McIlroy back under the microscope at Match Play

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 19, 2013, 7:55 pm

MARANA, Ariz. – That season debut – the one that included smoke tunnels and holograms and, eventually, one-armed follow-throughs – seems like a long time ago. So long, in fact, that when Rory McIlroy was packing his bags for this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, he briefly forgot how many shirts and pants to bring.

You’ll have to excuse the kid. It’s been 32 days since that missed cut in Abu Dhabi; 86 days since he won his 2012 season finale in Dubai; and 149 days since he last competed on the PGA Tour, at the Tour Championship.

Not much has happened since then, unless, of course, you count a two-time major champion changing equipment, becoming one of the freckled faces of the biggest companies in the world, appearing in two TV commercials, and, yes, shooting 75-75 with a large segment of the golf community watching, waiting to dissect every poor swing and every sour facial expression. So, like we said, not much.

Bracket Challenge: Make picks for WGC-Match Play

WGC-Match Play: Printable bracket

WGC-Match Play: Articles, videos and photos

Like Tiger Woods before him, McIlroy now lives as the man under the microscope, a headline in perpetuity. It’s little wonder, then, that after Abu Dhabi the 23-year-old escaped to the French Alps with his tennis-star girlfriend, spent a few sun-splashed days in Monaco, and then finally returned to South Florida – where he has purchased a stunning, $9.5 million pad in Palm Beach Gardens – to begin the serious work of reestablishing his game with instructor Michael Bannon.

“I feel like I’ve turned a corner,” McIlroy said Tuesday at Dove Mountain. “I’ve got it back on track.”

Everyone with a microphone and some airtime has weighed in on those 150 strokes in Abu Dhabi. Some suggested his changing equipment was a fatal mistake. Others questioned why he didn’t add another tournament on the West Coast, even though, he said, “I don’t feel like I’m a guy that needs to play his way into form.”

McIlroy understood the backlash was coming, particularly if he didn’t play well in his first start. Distracted all week – “I was just glad to get to the first tee on Thursday,” he said – he bombed out with a missed cut, caused a mini-controversy by switching from his new Nike putter back to his trusty Scotty Cameron, and then disappeared for five weeks.

Yes, with the interest in him never greater, he got away – from the spotlight, the scrutiny and the expectations. He needed the break, perhaps more mentally than physically. He was exhausted, agitated, and it was manifesting itself on the course.

“It’s nice to sort of get away for a little bit and do my own thing and not be in the spotlight or have the attention so much,” McIlroy said. Later, he added, “(The scrutiny) is part of what we do. We’re under the spotlight. We’re going to get criticized from time to time, rightfully or wrongfully so. That’s just the way it is. It’s part of life.”

What will the reaction be like if McIlroy – the No. 1 overall seed, the No. 1 player in the world – loses in the Match Play’s opening round Wednesday to Shane Lowry, a good friend for the past decade, but also the last man to secure an automatic spot in the field, a stocky Irishman with just two pro titles to his credit?

It’s happened three times before, the No. 1 overall seed being sent packing after one day, after one round. (Heck, it happened last year, to Luke Donald.) Once, Graeme McDowell rolled his luggage through the locker room, defeated, before McIlroy had even gotten to the course. Unlike the NCAA basketball tournament, not much separates Nos. 1 and 64 over the course of 18 holes.

On Tuesday, Lowry was asked if he had any advantages against McIlroy, if only because he knows his game as well as anyone. “I don’t think anyone can have any advantages against Rory, to be honest,” he said, smiling.

Maybe so, but Lowry conceded that if he were to take down McIlroy in their first-ever meeting, “It would be one of the great stories of my career so far. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

They usually eat dinner together on the road, or play a practice round, the ultimate lesson in osmosis. (Not this week, of course.) Their relationship dates nearly a decade, when they played foursomes together for the Irish amateur team.

And when Lowry won his first event, as an amateur, at the 2009 Irish Open, guess who was one of the first players on the green to celebrate? And guess who was spraying the champagne? And guess who was the first to suggest that he turn pro afterward? McIlroy.

Lowry has since fortified his resume with a victory at the Portugal Masters last October, and here he is, faced with a potentially career-changing moment, hoping to validate his appearance here and knock off his good friend and, just maybe, create even more uncertainty atop the world order.

“There’s not many people expecting me to win,” Lowry said. “I’m just going to go out there all guns blazing.”

Getty Images

No indication when Trump Turnberry will next host an Open

By Jay CoffinJuly 18, 2018, 12:25 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Turnberry last hosted The Open in 2009, during that magical week where Tom Watson, at age 59, nearly won his sixth claret jug. Ultimately, Stewart Cink won in a playoff.

While Turnberry remains on The Open rota, according to the R&A, there is no clear understanding of when the club, purchased by Donald Trump in 2014 before he became President of the United States, will next host the championship. The next open date is 2022.

“With respect to 2022, I’ve already said, ’21 we’re going to be celebrating the 150th playing of The Open at St. Andrews,” R&A chief executive Marin Slumbers said Wednesday on the annual news conference on the eve of The Open. “And in ’22, we’ll be going south of the border.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

South of the border means the 2022 Open will be at one of the three venues in England. Since the 2020 Open is at Royal St. George’s, that leaves Royal Lytham & St. Annes and Royal Liverpool as the two remaining options. Since Lytham (2012, Ernie Els) last hosted The Open before Liverpool (2014, Rory McIlroy), that’s the likely choice.

Trump was at Turnberry for two days last weekend, 150 miles southwest of Carnoustie. The R&A said it did not receive any communication from the U.S. president while he was in the country.

Turnberry hosted the Women’s British Open in 2015. Inbee Park beat Jin-young Park by three shots.

Getty Images

Slumbers explains driver test; Rory weighs in

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2018, 12:18 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Players and manufacturers were informed about three weeks ago that the R&A intended to test individual drivers at this week’s Open Championship, marking the first time the rule makers have taken the current standards to players.

Although the R&A and USGA have been COR (coefficient of restitution) tests on drivers for some time, they have been pulling the tested clubs from manufacturers, not players.

“We take our governance role very seriously, not just on the Rules of Golf and amateur status, but also equipment standards, and we felt it was an appropriate next step to more actively seek to test players' drivers straight out of the bag,” said Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive.

Thirty players were notified their drivers would be tested this week - including Paul Casey, Brooks Koepka, Jason Day and Henrik Stenson - from a list that roughly mirrored the breakdown of various brands based on current equipment counts.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

The R&A test center was set up on the Carnoustie practice range, and according to Slumbers there were no violations of the testing limits, which essentially measure the spring-like effect of the driver clubface.

Although none of the drivers failed the testing, Rory McIlroy did say that TaylorMade was “singled out a bit more than anyone else.”

“A manufacturer is always going to try and find ways to get around what the regulations are. It's a bit of an arms race,” said McIlroy, who plays TaylorMade equipment but said his driver was not tested. “If there is some drivers out there that have went a little bit over the limit, then obviously guys shouldn't be playing them. I think the manufacturers are smart enough to know not to try to push it too much.”

There was no individual driver testing at last month’s U.S. Open, and it’s not expected to become the norm on the PGA Tour, but Slumbers did say the R&A tested drivers at an event earlier this year on the Japan Golf Tour.

Getty Images

Carnoustie open to any number of scenarios

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2018, 12:07 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Carnoustie holds a distinct position within the Open Championship’s rotation of storied venues. It’s come by its nickname, Car-Nasty, honestly as the undisputed rough-and-tumble heavyweight of all the championship links.

Historically, Carnoustie is a beast. A punch in the mouth compared to the other stops on The Open dance card. If the likes of the Old Course and Muirfield are the fair ladies of the rotation, the Angus Coast brute would be the unfriendly bouncer.

As personas go, Carnoustie wears its reputation well, but the 147th edition of the game’s oldest championship has taken on a new look this week. It’s not so much the softer side of Carnoustie as it is a testament to the set up philosophy of the R&A.

Unlike its sister association in the United States, the R&A allows Mother Nature to decide what kind of test a championship will present and this Open is shaping up to be something far different than what the golf world is accustomed.

Instead of the thick, lush rough that ringed the fairways in 1999 and 2007, the last two stops at the par-71 layout, this year has a dust bowl feel to it. The stories have already become legend: Padraig Harrington hit a 457-yard drive on the 18th hole during a practice round that bounced and bounded into Barry Burn and on Monday Tiger Woods slashed a 333-yard 3-iron down the same power alley.

“It’s so fast. It’s nothing like ’99 – that was like a jungle. It was wet, rough was up, there was wind. In 2007, it was cold and green,” said Ernie Els, who has played two championships at Carnoustie. “But this is very, very dry. Very different.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Anywhere else these divergent conditions would simply be the nature of the game’s most hands-off major, but at Carnoustie it’s created an information vacuum and wild uncertainty.

Within a 48-hour window, two of the championship’s easy favorites offered diametrically contrasting philosophies on how they might play Carnoustie.

“There's eight or nine drivers we hit. Depending on the wind direction, we could hit more,” said Brooks Koepka, who won his second consecutive U.S. Open last month. “It's so burnt out, where there's a lot of opportunity where the rough's not quite as thick as I expected it to be.”

That was in contrast to how Jordan Spieth, this week’s defending champion, was thinking he would play the course.

“I talked to [caddie Michael Greller] a little bit about what he thinks, and he said, ‘You might hit a lot of 5-irons off the tee, you might wear out 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you're used to,’” Spieth said.

Unlike previous championships that were played at Carnoustie, which were won by the player best prepared to take a punch, this one might come down to which strategy, controlled and calculated or bold and brash, works best.

In theory, the bombers seem to be on to something, primarily as a result of the dry conditions that have produced uncharacteristically thin and playable rough. The alternative is weaving irons in between the countless bunkers that pepper each fairway, which on links courses are widely considered true hazards compared to what players face at other major venues.

“I would definitely say it is a bomber’s course,” said Gary Woodland, who counts himself among the long-hitting set. “A lot of the bunkers here are 285, 290 [yards] to cover, for us that’s nothing. You can take them out of play, which normally isn’t the case because it’s windy and rainy over here.”

That line of thinking leads to a rather narrow list of potential contenders, from betting favorite Dustin Johnson to Rory McIlroy and Koepka. But that logic ignores the inherent unpredictability of The Open, where countless contenders have been undercut by the rub of a bad draw and the always-present danger of inclement weather.

Although this week’s forecast calls for continued dry weather, winds are currently forecast to reach 25 mph on Sunday which could upend game plans, regardless of how aggressive or conservative one intended to play the course.

Despite conventional thinking and the realities of a modern game that is being dominated more and more by long hitters, there are compelling arguments for the other side of the bash-or-bunt debate.

One needs to look no further than Woods’ record on similarly dusty tracks as an example of how a conservative approach can produce championship results. In 2006 at Royal Liverpool, Woods, who is playing his first Open since 2015, famously hit just one driver all week on his way to victory, and he was just as effective in 2000 at St. Andrews when the Old Course also played to a bouncy brown.

“It could be that way,” Woods said when asked to compare ’06 at Hoylake to this week. “Either case, I'm not going to hit that many long clubs off the tees.”

Adding to that uncertainty is Carnoustie’s track record in producing late drama on Sunday. This is, after all, the same slice of coast where Jean Van de Velde stepped to the 18th tee box with a three-stroke lead in 1999 only to slash his way to a closing triple-bogey 7 and the game’s most memorable, or regrettable, runner-up showing.

In ’07, the heartbreak went extra frames for Sergio Garcia, who appeared poised to win his first major championship before he bogeyed the last hole and lost a playoff to Harrington.

Even this week’s baked-out conditions can’t mitigate the importance and challenge of what many consider the most difficult Grand Slam finish; but the yellow hue has certainly created an added degree of uncertainty to an already unpredictable championship.

Getty Images

Slumbers: Mickelson penalty 'not good for the game'

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 11:44 am

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers said that Phil Mickelson’s controversial penalty at the U.S. Open was not “good for the game,” but he did not say explicitly whether the ruling would have been any different at The Open.

Speaking Wednesday at his annual address, Slumbers said that he spoke with Mickelson last week about the incident. At Shinnecock Hills, Mickelson hit a moving ball in the third round but was not disqualified for a breach of etiquette. Instead, he received a two-shot penalty under Rule 14-5.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“In the event of a similar situation this week, clearly, the first thing is you understand the facts because you never get the same situation and there will be lots of reasons,” Slumbers said. “But we have looked very carefully at the rules, and I don’t think it was good for the game and not the right way to have played this wonderful sport, and we would make a decision based on the facts of any incident that happened later in the week.”

Rule 1-2, which includes a clause for disqualification, was not used because the infraction is covered under another rule.

“Let’s also remember that it’s a moot point for next year,” Slumbers said, “because as of the first of January 2019, there would have been a DQ option in that equivalent rule.”