McIlroy's best could be closer than it appears

By Will GrayAugust 2, 2017, 9:45 pm

AKRON, Ohio – The last time Rory McIlroy strode past the iconic water tower at Firestone Country Club, he was relishing the height of his powers.

It was Aug. 3, 2014, when McIlroy raced past Sergio Garcia with relative ease to walk away with the title at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. It came on the heels of his Open win at Royal Liverpool and directly preceded his PGA Championship triumph at Valhalla.

McIlroy was back to world No. 1. Golf was easy, and the smiles were wide.

Fast forward three years, and McIlroy returned to the interview room at Firestone knowing full well the line of questioning he would face after abruptly parting ways with longtime caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. The split serves as just the latest variable for a man who has dealt with both injury and equipment changes since ringing in the new year.

“A lot of water’s passed under the bridge since we were here in 2014,” McIlroy said. “I’ve went from yeah, riding on the crest of a wave to a couple of injuries to trying to sort of find – not find my way back again, but just find a bit of form to get back to where I know I can be.”

The path was never supposed to be this circuitous for a man of McIlroy’s talent. Coming off his win here in 2014, the notion that he would go three years without a major seemed unfathomable. It certainly feels like more than 10 months have passed since his double-dip victory at the Tour Championship.

But golf remains a fickle game, even for those who occupy the most rarified air.

The caddie switch is the latest effort by McIlroy to, as he terms it, “take ownership” of his game. But it also continues a growing trend of instability for the Ulsterman, who has spent the entire year incorporating one change or another, all in an attempt to keep pace with the likes of Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth.

That game of whack-a-mole has yielded a few passing appearances on leaderboards, including his T-4 finish at The Open, but McIlroy heads into a critical fortnight still seeking the catalyst that could return him to the heights he reached in Akron three years ago.

WGC-Bridgestone Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

“I feel like my game sort of turned a corner at Birkdale. I saw some good, fighting qualities,” he said. “I didn’t have my best stuff but was able to finish fourth in the end. So it’s getting there, it’s getting there. Coming to two venues where I’ve done well at before can only give me confidence.”

“It’s getting there” has become a familiar refrain from McIlroy, especially as he struggled through a pair of missed cuts last month in Europe. But it’s also one echoed earlier in the year by Spieth, who spent weeks insisting that his game was “close” before proving it emphatically with the claret jug on the line.

“You take a few weeks off or a month in the offseason, you come back and sometimes you put in a ton of repetitions and it’s not quite the right way to do it, and that’s where you’re starting from,” Spieth said. “The hardest part is putting the grasp on exactly what it is. Once you do, and then you can nail that in enough, then you’re right back to where you were. I imagine that’s what it is with Rory.”

Regardless of who’s on the bag, McIlroy possesses the inherent skill to win this week or next – or even both, as he did in 2014. Ten days from now, the assessment of his season could very well have shifted dramatically.

But as currently constituted, it merely serves as another example of how razor-thin the margin can be for top-tier players looking to convert good shots or good rounds into trophies by the handful.

“I think more and more we’re seeing that it’s going to be harder and harder for people to be a clear No. 1 for long periods of time,” said former No. 1 Adam Scott. “I mean, we were just spoiled or led into an area that wasn’t reality with Tiger for all those years, and we’re coming off the back end of that dominance. Now No. 1 has been shared by more guys than ever, because more guys play at this level than ever.”

The man who left Firestone with the trophy three years ago is not the same one who showed up Wednesday with an unfamiliar face on the bag. He’s older, wiser, married and perhaps a bit more attuned to the mercurial nature of the sport he plays.

But the name on the back of the caddie bib still reads “McIlroy,” and the gap between the two versions may ultimately prove much smaller than it currently appears.

“It’s very quick,” Scott said. “And that’s the world we live in, too. It’s very reactive and all about what’s happening today. Yesterday is kind of forgotten.”

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Suspended Hensby offers details on missed drug test

By Will GrayDecember 12, 2017, 11:30 pm

One day after receiving a one-year suspension from the PGA Tour for failing to provide a sample for a drug test, Mark Hensby offered details on the events that led to his missed test in October.

Hensby, 46, released a statement explaining that the test in question came after the opening round of the Sanderson Farms Championship, where the Aussie opened with a 78. Frustrated about his play, Hensby said he was prepared to give a blood sample but was then informed that the test would be urine, not blood.

"I had just urinated on the eighth hole, my 17th hole that day, and knew that I was probably unable to complete the urine test for at least a couple more hours," Hensby said. "I told this gentleman that I would complete the test in the morning prior to my early morning tee time. Another gentleman nearby told me that 'they have no authority to require me to stay.' Thus, I left."

Hensby explained that he subsequently received multiple calls and texts from PGA Tour officials inquiring as to why he left without providing a sample and requesting that he return to the course.

"I showed poor judgment in not responding," said Hensby, who was subsequently disqualified from the tournament.

Hensby won the 2004 John Deere Classic, but he has missed six cuts in seven PGA Tour starts over the last two years. He will not be eligible to return to the Tour until Oct. 26, 2018.

"Again, I made a terrible decision to not stay around that evening to take the urine test," Hensby said. "Obviously in hindsight I should have been more patient, more rational and taken the test. Call me stupid, but don't call me a cheater. I love the game. I love the integrity that it represents, and I would never compromise the values and qualities that the game deserves."

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Day's wife shares emotional story of miscarriage

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 12, 2017, 4:12 pm

Jason Day’s wife revealed on social media that the couple had a miscarriage last month.

Ellie Day, who announced her pregnancy on Nov. 4, posted an emotional note on Instagram that she lost the baby on Thanksgiving.

“I found out the baby had no heartbeat anymore. I was devastated,” she wrote. “I snuck out the back door of my doctor, a hot, sobbing, mascara-covered mess. Two and a half weeks went by witih me battling my heart and brain about what was happening in my body, wondering why this wouldn’t just be over.”

The Days, who have two children, Dash and Lucy, decided to go public to help others who have suffered similar heartbreak.

“I hope you know you aren’t alone and I hope you feel God wrap his arms around you when you feel the depths of sorrow and loss,” she wrote.  

Newsmaker of the Year: No. 5, Sergio Garcia

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 12, 2017, 1:00 pm

This was the year it finally happened for Sergio Garcia.

The one-time teen phenom, known for years as “El Nino,” entered the Masters as he had dozens of majors beforehand – shouldered with the burden of being the best player without a major.

Garcia was 0-for-72 driving down Magnolia Lane in April, but after a thrilling final round and sudden-death victory over Justin Rose, the Spaniard at long last captured his elusive first major title.

The expectation for years was that Garcia might land his white whale on a British links course, or perhaps at a U.S. Open where his elite ball-striking might shine. Instead it was on the storied back nine at Augusta National that he came alive, chasing down Rose thanks in part to a memorable approach on No. 15 that hit the pin and led to an eagle.

Full list of 2017 Newsmakers of the Year

A green jacket was only the start of a transformative year for Garcia, 37, who heaped credit for his win on his then-fiancee, Angela Akins. The two were married in July, and months later the couple announced that they were expecting their first child to arrive just ahead of Garcia’s return to Augusta, where he'll host his first champions’ dinner.

And while players often cling to the notion that a major win won’t intrinsically change them, there was a noticeable difference in Garcia over the summer months. The weight of expectation, conscious or otherwise, seemed to lift almost instantly. Like other recent Masters champs, he took the green jacket on a worldwide tour, with stops at Wimbledon and a soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The player who burst onto the scene as a baby-faced upstart is now a grizzled veteran with nearly two decades of pro golf behind him. While the changes this year occurred both on and off the course, 2017 will always be remembered as the year when Garcia finally, improbably, earned the title of major champion.

Masters victory

Article: Garcia defeats Rose to win Masters playoff

Article: Finally at peace: Garcia makes major breakthrough

Article: Garcia redeems career, creates new narrative

Video: See the putt that made Sergio a major champ

Green jacket tour

Article: Take a look at Sergio's crazy, hectic media tour

Article: Garcia with fiancée, green jacket at Wimbledon

Article: Watch: Garcia kicks off El Clasico in green jacket

Man of the people

Article: SERGIO! Garcia finally gets patrons on his side

Article: Fan finally caddies for Sergio after asking 206 times

Article: Sergio donates money for Texas flood relief

Article: Connelly, Garcia paired years after photo together

Ace at 17th at Sawgrass

Growing family

Article: Sergio, Angela get married; Kenny G plays reception

Article: Garcia, wife expecting first child in March 2018

Departure from TaylorMade

Article: Masters champ Garcia splits with TaylorMade

Squashed beef with Paddy

Article: Harrington: Garcia was a 'sore loser'

Article: Sergio, Padraig had 'great talk,' are 'fine'

Victory at Valderrama

Article: Garcia gets first win since Masters at Valderrama

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Newsmakers of the Year: Top 10 in 2017

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 12, 2017, 12:30 pm