I love The British Open. I know I'm supposed to call it the Open Championship, but let's be real. It's just so... British.
The ground is sandy and harder, even when it's wet. The fescue grass looks browner, even when it's green. The sky looks gray, even when it's blue. The spectators are so pale.
I love waking up, turning on the television, and watching it in HD from Thursday through Sunday. I enjoy it so much that I'm almost able to tune out the 8-million-person ESPN Golf commentary team, the ridiculously pretentious Ian McShane voiceovers, the unavoidable summary montages, and the innumerable commercial breaks. ESPN hasn't figured out that golf, like baseball, is a sport where sometimes announcers just have to shut up. Anyone watching British Open golf at 8 in the morning probably knows enough about golf that we don't need the platitudes about weather, playing the ball along the ground, or the one-week affectations of speech to which we are subjected each July.
Half the time, it felt like I wasn't even watching golf. I had the international feed side-by-side with the ESPN coverage on my computer at work on Thursday and Friday. There were lots of amazing shots that were being played while ESPN was forcing us to watch inane montages about the Beatles. See, the Beatles are from Liverpool, where Royal Liverpool Golf Club is hosting the tourney this week. Except it really isn't in Liverpool, it's in adjacent Hoylake, which is why the course is referred to as "Hoylake." I don't know that the Beatles are really connected to golf in any significant way. And I'm pretty sure the members of Hoylake in the 1960s weren't hanging out at the Cavern Club as the Beatles were cutting their teeth in the fledgling rock-and-roll scene. So please, ESPN, you don't have to try to appeal to a 'tween prime-time audience or people who only watch Tiger Woods. Just show the golf.
Oh yeah, Tiger. At first, I was appalled by ESPN's choice to offer a Tiger-only streaming feed on the web, but by day 2, I was thrilled. Everything we hear from, or about, Tiger is so sanitized, so packaged. He controls his media presence extremely carefully, and always has. The media itself, because they need access to the guy who is still the biggest draw in golf, plays along. (Google Brandel Chamblee - Tiger Woods, for example.) But what was always most compelling about Tiger was his golf. Now? At least for the moment, he's a train wreck.
That was the beauty of the dedicated Tiger stream. I could watch every shot. Every swing. Wow. What a mess. Clearly his recent back surgery caused him to miss a significant amount of time, and the rust is obvious. To me, though, it's much more than that. He simply has no control over the ball. These British links courses, above all, value control. Over trajectory, over distance (long and short), over spin, over direction. Control minimizes weather, and control minimizes luck. Links courses seem to expose flaws in confidence much more than typical American courses, not insignifcantly because they change character almost hourly as the conditions vary. Flexibility in strategy and execution is as important as technical precision and consistency.
Tiger has lost that flexibility, at least for now. His ability to do anything, anytime, is what used to truly separate him from the field. Now? For three days he hasn't been able to control his direction off the tee, or his distance on controlled shots. His Friday round was a perverse testament to his greatness. His full swing shots were truly awful. I know, because I saw almost every one. A good amateur hitting the same tee shots and approaches that Tiger did would have had trouble breaking 95. A lesser pro would've shot 85. Only a handful of pros who have ever played could have shot a 77 playing like he did, and probably only Tiger could actually claim afterward that he felt like he could have done a little better.
It's hard to tell whether it's the injuries, or the multiple swing changes, or some change in his previously unwavering mental intensity that have brought him to this place. He won five tournaments last year despite not putting consistently, and without driving the ball well at all. It's been worse this year, before and after his back surgery. It's been years since I saw Tiger Woods hit a shot that only he could have hit. The bottom line is that while he may have a good reason to swing the club the way he currently does, it would appear that on his full swings he simply has no idea where the ball is going to go. He isn't winning anything of substance until he figures this thing out.
But enough of the bad, and enough of the ugly.
Rory McIlroy is really, really good at golf. With one more decent round on Sunday, he will join Tiger and Jack Nicklaus as the only men to have won 3 Majors before their 26th birthday, and he will have only the Masters left to complete a career Grand Slam. McIlroy can have real clunker rounds from time to time and has been through a good deal of personal turmoil in the last 2 years, even for a young guy. He can be inconsistent. However, he won the 2011 US Open at Congressional by 8 strokes, and the 2012 PGA at Kiawah Island by 8. He currently leads the Open Championship by 6. When he is good, he is dominant. And now he is learning to manage his game to maintain control without losing his aggressive nature.
McIlroy started the tournament with a pair of 6-under par 66s, having caught the slightly better weather side of the schedule the first two days. Still, plenty of good scores were being posted. Rory's were just better. His 12-under par was 4 strokes clear of Dustin Johnson, with Francesco Molinari, Sergio Garcia, and Rickie Fowler among others who were lurking at 7-under and 6-under.
He bogeyed the 1st hole on Saturday, and struggled a bit with his game over the first half of the round. He got the shot back with a birdie at 5, moved to -13 with a birdie at 11, but gave it back with a bogey on 12.
Fowler, on the other hand, was en fuego, shooting 6-under par on the first 12 holes, including 3 consecutive birdies on holes 10-12. Playing in the group ahead of McIlroy, Fowler was tied with McIroy for the lead at 12-under as they played the 14th hole. The tournament seemingly had become a barnburner.
Riiight. Fowler bogeyed 14 but McIlroy drained a long birdie putt to reach -13 and take a 2-stroke lead. They both parred 15, and then Fowler made a costly bogey at 16 after driving into a fairway bunker. Rickie finished with a bogey at 17 and a birdie at 18 to shoot a 4-under par 68.
McIlroy, however, fully aware of the challenge, attacked. He reached the par-5 16th with an enormous drive and a 4-iron, then drained the eagle putt to reach -15. After a bogey on the difficult 17th, he again bombed an enormous drive on 18 followed by a towering 237-yard 5-iron to the back center pin position. After converting the eagle putt for a 68, he stood at 16-under par with a 6-stroke lead over Fowler, with Garcia and Johnson at 9-under, 7 strokes back.
McIlroy doesn't approach his rounds with the dour, intimidating physical presence that Tiger used to bring to bear, but when he is playing with confidence, the effect is the same. Players even a stroke or two behind Tiger used to know that he wouldn't make mistakes, so they were forced to chase him and make mistakes of their own. McIlroy will likely make a mistake or two tomorrow. But he has a 6-stroke lead, and like he showed today, he is learning how to recover even when he isn't at his absolute perfect best. Today he made more than a few mistakes, but eagled two of the last three holes, shot 68, and widened his lead by 2 strokes.
Good luck to the rest of the field. Someone in the last groups has to shoot 66 or lower, like Phil Mickelson did last year at Muirfield, and hope that Rory just has a bad day like he had at the Masters in 2011 when he collapsed through the final nine holes. Since it's the British Open, I'll stick to the theme. Not Bloody Likely.