A big Rory McIlroy comeback and a Tiger Woods prediction at Torrey Pines Weekly 18 ESPN Golf

Golf


This was a big week for some big names. Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia all secured victories on various tours, one-quarter of the European Ryder Cup team already dialed in early in the year. We’ll get to their individual achievements, but this edition of the Weekly 18 begins with another big name who made a big comeback — and it ends with the biggest name on the verge of a comeback of his own.

1. This is going to be a big year for Rory McIlroy — in a few ways. First, it’ll be big literally, with him planning to play up to 30 events. It is also big in importance, as he’s finally healthy and eager to erase a three-year major-less drought. But — and here’s the opinion part of this — the biggest “big” will be with his performance, as McIlroy is primed for a comeback season that makes everyone remember just how good he can be when he has his best stuff. If he wins a couple of times before the Masters, that pursuit of the career Grand Slam just might come to fruition.

2. Don’t just take my word for it, though. Last month, after the Hero World Challenge, I was talking with Jordan Spieth about Tiger Woods and specifically whether he can be classified as an underdog at this point in his career. His answer was telling, just like the way he grouped McIlroy into that category. “Absolutely,” he said of that notion. “It’s the same with Rory. You can call Rory an underdog, just because he’s coming back from injury. There’s two guys who are the most accomplished players right now, other than Phil [Mickelson], that are playing week in, week out. … As far as coming back from injury and getting back into the flow, once they’re there, I imagine things will click and they’re going to be extremely difficult. I look for a huge year out of Rory this year.”

3. Of all the introspective things McIlroy said last week — and, as usual, he was an open book for the attending media — I really liked his ideas on getting back to something that worked for him when he was playing his best. This wasn’t a swing thought or anything technical. “I’m going to try to get to golf tournaments a bit earlier,” he stated. “That’s something that I’ve sort of, looking back on things, that I want to do a bit differently. So that’s getting back to something I’ve done in the past.” Granted, it doesn’t sound like much. But if arriving earlier can afford him the luxury of feeling more comfortable as the week unfolds, it could provide an intangible benefit to his performance.

4. Here’s a fun clip-and-save for the fantasy golfers out there: I know you want to save studs like McIlroy for the big tourneys in those one-and-done pools, but a sure thing is pretty tough to turn down. Although he has never won in Abu Dhabi, Rory now has eight top-fives in nine starts there, including four seconds and three thirds. Gotta believe that first victory is coming soon.

5. There are a number of ways to illustrate just how impressive Fleetwood was this week. He led the field, hitting a mighty 87.5 percent of greens in regulation. He stiff-armed a bevy of superstars vying for the title. He successfully defended for the first time in his career. But nothing tells the story better than one simple number: 30. That was his back-nine score in blustery conditions Sunday afternoon. This was a real when-the-going-gets-tough scenario, and Fleetwood showed — once again — that he’s got the moxie to get tough when it matters most.

6. If you’re reading this column right now, you probably have more than a passing interest in professional golf. And if you do, you need to help. All of us must band together. Because at multiple points this year, leading up to each of the four majors, some pundit is going to stand up, chest puffed out, and proclaim, “I have a feeling this Tommy Fleetwood fella could surprise some people as a sleeper this week…” Nope. No, no, no. We can’t let this happen. Fleetwood is hardly the definition of a sleeper. He’s a guy who is increasingly playing better and becoming more confident against the world’s best. So, if — sorry, when — you hear someone crow about him being a sneaky pick, make your voice heard. He deserves better than that.

7. Need a new favorite golfer? Look no further than Oscar Murphy, the 13-year-old from Northern Ireland who teed it up with McIlroy, Fleetwood and Dustin Johnson at a par-3 during the first round and knocked his pink ball right onto the green, looking right at home the entire time. As Fleetwood joked afterward, “Me and Rory both said we don’t even have that shot in our locker.”

8. And yes, you read that right: The European Tour had youngsters each hitting a shot alongside the pros during a tournament round. I know this might not make any sense, but somehow the Euro circuit can employ this and it’s a charming addition to the proceedings, but if the PGA Tour attempted it, it could feel as if it was trying too hard to spruce it up. Or maybe the tour should just play copycat and prove me wrong.

9. Rahm needed four extra holes to close out his fourth professional victory Sunday, which is unique only because he already has made a career of not taking long to find success. In his first start as a pro, just over 18 months ago, he finished in third place. Three starts later, he added a share of second. By his second tourney appearance of last year, he’d won his first PGA Tour title, then added two more on the European Tour by year’s end. In the game’s history, few players have risen this much this quickly. He still has some room for majors and WGCs and other big events on his increasingly crowded résumé, but those will come. And if his current rate of success tells us anything, they won’t take too long, either.

10. Two weeks ago, I wrote this about Rahm in the W18: “Rahm [jumped] from fourth in the world to third and there’s a decent chance he’ll move up again before he moves down.” Well, it’s quickly come true. With his win, Rahm leapfrogged to become No. 2 in the world. Now, we can argue whether a ranking that places a two-time PGA Tour champion over the past two major winners is objectively imperfect, but it’s impossible to debate how good Rahm has been since turning pro just a year and a half ago. There aren’t many questions left, but here’s one: Will he again move up in the ranking before he moves down? I’m not willing to concede that just yet, but he’ll get there — someday.

11. Every so often, there will be some world ranking movement that leaves us scratching our heads about the mathematical formula that calculates the results. Unsurprisingly, it’s usually at or near the top, when it involves the highest-ranked and most popular players. That will again be the case now that Rahm has surpassed Spieth and Justin Thomas. But there’s a common misconception about the ranking: It’s not who is best or even who has played the best. It’s just math — and while we can argue with a formula that pushes Rahm ahead of the past two major winners, we can’t argue with the math itself.

12. This week’s reminder why golf beats other sports: Sunday’s four-hole playoff featured Rahm, listed conservatively at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, against Andrew Landry, who’s 5-7, 150 pounds. Why is that relevant? It’s not. At all. That’s the whole point. Like the kids say, ball don’t lie.

13. Charlie Reiter missed the cut at the CareerBuilder but still opened plenty of eyes. The high school senior led the field in driving distance at 324 yards per pop, uncorking his longest at 350. I first wrote about Reiter in 2011, when he was a 5-foot, 82-pound 12-year-old playing in the Golf Channel Amateur Tour championship as a 7.1 handicap. Even at that age and playing level, Reiter told me at the time, “I want to get onto the PGA Tour — and I want to win a lot.” Now 18, he’s not there yet, but Reiter will play collegiately at USC next year, and, with those booming drives, he still has that same goal in mind.

14. Let’s face it: There wasn’t exactly a star-studded field at the Singapore Open this week, with only two major champions in attendance, but, just like in team sports, pro golfers can only beat the guys they’re up against. And so, Garcia’s victory might not be remembered as one of his most vital, but it’s a strong start to a year in which he is playing with new equipment and as an expectant father for the first time. He’ll defend his title in Dubai this week, and, based on his current form, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him replicate Fleetwood’s feat with another back-to-back performance.

15. Every year, the player directors on the PGA Tour’s policy board select two current members to run for chairman of the Player Advisory Council. This past week, they chose Billy Hurley III, a former Navy lieutenant, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering his leadership background and quantitative experience. They also chose Spieth, which should come as a surprise only because he doesn’t quite fit the profile of previous chairmen, most of whom have been longtime PGA Tour pros. But obviously, Spieth’s age is overshadowed by his maturity level, which could move him into a powerful position in just a few weeks. The election, as voted on by PGA Tour members, will end Feb. 13.

16. I love smart, innovative, out-of-the-box ideas, so I’m all-in on the Web.com Tour’s decision to again host its first two tournaments on off-peak hours, as far as the usual schedule goes. Last week’s Great Exuma Classic was a Saturday through Tuesday event, and this week’s Great Abaco Classic is being held Sunday through Wednesday. For a tour that can create a nice little niche for itself by offering a tomorrow’s-stars-today mantra, moving away from the competition of other tournaments is a bright idea.

17. According to odds set by online sportsbook BetDSI, Tiger has a better chance to miss the cut than make it to the weekend at Torrey Pines. They’ve set the number at +110 to make and -140 to miss. Maybe I drank too much of that “Bahamas kool-aid” at the Hero World Challenge, but I think the odds of him missing the cut are closer to those of him finishing, let’s say, top-five than simply playing four rounds. On a course where he has won so often, during a week when he’s going to be fired up to play his best, with his injury apparently (for now, at least) much improved, I expect Tiger to continue his momentum from last month and enjoy a nice tourney.

18. OK, fine. That wasn’t enough of a prediction? Put me down for a T-14 for Tiger this week. Not quite good enough to seriously contend, but easily good enough to leave everyone excited and intrigued about the impending future.



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