Miller weighs in on Watson-Mickelson flap

By Will GrayOctober 8, 2014, 11:14 pm

NAPA, Calif. – With the PGA Tour set to start a new season this week, much of the focus at Silverado Resort & Spa remains on the Ryder Cup.

Johnny Miller watched the American loss firsthand in Scotland as a commentator for Golf Channel and NBC Sports. This week he is serving as tournament host. A longtime Napa resident and co-owner of Silverado, Miller was instrumental in bringing the PGA Tour back to the Napa Valley for the first time since 1980.

While Miller, 67, is eager to watch a PGA Tour event on a layout where he won twice in his heyday, witnessing another U.S. Ryder Cup loss remains fresh in his memory.

“It was sort of like a snowball running down the hill,” he told GolfChannel.com on Wednesday.

The American effort at Gleneagles left a trail of finger-pointing, but the most-discussed comments have been those of Phil Mickelson, who used the team’s Sunday news conference to lobby for the system put into place in 2008 by Paul Azinger, the only time the U.S. has won the event since 1999.

According to Miller, Mickelson’s comments should not have been offered for public consumption.

“That could have stayed within the walls of the PGA [of America], so to speak,” Miller said. “I guess he was a big fan of Azinger’s pod system, but that didn’t need to come out necessarily. Watson, he didn’t miss all those putts.”


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That’s not to say that Miller was a fan of Tom Watson’s captaincy. While he stopped short of placing further blame at the feet of his contemporary – “I can’t say he did a bad job,” he added – Miller did strongly question Watson’s decision to sit Mickelson and Keegan Bradley for the entire day Saturday.

“That, I’d like to hear that from Watson, because that was pretty weird,” he said. “I could see them not playing in foursomes, alternate shot, because they weren’t driving it very good, but fourball you have to go with that team. So that was very strange.”

Miller also was quick to credit the performance by the Europeans, who now have lifted the cup eight times in the last 10 contests.

“The Euros are just good. That’s all there is to it,” he said. “Those guys are just dang good players.”

The notion that the cup was won by Paul McGinley’s European side, rather than lost by the Watson’s American contingent, was echoed by Lee Westwood, one of four Ryder Cup players teeing it up this week.

“Yeah, maybe Tom got a few things wrong. Maybe the U.S. team just didn’t quite play well enough in general,” Westwood said. “You know, if the other team plays well, you’re going to lose.”

Still, the U.S. has now won just one Ryder Cup since the Clinton administration, and there remains plenty of blame to be shared. Miller believes that in recent years, the players most at fault are the ones with the most experience.

“Unfortunately, our veterans including Phil and Tiger, [Jim] Furyk, [Steve] Stricker and all these guys, they have just played very poorly in the Ryder Cup,” Miller said. “Those guys are barely batting .500. If they would have played better, there would have been more wins by the U.S.”

Much of the criticism surrounding Watson’s tenure focused on his three captain’s picks, which he used on Bradley, Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson – all with previous Ryder Cup experience  – while leaving potential rookies like Chris Kirk, Bill Haas and Billy Horschel on the sideline.

The three picks combined for a 2-5-2 record, and Miller believes the selections would have been better spent on some of the game’s rising stars.

“If I was captain, my three captain’s picks would have been young players,” he said. “I figure the veterans have had their chance, they haven’t delivered, so give the young guys a chance.”

In the wake of the American loss, PGA of America president Ted Bishop announced this week that a task force will be organized to take a look at the entire U.S. Ryder Cup process, including how the captain's are selected. While Miller downplayed the value of the captain – “It’s up to the players, I think, to go out and win,” – he feels the best man for the job might be the only successful American captain this century.

“’Zinger probably should get another shot at it, possibly, if they really are that desperate for a win,” he said. “At least they think maybe what he did creates a win, so if I was the PGA of America, I would probably give it back to ’Zinger.”

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.