McIlroy faces toughest major challenge to date

By Rex HoggardAugust 10, 2014, 12:56 am

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Thank you, Rory McIlroy, for not making the 96th PGA Championship a foregone conclusion.

As much as the Northern Irishman wanted to add this PGA to his boat race highlight reel, the combination of relatively pedestrian play by the world No. 1 and a golf course softened to perfection by two days of incessant rain has produced Grand Slam gridlock.

He’s won major championships from two time zones ahead and a World Golf Championship from a field goal back. On Sunday at Valhalla Golf Club, McIlroy will try to add to his Grand Slam total from a crowed elevator.

What was shaping up to be another coronation now has all the markings of a Sunday brawl between some of the game’s true heavyweights, a marquee that includes Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Phil Mickelson.

Not a Bob May in the bunch.

Well, there was a Bernd Wiesberger, but with apologies to the man from Vienna – that’s Austria not Virginia – there are no substitutes for star power, and on Day 3 substance and style coalesced into a handsome crowd.

“Of course it’s different,” said McIlroy, who maintained his lead thanks to a third-round 67 that was very much un-Rory-like and left him a shot clear of Wiesberger.

“Standing on the first tee (on Sunday) is going to feel different than how it felt a month ago at Hoylake, because you don’t have that cushion. It is going to be a shootout.”

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If form follows function, Saturday’s third round will be the standard for the final 18. Consider how McIlroy & Co. traded blows on a soggy layout with all the power and poetry of the Louisville Lip, known in these parts as Muhammad Ali, starting with a pair of unlikely par saves.

Day – freed from a season-long, injury-induced slump by the healing powers of a weaker grip – pulled his drive into Indiana and made a historic par with, without shoes, at the second hole.

Three holes later McIlroy got up and down from Floyd’s Fork, rolling in a crucial 11-footer to keep from dropping a shot, not to mention his momentum.

And so it went, contenders of all varieties emerged to challenge the three-time major champion from every muddy corner of Valhalla.

Fowler holed a 16-footer at the 10th to tie McIlroy at 10 under. Moments later, Ryan Palmer birdied the 11th to join the party. Day was next with a 9-footer for birdie at the 13th hole to grab a share of the spotlight.

But by the time McIlroy splashed his third shot to 7 feet for his sixth birdie of the day at the last, he found himself in familiar territory, but only by the narrowest of margins.

For a player who lapped the field at the Congressional Open in 2011 and the Kiawah PGA in 2012 and entered Sunday at last month's Open Championship six ahead, this is uncharted waters.

“I’ll win any way. I’ll take a win any way it comes,” McIlroy said. “If that means having to scrap it out with a couple people coming down the stretch or if I can give myself some sort of lead going down the back nine or whatever it is.”

The only comparison is the 2011 Masters, and we all know how that turned out. Earlier this week, McIlroy referenced his play at Augusta National three years ago as the last time he’d ever attempted to protect a lead, which was four strokes through three rounds.

“I’ll never do that again,” reasoned McIlroy, who imploded during the final round of the ’11 Masters on his way to a tie for 15th place.

If things continue to trend like they have for three days, he won’t be able to. After a particularly good day for scoring, if not white pants, 11 players now find themselves within five shots of the lead.

But it’s not so much the quantity of the assembled challengers as it is the quality.

A resurgent Mickelson carded his third consecutive sub-70 round (67) for just the second time this season and overcame a poor start to finish at 10 under par and three strokes behind young Rors.

As impressive as McIlroy has been the last month, Lefty was more interested in the traffic jam that had piled up atop the leaderboard.

“When it’s this many guys, I don’t even look at a leaderboard. I just go out and push it,” said Mickelson, who is vying for his first top-10 finish on Tour this season as well as a spot on September’s Ryder Cup team.

Day, who suggested a day earlier it was time to stop waiting for the major championship door to open in exchange for a more bullish approach, faded with a “sloppy” bogey at the 16th hole but still remains just three back after a third-round 69.

But it is Fowler, this season’s Mr. Major, who may be the most compelling spoiler. After largely underachieving for much of his career in the majors, swing coach Butch Harmon has tempered Fowler’s aggressive ways, shortened his backswing and turned him into a bona fide major player.

Fowler is the only player this year to post top-5 finishes in all three Grand Slam gatherings and the final round will be the first major Sunday since the Masters that he didn’t set out in the day’s final group.

Beginning the day two shots back, however, is a solid consolation prize thanks to flawless 67 on Day 3.

“I would say that leaderboard is the most jam-packed it’s been, maybe since the start of the final round at the Masters,” Fowler said. “This one’s out there for the taking, for sure. Anyone can go out and post a number tomorrow with the way the golf course is playing.”

Fowler’s take wasn’t a slight toward McIlroy, whose dominance has been unquestionable the last few weeks, just the reality of a new challenge for the Ulsterman. Unlike those walk-offs at Congressional, Kiawah Island and Royal Liverpool, there will be no room for error on Sunday.

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After Further Review: Tiger's return comes at perfect time

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 2:19 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the current state of golf as Tiger Woods returns to competition ...

Less than four days before Tiger Woods returns to official competitive golf for the first time in a year, Jon Rahm, the new second-ranked player in the world, won on the PGA Tour and Rory McIlroy made an impressive 2018 debut on the European Tour (T-3).

Not since Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus crossed paths at the 1960 U.S. Open has there been so many superstars all poised for big seasons, with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson having already won this year and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas both coming off stellar seasons.

It’s a good time for golf. - Rex Hoggard

On Tommy Fleetwood's continued success ...

There have been scores of talented European players whose skills didn’t translate to the PGA Tour … and maybe, in a few years, Tommy Fleetwood will prove to be no different.

He sure looks like the real deal, though.  

His title defense in Abu Dhabi – on the strength of a back-nine 30 in windy conditions – was his third title in the past 12 months and 11th top-10 overall. A few of those have come in majors and World Golf Championship events, too, which led the reigning Race to Dubai champion to accept PGA Tour membership for this season.

Beginning at Riviera, he plans to play exclusively in the States through May, then reassess for the rest of the year. Hope he sticks, because he’s a fun personality with tons of game. - Ryan Lavner

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Rahm passes Spieth to become world No. 2

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:25 am

With his win Sunday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, Jon Rahm picked up his second PGA Tour victory and moved to No. 2 in the FedExCup points standings.

He picked up one more No. 2, too.

The 23-year-old Spaniard passed Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, behind only Dustin Johnson.

In 19 months, since June 2016, Rahm has rocketed from No. 776 in the world to No. 2, thanks in part to his low divisor, his number of events played.

Asked after his playoff victory over Andrew Landry to discuss his rapid ascent up the world rankings, Rahm was almost at a loss.

“It's hard to believe to be honest, passing Jordan Spieth,” he said. “That's a three-time major champion. I only have two wins. He's got 10-plus, right? It's again – I've said it many times – I never thought I was going to be at this point in my life right now.”

Rahm may only have two PGA Tour titles, but this is his fourth worldwide win in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. He also took the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the DP World Tour Championship on his way to claiming the European Tour’s 2017 Rookie of the Year Award.

Dating back to the start of last season on the PGA Tour, Rahm has racked up 12 top-10s, three runner-ups, and two wins.

He will head to Torrey Pines next week ready to defend for the first time.

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Brady compares self to Woods after winning AFC title

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 1:05 am

Tom Brady and Tiger Woods are two of the all-time greats in their respective sports ... a fact that is not lost on the five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

Fresh off leading the New England Patriots to a AFC Championship victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brady was asked about winning the game despite a cut on his throwing hand - which made national news heading into the matchup.

His response invoked the name of a certain 14-time major winner, something that would be tough to pull off, if not for the fact that he is, you know, Tom Brady.

“I think it's kind of arrogant to say it bothered me when we had a pretty good game, so I wouldn't say that," the 40-year-old told reporters after the game. "It's like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C game’ and he won the tournament."

Tiger Woods winning with his "C game" may be a distant memory for golf fans, but no matter what game he brings, his next chance to win comes next week at Torrey Pines during his official comeback to the PGA Tour.

Brady has a shot at his sixth Super Bowl title in two weeks. The Patriots would probably benefit from him bringing a little better than his "C game" as well.

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Rahm beats Landry in playoff to win CareerBuilder

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:00 am

Jon Rahm birdied the fourth extra hole Sunday to defeat Andrew Landry in a playoff, win the CareerBuilder Challenge and move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Here’s how things played out in overtime at PGA West:

Leaderboard: Rahm (-22), Landry (-22), John Huh (-20), Adam Hadwin (-20), Martin Piller (-20), Kevin Chappell (-19), Scott Piercy (-19)

What it means: This is Rahm’s second PGA Tour win and his fourth worldwide victory in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. Rahm took the early lead Thursday with an opening 62 and after rounds of 67-70, he started the final round two back. On Sunday, he made five birdies without dropping a single shot on the intimidating Stadium Course. In the clubhouse at 22 under, Rahm watched as Landry made birdie on 18 to force a playoff.

Rahm missed birdie putts that would have ended the tournament on the final hole of regulation and on each playoff hole. Finally, on his fourth trip down 18 of the day, his birdie bid found the cup. With the victory, Rahm passes Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, trailing only Dustin Johnson. He enters next week at Torrey Pines looking to defend for the first time.

Best of the rest: A two-time winner playing his second full season on the PGA Tour, Landry shot 68 Sunday, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force extras. Once Rahm finally made birdie on the fourth playoff hole, Landry's putt to extend slid by on the right edge. This is Landry's best career finish on the PGA Tour. Had he won, he would have secured full Tour status through the 2019-20 season and earned invites to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championships.

Round of the day: Sam Saunders fired an 8-under 64 to register this best finish of the season, a tie for eighth at 18 under. The reigning Tour Championship winner was 9 under par through 12 holes before making bogey at 13 and parring his way into the clubhouse.

Biggest disappointment: Overnight leader Austin Cook was eyeing his second win of the season but never contended. The RSM champion carded two double bogeys Sunday en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him from the 54-hole lead to a tie for 14th.

Shot of the day: Rahm's putt to win:

Quote of the day: "One of us had to do it and either one of us would have been a well-deserving champion." - Rahm on his playoff victory over Landry