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A look back: McIlroy’s knockout year

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Rory McIlroy ended the past season as golf’s undisputed heavyweight champ. Any ideas to the contrary were put to rest when the 23-year-old captured the 94th PGA Championship by a record eight strokes.

The way McIlroy continued to win after bludgeoning the Ocean Course seemed almost matter of fact. He won two out of the four FedExCup events with relative ease, and claimed both money titles on the PGA and European tours before striking a single shot at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. Having accumulated so much hardware and goodwill throughout the season, nobody would’ve blamed McIlroy for coasting in his last start. Instead, he reminded the competition that he was more than capable of outworking, outlasting, and yes, out-punching them.

Unexpectedly, the glory of capping off the 2012 season with one final victory almost belonged to Justin Rose. He woke up on Sunday six shots back of the leaders and seemingly out of contention. Instead of giving into any feelings of misfortune, Rose summoned his best tee-to-green game of the season, overtaking the leaders during a back-nine stretch that included four birdies and an eagle.

His watershed moment came on the 72nd hole, the 620-yard par 5.  As he had done all afternoon, Rose struck an impressive tee shot that found the center of the fairway, leaving himself a good angle for his second.  Needing to close out with no less than a birdie to stave off a pursuing McIlroy, Rose muscled his approach to the back portion of the meandering green, leaving himself a lengthy putt over a steep ridge to a downhill hole location.

While Rose has improved his ball-striking year after year, his putting has consistently straddled the line between average and mediocre, never cracking the top 50 in strokes gained putting. Whether it can be attributed to working with his new putting coach, David Orr, or some new found maturity, Rose had finally started to sink some meaningful putts, none more important than the one he administered to Phil Mickelson on the final day of the Ryder Cup.

Surveying his predicament on the 18th green, Rose once again had no margin of error to work with, describing the situation as a “hero or zero” moment. As it was, his putt for eagle came tantalizingly close to stopping at the crest of the ridge. Once the ball began rolling downhill, it held the line the whole way, but it couldn’t sustain the speed. A euphoric, if slightly dismayed crowd cheered a terrific effort that came up an inch short of giving Rose slightly more than a dreamer’s chance of winning the tournament as he headed in to sign his card.

Four days earlier, when no one had any inkling that Rose would post a 62 on the final day to break the course record and add some unexpected drama, tournament officials and European Tour Chief Executive Officer George O’Grady were deliberating future format changes that could potentially ensure that the Race to Dubai wouldn’t be decided with a few laps to spare. Over in the United States, the event in Dubai had the additional misfortune of competing with the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and the NFL. So it should come as no surprise that the tournament received less than stellar fanfare even with a stacked field and no opposing golf event to compete with. American golf fans that bothered to stay awake to watch the early morning telecast or caught up later when it re-aired watched Luke Donald post a fine opening round score and take the lead over McIlroy by a stroke.

Donald had a career-best season in 2011, where he ascended to the top of the world rankings and won four events worldwide. But he had, by comparison, been treading water in 2012. Statistically, Donald had improved his driving accuracy (ranked 37th), but was slightly worse off hitting greens and making putts (the twin pillars of his game). Although he ended up winning twice, Donald was a non-factor in majors and his season was for all intents and purposes a disappointment. A win in Dubai wouldn’t have done much to change how his critics perceived him, but it would’ve given him some much-needed momentum entering the new season.

Heading into the last round, Donald led or held the share of the lead all three days, an infrequent scenario for a golfer who has been much maligned historically for his back-door top-10 finishes. To his credit, there was nothing to suggest Donald was mailing it in during that final round. He hit all but one fairway and a respectable 78 percent of the greens. He didn’t force any shots until the last hole (he found the water), when it was clearly over for him. What Donald failed to do was make enough critical putts down the stretch, a disappointment for someone who went a staggering 102 consecutive holes at the Earth Course without a 3-putt. His invincibility with the putter and the streak itself didn’t last long into Sunday’s round. Donald’s approach on the third hole found the upper portion of the green and he compounded the mistake with a poor lag putt. His four-footer for par lipped out.

Of course it didn’t help Donald to have a view of McIlroy’s back all day. On average, Donald gave up 30 yards off the tee. On approach shots, McIlroy had as much as a two-club advantage — very handy when trying to land and hold a portion of a green only slightly larger than a shed.

The Earth Course played at a shade over 7600 yards. McIlroy got around it like a pitch and putt, especially on the par fives which he played 11-under. For the week, McIlroy ranked third in driving distance. Donald was a distant 50th.

McIlroy has always been freakishly long for his height and narrow build, but he recognized the need to keep pace with the current crop of players who were spending nearly as much time in the weight room as on the driving range.  He hired trainer Steve McGregor and made a serious commitment to increase his strength and durability. Although neither McGregor nor McIlroy would reveal specifics, the regimen they devised helped McIlroy get even longer off the tee. McGregor, in an interview with Golf Magazine, spoke candidly about their goals.

“Rory weighed 160 pounds [in 2010] and is now 170. That’s a 20-pound change in muscle composition, when you take into account loss of body fat. And he’s not done. He’s not where he wants to be . . . We’re talking about getting to 175 pounds or more. Why? When you increase muscle mass, you’re going to be hitting shorter irons into greens.”

The numbers support that assertion. McIlroy’s club head speed (120.21 mph) and ball speed (178.07 mph) are 10th and eighth, respectively, on the PGA Tour. It translates to him being ranked fifth in driving distance, first in birdie average and improved proximity to the hole in almost all distance categories from his averages in 2011.

McIlroy’s five worldwide wins and 16 top-10 finishes eclipse his career-best achievements in 2011. He did all of this in spite of his mid-season swoon that provoked snarky remarks about his high-profile relationship with tennis star, Caroline Wozniacki, which have since turned into engagement rumors. An apparently distracted McIlroy missed consecutive cuts at The Players Championship, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and the Memorial Tournament.  In response to the second round 79 he shot at the BMW, McIlroy acknowledged what members of the media had already surmised.

“I did not practice as hard as I might have,” he said. “I need to work hard and get it back to the level that it was leading into the Masters.”

Whether he needed the reps or perhaps out of desperation, McIlroy added the FedEx St. Jude Classic to his schedule just prior to his title defense at the U.S. Open.  He also flew in his longtime swing coach Michael Bannon from his outpost in Northern Ireland for range sessions described at the time as being very productive.

McIlroy had a respectable, if not remarkable showing in Memphis and was a non-factor at Olympic the following week. He also stunk it up at the Open Championship, but at least saw action into the weekend. He finally regained his old touch at Firestone in August, finishing tied for fifth, and setting up his historic run at Kiawah where he reminded everyone that in top form, he’s more Batman than Boy Wonder.

After torching the field at the PGA Championship, McIlroy’s putter got even hotter. He won back-to-back weeks during the FedEx Cup playoffs and his 11-consecutive rounds under par proved there was more to the two-time champion than natural ability alone. After the Ryder Cup, McIlroy flew to Asia to fulfill competitive and promotional obligations. He racked up frequent flyer miles with stops at Shanghai, Singapore, Zhengzhou (playing an exhibition against Tiger Woods in China) and Hong Kong before touching down in Dubai.

Whether it was sunstroke as cited, or general fatigue, McIlroy played at less than his peak in Dubai. His ball-striking was noticeably inconsistent and he missed a number of greens with short irons or wedges. He made up for it with his scrambling, recording only two bogeys over the first three days of competition.

McIlroy did not have an impressive start to his final round (going out in 35, -1), allowing Donald to draft him at the turn. A bogey on the par-3 13th gave Donald (and especially Rose) some hope that the top player in the world might be satisfied to sign off with another top-10 finish and a big check. That might have been an apt description for a younger, less determined McIlroy in years past — the same kid who was famously quipped, “It’s not my sort of golf” when asked to explain his inability to acclimate himself to bad weather conditions at the Open.

The older, gutsier McIlroy closed out the tournament with five straight birdies, none more challenging than on the par-3 17th that allowed him to take the lead. Playing more than 200 yards into the wind and over water, McIlroy’s tee shot landed pin high for a straightforward uphill putt.

While McIlroy was being serenaded with cheers as he walked to the last tee, Rose sat in the clubhouse some hundreds of yards away. A large bucket of beer had already been brought out at someone’s behest. Rose sat beside it, with an expression that suggested he was more interested in sampling a cold one than contemplating improbable scenarios that would force a playoff. If anything, the look suggested an odd sense of satisfaction. Rose gave it his best shot. McIlroy’s counterpunch sent a clear message to his rivals — get ready for another long year.

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Rusty Cage is a contributing writer for GolfWRX, one of the leading publications online for news, information and resources for the connected golfer. His articles have covered a broad spectrum of topics - equipment and apparel reviews, interviews with industry leaders, analysis of the pro game, and everything in between. Rusty's path into golf has been an unusual one. He took up the game in his late thirties, as suggested by his wife, who thought it might be a good way for her husband to grow closer to her father. The plan worked out a little too well. As his attraction to the game grew, so did his desire to take up writing again after what amounted to 15-year hiatus from sports journalism dating back to college. In spite of spending over a dozen years working in the technology sector as a backend programmer in New York City, Rusty saw an opportunity with GolfWRX and ran with it. A graduate from Boston University with a Bachelor's in journalism, Rusty's long term aspirations are to become one of the game's leading writers, rising to the standard set by modern-day legends like George Peper, Mark Frost and Dan Jenkins. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: August 2014 Fairway Executive Podcast Interview http://golfindustrytrainingassociation.com/17-rusty-cage-golf-writer (During this interview I discuss how golf industry professionals can leverage emerging technologies to connect with their audience.)

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  1. Rusty Cage

    Jan 2, 2013 at 8:24 am

    Golf Channel is replaying the final round of the DP World Tour Championship on Wednesday, January 2nd at 1 PM EST.

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Club Junkie

Club Junkie Review: Samsung’s Galaxy Watch5 Pro Golf Edition

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Technology has been playing a larger part in golf for years and you can now integrate it like never before. I don’t need to tell you, but Samsung is a world leader in electronics and has been making smart watches for years. The Watch5 Pro Golf Edition is the latest Samsung wearable running Google’s Wear OS operating system and it is more than just a golf watch.

The Watch5 Golf Edition is a full function smartwatch that you can wear every day and use for everything from golf to checking your text messages. For more details on the Golf Edition made sure to check out the Club Junkie podcast below, or on any podcast platform. Just search GolfWRX Radio.

Samsung’s Watch5 Pro Golf Edition has a pretty large 45mm case that is made from titanium for reduced weight without sacrificing any durability. The titanium case is finished in a matte black and has two pushers on the right side to help with navigating the pretty extensive menu options. The case measures about 52mm from lug to lug and stands about 14mm tall, so the fit on smaller wrists could be an issue. I did notice that when wearing a few layers on colder days the extra height did have me adjusting my sleeves to ensure I could swing freely.

The sapphire crystal display is 1.4 inches in diameter, so it should be very scratch resistant, and is protected by a raised titanium bezel. The Super AMOLED display has a 450 x 450 resolution with 321ppi density for clear, crisp graphics. Inside the watch is a dual-core 1.18Ghz Cortex-A55 CPU, 16GB + 1.5GB RAM, and a Mali-G68 GPU to ensure your apps run quickly and efficiently.

I do like that the Watch5 Pro Golf Edition’s white and black rubber strap has a quick release system so you can change it out to match or contrast an outfit. The Golf Edition strap is very supple and conforms to your wrist well, holding it in place during multiple swings.

Out on the course the Watch5 Pro golf Edition is comfortable on the wrist and light enough, ~46g, where it isn’t very noticeable. I don’t usually wear a watch on the course, and it only took a few holes to get used to having it on my left wrist. Wearing a glove on the same hand as the watch doesn’t really change much, depending on the glove. If you have a model that goes a little higher on the wrist you could feel the watch and leather bunch a little bit. Some of my Kirkland Signature gloves would run into the watch case while I didn’t have an issue with my Titleist or Callaway models.

The screen is great in direct sunlight and is just as easy to read in overcast or twilight rounds. The images of holes and text for distances is crisp and has a bright contrast agains the black background. The Watch5 Pro Golf Edition comes with a lifetime membership to Smart Caddie for your use on the course. Smart Caddie was developed by Golfbuddy, who has been making rangefinders and GPS units for years. I didn’t sign up for the Smart Caddie app as I did not buy the watch and have logins for multiple GPS and tracking apps. Smart Caddie looks to be extremely extensive, offering a ton of options beyond just GPS and it is one that works seamlessly with the Galaxy watches.

I ended up using The Grint as it was an app I have used in the past and was already signed up for. Getting to the app to start a round was very simple, needing one swipe up and one tap to start The Grint app. The screen is very smooth and records each swipe and tap with zero issues. I never felt like I was tapping or swiping without the Watch5 Pro acknowledging those movements and navigating the menu as I desired. The GPS worked flawlessly and the distances were accurate and consistent. With The Grint’s app you did have to keep the phone in your pocket or in the cart close enough for the Bluetooth connection. For most that is’t a big deal and the only time I noticed it was when I used my electric cart and drove it well in front of me down the fairway.

Overall the Samsung Watch5 Pro Golf Edition is a great option for golfers who want one device for everyday wear and use on the course. The Watch5 Pro Golf Edition still has all the fitness and health options as well as being able to  connect to your email, text messages, and social media apps. With the Watch5 Pro Golf Edition you won’t have to worry about buying a device just for golf or forgetting to bring your GPS to the course.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Why modern irons don’t make sense to me

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One of the things that really bothers me about most of the newer iron models that are introduced is the continued strengthening of the lofts — I just don’t see how this is really going to help many golfers. The introduction of driver and hybrid technologies into the irons – thinner faster faces, tungsten inserts and filling the heads with some kind of polymer material – is all with the goal of producing higher ball flight with lower spin. But is that what you really want?

I’ll grant you that this technology makes the lower lofts much easier to master, and has given many more golfers confidence with their 5- and 6-irons, maybe even their 4- and 5-. But are higher launch and lower spin desirable in your shorter irons? I’ve always believed those clubs from 35 degrees on up should be designed for precision distance control, whether full swings are when you are “taking something off,” and I just don’t see that happening with a hollow, low CG design.

Even worse, with lofts being continually cranked downward, most modern game improvement sets have a “P-club” as low as 42-43 degrees of loft. Because that simply cannot function as a “wedge”, the iron brands are encouraging you to add in an “A-club” to fill the distance void between that and your gap wedge.

But as you ponder these new iron technologies, here’s something to realize . . . and think about.

Discounting your putter, you have 13 clubs in your bag to negotiate a golf course. At one end, you have a driver of 10-12 degrees of loft, and at the other end your highest lofted wedge of say, 58 to 60 degrees. So, that’s a spread of 46 to 50 degrees. The mid-point of that spread is somewhere around 35 degrees, the iron in your bag that probably has an “8” on the bottom.

Now consider this: From that 35-degree 8-iron downward, you have a progression of clubhead designs, from the iron design, to hybrids, to fairway woods to your driver, maybe even a “driving iron” design as a bridge between your lowest set-match iron to your hybrids. At least four, if not five, completely different clubhead designs.

But in the other direction, from 35 degrees to that highest lofted wedge, you likely only have two designs – your set-match irons and your wedges, each of which all essentially look alike, regardless of loft.
I feel certain that no one in the history of golf ever said:

“I really like my 6-iron; can you make me a 3-wood that looks like that?”

But do you realize the loft difference between your 6-iron and 3-wood is only 12-14 degrees, even less than that between your 6-iron and “P-club”? So, if you can’t optimize an iron design to perform at both 28 and 15 degrees, how can you possibly expect to be able to optimize the performance of one design at both 28 and 43 degrees?

And you darn sure won’t get your best performance by applying 6-iron technology to an “A-club” of 48 to 50 degrees.

This fact of golf club performance is why you see so many “blended” sets of irons in bags these days, where a golfer has a higher-tech iron design in the lower lofts, but a more traditional blade or “near blade” design in the higher lofts. This makes much more sense than trying to play pure blade long irons or “techy” higher lofts.

Most of my column posts are oriented to offering a solution to a problem you might have in your game, but this one doesn’t. As long as the industry is focused on the traditional notion of “matched sets,” meaning all the irons look alike, I just don’t see how any golfer is going to get an optimum set of irons without lots of trial and error and piecing together a set of irons where each one works best for the job you give it.

If you want to see how an elite player has done this for his own game, do some reading on “what’s in the bag” for Bernhard Langer. Very interesting indeed.

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Opinion & Analysis

2022 Hero World Challenge: Betting Tips & Selections

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The Hero is the only full 72-hole tournament left of the year stateside, and the one many golf fans were excited for due to the expected return of Tiger Woods.

Unfortunately, on Monday, Woods withdrew from the event citing plantar fasciitis – pain in the base of his foot, leaving a hole in the event but we still have some big names floating about in the limited field.

I wrote last week about the context of the short-priced favourite Cameron Smith at the Australian PGA.

Comparing him with Jon Rahm when he was 9/4 for his home Open, the most recent Open Championship winner looked fair at 7/2. It was a bit of a scare, but in the end, Smith showed the undoubted class gap, sauntering home down the stretch.

This is crucial in assessing this week’s favourite, Rahm.

Neither Jordan Smith or Justin Thomas have threatened strongly to win here, Xander Schauffele has seen his finishes get progressively worse since a debut 8th, Matty Fitz looked tired in contention in Dubai, and defending champ Viktor Hovland had won twice in 2021 before winning here, that pair of victories including the week before at Mayakoba.

Now for the favorite.

2022 starts with a runner-up to Smith in Hawaii at the similarly stacked Tournament of Champions, before eight straight cuts lead to a victory in Mexico. In a disappointing season for majors, Rahm’s 12th at the U.S Open is the best he can record in the biggies, but it’s another in a series of weekends that leads to T5, T8 and T16 at the three Fedex play-off events. 7

Hardly a disastrous season, but Rahm will have felt a degree of dismay at a season bereft of a gold medal and that saw him slip outside the world’s top five, that without the likes of Dustin Johnson and Smith, both off to unranked LIV.

However, that ‘failure’ seemed to act as a genuine spur, with both him and fellow anti-LIV player Shane Lowry, exploding through the third and final round of the weather-affected prestigious BMW Championship, before winning by a street in Spain, stumbling at the wrong time when fourth at the CJ Cup, and last time proving far too good for a stellar field at the DP World Tour Championship.

For those (including myself) that felt his rant against the OWGR points distribution would count against him, being wrong was painful, but we have the chance to turn it around this week.

Simply, there is no Rory McIlroy or Cam Smith, probably the only other two players that can hold claim to being the current best in the world; the Spaniard’s current form reads 1/4/1/2; his tee-to-green figures average over plus-10 in his last three outings; Rahm ranks top three for scrambling when he misses the green; has been outside the top eight for putting just once in his last six starts, and he’s been first and second in two tries at Albany!

Sure, neither he nor Smith had such a talented field to beat at their ‘home’ events, but they both landed short prices. For me, Rahm has even greater claims, and at anything bigger than 4/1, is a must bet.

The only other player of interest is in-form Tony Finau, one of three to be beaten by a single shot by Rahm in Mexico.

The 33-year-old has always had the ability to do what he has done over the last four months, but, for whatever reason, he is now fulfilling some lofty opinions, winning three times since July.

Beaten four shots by Rahm on his debut in 2018, an opening 79 was always going to hurt any ideas he had about revenge a year later. However, he bounced back from being 18th after round one with three rounds of 68, 69 and a closing 65 to finish inside the top-10, before finishing 7th last year after a stellar opening 68,66.

Big Tone closed with a best-of-the-day 64 at the Tour Championship before looking rusty at Mayakoba, his first outing for over two months. That certainly brought him on as he waltzed home at the Houston Open, the four-shot winning margin half of what it could have been had he not taken his foot off the pedal very early on Sunday.

Finau has always been a strong tee-to-green gamer, but now he’s added confidence with the flat-stick, expect him to challenge at all the biggest events through 2023.

Having been all over Finau to do a double-double and back up his win at the RSM Classic, the ‘injury’ withdrawal was tough to take, but he’ll suit the relaxed nature of this week’s challenge and should be one of the strongest challengers to his old foe.

Recommended Bets:

  • Jon Rahm – WIN
  • Tony Finau – WIN
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