2018 golf early returns: Complaints about Woods overblown, McIlroy's demeanor
Rory is saying the right things so far this year, but Rickie Fowler's iron play leaves a lot to be desired
If the first month of the 2018 golf year is any indication, we could finally receive a season in which the confluence of storylines combines for one of the great seasons in golf history. We've been teased before -- mostly by Tiger Woods -- but he looks healthy and several of the other big-time players in this traveling circus look at or near the best they've ever been.
It all made for an entertaining first four weeks and led to the formation of some interesting takes about where we are at with golf. Here are a few of the things I loved and hated about golf in January.
Rory McIlroy's demeanor: He talked after his loss to about how frustrated he was with a closing stretch in which he made two bogeys and opened the door for Li.
"(I'm) pissed off," McIlroy said. "If someone had of told me at the start of the year you'd finish third and second your first two events, I'd say, 'yeah, I'd take that.' But being in the positions I've been in and having two close calls the first couple of weeks of the year, it's a little difficult. The competitor in me is very disappointed right now. I wanted to win. I always want to win, and I just didn't do enough when I needed to."
Contrast that with a quote from a week earlier about what the end of his 2017 was like.
"Didn't really practice much between tournaments because I couldn't," he said. "I was just trying to rest and trying to keep myself going. So that mentally gets you because every time you turn up at an event, you don't feel prepared. You don't feel like you've done enough work to be ready, and then even if you do get yourself in contention, almost feel a bit guilty that you're there because you haven't done the work."
We could do a deep dive on the psychology behind McIlroy's statement there, but it's fair for now to say that he was not "pissed off" about not winning tournaments in 2017 because he knew his game wasn't right for it. The fact that he's angry now tells me more about what to expect from 2018 than his on-course play does.
Toptracer from the fairway: It's not a new technology, but it is new that we're going to see it for the entirety of the year on CBS Sports. Toptracer on tee shots is fun and entertaining (see: Dustin Johnson going nuclear at The Northern Trust last year). But from the fairway, it's actually enlightening. You can see what angles and shot shapes a player takes into specific greens and deduce strategy from there.
Alex Noren: The Swede is the rare player who is simultaneously underrated and overrated. He's not a name that many Americans know because the majority of his career has been spent on the European Tour, but he's a terrific player. However, when he rose to No. 8 in the world last year, nobody in golf thought, "hey, that guy is definitely one of the best eight guys in the world." He was buoyed by a run of success in Europe that did not translate on the biggest stages in golf in major championships (two top 10s ever) and WGC events (one top 10 ever).
However, he was spectacular against Jason Day in that Farmers Insurance Open marathon playoff (more on long playoffs below). He clearly is not afraid of the moment, and hit more big shots and clutch putts than I could keep track of late on Sunday. One of the underlying (and super deep) subplots I'll be watching this year is his trajectory towards the European Ryder Cup team. For now, though, I'm fully subscribed, callouses and all.
Complaints about Big Cat's spotlight: There has been some buzz about how Tiger Woods got too much airtime at Torrey. To quote the football coach at Oklahoma State who wears a mullet, "where are we at in society?!" Sports are and have always been about what sells to the broadest swath of human beings. A Woods comeback and his first made cut since the end of 2015 is literally one of the most compelling sports stories of the early part of 2018. And people are upset that he was on TV too much? Who would you prefer? Would all my Brandon Harkins fans please stand up.
Woods coming back and contending on this Tour at this stage in his career is in a lot of ways more intriguing than when he dominated in his 20s and 30s. I want to see every shot of how that plays out, and I suspect the wild majority of both hard-core and casual fans do, too. Nothing about the small minority should change the way that is produced and distributed in the golf world.
Monday playoffs: The Farmers Insurance Open marked the third-straight week of a multi-hole playoff. This one spilled into Monday, though, and was decided in roughly nine minutes after Noren hit his second shot of the day into the water. If you're bringing players, production crews, caddies and announcers back to the course for an entire separate day, maybe we should say that portion of the playoff is automatically three or more holes. I'm not sure if that's fair or something the PGA Tour would ever consider (although I know the European Tour is willing to try it and literally anything else!), but I also don't think many of the affected parties would object to playing at least three holes of golf on the subsequent day.
Rickie Fowler's iron play: It's not good! Fowler only has five measured rounds thus far, but he's No. 138 in strokes gained on approach shots. He missed the cut at Torrey Pines for the third straight year. Considering that he's finished in the top five in his other three events (including the unofficial Hero World Challenge), it's fair to say that with improvement in his iron play, he'll be contending at a level he's previously never matched. This was an issue at the 2017 Masters, too. He didn't hit it all that well but scored well enough to legitimately be in the mix on Sunday. I have zero concerns that it comes together for him, but it's something I'll be watching considering he's my pick to win at Augusta in two months.
There is certainly some progress from Big Cat this week at the Honda Classic
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