McIlroy ready to take charge

By Randall MellApril 7, 2015, 10:40 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy expects his heart to be thumping a little harder than normal Thursday when he steps to the first tee to start the Masters.

Yes, there’s history to chase, an epic challenge in trying to join legends Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player and Tiger Woods as the only players to win the career Grand Slam, but he says he would be nervous anyway.

“Probably the only first tee shot of a tournament these days that I still get nervous at, the one that you get butterflies and your heart races a little bit faster than it does usually,” McIlroy said. “So, yeah, still get that same feeling I did as a rookie back here in 2009.”

McIlroy may only be 25, but he’s making his seventh start at Augusta National. He knows this place. He loves this place, and yet he doesn’t seem comfortable here yet. At least, he doesn’t play like he really understands how the puzzle architect Alister Mackenzie created is supposed to go together.

Maybe this is the year.

“As much as this golf course is a second-shot golf course, it made me a little tentative over iron shots,” McIlroy said. “I had to learn to try to be a little bit more aggressive, aggressive to my spots here, instead of looking at a pin and sort of thinking about the places not to miss. Because there are places here where you can miss it, and you can give yourself a straightforward up and down. And there are places where you can't miss it.  I felt the first couple years, I was thinking more about where not to hit it instead of where to hit it.

“It’s such an intimidating place the first time that you get here, and I felt like I may have shown it a little bit too much respect at times, instead of playing my normal game, and playing the way I usually do. That's the biggest thing I've learned, just try and get it out of your head where you are, and what it means, and just try to execute your shots like you normally do.”

In six starts, McIlroy’s best Masters finish is a tie for eighth. He used the back door to get that one last year after shooting a 77 in the second round.

It’s almost like McIlroy’s courting Augusta National and isn’t quite confident yet that his advances are appropriate. Not in the way Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Angel Cabrera and other perennial contenders are.

“The thing about Augusta is that for me, personally, I don't feel like I have to be perfect, so it relaxes me,” Mickelson said. “Even though I may not have my best stuff on any given day, I still feel like I can shoot in the 60s, and I still feel like I can make pars and birdie some holes to shoot a decent number.”

McIlroy’s a smart player. He knows better than anyone why he hasn’t put it all together at Augusta National yet. His lackluster play on the par 5s is a big part of that.

“If you look at the previous winners here, they've all played the par 5s well,” McIlroy said. “Bubba last year played them at 8 under par. I played them at even par and he beat me by eight shots. If I can just play the par 5s a little better, hopefully that will help me do better and obviously have a chance to win.”

Unlike Mickelson, McIlroy hasn’t fully come to understand that he doesn’t have to be perfect to put up a good score on this course.

Though he had that 54-hole lead at the Masters four years ago, McIlroy hasn’t returned looking like a guy emboldened by his chance to win. He has looked too much like a guy who remembers shooting 80 in the final round and tying for 15th. He has shot at least one round of 77 or higher in each of his Masters starts since his final-round collapse.

Ben Crenshaw said Tuesday that it takes a certain boldness to win the green jacket. He wasn’t talking about McIlroy, but the two-time Masters champion said something relevant to McIlroy’s evolution here.

“You cannot win this tournament playing safe,” Crenshaw said. “You've got to take chances. You have to take chances at the right times, and you have to bring those off, to buoy your confidence.”

Mickelson won in 2010 hitting that great escape with a 6-iron off the pine straw and through a narrow gap in the trees at the 13th in a dramatic Sunday finish. Watson won in 2012 hitting that crazy hook out of the trees in a playoff and won again last year hitting that risky bomb over the trees in the corner of the 13th on Sunday.

Of course, Crenshaw said there’s danger in being bold.

“You've seen spectacular runs, finishes, and you've seen spectacular crashes, too,” Crenshaw said. “We've all been on that side of the equation.”

McIlroy has the dynamic skills to be on the spectacular end every player dreams about. Tiger Woods sees that paying off for McIlroy here eventually.

“I'm sure he'll have many green jackets in his closet before it's all said and done,” Woods said.

McIlroy would love to add his first come Sunday.

Getty Images

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.

@kharms27 on Instagram

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.

Getty Images

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.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

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.  

@radiosarks on Twitter

Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”