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Weekly 18: The future is now for McIlroy

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Call it golf’s most dangerous game.

The reason there aren’t more tournaments featuring a match-play format – and I’ll examine this at greater length later in the column – is the fact that the event always shrinks as it progresses and the final match is a nationally televised crapshoot, with potential for causing as many Sunday afternoon naps as edge-of-your-seat moments.

This year’s edition of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, however, clearly ranked among the latter, with Hunter Mahan outdueling Rory McIlroy in a match-up of young, affable superstars.

There were storylines galore during the 36-hole final day, most revolving around the increasing emergence of McIlroy. The Weekly 18 begins with the idea that this is only the start of much bigger things for him this season.


1. Movin' on up

In three starts so far this season, Rory McIlroy owns two runner-up finishes and a fifth place. A misanthrope may point to the fact that he has yet to add to his five career professional victories as proof that he can’t come through in the clutch, but the rest of are just waiting for the dam to burst and titles to start pouring through.

It’s becoming all too obvious that McIlroy is on the verge of very big things. Not that the reigning U.S. Open champion hasn’t reached such a level previously, but his occasional dominance now appears to have been joined by a high level of consistency, as well.

There are certain aspects of different players’ games which separate them from other tiers of their peers. When Tiger Woods was atop the golf world, what separated him was not only continued dominance, but that high level of consistency. Even on weeks in which he had only his “B” or “C” game, Woods would fail to contend for most of the week, only to finish in, say, a share of fifth place when the tournament was over.

Without question, Rory has enough expectations on his increasingly broad shoulders than to be saddled with constant Tiger comparisons, but it’s an appropriate allegory considering his recent elevation. Most players – even the upper 1 percent of the elite echelon – encounter cyclical ebbs and flows to their performance charts, but only the best of the best can find themselves on leaderboards week after week.

Tiger Woods separated himself from the pack by accomplishing that for years. Luke Donald did so last season. And we may be on the verge of witnessing Rory McIlroy enjoy a similar type of high-level consistency this year.


2. What I Learned

I learned that Rory McIlroy wasn’t ready to become the No. 1-ranked player in the world. No, that will have to wait another week or two or three, because I also learned that the youngster’s ascension to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking is now an inevitability. McIlroy has made no secret about his dogged determination to become No. 1 and now it appears only a matter of time before the devious formula calculates in his favor and adds up to a new level of achievement. He said earlier in the week that ranking notwithstanding Tiger Woods is still the game’s best player. After winning five of six matches in the desert, Rory may not find too many peers who agree with that statement. He’s right about the “best” and the “top-ranked” not always being one and the same, but when McIlroy reaches that level soon, those terms may actually be synonymous.

For a more complete look at What We Learned, click here.


Three Up

Hunter Mahan

3. Hunter Mahan

If the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is akin to the NCAA basketball tournament – at least in format – then what we witnessed this weekend was golf’s equivalent of the Big East or ACC having three teams qualify for the Final Four.

In this game’s variation on conferences, one equipment manufacturer saw three of its players reach the semifinals, as Ping stalwarts Mahan, Mark Wilson and Lee Westwood each made it to Sunday.

That news is especially pertinent for Mahan, as the champion employed a few equipment changes prior to the opening round. The one making headlines – and rightfully so – is his switch to the Nome putter, which occurred just prior to the event.

As one Ping staffer told me, “He put it in his bag on Monday after a session with senior PGA Tour rep Matt Rollins at Dove Mountain’s putting green. They put a laser device in front of the face of Hunter’s putter to check his alignment and it turned out Hunter was aiming a couple inches left of the hole with his putter. After experimenting with a few other models with different hosels, Matt put the Nome in Hunter’s hands and his alignment was square every time. He rolled a few putts and most went in, so he took it on the course for a nine-hole test and switched to it. This is a huge change for Hunter as he has used an Anser-style putter his entire career.”

Additionally, Mahan had switched out the shaft in his G20 driver two weeks earlier and put a new G20 3-wood into the bag on Tuesday.

Without a doubt, mental fortitude and technical precision were the most important tools in Mahan claiming a 6-0 record this past week. But some more tangible tools had a major impact on the final result, too.

4. Angela Stanford

Simply put, Stanford is too talented to have not won since the beginning of the 2009 season.

That’s not a criticism; it’s a compliment on her game. Since that win at the SBS Open at Turtle Bay to kick off the ’09 campaign, Stanford has pulled 28 top-10 finishes in 70 starts without another victory.

Until now.

Stanford outlasted three other competitors in what turned out to be a three-hole rain-delayed playoff at the HSBC Women’s Champions to claim her fifth career title.

“I haven't won a major yet, so this is the closest thing so far,” Stanford said about the importance of this win. “The best players in the world are here and they call it Asia's major, so it's the closest thing to me.”

5. Fake Ben Crane

The real Ben Crane is pretty cool. Four career wins, excellent putter, wears a mean unitard.

But his fake doppelganger may be a little more intimidating.

A mannequin dressed like Crane and brandishing a golf club in the Copenhagen, Denmark, headquarters of ShowMeGolfers thwarted a robbery last week. According to reports, burglars broke a window, but upon seeing what they believed to be a real person, they fled the scene without taking anything.

And that’s not even the best part.

According to a USA Today account, “upon arriving at the scene, police officers pulled their guns on the Crane lookalike and asked him to drop his gun before realizing it was a mannequin.”

All of which left the real Crane feeling downright proud at “his” achievement.

'I am pumped. This is awesome,' he told the newspaper. 'It's weird, I'll tell you that. But it's great news. And I technically saved a major robbery. When the cops got there, they soon realized I had it all under control.'


Three Down

Zack Miller at the McGladrey Classic

6. Zack Miller

In two rounds at the Mayakoba Golf Classic, Miller posted rounds of 81-92 that included a total of four double bogeys, four triple bogeys and a quad.

I’m not here to pile on, nor will I poke fun at a struggling young pro who undoubtedly already feels badly enough about what took place.

Allow me, though, to provide some details and put those two rounds into some perspective.

According to someone who witnessed every shot, Miller had what can only be described as swing yips and a two-way miss. After the second round, rather than retiring to the 19th hole or heading to the airport, he answered questions from reporters, then went straight to the driving range, where he received an impromptu lesson from Don Levin (Spencer’s father) and hit about eight bags of balls.

Miller should be commended for not only continuing to play through all 36 holes – his caddie asked if he wanted to withdraw after the front nine on Friday – but signing his scorecard, something many others in the same situation before him have avoided, but he felt was his “duty as a professional.”

It’s obvious the 27-year-old has some work to do before he recovers, but here’s hoping that time comes. And when it does, Miller will be able to look back on his results from this past week with a dismissive smile.

7. Tiger Woods

Let’s not make any grandiose proclamations about Woods’ second-round exit at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. After all, 48 of the 64 competitors exited the desert before Friday, so he should hardly come under full criticism for his loss to Nick Watney.

Of course, Tiger being Tiger his game is always more scrutinized than that of every other player in the field. I’m still bullish on his prospects for the remainder of the year, but allow me to reiterate a few observations about his game that were again on full display this week.

First, he needs a short-game instructor. Following the third round at Pebble Beach a few weeks ago, he once again explained that his father Earl – who passed away in 2006 – remains the sole putting coach he’s ever had. “When I have to make them, [when] it's a must-make putt,” he said, “I revert back to a lot of my dad's teachings.'

Not that he should ever forget the lessons of his father, but whether it’s a full-time guru like Dave Stockton or Stan Utley or just another set of eyes that can look at his putting stroke, it’s hardly a bad idea to get a fresh perspective. Sean Foley recently told me that while Woods’ former coaches Butch Harmon and Hank Haney would work with him on this part of his game, Foley keeps his input focused on the swing.

Tiger apparently understands the value of having someone else check his stroke, because as some of my Golf Channel colleagues noted prior to the Match Play, he was seeking advice from Steve Stricker both during and after their practice round together. That’s all well and good, but he can’t expect a fellow competitor – even a friend – to serve in that capacity.

Second, it’s time for Tiger to stop treating the par-5s like he’s a brash, long-bombing 21-year-old. Back then, he would patently go for every par-5 in two, often coming up on the right side of the risk-reward proposition, finding plenty of makable eagle putts.

That isn’t happening nearly as often anymore. Woods’ par-5 birdie-or-better percentage has declined mightily the past two-plus years. The good news is there’s an easy solution: Laying up. It may not be the macho thing to do, but Zach Johnson won a green jacket employing that strategy – and green jackets are eminently macho.

Woods is probably one of the best wedge players of all time and undoubtedly one of the best of this generation. In his two matches this week, though, he played the eight combined par-5 holes in just 2 under par, while mostly going for the green in two. I’d love to see his score had he simply laid up to a comfortable wedge distance each time, in effect turning each of these holes into a short par-3.

In each case, what worked early in his career hasn’t been working lately. And in each case, Tiger has the ability to make a change and adapt to life as a middle-ager in the pro game.

8. Luke Donald

He is still the world’s No. 1-ranked player, but his lead is quickly diminishing by the week.

On the bright side, Donald achieved his best result of the season at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Of course, that’s only because his T-33 finish for a first-round drubbing at the hands of Ernie Els usurped his T-48 in Abu Dhabi and T-56 at Riviera.

Despite the poor start for a man who was a veritable top-10 machine last year, this is hardly panic time for Donald, who has reached such lofty heights largely by outworking his fellow competitors.

The best players in the world often talk about having their games peak four times per year – and that number can be extended to five for Europeans and Americans during a Ryder Cup year.

If Donald can finally break through for that first career major championship victory, his slow start will forever be forgotten. If, however, the slow start leads to further sluggish play throughout the year, expect him to look back on the first few months to examine where it all went awry.


9. Fact or Fiction

There should be more than one match-play event on the annual PGA Tour schedule.

The cries of support ring out every year at this time. After watching five days of match play, fans question why there aren’t more events that employ this format.

Well, there are a few good reasons for that.

The first is due to the fact that television ratings don’t support the format. Unless a combination of two top players reaches the Sunday final, it’s a hard sell to casual fans. You may have been glued to the screen when Henrik Stenson beat Geoff Ogilvy or Kevin Sutherland topped Scott McCarron, but you’re in the minority.

The second goes hand-in-hand with the first. Purists may disagree, but watching two people play golf just isn’t very exciting. That goes double for a televised event when there’s nothing else to show in between shots. It’s a cruel irony of this event. Unlike every other one on the schedule, the most interesting and entertaining day comes first, then each subsequent day pales in comparison.

Don’t get me wrong. I love match-play events and encourage amateur golfers to partake in the format whenever possible. But there are certain reasons why they aren’t – and shouldn’t be – more of 'em on the PGA Tour. For those reasons, consider the above statement to be FICTION.


10. Quote of the Week

“I’d feel better if I could punch [Nick] Faldo flat on the back of the neck.” – Matt Kuchar after his quarterfinal loss.

Before you start bracing for an analyst/player brawl, consider the source. Kuchar is one of the PGA Tour’s nice guys and was simply cracking on Faldo – but as he explained afterward, it could have been anyone.

Sir Nick later tweeted: “Matt Kuchar sought me. Said, ‘I'm sorry, I was trying to say something funny. Didn't come out right,’ Hey, we are okay mate! #nostory!”     Click for more Quotes of the Week


11. Video Mailbag

The Grey Goose panel previews the Honda Classic and we discuss our expectations for Tiger Woods on his road to the Masters in this Grey Goose Internet Extra.


Three Wishes

Luke Donald drops at the WGC-Accenture Match Play

12. I wish we could retire the term “upset” when discussing the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

Because of the integration of brackets and seeds, the Match Play often draws comparisons to March Madness. And so, victories by lower-seeded players are regularly considered “upsets” by the masses, when in fact that couldn’t be further from the truth.

If the 64th- and final-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament defeats the No. 1-ranked squad, now that’s an upset of David-over-Goliath proportions. (As proof, it’s never happened.) But for a player like Ernie Els to beat Luke Donald? Well, that may happen four times out of 10 – and this just happened to be one of those four.

For there to really be upsets in the Match Play, the tournament would probably have to be extrapolated tenfold. Which is to say, the No. 1 player would compete against the 640th-ranked player.

If that was the case and little-known David McKenzie of Australia knocked off Donald, well, then we have a real upset. But with the top 64 in the world so closely bunched together, the term under the current format simply doesn’t apply.

13. I wish every major winner “changed” like Charl Schwartzel.

We hear it all the time. Golfer wins his first major championship, then he’s later asked how the experience has changed him.

The response is always similar: “I’m the same person I’ve always been. I haven’t changed at all.” Then he grabs his wife, three kids and five nannies, hops into the awaiting limo and heads for his private jet.

Not so for Schwartzel. The defending Masters champion recently partook in a teleconference for this year’s edition of the event and once again reiterated his desire to barbeque meats for the upcoming Champions Dinner – with him manning the grill in his green jacket.

For more on Schwartzel, click here.

14. I wish the timing of the PGA Tour’s extension with FedEx made sense.

Two years ago, Tiger Woods came out of hiding after his personal scandal and held a one-man press conference during the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship a few thousand miles from the tournament site.

At the time, Woods was roundly criticized for taking away from the importance of the tournament, with some going so far as to claim that it was a prepared backlash against Accenture, which had dropped him as a client in the months prior.

Obviously we’re talking apples and oranges, but I still found it interesting that PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem’s decision to announce the FedEx extension on Wednesday morning as the opening-round matches were about to begin didn’t claim any of the same accusations, even after he commenced the news conference by saying, “I know we have an early start and I know this is an inconvenient time for some of you getting ready to cover those matches.”

Good for Finchem and the Tour brass for getting FedEx to buy into a format that many of their own constituents still haven’t completely bought into. Fantastic business decision. That’s not the issue here. It just seems that for a news story so major – and one that was hardly a secret and couldn’t have had the ink dry that very morning – it need not have been squeezed in during the morning of golf’s most exciting Wednesday.

Weird call by the Tour. Probably even weirder in that Finchem acknowledged the poor timing and still chose to make the announcement that morning.


15. Stat of the Week

Some great research from Golf Channel coordinating producer and resident OWGR guru Alan Robison:

It’s moot now, but as mentioned ad infinitum throughout the week, if McIlroy had won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, he would have reached No. 1 in the ranking for the first time.

You knew that already. What you may not have known is that if McIlroy had skipped this week’s Honda Classic, he would have remained No. 1.

OK, that makes sense. But here’s something you probably didn’t know: With Rory in the field at the Honda, there was a decent chance that he could have lost that No. 1 status after just one week.

Because his divisor will increase from 50 to 51, McIlroy would have needed a top-20 finish or so in order to remain ahead of Donald, who isn’t playing. He would have needed something around a top 10 to stay ahead of Lee Westwood if he goes on to win this week’s event.

Like I said, though, it’s all moot now. Instead, we’re left with some other intriguing scenarios entering this week’s tournament.

According to the latest projection, McIlroy will need 34 points to surpass Donald and become No. 1. Based on last year’s points allocation at the Honda, a solo second-place finish should get it done. Westwood, meanwhile, will need 51 points to move into the top spot. He can get it with a victory – but only with a victory.


16. Photo of the Week

Paula Creamer at the HSBC Women

Ah, the old exploding-ball trick. Haven't seen that one since '83. View all Photos of the Week.


17. From the Inbox

On Thursday, after the opening round of the HSBC Women’s Champions, I tweeted the following in regard to the leader and another player well down the leaderboard:

Angela Stanford leads LPGA tourney after 6-under 66. Michelle Wie is 13 shots back. I believe that would be called flunking out of Stanford.

It was just an innocent joke. I tend to do that on Twitter.

Of course, being the polarizing figure that Wie is, it prompted some interesting comments about her, including this one:

@David Daniel: what's the most appropriate descriptor for wie's career to date? Bust? Unfulfilled potential? Circus sideshow? Waste of talent?

Actually, I’d go with “wildly impressive.”

No, her results have yet to outweigh the lofty expectations set upon her as a precocious teenager who was competing in PGA Tour events, but to label Wie as a “bust” is hugely inaccurate.

Instead, she’s won two professional events and established herself as a top-20 player in the world (she was No. 18 entering this past week), all while taking a full course load at Stanford University.

Think about it: If a 22-year-old male collegian already owned two titles and was ranked 18th in the world, not only would he not be a bust, but we would be ready to induct him into the Hall of Fame already.

Wie deserves the same courtesy, expectations notwithstanding.


18. And the Winner Is…

Graeme McDowell

This week’s Honda Classic begins on March 1, but Graeme McDowell will enter the year’s third month with a total of just one PGA Tour round under his belt, having lost in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship to Y.E. Yang.

Following his career year of 2010, McDowell struggled at times last season, earning just three top-10s in the U.S. One of those, though, came at the Honda, where he finished in a share of sixth place – and it should bode well for his chances this week, too.

He spoke in the offseason about not being able to live up to his own expectations last year (you can read about that subject here: McDowell hopeful for brighter future), but he sounds like a man determined to return to the winner’s circle soon.

The friendly – not to mention windy – confines of PGA National could afford his next great opportunity.


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