Breakfast Ball, 7/21: Rory McIlroy One Step Away From Career Grand Slam.

July 21, 2014 in Breakfast Ball by Chris Chaney

Andrew Redington / Getty Images

Right now, as the summer enters its dog days, spring is the farthest thing from our collective mind. But yesterday, after shooting a final-round 1-under par 71 to win the 143rd Open Championship, Rory McIlroy forced us to look ahead 262 days from now to the first major championship of 2015 where he will be gunning for the fourth and final leg of the career grand slam.

He’ll still be 25 years old.

The fat-faced kid from Northern Ireland with curls bursting from his hat has transformed into a lean, shorn three-time major champion. His most recent coronation as the “next best thing” was the fulfillment of prophecy and confirmation of his all-around game.

Winning the Open Championship — ironically for a lad growing up on the wind-swept shores of Northern Ireland — seemed to be the major championship that would give his truly Americanized style of play the most trouble. A high-ball hitter, McIlroy even questioned his ability to win the championship as recently as 2011 Open at Royal St. George’s.

Q. If you’re going to contend in this championship you’re going to have to deal with the weather. 
RORY McILROY: It’s either that or just wait for a year when the weather is nice. 
No, I mean, my game is suited for basically every golf course and most conditions, but these conditions I just don’t enjoy playing in really. That’s the bottom line. I’d rather play when it’s 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind. 

And when asked if he’s capable of changing his game for the possible weather at the Opens, ie strong winds that would make him lower his ball-flight, McIlroy continued:

RORY McILROY: Yeah, I mean, I can. It’s just being comfortable doing that, and there’s no point in changing your game for one week a year. 

It should be noted that McIlroy’s Sergio-esque comments came after a 7-over par weekend that left him 12 shots off of countryman Darren Clarke’s winning score.

But to be sure, McIlroy didn’t get the Open simply on a week that the Open was ripe for the getting. By his own (and others) admission, McIlroy did receive the favorable side of the draw going out early-late on Thursday and Friday, but his first 36 holes and the whole of the weekend was played in typically sketchy British weather.

“And tell anyone who says Rory McIlroy won on a soft golf course that while the greens were holding Sunday, this was genuine links golf with enough wind, challenge and quirk to amount to a stunning breakthrough for the Northern Irishman,” Geoff Shackelford opined in the immediate aftermath of the event.

Now, even with the PGA Championship taking place in just three weeks time at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky., the most anticipated major championship is once again the Masters. The overwhelming majority of pundits and players alike believe that the career grand slam for McIlroy is not a question of if he can accomplish it, but when.

Already haven proven he can play the Georgia Jewel expertly over his career, that same high, right-to-left ball flight that was thought to be curse at the Open is tailor made for Augusta National in the same way that Bubba Watson’s high, left-to-right fade works for the lefthander so beautifully. Rising to No. 2 in Official World Golf Ranking, McIlroy will be in the hunt to overtake Adam Scott when the pair tee it up in Akron in two weeks as well as the following week at the PGA Championship.

Pete Morrison / AP

McIlroy’s two-stroke victory was closer on the leaderboard than perhaps it felt to him and his chasers. Leading by six shots entering Sunday, McIlroy seemingly had to shoot anything under par to guarantee victory.

His closest pursuers, and the pair who would prove to be the only real threats to his first Claret Jug, were Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia. Garcia put the early pressure on McIlroy going out in 3-under par 32 and then eagling the par-5 10th hole just ahead of Fowler and McIlroy to pull within two of the lead.

A McIlroy birdie at the same hole opened the lead back up to three and a costly bogey at the 15th caused by leaving a greenside bunker shot in the sand eliminated Garcia from any real shot at claiming his first major championship.

Fowler equaled Garcia’s 15-under par total thanks in the most part to a too-little-too-late charge over the last four holes that while it made him a good more chunk of change, it didn’t rustle McIlroy’s mettle.

Both the 25-year old American and the 34-year old Spaniard shared the runner-up spotlight and the accompanying dinner trays, but more importantly, both showed that there is an even deeper talent pool that will likely continue to vie for major championships outside of the usual suspects of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

The new guard has been here for a while now and it only continues to grow deeper. What this means for McIlroy’s dominance remains to be seen, but to think that in perhaps some of the deepest fields in the history of the game that McIlroy has won by eight strokes twice and went relatively unchallenged in another is a scary proposition for those fields.

Just scraping the surface with the top-3 finishers today. I’ll get to some other’s later this week as we have the shortest rest period between major championships.

I’ll leave you with a few videos to get you through your Monday, beginning with Rory McIlroy’s interview with Golf Channel.

And a quick reminder of why Ivor Robson is the best.

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Breakfast Ball, 7/18: Day Two at The Open.

July 18, 2014 in Breakfast Ball by Chris Chaney

Breakfast Ball, 7/17: The First Round of the 2014 Open as Told by Twitter.

July 18, 2014 in Breakfast Ball by Chris Chaney

Trying something new for this major. 

You can get my #HotSportsTakes in Tweet form for the next 72 hours by following along on Twitter, @Wrong_Fairway. Here’s what you missed on Day One.

Breakfast Ball, 7/16: Picking the 2014 Open Champion By the Numbers.

July 16, 2014 in Breakfast Ball by Chris Chaney

dafasdfasdfThere are any number of ways you can go about picking your 2014 Open Championship winner: recent form, course familiarity, past success. Whatever criterion you rely upon to rationalize a pick of one player over 155 of the best players in the world, so be it.

In today’s day and age, you have innumerable outlets at your disposal to cultivate a game plan for picking a champion. So, how do you know which is the best? The most important pieces of information to one person are not necessarily as crucial to another. And if you caught Feherty on Monday, you may recall Padraig Harrington quoting the Scottish writer Andrew Lang:

People use statistics the way a drunken man uses a lamppost – for support rather than for illumination.

Depending on who you’ve tapped to be hoisting the Claret Jug on Sunday evening, here are some categorical breakdowns that could point to a potential Open champion. Whether they act as your support or illumination is up to you.

The average age of the past 10 Open Championship winners: 35.9. The 35/36-year old crowd teeing it up at this year’s Open is pretty strong. That group includes guys like Bubba Watson, Jimmy Walker, Matt Kuchar, Kevin Streelman, Luke Donald and Paul Casey. So what does it tell us?

Over the last 10 years, the majority of the Open Championship winners have been guys in their early-to-mid 30s. Outliers like Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson — the last three to win the Open — have increased the average age by nearly three years. Taking that trio out, 33 is the median age of the winners from 2004-2010 with Louis Oosthuizen, 27 at the time, being the young buck of the group. However, the recent trend of 40-somethings winning show, if nothing else, that experience is rewarded around the Open rota.

Some edge-busters who have the game this week that won’t break the median average? The 33-year old group of Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Brandt Snedeker and the 34-year old contingent: Graeme McDowell, Erik Compton, Kevin Stadler and Sergio Garcia.

Matthew Lewis / Getty Images Europe

The average Official World Golf Ranking of the last 10 Open Championship winners heading into the week: 32.5. Lee Westwood is the No. 32-ranked player in the world. Scotland’s Stephen Gallacer is No. 33. Neither of those two becoming the Champion Golfer of the Year by week’s end would be a complete shock.

Of course, the last decade of winners include the likes of Todd Hamilton and — sorry to continue to bag on him — Darren Clarke. Shocking as it may seem, Hamilton, ranked No. 56, was less of an out-of-nowhere winner than Clarke who was ranked No. 111 the week of the Royal St. George’s Open in 2011. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Tiger Woods won the tournament as the top-ranked player in the world in both ’05 and ’06. Removing those four, we’re left with an average of 26 (Charl Schwartzel).

Outliers notwithstanding, seven of the last 10 winners came inside the world top-50 and five of the last 10 were inside the top-15.

The best finish of the last 10 Open winners prior to winning the Championship: 13. Chalk up another win for experience. In all but one case (Oosthuizen), the last 10 Opens have been won by players who have had considerable success prior to lifting the trophy. Oosthuizen had never made a cut at the Open before his win.

Again, Hamilton is another outlier. Prior to his win, Hamilton’s T45 in 1996 was his best finish at an Open. Everyone else, even Phil Mickelson, had finished inside the top-6 in previous Opens before their wins. This stat is skewed a bit by Woods and Harrington, who each won back-to-back, giving their best previous finishes a mark of “1″ in their second instance. However, their tournament form was still outstanding; Harrington had finished T5 in both 1997 and 2002 and Woods, his win in 2000 notwithstanding, had finished in solo third and T7 place in 1998 and 1999, respectively.

This information doesn’t bode well for the 36 players who will be making their Open debuts this week, including Jordan Spieth and the Brens: Todd, Steele and de Jonge.

The average finish of the last 10 Open winners the year before their victory: 45th.  This stat is bizarre. Of the last 10 winners, six of them missed the cut at the previous edition of the Championship. Again taking out the back-to-back wins by Woods and Harrington, Tiger’s ’04 T9 and Darren Clarke’s T44 were the only ones who played the weekend before winning.

So, let’s jump in the way-back machine to see what prominent, middle-30s-ish players MC’d last year at Muirfield. How do names like Jimmy Walker, Luke Donald, Bill Haas, Justin Rose, Nick Watney hit you? And outside that mid-30s range, guys like Jim Furyk, Rickie Fowler, Billy Horschel and Rory McIlroy didn’t play the weekend.

***

My winner? You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.


Breakfast Ball, 7/15: Tiger Woods Expects to Win the Open.

July 15, 2014 in Breakfast Ball by Chris Chaney

GolfDigest

You know the drill when Tiger Woods sits down at a pre-tournament press conference: he’s there to win; it’s a process; traj; listening to his docs; it is what it is. Nothing but the hits.

So, when the former world No. 1 took to the podium at Hoylake at 5:30 a.m. this morning, the assembled press got more of the same from Woods.

“First” was his answer to what an acceptable result would be this weekend.

Let’s start with making the cut. Thursday will be Woods’ third round of competitive golf since March 9. The back surgery seems to be taking for Woods, which is most definitely a good sign going forward, but still has him on the uptick in terms of getting the most out of his game. The 74-75 MC at the Quicken Loans might have been a confidence booster in terms seeing how his body reacts to the stress of tournament golf, but the actual playing of tournament golf didn’t inspire much outside of the need to practice.

The thing with doubting Tiger is that it’s Tiger that you’re doubting. For every reason he has no shot of winning, there’s that shadow of a doubt. This week, however, despite his past success at the event and the venue lead sensible heads to project a middle-of-the-pack finish at best. A sporadic display at Congressional combined with an unconvincing short game does not a major champion make.

If Woods’ air of invincibility has all but vanished, his self belief hasn’t wavered publicly. That being said, Woods has been a bit more pragmatic, if not overzealous in his recall of shots played. For all his posturing during the Tuesday press conferences, his acceptance of the process of getting back into playing shape on Thursday and Friday leads one to believe that he’s being realistic about the state of his game.

Following his missed cut at the QLN:

Q. Did your confidence get hurt at all by this?
TIGER WOODS: I hate to say it but I’m really encouraged by what happened this week. As I said, I missed the cut by four shots. That’s a lot. But the fact that what I was able to do physically and the speed I had and distance that I was hitting the golf ball again, I had not done that in a very long time. And to recover like I did overnight, still leery about it, how am I going to recover. Felt great today. Then, as I said, I made so many little mistakes, missing the ball on the wrong sides, not having the right feel for certain shots, not judging the wind correctly. All the little things, and speed on putts, all the little things that I know I can fix. But as I said, that’s very encouraging.

And from earlier that same week:

Q. In the past, whenever you’re in a tournament, you’ve always said you expect to win. Is that your expectation this week, and if not, how different is that for you?
TIGER WOODS: Expectations don’t change.

Tiger’s ego and self belief are healthy even when his game and body aren’t, but given the prism of hindsight, the realistic truth hits home and, to Tiger’s credit, he’s been more candid than in the past about his struggles. Sure, he wants to win, but when he doesn’t there are building blocks and steps that need to be taken. He knows that.

When he says he expects to win this week, why wouldn’t he? If he can catch lightning in a bottle, more power to him, but when things don’t go as smoothly on the course as he projects them in his head, the pragmatic side will take over. A cut made this weekend is a win.

The Score

Woods will tee off on Thursday morning alongside Angel Cabrera and Henrik Stenson at 9:04 a.m. local time, 4:04 a.m. EST. In the Open, more so than any other major championship, for sure, and most every other tournament worldwide, the draw has a gigantic impact on the outcome of the event. (You can read about the numerical breakdown in tomorrow’s Breakfast Ball).

Other featured threesomes of note include the following (Thursday and Friday times, EST):

3:26 a.m., 8:27 a.m.— Tom Watson, Jim Furyk, Darren Clarke

3:37 a.m., 8:38 a.m. — Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald

4:04 a.m., 9:05 a.m. — Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson, Angel Cabrera

4:26 a.m., 9:27 a.m.— Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama

4:37 a.m., 9:38 a.m.— Ian Poulter, Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker

4:48 a.m., 9:49 a.m. — Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen

4:59 a.m., 10:00 a.m. — Hunter Mahan, Victor Dubuisson, Stephen Gallacher

8:38 a.m., 3:37 a.m. — Jason Day, Martin Kaymer, Zach Johnson

9:05 a.m., 4:04 a.m. — Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Ernie Els

9:27 a.m., 4:26 a.m. — Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Jason Dufner

9:38 a.m., 4:37 a.m. — Keegan Bradley, Lee Westwood, Ryo Ishikawa

The full list of times and pairings can be seen here.

As always, Ivor Robson will be on hand to announce each game. He’s the best. On the tee, from USA….

I have to start crunching numbers for tomorrow’s statistical analysis of the Open, so I’ll leave you with some Ivor for the road.