McIlroy, Woods light up the desert in Dubai

By Rex HoggardJanuary 30, 2014, 11:18 am

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Sometime between last year’s chaos and Thursday’s chef-d'oeuvre the planets aligned, the cosmic cylinders tumbled into place and sanity prevailed.

For context, flash back some 12 months to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and the season opener for Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. So much promise. So much anticipation.

The Ulsterman had just been ushered in as Nike Golf’s newest world beater and appeared poised to finally go head-to-head with golf’s alpha male in a meaningful way. At the time, McIlroy was No. 1 in the world and Woods was in full rebound mode following a three-win season in 2012.

The letdown was palpable. McIlroy signed for a pair of 75s and watched the rest of the tournament from his couch, while Woods was tagged for an illegal drop on Friday and was on the next flight back Stateside.

That difficult day seemed a lifetime away on Thursday when Woods and McIlroy set out early at the Dubai Desert Classic. Woods birdied his first hole – the dynamic duo started on the 10th – McIlroy poured in three consecutive birdies starting at the 12th hole and the two briefly shared the lead when Woods birdied the 15th hole.

McIlroy would pull away from Woods, and everyone else, with a closing-nine of 31 for a two-stroke lead, but if the world No. 1 wasn’t happy with his opening 68 he wasn’t letting on.

“Overall it was a pretty good score. Maybe could have gotten two more out of it,” Woods said. “After going 0-for-12 on birdies on the par 5s last week (at the Farmers Insurance Open), it was actually nice to make one on the first hole, right out of the gate.”

Considering how much Woods struggled to put his driver in the fairway on a warm and sunny day, his 4-under-par card was a testament to a short game that was showing no signs of early-season rust.

Woods connected with just two fairways out of the eight times he hit driver, but that was about the only thing Thursday’s round had in common with his Saturday outing at Torrey Pines, when he signed for a 79 and missed his first 54-hole cut on the PGA Tour.

Twenty-five putts and a healthy dose of game management added up to his 68 and a tie for fifth as he made his way to the practice tee for an extracurricular session.

“It’s my old pattern again. With my last coach it was a push block,” said Woods, who played from the desert left of the fairway three times through his first seven holes.

“We tried to get out of that and go to a cut. It’s harder to aim right knowing that I’ve got to cut it. Last year all my misses were in the left rough. But they were all straight balls. It was dead straight because I aimed it there. Trying to aim down the right side of the fairway is a little harder.”

If Woods’ opening round was of the “about what it should have been” variety, McIlroy’s 9-under 63 was a work of art. He never came close to making a bogey, drove the ball with confident abandon (12 of 14 fairways) and rolled in an eagle putt at the third hole to move two clear.

Last year in Abu Dhabi he was signing for 75s. On Thursday he was considering what it would take to shoot 59.

“When I eagled (No.) 3 and that got me to 8 under par, I guess I had six holes left and needed five birdies for the magical number,” he smiled. “I didn’t birdie the par 3 (fourth) so then I wanted to shoot 62. I shot 62 last week in a casual round. So I wanted to try and shoot two 62s in one week.”

McIlroy’s comeback has been almost as distinct as his collapse. He finished tied for fifth in Dubai late last year at the DP World Tour Championship, won the Australian Open in a shootout with Adam Scott to close the season and began 2014 in Abu Dhabi with a runner-up showing.

For both players, Day 1 in Dubai was a dramatic contrast to last year’s troubles down the road in Abu Dhabi. By comparison, Thursday seemed effortless. But there are few in the game who know better than Woods and McIlroy that’s not the case.

“I don’t think it’s ever easy,” McIlroy said. “It can feel easier than it has been in the past, but you still have to work hard. It may feel easy and these scores may look somewhat routine out there, but there’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes.”

Maybe the only real difference between last year’s early exit and Thursday’s rounds is that Abu Dhabi just looked like work.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.