Newsmaker of the Year No. 1: Rory McIlroy

By Rex HoggardDecember 31, 2012, 1:00 pm

It was, of all people, probably a former American Ryder Cup captain, one of just four winning skippers in the last 27 years it should be noted, that helped wrest Europe’s best and brightest out of a slump and back into the leading role as the Continent’s undisputed alpha male.

Or maybe the credit should go to a salt-of-the-earth lawman from middle America for keeping a great season from being marred by an embarrassing time zone snafu at the Ryder Cup.

Or perhaps the competitive climb that is Rory McIlroy should be owned by all of us. Born in Holywood, Northern Ireland, seasoned to play a global game, but it is his status as a bona fide American favorite that made the Ulsterman the year’s top newsmaker.

Newsmaker No. 10: Stacy Lewis | No. 9 PGA Tour | No. 8: Jim Furyk | No. 7: British Open | No. 6: Bubba Watson | No. 5: Anchored putters | No. 4: Augusta National | No. 3 Tiger Woods | No. 2 Ryder Cup

It is a nod to McIlroy’s priorities, and his upbringing, that he is equal parts sensational talent and showman. In 2012 he didn’t just win, he did it with style points to spare.

There were plenty of champions in 2012, but few demanded our attention like McIlroy. It is an asset etched into his DNA and on display even when he’s not playing from the front of the pack.

Early into his opening turn at the 2011 PGA Championship McIlroy strained a tendon in his right wrist when he played a shot off an Atlanta Athletic Club tree root. Despite suggestions from his caddie and trainer to take a knee and not risk further injury he played on.

At the time we asked McIlroy’s father, Gerry, why his only son refused to yield and the answer was almost prophetic, although it certainly wasn’t intended to be. “He thinks all these people are here to see him,” Gerry McIlroy said.

And they watched in droves in 2012, marveling at the 23-year-old’s play and poise. He began his ’12 PGA Tour campaign with a runner-up showing at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and held off a charging Tiger Woods on Sunday at The Honda Classic to reclaim the top spot in the world golf ranking.

Late Sunday at PGA National, McIlroy was asked about the state of the game and his lofty position atop the heap. “Exciting times,” he smiled, elegant and, as it turns out, wildly understated.

Around the globe McIlroy would post a “fab five” start to the season, finishing runner-up (Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship), fifth (Dubai Desert Classic), runner-up (Match Play), first (Honda) and third (WGC-Cadillac Championship). What followed, however, was a forged-by-conflict season that transformed a good calendar into something truly special.

Following a playoff loss to Rickie Fowler at the Quail Hollow Championship McIlroy missed three consecutive cuts around the world and posted just two top-10 finishes in a run of seven events.

Publicly McIlroy dismissed suggestions that he had played his way into the first valley of a career that until then had been largely dominated by peaks, but there were signs that his slide had set off alarms in Camp Rory.

In early June he added the FedEx St. Jude Classic to his schedule as he searched for answers and consistency and for the first time in his young career McIlroy had his swing coach, Michael Bannon, join him on Tour. But it was another member of McIlroy’s inner circle that helped wrest the Ulsterman out of his swoon and the tonic had little to do with the mechanics of his swing.

“I turn on the TV and look at him and see he’s not playing well. I told him I don’t want to know that,” McIlroy’s short-game coach and the ’91 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Dave Stockton Sr. told the Ulsterman in August. “I drilled him last week. I said, 'You can’t do that, you just cannot do that. Jack (Nicklaus) never did that. Tiger never did that. Nicklaus was the best.' I’m sure he got mad but I don’t remember him ever showing it.”

In his next start McIlroy tied for fifth at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and followed that with his second major romp.

Of all the accolades McIlroy collected at the PGA Championship it was his eight-stroke margin of victory that set a new historical footnote, supplanting Nicklaus in the record books, and rocked the status quo.

“He never gave anyone the vaguest whiff, maybe on the breeze, just a little something. No. That was locked up so tight the entire round. It was perfect. He did what all great players can do, he played the best possible golf as if it had the least possible consequence,” said David Feherty, the on-course reporter following McIlroy on Sunday at Kiawah Island. “It’s the greatest round of golf I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Tiger Woods play a lot of golf, but that was something special.”

By comparison, the rest of 2012 was little more than a victory lap, although it felt more like a coronation. McIlroy won back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events (Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship) – with apologies to Brandt Snedeker, McIlroy’s inability to secure the season-long title seemed more like a pencil whipping than an outright loss – and staved off a potentially embarrassing faux pas at September’s Ryder Cup thanks to the efforts of Lombard (Ill.) deputy police chief Patrick Rollins, who raced the European hero to Medinah just in time to help secure Europe's one-point victory.

For McIlroy 2012 wasn’t a dramatic leap forward in how he performed so much as it was an attitude adjustment to a more single-minded, some have even suggested tougher, player.

“I have probably changed my mindset a little bit over the past 12 or 18 months, and it's definitely helped and obviously helped me to win more tournaments,” said McIlroy, who added money titles on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for good measure. “My personality away from the golf course hasn't changed, but definitely when I get to the golf course I'm maybe a little more professional, a little more businesslike and go about my business like that.”

Over the past 12 months, McIlroy endured the ultimate competitive bell curve, mid-summer travails book-ended by historic triumph. That he did it with a panache that transcended a passport made him a true American favorite.

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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.

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Tour's Integrity Program raises gambling questions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 17, 2018, 7:00 pm

The video begins with an eye-opening disclaimer: “Sport betting markets produce revenues of $1 trillion each year.”

For all the seemingly elementary elements of the 15-minute video PGA Tour players have been required to watch as part of the circuit’s newly created Integrity Program, it’s the enormity of the industry – $1 trillion annually – that concerns officials.

There are no glaring examples of how sport betting has impacted golf, no red flags that sent Tour officials into damage control; just a realization that with that kind of money it’s best to be proactive.

“It's important that in that world, you can operate not understanding what's happening week in and week out, or you can assume that all of our players and everybody in our ecosystem understands that that's not an acceptable activity, or you can just be proactive and clarify and educate,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan explained earlier this month. “That's what we have attempted to do not with just the video, but with all of our communication with our players and will continue to do that.”

But if clarification is the goal, a copy of the training video obtained by paints a different picture.

Although the essence of the policy is straightforward – “prohibit players from betting on professional golf” – the primary concern, at least if the training video is any indication, is on match fixing; and warns players to avoid divulging what is considered “inside information.”

“I thought the questions were laughable. They were all like first-grade-level questions,” Chez Reavie said. “I would like to think everyone out here already knows the answer to those questions. But the Tour has to protect themselves.”

Monahan explained that the creation of the integrity policy was not in reaction to a specific incident and every player asked last week at the Sony Open said they had never encountered any type of match fixing.

“No, not at all,” Reavie said. “I have friends who will text me from home after a round, ‘Oh, I bet on you playing so-and-so.’ But I make it clear I don’t want to know. I don’t gamble like that. No one has ever approached me about losing a match.”

It was a common answer, but the majority of the video focuses on how players can avoid being placed in a compromising situation that could lead to match fixing. It should be noted that gamblers can place wagers on head-to-head matchups, provided by betting outlets, during stroke-play rounds of tournaments – not just in match-play competitions.

Part of the training video included questions players must answer to avoid violating the policy. An example of this was how a player should respond when asked, “Hello, buddy! Well played today. I was following your progress. I noticed your partner pulled out of his approach on 18, looked like his back. Is he okay for tomorrow?”

The correct answer from a list of options was, “I don’t know, sorry. I’m sure he will get it looked at if it’s bothering him.”

You get the idea, but for some players the training created more questions.

How, for example, should a player respond when asked how he’s feeling by a fan?

“The part I don’t understand, let’s say a member of your club comes out and watches you on the range hitting balls, he knows you’re struggling, and he bets against you. Somehow, some way that could come back to you, according to what I saw on that video,” said one player who asked not to be identified.

Exactly what constitutes a violation is still unclear for some who took the training, which was even more concerning considering the penalties for a violation of the policy.

The first violation is a warning and a second infraction will require the player to retake the training program, but a third violation is a fine “up to $500,000” or “the amount illegally received from the betting activity.” A sixth violation is a lifetime ban from the Tour.

Players are advised to be mindful of what they post on social media and to “refrain from talking about odds or betting activity.” The latter could be an issue considering how often players discuss betting on other sports.

Just last week at the Sony Open, Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas had a “friendly” wager on the College Football Playoff National Championship. Kisner, a Georgia fan, lost the wager and had to wear an Alabama football jersey while playing the 17th hole last Thursday.

“If I'd have got the points, he'd have been wearing [the jersey], and I was lobbying for the points the whole week, and he didn't give them to me,” Kisner said. “So I'm still not sure about this bet.”

It’s unclear to some if Kisner’s remark, which was a joke and didn’t have anything to do with golf, would be considered a violation. From a common sense standpoint, Kisner did nothing wrong, but the uncertainty is an issue.

Much like drug testing, which the Tour introduced in 2008, few, if any, think sport betting is an issue in golf; but also like the anti-doping program, there appears to be the danger of an inadvertent and entirely innocent violation.

The Tour is trying to be proactive and the circuit has a trillion reasons to get out in front of what could become an issue, but if the initial reaction to the training video is any indication they may want to try a second take.

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.