Hawk's Nest: McIlroy's power key to Open win


At his best, he is capable of utter dominance, which tends to make all that lesser golf seem so puzzling.

There was a point during Saturday’s third round when Rory McIlroy held a 65-yard advantage over the rest of the field in average distance off the tee. Now there’s a stat you don’t see very often on the PGA Tour.

So he is outrageously long, especially for a guy who stands 5 feet 10 and weighs 160 pounds, but lots of players hit the ball a mile. What separated McIlroy at Royal Liverpool was his willingness to use his driver on holes where others were positioning themselves with long irons and fairway woods.

Irony, anyone?

Tiger Woods employed the opposite strategy to win a British Open on the same venue in 2006. Course conditions were quite different this time, but McIlroy’s driver frequency, particularly in the first two rounds, was far more the result of confidence in his swing than anything the ground was giving or taking away.

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The performance was reminiscent of Vijay Singh’s career-best stretch in 2004, when he won nine times by shortening courses with an ultra-aggressive mentality off the tee. Some fellow tour pros chuckled over Singh hitting a zillion drivers on the practice range, but he was grooving himself toward a comfort level that would ultimately serve him very nicely.

“I’ve been talking about it all year — driving is the foundation to any golf game,” McIlroy said last Friday. “If my driving is there, everything else sort of feeds off that in a way.”

If the long ball carried the Irish Lad to a four-stroke lead after 36 holes, his putter stretched it to six strokes after 54. A pair of lengthy par saves on Saturday’s front nine were easy to overlook after the eagles at the 16th and 18th — only two players would finish the week with more one-putts than McIlroy’s 34. Neither was a factor by Sunday.

“Momentum putts,” he would call them. “Some of those par putts were even more important than the ones for birdies or eagles.”

But enough data. Let’s return to the original premise: McIlroy’s fleeting dominance. Lots of things about Liverpool played into his ample skill set, most notably the gentle weather. All four days were, by British Open standards, very docile, and we all know the Irish Lad isn’t terribly fond of Irish-like elements.

As for the layout, Hoylake may not have been designed with a right-to-left player in mind, that’s how it shook out by the weekend. McIlrighttoleft, Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler all prefer a pronounced draw. While working with Butch Harmon, one of Fowler’s goals has been to reduce the curve on his ball, which has occurred, but he still turns it over more than most tour pros.

Garcia’s inability to hit a fade has been a problem at times over the years. He recasts the club on the downswing far less than he did in the early days, but he distinctly remains a player of right-to-left shape. I can recall watching Sergio trying to cut the ball on the range at Colonial years ago. Let’s just say things didn’t go well that morning.

Between the abundance of roll and absence of a hearty breeze, no wonder Dustin Johnson despised Saturday’s split-tee start — an unprecedented concession to a very gloomy third-round forecast. Johnson, a low-ball player who was four back at the time, wanted to get out there in the nasty and slop it around with McIlraingear, who hits it as high as anyone alive and might have been more vulnerable in the adverse conditions.

Come Sunday, despite the six-stroke lead, the Irish Lad appeared catchable. His iron play wasn’t nearly as sharp and the par saves weren’t going in, but with two of the game’s most talented majorless types doing most of the chasing, an intense threat never materialized.

Garcia’s valiant charge was derailed by his leaving a shot in the bunker at the par-3 15th.

Fowler performed very well and finished the day with a bogey-free 67, but he didn’t get off to the fast start that would have forced McIlroy to deal with heavier competitive duress.

No question, the best player won. The best player in the world, it should be added. Although Adam Scott held onto the top spot in the World Ranking — McIlroy jumped from eighth to second. The Irish Lad is an exceptionally gifted golfer, a prodigy loaded with physical skills that can’t be taught.

He’ll never be as bloodthirsty as Woods, however, and that is the biggest reason he mixes ineffective stretches with outstanding ones.

“Whenever you play this well, you always wonder how you played so badly before,” McIlreflction said last Friday. “And whenever you play so badly, you always wonder how you played so well.”

We’ve heard Tiger say a lot of things over the last two decades, but never anything that sensible. Or honest.

DON’T LOOK NOW, but with Fowler and Jim Furyk winding up as the only Yanks with top-10 finishes at Liverpool — and our 64-year-old Ryder Cup captain outplaying several of America’s biggest names — you have my permission to start worrying about the U.S. squad Tom Watson takes to Gleneagles in September.

There was a bit of guffawing after the skipper beat Woods by five shots in England, but, hey, at least the Man Formerly Known as the Dude in the Red Shirt jumped from 72nd to 70th in the latest Ryder Cup standings. Across the board, America’s performance this past week was dismal.

Among the top 20 in U.S. qualifying, just six players managed top 20s at Liverpool. Five guys, including points leader Bubba Watson and the lead balloon formerly known as Patrick Reed, missed the cut. Most of the rest were sprinkled among the back half of those who completed 72 holes.

Nobody really cares how Webb Simpson’s doing, however.

“He needs to get into the mix to get some points to get some money to get in the FedEx Cup [playoffs],” captain Watson said of Woods. “That’s what I was hoping he was doing this week.”

Doesn’t sound like the skipper was thrilled about beating Eldrick by five.

Watson did reiterate that he would pick Tiger “if he’s playing well and in good health,” one of which definitely isn’t happening. The long-term problem is obvious: Woods might allow himself just two more starts before the playoffs, and if he doesn’t perform well at Firestone or Valhalla, he doesn’t qualify for the postseason.

At that point, Watson has to leave him home.

Stay tuned. Should get even more interesting.

MY SATURDAY CHAT was inundated by complaints about the split-tee start — the first such precaution ever taken in the British Open’s 143-year history. I’m guessing some of those gripes came from the West Coast, where people aren’t accustomed to waking up at 3 a.m. to watch a major championship.

If it makes anyone feel better, it did start pouring shortly after the completion of third-round play, but I’m thinking that only makes some of the dissenters angrier. At best, I would call the split-tee decision a pragmatically inclined risk. At worst, I would call it a foolhardy copout.

We’re talking about a tournament that has a longstanding policy of asking the participants to perform in whatever conditions Mother Nature deals them. Rain or shine, the British Open carries on without competitive compromise. By sending the players off in threesomes on the first and 10th tees, however, a compromise is exactly what occurred.

I’m left to wonder if the third round in 2002 had anything to do with the decision — Woods’ pursuit of the Grand Slam was derailed by horrible weather, and a considerable portion of the field was left without much chance of contending the next day. I’m also left to wonder if ESPN had a say in the matter, as a lengthy afternoon delay wouldn’t have done much for television ratings in a nation that has never made the British a must-watch event.

Golf from 6-10 a.m. Eastern is better than no golf at all, although no golf at all is pretty much the same as a 0-0 World Cup semifinal.

Oh, well. What’s done is done.

WE INTERRUPT THIS regularly scheduled diatribe to say a kind word or three about Sergio Garcia.

Yes, I know — many of you are about to click to another link, but I cannot help myself.

Sergio fought like hell to make a game of it Sunday. He brought a level of mild suspense to the final round, at least until he left that shot in the bunker at the par-3 15th, but even then, our balding El Nino did not quit.

“I felt like I did almost everything I could,” Garcia summarized afterward, “and there was a better player. It’s as simple as that. You don’t have to look for other things. It’s just that simple.”

My goodness, haven’t we come a long way? I was the only writer in the locker room at Carnoustie in 2007, when Sergio began sobbing in his father’s arms after losing in a playoff to Padraig Harrington. It was a powerful moment — Garcia asked me to leave once he noticed I was there, and I obliged — but then he came into the media center and whined about all the bad breaks he’d gotten.

That ruined it for just about everybody, and in the seven years since, a live microphone has basically been Sergio’s worst enemy. The I’m-not-good-enough-to-win-a-major lament at the 2012 Masters, which was actually said in Spanish to a scrum of European media, came off as both weird and sad, but it hardly ranked after Garcia’s racially inflected comments about Woods last spring.

To see Sergio walking up the 18th fairway Sunday — hand on his heart, blowing kisses to the crowd— was a genuine and touching moment. This might not have been the most interesting British Open ever played, but with the split tees, Tiger getting throttled and Garcia so gracious in defeat, it was a bit unique.