McIlroy a marked man in uncharted territory

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 26, 2012, 4:23 pm

MEDINAH, Ill. – At this Ryder Cup, Rory McIlroy is many things to many people.

Allegiances here vary, of course, but depending on your rooting interest he is either one of a dozen world-class European players or a “marked man,” the world’s best player or the guy whom Tiger can beat, the potential savior at Medinah or a potential antihero.

In a sport in which we’ve recently learned there is no such thing as intimidation, can a 23-year-old, floppy-haired, freckled, 5-foot-9-inch, 165-pound, affable Northern Irishman truly evoke such a nasty connotation?  

Well, it seems unlikely. Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter already play those leading antagonistic roles, and do so well. (Especially Poulter, who on Wednesday said that he was intrigued by how “you can be great mates with somebody, but boy, do you want to kill them in Ryder Cup.” Fire up the hype machine.)

So McIlroy is no villain. What he remains, though, is the player the U.S. team – and its full-throated fans – most want to defeat. Jim Furyk described him as a “marked man,” a quote that was headline-worthy, sure, but not in the least bit inflammatory. Of course Rory is a marked man – this season he has won four times, including a major by eight strokes, and put the top of the world rankings in a full nelson.

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“It’s part of being ranked No. 1,” Tiger Woods said. “It’s part of winning major championships. You’re always going to want to try and take out their best player, and that’s just part of the deal. That’s a fun challenge. I certainly have relished it over the years, and I’m sure he’s going to relish it this week.”

Eight of the questions in McIlroy’s Wednesday news conference dealt with either expectation or being targeted. Sorry to disappoint, but golf isn’t like other sports – Rory can’t be double-teamed in the post, he can’t be blitzed on every down, he can’t be intentionally walked.

Yet theories abound as to how to best deal with McIlroy, as if he’s the five-tool player poised for a breakout game. Casual fans, of course, prefer a spectacle: Rory-Tiger, final match, cup on the line. Colin Montgomerie, the victorious European Ryder Cup captain in 2010, wrote in a European newspaper that the Euros would be wise to keep Rory away from Tiger at all costs, lest the wunderkind loses and the team’s confidence wanes.

Because of the blind draw in the Ryder Cup, though, it’s unlikely a player can be singled out or targeted, anyway. (Davis Love: “I’m not aiming at guys.”) Save for a wink-wink deal, Rory could get Tiger in Sunday singles, or he may draw Matt Kuchar.

Predictably, the European team has downplayed any kind of target talk, trotting out the well-rehearsed line that no player is above the team, that each guy already has a tremendous responsibility in playing for himself, his 11 other teammates, his captain, vice captain, country and continent.

“I don’t think I have a bull’s-eye on my back,” McIlroy shrugged. “I think it’s a huge compliment that people are saying they want to beat me and whatever. Whoever wants to take me on, they can take me on.”

McIlroy said he’d feel “very comfortable” playing all five sessions, and good thing: Given his current form (three wins in his past five events) and stature in the game, it’s a likely proposition.

In his first Ryder Cup, two years ago in Wales, McIlroy experienced the enormity of the moment while standing on the first tee next to partner Graeme McDowell. Rory admittedly was “very tentative . . . trying not to make a mistake instead of just going out and free-wheeling it” during that first fourball match, twice delayed by rain. Eventually, he totaled a 1-1-2 overall record at Celtic Manor, but the team won, 14 1/2 to 13 1/2, and that was the enduring mark.

McIlroy has always believed he’s more of a leader on the course than in the team room, which is fine, so long as he understands that it is his performance – not necessarily the form of the other 11 players – that will be the most highly scrutinized, much the same way Woods’ sub-.500 Ryder Cup record has been reviewed ad nauseam here. As Woods himself said, it’s part of being ranked No. 1.

Indeed, McIlroy may lack the flair of Poulter, or the fieriness of Garcia, but the Northern Irishman is the No. 1 player in the world, the kid who has hijacked the golf globe, and he’s being targeted, fairly or not, as the man to beat at Medinah. It’s a tremendous burden for a 23-year-old playing in his second supercharged match.

His media responsibilities complete Wednesday, McIlroy was ushered out of the media center and whisked away in a cart, through the incoming crowd. It was a chilly fall morning, and nary a man or woman, boy or girl, stopped to cheer or even give a thumbs-up to the game’s second-most popular player.

Yes, it’s most certainly Ryder Cup week. For McIlroy, it figures to be a decidedly new experience.

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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."