Even without his best, Rory leads at Valhalla

By Ryan LavnerAugust 10, 2014, 1:20 am

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – One of those big, high, soaring drives, this was not. Rory McIlroy’s tee shot on the 292-yard fourth hole Saturday was yanked low and left, 50 yards from its intended target. The ball careened past unsuspecting gallery members and into Floyds Fork.

McIlroy returned the brand-new 3-wood to his bag, mouth agape and eyes wide, a look that screamed: What the hell was that?

Yep, the prettiest swinger in golf had to get a little dirty in the third round of this PGA Championship, and it had little to do with his sloshing through the muddy walkways at Valhalla.

There was the all-world par save on 4. The gutsy flop shot on 9. The blind pitch on 11. The slippery bunker shot on 14.

All of that in a three-hour span, and yet McIlroy lost the outright lead for only about 10 seconds – or as long as it takes to type “Bernd Wiesberger”.

Three birdies in his last four holes – a finishing kick reminiscent of his third round at Hoylake – sent McIlroy to 13-under 200 and gave him a one-shot lead over the relative unknown from Austria.

Boy Wonder’s first three major titles were formalities. Not this time.

To prevail here, McIlroy will need more of the doggedness that he displayed Saturday, when he arrived with less than his best stuff, withstood challenges from his A-list pursuers and still nosed ahead for a one-shot cushion through 54 holes.

“A 67 that way is more pleasing than a 67 hitting every green and feeling like you’ve missed every putt,” he said.

Appearing on center stage for nearly an entire month can take its toll.

Mentally, a player deals with the constant pressure to perform, the feeling of being targeted, the therapy sessions each night in the press room.

Physically, it’s more than just a sustained run of excellence. Being in this position also throws off the everyday routine, with the agonizing waits until 3 p.m. and late evenings with all of the post-round responsibilities.

The 25-year-old McIlroy shows no signs of mental fatigue, and the proof is in his scorecard. Though not blemish-free, it is without compounded mistakes.

“I’ve got one more day,” he said. “I’ve got one more day to give it everything I have.”

For years, Tiger Woods’ competition would crumble in his presence, an entire generation demoralized by his dominance.

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McIlroy’s intimidation is more visual than physical. Drives that fly 330, short irons that cover the flag, putts that repeatedly tumble into the cup – how can you top that?

With each passing hole, he applies pressure on his opponents – the pressure to go low on a championship course. Mistake-free golf is rare enough. Try playing it on a major Sunday, with everything at stake.  

“It gets tougher for the leaders on the last day usually,” Steve Stricker said. “But we’ve got some guys that are immune to that at times, like Rory.”  

“He’s not going to back up,” Rickie Fowler said. “If someone is going to beat him, they’re going to earn it.”

Just once in his career has McIlroy played prevent defense, and he vowed never to do so again. It was the final round of the 2011 Masters, where a four-shot cushion vanished during a final-round 80.

“I don’t think you can protect a lead,” he said.

He didn’t play defensively Saturday, but there still was no separation.

Forget what the scorecard said: Par in the third round was 69, not 71. After more than an inch of rain, Valhalla’s already generous fairways played even wider, and the greens reacted like a dartboard. Nearly every player was taking it deep, yet McIlroy stood on the 15th tee just 1 under for the day.

That changed in a hurry: He unleashed a 300-yard drive, knocked a 9-iron to 20 feet and buried the putt. Birdie.

At 16, he summoned “two of the best shots I hit all day” – a 337-yard rocket, then a 171-yard 9-iron to 2 feet. Birdie.

And on the par-5 finisher, after a thin 5-iron came up short in the bunker, he splashed out and rimmed in an 8-foot birdie putt to eke ahead of Wiesberger (65).

Seven of his drives traveled over 300 yards (an impressive feat, given the hit-and-stop conditions). Seven approaches were stuffed inside 20 feet. And McIlroy one-putted nine of his last 12 greens, taking only 25 total for the round.

As Martin Kaymer marveled Friday, “There’s nothing wrong with his game.”

“I feel like I’m really confident right now no matter who is on that leaderboard,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I have a pretty good chance of beating them.”

Even if it means getting a little dirty.  

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U.S. Amateur playoff: 24 players for 1 spot in match play

By Associated PressAugust 15, 2018, 1:21 pm

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Cole Hammer and Daniel Hillier were tied at the top after two rounds of the U.S. Amateur, but the more compelling action on Tuesday was further down the leaderboard.

Two dozen players were tied for 64th place after two rounds of stroke play at Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill. With the top 64 advancing to match play, that means all 24 will compete in a sudden-death playoff Wednesday morning for the last spot in the knockout rounds.

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They'll be divided into six foursomes and start the playoff at 7:30 a.m. on the par-3 17th at Pebble Beach, where Tom Watson chipped in during the 1982 U.S. Open and went on to win.

The survivor of the playoff will face the 19-year-old Hillier in match play. The New Zealander shot a 2-under 70 at Spyglass Hill to share medalist honors with the 18-year-old Hammer at 6 under. Hammer, an incoming freshman at Texas who played in the 2015 U.S. Open at age 15, shot 68 at Spyglass Hill.

Stewart Hagestad had the low round of the day, a 5-under 66 at Pebble Beach, to move into a tie for 10th after opening with a 76 at Spyglass Hill. The 27-year-old Hagestad won the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur and earned low amateur honors at the 2017 Masters.

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Hammer in position (again) to co-medal at U.S. Am

By Ryan LavnerAugust 14, 2018, 10:37 pm

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Cole Hammer is in position to go for a rare sweep in this summer’s biggest events.

Two weeks ago, Hammer, an incoming freshman at Texas, was the co-medalist at the Western Amateur and went on to take the match-play portion, as well.

Here at the U.S. Amateur, Hammer shot rounds of 69-68 and was once again in position to earn co-medalist honors. At 6-under 137, he was tied with 19-year-old Daniel Hillier of New Zealand.

“It would mean a lot, especially after being medalist at the Western Am,” Hammer said afterward. “It’s pretty special.”

No stroke-play medalist has prevailed in the 64-man match-play bracket since Ryan Moore in 2004. Before that, Tiger Woods (1996) was the most recent medalist champion.  

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On the strength of his Western Am title, Hammer, 18, has soared to No. 18 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He credited his work with swing coach Cameron McCormick and mental coach Bob Rotella.

“Just really started controlling my iron shots really well,” said Hammer, who has worked with McCormick since 2015, when he qualified for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay as a 15-year-old.

“Distance control with my wedges and all my iron shots, playing different shots, has become really a strength in my game. I’ve really turned the putter on this year, and I’m seeing the lines and matching the line with the speed really well. I think that’s been the key to my summer.”

A two-time New Zealand Amateur champion, Hillier is ranked 27th in the world. He said that, entering the tournament, he would have been pleased just to make it to match play.

“But to come out on top, it’s amazing,” Hillier said. “Cole is a really good golfer and has been playing well lately. So, yeah, I’m in good company.”

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Tee times, TV schedule, stats for Wyndham Championship

By Golf Channel DigitalAugust 14, 2018, 9:55 pm

It's the last tournament of the PGA Tour's regular season as the top 125 in the FedExCup points list advance to next week's playoff event. Here's the key info for the Wyndham Championship. (Click here for tee times)

How to watch:

Thursday, Rd. 1: Golf Channel, 3-6PM ET; live stream: https://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Friday, Rd. 2: Golf Channel, 3-6PM ET; live stream: https://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Saturday, Rd. 3: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream: https://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream; CBS, 3-6 p.m.

Sunday, Rd. 4: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream: https://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream; CBS, 3-6 p.m.

Purse: $6 million

Course: Sedgefield Country Club (par 70, 7,127 yards)

Defending champion: Henrik Stenson. Last year he defeated Ollie Schniederjans by one stroke to earn his sixth career PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Henrik Stenson at the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Henrik Stenson

• Missed the cut last week at the PGA Championship

• Six top-10 finishes this year, including T-5 at the Masters and T-6 at the U.S. Open

Sergio Garcia

• Eight missed cuts in last 10 PGA Tour starts

• Currently 131 in FedExCup standings (33 points back of 125th)

Webb Simpson

• Five top-10 finishes in this event since 2010 (won in 2011)

• 56 under par in last five years in this event (best of any player in that span)

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Faldo: Woods told fellow Masters champ 'I'm done' in '17

By Will GrayAugust 14, 2018, 7:42 pm

Fresh off his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship, it's easy to get caught up in the recent success and ebullient optimism surrounding Tiger Woods. But it was not that long ago that Woods even hitting another competitive shot was very much in doubt.

Six-time major champ Sir Nick Faldo shed light on those darker times during a recent appearance on the Dan Patrick Show when he relayed a story from the 2017 Masters champions' dinner. The annual meal is one of golf's most exclusive fraternities, as only the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club is allowed to dine with the men who have each donned a green jacket.

Last spring Woods had not yet undergone spinal fusion surgery, and Faldo explained that Woods at one point turned to an unnamed Masters champ and grimly assessed his future playing chances.

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"I know he whispered to another Masters champion, two Masters dinners ago, 'I'm done. I won't play golf again,'" Faldo said. "He said, 'I'm done. I'm done, my back is done.' He was in agony. He was in pain. His leg, the pain down his legs, there was nothing enjoyable. He couldn't move. If you watched footage of him, he couldn't even get in and out of the golf cart at the (2016) Ryder Cup when he was a vice captain."

But Woods opted for fusion surgery a few weeks later, and after a lengthy rehab process he returned to competition in December. His 2018 campaign has been nothing short of remarkable, with a pair of runner-up finishes to go along with a T-6 result at The Open when he held the outright lead on the back nine on Sunday.

After apparently even counting himself out, Woods is back up to 26th in the latest world rankings and appears in line to be added as a captain's pick for the Ryder Cup next month.

"What he's been able to do is unbelievable," Faldo said. "To turn this aruond, to get this spine fusion, it's completely taken away the pain. To have this mobility is absolutely amazing. Great on him, and great for golf."