McIlroy may be Woods' one true rival

By Rex HoggardOctober 24, 2012, 6:07 pm

Seems the only thing Greg Norman is guilty of is hyperbole, or a misplaced dictionary. Either way, the Shark missed the mark when he said earlier this year that Tiger Woods is intimidated by Rory McIlroy. He must have meant motivated.

What else would explain the 36-year-old’s newfound clarity of competitive thought? December’s World Challenge will be Woods’ 24th global event, the most he has played since 2005, and last week he didn’t sound like a man edging gracefully for the good life.

“It was nice to be able to be healthy enough to where I have the opportunity to play as much or as little as I want, it wasn't something I was forced to sit on the sidelines, forced to rehab and try and get myself back into a position where I can compete,” he said. “I was able to compete and play as many tournaments as I wanted to. So that was a positive.”

No, the Ulsterman didn’t put that spring back in Woods’ step – that honor belongs to multiple knee surgeries and a new swing designed, at least partially, to keep him off the DL – but there is no mistaking what McIlroy’s meteoric rise has meant to the former world No. 1.

We’ve been here before. False rivals have come and gone and from Lefty to El Nino they have all fallen short to varying degrees of the ultimate billing. But Tiger vs. Rory moved beyond budding this year at the Honda Classic, when the youngster held off Woods who closed with a 62, and raced passed potential when McIlroy lapped the field at Kiawah Island in August for his second major walk-off.

Even Woods, who has had little interest in media hype throughout his career, acknowledged there is something afoot when asked on Wednesday at the CIMB Classic in Asia about the rivalry.

“For a number of years I've been the youngest one. Throughout my years it's been Phil (Mickelson), Vijay (Singh), Ernie (Els), Duval (Duval), Paddy (Harrington),” Woods said. “I was the youngest of all of those parties. Rory is younger, so this is the next generation of guys. It's neat to be part of that generational change.”

McIlroy is quick to point out the last dozen majors are normally the hardest, showing deference to Woods’ 14 grand slam tilts and Hall of Fame resume, but the golf universe, upended since 2009 by Woods’ pedestrian play and parity, has unmistakably been narrowed to two names.

The only thing, to be sure the key thing, missing is the classic Sunday showdown at a major. Well, that and anything close to animosity. The duo will play for show on Monday at the “Duel at Jinsha Lake,” which is missing that “Rumble in the Jungle” cachet but the subtext remains unchanged.

Many of sport’s best rivalries have been contrived. Muhammad Ali no more hated Joe Frazier than Magic Johnson loathed Larry Bird, but all sides understood the importance of perception.

The perfect combination of mutual petulance and competitive parity is rare, so if Woods and McIlroy sidestep acrimony for the congenial high road then so be it. We’ll take our rivalries with or without a side of order of mutual distaste, although there are no shortage of pundits who suggest the relationship is not what it seems.

Some conspiracy theorist have suggested Woods’ friendship with McIlroy is little more than a business ploy to woo his young rival over to Nike Golf, which, according to numerous reports, is trying to sign the Ulsterman to a 10-year endorsement deal. Perhaps, but you never heard Woods clamoring to fit Mickelson with a “Swoosh.”

Maybe a jump to Nike for McIlroy would be an economic boon for Woods, but you know what else would help the bottom line? Winning majors, and right now the biggest threat to Woods reaching Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 grand slams is a healthy, happy McIlroy.

“We're the top two players in the world right now, and we get to compete against one another. To us it's fun,” Woods said last week. “We have fun out there and we both like to compete. For us to go out there and compete against one another, we're ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, respectively. It's a lot of fun to be able to have those opportunities.”

Maybe there is an ulterior motive for Woods’ budding friendship with McIlroy, but it has nothing to do with endorsement deals or cleverly crafted ad campaigns. In McIlroy Woods sees a kindred spirit, a reason to improve or be passed and, if the cosmic tumblers cooperate, a distant thought of Sunday duels at Augusta National and beyond.

For Norman it was an honest mistake, the fine line between intimidated and motivated is often lost in the psychological grey area. But the truth is Red Shirt outplayed his young rival in six of the eight times they were paired together this season.

It’s not a fear of McIlroy that now seems to embolden Woods, it’s the future possibility that this could be the rivalry that we’ve all been waiting for.

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.

Love's hip surgery a success; eyes Florida swing return

By Rex HoggardNovember 22, 2017, 3:31 pm

Within hours of having hip replacement surgery on Tuesday Davis Love III was back doing what he does best – keeping busy.

“I’ve been up and walking, cheated in the night and stood up by the bed, but I’m cruising around my room,” he laughed early Wednesday from Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala., where he underwent surgery to replace his left hip. “[Dr. James Flanagan, who performed the surgery] wants me up. They don’t want me sitting for more than an hour.”

Love, 53, planned to begin more intensive therapy and rehabilitation on Wednesday and is scheduled to be released from the hospital later this afternoon.

According to Love’s doctors, there were no complications during the surgery and his recovery time is estimated around three to four months.

Love, who was initially hesitant to have the surgery, said he can start putting almost immediately and should be able to start hitting wedges in a few weeks.

Dr. Tom Boers – a physical therapist at the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga., who has treated Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Brad Faxon – will oversee Love’s recovery and ultimately decide when he’s ready to resume normal golf activity.

“He understands motion and gait and swing speeds that people really don’t understand. He’s had all of us in there studying us,” Love said. “So we’ll see him in a couple of weeks and slowly get into the swing part of it.”

Although Love said he plans to temper his expectations for this most recent recovery, his goal is to be ready to play by the Florida swing next March.