Sunday showdown looms for McIlroy and company

By Rex HoggardJanuary 23, 2016, 4:03 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Rory McIlroy envisioned this being a statement week, he just didn’t figure he’d have so much company on his way to a 2016 kick off.

After all, the last time McIlroy teed off on a Sunday in this desert it was essentially a two-man race between himself and Andy Sullivan at the DP World Tour Championship, in November up the road in Dubai.

For Sunday’s sequel, however, McIlroy will set out early tied with four others for the lead, including Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter and Branden Grace.

All total, 16 players are within three strokes of the lead, including Jordan Spieth and esoteric American amateur Bryson DeChambeau.

“This one is a bit more bunched. I think there will be a few more in contention,” said McIlroy, who beat Sullivan in November at the DP World Tour Championship by a stroke.

The stars have aligned for a possible showdown between McIlroy and Spieth, although it’s not likely they will be paired together with the Northern Irishman needing to finish his third round and the world No. 1 already in the clubhouse at 7 under.

More likely is a challenge by committee, with a host of proven players within striking distance.

Among that group would be Grace, who emerged as a major player with top-5 finishes at the U.S. Open (T-4) and PGA Championship (third) last year and fresh off four consecutive top-10 finishes, including a third-place showing last November at the European Tour finale.


Abu Dhabi HSBC: Articles, photos and videos


Poulter should also be considered a legitimate contender among the group of would-be winners, having emerged from last week’s EurAsia Cup in something close to his signature Ryder Cup form.

“It’s match play, whenever you go head-to-head you get the juices going, and that's obviously nice as the first tournament of the year,” Poulter said of last week’s matches. “I think it's done me some good, and I think I'm looking forward to what the challenge is for the next 20, 26 holes.”

The biggest challenge for McIlroy may be avoiding the sight of any leaderboards during what will be a marathon Sunday, particularly with the likes of Spieth looming.

Spieth rebounded after finishing his second round early Saturday, a 1-over 73 that was his first over-par card in his last 21 worldwide rounds, with a flawless third round.

Starting Round 3 at the 10th hole, he birdied two of his first three holes and added two more birdies before racing into the clubhouse before darkness halted play with a 4-under 68.

“I started out this tournament not driving the ball particularly well the first 12, 13 holes and since then my driver has been on,” said Spieth, who won his first start of the year two weeks ago at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions by eight strokes.

“I can make excuses all I want; I still haven't made many putts and there's no excuses for that. It can all come together tomorrow. It's happened many times in random rounds. Why not the fourth round here?”

McIlroy can still change the narrative of a jam-packed leaderboard. He was 2 under for the day when play was halted by darkness through nine holes.

When he returned to the golf course early Saturday to complete his fog-delayed second round he was four strokes out of the lead, but closed his morning with a birdie-eagle finish at Nos. 17 and 18 to narrow that gap.

Like Spieth and Fowler, McIlroy – who is making his 2016 debut this week – has gotten sharper with each passing round and his driving is reminiscent of when he won majors by eight strokes.

“Twenty-seven holes left to play and hopefully I can play a good back nine tomorrow morning and set myself up for an exciting last 18 [holes],” McIlroy said.

In short, McIlroy is hoping history repeats itself Sunday morning in the United Arab Emirates, and Sunday afternoon.

Getty Images

Stock Watch: Strange grumpy; Tiger Time again?

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 1:00 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): This should put his whirlwind 17 months in the proper context: Rahm (38) has earned four worldwide titles in 25 fewer starts – or a full season quicker – than Jordan Spieth (63). This kid is special.

Tommy Fleetwood (+7%): Putting on a stripe show in windy conditions, the Englishman defended his title in Abu Dhabi (thanks to a back-nine 30) and capped a 52-week period in which he won three times, contended in majors and WGCs, and soared inside the top 15 in the world.

Sergio (+3%): Some wholesale equipment changes require months of adjustments. In Garcia’s case, it didn’t even take one start, as the new Callaway staffer dusted the field by five shots in Singapore.

Rory (+2%): Sure, it was a deflating Sunday finish, as he shot his worst round of the week and got whipped by Fleetwood, but big picture he looked refreshed and built some momentum for the rest of his pre-Masters slate. That’s progress.

Ken Duke (+1%): Looking ahead to the senior circuit, Duke, 48, still needs a place to play for the next few years. Hopefully a few sponsors saw what happened in Palm Springs, because his decision to sub in for an injured Corey Pavin for the second and third rounds – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard – was as selfless as it gets.


FALLING

Austin Cook (-1%): The 54-hole leader in the desert, he closed with 75 – the worst score of anyone inside the top 40. Oy.

Phil (-2%): All of that pre-tournament optimism was tempered by the reality of his first missed cut to start the new year since 2009. Now ranked 45th in the world, his position inside the top 50 – a spot he’s occupied every week since November 1993 – is now in jeopardy.

Careful What You Wish For (-3%): Today’s young players might (foolishly) wish they could have faced Woods in his prime, but they’ll at least get a sense this week of the spectacle he creates. Playing his first Tour event in a year, and following an encouraging warmup in the Bahamas, his mere presence at Torrey is sure to leave everyone else to grind in obscurity.

Curtis Strange (-5%): The two-time U.S. Open champ took exception with the chummy nature of the CareerBuilder playoff, with Rahm and Andrew Landry chatting between shots. “Are you kidding me?” Strange tweeted. “Talking at all?” The quality of golf was superb, so clearly they didn’t need to give each other the silent treatment to summon their best.

Brooks Koepka (-8%): A bummer, the 27-year-old heading to the DL just as he was starting to come into his own. The partially torn tendon in his left wrist is expected to knock him out of action until the Masters, but who knows how long it’ll take him to return to game shape.

Getty Images

What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

Getty Images

Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

Getty Images

Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”



McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.