Monday 22 January 2018

Donald looks a good bet for Tucson

Luke Donald
Luke Donald

Karl MacGinty

SUN, sea, sand, glorious golf courses and no state taxes! South Florida has everything the superstars of professional golf could wish for – which explains why it's home to so many of the game's biggest names.

World No 1 Rory McIlroy has just bought a $9.5m home in Palm Beach Gardens, literally across the road from The Bear's Club, where the legendary Jack Nicklaus and English-born neighbour Luke Donald are members.

Lee Westwood, another Englishman, moved into the area before Christmas, while Tiger Woods lives not far away in a $54m mansion on Jupiter Island.

This week the soap opera golf fans know as the Tour moves to Tucson, Arizona, for the first World Golf Championship of 2013.

Today we chart the latest storylines in the lives of four south Florida 'Neighbours' who are likely to play a starring role in the Accenture Match Play.

Rory McIlroy

THE most telling match-up in Wednesday's first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson will be between McIlroy and his driver!

It's nearly five weeks since McIlroy missed the cut at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship on his ill-fated Tour debut as a Nike golfer.

Yet the failure to provide the world No 1 with a driver or, indeed, a putter he could use effectively and in confidence that week is still hard to credit.

It's like Sebastian Vettel climbing into the cockpit for the first Grand Prix of the season and finding the seat doesn't fit and his feet don't reach the pedals.

Design chief Tom Stites and his team at 'The Oven', Nike's research and development establishment in Fort Worth, are capable of making McIlroy the club of his dreams.

In a swoosh, they could even rustle up an exact copy of his trusty old Titleist driver, call it a prototype and send their new $20m-a-year-man out onto the course a lot more happy and assured than he appeared during two disturbing rounds of 75 in Abu Dhabi.

So why didn't Nike live up to their own company motto and 'Just Do It' for the Holywood star right from the start?

The answer, industry insiders suggest, lies in the fine balance between Nike's desire to give McIlroy a club with which he's entirely comfortable and the pressing need to market their new Covert driver, officially launched on February 7.

The crimson Covert is based on a clever marketing concept ... billed by Nike as golf's first 'cavity-backed' driver, it's supposedly forgiving enough to help the average Joe hit the golf ball where he's aiming, only further.

Lopping a bit off the back of a driver's head has little real effect on its performance, but people seem to have bought the idea and the club in impressive numbers.

Judging by excited tweets to and from members of Simon Parkhill's sales team at Nike's continental HQ in Hilversum, the Covert's launch was a roaring success, with "record-breaking first-day sales around Europe".

As the WGC Match Play looms this week, it remained to be seen which, if any, of Nike's two new stars, McIlroy or the Covert driver, must give.

Will Nike produce a driver (Covert or otherwise) specifically suited to the 23-year-old and thereby all but guarantee he'll wear their logo on the top step of the podium? Or, God forbid, will they risk compromising his performance as badly as it was in Abu Dhabi?

It was staggering to see how much distance McIlroy lost to Tiger Woods, his playing companion, in Abu Dhabi. Woods, incidentally, doesn't use the Covert.

On the rare occasions both managed to find a fairway off the tee, Tiger's ball came to rest 15 yards or more ahead of McIlroy's, a complete turnaround from 2012, when the Ulsterman drove an average 310.1 yards on Tour and Woods 297.4.

McIlroy's frustration was almost palpable on the practice range in Abu Dhabi on Friday morning as he tried manfully and failed to get the ball flight he desired with the Covert.

His parting words to reporters put the situation in a nutshell. Saying he was "really happy" with the Nike 20X1-X ball, irons and wedges and that he didn't envisage any problems with the Method putter on fast greens, McIlroy went on: "I probably just need to find a driver I'm comfortable with.

"I didn't drive the ball at all well," he added. "I feel that a big advantage for me is driving the ball."

In fact, driving is McIlroy's greatest strength, and stripping the youngster of that precious asset in Abu Dhabi visibly crushed his morale.

While the Covert concept certainly was not created with McIlroy in mind, the driver may still be tweaked to suit him. That process is ongoing, judging by a picture tweeted by McIlroy from Florida on February 9.

Showing a launch monitor screen, it revealed that one of his drives that day carried 306.3 yards after McIlroy achieved a clubhead speed of 117.9 mph and a ball speed of 179.6 mph. "#Numbers, #Covert, #Believe it," was the accompanying message.

Maybe when we see it on Wednesday!

That Nike could slip up so badly on two counts in Abu Dhabi didn't inspire confidence.

Not having a back-up option when McIlroy struggled to get the ball to the hole on Thursday with the lighter Method putter on Abu Dhabi's slower, more heavily grained greens was bad – especially for a player whose confidence isn't cast-iron in that department.

At least McIlroy could resort to his old Scotty Cameron putter on Friday.

Inexplicably, Nike gave him no way out with the driver in Abu Dhabi.

After their failure to strike the right balance between the brand and the man on that occasion, they and McIlroy face high noon in the Sonoran Desert on Wednesday.

tiger woods

WOODS loped to his eighth career victory at Torrey Pines last month, stirring memories of the most recent of his 14 Major championship successes.

On that occasion, Woods (right) defied the pain of two leg fractures and a blown cruciate ligament in his left knee to defeat Rocco Mediate over 19 holes on Monday at the South Course to win the 2008 US Open.

Yet it's too early to say if Tiger's fourth PGA Tour win in 10 months (and 75th in all) is a harbinger of his imminent return to the winner's enclosure at golf's Grand Slams.

Woods was too wild and inconsistent off the tee in Abu Dhabi, where he unluckily missed the cut by one after incurring a two-stroke penalty for an incorrect drop, and in San Diego to suggest he can hold it all together coming down the stretch at the Majors.

In fairness, there were extenuating circumstances at The Farmers. Tiger was lucky to retain the will to live, never mind close out a four strokes victory, on a bitterly cold, windswept Monday at Torrey Pines four weeks ago.

It took a staggering three hours and 45 minutes to complete the final 11 holes of his weather-delayed fourth round that afternoon as the group in front turned tortoise – without, it later emerged, even a word of admonishment from rules officials.

Still, frustration doesn't entirely explain the crazy driving, which saw Woods drop four shots down the stretch.

It's good to see Tiger gradually get his life and his game back together. Off the course, he supposedly has a new love interest, Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, and on it, even his putting is once again reacquiring that Kevlar look.

Yet the swing changes he has made with coach Sean Foley occasionally break down when Woods tries to drive the ball under the cosh.

The unique stresses and pressures of 18-hole match play should help us discover this week precisely where Tiger stands.

Woods swept to his third Accenture title at the nearby Gallery Course in 2008 but has achieved little success at this event since it moved around Dove Mountain to the Ritz-Carlton.

By clinching his 17th World Golf Championship win next Sunday, Tiger would re-establish his Major-winning credentials.

lee westwood

AH, the good life! Westwood and his family are getting used to balmy days in West Palm Beach, their new home.

"I like being by the ocean," he muses. "I find it very relaxing. Just the weather: getting up in the morning and not having to look out the window. You just throw on a pair of shorts, T-shirt and go. It's almost too easy.

"It feels weird not having to get wrapped up and push the ice off the green," adds Westwood, recalling countless winter mornings on his farm in Worksop, where he could never get the putting surface quick enough.

Westwood is as English as roast beef and Yorkshire pud, so his defiant resistance to the lure of America appeared unbreakable.

Yet with no Majors won and his 40th birthday looming in April, this world class golfer's body clock is clanking.

After six top threes in the Grand Slam arena since the 2008 US Open, Westwood clearly became convinced that making the big leap across the pond would help him bridge that tiny but exasperating gap to a Major title.

The Westwoods moved lock, stock and barrel to south Florida before Christmas. As son Sam and daughter Poppy settle into school, their dad, a member of the exclusive Old Palm Club with Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, already feels the benefit of practising and playing in world-class company through the winter.

With 39 professional wins, including 20 in Europe and two in the US, Westwood is prolific – though a WGC breakthrough either this week in Tucson or in a fortnight at Doral would bring heady endorsement.

Yet having gone so close so often, Westwood almost seems to tense up late on Sunday afternoon at the Majors, making delicate chips and putts more difficult to execute.

It remains to be seen if those demons were left behind – but as desperate measures go, living in West Palm Beach ain't half bad!

luke donald

IT'S difficult to think of two more different golfers than understated Englishman Donald and the extravagantly gifted McIlroy.

So after the fanfare and furore surrounding McIlroy's new Nike equipment deal, it comes as no surprise to learn that Donald quietly agreed to extend his contract at Mizuno beyond the 10 years they've already worked together.

"I like to stick with what I know," said Donald (35), revealing that he had spoken to other manufacturers but was reluctant to accept a deal covering all 14 clubs. "I like to have flexibility with the driver and the putter."

After recent events, McIlroy might have appreciated the same flexibility.

Of course, nobody would offer Donald $20m a year to use their clubs, despite the fact that he's spent 55 weeks at world No 1 over the past two years.

Donald rarely gets the recognition he deserves. Yet beneath an unruffled exterior lies steel nerve and a stout fighting spirit which consistently helps him prevail when the chips are down.

Like at the 2011 Disney Classic, when Donald posted the victory he needed to top the US money list, teeing up a place in history as the first man to do the honours in Europe and America in the same year.

At the Transitions last March, Donald pulled off a phenomenal sudden-death success which briefly knocked McIlroy off the top of the world, then repeated that trick at Wentworth in May by retaining his BMW PGA title.

Donald, the Accenture Match Play Champion in 2011, must be best equipped mentally of his vaunted fellow countrymen to break England's 17-year duck at the Majors.

Now he has found a huge ally in his effort to achieve that end – basketball legend and certified golf nut Michael Jordan, a member of Davis Love's back-room team at Medinah last September and clubmate of Donald, McIlroy and a host of PGA Tour stars at The Bear's Club in West Palm Beach.

"Michael's a really nice chap who I've got to know really well recently," Donald explained. "We've begun to play a lot together. I'm always happy to empty his wallet."

And tap his brain! "Michael's good for the mind. He's been making sure that I'm ready mentally. It's been good to find out what he was thinking about when he was playing basketball. He's always trying to play mind games. He doesn't like to lose."

Donald could be a slam dunk this week!

Irish Independent

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