McIlroy overcomes putting woes, wills self to victory

By Rex HoggardSeptember 5, 2016, 8:45 pm

NORTON, Mass. – With apologies to Phil Kenyon, who is by all accounts one of the game’s best putting gurus, it was the sheer force of will that lifted Rory McIlroy to victory on Monday at the wind-battered Deutsche Bank Championship.

There’s no doubt Kenyon, who also works with the likes of Open champions Henrik Stenson and Louis Oosthuizen, is a keen teacher; but after just two weeks of working with McIlroy, it’s fair to say even the Englishman recognizes the depth of Monday’s accomplishments.

An overhaul that McIlroy himself figured would take the better part of eight months to fully take may have pointed the Northern Irishman in the right direction, but it turns out the learning curve wasn’t nearly that steep.

McIlroy said all week his putting was a process, but rounds of 71-67-66-65 felt more like a proclamation.

“It's definitely not the finished article, but it's a big step in the right direction,” said McIlroy, who began the day six strokes off the lead. “I’m excited with how my game is and what I've found this week, and hopefully I can keep it going for the next couple of tournaments, but ultimately into the Ryder Cup and trying to get a fourth one of those.”

In retrospect, the ongoing narrative this year had been a tad aggressive when it came to McIlroy, fueled more by unrealistic expectations than practical experience. But statistically he may have soft-pedaled his change of putting fortunes at TPC Boston.

Since the PGA Championship, where McIlroy missed the cut, he’d missed 23 putts from inside 10 feet, and had a pedestrian 53 percent average from 4 to 8 feet in seven rounds. In his last three rounds, there were just four putts missed from inside 10 feet and his average from 4-8 feet jumped to 60 percent.


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For the first time in his career, McIlroy led the field in both driving distance (312 yard average) and putting average (1.60), and made his Monday move with birdies at Nos. 2 (4 feet), 4 (2 feet), 7 (4 feet), 8 (18 feet) and 9 (10 feet), where he tied third-round front-runner Paul Casey for the lead at 15 under par.

McIlroy pulled away with a birdie from 22 feet at the 12th hole and secured his 12th victory on the PGA Tour, and his second at TPC Boston, with his 25th birdie of the week at the last hole.

In many ways, McIlroy’s turnaround after what he admits has been a difficult few weeks – he’d missed two cuts and had a single top-10 finish on Tour since June – is as much a testament to his overall skill as it is that new putting stroke.

Too often when players of McIlroy’s caliber talk about how “close” they are to playing their best golf there’s a collection of rolled eyes and dismissive sighs, but when the margins are so thin at the game’s highest levels there’s something to be said for educated optimism.

“It's a fine line, very fine line between missing the cut and winning the tournament,” said Jason Day, who tied for 15th after a closing 67. “A few putts go your way, you get a little bit of confidence, start rolling them in, start feeling good about yourself. Over the last few days he's obviously playing pretty good.”

Given the conditions at TPC Boston, where winds gusted to 25 mph as Post-Tropical Cyclone Hermine skirted the New England coast, McIlroy’s 6-under card to complete his Labor Day was better than pretty good. “Brilliant,” said runner-up Casey who began the day with a three-stroke lead but struggled to a final-round 73.

Only the game’s best players can relate to McIlroy’s almost seamless competitive turnaround, if not the scrutiny he’s endured over the last 16 months since he last won on Tour.

“He's remarkable because he's a bit Teflon-coated,” said Adam Scott, who knows a thing or two about dealing with short-game scrutiny. “He gets criticized a lot, everything analyzed, and he's very patient I think with it all. To me it looks like he hasn't got so frustrated this year, he's just kept doing his thing.”

Kenyon’s magical touch aside, McIlroy came by his improved putting revival honestly.

After Saturday’s round, he traded text messages with Kenyon and could be found every afternoon applying those lessons on the practice putting green – tirelessly working to find a fix he could call his own.

“He's been on the practice green every time I've been there and before and after [a round],” said Jordan Spieth, who tied for 21st at the third playoff stop. “I feel like I work hard on my putting and he's worked as hard as anybody in the past two weeks on his putting.”

A slight grip change on Saturday morning, he rolled his right hand over atop the grip, further fueled McIlroy’s revival, and when he teed off early Monday morning he was no longer lost in technical thoughts, like he admitted was the case last week at The Barclays.

Throughout his most recent swoon in the United States – he did win the Irish Open earlier this season, which for McIlroy is akin to a “fifth major” – the 27-year-old never doubted his ball-striking, only his putting, which prompted him to team with Kenyon last week at Bethpage.

It was telling that it wasn’t McIlroy’s improved putting that inspired him as much as it was his own resilience after playing his first three holes of the tournament in 4 over par on Friday.

“I thought it's a great opportunity being 4 over through three holes to do something that I had never done before, to be in that position and go on and win a golf tournament,” said McIlroy, who moved to third in the world rankings and fourth in the FedEx Cup race with his victory. “To be sitting up here and have won the tournament, I'm very proud of myself for that.”

It was the kind of finish that earlier in his career McIlroy would have probably not had the mental toughness to pull off. For a player who has at many times in his career made winning look easy, this one was hard.

This one was special.

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HOFer Stephenson: Robbie wants to play me in movie

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 4:20 pm

Margot Robbie has already starred in one sports-related biopic, and if she gets her way a second opportunity might not be far behind.

Robbie earned an Academy Award nomination for her work last year as former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in the movie, I Tonya. She also has a desire to assume the role of her fellow Aussie, Jan Stephenson, in a movie where she would trade in her skates for a set of golf clubs.

That's at least according to Stephenson, who floated out the idea during an interview with Golf Australia's Inside the Ropes podcast shortly after being announced as part of the next class of World Golf Hall of Fame inductees.

"We've talked about doing a movie. Margot Robbie wants to play me," Stephenson said.

There certainly would be a resemblance between the two Australian blondes, as Robbie has become one of Hollywood's leading ladies while Stephenson was on the cutting edge of sex appeal during her playing career. In addition to several magazine covers, Stephenson also racked up 16 LPGA wins between 1976-87 including three majors.

Robbie, 28, has also had starring roles in Suicide Squad and The Wolf of Wall Street.

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Monday Scramble: Who's No. 1 ... in the long run?

By Ryan LavnerOctober 22, 2018, 4:00 pm

Brooks Koepka becomes golf’s new king, Sergio Garcia enjoys the Ryder Cup bump, Danielle Kang overcomes the demons, Michelle Wie goes under the knife and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:

Brooks Koepka added an exclamation point to his breakout year.

His red-hot finish at the CJ Cup not only earned him a third title in 2018, but with the victory he leapfrogged Dustin Johnson to become the top-ranked player in the world for the first time.

That top spot could become a revolving door over the next few months, with Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose all vying for No. 1, but it’s a fitting coda to Koepka’s stellar year that included two more majors and Player of the Year honors.

For a player whose team searches long and hard for slights, there’s no questioning now his place in the game.


1. DJ won three events this season, but he wasn’t able to create much separation between him and the rest of the world’s best players.

Koepka’s rise to No. 1 made him the fourth player to reach the top spot this year, and the third in the past month.

Who has the greatest potential to get to No. 1 and stay there? Johnson is the best bet in the short term, but he’s also 34. Koepka will be a threat in the majors as long as he stays healthy. So the belief here is that it’ll be Justin Thomas, who is 25, without weakness and, best of all, hungry for more success.  

2. Koepka had an eventful final round at the CJ Cup. Staked to a four-shot lead in the final round, his advantage was trimmed to one after a sloppy start, then he poured it on late with an inward 29. He punctuated his historic victory with an eagle on the 72nd hole, smirking as it tumbled into the cup.

It was his fifth career Tour title – but only his second non-major. Weird.

3. How appropriate that golf’s most underappreciated talent – at least in his estimation – became world No. 1 in a limited-field event that finished at 2 a.m. on the East Coast. Somehow he’ll spin this into being overlooked, again.



4. Sergio Garcia carried all of that Ryder Cup momentum into the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, where he earned the hat trick by capturing his third consecutive title there.

While the rest of the world’s best gathered in Korea or rested for global golf’s finishing kick, Garcia won the weather-delayed event by four shots over Shane Lowry. Garcia’s foundation hosts the tournament, and he extended his crazy-good record there: In 14 career appearances at Valderrama, he has three wins, seven top-3s, nine top-5s and 13 top-10s.

Garcia, who went 3-1 at the recent Ryder Cup, became the first player since Ernie Els (2004) to win the same European Tour event three years in a row.

5. Gary Woodland probably doesn’t want 2018 to end.

He was the runner-up at the CJ Cup, his second consecutive top-5 to start the season. He made 11(!) birdies in the final round and now is a combined 37 under par for the first two starts of the new season.

6. This definitely wasn’t the Ryder Cup.

Four shots back, and the closest pursuer to Koepka, Ian Poulter had a chance to put pressure on the leader in the final round. Instead, he was left in the dust, mustering only three birdies and getting waxed by seven shots (64-71) on the last day. Poulter tumbled all the way into a tie for 10th.



7. It hasn’t been the easiest road for Danielle Kang since she won the 2017 Women’s PGA.

The 26-year-old said she’s dealt with anxiety for months and has battled both putting and full-swing yips. Her problems were so deep that a week ago, she stood over the ball for four minutes and couldn’t pull the trigger.

No wonder she said that she was “pretty stunned” to hold off a bevy of challengers to win her second career title at the Buick LPGA Shanghai.

“I’m finally at a place where I’m peaceful and happy with my game, with my life,” she said.

8. In the middle of the seven-way tie for second in China was Ariya Jutanugarn, who will return to No. 1 in the world for the second time this season.

9. Also in that logjam was another former top-ranked player, Lydia Ko, who had tumbled all the way to 17th. Ko hasn’t been able to build off of her slump-busting victory earlier this summer, but she now has six consecutive top-16 finishes and at least seems more comfortable in her new position.

“Sometimes you get too carried away about the awards and rankings,” she said. “It just becomes so much. I think it’s more important to keep putting myself there and … shooting in the 60s, and that way I think it builds the confidence and the rankings kind of sort itself out.”


Here's how Tiger Woods explained his pitiful performance at the Ryder Cup: “I was tired because I hadn’t trained for it. I hadn’t trained this entire comeback to play this much golf.”

Of course, he looked just fine a week earlier at East Lake, where he snapped a five-year winless drought with one of the most memorable weeks of his legendary career. His training wasn’t a topic of conversation there.

It's reasonable to expect that the emotional victory took a lot of out of him, but if he was so gassed, why did he sit only one team session and go 36 on Saturday? By Sunday night, Woods looked like he was running on empty, so either he wasn't upfront with captain Jim Furyk about his energy levels, or Furyk ran him out there anyway.

This week's award winners ...  


Can’t Catch a Break: Michelle Wie. The star-crossed talent announced that she’ll miss the rest of the season to undergo surgery to repair a troublesome hand injury. Maybe one of these years she’ll be able to play a full schedule, without physical setbacks.  

Grab the Mic: Paul Azinger. Taking Johnny Miller’s seat in the booth, Azinger will call all four days of action at every Golf Channel/NBC event, beginning at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He was the most logical (and best) choice to follow the inimitable Miller.

Take That, Dawdler: Corey Pavin. It was Pavin – and not the notoriously slow Bernhard Langer – who earned the first slow-play penalty on the PGA Tour Champions in what seemed like ages. The one-shot penalty dropped him to 15th in the event.

Long Time Coming: Jason Day. His tie for fifth at the CJ Cup was his best finish worldwide since … The Players? Really. Wow.



The Tumble Continues: Jordan Spieth. In the latest world rankings, Spieth is officially out of the top 10 for the first time since November 2014. A reminder that he finished last year at No. 2.

Clutch Performances: Andalucia Masters. Both Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Richie Ramsay both moved inside the top 116 in the Race to Dubai standings, securing their European Tour cards for next season. Gonzo tied for fifth in the regular-season finale, while Ramsay was joint 11th.

That’s Messed Up: CJ Cup purse. As colleague Will Gray noted, the purse for the 78-man event was $9.5 million – or $400K more than the first 15 events of the Web.com Tour schedule combined. The difference between the haves and have-nots has never been larger.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. The defending champion never could get started in Korea, closing with his low round of the week, a 4-under 68, just to salvage a tie for 36th. Sigh.  

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Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."

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Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.


Updated Official World Golf Ranking


Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.