McIlroy surges into contention at Players Championship

Phil Casey 14/05/2016
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Sublime: Rory McIlroy.

World No. 3 Rory McIlroy surged into contention for his first win of the year in the Players Championship, despite squandering a wonderful chance to create tournament history.

McIlroy carded seven birdies and an eagle in his first 16 holes at Sawgrass and came to the par-five ninth, his final hole, needing a birdie to set a new course record of 62.

However, faced with a second shot from 271 yards, the four-time major winner surprisingly opted to lay up and then missed the green from 90 yards with his approach, before fluffing a chip and running up his only bogey of the day.

The resulting 64 left McIlroy on eight under par and two shots behind clubhouse leaders Jonas Blixt and Alex Cejka, who had both recorded their second successive rounds of 67.

American Colt Knost was a shot behind after earlier also missing out on the course record, the world No184 shooting 63 after three-putting the 18th from 40 feet. McIlroy felt he had got the worst of the weather as one of the late starters on Thursday and was pleased to take advantage of better conditions on Friday morning.

“It was benign, soft greens and the back nine you could not get it any easier, so to take advantage of that was really nice,” said McIlroy, who is now a combined 44 under par for the back nine and 12 over for the front since 2013.

“I was going well and it would have been nice to make a four on the last, but 64 is still a great score.”

The spectacular scoring continued as American Will Wilcox made the first hole-in-one on the 17th since 2002 and Shane Lowry bounced back from a poor start with the sixth eagle in tournament history on the 18th.

Lowry, who was two off the lead after an opening 65, had bogeyed the 14th and birdied the 16th before dumping his tee shot into the water on the 17th, but then holed out from 120 yards on the last to get back to eight under par.

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Joy of Golf: Zac Blair learns to use his head

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Needing focus: Zac Blair.

The disqualification of Zac Blair at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow last week is a classic example of how the space between your two ears, quite literally, plays an important role in golf.

Here’s the takeaway – never lose your head on a golf course, and if you do, never bang the putter on your head. The temporal bones are one of the strongest in a human body, and chances are, you will end up damaging your putter instead.

Blair did exactly that after missing a short birdie putt on the fifth hole in Friday’s second round.

After giving himself a bit of a headache, he then proceeded to putt out for par before realising he had bent the shaft of his putter with the impact against his head.

The Rules of Golf stipulate that ‘If, during a stipulated round, a player’s club is damaged other than in the normal course of play rendering it non-conforming or changing its playing characteristics, the club must not subsequently be used or replaced during the round’.

The penalty for breaching Rule 4-3b is disqualification. Blair later tweeted an apology and promised to learn from the mishap in the future. He also found some humour in the situation and tweeted the funny GIF of American Woody Austin doing the same during the 1997 Presidents Cup.

A much better way is employed by the likes of Henrik Stenson, who’d rather break the club in two and give himself no chance of disqualification. Or, like Rory McIlroy, who prefers throwing the offending club in the closest hazard.

Having said that, I have noticed how most players take out their frustration on other clubs in the bag, but rarely on their putters. They might snap a wedge or an iron into two, but the most disrespectful treatment meted out to the flat club is when it is thrown against the golf bag.

The reason is simple. You might use your 6-iron no more than four or five times in a round, but even on your best day on the greens, you will hit nearly 25-30 shots with the putter.

And then there are other ways that Blair should learn.

When I was working with the Indian PGA Tour, we had one player, Balbir Singh, who was renowned for his reaction on missing short putts. Often, he would slap himself square on his cheeks as punishment. It may sting for some time, but at least it will not get you disqualified.

Hahn and his merry ways

You can call him the Andy Sullivan of the PGA Tour. Just like the Nuneaton golfer across the pond, James Hahn could have had a career in a supermarket, before finding, and dedicating himself, to his true calling – professional golf.

Sullivan ditched a job of stacking shelves in Asda in England, while the Seoul-born American had enough of selling shoes at Nordstrom. Both have the biggest smiles on their faces on their respective Tours.

Of course, the fact that both are multiple winners does play a small role in their happiness.

Hahn, who is famously known for breaking into Gangnam-style dance after hitting good shots on the golf course, is the ultimate happy-go-lucky golfer.

Two things stood out about his second PGA Tour win last week at Quail Hollow – he won after eight successive missed cuts, and he is the first winner for the new equipment manufacturing company, Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG).

PXG is one of the most interesting companies in the sport right now. It is founded by Bob Parsons, a millionaire several times over, who has ensured there is no cost spared in developing the most high-tech clubs in the business.

A set of PXG retails for $5,000 and upwards.

Parsons has time and again reiterated that making money from PXG is not his aim… all he wants to do is build better clubs that will make golfers happy playing with them. In Hahn, he already has one very satisfied golfer.

An overdose of 17th

It’s the Players Championship week, and you can be assured of one thing – there will be an overdose of the 17th hole of TPC Sawgrass.

The par-3 island green is an amazing hole, but it does pain me that it so massively overshadows the 17 other great holes created by Pete Dye there.

Having said that, I am a great admirer of short par-3s, and I love to keep a track of the balls getting wet there. Last year, the number was 45. The highest was 93 in 2007, the year when Phil Mickelson won.

Famous: 17th at Sawgrass.

Famous: 17th at Sawgrass.

The worst score on the hole is a 12 by Bob Tway in 2005. And there have been only six aces there, the last one coming in 2002 – by none other than the hole-in-one expert, Miguel Angel Jimenez.

Quote of the Week

“A lot prettier than I am.” – John Daly’s judgement on the Daly bobbleheads that were given out to fans as he made his Champions Tour debut last week.

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Seve will be the guiding light for Spaniards in Thailand

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Inspired: Carlos Balmaseda.

Carlos Balmaseda thinks Spanish golfers at the inaugural Mountain Creek Open will have all the inspiration they need given they are playing on a Seve Ballesteros-dsigned course.

He said: “Of course, Seve is always in our thoughts and prayers. He was one of a kind and an incredible champion, the best golfer the world has ever seen.

“If a Spaniard can go on and win this week, it will be a great tribute to Seve. Few golfers have ever been as charismatic and imaginative as him. We all miss him.

“With long par-4s and dog-legs, the course, in typically Seve fashion, is about good shot-making. It will be a big week for us.

“We look forward to a great week and hope his memories will inspire us to achieve some great results,” added the 44-year-old Spaniard, who finished sixth at last week’s Ras Al Khaimah Classic.

The staging of the first MENA Golf Tour event at the Mountain Creek Golf Resort will also provide players an opportunity to sample first hand some of the excitement Thailand has to offer to golfers.

Supported by Golf Citizen, the tournament will see a collection of international players, representing 18 countries, join some of Thailand’s emerging talent, underscoring the Tour’s resolve to develop and promote the game across the MENA region and beyond.

Spearheaded by Craig Hinton, who is currently placed fourth on the Order of Merit, the English players lead the field with 22 ent-ries followed by seven each from Spain, Sweden and Scotland.

“The course is very testing and demanding and requires a sound strategy off the tee. It’s not a course where you hit a driver every hole. You need to place the ball,” said John Wither, the Mountain Creek PGA professional.

“For that to happen, you need to shape the ball if you aim to go low this week. You got to know where the ball finishes – too far and too short can land you in trouble on this course. Knowing your club yardages will be really important as it’s not a bomber’s course.

“If you missed the fairway, it can be punishing. So, it will be crucial to hit straight and keep the ball in play. And chipping and putting will hold the key to success here.”

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