Murphy's Law: Rickie and Rory lead the way

Brian Murphy

There comes a time in any field when the game changes, when you wake up and realise, “It’s my time, baby”, or alternately, “Holy smokes, when did I get so old and out of touch? And why does my back ache?”

I imagine there was a time in the 1960s when Bill Halley and the Comets tried to play a reunion gig, but word got out there was a new folk singer named Bob Dylan carving up Greenwich Village and ticket sales for the Comets dried up. Or a time when the aging Beach Boys of the 1990s tried to play a summer festival and gazed longingly at the gigantic crowd across the way for these young whippersnappers from Seattle called Nirvana. Grunge? Huh?

All of which is one way of saying: Tiger Woods missed the cut at Quail Hollow, and by Sunday the winner was a 23-year-old dressed like a Creamsicle, with a skater’s flat-brimmed cap and facial hair to resemble the Wooderson character from “Dazed and Confused.” Oh, and one of the players he beat in the play-off was also 23 and now is the No. 1 player in the world.

In other words, if it’s too loud, you’re too old.

Rickie Fowler didn’t just win the prestigious Wells Fargo Championship in a play-off win over Rory McIlroy (and D.A. Points, so incongruous to the overarching narrative that he needs to be in parentheses.) He seized it with the alacrity of youth, making ferocious golf swings born of fast-twitch muscles in their prime. He arrived at his first US PGA Tour win in his 67th start so undeniably, by roasting a drive on the play-off hole and a heat-seeking wedge to four feet for birdie, it was as if the first 66 starts were mere prelude to what may be.

That it was McIlroy as his foil, just one month short of next month’s U.S. Open, where the Ulsterman defends his Major title, was perfect. Their combined age of 46 is just four years older than Phil Mickelson will be at the Olympic Club in San Francisco for the national open. Their torsos create lumbar-creaking torque, their bellies are as flat as the Oklahoma State plains where Fowler played his college golf (hence the Cowboy orange on Sundays) and their youthful auras scream more Justin Bieber and Bryce Harper than Backstreet Boys and Derek Jeter.

On the current cable TV hit “Mad Men,” protagonist Don Draper and his advertising partner Roger Sterling are Madison Avenue mainstays trying to navigate 1966 while the world changes around them – new racial climates, the rise of women in the workplace and the influx of youth into their offices. In the golf analogy, think of Tiger like Draper, trying to keep in control of a world he once owned, while at the same time unable to deny the very shifting landscape in front of him.

When Tiger Woods won Bay Hill, many of us thought he was back. But the only thing his last two starts have proved is that he isn’t back at all. His tie-44th at the Masters, his personal playground, was shocking. Add in a missed cut at Quail Hollow, in which his control of the golf ball was again lost in a swirl of swing thoughts and changes still not natural, even almost two years into his work with Sean Foley, and you lend credence to the increasingly rational thought that Tiger’s era is over. Sure, he will play well on occasion, and even contend at Majors – he’s that good – but the world has changed, just as it has for every generation in history.

And now here come Fowler and McIlroy, introducing a rivalry the golf world would come to love: two agreeable personalities, two mouth-watering golf swings, two prodigious drivers of the golf ball. Fowler averaged 306 yards off the tee at Quail Hollow (13th in the field) and hit 79 percent of greens in regulation (5th in the field). There’s not a whole lot he can’t do. The only question on Fowler was how he could handle Sundays, and after erasing Webb Simpson’s three-stroke lead and shooting 69 in the final round, plus a play-off birdie, questions have been answered.

There may be no greater example of how Fowler and the recently crowned Masters champion Bubba Watson have come to change golf than their 2011 breakout hit video “Oh Oh Oh” by the Golf Boys. Suffice to say, it’s not something joy-averse Tiger would ever think to do.

Last year, when the hilarious video hit YouTube (now up to 4.7 million hits), none of the four involved – including Hunter Mahan and Ben Crane – could win a tournament. I wondered if the golf gods had created a “Golf Boys Curse,” the premise being not to ever take golf lightly.

Now, the golf gods are showing total and unabashed love for the Golf Boys. In addition to a green jacket and Mahan’s two wins in 2012, Fowler’s arrival portends so many good things for the game and its fan base, a player who is fun and easy to watch, and not afraid to get his ‘N Sync dance moves on. The only missing champion in the group is Golf Boys creator Ben Crane, who was greenside for Bubba’s Augusta triumph, then greenside again for Fowler’s big win. I’m starting to think of Crane as “America’s Guest” when it comes to other people winning tournaments.

More important, the enduring image from Quail Hollow was the sight of McIlroy and Fowler engaging in a soul shake on the practice green before the play-off. “How much fun is this?” asked Fowler, as if he was ready for many, many years of fun ahead.

Scorecard of the week

70-68-66-70 – 14-under 274, Rory McIlroy, tie-1st, lost in play-off, Wells Fargo Championship, Quail Hollow, Charlotte, N.C.

McIlroy and Luke Donald have been trading the Official World Golf Ranking No. 1 spot like two kids alternating with a new toy.

“My turn!”

“No,  my turn!”

I have the feeling this is the turn where McIlroy takes his toy and goes home with it, never to bring it back to Donald’s house.

If there’s one problem with Rory McIlroy’s game, it’s that we don’t get to see enough of it. Quail Hollow was only McIlroy’s fifth US PGA Tour start of 2012. By contrast, Phil Mickelson has played 10 events, Bubba Watson nine.

So, Donald – who has seven starts – was able to pass McIlroy twice for world No. 1 simply because McIlroy was sitting on the sidelines, on the Tiger Woods “I’ll Play When I’m Darn Ready” game plan. I get that Tiger used to do it when he was intergalactically famous, the better to make his brand more valuable. But with McIlroy at 23? I’ve got a fever, and the only thing that’ll cure it is more Rory on the golf course.

At any rate, he deserves the top spot back after his fourth top-three finish in five starts. That’s how good he’s been. Unfortunately, his only non-top three finish happened to be at his most important start, the Masters, where he and Tiger slummed to a tie-44th. Hmmm.

He’s merely the possessor of the finest golf swing on earth right now. The prodigious results he got with his 3-wood off the tees at Quail Hollow were startling, routinely over 300 yards and on a string. He hit a 354-yard drive on the 15th hole, when the next closest drive was J.B. Holmes’ 329-yard shot, lending credence to McIlroy’s claim that he prefers warm weather – odd, considering McIlroy’s homeland of Northern Ireland annually trades with Seattle the mantel for “Drizzly, Gray, Cold Capital of the World.”

Yes, his birdie try in regulation for the win could have been a better putt, and yes, his wedge into 18 on the play-off hole lacked Fowler’s gunslinger mentality, but McIlroy continues to be a revelation. He even bantered good-naturedly with Fowler on the 18th green during the play-off, making sure he’s going to maintain his social graces even under duress. I’ve often wondered if he needs to be more of a bloodsucker, but if being Rory means still smiling and keeping that golf swing, then let Rory be Rory.

Good to have you back, Ulsterman. Now, stay a while, would you?

Mulligan of the week

This column has been cruelly short of D.A. Points tributes.

Here’s a guy who broke through like few others in recent golf history, making his first victory a) at Pebble Beach, and b) with Bill Murray as his amateur partner. Points went from total obscurity to “the guy who won at Pebble Beach with Bill Murray,” which is nice work if you can get it.

Most thought that would be the last we’d hear of Points, given it’d been 128 starts before his first win, and he didn’t log a top-10 the rest of 2011. But two top-10 finishes early this year in Honolulu and Torrey Pines showed something, and Points found himself on the 72nd tee at Quail Hollow with a one-shot lead over Fowler and McIlroy.

Now, for purposes of this Mulligan of the Week, we will conveniently avoid the fact that a Points triumph would have been a storyline buzz kill, a golf development that did not play into our romantic notion of a Fowler arrival or another McIlroy moment. Let’s face it: Points was the 35-year-old guy with the two 23-year-olds, the uncool guy at the party. Never mind that Points is apparently a super nice gent who was even kind enough to gently correct US PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell before the play-off, noting that McIlroy had, in fact, finished first and should draw a number before he did.

But with a chance for a huge win to validate Pebble Beach, Points drove his golf ball into the right rough. He had 173 in, and had 8-iron in his hand, but as Nick Faldo noted on CBS, just did everything too fast – his setup, his process and his swing, leaking the tee shot into the right bunker. There was no way he could make par. His bogey earned him a ticket to the three-man play-off at 14-under.

So, for the sake of D.A. Points, let’s go back out to that right rough, let him pull 8-iron, take several breaths, visualize the shot, picture the green in regulation and … give that man a mulligan!

Where do we go from here?

It’s big-time stuff, golf fans: The Players Championship, the “fifth Major,” as it were, and 44 of the top 50 players in the world are in attendance.

Bubba Watson, in a bold move, announced he’ll skip TPC Sawgrass to be with his wife and newly adopted son. But Tiger and Phil and Rory and Rickie will be there, in a slew of first-name recognition.

I wonder if Fowler and McIlroy will cruise into the players’ locker room, blasting the latest hip-hop on their iPhone earbuds, while Mickelson and Woods apply Bengay to aching joints. Generations, after all, go about their business in different ways.

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