Monday 18 December 2017

Survival of the fittest

Westwood looks like he has what it takes to cope with demands of the ‘minor’ Major

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods come face to
face on the practice ground at the Atlanta
Athletic Club yesterday
Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods come face to face on the practice ground at the Atlanta Athletic Club yesterday

IT'S the 'minor Major' ... less charismatic than the Masters and lagging behind the US and British Opens when it comes to raw prestige.

Yet, in the past three years, the fourth Major of the season has consistently thrown up the most thrilling climaxes: Padraig Harrington's duel with Sergio Garcia at Oakland Hills in 2008, YE Yang's crushing of Tiger at Hazeltine, and Martin Kaymer's victory on a hugely controversial final day at Whistling Straits.

And the questions posed by this year's US PGA at the Atlantic Athletic Club are no less intriguing.

1 -- Will McIlroy let his clubs do all the talking this weekend?

Rory McIlroy joked yesterday that at 5'9" tall and 160lbs, "I'm not the most imposing figure in the game so I don't think I'd be able to intimidate anyone either."

Yet he was head and shoulders above everyone else as he battered the field into submission in June's US Open at Congressional and the Holywood hero inevitably is the bookies' favourite to pick up his second Major title in Atlanta this weekend.

McIlroy's penchant for talking or tweeting himself into tight corners stoked up controversy at the British Open in Sandwich and at the Irish Open in Killarney.

On both occasions, poor form had left him tetchy, but all should be sweetness and light this weekend, provided he consistently steers clear of the Bermuda rough and gets the measure of heavily sloped, slightly grainy greens. It all hinges on his putter.

2 -- Forget winning it, can Harrington actually make the cut?

Three short years ago, as Padraig Harrington completed back-to-back victories at the British Open and US PGA and landed his third Major title in 13 months, the world expected him to push on for the 'Paddy Slam'.

Instead, the Dubliner stumbled into a twilight zone of swing changes, inconsistency and confusion. He's found hope in recent discussions with Pete Cowen, but the 'old swing' must remain in place until he has time to implement the major changes required.

Still, this chance of redemption might boost Harrington's confidence, while he genuinely feels comfortable reading the nap on the Bermuda greens here.

Yet, five missed cuts in his last seven Majors makes ugly reading and he'll be more severely punished this week if he's as wildly inaccurate from tee to green this week as he was in Firestone.

3 -- Has the 'invincible' Tiger passed into extinction?

Tiger still talks the talk. Asked what his realistic expectation was for this week in view of his recent injuries and lack of play, Woods nodded his head and replied: "A 'W'. Do you want me to elaborate? A nice 'W'."

How everyone laughed. Though he's recovered from the left knee and Achilles tendon injuries that limited him to just six holes of tournament play in 16 weeks between the Masters and the Bridgestone Invitational, Tiger hasn't walked the walk on a golf course since November 2009.

He'll eventually sort out his swing with coach Sean Foley and occasionally might even putt with the authority of old, yet the crushing rejection Woods has endured in his private and business life have diminished him.

Meanwhile, 'Tiger Red' could be pretty pink for all the effect it has on a new breed of Major winners like McIlroy, Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel or Graeme McDowell. He may win a Major or two in the future, but not this week.

4 -- Have America's

finest forgotten how

to win Majors?

These are dark days for US golf. As PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem enters contract renewal negotiations with the TV networks that will provide the lifeblood for professional golf beyond 2012, the sport badly needs home-bred heroes to take up the baton from the tattered Tiger.

Yet, an American has not won in six Majors since Phil Mickelson donned the Green Jacket at Augusta last year, the longest stretch in history.

If one of Uncle Sam's nephews doesn't come up trumps this weekend, it'll be the first time since 1994 that all four Major titles have been won by non-Americans in the same calendar year.

Many US players are capable of winning, notably Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar. Yet, with so many 'foreigners' competing regularly on the PGA Tour and Europe's finest especially emboldened by their record Ryder Cup victories, the odds against the home team have increased dramatically.

5 -- What has happened

to Mickelson?

It's been a long, tough summer for Mickelson. Blown away by McIlroy when they played the first 36 holes together at the US Open, Mickelson looked every day of his 41 years as he finished a distant 54th at Congressional.

Though a scintillating run of four birdies and an eagle in the first 10 holes on Sunday at Sandwich brought him level with Darren Clarke, 'Lefty' ran into a brick wall when he missed from 18 inches for par at 11.

The Californian's second place was his best finish at the British Open and he gave his good friend Clarke a genuinely warm embrace at the prize giving. But it surely stung.

He won his 39th PGA Tour title in Houston in April and might well contend for his fifth Major this weekend, but Mickelson's not the force he was.

6 -- Is the party over for birthday boy Clarke?

British Open champion Clarke, who celebrates his 43rd birthday on Sunday, could be forgiven for freewheeling all the way to the end of the year on the back of his phenomenal success at Royal St George's.

Yet, one definitely sensed a competitive edge returning to his game over the final two rounds at Firestone last weekend and his preparations this week have been conducted with pre-Open intensity, coach Cowen reports.

Pointedly, Clarke's dissatisfaction with his game on Tuesday mirrored his feelings in the run-up to his Sandwich success and Cowen chuckled: "It generally helps if Darren only starts to feel happy with his game by Wednesday evening. It keeps his expectations in check."

Despite his sky-high morale after his British Open glory, Clarke could struggle in the infernal heat of Atlanta this week.

7 -- Where did all of McDowell's mojo go?

McDowell certainly has not been himself this season, playing brilliantly one day and slumping the next.

He missed the cut at the Masters and the Open, blew a 54-hole lead with a calamitous final-round 79 at the Players and scuttled his defence at the Welsh Open with a shocking third-round 81.

So how on earth can the hottest player on the planet in 2010 lose confidence so quickly? McDowell this week consulted with a sports shrink recommended by his old college swing coach in Alabama.

"We talked about what's been going wrong this year from a focus viewpoint and it's clear I've been putting too much pressure on myself. My expectations have been way up there," he said (indicating head height) "and my patience levels have been way down there (indicating knee height).

"It's just some clarity of thought really. I'm not a million miles away -- I just need a little spark."

Yet, Atlanta in PGA Championship week probably is the wrong place to come looking for anything.

8 -- Did loudmouth caddie earn Scott an easy ride in Atlanta?

Tiger's ex-caddie Steve Williams sheepishly apologised on Tuesday for stealing his new employer Adam Scott's thunder during a couple of bizarre interviews following the Australian's victory at Firestone.

Clearly, the looper's emotions got the better of him in the wake of his sacking by Tiger last month as he described last Sunday's win as the "the greatest of my career" and expounded at length on his prowess at defending a lead in motor racing and golf.

Scott took it all in good spirit and was even amused at the crowd chanting his caddie's name as they'd walked up 18 together.

The laid-back Aussie actually seemed happy to cede the limelight to Williams as it allowed him to duck much of the hype that usually might accompany a World Championship victory.

9 -- Can Luke Donald wake up and deliver on golf's greatest stage?

Charisma is not something one readily associates with Luke Donald. Though the Englishman is gloriously gifted as a golfer and has been banking more money than any other player on the planet in the past 18 months, he's probably the most underwhelming world No 1 in history.

This guy badly needs to reinforce his reputation with a breakthrough victory at the Majors. Yet, when it has come to the crunch on the game's biggest stage, Donald's composure generally deserts him.

He's had five career top-10s at the Majors, but all too typical was the final day at the 2006 PGA at Medinah, when he led with Tiger going into round four and finished third.

This week, Donald hopes to take a leaf from Clarke's book and ease up on himself in Atlanta. How good it'd be to see this great talent fulfilled.

10 -- So who's going to win on the Highland Course?

McDowell was most graphic in his description of the challenges posed by the Highland Course at Atlanta Athletic Club.

"The front nine is reasonably straightforward, but the back nine is muscles and the last four holes are brutal," he said. "Fifteen (260 yards) is a hell of a hole, one of the hardest par-threes you'll ever see. Sixteen is a good hole, 17 is a playable par-three and 18 is a real 'ball tightener' -- print that."

Throw in four days of searing 90-degree heat and strength-sapping humidity and you have a test that only the toughest can win.

And nobody's tougher or playing better right now than Englishman Lee Westwood.

He looks lean and hungry after dropping 9lbs in a three-week fitness regime, has achieved Clarke-like serenity after consulting with Dr Bob Rotella and, thanks to Dave Stockton, is putting sublimely. Westwood's time has come!

Irish Independent

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