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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Players battle 'crusty' greens on Day 1 at Honda

By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 11:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Tiger Woods called the greens “scratchy” on PGA National’s Champion Course.

Rory McIlroy said there is “not a lot of grass on them.”

Morgan Hoffmann said they are “pretty dicey in spots, like a lot of dirt.”

The first round of the Honda Classic left players talking almost as much about the challenge of navigating the greens as they did the challenge of Florida’s blustery, winter winds.

“They looked more like Sunday greens than Thursday,” McIlroy said. “They are pretty crusty. They are going to have a job keeping a couple of them alive.”

The Champion Course always plays tough, ranking annually among the most challenging on the PGA Tour. With a very dry February, the course is firmer and faster than it typically plays.

“Today was not easy,” Woods said. “It's going to get more difficult because these greens are not the best . . . Some of these putts are a bit bouncy . . . There's no root structure. You hit shots and you see this big puff of sand on the greens, so that shows you there's not a lot of root structure.”

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Brad Nelson, PGA National’s director of agronomy, said the Champion Course’s TifEagle Bermuda greens are 18 years old, and they are dealing with some contamination, in spots, of other strains of grasses.

“As it’s been so warm and dry, and as we are trying to get the greens so firm, those areas that are not a true Tifeagle variety anymore, they get unhappy,” Nelson said. “What I mean by unhappy is that they open up a little bit . . . It gives them the appearance of being a little bit thin in some areas.”

Nelson said the greens are scheduled for re-grassing in the summer of 2019. He said the greens do have a “crusty” quality, but . . .

“Our goal is to be really, really firm, and we feel like we are in a good place for where we want them to be going into the weekend,” he said.

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McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 11:03 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy and the rest of his group had a forgettable end to their rounds Thursday at the Honda Classic.

McIlroy was even par for the day and looking for one final birdie to end his opening round. Only two players had reached the par-5 finishing hole, but McIlroy tried to hold a 3-wood up against the wind from 268 yards away. It found the water, leading to a double bogey and a round of 2-over 72.  

“It was the right shot,” McIlroy said. “I just didn’t execute it the right way.”

He wasn’t the only player to struggle coming home.

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Adam Scott, who won here in 2016, found the water on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17. He made double on 15, then triple on 17, after his shot from the drop area went long, then he failed to get up and down. He shot 73, spoiling a solid round.

The third player in the group, Padraig Harrington, made a mess of the 16th hole, taking a triple.

The group played the last four holes in a combined 10 over.

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Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:40 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Consider it a sign of the times that Tiger Woods was ecstatic about an even-par score Thursday at the Honda Classic.

It was by far his most impressive round in this nascent comeback.

Playing in a steady 20-mph wind, Woods was better in all facets of the game Thursday at PGA National. Better off the tee. Better with his irons. And better on and around the “scratchy” greens.

He hung tough to shoot 70 – four shots better than his playing partner, Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season and the current FedExCup leader – and afterward Woods said that it was a “very positive” day and that he was “very solid.”

It’s a small sample size, of course – seven rounds – but Woods didn’t hesitate in declaring this “easily” his best ball-striking round of the year.

And indeed it was, even if the stats don’t jump off the page.

Officially, he hit only seven of 14 fairways and just 10 greens, but some of those misses off the tee were a few paces into the rough, and some of those iron shots finished just off the edge of the green.

The more telling stat was this: His proximity to the hole (28 feet) was more than an 11-foot improvement over his first two starts this year. And also this: He was 11th among the early starters in strokes gained-tee to green, which measures a player’s all-around ball-striking. Last week, at Riviera, he ranked 121st.

“I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knockdown shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways, and occasionally downwind, straight up in the air.

“I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”

The Champion Course here at PGA National is the kind of course that magnifies misses and exposes a player if he’s slightly off with his game. There is water on 15 of the 18 holes, and there are countless bunkers, and it’s almost always – as it was Thursday – played in a one- or two-club wind. Even though it’s played a half hour from Woods’ compound in Hobe Sound, the Honda wasn’t thought to be an ideal tune-up for Woods’ rebuilt game.

But maybe this was just what he needed. He had to hit every conceivable shot Thursday, to shape it both ways, high and low, and he executed nearly every one of them.

The only hole he butchered was the par-5 third. With 165 yards for his third shot, he tried to draw a 6-iron into a stiff wind. He turned it over a touch too much, and it dropped into the bunker. He hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot, but it got caught in the overseeded rye grass around the green and stayed short. He chipped to 3 feet and then was blown off-balance by a wind gust. Double.

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But what pleased Woods most was what he did next. Steaming from those unforced errors, he was between a 2- and 3-iron off the tee. He wanted to leave himself a 60-degree wedge for his approach into the short fourth hole, but a full 2-iron would have put him too close to the green.

So he took a little off and “threw it up in the air” – 292 yards.

“That felt really good,” Woods said, smiling. And so did the 6-footer that dropped for a bounce-back birdie.

"I feel like I'm really not that far away," he said. 

To illustrate just how much Woods’ game has evolved in seven rounds, consider this perspective from Brandt Snedeker.

They played together at Torrey Pines, where Woods somehow made the cut despite driving it all over the map. In the third round, Woods scraped together a 70 while Snedeker turned in a 74, and afterward Snedeker said that Woods’ short game was “probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”

A month later, Snedeker saw significant changes. Woods’ short game is still tidy, but he said that his iron play is vastly improved, and it needed to be, given the challenging conditions in the first round.

“He controlled his ball flight really well and hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey, because he was rusty,” said Snedeker, who shot 74. “So it was cool to see him flight the ball and hit some little cut shots and some little three-quarter shots and do stuff I’m accustomed to see him doing.”

Conditions are expected to only get more difficult, more wind-whipped and more burned out, which is why the winning score here has been single-digits under par four of the past five years.

But Woods checked an important box Thursday, hitting the shots that were required in the most difficult conditions he has faced so far.

Said Snedeker: “I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”

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Players honor victims of Parkland school shooting

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:36 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA Tour players are honoring the victims in the Parkland school shooting by wearing ribbons on their hats and shirts.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located about 45 miles from PGA National, site of this week’s Honda Classic.

“It’s awful what happened, and anytime the Tour can support in any way a tragedy, we’re always going to be for it,” Justin Thomas said. “Anytime there’s a ribbon on the tees for whatever it may be, you’ll see most, if not all the guys wearing it. Something as simple and easy as this, it’s the least we could do.”

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The school shooting in Parkland, which claimed 17 lives, is the second-deadliest at a U.S. public school.

Tiger Woods, who lives in South Florida, offered this: “It’s just a shame what people are doing now, and all the countless lives that we’ve lost for absolutely no reason at all. It’s just a shame, and what they have to deal with, at such a young age, the horrible tragedy they are going to have to live with and some of the things they’ve seen just don’t go away.”