McIlroy completes latest comeback with Open win

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2014, 2:55 pm

HOYLAKE, England – The peaks and valleys have been as predictable as the incoming tide off the Dee Estuary.

In short form, Rory McIlroy’s career has been defined by periods of unmitigated brilliance followed by inexplicable bouts of inconsistent, perhaps even indifferent, play.

He’s won majors by multiple strokes. He’s gone more than 12 months between victories and missed cuts like a journeyman trying to keep his PGA Tour card.

He’s climbed to No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking. He’s quietly faded outside the top 10.

He’s been hailed as the game’s next commander-in-chief. He’s failed to contend in nine major starts since boat-racing the field at the 2012 PGA Championship.

He’s looked unbeatable. He’s looked beaten.

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Through four rounds and almost as many seasons at Hoylake last week, it was the former who overpowered Royal Liverpool with an all-to-familiar driving display to move within a green jacket of the career Grand Slam.

On Sunday night in the glow of another signature performance it was all smiles, even when he was asked about those systematic swoons.

“This time last year,” he shrugged sheepishly when asked the moment he hit rock bottom in his most recent slump.

When he missed the cut last July at Muirfield it was his second consecutive 36-hole week and his third in five starts, a run that was highlighted by a pedestrian tie for 41st at the U.S. Open.

This was not the guy who had been given the keys to the golf world following his first two major triumphs, which he won by a combined 16 strokes. This was the other guy.

“I've always said, whenever you play this well, you always wonder how you've played so badly before. And whenever you've play so badly, you always wonder how you play so well,” McIlroy said on the eve of Sunday’s final round. “Golf is a very fickle game.”

Yet while the 25-year-old can easily identify the ebb and flow of his competitive clock he has been unable to sidestep the potential pitfalls.

After winning the 2011 U.S. Open in dominant fashion at Congressional he failed to contend in the next two majors and raised eyebrows on this side of the Atlantic Ocean when he closed with weekend rounds of 74-73 in difficult conditions at Royal St. George’s to tie for 25th place.

“My game is suited for basically every golf course and most conditions, but these conditions I just don't enjoy playing in really,” he said. “That's the bottom line. I'd rather play when it's 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind.”

Less than eight months later he found himself mired in the first bona fide slump of his professional career midway through the 2012 season – a run that included four missed cuts in five events and another poor showing (T-60) at the Open Championship.

It was a pep talk from his putting coach Dave Stockton Sr. at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational that wrenched him from that abyss and on to his second major triumph, another eight-shot walk-off at the PGA Championship.

But that bookend Grand Slam only begat a second slump, a swoon that extended almost the entire 2013 calendar and included four missed cuts and a season that ended before the Tour Championship.

He began to turn the tide with an 11th-hour victory at the Australian Open in December, rallied to win the BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour in May and went wire-to-wire at Hoylake to complete his most recent comeback.

“It’s just one of those things. When we get Rory at a certain level he doesn’t vary too far off the mark,” said McIlroy’s swing coach Michael Bannon. “Last year was a little bit of an aberration and we’re back again.”

It wasn’t always this way. Until slipping into his post-2011 U.S. Open abyss the game had always come easy to the Northern Irishman.

“He pretty much cleaned up as an amateur in Ireland,” said Paul Gray, the former club professional turned general manager at McIlroy’s childhood club in Northern Ireland. “He can be streaky now and possibly the off-course stuff has affected him in recent years.”

There has been plenty of off-course stuff.

Since turning professional McIlroy has endured all number of growing pains, a hectic jump from management firm to management firm, multiple lawsuits and a painfully public split with fiancée Caroline Wozniacki earlier this year.

Many of these missteps were self-inflicted, like his high-profile jump to Nike Golf last year, but the extremes of his young career may end up becoming the status quo.

As unrealistic as the comparisons to Tiger Woods may have been, McIlroy’s career seems more comparable to this generation’s other star.

“The way he plays is pretty aggressively. When he gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad. It's one or the other,” Woods said on Sunday at Hoylake. “If you look at his results, he's kind of that way. Very similar to what Phil does. He has his hot weeks and he has his weeks where he's off. And that's just the nature of how he plays the game. It's no right way or wrong way. But it's just the nature of how he plays.”

Throughout all of the highs and lows, however, McIlroy’s most endearing quality has been his inability to delude himself. For a player who demands the best out of his game, when things have gotten sideways he has embraced his shortcomings with an unapologetic zeal.

This lack of any filter is the byproduct of a firm grasp on reality that transcends his 25 years.

After winning the U.S. Open at Congressional he was the first to dismiss any talk of catching Jack Nicklaus – figuring, at the time, the last 17 majors are always the hardest.

Conversely, through the bad times he’s been encouraged by the reality that periodic droughts between major victories every other year or so would eventually add up to an amazingly prolific career and that his game, while not exactly bulletproof, was built for the long haul.

“I never had doubts. All I had to do was look back at some of the great tournaments that I played. The ability was still there. It was just trying to find a way to make it come out again,” McIlroy said on Sunday as he eyed the claret jug. “It's been huge what a difference a year makes.”

What waits over the next 12 months is anyone’s guess, but this much is certain – with McIlroy it is sure to be entertaining.

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Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm

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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 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.

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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.


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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."

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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."