A new beginning for Rory McIlroy in 2014
The third week of 2014 offers a choice of deserts -- the one in La Quinta, Calif., where the Humana Challenge commences after the PGA Tour has played two weeks in Hawaii, and one in Abu Dhabi, where the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship kicks off the European Tour's Middle East swing.
A year ago in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, Rory McIlroy trotted out to amazing fanfare. Bright lights, a laser show, loud music on a waterfront setting with Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque as the backdrop.
In a way, everything soured from there for McIlroy.
Sure, he had his multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract with Nike, but, a few days later, he was missing the cut at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and nothing really went right for months.
Now he is back in the place where it all began -- or where, at the very least, it started to unravel -- and McIlroy is convinced things will be different in 2014.
Ranked seventh in the world after beginning 2013 at No. 1, McIlroy, 24, plays his first tournament of 2014 this week.
"Reflecting back on last year, there was a lot of instability going on, but I'm starting this season on such a different sort of platform," McIlroy told reporters in Abu Dhabi. "Everything feels like it's fallen in place and I can just focus on my golf and play the way I know I can."
McIlroy disclosed that his engagement to Caroline Wozniacki on New Year's Eve occurred on a boat in Sydney Harbor while watching fireworks.
Soon after that life-altering moment, Wozniacki was on to Melbourne to prepare for the Australian Open tennis tournament while McIlroy headed to Dubai, where he spent the early days of the new year working on his game in advance of this week's tournament.
That time spent on his game should bode well. A year ago, it was unclear how much work McIlroy put in heading into the season. He had just come off a spectacular 2012 in which he won five times worldwide and captured the money titles on the PGA Tour and the European Tour.
There was bound to be an adjustment period with the new Nike equipment, and McIlroy admitted as much.
"I had so many things to think about -- am I going to use this or that, is this driver better than that? There was a lot of instability," he said. "There was a load of stuff going on which didn't let me focus 100 percent on what I needed to do -- play the best I could. This year is polar opposite. I'm using exactly the same setup that I used for the final quarter of last year. And I feel the driver and ball I put in the bag for that stretch at the end of the year has really, really helped."
McIlroy showed much improvement toward the end of 2013, and his victory over Adam Scott at the Australian Open certainly helped put a positive spin on what was an otherwise tough year.
Perhaps more important, however, is his comfort with the new equipment and a tweak in his schedule that should have him better prepared as the season progresses.
Last year, after missing the cut in Abu Dhabi, McIlroy didn't play again until the WGC-Accenture Match Play -- more than a month later -- where he was bounced in the first round. Suddenly, it was the end of February and McIlroy had just three competitive rounds to his name.
After this week's Abu Dhabi tournament, McIlroy will stay in nearby Dubai ahead of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. He hinted he would play the WGC-Match Play but was unclear whether he might play at Riviera the week before or the Honda Classic the week after. Honda, of course, is where he walked off the course in the middle of the second round a year ago; should he skip it, perhaps that is a sign that the scars still linger from that episode.
Still, McIlroy seems in a better place -- with his equipment, with his preparation and with his personal life. Two tournaments in the next three weeks will give more clues as to the state of his game.
At the turn
Wait, golf is not leaving Hawaii just yet. After the PGA Tour began with two weeks on Maui and then Oahu, the Champions Tour is starting the 2014 season on the Big Island of Hawaii with the Mitsubishi Electric Championship. The tournament is for 2012-13 winners as well as major winners from the past five years along with eight exemptions. One of the players who failed to get an exemption was Vijay Singh.
We are now less than two years from the rules change that will not allow golfers to anchor the putter against their body. That rule is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2016, which means major champions such as Scott and Keegan Bradley still have plenty of time to figure out something else, but the clock is ticking for any pro who still anchors.
However, if PGA of America president Ted Bishop has his way, there will be a longer grace period for amateurs.
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In a recent email to PGA members, Bishop said he plans to attend next month's annual USGA meeting along with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem in an attempt to lobby the organization to push back the anchoring ban for amateurs.
"Our main purpose will be to formally request a 'grandfather period' for recreational amateurs who anchor long putters," Bishop wrote.
Bishop pointed out that, when the grooves rule was instituted in 2009, the USGA allowed amateurs an extra 15 years to adjust -- mainly so they wouldn't have to go out and buy new equipment.
"We believe our request for a 'grandfather period' can further assist you, the PGA Professional, in transitioning recreational golfers who do anchor, to the approved method," Bishop wrote.
He also asked his membership for real-life examples of amateur players who are affected by the anchoring ban.
Finchem's role in the process is not as obvious. PGA Tour players will be subject to the ban, but Finchem was against it for grow-the-game reasons.
1. Jimmy Walker. Two wins to start the 2013-14 season, spots in all the majors and WGCs, perfectly positioned to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Life is pretty good at the moment for Jimmy Walker.
2. Harris English. In just his third year on tour, English has two victories and contended for a third Sunday at the Sony Open before finishing fourth.
3. Louis Oosthuizen. It was a frustrating 2013 for the 2010 Open champion, who missed three major championships with a back problem. But he started 2014 strong by defending his title at the Volvo Champions in South Africa.
1. Tim Clark. The guy has had his share of injury woes in recent years, including a troublesome elbow that caused him to withdraw from the Sony Open last week. Here's hoping this one isn't serious.
2. Stewart Cink's tan line. If you didn't see the photo that went viral last week at the Sony Open when he removed his cap, check it out. To Cink's credit, he was a good sport about it.
3. The Humana Challenge courses. Each of the three venues for this week's Humana Challenge ranked among the three easiest on the tour in 2013. Couldn't one of them be semitough?
As part of a 25th-anniversary celebration of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, the tournament is bringing back its past champions to compete in an 18-hole Champions Challenge to be played Jan. 28, two days before the start of the European Tour event. The only player missing will be the late Seve Ballesteros, who is being honored by having his son, Javier, replace him in the field.
There are 21 players competing in the competition, including Tiger Woods, who has won the Dubai event twice. He will be grouped with Fred Couples and defending champion Stephen Gallacher. The one-day event is offering a $600,000 purse. The winner receives $300,000.
Zach Johnson followed his victory at Kapalua with a tie for eighth at the Sony Open. Two other players have opened the year with consecutive top-10 finishes, Matt Kuchar and Adam Scott. ... Johnson is in the Humana Challenge field this week along with Keegan Bradley, Brandt Snedeker, Webb Simpson and Bill Haas. ... Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy headline the field in Abu Dhabi, which also will see the 2014 debut of Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia. ... Charles Howell III tied for eighth at the Sony and how has eight top-10s in 13 starts at the tournament, including three in a row. He has earned more than $2.3 million at the Sony without winning. ... John Daly followed a third-round 64 with a 70 at the Sony Open to tie for 31st. He cashed his biggest check on the PGA Tour in nearly two years. ... Scott is taking the next six weeks off, but he doesn't plan to put the clubs away for long. "I'll work on my game a lot," he said. "I think there's plenty to work on after the last couple of weeks." ... Luke Donald, who is starting his 2014 season in Abu Dhabi, has changed agents from IMG to Lagardere, the same company that represents Mickelson, whose previous company, Gaylord Sports, was acquired by Lagardere. Donald is one of 45 golfers that company represents. ... Graeme McDowell, who isn't playing until Pebble Beach next month, has renewed a sponsor agreement with Ecco Golf Shoes.
"I've watched some of the highlights of that last round, and it's a tournament that I'll cherish forever, that experience, I'll cherish forever. I hit some of my best shots, some of my best putts on that back nine, and absolutely I looked at the highlights. It's the tournaments that I end up losing that I don't watch." -- Phil Mickelson, asked whether he has watched a DVD of the final round of the Open Championship at Muirfield, where he won last summer.