Tiger, Lefty, Rory produce lofty Masters expectations

By Rex HoggardApril 4, 2012, 5:34 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The storm late Tuesday that felled trees and swamped bunkers across Augusta National was either prologue or postmortem for the week to come.

Pyrotechnics have become a Masters specialty with last year’s frantic final nine holes the undisputed category leader. The final two hours of last year’s tournament included an eclectic mix of eight different players who held at least a share of the lead, a monumental collapse, an historic finish and more pine-rattling roars than one should honestly expect, even at the year’s first major.

So the question remains, can the venerable layout produce another “instant classic,” as club chairman Billy Payne called the 2011 finale, or will Tuesday’s storm be the week’s most spectacular show?

Given recent history safe money is on Augusta National’s side.

Even last year’s champion, the previously little known Charl Schwartzel, made magic from mayhem, opening with a 100-foot chip-in at the first hole that many players have said is the hardest shot on the course, and closing with four consecutive birdies for a two-stroke victory.

Conventional wisdom would suggest the sequel is never as compelling as the original, but then Augusta National is adept at exceeding expectations and the cosmic tumblers certainly seem to be falling in the Masters’ favor.

For the first time in recent history there are three legitimate favorites heading into Thursday’s opening lap.

Four-time champion Tiger Woods tops most lists, fresh off his first victory in 30 months at last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational – a five-stroke, ball-striking masterpiece reminiscent of his pre-2009 ways.

The last two years at Augusta National Woods has gutted out fourth-place finishes on a “one-dimensional swing” and a litany of personal issues and nagging injuries. But those days seemed like ancient history when he spoke with the media on Tuesday and compared his current game to the world-beater swing he ruled golf with in 2000.

“I understand how to play the golf course,” said Woods, who is playing in his 18th Masters. “I’ve spent half my life playing here.’

But if style points go to experience then Phil Mickelson may be the more compelling pick.

If the “significant changes” to the layout in 2002 did in fact “Tiger proof” the golf course, then it’s not a reach to contend that they may have also made the Georgia gem “Phil friendly.”

Since the changes, and the addition of more than 400 yards, Lefty – who is playing in his 20th Masters – has won all three of his green jackets and has finished outside the top 10 just twice. That Mickelson won earlier this season at Pebble Beach paired with Woods on Sunday only fuels the possibilities.

The two have been paired together on a Sunday before at Augusta National, most recently in 2009 when Woods tied for sixth and Mickelson was fifth, but they’ve always been on the fringe of contention, never mano a mano when it mattered.

“(Tiger) has obviously been playing well and to have won heading in gives him a lot of confidence,” Mickelson said of a potential Sunday showdown. “Sucks for us, but . . .”

Yet if a Tiger vs. Phil marquee is atop the wish list, Tiger vs. Rory is a close undercard.

Woods and McIlroy have been on a collision course ever since the 2010 Ryder Cup when the Ulsterman boldly figured that he liked his chances against the slumping star.

McIlroy further added to this week’s subtext when he set out for last year’s final round with a four-stroke lead, made the turn 1 up on the field and proceeded to hit his tee shot at No. 10 where no man, and certainly no champion, had ever gone.

Asked on Tuesday if he’d spent much time thinking about his wayward tee shot at the par-4 10th hole, which hit a pine tree and ricocheted back between two cabins barely 50 yards off the tee, McIlroy shyly admitted he’d revisited the episode during an earlier scouting trip to Augusta National and has moved on.

“I glanced over as I walked down the fairway,” he laughed. “I can’t believe how close the cabins are. They are only 50 yards off the tee. Look, it’s great to be able to laugh about it now.”

More importantly for Augusta National officials it’s great to consider the possibilities.

It wasn’t that long ago that some wondered if the club had circumvented the back-nine buzz that has defined this tournament. In consecutive years (2008 and 2007) cold, windy conditions on Sunday combined with few birdies to produce relatively pedestrian finishes. But that changed in 2009 with the tournament’s first three-man playoff since 1987 and Mickelson put on a show in '10 for his third victory followed by last year’s fireworks that finally ended the debate.

More so than any other venue in golf these finishes are as contrived as a true competition can be. Sunday’s traditional hole locations are cut into valleys that feed golf balls to birdie range and state-of-the-art drainage and new technology mitigate whatever curveball Mother Nature can hurl.

In short, no other golf course in the world changes as much as Augusta National from Wednesday to Thursday.

“Only golf courses that have true SubAir (drainage systems) can deal with rain like that,” Woods said. “You can play practice rounds however you want. You can play a hundred practice rounds, but Wednesday to Thursday it’s just a totally different golf course.”

In professional sports things rarely go to script, and no amount of technology or timely performances can guarantee a great finish. At Augusta National, however, the improbable has become strangely possible. If history holds, Tuesday’s storm will likely turn out to be the opening act for another Sunday show.

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in four months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014. 

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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."