth worldwide tilt over the last 12 months, propelled the 23-year-old to No. 2 in the world, just behind Dustin Johnson. His overtime triumph also moved him to within four rounds of unseating DJ atop the global pecking order.

It’s impressive for a player who at this point last year was embarking on his first full season as a professional, but then Rahm has a fool-proof plan to keep from getting mired in the accolades of his accomplishments.

“It's kind of hard to process it, to be honest, because I live my day-to-day life with my girlfriend and my team around me and they don't change their behavior based on what I do, right?” he said on Tuesday at Torrey Pines. “They'll never change what they think of me. So I really don't know the magnitude of what I do until I go outside of my comfort zone.”

Head down and happy has worked perfectly for Rahm, who has finished outside the top 10 in just three of his last 10 starts and began 2018 with a runner-up showing at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and last week’s victory.

According to the world ranking math, Rahm is 1.35 average ranking points behind Johnson and can overtake DJ atop the pack with a victory this week at the Farmers Insurance Open; but to hear his take on his ascension one would imagine a much wider margin.

“I've said many times, beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task,” Rahm said. “We all know what happened last time he was close to a lead in a tournament on the PGA Tour.”

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Rahm certainly remembers. It was just three weeks ago in Maui when he birdied three of his first six holes, played the weekend at Kapalua in 11 under and still finished eight strokes behind Johnson.

And last year at the WGC-Mexico Championship when Rahm closed his week with rounds of 67-68 only to finish two strokes off Johnson’s winning pace, or a few weeks later at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when he took Johnson the distance in the championship match only to drop a 1-up decision to the game’s undisputed heavyweight.

As far as Rahm has come in an incredibly short time - at this point last year he ranked 137th in the world - it is interesting that it’s been Johnson who has had an answer at every turn.

He knows there’s still so much room for improvement, both physically and mentally, and no one would ever say Rahm is wanting for confidence, but after so many high-profile run-ins with Johnson, his cautious optimism is perfectly understandable.

“I'll try to focus more on what's going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win,” he reasoned when asked about the prospect of unseating Johnson, who isn’t playing this week. “I'll try my best, that's for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

If Rahm’s take seems a tad cliché given the circumstances, consider that his aversion to looking beyond the blinders is baked into the competitive cake. For all of his physical advantages, of which there are many, it’s his keen ability to produce something special on command that may be even more impressive.

Last year at Torrey Pines was a quintessential example of this, when he began the final round three strokes off the lead only to close his day with a back-nine 30 that included a pair of eagles.

“I have the confidence that I can win here, whereas last year I knew I could but I still had to do it,” he said. “I hope I don't have to shoot 30 on the back nine to win again.”

Some will point to Rahm’s 60-footer for eagle at the 72nd hole last year as a turning point in his young career, it was even named the best putt on Tour by one publication despite the fact he won by three strokes. But Rahm will tell you that walk-off wasn’t even the best shot he hit during the final round.

Instead, he explained that the best shot of the week, the best shot of the year, came on the 13th hole when he launched a 4-iron from a bunker to 18 feet for eagle, a putt that he also made.

“If I don't put that ball on the green, which is actually a lot harder than making that putt, the back nine charge would have never happened and this year might have never happened, so that shot is the one that made everything possible,” he explained.

Rahm’s ability to embrace and execute during those moments is what makes him special and why he’s suddenly found himself as the most likely contender to Johnson’s throne even if he chooses not to spend much time thinking about it.