Sport Golf

Saturday 16 December 2017

Karl MacGinty: 'Gentleman' Phil can seal legendary status

Mickelson sights set on Grand Slam at US Open

Phil Mickelson of the USA in action
Phil Mickelson of the USA in action
US golfer Tiger Woods gestures after sinking his putt
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland

Karl MacGinty

Phil Mickelson fires his first shots in a year of huge historical significance on Thursday when he tees it up with another of golf's biggest newsmakers, Rory McIlroy, in the first round of the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship.

Mickelson's bid for a career Grand Slam at June's US Open will be a major storyline in 2014 and sparks also should fly between McIlroy and Tiger Woods as the Holywood native sets his sights on a return to world No 1.

McIlroy, who slipped to world No 7 yesterday, his lowest ranking since winning the 2011 US Open, must wait a fortnight to get into Tiger's face at the Dubai Desert Classic.

He was replaced at No 6 by Zach Johnson, after the in-form American followed up last week's Hyundai success with a 10th place finish behind Jimmy Walker at the Sony Open in Honolulu.

Yet global attention this week focuses on the European Tour and Abu Dhabi, where Mickelson, McIlroy and Henrik 'Midas' Stenson head a stellar line-up. Padraig Harrington, another multiple Major winner playing in Arabia, squarely backs Mickelson's bid for legendary status.

"In the game of golf, there are a lot of people I'd be happy to see win Majors but not many I'd wish to win Majors," said the Dubliner. "Phil certainly is one.

"Of course, if we were going down the stretch together at a Major, I'd try my hardest to beat him... but, wholeheartedly, I'd like to see him win a Grand Slam.

"Phil's a thorough gentleman," added Harrington, who said he especially admires Mickelson's discipline in fulfilling his duty to fans, sponsors and the image of the game. "He sees the bigger picture."

Will history be Phil's at Pinehurst? Can Tiger end his drought at the Masters? Might Valhalla be PGA heaven for Rory? Get ready for four riveting Majors in 2014.

 

THE MASTERS

Augusta National, April 10-13

 

AUGUSTA offers Tiger Woods by far his best shot of redemption at golf's Majors.

Six of Woods' eight US Tour victories in the past two years were on courses where he's won in the past, heavily underscoring his penchant for repeat wins at venues he likes.

Indeed, 33 of 79 PGA Tour successes by Woods came at just five venues and Augusta, where he won four times between 1997 and 2005, is eclipsed only by St Andrews and Pebble Beach in his list of favourites.

Familiarity will be significant to Woods as he tries to breach a confounding mental barrier separating him from that elusive 15th Major title and his first since the 2008 US Open. Remarkably, Woods has failed break 70 in his last 16 weekend rounds at the Majors.

He's dipped below that mark just three times in 28 attempts since the 2009 US PGA at Hazeltine, where YE Yang smashed Woods' aura of invincibility as he became the first golfer to take the lead from him on Sunday.

Prior to that fateful day, Woods broke 70 an impressive 39 times in 90 weekend rounds as a pro at Majors.

Struggling to get his putts to the hole on Saturday and Sunday has been a recurring theme for Woods at recent Majors, which contrasts starkly with the certainty he once exuded on the green.

Yet, multiple recent wins on Tour indicate Woods remains formidable when his confidence is high.

Woods' luck was out last April but if he gets an even break at Augusta, neither Adam Scott nor Masters specialist Mickelson -- maybe not even McIlroy -- will deny him.

As the greatest golfer of his -- or arguably any -- generation, it'd be a sporting tragedy if Woods fails to equal or beat the record 18 Majors won by Jack Nicklaus.

 

US OPEN

Pinehurst, June 12-15

 

MICKELSON can steal Woods' thunder in June by becoming only the sixth golfer to complete a career Grand Slam on the course where, in 1999, he registered the first of his record tally of six runner-up finishes at the US Open.

On that occasion, the late Payne Stewart eclipsed him at Pinehurst, the pain salved within 24 hours when Mickelson's wife, Amy, gave birth to Amanda, the first of their three children.

Mickelson and Pinehurst have evolved. The Californian showed how vastly his repertoire has expanded by winning a fifth Major, the British Open, at Muirfield last July, while the No 2 Course has been restored by Bill and Ben (Coore and Crenshaw) to reflect better the intentions of its fabled Scottish creator Donald Ross.

It is markedly different to 2005, when Michael Campbell beat Woods by two and Mickelson blew out with a second-round 77.

In high summer in the Carolinas, Pinehurst will play almost like a Scottish links. The 'new' Mickelson can out-duel Woods there and join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods himself in golf's most exclusive club.

"I think the career Grand Slam is a sign of the complete great player," said Mickelson who, at 43 and fighting psoriatic arthritis, slashes his schedule this year to focus on the Majors.

"I'm a leg away but it's been a tough leg for me," added Mickelson, whose other exasperating misses at the US Open came in Bethpage (2002), Shinnecock (2004), Winged Foot (2006) and Merion last year.

What splendid symmetry should his US Open frustration end where it began, Pinehurst.

 

BRITISH OPEN

Hoylake, July 17-20

TIGER WOODS used his driver just once at Royal Liverpool in 2006, surgically dissecting the links with laser-like stinger shots from his four-iron instead.

Hoylake was so parched that week, smoking was banned. Tears shed by an emotional Woods that Sunday for his late father Earl were the closest we came to precipitation during four balmy days.

The odds are massively against a repeat. Next July, Hoylake is likely to live up to its description by legendary golf essayist Bernard Darwin as a place "blown upon by mighty winds".

So Irish links specialists Graeme McDowell, first-round leader in 2006 after a stunning 66; two-time British Open winner Padraig Harrington and 2011 champion Darren Clarke, should be in their element.

Yet Clarke, despite looking incredibly lean and hungry after shedding 40-plus pounds over the winter, and Harrington, at last finding traction with his short game and putting, still have a way to go.

A windswept Hoylake seems unlikely to suit Woods or McIlroy, while Mickelson should be sated after Pinehurst and Sergio Garcia's been wounded too often and too deeply on Sunday afternoon at the Majors, starting here in 2006 when he turned up in canary yellow and was devoured by a hungry feline.

Stenson, runner-up to Mickelson at Muirfield and third at the US PGA as he charged to an unprecedented FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai double, can become Sweden's first Major winner.

 

US PGA

Valhalla, August 7-10

 

RORY McILROY and fiancee Caroline Wozniacki have yet to name the day but one wag, let's just call him Joxer, suggests October.

"Then Rory can wear the same suit to the Four Courts and the wedding!" he explains.

Unless settled in the interim, McIlroy's action again Horizon and the Dublin firm's counter-suit go to trial in the Commercial Court in October.

Still, much of the upheaval and tumult which turned 2013 into a crazy, mixed-up year for McIlroy has dissipated, so expect him to figure once again at the business end at the Majors -- though he may have to wait until August's PGA at Valhalla to clinch his third Major title.

After an extensive revamp by designer Jack Nicklaus to make the course more compatible with the modern golfer and technology, it'll be a model for McIlroy in his pomp.

McDowell and Ian Poulter, bright sparks for Europe at the 2008 Ryder Cup, look forward to Valhalla. While Europe lost, G-Mac was blown away by his first appearance at the most thrilling event in golf.

Yet with 18 new greens sewn with a more heat-resistant strain of bentgrass (and the poa kept at bay), McIlroy will have a perfectly smooth canvas upon which to work.

If 'just' one Major is McIlroy's lot this year, he may follow Mickelson into the Grand Slam club in 2015 by prevailing over Tiger at the Masters and the British Open at St Andrews.

Irish Independent

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