Woods, McIlroy leave Abu Dhabi with more questions than answers

By Rex HoggardJanuary 18, 2013, 5:38 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Ubiquitous building-sized posters across Abu Dhabi proclaimed this the week “When Giants Returned.” The European Tour’s desert swing opener was billed as the unofficial start of 2013, the week when Tiger and Rory embark on the game’s next great rivalry.

But as darkness rapidly descended on the desert, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy were unceremoniously embarking to their respective next ports of call. For Woods that’s Torrey Pines and his PGA Tour debut. For McIlroy it’s home to south Florida, or perhaps Australia to support better half Caroline Wozniacki.

Both, however, will spend the long hours to points beyond searching for answers.

For Woods it’s a simple question of mistaken identity. His wayward tee shot at the fifth hole on Friday was supposed to be wedged into a plugged lie – playing partner Martin Kaymer confirmed it as such in quick order. But it turns out the world No. 2 had himself an unplayable lie, so instead of a free drop and a grinding back-nine 34 that the world thought kept him inside the cut by a shot, he was told to add two and travel safe.

“It was tough because I didn’t get off to a very good start today and I fought and got it back,” Woods said of the two-stroke penalty he was informed of by officials after his round. “I was right there and I felt that if I had closed to even par I had a chance going into the weekend. Evidently, it wasn’t enough.”

Video: Tiger takes illegal drop

Video: Woods discusses rules infraction

Before we micro-analyze Woods’ bad drop consider that Kaymer took less than 10 seconds to confirm the ball was indeed plugged and, under the Rules of Golf, he was entitled to relief without a penalty.

Also consider that after initially reviewing the area where Woods’ tee shot at the fifth ended up, a European Tour rules official came to the same conclusion. It wasn’t until later that the official began second guessing the drop and the wheels of justice began moving.

“Tiger called me over and said, ‘Is it embedded?’” Kaymer said. “I said, ‘I think so.’ He just wanted to check and it was embedded and then I walked away.”

This was an honest mistake, pure and simple. Happens all the time in golf, just not that often to Woods, who signed for second-round 75 after the penalty was added to his card and missed the cut by a stroke.

Best guess is as Woods wings his way to Torrey Pines for next week’s start, it won’t be his mishandling of the drop on No. 5 that keeps him awake. He has bigger items to lament, including the fact he hit less than 40 percent of Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s fairways in two days (11 of 28), a little more than half its greens in regulation (19 of 36) and had 58 putts.

It all sounded like more of a spring training card then what we’ve come to expect from Woods in his debuts.

“I didn’t hit it particularly well. I putted great but just didn’t hit it very good,” said Woods, who missed a cut in a regular European Tour event for the first time in his career. “I was struggling with that . . . I have some work to do.”

Still, as Woods headed out of town it seemed the only thing he really needed was a return to the friendly confines of Torrey Pines, which he hasn’t played since 2011 and where he has seven victories including the historic 2008 U.S. Open.

High crosswinds and narrow fairways were the culprit on Day 1 when he carded an even-par 72, while Friday’s card featured a spirited finish that included three birdies over his final five holes. And that was after officials informed him walking off the 11th green that there could be an issue with the drop on No. 5.

McIlroy on the other hand may be doing a tad more soul searching.

With a bag full of new equipment and Monday’s rock show announcement that he was joining the Nike Golf fold behind him, the Ulsterman proceeded to post pedestrian rounds of 75 and kick-started his career with the Swoosh with a last-minute audible to switch back to his old Titleist Scotty Cameron putter for Round 2.

Nike Golf did not disclose the fine print of its new deal with McIlroy and it seems likely there are addendums penciled into the deal that would allow him to make such a move. But if that is the case then why not ease into the new bag from the outset?

It took Woods the better part of a decade to play his way into all 14 Nike clubs, with the last piece (the putter) falling into place at the 2010 British Open. It seems like a similarly languid pace would have been prudent for McIlroy.

Besides, he enjoyed only slightly better results with the old model (30 putts) then he did with the new one (31).

Video: McIlroy talks putter switch

“The greens that I’ve been practicing on in Florida are a lot faster than these,” McIlroy said. “The Nike putter is great on that. But then getting here it’s just a weight issue more than anything else. I can feel the head of this one I used today a little bit better. On fast greens, the (Nike putter) works fine.”

Perhaps the old driver would have worked better on wider fairways.

“Fore left!” McIlroy barked as his final tee shot of the day sailed into the gallery adjacent the 18th hole. It was a common theme in Abu Dhabi, where he connected with just 13 of 28 fairways for two days, and probably McIlroy’s primary concern more so than a last-minute putter switch.

Both players bolt the Middle East with more questions than answers, but for the suddenly thin marquee one thing is for certain – Rory v. Tiger may be poised to move to the next level, preferably on a major championship Sunday, just not this week.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”