Hawk's Nest: Big numbers killing McIlroy in 2013

By John HawkinsAugust 26, 2013, 2:50 pm

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – A lot of people think PGA Tour pros are spoiled rotten. It’s a fair perception, given the amount of money they play for, the endless perks that come with being a terrific golfer and the adoring-public factor that never lets up. The game’s best are held in high esteem, so when they complain about lousy greens or an impractical course setup, golf fans tend to respond with their own voice of displeasure.

Would the baby like a pacifier?

How much is this week’s purse again?

Isn’t it the same for everyone?

Every once in a while, however, player griping leads to growth. The substandard becomes superb, doggones become bygones, and in the case of the 2013 FedEx Cup playoff opener, a venue previously defined by its various faults emerges as the greatest thing since roll-on deodorant.

In my 18 years covering the PGA Tour full-time, no course has overhauled its reputation as quickly and dramatically as Liberty National did last week. Not even close. For all the spectacular beauty shots of the Manhattan skyline and America’s most precious statue, this tournament’s success would be determined on the ground, the site’s future dependent largely on the feedback of those with their names on the bags.

“We should be playing here every year,” said Charles Howell III, a sentiment echoed by several of his Tour brethren.

“A lot of subtle changes that add up to a big difference,” said John Senden. “I don’t remember a whole lot about how it was in 2009, but this was clearly a lot better.”

True, four years had passed since the last visit to Jersey City, about four decades earlier than some might have hoped. Liberty National owner Paul Fireman was stung by the negative reviews. “He took the criticism personally, and he’s in a position financially to do something about it,” according to one club employee.

Fifteen holes were altered in some form. Many of the putting surfaces were expanded and recontoured, which is a nice way of saying they dug up the elephants, but the problem in ’09 had more to do with all the humps in the original Tom Kite/Bob Cupp design.

Phil Mickelson has perfected the art of signing autographs, delivering the money quote and talking to drooling fans, all at the same time. “Imagine Augusta National with 24-yard-wide fairways and [heavy] rough,” he assessed. “The setup was fine once they turned the rough into a first cut. That brought out the strength of the golf course, which was the greens. You could play shots into them.”

All I know is, we saw a really interesting golf tournament. Three of the year’s four major champions were at or near the top of the Sunday leaderboard, all burning the place up while third-round leaders (Matt Kuchar, Kevin Chappell) struggled mightily. Quality rewarded, poor play penalized amid a wide range of scoring – that’s what a big event should feature on the weekend.

RORY McILROY’S SEASON is an interesting study, a much-publicized bust for which many causes have been cited. A veteran golf writer can usually find numbers to make any valid point, but in the curious case of the Irish Lad Gone Bad, I thought I’d let the numbers talk to me.

It all starts with the blowup holes – McIlroy’s inability to go any significant stretch without a double bogey or worse. At the game’s highest level, 6s kill rounds. Over the course of an entire tournament, you can recover from those mistakes if you don’t make them again. As this data suggests, that hasn’t been the case for Rors in 2013.

• Starts: 14
• Holes played: 873
• Doubles: 20
• Triples: 3
• Quadruples: 1
• Average number of holes between disasters: 36.4

You don’t have to look very hard to find a relevant comparison. Tiger Woods has played in almost the same number of events and in many of the same tournaments as McIlroy. His data:

• Starts: 13
• Holes played: 882
• Doubles: 11
• Triples: 4
• Holes between disasters: 58.8

One of Tiger’s triples came on the shot off the flagstick in the second round at the Masters, which turned into an 8 after the two-stroke penalty. Five of his disasters occurred during that dreadful performance at the Memorial, all in a 36-hole span. There’s never a good time to play like a chop, but if you’re gonna stink, you might as well do it on a single weekend.

McIlroy, meanwhile, has made a double or worse in 11 of his 14 starts. He managed four laps around Quail Hollow without a disaster, then did the same a week later at The Players – imagine that. In every tournament since, his week has been derailed by poor judgment or risks that shouldn’t have been taken.

That’s not Nike’s fault.

The Barclays was a perfect example. McIlroy made three doubles in the first round, and then rallied with a 65 to make the cut. All three happened on par 4s. Turn those 6s into 5s, and McIlruin reaches Saturday at 9 under – squarely in the hunt.

One point made here a while back bears repeating: the kid remains one of the longest drivers in the game and is actually hitting more fairways than he did a year ago, when he was using Titleist equipment. He’s hitting a slightly higher percentage of GIR and has cut his putting deficit by about 60 percent.

The difference? In 1,072 competitive holes on the PGA Tour last year, McIlroy made 15 doubles and not a single triple. He went 71.5 holes between disasters. If that doesn’t tell you something, nothing will.

GREAT PLAYERS DO great things in every sport. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Johnny Unitas’s 47 straight games with a touchdown pass, a record that stood for more than a half-century before Drew Brees broke it last fall. Which of Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring records is more unfathomable, the 100 points in a single game or the 50.4 scoring average for an entire season?

Last Saturday’s telecast included mention of Woods’ consecutive-cut streak, which I would rank second on his list of greatest career accomplishments (behind four straight major titles). To go more than seven years without having a bad week at the game’s highest level is utterly mind-boggling – the longer you think about it, the more astonishing it becomes.

 That said, Woods did not make 142 consecutive cuts, the number commonly acknowledged to define the length of the stretch. He did play in 142 consecutive events without missing a cut, but 31 of those tournaments didn’t have a cut. I’m no genius, but you can’t make a cut if there isn’t one to miss.

 At 111, Woods still breaks the record held by Byron Nelson, whose recognized number (113) also included no-cut events. On the list of things that keep me awake at night, this one doesn’t make the cut, but I do find it annoying that such a phenomenal accomplishment is misrepresented from a numerical standpoint.

 Not that anyone cares, but the PGA Tour media guide does identify Woods’ streak correctly as consecutive events without a missed cut. Here’s the list:

• Woods: 142 (Feb. 1998 to May 2005)

• Nelson: 113 (Jan. 1941 to May 1948)

• Jack Nicklaus: 105 (Nov. 1970 to September 1976)

• Hale Irwin: 88 (Jan. 1975 to Feb. 1979)

• Dow Finsterwald: 72 (Sept. 1955 to Feb. 1958)

• Tom Kite: 53 (July 1980 to June 1982)

 You might also notice that Tiger averaged about 20 events per season during the streak – about four more than Nelson and two or three more than Nicklaus. I wonder if people used to complain about Byron and Jack not playing enough.

NOT FOR NOTHING, I asked two players, two caddies and a swing coach who U.S. Presidents Cup skipper Fred Couples should add to the team with his captain’s picks. All five said rookie Jordan Spieth should be on the team. Four named him first, and the fifth didn’t need a ton of prodding.

“Never seen the kid play, but I’d still pick him,” said one of the sources. Couples will announce his selections next Tuesday, and if I had to throw a dollar on it, I’d bet on Spieth making the squad. Nobody occupying the spots immediately behind the automatic qualifiers has done enough recently to warrant inclusion, and besides, you can’t find two Americans who have played better than Spieth this summer.

If this were the Ryder Cup, where the pressure is far more intense, Couples would have a reason to lean on experience, but as Hunter Mahan told me at the PGA Championship, “for 27 weeks each year, it’s just you and your wife and your caddie. You get to the Presidents Cup and you’ve got 12 guys and 12 caddies, and everybody’s pulling for you. The golf becomes so simple at that point.”

Getty Images

Stunner: Inbee Park steps aside for Int. Crown

By Randall MellJuly 17, 2018, 4:00 pm

There was a big surprise this week when the LPGA announced the finalized lineups for the UL International Crown.

Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park won’t be teeing it up for the host South Koreans Oct. 4-7 in Incheon.

She has withdrawn, saying she wanted another Korean to be able to experience the thrill of representing her country.

It’s a stunner given the importance the LPGA has placed on taking the UL International Crown to South Korea and its golf-crazy allegiance to the women’s game in the Crown’s first staging outside the United States.

Two-time major champion In Gee Chun will replace Park.

"It was my pleasure and honor to participate in the first UL International Crown in 2014 and at the 2016 Olympics, and I cannot describe in one word how amazing the atmosphere was to compete as a representative of my country,” Park said. “There are so many gifted and talented players in Korea, and I thought it would be great if one of the other players was given the chance to experience the 2018 UL International Crown.”

Chun, another immensely popular player in South Korea, was the third alternate, so to speak, with the world rankings used to field teams. Hye Jin Choi and Jin Young Ko were higher ranked than Chun but passed because of commitments made to competing in a Korean LPGA major that week. The other South Koreans who previously qualified are So Yeon Ryu, Sung Hyun Park and I.K. Kim.

Getty Images

Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 3:35 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.

Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.

“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.

“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”

The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.

“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”

Getty Images

Koepka still has chip on his chiseled shoulder

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 3:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Brooks Koepka prepared more for this Open than last year's.

He picked up his clubs three times.

That’s three more than last summer, when the only shots he hit between the summer Opens was during a commercial shoot for Michelob Ultra at TPC Sawgrass. He still tied for sixth at The Open a month later.

This time, Koepka kept his commitment to play the Travelers, then hit balls three times between the final round in Hartford and this past Sunday, when he first arrived here at Carnoustie.

Not that he was concerned, of course.

Koepka’s been playing golf for nearly 20 years. He wasn’t about to forget to how to swing a club after a few weeks off.

“It was pretty much the same thing,” he said Tuesday, during his pre-tournament news conference. “I shared it with one of my best friends, my family, and it was pretty much the same routine. It was fun. We enjoyed it. But I’m excited to get back inside the ropes and start playing again. I think you need to enjoy it any time you win and really embrace it and think about what you’ve done.”

At Shinnecock Hills, Koepka became the first player in nearly 30 years to repeat as U.S. Open champion – a major title that helped him shed his undeserved reputation as just another 20-something talent who relies solely on his awesome power. In fact, he takes immense pride in his improved short game and putting inside 8 feet.

“I can take advantage of long golf courses,” he said, “but I enjoy plotting my way around probably - more than the bombers’ golf courses - where you’ve got to think, be cautious sometimes, and fire at the center of the greens. You’ve got to be very disciplined, and that’s the kind of golf I enjoy.”

Which is why Koepka once again fancies his chances here on the type of links that helped launch his career.

Koepka was out of options domestically after he failed to reach the final stage of Q-School in 2012. So he packed his bags and headed overseas, going on a tear on the European Challenge Tour (Europe’s equivalent of the Web.com circuit) and earning four titles, including one here in Scotland. That experience was the most fun and beneficial part of his career, when he learned to win, be self-sufficient and play in different conditions.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“There’s certain steps, and I embraced it,” Koepka said. “I think that’s where a lot of guys go wrong. You are where you are, and you have to make the best of it instead of just putting your head down and being like, 'Well, I should be on the PGA Tour.' Well, guess what? You’re not. So you’ve got to suck it up wherever you are, make the best of it, and keep plugging away and trying to win everything you can because, eventually, if you’re good enough, you will get out here.”

Koepka has proved that he’s plenty good enough, of course: He’s a combined 20 under in the majors since the beginning of 2017, the best of any player during that span. But he still searches long and hard for a chip to put on his chiseled shoulder.

In his presser after winning at Shinnecock, Koepka said that he sometimes feels disrespected and forgotten, at least compared to his more-ballyhooed peers. It didn’t necessarily bother him – he prefers to stay out of the spotlight anyway, eschewing a media tour after each of his Open titles – but it clearly tweaked him enough for him to admit it publicly.

That feeling didn’t subside after he went back to back at the Open, either. On U.S. Open Sunday, ESPN’s Instagram page didn’t showcase a victorious Koepka, but rather a video of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. dunking a basketball.

“He’s like 6-foot-2. He’s got hops – we all know that – and he’s got hands. So what’s impressive about that?” Koepka said. “But I always try to find something where I feel like I’m the underdog and put that little chip on my shoulder. Even if you’re No. 1, you’ve got to find a way to keep going and keep that little chip on.

“I think I’ve done a good job of that. I need to continue doing that, because once you’re satisfied, you’re only going to go downhill. You try to find something to get better and better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Now 28, Koepka has a goal of how many majors he’d like to win before his career is over, but he wasn’t about to share it.

Still, he was adamant about one thing: “Right now I’m focused on winning. That’s the only thing I’ve got in my mind. Second place just isn’t good enough. I finished second a lot, and I’m just tired of it. Once you win, it kind of propels you. You have this mindset where you just want to keep winning. It breeds confidence, but you want to have that feeling of gratification: I finally did this. How cool is this?”

So cool that Koepka can’t wait to win another one.

Getty Images

Despite results, Thomas loves links golf

By Jay CoffinJuly 17, 2018, 2:48 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Despite poor results in two previous Open Championships, Justin Thomas contends that he has what it takes to be a good links player. In fact, he believes that he is a good links player.

Two years ago at Royal Troon, Thomas shot 77 in the second round to tie for 53rd place. He was on the wrong side of the draw that week that essentially eliminated anyone from contention who played late Friday afternoon.

Last year at Royal Birkdale, Thomas made a quintuple-bogey 9 on the par-4 sixth hole in the second round and missed the cut by two shots.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I feel like I’ve played more than two Opens, but I haven’t had any success here,” Thomas said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I feel like I am a good links player, although I don’t really have the results to show.”

Although he didn’t mention it as a reason for success this week, Thomas is a much different player now than he was two years ago, having ascended to the No. 1 position in the world for a few weeks and now resting comfortably in the second spot.

He also believes a high golf IQ, and the ability to shape different shots into and with the wind are something that will help him in The Open over the next 20 years.

“I truly enjoy the creativity,” Thomas said. “It presents a lot of different strategies, how you want to play it, if you want to be aggressive, if you want to be conservative, if you want to attack some holes, wait on certain winds, whatever it might be. It definitely causes you to think.

“With it being as firm as it is, it definitely adds a whole other variable to it.”