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

Asia offers chance for players to get early jump on season

By Rex HoggardOctober 17, 2018, 6:00 pm

When the field at this week’s CJ Cup tees off for Round 1 just past dinner time on the East Coast Wednesday most golf fans will still be digesting the dramatic finish to the 2017-18 season, which wrapped up exactly 24 days ago, or reliving a Ryder Cup that didn’t go well for the visiting team.

Put another way, the third event of the new season will slip by largely unnoticed, the victim of a crowded sports calendar and probably a dollop of burnout.

What’ll be lost in this three-event swing through Asia that began last week in Kuala Lumpur at the CIMB Classic is how important these events have become to Tour players, whether they count themselves among the star class or those just trying to keep their jobs.

The Asian swing began in 2009 with the addition of the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, although it would be a few years before the event earned full status on Tour, and expanded in 2010 with the addition of the CIMB Classic. This week’s stop in South Korea was added last season and as the circuit transitions to a condensed schedule and earlier finish next year there are persistent rumors that the Tour plans to expand even more in the Far East with sources saying an event in Japan would be a likely landing spot.

Although these events resonate little in the United States because of the time zone hurdles, for players, the Asian swing has become a key part of the schedule.

Consider that seven of the top 10 performers last year in Asia advanced to the Tour Championship and that success wasn’t mutually exclusive to how these players started their season in Asia.

For players looking to get a jump on the new season, the three Asian stops are low-hanging fruit, with all three featuring limited fields and no cut where players are guaranteed four rounds and FedExCup points.

For a player like Pat Perez, his performances last October virtually made his season, with the veteran winning the CIMB Classic and finishing tied for fifth place at the CJ Cup. All total, Perez, who played all three Asian events last year, earned 627 FedExCup points - more than half (53 percent) of his regular-season total.

Keegan Bradley and Cameron Smith also made the most of the tournaments in Asia, earning 34 and 36 percent, respectively, of their regular-season points in the Far East. On average, the top 10 performers in Asia last year earned 26 percent of their regular-season points in what was essentially a fraction of their total starts.

“It's just a place that I've obviously played well,” Justin Thomas, a three-time winner in Asia, said last week in Kuala Lumpur. “I'm comfortable. I think being a little bit of a longer hitter you have an advantage, but I mean, the fact of the matter is that I've just played well the years I played here.”

Perhaps the biggest winner in Asia last season was Justin Rose, who began a torrid run with his victory at the WGC-HSBC Champions, and earned 28 percent of his regular-season points (550) in the Far East on his way to winning the FedExCup by just 41 points.

But it’s not just the stars who have made the most of the potential pot of Asian gold.

Lucas Glover finished tied for seventh at the CIMB Classic, 15th at the CJ Cup and 50th in China in 2017 to earn 145 of his 324 regular-season points (45 percent). Although that total was well off the pace to earn Glover a spot in the postseason and a full Tour card, it was enough to secure him conditional status in 2018-19.

Similarly, Camilo Villegas tied for 17th in Kuala Lumpur and 36th in South Korea to earn 67 of his 90 points, the difference between finishing 193rd on the regular-season point list and 227th. While it may seem like a trivial amount to the average fan, it allowed Villegas to qualify for the Tour Finals and a chance to re-earn his Tour card.

With this increasingly nuanced importance have come better fields in Asia (which were largely overlooked the first few years), with six of the top 30 players in the Official World Golf Ranking making the trip last week to Malaysia and this week’s tee sheet in South Korea featuring two of the top 5 in world - No. 3 Brooks Koepka and No. 4 Thomas.

“I finished 11th here last year and 11th in China the next week. If I can try and improve on that, get myself in contention and possibly win, it sets up the whole year. That's why I've come back to play,” Jason Day said this week of his decision to play the Asian swing.

For many golf fans in the United States, the next few weeks will be a far-flung distraction until the Tour arrives on the West Coast early next year, but for the players who are increasingly starting to make the trip east, it’s a crucial opportunity to get a jump on the season.

Getty Images

Watch: Woods uses computer code to make robotic putt

By Jason CrookOctober 17, 2018, 3:10 pm

Robots have been plotting their takeover of the golf world for some time.

First it was talking trash to Rory McIlroy, then it was making a hole-in-one at TPC Scottsdale's famous 16th hole ... and now they're making putts for Tiger Woods.

Woods tweeted out a video on Tuesday draining a putt without ever touching the ball:

The 42-year-old teamed up with a computer program to make the putt, and provided onlookers with a vintage Tiger celebration, because computers can't do that ... yet.

Getty Images

Woods admits fatigue played factor in Ryder Cup

By Jason CrookOctober 17, 2018, 12:35 pm

There was plenty of speculation about Tiger Woods’ health in the wake of the U.S. team’s loss to Europe at last month’s Ryder Cup, and the 14-time major champ broke his silence on the matter during a driving range Q&A at his annual Tiger Woods Invitational at Pebble Beach on Tuesday.

Woods, who went 0-4 in Paris, admitted he was tired because he wasn’t ready to play so much golf this season after coming back from a fourth back surgery.

“It was just a cumulative effect of the entire season,” Woods said. “I was tired because I hadn’t trained for it. I hadn’t trained this entire comeback to play this much golf and on top of that deal with the heat and the fatigue and the loss of weight.”

The topic of conversation then shifted to what's next, with Woods saying he's just starting to plan out his future schedule, outside of "The Match" with Phil Mickelson over Thanksgiving weekend and his Hero World Challenge in December.

“I’m still figuring that out,” Woods said. “Flying out here yesterday trying to look at the schedule, it’s the first time I’ve taken a look at it. I’ve been so focused on getting through the playoffs and the Ryder Cup that I just took a look at the schedule and saw how packed it is.”

While his exact schedule remains a bit of a mystery, one little event in April at Augusta National seemed to be on his mind already.

When asked which major he was most looking forward to next year, Woods didn't hesitate with his response, “Oh, that first one.”

Getty Images

Podcast: Fujikawa aims to offer 'hope' by coming out

By Golf Channel DigitalOctober 17, 2018, 12:03 pm

Tadd Fujikawa first made golf history with his age. Now he's doing it with his recent decision to openly discuss his sexuality.

Last month Fujikawa announced via Instagram that he is gay, becoming the first male professional to come out publicly. Now 27, he has a different perspective on life than he did when he became the youngest U.S. Open participant in 2006 at Winged Foot at age 15, or when he made the cut at the Sony Open a few months later.

Joining as the guest on the latest Golf Channel podcast, Fujikawa discussed with host Will Gray the reception to his recent announcement - as well as some of the motivating factors that led the former teen phenom to become somewhat of a pioneer in the world of men's professional golf.

"I just want to let people know that they're enough, and that they're good exactly as they are," Fujikawa said. "That they don't need to change who they are to fit society's mold. Especially in the golf world where it's so, it's not something that's very common."

The wide-ranging interview also touched on Fujikawa's adjustment to life on golf-centric St. Simons Island, Ga., as well as some of his hobbies outside the game. But he was also candid about the role that anxiety and depression surrounding his sexuality had on his early playing career, admitting that he considered walking away from the game "many, many times" and would have done so had it not been for the support of friends and family.

While professional golf remains a priority, Fujikawa is also embracing the newfound opportunity to help others in a similar position.

"Hearing other stories, other athletes, other celebrities, my friends. Just seeing other people come out gave me a lot of hope in times when I didn't feel like there was a lot of hope," he said. "For me personally, it was something that I've wanted to do for a long time, and something I'm very passionate about. I really want to help other people who are struggling with that similar issue. And if I can change lives, that's really my goal."

For more from Fujikawa, click below or click here to download the podcast and subscribe to future episodes: