McIlroy confident and comfortable at Honda Classic

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 28, 2014, 10:20 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy unsheathed his 3-wood, stepped behind the ball and contemplated how he was going to dissect his final hole of the day.

Like always, he stepped up to bat with a club twirl, danced in place until comfortable, gave three quick peeks at his target some 300 yards away, and uncorked the deceptively powerful swing that is the envy of teaching professionals everywhere. The ball had barely begun its ascent by the time he bent down to snatch the tee.

Over and over he pounded his tee ball Friday at PGA National’s Champion Course. He blasted it over bunkers. He cut off corners of doglegs. He blew it past his fellow playing competitors, including world No. 2 Adam Scott.

Finding the fairway makes the game easier for everyone, from major champions to weekend duffers. But for McIlroy, it’s different. He doesn’t need to lead the Tour in driving accuracy or center-cut every fairway. More important is how he feels over a tee shot, a confidence that then trickles down into every aspect of his game.

Afterward, he confirmed what everyone at the Honda Classic already knew:

“I’m confident,” he said. “I’m playing well.”

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After a rocky start to his second round, McIlroy made six birdies in his last 12 holes for a 4-under 66 and the halfway lead at the Honda. At 11-under 129, he is already just one shot off his winning total from 2012, when he held off Tiger Woods and reached world No. 1 for the first time.

That was the first victory in a five-win campaign that cemented his status as the heir apparent to Woods and led to a mega-millions deal with Nike. That guy is looking more and more familiar.

“A coach can tell you the perfect way to swing a golf club,” McIlroy said, “but once that little light bulb in your head comes on where you start to get it as well, you can start to own your own swing.”

That light bulb began to flicker on during the Asian swing last fall, when he gushed about finally finding the right driver-and-ball combination with Nike. Since then, he has finished in the top 11 in seven of his last eight stroke-play events, including a drought-busting victory at the Australian Open in December.

Confidence can be fleeting, even for the world’s best. Last year McIlroy could summon a few spectacular shots, even a dazzling round or two, but the peaks and valleys in his results damaged his belief. Now, he says, “I’m happy with where my swing is, and even if I do hit a loose shot, I can get over it much quicker and much easier because I have the confidence in what I’m doing.”

It’s why he didn’t get flustered early in his second round, when he made two bogeys in his first three holes. Watching McIlroy there was a here-we-go again quality to his start – after all, he has begun three of his last five stroke-play events with 65 or better, then failed to finish inside the top 5. But on Friday he regained control with birdies on 16 and 18, then roared ahead with birdies on 3, 4, 5 and 7, the latter two after holing 25-footers. No panic.

A day earlier, he was talking swing changes with Billy Horschel, with whom he hadn’t played since a practice round at last year’s U.S. Open. As they walked down the 15th hole, McIlroy demonstrated the various changes in his action – how last year, he had to reroute his downswing because he started it too far outside, and how, to compensate, he then tucked it too far inside and got across the line. He owns that swing now, to the point that he can express where it is now and eight months ago.

“He’s swinging better,” Horschel said. “I’m not a swing guru or anything like that, but I know when someone is swinging well what it looks like. He just didn’t look like he was swinging well last year.”

And he seems to have figured it out now, yes?

“(Expletive), you guys saw enough of it the last two days,” Horschel said, laughing. “The guy is swinging very free. He hit a lot of good shots, made a lot of good putts, looked comfortable and confident out there over the ball. … He’s always been a pretty good putter and he’s just confident now with his swing. Now, all he’s focusing on is playing golf.”

Indeed, McIlroy said this is the most dialed in he has felt since the 2012 FedEx Cup playoffs, when he won two events on his way to earning Player of the Year honors. “That’s when it was automatic,” he said.

Both then and now, his performance is predicated on how well he hits the tee ball.

Consider this: McIlroy had 15 top-5 finishes worldwide in 2012. Only twice in those events did he finish outside the top five in driving distance.

He leads here at the halfway point. No surprise, he is currently ranked third in driving.

It helps, too, that at last week’s Match Play he had a productive session with putting coach Dave Stockton, whom he hadn’t seen since Woods’ event in December. Occasionally his right hand drifts too far underneath the putter grip. With a slight change, his putter now chases down the line and stays lower to the ground. Through two rounds here, he has needed only 49 putts and leads the strokes gained-putting category.

“It’s obviously going in the right direction,” he said.

So is the rest of his game. Master Rory believes again. 

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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.