Hawk's Nest: Aussie Open could be deceiving


Just to recap, the guy who began 2013 atop the world ranking ended the regular season with more missed cuts than top-five finishes. He was replaced at No. 1 by a guy who used to win majors in his sleep, but 5 ½ years since his last big title, each passing failure is still an eye-opener.

The Masters went to an Australian who had just coughed up a British Open, the British Open to a Yank with an allergy to links golf. Our PGA champion became famous not for conquering Oak Hill, but for sitting on the floor in a Texas classroom. These days, doing nothing gets it done.

If perception is 90 percent of reality, reality doesn’t know which end of the club to hold. As golfers, we learn to expect the unexpected, but 2013 was like walking through a haunted mansion without a sedative. You don’t predict things happening in this game. You take a wild guess.

OVERRATED: Swoosh = swoon. To blame Rory McIlroy’s tumultuous ’13 on the switch to Nike equipment is way too easy – a default excuse. Granted, the transition from Titleist to Nike went very poorly. The kid was still testing drivers in early July, at least six months after the deal was signed, but his swing lacked its normal fluidity in the early season. From there, the pressure only escalated.

To me, McIlrusty looked vastly unprepared for the highest level of tournament golf on several occasions, which would explain why his frequency of blowup holes (double bogey or worse) basically doubled in ’13. A majority of his better rounds was played on the weekends, long after he’d slopped his way out of the mix. Sounds like a mental thing, not a mechanical deal or a lack of compatible tools.

The Australian Open victory over Adam Scott this past weekend sends McIlrebound out on an upbeat note, but he finished 2012 with an elite-field win and looked like a completely different player when he came back two months later. There is baggage to be dealt with before the Irish Lad finds his way.

UNDERRATED: Up ’n Adam. His Masters victory was a scream, his come-from-nowhere triumph at the Barclays mighty impressive, but the late-season triumphs in his native Australia (and 72nd-hole loss to McIlroy) indicate Scott is ready to dominate. His return home came to a hero’s welcome, a distraction if ever there was one, but Scott has continued to play hard. And very well. Winning has become a habit. Well, almost.

Scott’s evolution as a competitor and body of work in 2013 command even more attention than they’ve gotten. Only a handful of players have the goods to become the best in the world, and now he’s one of them. Expectations are a dangerous thing. Then again, so is the combination of mental toughness and a perfect golf swing.

OVERRATED: Showing up early. Long gone are the days when Kapalua was considered a must-play. The fields at Torrey Pines aren’t what they used to be, and the same could be said of Pebble Beach. More and more top-tier guys are starting their seasons in the Middle East, where the sun shines bright and the appearance fees are right.

Bad for the game? Over time, the pay-to-play policy could widen the chasm between the PGA and European tours, which should be moving closer to unification and, eventually, one international circuit. Today’s players don’t concern themselves with such issues, however. They do what’s best for them, as well they should, but the dilution of pro golf’s commercial product cannot be healthy in the long run. Meanwhile, the West Coast swing will only get weaker.

UNDERRATED: The five-win season. I found it amusing that a lot of knowledgeable golf people didn’t think Tiger Woods deserved Player of the Year honors. If Scott or Phil Mickelson had won five times, three of them against premium fields, there would have been absolutely no discussion. Major championships are a big deal, but the fact of the matter is, the Players and WGCs include the same number of top-tier guys, in some cases more.