Backspin: McIlroy, Furyk find momentum at Valero

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April 08, 2013
Brian Wacker,

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Rory McIlroy was hoping to build a little momentum going into the year’s first major. He found some in San Antonio.

McIlroy finished two shots back of Martin Laird, but winning was never the main goal.

“That was the plan this week was to get myself tournament ready,” McIlroy said after a 66 Sunday. “It was a bonus that I got into contention and had a chance to win.

“I think I know now where my game is at, and I'm happy with it. Everything that I wanted to accomplish this week, I accomplished.”

He wasn’t the only one.

Laird’s victory at the Valero Texas Open got him into the Masters and turns around what was a season headed in the wrong direction with missed cuts in half his starts and zero top 25s.

Now he’ll try to become the first player since Phil Mickelson in 2006 and just sixth overall to win the week before and go on to win the Masters. His previous best finish in two trips to Augusta National was a tie for 20th two years ago.

Furyk has had more success at the Masters, twice finishing fourth and four times registering a top 10. Though he’s only truly been in contention once at Augusta National (in 1998 when he trailed by three entering the final round), he’ll arrive with a lot of confidence after his performance in San Antonio.

“Way better,” Furyk said about his chances at the Masters after a final-round 69 that included an eagle on the last hole. “To come in here and finish third and hit a lot of good shots and play well and end on a high note on 18, much, much better.

“I can learn more in two rounds out here than I can in seven days at home without a doubt.”

Padraig Harrington and Charl Schwartzel also have reasons to feel positive.

Though each had varying degrees of sloppiness -- Harrington a second-round 73 with three bogeys on the back nine, and Schwartzel three double bogeys on the card for the week -- each also found at last some rhythm on a tough track, tying for 10th and 22nd, respectively.

Clearly, though, McIlroy gained more than anyone, proving the guy holding the trophy at the end isn’t always the only one to win something.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

“He is focused on 20. That may be a little hard to believe, considering what's transpired in the last three years, but that's where his focus is. He thinks he is capable of winning 20 majors.” -- Notah Begay, to Sports Illustrated, on Tiger Woods.

“The dogs still love me, the wife still loves me, my kids still love me. I’m in a very happy place.” -- Jason Gore, after losing 44 pounds and getting his shoulder healthy and a sponsor exemption into last week’s Valero Teas Open.

"Greg Norman designs courses to test professional golfers, not to please professional golfers." -- Padraig Harrington on the difficult AT&T Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio.

TWEETS OF THE WEEK

@Keegan_Bradley: Youk chant in Yankee stadium. Gross. -- Red Sox fan Keegan Bradley on the opening day for Major League Baseball and the former Boston infielder who’s now a member of the rival New York Yankees.

@McIlroyRory: Anyone else been fooled today by google nose!? I've been sniffing my phone for the last 10 minutes and not smelling anything!! Haha idiot! -- McIlroy after falling for Google’s nifty April Fool’s gag.

THE BACK NINE: 9 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Little things can make a big difference. At least they did for Martin Laird. The Scot was struggling with his confidence and just about everything else in his game after making a coaching change late last year and getting off to a slow start on the West Coast this year. Then he decided to put his old putter -- the one he used to win at Bay Hill in 2011 -- back in his bag. “I got over here (last) Sunday and got some good practice in Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday with it and felt a lot more comfortable with that,” Laird said. “I felt like I could see. It sounds simple, but I know where it's lined up easier. It's kind of a comfort thing. I'm confident with where I'm aiming with it as opposed to some of the other (putters) where I was kind of second guessing. It really is as simple as that.” For the week, Laird ranked second in strokes gained-putting and on Sunday he took just 22 total putts, a dozen of which were one-putts.

2. Laird also became the first player since Johnson Wagner in 2008 to earn a trip to the Masters by winning the week before. As for the other five players to win the week before the Masters then capture the Green Jacket, they were: Mickelson (Bell South), Sandy Lyle (Greater Greensboro Open) in 1988, Art Wall (Azalea Open) in 1959, Sam Snead (Greater Greensboro Open) in 1949 and Ralph Guldahl (Greater Greensboro Open) in 1939.

3. For all the doom and gloom over Rory McIlroy’s play this year, his 66 Sunday marked the 11th of 13 rounds of par or better on TOUR this season. By the way, he also tied for first in greens in regulation last week at a shade under 78 percent. “Iron play is good, driving the ball, I didn't quite drive the ball that well (Sunday), but my 3-wood was working pretty good,” he said. “All in all, it's really in a good place, and I'm looking forward to next week.”

4. Earlier, I mentioned five players who gained varying degrees of momentum last week in San Antonio heading into the Masters. Here are three players who gained none (or maybe even lost a little): Ian Poulter, Brandt Snedeker and Ryan Moore. Poulter has shot in the 70s in 11 of his 15 rounds on TOUR this season -- which included middle rounds of 75-74 in San Antonio -- and ranks 100th in birdies and 117th in scoring. Snedeker missed the cut in his two starts at Bay Hill and in Houston after being sidelined for five weeks with a rib injury. Moore, who three years ago tied for 14th at the Masters, missed his last two cuts in Tampa and Orlando and has shot in the 70s his last 10 rounds.

5. Stat of the Week I: This is more of an odd-but-true nugget more than a stat, but Laird became just the third international player since 1970 to win the Valero Texas Open. Adam Scott in 2010 and Nick Price in 1992 were the others.

6. Another odd-but-true item from last week: It marked the first time that Furyk played the week before the Masters, which he has competed in every year but once since 1996.

7. Stat of the Week II: Laird’s victory also stopped the streak of U.S. players winning on TOUR at 16, dating back to Tommy Gainey’s win at last year’s McGladrey Classic. Americans had won the first 14 events of this season.

8. Stat of the Week III: $130 million. The numbers are out and that’s how much was raised for charity from the TOUR and tournaments in 2012, pushing all-time charitable contributions to $1.86 billion. 

9. The forecast for the Masters: Mostly sunny with temperatures in the mid-70s, except for Friday, when there’s a 70 percent chance for rain and thunderstorms. 

MONDAY BACKSPIN MAILBAG
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Who has the biggest chance of shocking the world at Augusta? -- Patrick Morris

Of the four majors, the Masters is the most Cinderella-proof. You have to go all the way back to Charles Coody to find anyone remotely close to one (excluding Jack Nicklaus in 1986, of course). That said, I could see Peter Hanson or Michael Thompson on the board sometime over the weekend.

Should Rory McIlroy have switched equipment? -- Andy Ho

I think it’s safe to say at this point whatever struggles McIlroy has had this season, it’s not the equipment. No question there was an adjustment period, but he’s past that now and with every round seems to be moving further and further away from the swing issues he was struggling with.

How soon will Tiger eclipse Sam Snead’s record of tournament victories on the PGA TOUR? -- Nicholas Knowles

It’ll happen late this year or early next, Nicholas. Tiger is only five away from tying Snead’s mark of 82 career wins and as you’ll see below, I think he’ll move one step closer to it this week at Augusta National.

Have a question for the mailbag? Email your question to brianwacker@pgatourhq.com, or tweet it to @pgatour_brianw.

FORWARD SPIN: WHO I LIKE THIS WEEK

It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years since Tiger Woods last slipped on a Green Jacket. It’s also been five years since he’s won any kind of major. Is all that about to change? The stars seem to be aligning that way. This is the best Woods has played in four years and he enters the year’s first major already with three wins this season and six in his last 19 stroke-play starts on the PGA TOUR. And remember, even though Woods hasn’t won there since 2005, he’s finished outside the top 6 just once in that span, even when he was far from at his best physically or mentally.

Has Augusta National been “Tiger proofed?” It doesn’t matter with the way Woods is playing, particularly in his short game. Yes, he’ll need to call on some right-to-left tee shots with the driver, which at times has been disastrously bad in those situations the last few years. But he’s back to turning bad rounds into decent ones and good ones into great ones and that’s how he won four Green Jackets in the past. I think he adds a fifth this week.

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