Ryder Cup: Rory McIlroy lights up Day One

Leave a comment

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – The smiling, bouncing, ebullient Rory McIlroy has gone missing this year.

The brooding started when he got blown away by Patrick Reed at the Masters. It continued with forgettable final rounds at Carnoustie, Firestone and Aronimink. And it rolled right into the Tour Championship, where on Sunday, with a face-to-face showdown against Tiger Woods, he offered little resistance and limped home with a 74.

That months-long malaise seemed to bleed into the first session of this Ryder Cup, where on Friday morning McIlroy played arguably his worst 16 holes of the year. Needing to show rookie Thorbjorn Olesen the ropes, instead it was McIlroy who appeared out of his depth. Even with three par 5s, he couldn’t muster a single birdie, a performance so bleak that it led to an unthinkable question:

Do you possibly bench Rory on Friday afternoon?

The eventual answer was no, but only because European captain Thomas Bjorn had his Friday lineup established and wasn’t going to be swayed by either McIlroy’s putrid play or the team’s 3-1 deficit.

“I never have any doubt in Rory McIlroy, because if I start doubting him, then I probably shouldn’t be doing this job,” Bjorn said. “I’m not in any way, shape or form qualified to tell Rory McIlroy how to play golf, but I’m qualified to lead him in a direction with the people he’s surrounded himself with this week to get good things out of him.”

And so, teaming in afternoon foursomes with Ian Poulter, McIlroy soon played more like himself. He drove the green and holed the crucial birdie putt on the sixth hole to finally get on the board, then helped Poulter win six more holes to dominate Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, 4 and 2, during a windy afternoon at Le Golf National.

“Great players, when they don’t perform to the standards that they want to, they have an ability to just go and put it right,” Bjorn said. “And he did that this afternoon.”

Indeed, McIlroy was part of a remarkable European resurgence, as the home team swept a session for the first time since 1989 to build a 5-3 advantage after Day 1.

Standing on the 16th green, McIlroy was downright giddy afterward.

“A big thing for us is resilience and persistence – persist, persist, persist until it turns around for you,” McIlroy said. “It was just what we needed after this morning.”

And it was just what he needed, too.

After the disastrous start, McIlroy easily could have been sent to the bench, putting even more negative thoughts into what has been a cluttered mind. His Sunday retreats suggest a vulnerability that didn’t exist when he was running away with majors and the clearest threat to dominate the sport, but Bjorn’s faith has never wavered.

Though McIlroy wasn’t at his best Friday afternoon, he finally seemed to play with the childlike joy that has been sorely lacking. His teammates noticed.

“I just think getting out on the golf course to get straight back at it was good for him,” Poulter said, “and it was inspiring for me, too.”

McIlroy’s highlight of the day came on the tricky 13th, after Poulter left him in an awkward spot off the tee, his ball coming to rest on a grassy side slope in the hazard near the pond. To even have a swing, McIlroy needed to basically squat down to the ball. He chased after it and hoisted the ball out of the juicy rough, then backpedaled up the hill to track its flight. Somehow, his shot landed on the front edge and ran out 20 feet past the hole. He shrugged sheepishly at Poulter.

“I had full faith in Rors to put it somewhere on the green,” Poulter said, smiling. “Maybe 60 feet away.”

Now facing an unlikely putt to win the hole and go 3 up, the Englishman buried it, screamed, “Come on!” and pounded his chest.

As McIlroy glided toward the 14th with his familiar strut, about two dozen delirious fans danced and sang, “La, la-la-la-la, Europe’s a fighter!”

And so, too, is McIlroy.

On the final few holes, with the result no longer in doubt, he played to the crowd, raising his wedge when they serenaded him and imploring them to make even more noise.

For one afternoon, at least, he looked the happiest he’d been in months.

There’s no better sight for Team Europe.

Akshay Bhatia: The confidence of a young Tiger and the game to back it up

Leave a comment

There’s only one thing that the number one junior golfer in the world, Akshay Bhatia, admits he can’t do.

He doesn’t know how to put contact lenses in. 

The 17-year-old, who currently resides in Wake Forest, North Carolina has unwavering confidence in just about everything else.

His resume of tournament wins doesn’t hurt: he’s won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, the Jones Cup, and back-to-back Junior PGA Championships, where he shot a 61, his career low in a competitive round. In addition, the teen recently became the youngest player ever to be named to the United States Walker Cup team. 

Upon first glance, there is an uncanny resemblance between Bhatia’s swing and that of a golfer whose name may sound familiar.

Tiger Woods.

Both stand around six-feet tall and use their long limbs to generate speed. Bhatia is fully aware of the similarities. 

“I mean, he was skinny, he was tall, he was lanky. Some things I do better than him, and some things he’s done better than me, but it’s definitely pretty similar,” said Bhatia. “Tiger obviously hit it far when he was young and the clubs were different and whatever but, just the speed I’m able to create, the way I use the ground, [swing coach George Gankas] is pretty impressed with that.”

The ease with which Bhatia measures his swing against Woods’ may be shocking, but it also demonstrates a level of self-confidence that is vital for success on the PGA TOUR and reminiscent of a young Tiger’s attitude. 

The day before Woods’ own professional debut in 1996, he told Curtis Strange in an interview, “I’ve always figured that, why go to a tournament if you’re not going there to try and win? There’s really no point in even going.” Strange laughed off the bold comment.  “You’ll learn,” he scoffed. 

Bhatia’s ambition has helped him rise to the No. 1 ranking on Junior Golf Scoreboard and No. 4 in the World Amatuer Golf Rankings. However, he will fall off both of those elite lists very soon. 

The teen plans to forgo college and make his professional debut at the Safeway Open in September. According to Bhatia, a solid foundation of self-belief will be the real key to a successful professional career. 

Alongside Bhatia throughout his journey to junior golf domination has been Gankas, who many would describe as the most popular, yet unconventional swing coach in the game right now. 

The combination of Gankas’ eccentric personality and his ability to add upwards of 10 miles per hour to many of his students’ swing speeds has attracted 168,000 followers to his Instagram.

“I’ve just surrounded myself with a lot of great people, and George especially,” said Bhatia. “He’s always helped me so much on what I should be feeling when I’m not playing well and if I’m feeling great then you know, there’s something I always want to work on because I get bored sometimes when I’m playing so well.”

Apparently, Bhatia’s non-stop practice grind, which includes three to four hours of putting daily, is not always enough to keep him on his toes. 

“I’m just like George, I need to do something, I need to work on something,” Bhatia joked. 

Gankas is the coach of PGA Tour break-out star Matthew Wolff and the mind behind a new golf slang, in which “scoobie snacks” and “scwamdowed” are words of encouragement. 

“Matthew Wolff, one of my friends, and he goes to George as well, he’s said the same thing: as long as you believe you can be out here, and you can win and you can prove it to yourself, the sky’s the limit,” said Bhatia. “A lot of us juniors and college players are taking over the PGA Tour right now. For me it just shows if they’re capable of doing it, there’s no reason I can’t.”

Bhatia trusts that he can mirror what the current PGA Tour rookie class has accomplished this season.

“I know I can shoot very low. I’m capable of holding off players when I need to do it,” said Bhatia.

If Bhatia continues to go through his young career with the self-belief and ambition that he has now, there will undoubtedly be critics. However, as players like Woods, Brooks Koepka, and Wolff have demonstrated, valid self-confidence makes all the difference.

The professional golf world does not know what’s coming for them this September when Bhatia rolls up, thick-rimmed glasses and all.

An Inside Look as the Open Returns to Royal Portrush

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Before Augusta National’s “Amen Corner” there was “Calamity Corner,” the renowned 16th at Royal Portrush Golf Club’s Dunluce Links.

This week, golf viewers around the world will get to know this hole as the Open Championship makes its epic homecoming to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951. 

Royal Portrush’s Head Professional for the last twenty years, Gary McNeill, has extremely high expectations for the anticipated 148th Open.

However, the course that players will face starting Thursday morning does not look exactly like the track that McNeill and the rest of the Portrush community have cherished since its inception. 

In order to accommodate the influx of fans expected by the R&A each year at the Open, the Dunluce has had to undergo some major alterations. The only space large enough for the required spectator village was the land occupied by the original Harry Colt-designed 17th and 18th holes. 

Although the final two holes held a special place in Portrush’s history, the members were willing to build two new holes, slotted in as the 7th and 8th, which borrowed land from the club’s second course, the Valley Links. Other notable renovations include two new bunkers on the 1st and a new championship tee box on the 14th, making the hole 80 yards longer. 

“Everything that Martin Ebert, the architect, has done is very much in keeping with what was already here,” said McNeill. “It just feels like the course is almost a better golf course with the addition of the two new holes.”

The old 17th and 18th holes were situated on a relatively flat piece of the property and “didn’t have a lot of character” McNeill explained. The new 7th and 8th holes, on the other hand, boast sweeping undulations that run throughout the fairways and greens and are located in one of the most scenic sections of the golf course. 

Another picturesque hole, the 5th, named “White Rocks,” is a 380-yard downhill dogleg par four, featuring three new fairway bunkers, including two that are about 300 yards from the tee, strategically placed to catch wayward drives. The real danger, though, lies behind the green. The tiered putting surface slopes away from you, toward the daunting cliffs of White Rocks beach. A treacherous out-of-bounds line is only a few paces off the back of the green. 

“During the championship they will play the players up a bit, to entice them to have a crack at the green. It’s what the R&A look upon as a ‘risk and reward’ short par four where there’s a bit of entertainment for the spectators,” said McNeill. “If they get a hard bounce, or catch some of the slopes there, they could run out of bounds over the back. We anticipate that there will be quite a bit of drama on this one.” 

Royal Portrush’s most famous hole, the unnerving par three 16th, fittingly named “Calamity Corner,” will prove to be drama-prone as well, especially during the Sunday finish. Measuring at a lengthy 236 yards, it is played over a “very deep chasm which lies between the tee and the green and on the right-hand side,” said McNeill.

To the left of the green is a shallow swale, a sort of safe-haven for players who either unconsciously or consciously choose to guard against the danger to the right. In the 1951 Open, Bobby Locke purposefully played to this area each day of the championship and made an up-and-down par each time, giving the corner a title that stuck: Bobby Locke’s Hollow. 

Will players be happy to walk away from Calamity Corner with a par? “They’d be delighted,” McNeill emphatically remarked.  

Like at any traditional links course, the swirling coastal winds will play a major factor. But Royal Portrush takes this challenge to a new level. 

“There are no two holes that consecutively run in the same direction,” explained McNeill. “You are constantly dealing with winds coming from different directions.”

As a whole, Portrush is known to be a driver’s golf course. In order to attack pins on the Dunluce’s many elevated greens, it is imperative to be playing from the manicured fairways. 

The rough, on the other hand, is nightmarish. According to McNeill the tall grass is “particularly penal this year. It has been unusually warm through the winter and the spring months so it’s a little juicier than it normally would be at this time of year.” 

Whose game will fit this masterfully crafted puzzle-like links? 

McNeill has his eye on the 28-year-old Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, whose accuracy off the tee could give him a great shot at being named this year’s Champion Golfer of the Year. 

“Tommy Fleetwood is a great driver of the golf ball and he’s been knocking on the door at the US Open on tough golf courses, where the premium is very much on driving the ball in play.”

McNeill noted that the Portrush community has a great deal of confidence in Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, and Darren Clarke, three Northern Ireland natives. Additionally, Brooks Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliot, grew up playing Royal Portrush. 

“Ricky knows this golf course very well and Brooks – there’s not many players playing better than him now, particularly in major championships,” said McNeill. 

When the Claret Jug is raised Sunday evening in the shadows of the Dunluce castle ruins, golf viewers will all be hoping it does not take another 68 years for the Open Championship to make another swing through this dreamscape on the coast of Northern Ireland.