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One round from No. 1

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By Pete Pappas

GolfWRX Staff Writer

Three years ago at the 2009 Honda Classic, Rory McIlroy met his idol Jack Nicklaus.  It was at the time only McIlroy’s second ever appearance on the PGA Tour.  But Jack knew immediately this young Northern Irishman was special.  McIlroy had, in Jack’s words, “moxie”.

One year later, again in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Jack and McIlroy would rendezvous before the 2010 Honda Classic at PGA National.  But this time Jack did a bit more than just say hello.  This time Jack took McIlroy aside and gave him an intensive, face to face, crash-course lesson in “how to be a major champion.”  And the dividend that followed was a 2011 U.S. Open Championship for McIlroy.

Fast forward to day three of the 2012 Honda Classic.  McIlroy shot a low round, 4-under 66 on Saturday, good enough for a two-stroke lead heading into Sunday.  And although the PGA Tour has yet to crown a 54-hole leader as tournament champion this season, McIlroy looks to be the odds on favorite to end that dubious streak.

A win on Sunday, however, will be much more significant than merely being McIlroy’s third career PGA Tour victory.  It will mean the 22-year old from Holywood would seize the throne of golf’s World No. 1 ranking away from Luke Donald.

And in the process, on the same course where McIlroy first became friends with Nicklaus, golf’s most prestigious major championship winner of all time, a win may usher in a new era of greatness for professional golf.  Usher in the much anticipated Rory McIlroy-Era.

“This is why I play golf,” McIlroy said.  “To put myself in contention to win tournaments and try to become the best player in the world.”

McIlroy will be grouped on Sunday with Tom Gillis and Harris English, both of whom are two strokes behind McIlroy.  To his credit, English matched McIlroy with a low round, 4-under 66 on Saturday.  And Gillis also managed to stay close thanks to some crafty work with the flatstick.  Gillis made more putts of 20-feet or longer on Saturday than he’s made all season long, which led one NBC commentator to dub him, “Mr. Par Saver.”

But does anyone really think the No. 212 ranked player in the world (English), or the No. 269 ranked player in the world (Gillis) have what it takes to leap past McIlroy?  Or that they’ll be the fortuitous benefactors of another McIlroy final round meltdown like at the 2011 Masters?

English is playing in only his sixth career PGA Tour event, and he’ll likely suffer the agony of rookie inexperience far sooner than the certain torture he’ll also become acquainted with as he negotiates his way through “The Bear Trap” (holes No. 15, No. 16, and No. 17) to finish the day.

Gillis on the other hand has plenty of experience.  In fact, he’s been playing golf almost as long as McIlroy’s been alive.  And to his credit, he has an impressive career best third-place finish at the 2011 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am.

But like English, Gillis finds himself in unknown territory, under the oppressive, baking spotlight of a final pairing with someone who is fiercely determined to become the No. 1 ranked player in the world.

Greater men have wilted under less stressful scenarios.  And McIlroy speaks with the maturity of someone who’s been there, done that.

“I’ve just got to approach this like any other tournament and try and go out there and win tomorrow, McIlroy said.  “That’s all I can focus on.”

Players with better chances of overtaking McIlroy might be major championship winners Keegan Bradley (2012 PGA Championship winner), who shot a two-under 68 on Saturday, and at 7-under overall, is four shots back, tied for fourth place.  Or Charl Schwartzel (2011 Masters Champion), who shot a 3-under 67 on Saturday, and at six-under overall, is five shots back, tied for sixth place.

Also four off the lead and tied for fourth-place are Justin Rose, who shot one-over, 71, and Brian Harmon, who shot a one-under 69.

You Talkin’ To Me?

Johnny Miller had the best line of the day.  After McIlroy hit a nearly perfect 9 iron into the green at No. 15 (which he went on to birdie), Miller said, “That shows why he’ll be the next great player on tour.  But tomorrow may be a different story.” OUCH!  Miller obviously was referring to McIlroy’s 2011 Augusta meltdown, but come on Johnny!  You barely had time to breath between lavishing him with praise and then tarring him in feathers.

Leave The Gun, Take The Canoli

Everyone has days like you had today Justin Rose.  Take it to heart; you did well to escape at just a one-over 71.  Rose shared the midway lead with Gillis before play began on Saturday, but was all over the place with his iron play, and missed a birdie putt on No. 18 that most viewing thought he’d sink.  Still, Rose is only four strokes back.  And if it’s true what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, then Sunday might be an open invitation for Rose to come strong and steal away a victory.

Say Hello To My Little Friend

McIlroy crushed his drive 320 yards on No. 18, as if to say upon leaving the Bear Trap, “trap this!”

The Luck Of The Irish

Fellow Northern Irishmen Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington didn’t fare quite as well as their countryman McIlroy.  McDowell shot a one-under 69, and is seven strokes off the lead, while Harrington shot a two-over 72, to slide back 11 strokes off the lead.

NOTES:

The likelihood of severe thunderstorms tomorrow has caused tournament organizers to move all tee-times forward.  Winds are expected to gust as high as 25 mph.

Jack Nicklaus redesigned Holes No, 15, No. 16, and No. 17, in 1990, when it was given the infamous nickname “The Bear Trap” (No. 17 has caused more three-putts for golfers than any other hole at PGA National).

Tiger Woods was a non-factor on Saturday, finishing with a one-under 69, nine strokes behind the leader and tied for 18th place.  Also tied with Tiger are Ernie Els, Ricky Fowler, Mark Wilson, and Fredrik Jacobson.  Woods playing partner Lee Westwood carded three bogeys Saturday to finish even-par 70 on the day, and is 10 shots behind McIlroy overall.

Coverage resumes Sunday at 1 p.m. EST on GolfChannel, and switches over to NBC from 3-6 p.m.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum.

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Pete is a journalist, commentator, and interviewer covering the PGA Tour, new equipment releases, and the latest golf fashions. Pete's also a radio and television personality who's appeared multiple times on ESPN radio, and Fox Sports All Bets Are Off. And when he's not running down a story, he's at the range working on his game. Above all else, Pete's the proud son of a courageous mom who battled pancreatic cancer much longer than anyone expected. You can follow Pete on twitter @PGAPappas

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European Tour and Ladies European Tour announce Henrik Stenson and Annika Sorenstam will co-host mixed event in Sweden

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For the first time, the European Tour and Ladies European Tour will co-sanction an event which will combine a mixed field playing for the same trophy in a 72-hole strokeplay event.

The inaugural Scandinavian Mixed will take place from June 11-14, 2020, with a field of 78 men and 78 women playing for a total prize purse of €1.5 million at Bro Hof Slott Golf Club in Stockholm, Sweden.

Swedish golf stars Henrik Stenson and Annika Sorenstam will co-host the event, with Stenson set to compete in the championship. Sorenstam, who has been retired since 2008, plans to play in the pro-am.

Speaking on hosting the event alongside Sorenstam, Stenson stated

“I’m extremely excited to host the Scandinavian Mixed alongside Annika, one of the best golfers the world has seen. To have men and women competing alongside one another showcases what is great about our game.

The European Tour has been leading the way in terms of innovative formats, and I believe this is certainly one that can be part of the way golf is played in the future.”

Ryder Cup and Race to Dubai points will be awarded to the male players in the event, while winnings from the tournament will count towards the LET’s official Order of Merit totals.

Both Stenson and Sorenstam are committed to co-host the event for the next three years.

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Morning 9: Bravo, Lanto! | Wisberger wins again | Rickie Fowler is a married man

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1. Bravo, Lanto! 
AP report on Lanto Griffin bursting out of the gate in his PGA Tour career at the Houston Open…
  • “Lanto Griffin took the lead with a 35-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole and won the Houston Open on Sunday with a 6-foot par that gave him a 3-under 69 and a one-shot victory that sends him to the Masters next year.”
  • “Griffin was locked into a battle on the back nine at the Golf Club of Houston with Mark Hubbard and Scott Harrington…Hubbard lost the lead with a bogey on the par-5 16th, while Harrington’s big rally ended with a three-putt bogey on the 17th.”
  • “Griffin’s birdie on the 16th was his first since the eighth hole. On the 18th hole, he ran his 60-foot birdie attempt about 6 feet by the hole and made that to avoid a playoff.”

Full piece.

2. Capstone on Wiesberger’s comeback 
“Austrian Bernd Wiesberger held off a spirited challenge from England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick to claim his third European Tour title of the season at the Italian Open in Rome on Sunday.”
“Wiesberger carded six-under-par 65 in the final round at the Olgiata Club for a 16-under total to overturn a three-shot deficit and beat overnight leader Fitzpatrick by one stroke.”

Full piece.

3. Beemer!
Great stuff from Eamon Lynch, who spoke with the golfer-turned-analyst-turned-golfer-for-the-week Beem.
  • Here’s Beem discussing his son caddying for him…”I want to teach him how good rounds happen, how to save marginal rounds and how to make the most out of a bad situation,” Beem said. “He’s at that age where he gives up mentally. It’s easy to teach them when things are going well. But when things are going sideways, as they did today, how do you save this thing?”
  • “Rounds of 69-71 had put Beem inside the top 20 at the halfway point, but a lousy finish earlier to his third round was chapping him. “I shot 76 today and inside I’m fuming. But there’s nothing I can do,” he said between bites of the Mexican fast food the pair were sharing. “I gave it my best. That’s what I had today.”

Full piece.

Beem tied for 55th after a final-round 71
4. Kang’s advice
Mike McAllister at PGATour.com…“LPGA pro Danielle Kang had some choice words for her boyfriend, PGA TOUR rookie Maverick McNealy, after he shot a third-round 73 on Saturday at the Houston Open.”
“…So what exactly did Kang tell McNealy, who started the week nicely with a 68 before sliding down the leaderboard with middle rounds of 74 and 73?”
“She wanted me to do three things today,” said McNealy, who then provided the specifics.
  • “1. Don’t look at the leaderboards. “So I intentionally did not look at a single leaderboard today,” McNealy said, a difficult task on the back nine given his big move that at one point had him inside the top 10.”
  • “2. Be stronger and stricter with the mental scorecards. “I did that with my 95% of my shots today,” McNealy said. “I only had two shots that I wasn’t fully focused or in the zone or committed on, so I was really happy with that. If I can keep it to two or less, it’s going to be a good day.”
  • “3. Say two good things to himself after every shot. “So it was a very positive day out there for me,” McNealy said.”
5. Kelly rallies
AP report…”Madison’s Jerry Kelly knew he needed to make as many birdies as he could Sunday in a sprint to the finish in the SAS Championship. He was so locked into the process that he didn’t realize how many he made until he marked them down on his card.”
“Locked in a tight race, Kelly ran off five straight birdies to close out the front nine and then made an insurance birdie late that carried him to a 7-under 65 and a one-shot victory in the final regular-season event on the PGA Tour Champions.”
6. Hammer’s takeaway
Golf Channel’s Brentley Romine…”The 20-year-old University of Texas sophomore was extended a sponsor invite into the Houston Open, his hometown PGA Tour event, and walked away Sunday with a 1-over performance and four rounds under his belt.”
  • “It was a great week,” said Hammer, whose only other pro start came at the 2015 U.S. Open when he was 15 years old. “Obviously, I would’ve liked to have played a little better the last three rounds, but I made the cut and played for four days.”
  • “He also got a taste of just how tough the Tour can be. The reigning McCormack medalist as the world’s top-ranked amateur earlier this year, Hammer got a difficult draw. He had to play 12 holes in 30 mph gusts Friday and then wake up early to finish his second round on what was a 24-hole day on Saturday.”
7. Knight’s whirlwind
Golfweek’s Beth Ann Nichols…:”Cheyenne Knight drove through Whataburger on her way home from winning her first LPGA event.”
  • “After a satisfying meal of chicken tenders, sweet tea and fries, there was dancing in the kitchen with her family to “We are the Champions” by Queen.”
  • “It didn’t really sink in, however, until later on Monday when the family watched the replay from the final round of the Volunteers of America LPGA Classic. Congratulatory texts from the likes of Morgan Pressel, Lydia Ko, Stacy Lewis, Angela Stanford and the Korda sisters helped too.”
  • “The whirlwind continued throughout the week, with Knight boarding a plane bound for China after getting in the field for the Buick LPGA Shanghai.”

Full piece.

8. Q-School storylines 
Zach Sepanik for LPGA.com with this on Lucy Li…”She may be gearing up for her first taste of Q-School and one of the youngest individuals competing at 17 years old, but Lucy Li (Redwood Shores, California) has big plans in her future both on and off the golf course.”
  • “As the professional ranks beckon, Li has no timetable for her announcement on making the leap. While she is still determining the right moment for a decision, one thing is for sure and that is how Li will make an impact outside the ropes.”
  • “I’m going to start a foundation giving back to junior golf part of my earnings from events I play,” said Li, who first got started in golf at the age of 7. “It is such a great sport and I really want more kids to play, especially with how many opportunities come through it. I’m going to take the time from now until next season starts to really figure things out with help from my family.”

Full piece.

9. ICYMI: Rickie’s off the market
As reported by Golf Channel’s Grill Room team…”Congratulations go out to Rickie Fowler and Allison Stokke, who just revealed that they got married last Saturday.”
“Fowler and Stokke on Friday both posted pictures of their Oct. 5 beach wedding to Instagram”
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Tour Rundown: Heroic and human in Houston

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It was a funny thing, to read on various social and traditional media sites, that this week’s PGA Tour event was not quite up to snuff. I hope that those pundits took the time out to watch the final 9 holes on Sunday. They saw a mix of heroic and human shots, of smart and silly decisions, and nerves galore. For those who decry the dominance of Brooks Koepka, this week was for them.

It was a lean week for professional golf, with the European Tour and PGA Tour Champions as the only other games in town. As with the Houston Open, each of those offerings provided an 11th-hour finish, providing attention-grabbing golf until the final putt was holed. Lest we forget, golf from October on used to be called the Silly Season, and it featured free money for dour professionals. Count how lucky we are on both hands, that the wraparound season, and the Schwab Cup, Race To Dubai, and Race to CME Globe came about. Let’s have a quick Tour Sprintdown, starting now.

PGA Tour: Houston Open readies for Memorial Park with Lanto’s win

The PGA Tour might have unknowingly stumbled onto a vial of elixir at this week’s H.O. With nary a star golfer to be found, the event came down to a battle of the also-rans (Stewart Cink, Chad Campbell, Harris English) guys who once were at the top, but now, are not; versus the wanna-get-theres (Lanto Griffin, Scott Harrington, Mark Hubbard) golfers freshly promoted from Triple A, itching for the security and confidence that a big-tour victory brings. I’m not sure how to package it, but there is something there! Paging Chris Harrison. Bring roses.

Back to the tournament. The Houston Open used to hold the door for the Masters, entertaining the best of the world; now, it doesn’t. That’s a negative. The tournament used to be played at a yawner of a tour course, in a town called Humble; in 2020, it returns to the city center, to a public course reborn from Tom Doak and Mike Nuzzo. That’s a huge positive. In 2019, viewers watched as a trio of non-winners soared and stumbled down the stretch, risking all to gather in an initial tour triumph.

It was a tale of three golfers: Lanto Griffin, the 3rd-round leader; Scott Harrington, the survivor; and Mark Hubbard, the best Twitter handle on any tour. Hubbard got nothing going on the back nine. Just one birdie would have brought him a tie for 1st. Instead, a lone bogey at the 15th cemented a tie for 2nd with Scott Harrington. Harrington narrowly missed a tour card during last season’s Korn Ferry schedule, but redeemed himself in the playoffs. He had four birdies and two bogeys over a 6-hole stretch late Sunday. Like Harrington, just one more birdie might have done the trick. Instead, it was Lanto Griffin, also a KF Tour graduate, who made a 6-feet putt for par at the frightening 18th, to win an inaugural tour title in style.

European Tour: Wiesberger holds off surging Fitzpatrick

Good old internal out of bounds. It snagged Rory McIlroy in Northern Ireland this summer, and it tackled Matthew Fitzpatrick at this week’s Italian Open. Something that should not exist, yet does, once again changed the course of a tournament. Fitzpatrick had the lead at the 9th, then he did not. He fought back gamely, but missed a golden chance for eagle at the 17th. The resulting birdie forced him to birdie the 18th, and he could not muster a 2nd-consecutive chirp.

Finishing a few groups ahead of Fitzy was Bernd Wiesberger, the talented Austrian who summoned all his skills over the closing 55 holes. From the 9th hole on Saturday through the finish, Wiesberger had 12 birdies and 0 others. He was flawless when he needed to be, and there was just enough flaw in Fitzpatrick to let Bernd through the door. The young Englishman had four birdies on the day, 3 on the inward half, when he needed to press. Would he have made them, had the 9th hole yielded par or birdie, rather than double bogey? Impossible to say. For the champion, Olgiata provided a venue for his 2nd Rolex Series title of the season, pairing well with Wiesberger’s Scottish Open triumph over the summer.

PGA Tour Champions: Kelly collects 3rd title of 2019

Jerry Kelly has never been one to hide his emotions. One imagines the glee on his Wisconsin-bred face as he birdied holes 5 through 9 on Sunday, racing to an outward 29 and the lead at the SAS Championship. One also imagines the consternation as New Zealand’s David McKenzie turned the tables, coming home with 5 birdies and 1 eagle for an inward 31. Fortunately for Kelly, he added birdies at 15 and 17, granting freedom to bogey the last and win by a stroke.

Kelly hasn’t been a Champions-Tour golfer for long. He won twice in 2017, a year after he reached the senior circuit, then dipped to 1 victory last season. 2019 has been a veritable motherlode for the tour grinder. SAS represented his 3rd title of this campaign, following wins in June at the AFI and September, at the ALLY. It also means that Kelly closed the gap on Scott McCarron, in the race for the Charles Schwab Cup. Three events remain, spread out over the next 5 weeks. As with everything else autumn, this race will not decide itself until the final putt falls.

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