Tiger, Rory and Jack

By Randall MellJune 20, 2011, 1:46 pm

BETHESDA, Md. – Rory McIlroy did more than win the U.S. Open in spectacular fashion Sunday at Congressional Country Club. He threatened to change the nature of the question that’s captivated the sport for more than a decade.

You know the question: Will Tiger Woods break Jack Nicklaus’ record for major championship triumphs?

If Woods regains his health, if he regains his winning form, there’s a compelling new dimension to the challenge.

If Woods is going to bounce back and mount a run at Nicklaus’ record, the question becomes whether he can get through McIlroy to claim his life’s ambition.

That’s the intrigue that holds the most potential for captivating a new generation of golf fans. It’s the formula packed with the power to jolt another new wave of interest in the game.

If Woods, 35, finds his way back, the sport is electrified with the possibility he’s on a collision course with McIlroy, 22.

Yeah, there’s a lot of hoping in that possibility, a lot of fervent hope, because it depends on Woods finding his way back and on McIlroy building on the promise he mesmerized us with at Congressional. Neither is guaranteed, but you’ve got to like the probability that neither of these giant talents is done wowing us. And you’ve got to believe McIlroy and Woods want to measure themselves against each other in the way that heavyweight talents always do.

“It would be great,” McIlroy said. “I've watched Tiger over the last 15 years. When I was growing up, I always had putts to beat Tiger Woods in the Masters or U.S. Open. So it would be great to be able to get in contention one day, whether it be a major, or just a regular event, and go down the stretch with him, because I've never really had that experience before. Hopefully, he can get healthy and can get back playing good golf, because the game of golf is a better place with him playing well.”

There’s respect there from McIlroy, but there’s no fear. We heard that in the lad from Northern Ireland’s bravado before The Ryder Cup last fall, when he said he would love to face Woods, and that given Woods’ erratic form, everyone on the European team “would fancy his chances against him.”

Woods didn’t like the sentiment, and he made sure McIlroy knew. So, there’s an edge to that relationship.

Though Woods has won 14 majors and McIlroy just the one, momentum is on McIlroy’s side. Woods missed the U.S. Open mending knee and Achilles injuries. There’s no certainty he’ll be ready for next month’s British Open.

Pros see McIlroy’s confidence growing while Woods’ confidence weakens in a 19-month winless struggle.

“When Rory can go out and dominate a field like this at a U.S. Open, he’s going to gain a lot of confidence from the event,” said Steve Stricker, the highest ranked American in the world. “Confidence is a great thing, and he’s going to have a ton of it.”

Woods and McIlroy share a common path in the way they both broke through in record-shattering fashion to win their first majors. Woods broke through winning the Masters by 12 shots in ’97, McIlroy by smashing some of Woods’ U.S. Open scoring records.

Stricker was asked Sunday if he believed Woods cared what McIlroy did at Congressional.

“For sure,” Stricker said with McIlroy still making his way on the back nine. “I think he cares. I think he’s at home watching, and I think he’ll gain some motivation from this.”

Woods vs. McIlroy. It’s a hope worth nurturing because it holds the magical possibility of being a reincarnation of Nicklaus vs. Palmer.

Well, Nicklaus vs. Palmer in a nebulous sense. It intrigues as Nicklaus vs. Palmer not in the way personalities factored in that terrific rivalry, but in the way two eras clashed, in the way that rivalry saw a dominant new force emerge to stifle the reign of an established star.

“I knew how good Tiger was in 2000 to win by 15 at Pebble,” McIlroy said in Sunday’s trophy presentation. “I was trying to go out there and emulate him in some way.”

If Woods still has Nicklaus’ records tacked on a wall in his home as motivation, he might want to pull them down. He might want to tack up the long list of U.S. Open records McIlroy smashed in his tour de force performance. He might want to put a photograph of McIlroy on his wall with a bull’s-eye on it, because it feels like McIlroy’s the real deal. It feels like Woods won’t be able to beat Jack’s record without beating McIlroy.

It’s projecting a burdensome load on McIlroy, to be sure, but if you can’t see the promise in the young man’s game, you can’t see.

Yes, nothing’s guaranteed in golf, but McIlroy’s locomotive momentum goes beyond his record-shattering performance at Congressional. It goes to the upward trajectory of his big-event performances. It goes to the fact that he’s had a real chance to win the last four major championships, that he’s led seven of the last eight rounds played in majors, that his final-round 62 to win at Quail Hollow last year felt like a quasi-major and that his U.S. Open triumph came in a character-building rebound from a Masters’ collapse two months ago.

The praise for McIlroy, as expected, is gushing a bit over the top, and that’s sure to get Woods’ attention.

Padraig Harrington said he expected McIlroy to make a run at breaking Nicklaus’ major championship record. TV analyst David Feherty said he believed McIlroy’s U.S. Open performance at Congressional was more dominant than Woods’ at Pebble Beach. Graeme McDowell, a fellow native of Northern Ireland and winner of last year’s U.S. Open, called McIlroy the best player he’s ever seen.

But even the most objective PGA Tour veterans see something special in McIlroy.

“Fundamentally, he’s as good as we’ve seen ever, in my era,” Stricker said. “When Tiger was going well, that’s as good as I’ve ever seen, and I think Rory’s in that same boat. His swing is mechanically sound, and he has a great short game, and he’s long. So he’s got all the tools.”

So does Woods, if he can reassemble them.

That’s what we’re waiting for, because when Woods does, if he does, the race to catch Nicklaus resumes with McIlroy looking like he’ll have something to say about how that race ends.

Getty Images

Winning on Kerr's mind this week and beyond

By Randall MellMarch 24, 2018, 2:11 am

Cristie Kerr moved into position Friday to do more than win the 21st LPGA title of her career.

She moved into position to claim an LPGA Hall of Fame point this week.

Yes, winning is foremost on her mind at the Kia Classic, where she took the lead with an 8-under-par 64 in the second round, she’s on a larger quest, too.

After turning 40 last fall, Kerr was asked what her goals are.

“The Hall of Fame is attainable, if I stick with it,” she said.

Kerr is five shots ahead of Lizette Salas (67), In-Kyung Kim (69), Hee Young Park (70) and Caroline Hedwall (70).

It’s a good time for Kerr to get on a hot streak, with the year’s first major championship, the ANA Inspiration, next week. She has long been one of the best putters in the women’s game, but her ball-striking is impressive this week. She hit 17 greens in regulation Thursday, and she hit 16 on Friday.

“I like winning,” Kerr said. “I like challenging myself. Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older, with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, `Man, why does my hamstring hurt?’ From working around this hilly golf course.”

Kerr acknowledged Friday that her body is more vulnerable to time’s realities, but her mind isn’t.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

“The golf ball doesn't know an age,” Kerr said. “I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.”

Kerr won two weeks after her 40th birthday last fall, boosting her LPGA Hall of Fame point total to 22. She is five points short of eligibility for induction. A player earns one point for an LPGA victory and two points for a major championship title. So there’s a lot of Hall of Fame ground to gain this week and next.

It’s a long-term goal that motivates Kerr to take care of her body.

“I don't think the golf changes,” Kerr said. “I think, physically, it gets harder as you get older. Like I said, I've got tape on my hamstring. I strained it, just a little bit yesterday, walking around this golf course. It's tough as you get older, just being fresh and rested. I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.”

Getty Images

Big names chasing Kerr into the weekend at Kia Classic

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 1:55 am

CARLSBAD, Calif. - Cristie Kerr shot an 8-under 64 on Friday in the Kia Classic to take a five-stroke lead into the weekend.

The 40-year-old Kerr had eight birdies in her second straight bogey-free round to reach 13-under 131 at rain-softened Aviara.

''I like winning. I like challenging myself,'' Kerr said. ''Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, 'Man, why does my hamstring hurt?' From working around this hilly golf course. The golf ball doesn't know an age. I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.''

She has 20 LPGA victories, winning at Aviara in 2015. She won twice last year and helped the U.S. beat Europe in her ninth Solheim Cup appearance.

''It's tough as you get older just being fresh and rested,'' Kerr said. ''I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.''

Lizette Salas, In-Kyung Kim, Hee Young Park and Caroline Hedwall were tied for second. Salas shot 67, Kim 69, and Park and Hedwall 70.

''I really like this golf course. I really like the environment,'' said Salas, the former University of Southern California player from Azusa. ''My family gets to come out. So much confidence at the beginning of the week, and definitely showed the first two days.

Jeong Eun Lee was 7 under after a 69, and defending ANA champion So Yeon Ryu had a 70 to get to 6 under.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

Ariya Jutanugarn (72), Brooke Henderson (70) and 2016 winner Lydia Ko (71) were 5 under. Shanshan Feng (68) was another stroke back, and Singapore winner Michelle Wie (72) was 1 under.

Lexi Thompson was 2 over after a 74, making the cut on the number in the final event before the major ANA Inspiration next week at Mission Hills.

Kerr opened with birdies on the par-5 10th and par-3 11th, added birdies on the par-4 16th, 18th and second, and ran off three in a row on the par-3 sixth, par-4 seventh and par-5 eighth.

''I don't think you can fall asleep on one shot,'' Kerr said. ''It's a really good golf course. I think I play better on courses that demand the focus, so I think that's why I've played well here in the past. ... I'm trying not to put limits on myself right now. I've got some good things going on with my swing.''

She has long been one best putters and green-readers in the world.

''I can see the subtleties that a lot of people can't,'' Kerr said. ''It's a gift from God being able to do that. I've always had that, so I'm lucky.''

Laura Davies withdrew after an opening 82. The 54-year-old Davies tied for second last week in the Founders Cup in Phoenix, playing through painful left Achilles and calf problems.

Getty Images

DJ hits 489-yard drive, but it doesn't count for history

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 12:22 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Dustin Johnson is no stranger to big drives, but even for DJ this one was impressive.

Trailing in his Day 3 match at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Johnson launched a drive at the par-5 12th hole that traveled 489 yards, but that number comes with an asterisk.

“He got lucky it hit the road,” smiled Kevin Kisner, who was leading the world No. 1, 3 up, at the time. “I thought he would make an eagle for sure, he only had 80 yards [to the hole]. He didn’t hit a very good putt.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Johnson’s drive, which was 139 yards past Kisner’s tee shot, is the longest recorded on the PGA Tour in the ShotLink era, surpassing Davis Love III’s drive of 476 yards in 2004 at the Tournament of Champions.

The drive will not go into the record books, however, because the Tour doesn’t count statistics from the Match Play.

It should also be noted, Kisner halved the 12th hole with a birdie and won the match, 4 and 3, to advance to the round of 16.

Getty Images

Durant leads Champions event in Mississippi

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 12:21 am

BILOXI, Miss. - Joe Durant had three straight birdies in a back-nine burst and a shot 6-under 66 on Friday to take the first-round lead in the PGA Tour Champions' Rapiscan Systems Classic.

Durant birdied the par-4 11th and 12th and par-5 13th in the bogey-free round at breezy and rain-softened Fallen Oak. Because of the wet conditions, players were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway.

''It just sets up nice to my eye,'' Durant said. ''It's a beautiful golf course and it's very challenging. The tee shots seem to set up well for me, but the greens are maybe as quick as I've ever seen them here. You really have to put the ball in the right spots. I played very nice today. With the wind swirling like it was, I'm really happy.''

He won the Chubb Classic last month in Naples, Florida, for his third victory on the 50-and-over tour.

Full-field scores from the Rapiscan Systems Classic

''Done this long enough, Friday's just one day,'' Durant said. ''Especially in a three-day tournament, you've got to go out and shoot three good numbers. Fortunate to put one on the board, but I know I have to back it up with a couple of good days because you can get passed very quickly out here.''

Mark Calcavecchia was a stroke back. He won last month in Boca Raton, Florida

''It's probably my best round I've ever had here and it was a tough day to play,'' Calcavecchia said. ''The greens are just lightning fast. They're pretty slopey greens, so very difficult to putt.''

Steve Stricker was third at 68. He took the Tucson, Arizona, event three weeks ago for his first senior victory.

''Just getting it around and managing my game I think like I always do,'' Stricker said. ''You get in the wrong position here with the greens being so fast and you're going to be in trouble. I did that a couple times today.''

Billy Mayfair, Billy Andrade and David McKenzie shot 69. Jerry Kelly, the winner of the season-opening event in Hawaii, was at 70 with Wes Short Jr., Glen Day, Gene Sauers and Jesper Parnevik.

Bernhard Langer opened with a 71, and two-time defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez had a 72.

Vijay Singh, coming off his first senior victory two weeks ago in Newport Beach, California, had a 73.