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Collision course: A new No. 1 and the “old Tiger”

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By Michael Williams

Special to GolfWRX

Sports debate is driven by fact but the destination is an opinion. Even when the scoreboard is clear cut, there are varying conclusions that can be drawn about who is the best, as opposed to who was better on a given day.

By 6 p.m. on Sunday, two conclusions were clear by fact and reasonably informed opinion; Rory McIlroy is the best player in the world. And Tiger Woods is still the most important player in the word. These two were finally linked in competition rather than idle conversation and hopefully the world can look forward to them drafting off each other like a couple of stock cars for the foreseeable future.

McIlroy finally succeeded in assuming the top world ranking, an occurrence with all the inevitability of day following night. He roamed the Jack Nicklaus layout with equal parts fire and ice. He hit prodigious drives and laser-like irons into the stiff Florida winds to pins that were hidden like Easter eggs. And on the rare occasions where his full swing failed him, his short game came to the rescue. McIlroy’s wedge and bunker play had been a perceived weakness; this week, it was razor sharp. And he saved par time after time with putts of six to eight feet, a pre-requisite for the best player in the world. As the wax wings of journeyman Tom Gillis and the other contenders began to melt on the back nine on Sunday, it appeared that the prince would become the King without dispute.

And then, after two years of being Eldrick Woods, Eldrick suddenly became Tiger again. Woods’ ball-striking had been good in recent outings; on Sunday it was superb. The last time Woods led a tournament in driving distance, McIlroy was sweating his 8th grade science project, but Woods did it this week. He also led the field in a stat called Proximity to the Hole … stop it … which essentially means that he was hitting his drives far and his irons close. He finally put together a round of solid ball-striking and lights out putting, and most significantly he did it on Sunday. And you could almost hear the sound of televisions switching to watch a routine PGA Tour event, made special because the most talked about athlete since Michael Jordan was doing that thing he does. When Tiger is at his best, it’s not just a sporting event. It’s a social event.

Tiger and Rory both fit the profile of the golf titans: They won early in their careers, they win often, and they win important. And if the gods are smiling, they can add one more facet of glory to each other with every event they participate in together: they can win against each other. You got the feeling yesterday that after losing sight of Nicklaus’ legacy, which for so long had been his aim point on the horizon, Tiger had found a closer target. If he was to be the once and future King, he needed to vanquish this new knight. And he very nearly did, and he went about it in the fashion that makes Tiger an amalgamation of the best qualities of the best players who ever lived. He was long like Nicklaus, precise like Jones, relentless like Hogan. And on the par five 18th, blasting a mid-iron 220 yards to eight feet and then dropping the eagle putt to put up a career final-round best 62, he could only be compared to himself.

And McIlroy, this improbably gifted young player, showed that behind the tousled mop of hair and the Gerber baby cheeks are a will and determination to match the ability and the ambition. McIlroy had to protect a wafer-thin two shot lead through the Bear Trap, arguably the toughest stretch of holes anywhere on Tour. And there was no doubt that he knew what was happening, as the echoes of each step in Woods’ assault was punctuated with the roars of the grateful crowd. But where McIlroy had been spectacular on previous days, he was wise and cunning on Sunday. He protected par like a jealous boyfriend, making his number from deep rough, treacherous sand and wayward locations on the greens. On No. 18, he opted for rational rather than remarkable, laying up in the fairway and easing into his par and the championship like fighter pilot making a routing landing, preserving his two shot lead and the championship.

Maverick and Iceman, indeed.

I admit I got emotional watching on Sunday. I was happy for both McIlroy’s ascendance and Woods’ resurgence. I was even happy for Gillis, who sank a putt that tied him with Woods for second, won him about $200,000 additional dollars and validated the career ticket he’d been carrying for 15 years. But the source of the chills that I felt was the fact these two battling for supremacy had made the Honda Classic seem like the fifth major. Augusta awaits, ready to play leading lady to these supreme actors. Both of them seek dominance in posterity and in the now. Tiger never had the chance to compete against Nicklaus in his prime; he could only use Nicklaus’ record as a road map on a journey he was making solo. It appears that another traveler is in view and while Tiger may get there first, Rory has intentions of matching him step for step. And because he is doing so against Woods, the entire world will be watching. Not only to see him win, but to see him try to do it against the best of this or possibly any other generation. Oh, and Mickelson will probably be there, too.

To coin a phrase, I can’t wait.

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

Michael Williams is the contributing editor of Newschannel8 Capital Golf Weekly and Bunkershot.com, as well as a member of the Golf Writers Association of America.

You can follow Michael on twitter — @Michaelontv

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Williams has a reputation as a savvy broadcaster, and as an incisive interviewer and writer. An avid golfer himself, Williams has covered the game of golf and the golf lifestyle including courses, restaurants, travel and sports marketing for publications all over the world. He is currently working with a wide range of outlets in traditional and electronic media, and has produced and hosted “Sticks and Stones” on the Fox Radio network, a critically acclaimed show that combined coverage of the golf world with interviews of the Washington power elite. His work on Newschannel8’s “Capital Golf Weekly” and “SportsTalk” have established him as one of the area’s most trusted sources for golf reporting. Williams has also made numerous radio appearances on “The John Thompson Show,” and a host of other local productions. He is a sought-after speaker and panel moderator, he has recently launched a new partnership with The O Team to create original golf-themed programming and events. Williams is a member of the United States Golf Association and the Golf Writers Association of America.

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Tour Mash: Rahm wins in Dubai, Cook sizzles to victory

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Two more points races reached their end this weekend. The LPGA season culminated in Florida with the Race to the CME Globe, while the European Tour concluded its Race to Dubai in, where else? Dubai! The PGA Tour played its final event until the new year, in Georgia, while the Ladies European Tour played its Sanya Open in China. Before American Thanksgiving revelry and remembrance set in, it’s time for one more tour mash.

LPGA Tour: A day of twos ends in a win for Ariya

Ariya Jutanugarn birdied her final two holes to win the CME Tour Championship. She was given the opportunity to win in regulation when Lexi Thompson pushed a 2-foot putt for par at the last. Although Thompson did not win the year’s final event, she captured 2 titles of her own: Vare Trophy for low scoring average and Race To CME Globe, the season’s points race.

How Ariya Jutanugarn tasted victory

The power game has arrived on the LPGA Tour, in case you missed it. Golfers such as Lexi, Ariya and Sung Hyun Park obliterate the orb, leaving little yardage to the green. When her game is firing, Ariya Jutanugarn is unstoppable. After bogey at the first hole on Sunday, the young golfer from Thailand etched six birdies into the final 17 holes, for a second-consecutive 67. Her birdie at the last came from 23 feet, an amazing putt to hole with victory on the line. Down it went, and up went the smile of a champion.

How the rest came up just shy of a win

With eerie similarity, Lexi Thompson’s card was the flip side of Ariya’s. Thompson made six birdies over her first 17 holes, but the hiccough at the last, her only bogey on the day, dropped her to 14-under par and opened the door for Jutanugarn. Thompson was on absolute fire on Sunday, hitting all 14 fairways and using the putter 28 times. Ariya, Kim Kaufman, Michelle Wie and Suzann Pettersen stood tied atop at 10-under, heading into round 4. Pettersen’s 72, Kaufman’s 71 and Wie’s 70 were simply not enough to keep pace with those coming from behind on Sunday. Ariya, however, was up to the challenge.

European Tour: Rahm wins in Dubai and Fleetwood breathes again

For a time, it seemed as though Justin Rose would win his third consecutive event in Europe and would squeeze past Fleetwood for the season points title. The former Englishman was in the midst of the greatest scoring run of his career, while the later Englishman seemed to have little petrol left in the tank. Then the back nine on Sunday happened, and everything changed.

How Jon Rahm won the DP World Tour

Shane Lowry made 10 birdies on Sunday, but he had one bogey. Rahm had half as many birdies and zero bogeys, and that last number made the difference. The young Basque played a stellar 132 over the closing 36 holes, eclipsed only by Lowry’s 131. Rahm fearlessly navigated his way around the Jumeirah Estates course, eeking out a one-shot win over Lowry and also hard-charging Kiradech Aphibarnrat.

How the others went home trophy-less

We all want to know about Rose. four birdies on the outward 9-holes staked him to a lead, and the greatest season comeback on a major tour was nearly written. With only three bogeys in his first 63 holes, Rose proceeded to bogey 12, 14 and 16, with only a birdie at the last to bring him to 17-under. He ended up two behind Rahm, and in second place in the Race to Dubai points race. It was a glorious campaign for Rose, and cements him as world player to watch in 2018. The Englishman tied for fourth with Sergio Garcia, Dean Burmeister and Dylan Fritelli, both of South Africa, on 17-under par.

PGA Tour: Cook collects First Tour win in Georgia

Fall is a time for young aspirants to make a mark on the PGA Tour. Austin Cook followed the script, birdieing 3-of-his-final-4 holes to stretch a single-shot lead into a four-stroke triumph. J.J. Spaun, a Web.Com tour graduate in 2017, was in the mix for the second consecutive week. He played well down the stretch, and earned a runner-up finish.

How Cook caught fire

Austin Cook played a veteran front-nine, with one bogey and one birdie. None of the chasers caught him, so the Arkansas alum continued to manage his game in the fairways-greens style. On the inward half, Cook took charge, with birdies at 15, 17 and 18, to move well in front of the runner-up. With the precision of a surgeon, Cook took apart the Sea Island course in impressive fashion. After his second-round 62, many expected him to have one weak round on the weekend, but 66-67 showed the his mettle.

How the others flamed out

Spaun really didn’t flame out, not like last week, when he caught the double-bogey train. A proven winner on other tours, Spaun should win in 2018. His game was solid, mixing in more birdies than bogeys, and his second-place finish was well-earned. Brian Gay might have been more comfortable than any other golfer this week, but he was just as erratic. Case in point: back nine. From holes 13 to 18, Gay made one birdie, two eagles, two pars and one double. Still, his numbers were low enough to secure solo third, one stroke behind Spaun and two in front of the fourth-place finishers.

Ladies European Tour: Boutier sizzles on back nine for win

Celine Boutier imagined a top-10 or top-5 when the third day dawned at Yalong Bay, in China. After bogeys on holes 4 and 5, she needed to gather herself in order to preserve her standing. From this day forward, “gather herself” in the dictionary will forever show a picture of Celine Boutier. Her six-birdie finish vaulted her past all challengers, to her first European Tour victory.

How Boutier bloomed

The recent Duke University graduate posted three rounds in the 60s, the only competitor to achieve that distinction at the Sanya Open. The Frenchwoman didn’t make a bogey until the 15th hole of her second round, but she was stuck in neutral from that hole through the 9th hole on Sunday, making only pars and bogeys. Something clicked at the turn, and Boutier regained the confidence that had produced 10 birdies during the tournament’s first half.

How the others gave chase

Solar Lee was in good standing on Sunday’s outward nine. She bounced back from an opening bogey with three birdies through the 9th, and held the top spot on the leader board at 7-under. Lee reached 9-under through 13, but made bogey at 14 to drop to 8-under. Then came the blossoming of Boutier, and Lee had to be satisfied with the runner-up spot. One spot behind Lee was Valdis Thora Jonsdottir, Iceland’s reigning professional golfer, at 7-under.

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Wednesday’s Photos from The 2017 RSM Classic

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GolfWRX is live this week from The 2017 RSM Classic at Sea Island Golf Club — the Seaside course plays as a par 70 measuring 7,005 yards — in St. Simons Island, Georgia.

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Headlined by last week’s OHL Classic champion Patton Kizzire, and 2015 RSM Champion Kevin Kisner, this week’s field is filled with notable names including Ricky Barnes, Zac Blair, Luke Donald, Ernie Els, Harris English, Tommy Gainey, Bill Haas, Beau Hossler, Zach Johnson, Smylie Kaufman, Matt Kuchar, Davis Love III, Graeme McDowell, Ollie Schniederjans, Brandt Snedeker, Hudson Swafford, Bubba Watson and others.

In last year’s RSM Classic, Mackenzie Hughes won in a five-man playoff to secure his first PGA Tour victory. He’s back in the field this year to defend his title.

Check out out photos from Sea Island G.C. below!

Wednesday’s Galleries

 

Discussion: See what GolfWRX members are saying about the photos in our forums.

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Tuesday’s Photos from the 2017 RSM Classic

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GolfWRX is live this week from The 2017 RSM Classic at Sea Island Golf Club — the Seaside course plays as a par 70 measuring 7,005 yards — in St. Simons Island, Georgia.

Related

Headlined by last week’s OHL Classic champion Patton Kizzire, and 2015 RSM Champion Kevin Kisner, this week’s field is filled with notable names including Ricky Barnes, Zac Blair, Luke Donald, Ernie Els, Harris English, Tommy Gainey, Bill Haas, Beau Hossler, Zach Johnson, Smylie Kaufman, Matt Kuchar, Davis Love III, Graeme McDowell, Ollie Schniederjans, Brandt Snedeker, Hudson Swafford, Bubba Watson and others.

In last year’s RSM Classic, Mackenzie Hughes won in a five-man playoff to secure his first PGA Tour victory. He’s back in the field this year to defend his title.

Check out out photos from Sea Island G.C. below!

Tuesday’s Galleries

Special Galleries

 

Discussion: See what GolfWRX members are saying about the photos in our forums.

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