McIlroy enjoying ride back to the top

By Rex HoggardAugust 8, 2014, 9:23 pm

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – This isn’t about driving accuracy or even driving distance, although that simple statistic seems to provide a neat bow when explaining Rory McIlroy’s current run of brilliance.

It’s not the Northern Irishman’s drastically improved putting or even that 3 additional kilos of muscle he’s packed on in recent months. Nor does this have anything to do with his relationship status, which publically and dramatically went from committed to carefree with his broken engagement to Caroline Wozniacki in May.

McIlroy’s dominant run through the dog days is the direct result of peace of mind. A sport’s psychologist will charge $200 an hour to identify it, but at its core the world No. 1 is playing well because of a rediscovered clarity of thought.

“It’s fun. It is fun,” he said on Friday after scorching a soggy Valhalla Golf Club with a second-round 67 for a one-shot lead at the PGA Championship.

If Bubba Golf is an “A ticket” thrill ride filled with equal parts peaks and valleys, Rory Golf, at its best, is a joy ride. Towering drives, flawless approach shots, deft lag-putting and lots of smiles.

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McIlroy’s Friday wasn’t perfect, he missed five consecutive greens starting at the second hole, and he freely admitted his Day 2 “wasn’t quite as pretty as (Day 1)” but there was no mistaking the fact that it was fun.

Analysts, be they armchair or otherwise, will continue to dissect the differences between 2014 McIlroy – who has won three of his last seven starts, including July’s Open Championship and his World Golf Championship tune-up last week in Akron – and the 2013 version, but what is right with Rory can’t be found on a TrackMan or in the PGA Tour’s ShotLink program.

“What I really like is he’s got his emotions under control. He doesn’t look like anything is coming too fast to him,” said Dave Stockton Sr., McIlroy’s putting coach. “This time it’s, ‘Keep having fun.’ Everybody talks about swing, I can’t comprehend hitting the ball as far as he does, but I can comprehend the mental strength I saw at the British and last week at Firestone.”

A case can be made that McIlroy’s newfound peace is at the least an indirect result of his split with Wozniacki. The 25-year-old seemed to suggest as much on Friday.

“What else do I have to do?” he figured. “I get up in the morning I go to the course, I go to the gym. It’s my life at the moment.”

And at the moment life is good.

There was a foreboding feeling across Valhalla that had nothing to do with a forecast that lingered on the horrible side of bad for much of the day. If Friday was McIlroy’s “bad day” the golf world may be bound for another runaway major victory like the one he pieced together last month at Royal Liverpool.

We enjoyed this show the first time we saw it, at the 2011 U.S. Open, and the encores in ’12 at Kiawah Island and this year at Hoylake. The difference this time is the careful way he has embraced greatness.

All the talent in the world doesn’t assure results, look only to Dustin Johnson whose physical superiority has been undercut by off-course distractions and dubious decisions.

There is no backdoor to a quiet mind, which McIlroy learned throughout a difficult 2013 when he failed to win a PGA Tour title and was questioned for everything from his decision to make a wholesale jump to Nike Golf to a series of curious legal battles with former agents.

Slowly, methodically McIlroy has distanced himself from that noise and the result has been increasingly stellar results even when his game was not at its best like on Friday.

After a sloppy start in increasingly sloppy conditions, McIlroy rolled in a 31 footer for eagle at the 18th hole (his ninth hole of the day) to move two strokes clear of the field.

In what is becoming his signature bounce-back style, he followed another bogey at the second hole when he missed a fairway for the first time since June, or at least it seems that long, by playing his last three holes in 2 under par, including a majestic 5-wood from 242 yards at the par-5 seventh to 8 feet for a two-putt birdie.

“It was very impressive and hard to beat,” said Martin Kaymer, one of McIlroy’s playing partners who knows a thing or two about impressive golf following his boat-race triumph at June’s U.S. Open. “He is by far the best player in the world.”

A decade ago competitors were uttering the same words about Tiger Woods, and while comparisons to the former world No. 1 remain wildly unrealistic the like-minded singular focus demonstrated both players when they are at their best is uncanny.

“Mentally I’m in a really solid place in terms of not getting ahead of myself on the golf course,” McIlroy said. “I’m just on a good run.”

Or, put another way he’s just in a good place.

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Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm each can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He would return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finishing worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

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Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish of worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.