McIlroy overcomes putting woes, wills self to victory

By Rex HoggardSeptember 5, 2016, 8:45 pm

NORTON, Mass. – With apologies to Phil Kenyon, who is by all accounts one of the game’s best putting gurus, it was the sheer force of will that lifted Rory McIlroy to victory on Monday at the wind-battered Deutsche Bank Championship.

There’s no doubt Kenyon, who also works with the likes of Open champions Henrik Stenson and Louis Oosthuizen, is a keen teacher; but after just two weeks of working with McIlroy, it’s fair to say even the Englishman recognizes the depth of Monday’s accomplishments.

An overhaul that McIlroy himself figured would take the better part of eight months to fully take may have pointed the Northern Irishman in the right direction, but it turns out the learning curve wasn’t nearly that steep.

McIlroy said all week his putting was a process, but rounds of 71-67-66-65 felt more like a proclamation.

“It's definitely not the finished article, but it's a big step in the right direction,” said McIlroy, who began the day six strokes off the lead. “I’m excited with how my game is and what I've found this week, and hopefully I can keep it going for the next couple of tournaments, but ultimately into the Ryder Cup and trying to get a fourth one of those.”

In retrospect, the ongoing narrative this year had been a tad aggressive when it came to McIlroy, fueled more by unrealistic expectations than practical experience. But statistically he may have soft-pedaled his change of putting fortunes at TPC Boston.

Since the PGA Championship, where McIlroy missed the cut, he’d missed 23 putts from inside 10 feet, and had a pedestrian 53 percent average from 4 to 8 feet in seven rounds. In his last three rounds, there were just four putts missed from inside 10 feet and his average from 4-8 feet jumped to 60 percent.

Deutsche Bank Championship: Articles, photos and videos

For the first time in his career, McIlroy led the field in both driving distance (312 yard average) and putting average (1.60), and made his Monday move with birdies at Nos. 2 (4 feet), 4 (2 feet), 7 (4 feet), 8 (18 feet) and 9 (10 feet), where he tied third-round front-runner Paul Casey for the lead at 15 under par.

McIlroy pulled away with a birdie from 22 feet at the 12th hole and secured his 12th victory on the PGA Tour, and his second at TPC Boston, with his 25th birdie of the week at the last hole.

In many ways, McIlroy’s turnaround after what he admits has been a difficult few weeks – he’d missed two cuts and had a single top-10 finish on Tour since June – is as much a testament to his overall skill as it is that new putting stroke.

Too often when players of McIlroy’s caliber talk about how “close” they are to playing their best golf there’s a collection of rolled eyes and dismissive sighs, but when the margins are so thin at the game’s highest levels there’s something to be said for educated optimism.

“It's a fine line, very fine line between missing the cut and winning the tournament,” said Jason Day, who tied for 15th after a closing 67. “A few putts go your way, you get a little bit of confidence, start rolling them in, start feeling good about yourself. Over the last few days he's obviously playing pretty good.”

Given the conditions at TPC Boston, where winds gusted to 25 mph as Post-Tropical Cyclone Hermine skirted the New England coast, McIlroy’s 6-under card to complete his Labor Day was better than pretty good. “Brilliant,” said runner-up Casey who began the day with a three-stroke lead but struggled to a final-round 73.

Only the game’s best players can relate to McIlroy’s almost seamless competitive turnaround, if not the scrutiny he’s endured over the last 16 months since he last won on Tour.

“He's remarkable because he's a bit Teflon-coated,” said Adam Scott, who knows a thing or two about dealing with short-game scrutiny. “He gets criticized a lot, everything analyzed, and he's very patient I think with it all. To me it looks like he hasn't got so frustrated this year, he's just kept doing his thing.”

Kenyon’s magical touch aside, McIlroy came by his improved putting revival honestly.

After Saturday’s round, he traded text messages with Kenyon and could be found every afternoon applying those lessons on the practice putting green – tirelessly working to find a fix he could call his own.

“He's been on the practice green every time I've been there and before and after [a round],” said Jordan Spieth, who tied for 21st at the third playoff stop. “I feel like I work hard on my putting and he's worked as hard as anybody in the past two weeks on his putting.”

A slight grip change on Saturday morning, he rolled his right hand over atop the grip, further fueled McIlroy’s revival, and when he teed off early Monday morning he was no longer lost in technical thoughts, like he admitted was the case last week at The Barclays.

Throughout his most recent swoon in the United States – he did win the Irish Open earlier this season, which for McIlroy is akin to a “fifth major” – the 27-year-old never doubted his ball-striking, only his putting, which prompted him to team with Kenyon last week at Bethpage.

It was telling that it wasn’t McIlroy’s improved putting that inspired him as much as it was his own resilience after playing his first three holes of the tournament in 4 over par on Friday.

“I thought it's a great opportunity being 4 over through three holes to do something that I had never done before, to be in that position and go on and win a golf tournament,” said McIlroy, who moved to third in the world rankings and fourth in the FedEx Cup race with his victory. “To be sitting up here and have won the tournament, I'm very proud of myself for that.”

It was the kind of finish that earlier in his career McIlroy would have probably not had the mental toughness to pull off. For a player who has at many times in his career made winning look easy, this one was hard.

This one was special.

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.