McIlroy facing unlikely challenge for European honors

By Ryan LavnerOctober 8, 2012, 4:30 pm

With four titles this season, Rory McIlroy has already wrapped up the PGA Tour money title and eliminated much of the suspense surrounding the Player of the Year award.

Not so across the pond.

McIlroy, who has sat atop the European Tour’s Order of Merit for much of the season, may have to fend off an unlikely challenge from rookie Branden Grace if he’s to capture both money titles – and Player of the Year awards – in 2012.

Grace, a 24-year-old South African, won his fourth European Tour title of the season Sunday (and fifth overall this year) at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.

At one point last year, Grace was No. 362 in the world, toiling on the Sunshine Tour, needing to go through Q-School just to earn his European Tour card. Now, he’s one of the game’s brightest stars.

With his victory Sunday, Grace moved to 37th in the world. He’s the first European Tour player to win four times in his first season on the circuit, and only the 11th player to accomplish the feat overall. He’s earned €2,028,215, which puts him only €730,000 ($953,000) behind McIlroy in the yearlong Race to Dubai, the top honor in European golf.

Even Grace conceded that his goals have changed. Speaking to reporters after the final round at St. Andrews, he said, “I am all for catching Rory. … Now I am in third place, (and) first place is definitely in my sights. With a lot of big-money events coming up, €800,000 is not a lot to make up.”

Eight events remain on the European Tour schedule, including the Nov. 22-25 DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, one of the richest prizes in golf. In Grace’s case, that closing stretch is even more critical because four of those events feature a purse of at least €6,000,000.

Grace was scheduled to compete in this week’s Portugal Masters, with a winner’s share of €600,000, but instead withdrew on Monday, saying he was “pretty knackered.” McIlroy, meanwhile, is playing in the inaugural Turkey Airlines World Golf Final, an eight-man match-play event that is not sanctioned by the EuropeanTour. According to the schedule posted on his website, McIlroy is slated for three more European Tour events: the Oct. 25-28 BMW Masters, Nov. 8-11 Barclays Singapore Open and Nov. 22-25 season finale in Dubai.

It seemed unfathomable a few months ago – heck, even a week ago – but the question now must be asked: Could Branden Grace steal the money title and European Tour Player of the Year? Might Justin Rose?

Here is a tale of the tape for the favorite and two leading contenders:

The favorite: Rory McIlroy

Order of Merit: 1st

Victories: 1 (PGA Championship)

Scoring average: 70.33

The skinny: The 23-year-old Ulsterman has done much of his damage in the events co-sanctioned by both the PGA and European tours. His emphatic victory at Kiawah Island netted him a first-place prize of €1,190,937, which accounts for 42 percent of his yearly earnings on the Euro tour. He was second in Abu Dhabi and also had three top-5 finishes in the World Golf Championships events, including a runner-up at the WGC-Match Play in February.

The contender: Justin Rose

Order of Merit: 2nd

Victories: 1 (WGC-Cadillac Championship)

Scoring average: 70.03

The skinny: Like McIlroy, Rose’s lone title this season came in a co-sanctioned event, the WGC tournament at Doral. The Englishman last played a full-fledged Euro tour event in July, at the French Open (T-9), but he is scheduled to play at least the BMW Masters and WGC-HSBC Champions to meet the 13-event minimum.

The contender: Branden Grace

Order of Merit: 3rd

Victories: 4 (Joburg Open, Volvo Golf Champions, China Open, Dunhill Links)

Scoring average: 70.80

The skinny: Only one of his victories came against an elite field (Volvo), but there’s no discounting what this rookie has accomplished. The knocks against Grace will be his four missed cuts, and his poor performances in three majors, in which his best finish was a T-51 at the U.S. Open (T-77 at British, MC at PGA). 

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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.