Rory McIlroy takes aim at Quail Hollow, No. 1
CHARLOTTE -- Rory McIlroy took to Twitter a few weeks ago to laud his achievement for going to No. 1 in the world.
"Wish it was always that easy,'' he quipped.
Of course, McIlroy had done nothing, other than watch from afar as Luke Donald failed to post a high enough finish at the RBC Heritage to hold on to the top spot.
So McIlroy took it over again in much less dramatic fashion than when he won the Honda Classic in early March, holding off a hard-charging Tiger Woods and his final-round 62 to claim the top spot for the first time in his career.
Now McIlroy has lost it, also while not playing, as Donald regained the No. 1 ranking with a third-place finish in New Orleans.
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McIlroy returns to action this week at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, site of his first PGA Tour victory in 2010. It will be just his second tournament since the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral on March 11, and his first since a disappointing Masters.
"Definitely wasn't the result that I wanted at the Masters,'' McIlroy said Monday during a media session for the U.S. Open, where he is the defending champion. "I took a couple of weeks off back in Europe, spent some time with my girlfriend [tennis player Caroline Wozniacki], and I've come back to the States last week and did some really good work in Florida with my coach, fitness coach, and really put in some good work. ... The game feels really good.
"There's a couple of different things that I needed to work on since Augusta that probably prevented me from playing my best golf or playing the way I wanted to. But I feel like that's back on the right track, and I feel like I'm getting more comfortable with it and looking forward to getting back and playing some competitive golf this week.''
McIlroy's 40th-place tie at the Masters was a shock considering his yearlong form. He had won at the Honda and finished third at Doral; he hadn't been out of the top five all season. In fact, going back to the PGA Championship in August -- when a wrist injury suffered during the first round made it difficult to even make the cut -- McIlroy's worst worldwide finish had been 11th.
Starting the third round of the Masters, McIlroy had shot 71-69 and seemed poised to make a run at the green jacket. Then he shot 42 on the front nine and it was over, just like that. He finished with 77 that day, then added 76 on Sunday.
So much for the pre-tournament hype that had McIlroy dueling Woods to win the year's first major.
"If I'm being compared to him, I'm doing something right,'' said McIlroy, who turns 23 on Friday. "I knew there was a lot of hype pre-Masters about it was a horse race or whatever, and it was a two-horse race for 40th. So it wasn't our best week, but hopefully you go into the next major and we both play a little bit better and maybe it would be great to get in contention on Sunday, and if he's there as well it would be great.
"It's a nice position to be in to be compared to him and to be mentioned in the same sentence. I'm definitely not complaining about that.''
Now the work begins again for McIlroy. The Masters is his only tournament in the past six weeks, a schedule that worked well for him a year ago going into the year's first major, but which doesn't look as good now.
The idea was to cut down on some of the wear and tear that plagued McIlroy toward the end of last year, yet when he won at Honda, he was coming off a Match Play final loss the week prior and went on to finish third a week later.
He'll play next week's Players Championship -- which he skipped a year ago -- and then take a week off prior to the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW Championship at Wentworth. The following week, he'll be back in the U.S. for the Memorial, then taking some time to get to know the Olympic Club, a course he's never seen, for the U.S. Open.
Tiger's fan video and media snub
There is no disputing the fact that Tiger Woods does more media sessions than anybody who plays golf for a living. He might not be as glib or as open or as elaborative as some would like, but he does takes questions after nearly every round, and prior to almost every tournament he plays -- no matter what he shoots.
There have been a few rare exceptions, such as at the 2010 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, when he may have hit bottom with his personal and professional life. He was going through a divorce, he was playing poorly, and there were a couple of rounds during the tournament when he declined to talk. To media folks, that might have been frustrating but should have been understandable.
Then there is Woods' pre-tournament routine. He almost always has made himself available, even for just a quick question-and-answer session as he comes off the course from the pro-am -- until this week. It is difficult to come up with another time that Woods did not speak before a tournament, any tournament. This week he decided to answer fan questions instead, and posted a video on his website.
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Is this a big deal? Probably not. Woods isn't boycotting the media, and his agent, Mark Steinberg, said this would occur just "a handful'' of times. Their stance is that no other player does media interviews prior to every tournament, a fair point. (When Vijay Singh was No. 1 in the world, he routinely blew off such requests.) Of course, no other player has won 14 majors and 72 PGA Tour titles and moves the needle quite like Woods, either.
If there is a quibble here, it is that Steinberg -- and Woods -- made it an either/or scenario with the media. The explanation was they were going to skip a media session so they could answer questions from fans. So a 15-minute crudely edited video with hand-picked questions took the place of a media session in which far more would have been asked about the Masters and the disappointing performance there.
Woods easily might have done both. And certainly taking questions from fans could be done more frequently, regardless of the media situation.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
Birdies And Bogeys
1. Jason Dufner. That long-awaited first victory came at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, and he did it in a playoff against a Hall of Famer, too.
2. Ernie Els. He'll rue the 6-footer he missed on the first playoff hole, but there are many positives to take out of this tournament for the Big Easy, who moved to 40th in the world.
3. Stacy Lewis. She held off hard-charging Lexi Thompson to win her second LPGA title at the Mobile Classic.
1. Tiger Woods. He deserves a break from the media once in a while, but he would be better served not making his Q&A session an either/or with the fans. Why not both?
2. Lexi Thompson. She shot 65 on Sunday to finish second, but the whole looking-for-a-date-for-the-prom deal just seems a bit weird.
3. Se Ri Pak. Sad to hear that the LPGA Hall of Famer suffered a shoulder injury in a freak accident. The hope is it won't keep her out past the U.S. Women's Open, which returns to the Blackwolf Run course where she inspired all Koreans with her 1998 victory.
U.S. Open watch
The United States Golf Association announced last week that more than 9,000 entries were accepted for this year's U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, with (so far) 53 players exempt from local and sectional qualifying.
Local qualifying for the championship began Monday and will take place at 109 sites across the country through May 17. Those 18-hole qualifiers -- an amateur must have a handicap index of 1.4 or better to enter -- will lead to the 11 sectional qualifying sites, where a majority of the field will be determined on June 4.
There will also be international qualifying sites in Japan (May 21) and England (May 28). All the sectionals will be played over 36 holes.
The USGA said it received entries from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 71 countries.
New this year is a qualifying criteria that will exempt anyone into the field who is ranked among the top 60 in the world by May 21 or again by June 11. The previous cutoff had been the top 50. Winners of the Players Championship and European Tour's BMW Championship will also be exempt if not otherwise qualified.
Ernie Els' playoff loss to Jason Dufner in New Orleans dropped his PGA Tour playoff record to 4-4. His last playoff loss had come in the 2004 British Open, won by Todd Hamilton. Els also lost in a playoff earlier this year on the European Tour at the Volvo Champions to countryman Branden Grace ... Els jumped up to 40th in the world with the second-place finish and should be in good shape for the U.S. Open, which exempts the top 60 as of May 21 and June 11 ... Luke Donald moved back to No. 1 in the world with his third-place finish in New Orleans. Donald had lost the No. 1 ranking to Rory McIlroy when McIlroy won at Honda, and then took it back with a victory at the Transitions Championship; then, Donald lost the No. 1 with a 37th-place finish at the RBC Heritage before taking it back again in New Orleans ... This week's Wells Fargo Championship boasts its usual strong field, including McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. But it will be missing Donald, Els and Dufner, who is getting married Saturday. Graeme McDowell also withdrew, citing illness and a hectic schedule that will see him go to next week's Players Championship, the Match Play event on the European Tour in Spain, and then the BMW Championship at Wentworth ... According to the PGA Tour, since Woods' record cut streak of 142 in a row ended in 2005, no player has been able to get to 50 straight. Steve Stricker is now at 49. The longest cut streaks since Woods' streak ended are Stricker, 46 by Ernie Els and 38 by Woods, which ended at the 2009 British Open ... Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Lee Trevino will be part of a special competition Saturday at the Insperity Championship, a Champions Tour event in Houston.
"The honeymoon is going to be at the Players Championship. You ever been there? They've got an island green.'' -- Jason Dufner, who is getting married on Saturday -- and will delay a honeymoon until after next week's Players Championship.