McIlroy, Spieth react differently to Masters pressure

By Joe PosnanskiApril 10, 2016, 2:06 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tennis and boxing and professional wrestling and presidential politics are set up for great rivalries. Golf is not. It’s the nature of the sport.

See, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer play all the time. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders go at it every day. You can always match up two great boxers. But in golf, so many things have to come together for two greats to climb to the top of a major championship leaderboard at the same time.

And then, even when it actually does happen, both have to play well to make it interesting. They have to feed off each other, push each other, inspire each other, intimidate each other. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are the greatest players of the last generation. And yet, they were never really rivals. They never had that major championship moment.

Saturday, we hoped to see the emergence of a true rivalry – golf’s first since Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson – when Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy teed off in the final group of the Masters third round. It seemed perfect. Rivalries are made by contrasting styles, right? Well, here was Spieth, the thinking man, the scrambler, the genius with a wedge, the brilliant putter. And here was McIlroy, majestic, Superman, hitting some of the longest drives and some of the highest shots on earth.

Spieth won the Masters wire to wire last year, then won the U.S. Open, then almost won the Open Championship and the PGA.

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McIlroy won a U.S. Open with the lowest score in the tournament’s history, and he won a PGA Championship by a record eight shots.

We all thought this was the beginning of a beautiful rivalry.

No. Maybe the rivalry will emerge someday, but that day was not Saturday. On Saturday, McIlroy shot a listless 77 and did not make even one birdie. Not one. It was the first time in 81 major championship rounds that he failed to make even a single birdie. Spieth had his own troubles late in the third round, which we will get into in a little bit. But the fight was long over by then. It was McIlroy who singlehandedly killed the rivalry spirit that buzzed around Augusta.

McIlroy seems to have a bit of a Masters problem. Everyone knows by now that he needs only a victory at Augusta to complete the career Grand Slam. McIlroy knows it better than anyone, and he does not seem to know exactly how to go about it. He has always prepared intently for the Masters – coming early, playing as many rounds here as he could, studying every yard of this course – but that apparently wasn’t working, so this year he decided to go the other way.

“I’m trying not to look too much into it,” he said at the beginning of the week. “I’m trying not to hit so many shots off tees into greens, around the greens. I’m just trying to approach it in a more relaxed way.”

Does that make sense to you? There were others – including Phil Mickelson – who seemed puzzled by this laissez-faire approach. But hey, sure enough, there was McIlroy on Saturday, one shot out of the lead, playing in the final group with Spieth. So maybe the relax plan was working. There certainly was a lot of excitement about McIlroy and Spieth playing together on the weekend for the first time. Asked about it, Spieth was typically honest.

“It’s exciting to play with Rory,” he said. “It’s even a little bit intimidating, he’s such a great player who can just overpower a golf course.”

And what did McIlroy say coming in?

“I don't really look at the names on the left of the leaderboard. I'm looking at the number that's on the very far right just to see how many shots I'm back. Doesn't make a difference to me who it is up there."

OK, maybe you believe the whole notion that McIlroy wanted to relax for the Masters this year. But you CANNOT believe this bit of nonsense. There is absolutely no way that Rory McIlroy does not look at the names of players he’s trying to beat. There’s no chance of it. And the reason we KNOW there’s no chance of it is because, right, McIlroy himself said the opposite.

“What Jordan did here last year, the U.S. Open and the whole way through the summer and what Jason Day did during the summer and this year, as well ‑ yeah, I don't want to be left behind,” he said. “I want to be a part of that conversation. … [Jordan] is a phenomenal talent, and you know, it’s my job and Jason’s job and everyone else’s job to try to stop him from dominating.”

Of course he knows. But it makes you wonder: Who was he trying to convince when he said “Doesn’t make a difference to me who is up there?” The answer seems clear: He was trying to convince himself.

This speaks, I think, to McIlroy’s bewilderment at Augusta. He seems to be playing mind games with himself to get ready. And, of course, those mind games will break at the first sign of Augusta pressure. McIlroy looked unsettled and uncertain more or less from the first hole on Saturday. He hit drives into bunkers, he made a dreadful decision at No. 11 to hit the ball out of the pine straw toward the green (the ball rolled into the water because the ball ALWAYS rolls into the water on shots like that), he putted without confidence, he looked like he needed a friend.

“I was playing tentative,” he admitted after the round. “I didn’t think anything was off, it was just … I was always trying to get something going, and I just couldn’t.”

By the 17th tee, Spieth had turned his one-shot lead over McIlroy into an eight-shot lead, and McIlroy looked like he had been through a losing fight. The last two holes changed the dynamic some, but even so, McIlroy knows the score here. “It is his to lose,” McIlroy said. “He’s been in control of this tournament from the first day.” Then he did brighten a little. “I am feeling a little better standing here five behind than I felt on the 17th,” he said.

Yes, now to Spieth and that stunning finish. He was fantastic for 16 holes. Oh, he had his problems too. He hit the ball all over the place early in the round. He made his own a dreadful double bogey at the 11th after a perfect drive. But he pushed through. He broke McIlroy’s spirit by scrambling out of trouble, by making impossible-looking putts. He won this rivalry day by TKO on the 12th hole, when he sank a 17-foot putt for birdie and then watched McIlroy miss his own significantly shorter birdie putt. At the 17th tee, Spieth had that eight-shot lead over McIlroy and a four-shot lead over everyone else. This tournament seemed all but over.

And then, just say it, Spieth went haywire. He hit driver on the 17th though a 3-wood was the prudent play – Spieth never makes mistakes like that – and he drove the ball way right. Spieth then hit a nice punch shot that rolled to the front of the green but, for some reason, completely flubbed his approach shot and left it 20 feet shot. He made bogey.

On the 18th, it was worse. He hit another drive way right. Another layup shot. He chunked a brutal approach that stopped 50 feet short of the hole. And his first putt was stunningly limp and stopped nine feet short. That was a double bogey.

With that his score plummeted from 6 under to just 3 under par. He’s still in the lead but only by one shot over Smylie Kaufman, who sounds like someone who would win the Masters in a “Minions” movie, and by two over 58-year-old Bernhard Langer and Japanese superstar Hideki Matsuyama. Even more to the point, Spieth seemed to have buried the ever dangerous Jason Day and Dustin Johnson and Danny Willett. Now they are all just three shots back and very much in the game.

Spieth beat himself up relentlessly for his two-hole carelessness.

“It’s very difficult,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult. As I look at the leaderboard now, if I can just make three pars to finish … even just saying that, I can’t think that way. But that certainly brings anyone who is over par almost out of the tournament. And now, with very little wind tomorrow, someone gets on a run …”

He went on this self-loathing bit for a while. Spieth was absolutely seething at himself for the finish. He tried to keep reminding himself that, hey, he’s in the lead – seventh consecutive round he’s led at Augusta, by the way, a record – and that was his goal. If someone had guaranteed him a one-shot lead going into Sunday, he would have taken it and not even played the last three days. But, of course, it’s not that simple. I asked Spieth how easy it will be for him to let go of the last two holes and get himself into a winning frame of mind Sunday.

“I think it will be tough, personally,” he said. “I mean, honestly, I think it will be tough to put it behind me. I think I will, but that wasn’t a fun last couple of holes to play from the position I was in. I’m not going to dodge the question by any means. It’s not going to be fun tonight for a little while. Hopefully I just sleep it off, and it’s fine tomorrow. I imagine that will be the case.”

This, to me, is part of what separates Spieth. He does not hide from the pressure. He does not try to pretend it away. He does not act as if playing with Rory McIlroy is no big deal, he does not run from the overwhelming expectations that now surround him, and he does not cover up his feelings. Spieth sees things clearly. He’s got a one-shot lead going into the final round of the Masters, and the weather is supposed to be calm, some of the players with a lot of firepower – including McIlroy – could string a bunch of birdies together and take the green jacket away from him if he doesn’t play lights out himself.

But, knowing how Spieth’s mind works, I imagine he’s right. I imagine it will be fine for him on Sunday.

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Tiger Tracker: 147th Open Championship

By Tiger TrackerJuly 20, 2018, 2:30 pm

Tiger Woods shot his second consecutive 70 on Friday at Carnoustie and enters weekend play at even par for the championship, still in contention for major No. 15.

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Scott and Sunesson a one-week partnership

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 2:13 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Adam Scott has been in between caddies for the last month and went with a bold stand-in for this week’s Open Championship, coaxing veteran looper Fanny Sunesson out of retirement to work for him at Carnoustie.

Sunesson caddied for Nick Faldo in his prime, as the duo won four major titles together. She also worked for Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia before a back injury forced her to retire.

But for this week’s championship, Scott convinced the Swede to return to the caddie corps. The results have been impressive, with the Australian following an opening 71 with a second-round 70 for a tie for 16th place.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It's been going great. Fanny is, obviously, a fantastic caddie, and to be able to have that experience out there with me is certainly comforting,” Scott said. “We've gotten along really well. She's picked up on my game quickly, and I think we think about things in a very similar way.”

Scott was also asked about a potential long-term partnership between the duo, but he didn’t sound hopeful.

“It's just for this week,” he said. “It would be up to her, but I don't think she's making plans of a comeback. I was being a bit opportunistic in contacting her and coaxing her out of retirement, I guess. But I think she's having a good week. We'll just take it one week at the moment.”

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After tense Augusta Sunday, Rory ready to be aggressive

By Ryan LavnerJuly 20, 2018, 1:51 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy temporarily lost his superpowers during the Masters.  

In one of the most surprising rounds of the year, he played tentatively and carefully during the final day. Squaring off against the major-less Patrick Reed, on the brink of history, with the backing of nearly the entire crowd, it was McIlroy who shrank in the moment, who looked like the one searching for validation. He shot a joyless 74 and wound up six shots behind Reed.

No, the final round was nowhere near as dispiriting as the finale in 2011, but McIlroy still sulked the following week. He binge-watched TV shows. Devoured a few books. Guzzled a couple of bottles of wine. His pity party lasted a few days, until his wife, Erica, finally dragged him out of the house for a walk.

Some deeper introspection was required, and McIlroy revealed a healthier self-analysis Friday at Carnoustie. He diagnosed what went wrong at Augusta, and then again two months later at the U.S. Open, where he blew himself out of the tournament with an opening 80.

“I was worrying too much about the result, not focusing on the process,” he said. “Sunday at Augusta was a big learning curve for me because, even if I hadn’t won that tournament, but I went down swinging and aggressive and committing to every shot, I would have walked away a lot happier.”

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

And so McIlroy has a new mantra this week at The Open.

Let it go.

Don’t hold back. Don’t worry about the repercussions. Don’t play scared.

“I’m committed to making sure, even if I don’t play my best golf and don’t shoot the scores I want, I’m going to go down swinging, and I’m going to go down giving my best,” he said. “The result is the byproduct of all the little things you do to lead up to that. Sometimes I’ve forgotten that, and I just need to get back in that mindset.”

It’s worked through two rounds, even after the cool, damp conditions led McIlroy to abandon his ultra-aggressive strategy. He offset a few mistakes with four birdies, shooting a second consecutive 69 to sit just a couple of shots off the lead.

During a sun-splashed first round, McIlroy gleefully banged driver on almost every hole, flying or skirting the bunkers that dot these baked-out, undulating fairways. He wasn’t particularly accurate, but he also didn’t need to be, as the thin, wispy rough enabled every player to at least advance their approach shots near the green.

Friday’s weather presented a different challenge. A steady morning rain took some of the fire out of parched fairways, but the cooler temperatures also reduced much of the bombers’ hang time. Suddenly, all of the bunkers were in play, and McIlroy needed to adjust his driver-heavy approach (he hit only six) on the fly.

“It just wasn’t worth it,” he said.

McIlroy hit a few “skanky” shots, in his words, but even his bigger misses – on the sixth and 17th holes – were on the proper side, allowing him to scramble for par and keep the round going.

It’s the fifth time in his career that he’s opened a major with back-to-back rounds in the 60s. He’s gone on to win three of the previous four – the lone exception that disastrous final round (80) at Augusta in 2011.

“I don’t want to say easy,” he said, “but it’s felt comfortable.”

The weekend gets uncomfortable for everyone, apparently even four-time major winners who, when in form, ooze confidence and swagger.

Once again McIlroy has that look at a major.

The only thing left to do?

Let it go.

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Z. Johnson may have to pay for the jet home

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 1:23 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Zach Johnson will have some bragging rights when he gets back to the ultimate golf frat house on Friday after a second-round 67 moved him into the lead at The Open.

Johnson is rooming with Jordan Spieth, Jason Dufner, Kevin Kisner, Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler this week at Carnoustie. It’s a tradition that began two years ago at Royal Troon.

Kisner joked on Thursday after he took the first-round lead that the perks for the house/tournament front-runner were limited: “I probably get to eat first,” he said.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

There is, however, one running wager.

“Two years ago we, I don't know if you call it bet, but agreement that, if you win, you get the jet and you buy it, so we go home,” said Johnson, who added that because of varying travel arrangements, the wager might not be needed this year. “I didn't pay last year. Somebody else did.”

Spieth won last year’s championship at Royal Birkdale.

Despite the expense, Johnson said he didn’t know how much it costs to charter a private flight back to the United States, but it’s a good problem to have.

“I’d be happy to fork it over,” he smiled.