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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Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders

By Randy SmithMarch 18, 2018, 2:45 am

PHOENIX – Brittany Lincicome is farther back than she wanted to be going into Sunday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she’s in a good place.

She’s keeping the momentum of her season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic victory going this year.

Her confidence is high.

“Last year, I won in the Bahamas, but then I didn't do anything after that,” Lincicome said. “I don't even know if I had a top 10 after my win in the Bahamas. Obviously, this year, I want to be more consistent.”

Lincicome followed up her victory in the Bahamas this year with a tie for seventh in her next start at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And now she’s right back on another leaderboard with the year’s first major championship just two weeks away. She is, by the way, a two-time winner at the ANA Inspiration.

Missy Pederson, Lincicome’s caddie, is helping her player keep that momentum going with more focus on honing in the scoring clubs.

“One of our major goals is being more consistent,” Pederson said. “She’s so talented, a once in a generation talent. I’m just trying to help out in how to best approach every golf course.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Pederson has helped Lincicome identify the clubs they’re likely to attack most with on the particular course they are playing that week, to spend more time working with those clubs in practice. It’s building confidence.

“I know the more greens we hit, and the more chances we give ourselves, the more our chances are to be in contention,” Pederson said. “Britt is not big into stats or details, so I have to figure out how to best consolidate that information, to get us exactly where we need to be.”

Lincicome’s growing comfort with clubs she can attack with is helping her confidence through a round.

“I’ve most noticed consistency in her mental game, being able to handle some of the hiccups that happen over the course of a round,” Pederson said. “Whereas before, something might get under her skin, where she might say, `That’s what always happens,’ now, it’s, `All right, I know I’m good enough to get this back.’ I try to get her in positions to hit the clubs we are really hitting well right now.”

That’s leading to a lot more birdies, fewer bogeys and more appearances on leaderboards in the start to this year.

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Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 2:09 am

PHOENIX – In the long shadows falling across Wildfire Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, Inbee Park conceded she was tempted to walk away from the game last year.

While healing a bad back, she was tempted to put her clubs away for good and look for a second chapter for her life.

But then . . .

“Looking at the girls playing on TV, you think you want to be out there” Park said. “Really, I couldn't make my mind up when I was taking that break, but as soon as I'm back here, I just feel like this is where I belong.”

In just her second start after seven months away from the LPGA, Park is playing like she never left.

She’s atop a leaderboard at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, looking like that’s exactly where she belongs.

With a 9-under-par 63 Saturday, Park seized the lead going into the final round.

At 14 under overall, she’s one shot ahead of Mariajo Uribe (67), two ahead of Ariya Jutanugarn (68) and three ahead of 54-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies (63) and Chella Choi (66).

Park’s back with a hot putter.

That’s not good news for the rest of the tour. Nobody can demoralize a field with a flat stick like Park. She’s one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, and on the front nine Saturday she looked as good as she ever has.

“The front nine was scary,” said her caddie, Brad Beecher, who was on Park’s bag for her long run at world No. 1, her run of three consecutive major championship victories in 2013 and her gold medal victory at the Olympics two years ago.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The front nine was great . . . like 2013,” Park said.

Park started her round on fire, going birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. She was 6 under through five holes. She holed a wedge from 98 yards at the third hole, making the turn having taken just 10 putts. Yeah, she said, she was thinking about shooting 59.

“But I'm still really happy with my round today,” she said.

Park isn’t getting ahead of herself, even with this lead. She said her game isn’t quite where she wants it with the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, just two weeks away, but a victory Sunday should go a long way toward getting her there.

Park is only 29. LPGA pros haven’t forgotten what it was like when she was dominating, when she won 14 times between 2013 and ’15.

They haven’t forgotten how she can come back from long layoffs with an uncanny ability to pick up right where she left off.

Park won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year in just her second start. She left the tour again in the summer with an aching back.

“I feel like Inbee could take off a whole year or two years and come back and win every week,” said Brittany Lincicome, who is four shots behind Park. “Her game is just so consistent. She doesn't do anything flashy, but her putting is flashy.

“She literally walks them in. It's incredible, like you know it's going in when she hits it. It's not the most orthodox looking stroke, but she can repeat it.”

Park may not play as full a schedule as she has in the past, Beecher said, but he believes she can thrive with limited starts.

“I think it helps her get that fight back, to get that hunger back,” Beecher said. “She knows she can play 15 events a year and still compete. There aren’t a lot of players who can do that.”

Park enjoyed her time away last year, and how it re-energized her.

“When I was taking the long break, I was just thinking, `I can do this life as well,’” Park said. “But I'm glad I came back out here. Obviously, days like today, that's the reason I'm playing golf.”

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Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:57 am

PHOENIX – Tiffany Joh was thrilled making a run into contention to win her first LPGA title Saturday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she comically cracked that her hole-in-one might have been ill-timed.

It came on St. Patrick’s Day.

“This is like the worst holiday to be making a hole-in-one on,” Joh said. “You'll go broke buying everyone green beers.”

Joh aced the fifth hole with a 5-iron from 166 yards on her way to an 8-under-par 64. It left her four shots behind the leader, Inbee Park (63).

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

One of the more colorful players on tour, Joh said she made the most of her hole-in-one celebration with playing partner Jane Park.

“First I ran and tackled Jane, then I high-fived like every single person walking to the green,” Joh said.

Joh may be the LPGA’s resident comedian, but she faced a serious challenge on tour last year.  Fourteen months ago, she had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. She won the LPGA’s Heather Farr Perseverance Award for the way she handled her comeback.

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Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:22 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies limped around Wildfire Golf Club Saturday with an ache radiating from her left Achilles up into her calf muscle at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Every step is just misery,” Davies said after. “It’s just getting older. Don’t get old.”

She’s 54, but she played the third round as if she were 32 again.

That’s how old she was when she was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year and won two major championships.

With every sweet swing Saturday, Davies peeled back the years, turning back the clock.

Rolling in a 6-foot birdie at the 17th, Davies moved into a tie for the lead with Inbee Park, a lead that wouldn’t last long with so many players still on the course when she finished. Still, with a 9-under-par 63, Davies moved into contention to try to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.

Davies has won 20 LPGA titles, 45 Ladies European Tour titles, but she hasn’t won an LPGA event in 17 years, since taking the Wegmans Rochester International.

Can she can surpass the mark Beth Daniel set winning at 46?

“I still think I can win,” Davies said. “This just backs that up for me. Other people, I don’t know, they’re always asking me now when I’m going to retire. I always say I’m still playing good golf, and now here’s the proof of it.”

Davies knows it will take a special day with the kind of final-round pressure building that she hasn’t experienced in awhile.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The pressure will be a lot more tomorrow,” she said. “We'll see, won’t sleep that well tonight. The good news is that I’ll probably be four or five behind by the end of the day, so the pressure won’t be there as much.”

Davies acknowledged confidence is harder to garner, as disappointments and missed cuts pile up, but she’s holding on to her belief she can still win.

“I said to my caddie, `Jeez, I haven't been on top of the leaderboard for a long time,’” Davies said. “That's nice, obviously, but you’ve got to stay there. That's the biggest challenge.”

About that aching left leg, Davies was asked if it could prevent her from challenging on Sunday.

“I’ll crawl around if I have to,” she said.

Saturday’s 63 was Davies’ lowest round in an LPGA event since she shot 63 at the Wendy’s Championship a dozen years ago.

While Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in ’01. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Davies said she still dreams about qualifying.

“You never know,” she said.