McIlroy making his mark on golf history

By John FeinsteinAugust 12, 2014, 10:30 pm

On the last day of the 1960 U.S. Open played at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver, the following names appeared on the leaderboard: Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Hogan was 47 and that Open turned out to be his last serious run at a major championship. Palmer was 30, already a two-time Masters champion. He began the last round seven shots back, drove the first green and won his first and only Open title. Nicklaus was 20, still an amateur and had the lead on the back nine before two three-putts undid him. He was paired with Hogan, who said afterwards that if Nicklaus had had any idea what he was doing he would have won easily.

Clearly, Hogan knew from whence he spoke.

Only time will tell us if the remarkable theater we witnessed Sunday at the PGA Championship will be an equal part of golf history.

At the very least, the leading stars were a fascinating cast of characters.

On stage at Valhalla was Phil Mickelson, who is already in the Hall of Fame with five major titles and might – at age 44 – be nearing his last hurrah. He was paired on the final day with Rickie Fowler, who at 25 has become an important golfer and not just a successful marketing campaign.

Two groups ahead of Mickelson and Fowler was Henrik Stenson, representing golf’s middle-age at 38. Stenson won last year’s FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai. He has won a Players Championship and had six top-five finishes in majors when he got to Valhalla.

Last, and certainly not least, was The Next One.

Rory McIlroy has carried that label since his eight-shot victory at Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open and, in the minds of many, has had it on him since he was a teenage prodigy in Northern Ireland.

At 25 – even before this past weekend – McIlroy has emerged as Tiger Woods’ successor on golf’s throne. That does not mean he’s the next Tiger – no one deserves that overwhelming burden – but he is his sport’s next superstar.

He already had three majors in his pocket when he walked to the first tee late Sunday after a near-two-hour rain delay, but found himself in an unusual spot. He had a one-shot lead on a packed leaderboard on Sunday at a major. In his three prior major victories, he controlled the final 18 holes – never falling out of the lead. In his one epic meltdown at the 2011 Masters, he saw a four-shot lead disappear, shooting an 80 that landed him in a tie for 15th place.

“That’s the only time I think I’ve ever played defense with a lead,” he said last week. “I think I learned a lesson from that. You have to keep attacking.”

Knowing that and doing it are two different things. McIlroy was tentative for six holes on Sunday while Mickelson, Stenson and Fowler attacked. By the time he reached the 10th tee, McIlroy was behind all three.

It all changed on the par-5 10th, thanks to McIlroy’s power and a little bit of luck. After a huge drive, he took out his 3-wood. Having just watched Fowler make birdie in front of him, he was three shots behind the leader. McIlroy didn’t catch the 3-wood flush but, from 281 yards, it bounced just right and rolled to within 7 feet. From there he rolled in the eagle putt.

Game on.

McIlroy never missed another green and the drive he blasted at No. 16 will be replayed forever. One wonders what ran through Mickelson’s mind as he stood on the 16th green, tied for the lead, and saw McIlroy standing in the fairway 334 yards from the tee waiting to hit his second shot.

“It reminded me a little bit of Nicklaus on the 16th green at Augusta in 1975, only in reverse,” Golf Channel’s Frank Nobilo said. “Nicklaus made that putt and turned around and looked right at (Tom) Weiskopf standing on the tee. This time Phil looked down the fairway before he had that 10-foot par putt and there was Rory staring right at him.”

Mickelson’s putt came up inches short – his first bogey in 22 holes and his only one on the day. McIlroy had the lead and never gave it back.

Unfortunately, the bizarre ending in the dark may take away from the drama produced by all four players on the last day. Mickelson and Stenson both shot 66; McIlroy and Fowler 68. But it was McIlroy who went low on the back nine when the pressure was greatest, producing a 32. None of the other three shot lower than 35.

Palmer driving the first hole to start the last round at Cherry Hills in 1960 will never be forgotten. McIlroy’s drive on No. 16 at Valhalla – paired with the in-your-face birdie at No. 17 – may be remembered in much the same way.

It is possible that Valhalla will go down as the week that the sport became McIlroy’s. Woods hobbled off the stage on Friday evening, unable to even sniff the cut. If he can get healthy and become a relevant player again in the future he will be challenging McIlroy, not the other way around.

The same is true of Mickelson, who threw everything he had at McIlroy on Sunday and came up short. One could almost hear Mickelson roaring into the darkness after the round when he talked repeatedly about being excited about the next four or five years. Only when someone asked him how good McIlroy was did his true feelings come out – more in tone – than in words.

“He’s better than everyone else right now,” Mickelson said with a sigh. “He’s good. Really good.”

The question now is, how good will McIlroy’s long-term challengers be? Woods and Mickelson may block his way on a major Sunday or two before they’re done, but those who are likely to be around for a while are the likes of Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Justin Rose, Jason Day, Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama. Whether any of them are as good as Mickelson, Ernie Els, David Duval or Vijay Singh – Woods’ main challengers in his heyday – remains to be seen. That’s not to mention Gary Player, Tom Watson, Palmer and Lee Trevino, each of whom won at least six majors, during Nicklaus’s storied career.

That’s all for the future. For now, only one thing is certain: An invisible torch was passed on Sunday in Kentucky. The man holding it seems to be very comfortable with it in his hands.

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Kisner doubles 18, defends not laying up

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 6:42 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – It was only fitting that Jean Van de Velde was there working as an on-course reporter on Friday as Kevin Kisner struggled his way up Carnoustie’s 18th fairway.

Rolling along with a two-stroke lead, Kisner’s 8-iron approach shot from an awkward lie in the rough from 160 yards squirted right and bounced into Barry Burn, the winding creek where Van de Velde’s title chances at the 1999 Open Championship began to erode.

Unlike Van de Velde, who made a triple bogey-7 and lost The Open in a playoff, Kisner’s double bogey only cost him the solo lead and he still has 36 holes to make his closing miscue a distant memory. That’s probably why the 34-year-old seemed at ease with his plight.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It just came out like a high flop shot to the right. It was weird. I don't know if it caught something or what happened,” said Kisner, who was tied with Zach Johnson and Zander Lombard at 6 under par. “You never know out of that grass. It was in a different grass than usual. It was wet, green grass instead of the brown grass. So I hadn't really played from that too much.”

Like most in this week’s field Kisner also understands that rounds on what is widely considered the most difficult major championship venue can quickly unravel even with the most innocent of mistakes.

“To play 35 holes without a double I thought was pretty good,” he said. “I've kept the ball in play, done everything I wanted to do all the way up into that hole. Just one of those things that came out completely different than we expected. I'll live with that more than chipping out and laying up from 20 feet.”

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Wind, not rain more a weekend factor at Open

By Mercer BaggsJuly 20, 2018, 6:39 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – After a half-day of rain in Round 2 of the 147th Open Championship, the weekend offers a much drier forecast.

Saturday at Carnoustie is projected to be mostly cloudy with a high of 62 degrees and only a 20 percent chance of rain.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Sunday calls for much warmer conditions, with temperatures rising upwards of 73 degrees under mostly cloudy skies.

Wind might be the only element the players have to factor in over the final 36 holes. While the winds will be relatively calm on Saturday, expected around 10-15 mph, they could increase to 25 mph in the final round.

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Van Rooyen holes putt after ball-marker ruling

By Ryan LavnerJuly 20, 2018, 4:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Erik van Rooyen was surveying his 10-footer for par, trying to get a feel for the putt, when his putter slipped out of his hand and dropped onto his ball marker.

The question, then, was whether that accident caused his coin to move.

The rules official looked at various camera angles but none showed definitively whether his coin moved. The ruling was made to continue from where his coin was now positioned, with no penalty.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

This was part of the recent rules changes, ensuring there is no penalty if the ball or ball maker is accidently moved by the player. The little-used rule drew attention in 2010, when Ian Poulter accidentally dropped his ball on his marker in Dubai and wound up losing more than $400,000 in bonus and prize money.

After the delay to sort out his ruling Friday, van Rooyen steadied himself and made the putt for par, capping a day in which he shot even-par 71 and kept himself in the mix at The Open. He was at 4-under 138, just two shots off the clubhouse lead.

“I wanted to get going and get this 10-footer to save par, but I think having maybe just a couple minutes to calm me down, and then I actually got a different read when I sat down and looked at it again,” he said. “Good putt. Happy to finish that way.”

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Lyle birdies last hole in likely his final Open start

By Ryan LavnerJuly 20, 2018, 4:32 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – If this was Sandy Lyle’s final Open appearance, he went out in style.

Playing on the final year of his automatic age exemption, the 60-year-old Scot buried a 30-foot birdie on the last hole. He missed the cut after shooting 9-over 151 over two rounds.

“I was very light-footed,” he said. “I was on cloud nine walking down the 18th. To make birdie was extra special.”

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Lyle, who also won the 1988 Masters, has missed the cut in his last eight majors, dating to 2014. He hasn’t been competitive in The Open since 1998, when he tied for 19th.

To continue playing in The Open, Lyle needed to finish in the top 10 here at Carnoustie. He’d earn a future exemption by winning the Senior British Open.

“More punishment,” he said.