McIlroy needs conviction to reach true potential

By Joe PosnanskiJune 18, 2016, 2:35 am

OAKMONT, Pa. – The first Avengers has this glorious exchange between the villain, Loki, and Shield agent Phil Coulson. You will remember the scene: Things are at their bleakest for the Avengers, not least because Coulson is about to die.

 “You’re going to lose,” Agent Coulson says.

“Am I?” Loki says. “Your heroes are scattered. Your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?”

“You lack conviction,” Coulson says.

Rory McIlroy probably has the best A game in golf today. That is to say: If every single player on earth played their very best for one major championship tournament – with the caveat that we have no idea what Tiger Woods’ best would even look like – Rory McIlroy would probably win. In fact, he would probably win convincingly. Yes, of course, there are others who have blinding A games. Jason Day can overpower golf courses. Dustin Johnson can make the game look ridiculously easy (and did just that in the first round of the U.S. Open). Jordan Spieth can go for stretches where he never misses a putt.

But McIlroy … it’s almost surreal how good he is when he’s right. We’ve all seen it. We saw it in his eight-shot victory at the 2011 U.S. Open. We saw it in his eight-shot victory at the 2012 PGA Championship. The guy shot 17 under to win the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, and he shot 22 under to win in Dubai and he once shot 62 in the final round to win at Quail Hollow. When he is locked in, truly locked in, he is the one guy out there who can make you think about vintage Woods or vintage Jack Nicklaus, the player who was so much better than anyone else that there was almost no point in even trying.

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But, there’s the rub. What made Tiger Tiger, what made Jack Jack, were not those days when they striped the ball down the heart of every fairway and knocked down flagsticks with their approach shots and made all the putts. What made those guys so great was that they won most of the time without their A games.

“How many of your 18 major championships would you say that you were not playing well?” I asked Nicklaus.

“At least a dozen of them,” he said.

This is the part McIlroy can’t quite get. When he’s on, forget it. And when he’s off, well, forget it. Since 2010, he’s won four major championships. He’s missed the cut at four major championships. He’s finished top 10 another seven times. He’s finished 25th or worse another five times. He’s on. He’s off. He’s dazzling. He’s lost. It’s a wicked ride with Rory McIlroy.

And more and more you get this sense that, yes, he lacks conviction.

Take this week. McIlroy came to the U.S. Open at Oakmont with a vivid plan to win at one of the world’s toughest golf courses. “You have to be so disciplined,” he said.

He talked about always hitting the ball to the proper spots. “You could go a whole round here without hitting at any pin,” he said.

He talked about being conservative. “I’m an aggressive player … there’s just going to be times where I’m going to have to rein it back a little.”

He talked about how much he has learned from experience. He’s not a kid anymore. “I think with experience, you learn what a good score is on that particular day,” he says. “Or, if you're not playing so well, [you learn] how to just grind it out and make pars and try to get it in the clubhouse at a respectable score. And I feel like just over the years I've learned how to do that a little bit better.”

And then, in the first round, under admittedly irritating conditions – starts and stops, weather delays, etc. – McIlroy shot a miserable 77. It was the eighth time he has shot 77 or worse at a major championship. His plan for scaling things back and hitting fairways and greens was, to put it mildly, a disaster. “I think I hit five fairways and eight greens out there,” he said despondently after the round. “Which, obviously, isn’t going to do anything.”

Then he said this: “With the way the golf course is, with it being so soft, I might just go out there in the second round and hit a lot of drivers and try to be as aggressive as I possibly can.”

OK, do you see that? Four days earlier, he went on about pulling back his aggression, reining things back, grinding it out. And then, after a bad round, he talked about cracking drivers and hoping for the best. Conviction. It seems to be the overwhelming hurdle for McIlroy.

Before the Masters began, he talked about how he eager he was to rise up to the challenge of the emerging Jordan Spieth. “It’s my job” he said of Spieth, “and Jason’s [Day] job and everyone else’s job to stop [Spieth] from dominating.” Then, when he was actually paired with the leader Spieth, he talked about how “I don’t even look at the names to the left of the leaderboard.”

A couple of years ago, he talked about wanting to insert some of Woods’ intensity into his own game. Then, shortly after that, he talked about how he did not want to be like Woods; he needed to be himself.

This is a common thing, of course, a young person trying to find what they are about. And, it’s easy to forget, McIlroy is a young man who just turned 27. Still: Golf is a game of conviction. It is a game of belief. Ask anyone: One of the things that made Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Woods and others the very best in the world is that they believed it more deeply than anyone else. They felt destined to win because, hey, seriously, who could beat them?

But where do you get that sort of conviction? How do you build it? After the miserable first round, McIlroy went out to the driving range and worked on his swing for a long time.

“I think for me,” he says, “the toughest thing is just trying to stay positive and not get too down on myself and try to go out there … and try to play well and make it into the weekend. Yeah, I think right now I’m just trying to stay as positive as I can.”

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Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm each can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He would return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finishing worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

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Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish of worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

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Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

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McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.