McIlroy (68) exceeds expectations in return

By Rex HoggardMarch 2, 2017, 11:42 pm

MEXICO CITY – Since losing a playoff in January at the BMW SA Open, Rory McIlroy has spent a lot of time working on his short game and having lunches – so many lunches.

He dined with Tiger Woods last week in South Florida, USGA executive director Mike Davis a few days later and played a casual round with President Donald Trump, anything to keep his mind off the fact that what he does, what motivates him to begin each day, was out of his reach, however temporarily.

A hairline rib fracture was the culprit, an injury that crept up on the Northern Irishman and demanded total inactivity, at least as far as his golf was concerned.

He could work on his short game, but nothing else. So instead he focused on the routine.

“Get up early in the morning, do my rehab stuff, try to get out and see what I could do on the golf course, get back, have some treatment, do a few more exercises,” he said this week at the WGC-Mexico Championship.

That routine was repeated daily for the last four weeks, all the while those who consider Rory a contemporary plodded along. Justin Thomas began the year with back-to-back titles in Hawaii, Jordan Spieth got on the board at Pebble Beach and Dustin Johnson won a walk-off in Los Angeles to ascend to the top of the World Ranking.

“It's been frustrating because I felt like I started the year so well with playing well in South Africa and then I felt it [his rib injury] on the Friday afternoon,” McIlroy said. “It was frustrating, especially at the start of the season when I felt like I was playing well.”

The competitor within McIlroy waited anxiously until he finally was fit enough to join the action, and arrived in Mexico for the year’s first World Golf Championship with understandably measured expectations.


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He would have been forgiven for even lowered expectations given a fitful night before his return that saw him awake at 3 a.m. and, well ... “worshiping the porcelain bowl.”

It could have been food poisoning, it could have been a stomach virus, for McIlroy it really didn’t matter as he set out for his marquee round on Thursday with Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama.

Unlike most of the power players in this week’s field, McIlroy took a decidedly aggressive approach at Club de Golf Chapultepec, a 7,330-yard layout that wasn’t playing nearly that long because of the elevation (7,500 feet). The world No. 3 hit driver five times, four more than Johnson, on his opening nine and posted a quiet 1-under total at the turn.

But it was his driver at his 15th hole of the day, the par-5 sixth, that gave McIlroy, and anyone keeping tabs at home, reason to think that despite his month and a half on the DL he was closer to mid-season form than even he might have expected.

His drive sailed 368 yards through the thin air and from the left rough he launched a 4-iron 256 yards to 28 feet, setting up an eagle putt that moved him into the top 10 at 3 under par.

“I felt like I could have been a couple better going into the par 5, the sixth hole,” he said. “I actually thought the tee shot was further left than it was. I got away with it and was able to get something up there onto the green and that was a bonus to make eagle there. I'm glad that I only had three holes left after that, I was sort of lagging on the way in.”

If McIlroy was mildly surprised by his solid start, Johnson certainly wasn’t. DJ played a match against McIlroy in South Florida during one of those practice rounds last Saturday, a match that saw Rory post a 65 in just his second round following his rehab assignment.

“It didn't seem like he missed a beat. I played with him on Saturday, he was hitting it fine, hitting it really good,” said Johnson, who opened with a 1-under 70.

McIlroy’s 3-under 68 was a sign of progress by any measure considering what he was up against on Thursday, but after being haunted by inactivity for the last six weeks it was how his body responded that gave Rory a reason to be a little more optimistic.

“The rib's fine. It's great actually, how I responded over the last couple of weeks,” he said. “I've been out to practice and then played my first full competitive round out there today, I didn't feel it at all, so it's all positive.”

Although he appeared a tad ashen given his condition, McIlroy’s demeanor was noticeably upbeat following his opening effort. He will continue to ease his way back into the competitive landscape, careful not to push too hard too early, but there is a limit to his patience.

He’s watched for too long as others have traded the spotlight.

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Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.

Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

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Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.

@tommyfleetwood_1

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The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.

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Mickelson starts fast, fades to 70 at La Quinta

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:07 pm

Phil Mickelson got off to a fast start in his first competitive round of 2018 - for six holes, at least.

The 47-year-old is making his first start since the WGC-HSBC Champions this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and only his third competitive appearance since the BMW Championship in September. Four birdies over his first six holes indicated that a strong opener might be in the cards, but Mickelson played his subsequent holes in 2 over.

It added up to a 2-under 70 at La Quinta Country Club, typically the easiest of the three courses in rotation this week, and left Mickelson eight shots behind Jon Rahm.

"It was fun to get back out and be competitive," Mickelson told reporters. "I for some reason am stuck on 70 here at La Quinta, whether I get off to a good start or a bad one, I end up shooting the same score."


Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

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Mickelson stunted his momentum with a tee shot out of bounds on the par-4 eighth hole, but he managed to save bogey and otherwise drove the ball relatively well. Instead, he pointed to his normally reliable iron play as the culprit for his back-nine backslide on a day when more than 120 players in the 156-man field broke par.

Mickelson will now head to the Nicklaus Tournament Course with the Stadium Course on tap for Saturday's third round. While there were several low scores Thursday at La Quinta, Mickelson remains bullish about the birdie opportunities that still lie ahead.

"This isn't the course where I go low on," Mickelson said. "I feel more comfortable on Stadium and Nicklaus. Neither of them are nearly as tight and I tend to score a lot lower on those other two than I do here, historically."

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Rahm (62) shoots career low round at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 10:33 pm

After a banner year in 2017, Jon Rahm found a way to add yet another accolade to his growing list of accomplishments during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Rahm got off to a fast start at La Quinta Country Club, playing his first seven holes in 6 under en route to a 10-under 62. The score marked his career low on the PGA Tour by two shots and gave him an early lead in an event that utilizes a three-course rotation.

La Quinta was the site of Adam Hadwin's 59 during last year's event, and Rahm knew full well that a quick start opened the door to a memorably low score.

"Any time you have that going for you, you get thoughts come in your head, 60, maybe 59," Rahm told reporters. "I knew that if I kept playing good I was going to have more birdie opportunities, and I tried not to get ahead of myself and I was able to do it."


Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

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Rahm birdied his first two holes before an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole sparked him to an outward 30. He added four more birdies on the inward half without dropping a shot.

The Spaniard is the highest-ranked player in the field this week, and while many players opted for a two-week stint in Hawaii he instead came home for some practice after opening the new year with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That decision appears to have paid some early dividends as Rahm gets set to defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Low scores were plentiful on all three courses during the opening round, and Rahm remained pleased with his effort even though he fell short of matching Hadwin's sub-60 score from a year ago.

"That's golf. You're not going to make every single putt, you're not going to hit every shot perfect," he said. "Overall, you've got to look at the bigger picture. I birdied the last hole, had a couple of great sand saves coming in, shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for."