Hawk's Nest: Rory taking the torch and running

By John HawkinsAugust 11, 2014, 4:00 pm

There was never going to be another Michael Jordan, the prophets declared, but when a 6-foot-8, 260-pound manchild began merging his incomparable physical skills with acquired leadership qualities, the NBA had itself another transcendent superstar – a player who clearly could dominate in any generation.

We can argue over whether LeBron James will win as many championships as Jordan, but rings aren’t the sole measure of individual greatness. Besides, Jordan’s popularity helped spawn an international influx that has made pro basketball a deeper and more evenly balanced product.

Earlier this year, there was talk of redesigning the NBA’s Mount Rushmore. The premise was legitimized when several of the game’s notables brandished a chisel and began working on their own stone walls. Figuratively speaking, James had earned strong consideration. Comparisons to Jordan no longer begin and end with a chuckle.

Like the golfer he once idolized, Rory McIlroy is just better than everyone else. Unlike Tiger Woods, he has unexpectedly abridged the gap between dominant eras, successfully clearing the bar Woods so dramatically raised after all those years of shuffling and parity in the 1980s and early ‘90s.

“Greg Norman couldn’t handle Woods being better than him, and he was never heard from again,” a tour pro texted me Sunday evening. “Will be most interesting when Tiger comes back, how he will deal with not being as good as Rory.”

Perhaps we already know. Perhaps Woods’ ongoing battles with health, poor form and age have surreptitiously provided him with an exit strategy. Does Red Shirt never win again? Doubtful, but to watch him wince and grasp for answers this summer while another guy performs at a level once reserved only for him …

The parallels may not be uncanny, but they’re certainly worth reviewing. Woods rearranged history at the 1997 Masters, and then went through a two-year period when he wasn’t as good. McIlroy claimed two major titles by eight shots apiece, and then struggled mightily amid career-related changes in 2013.

Red Shirt’s reign effectively ended when his personal life (and marriage) unraveled in late 2009. McIlromance took the same highway north, seemingly trimming three strokes off his score the minute he broke up with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.

Love lost, tournaments won. Those 4 a.m. phone calls from Tel Aviv can’t be good for the short game.

“I’ve put more time into my golf and refocused in a way,” the Irish Lad admitted last week. “It’s the only thing I have. I’ve got my family and my friends, but I’ve really immersed myself in my game.”

That’s precisely how his boyhood hero got there – with a single-mindedness bent on competitive superiority and a work ethic that had him on the practice green until dark the night before the 2000 U.S. Open. Woods was making everything that evening. As former caddie Steve Williams once told me, however, not all of them were going in the center of the cup.

I don’t have a chisel in my hand, but McIlwin’s back-to-back major titles are far more significant than his lopsided victories at Congressional and Kiawah. Those first two were the offshoot of immense natural ability, no Sunday sweat necessary. Liverpool and Valhalla were tougher fights against better opponents; Rory basically won this latest one with a birdie on the 71st hole.

The boy has become a man, his achievements now framed by performance under pressure, his supremacy reaffirmed by the speck of a legend in his rear-view mirror. Torch-passings are vastly overrated, but when the 2014 PGA champion arrived Sunday evening to lay his hands on the Wanamaker Trophy and the lid came off, I swear to you, yesteryear fell aimlessly to the ground.

Literally and figuratively, metaphorically and historically, Rory is quite a story.

IT WAS A mega-memorable Sunday before the crazy finish, before an awkward melding of the final two pairings on the 72nd hole led to a chaotic – perhaps even compromising – scenario at the worst possible time. There were a number of elements to the situation that should have bothered any serious golf fan – and should have annoyed all four players involved.

Let’s start with the lightest crimes and go from there:

• Bernd Wiesberger, who is at least fighting for a spot on the European Ryder Cup team, is reduced to the role of speedbump at the par-5 18th by virtue of his closing 74. This is no way to end a major championship, especially for a player who earned a spot in Sunday’s final group. The dude deserved better.

• The decision for McIlroy and Wiesberger to “play up” appeared to be made haphazardly by PGA of America officials – not by Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, who were in the penultimate group and reserve that right as competitors.

• If the guys in ties made the call, why wasn’t it discussed among all four players while they were on the 18th tee? Why wasn’t the subject broached much earlier – it was obvious when the leaders began their final rounds that daylight was going to be an issue.

• Why isn’t there some form of policy in place for such circumstances? It’s not like mid-afternoon starts, August weather delays and 8:42 p.m. sunsets are uncommon dynamics.

• The motive for such a decision was ridiculous. Is it more important to finish on Sunday night than to give those in contention an equal chance at victory? The tournament was not over. McIlroy led by two and came within two or three yards of driving his ball into the water at the 18th. We play 72 holes for a reason. You don’t hasten the finish or potentially affect the outcome because you have a 7 a.m. flight the next day.

Hey, a Sunday finish makes my life a lot easier, too. What I saw in the rush to beat total darkness was a case of mistaken priorities. It transmitted an amateurish vibe caused by poor communication and a lack of preparation. Other than that, I had no problem with it.

NOT TO KEEP ragging on my boys at the PGA of America or anything, but why is the deadline for U.S. Ryder Cup qualifying set seven weeks before the actual matches? I understand that the PGA Championship is the organization’s flagship event, but shutting down the points process after the year’s final major is an outdated concept – one of those little things that makes the American side more vulnerable than necessary.

“The [captain’s] picks are three weeks later,” an ex-skipper points out. “There’s no reason why the points can’t go three more weeks, but the truth is, the PGA wants to sell the event [more than] win it.”

Hmmm. Nothing like a little honesty with our faulty policy, but I also see this is as the PGA of America’s way of telling the PGA Tour that its playoff series matters not. The fact that all four premium-field events have little or no bearing on the U.S. team’s composition is so easy to fix, one can’t help but view it as intentional.

Don’t tell me about how it takes six weeks to fit everyone for proper rain gear or assemble the wives’ sweater collection. If the U.S. was winning this thing on a regular basis, the early deadline would be a moot point. But it isn’t. And it’s not.

AS SOME OF you know, I liked Fowler back when he was a one-victory underachiever with zero major presence and a lot of loud clothing. Some guys take longer to develop than others, I rationalized. Besides, I saw enough out of the kid to believe he’d become a top-tier player sooner rather than later.

I’m not sure he’s quite there yet, but Fowler’s performance at the big events this year is startling. He joins Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players in modern history to post top-five finishes at all four majors in a season. Both icons did it twice. Both featured a victory among their top-fives, so please, let’s not get carried away with the magnitude of Fowler’s accomplishment.

Progress? You betcha. “This is the first one that hurts,” he said after finishing two strokes adrift of McIlroy. A little pain can be a good thing, but here’s another number for you: Fowler’s top-fives at the majors are his only top-fives this season – I don’t count the Match Play because of the obvious difference in format.

So he still hasn’t won in almost 2 ½ years, yet Fowler finished second (just ahead of winless Jim Furyk) in the final U.S. Ryder Cup standings. I’m not sure how that sits with me, either, but let’s be honest. With Bubba Watson getting mad at everything and only four other Yanks in the top nine having won in 2014, Li’l Rickie might be America’s best player right now.

Boy, does this team need help.

As tight as I am with Fowler’s swing coach, Butch Harmon, getting details on what the two have been working on has been tougher than beating McIlroy. We’re left to analyze the numbers and draw some educated conclusions, which certainly tells us something.

• In the past, Fowler has killed his Sunday chances by hunting red-light pins and paying dearly for his misses. This year, however, he has become a boxer instead of a puncher, and his greens-in-regulation percentages are much better at the majors: 63.9 at the U.S. Open, 64.3 at the British Open, 66.7 at the PGA. My hunch? Butch has explained the math, so to speak. Wider targets + higher expectations = better scores.

• After a dreadful early-season stretch with the putter, Fowler has turned things around. He has gained more than a stroke per round on the field in each of his last four measured starts (the U.S. and British Opens don’t keep such a stat). When you’re hitting more greens and making more putts, well, the game becomes just a bit easier.

• He isn’t the world’s greatest driver of the ball, but as I’ve said in the past, Fowler is plenty long enough, and his ball flight off the tee doesn’t feature nearly as much right-to-left curve as it once did. That reduces the severity of his misses, which keeps him in more holes and allows him better chances to save par. At the major championships, few traits are more invaluable.

All that said, Fowler remains a work in progress, emphasis on moving forward. The gap between him and McIlroy isn’t all that large, but there is work to be done. A new era is squarely upon us. Put down the chisel, pick up the sizzle.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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Reed's major record now a highlight, not hindrance

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 2:46 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – The narrative surrounding Patrick Reed used to be that he could play well in the Ryder Cup but not the majors.

So much for that.

Reed didn’t record a top-10 in his first 15 starts in a major, but he took the next step in his career by tying for second at the 2017 PGA Championship. He followed that up with a breakthrough victory at the Masters, then finished fourth at the U.S. Open after a closing 68.

He’s the only player with three consecutive top-4s in the majors.

What’s the difference now?

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“The biggest thing is I treat them like they’re normal events,” he said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I’ve always gone into majors and put too much pressure on myself, having to go play well, having to do this or that. Now I go in there and try to play golf and keep in the mindset of, Hey, it’s just another day on the golf course. Let’s just go play.

“I’ve been able to stay in that mindset the past three, and I’ve played pretty well in all three of them.”

Reed’s record in the year’s third major has been hit or miss – a pair of top-20s and two missed cuts – but he says he’s a better links player now than when he began his career. It took the native Texan a while to embrace the creativity required here and also to comprehend the absurd distances he can hit the ball with the proper wind, conditions and bounce.

“I’m sort of accepting it,” he said. “I’ve gotten a little more comfortable with doing it. It’s come a little bit easier, especially down the stretch in tournament play.”