The Local Knowlege

Courses & Travel

7 things you need to know about the Irish Open and the incredible Royal County Down

Ladies and Gentlemen, set your DVRs. 

Sure, three Senior British Opens were played at Royal County Down around the turn of the 21st century. But they were shown in lowly standard definition for a couple of hours on a summer weekend. And yes, the 2007 Walker Cup was briefly televised, showing us a thrilling match (plus those charmingly unflattering photos of Rory and Rickie) but without much coverage.

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Otherwise, Royal County Down Golf Club is mostly been known to the world by photos of two holes and to the lucky few guests who will never forget Northern Ireland’s mysterious masterpiece.

Until this week.

That’s when the hard-to-reach, hard-to-play and awe-inspiring course hosts the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open benefiting McIlroy’s foundation. The World No. 1 golfer brings his friends to the course Golf Digest rates the best outside of the United States. And for the first time it will be shown in full HD glory.

A few things to keep in mind when extensive Golf Channel coverage starts Thursday morning. 

-- The field at this European Tour tournament may be better than the tour's "flagship" event had a week ago. With a great course and Dubai Duty Free making the difficult journey to Northern Ireland worth their while, stars are flocking to Newcastle: Darren Clarke, Luke Donald, Victor Dubuisson, Ernie Els, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Paul McGinley, Lee Westwood and last week’s BWM winner Byeong Hun An.

-- The course has almost as many architects as there are players in the field this week. For a change, that’s a good thing. Ran Morrissett wrote in his GolfClubAtlas.com review, “As with Oakmont Country Club and Pine Valley Golf Club, County Down stands apart as reminding one of no other course in the world in part because it was designed not by a professional architect but rather by strong willed people with a genuine love and feel for the game.”

A Scottish schoolteacher named George Baillie was the first to design nine holes here in 1889 or so. Then Old Tom Morris was paid “a sum not to exceed £4” to turn the Newcastle course into 18 holes. A series of major changes were made by a club captain, George Combe, that resulted in the core of today’s world-renowned layout. This was followed by suggestions from legends James Braid, J.H. Taylor, Harry Vardon and Ben Sayers before the great H.S. Colt created the famed fourth and ninth holes in 1925. More recently, Donald Steel strengthened the finishing holes, including the entirely new 16th that gives the finishing stretch a risk-reward short par 4.

-- RCD is “quirky” in the best sense. You know that word: it’s the label put on any course that includes blind shots and an unorthodox routing. As Morrissett noted in his review, there is little chance a Royal County Down-style course would be built today as players would want none of the blind shots and general craziness they'll get this week. No hole is more bizarre than the 483-yard ninth, where an inviting dune-top fairway plunges suddenly 60 feet straight down, as the awkward distance of 200 yards off the tee. Anyone who has played there will be hard pressed to knock this H.S. Colt idea. Unless you don’t carry it 200 yards (I did not, but I was only 15 and I’m still bitter about it).

-- What’s that beautiful red building and what are those amazing mountains? You’ll see no shortage of shots from the ninth fairway looking down on the town, where the Slieve Donard looms over the course. The high-end hotel and spa is the host for the week, offering players views of the course or the stunning mountain for which the resort shares its namesake. The Mourne Mountains are the highest in Northern Ireland (nearly 2,800 feet at Slieve Donard’s peak) and have been a favorite of hikers who enjoy its network of trails.

-- Royal County Down is not as remote as it seems. A two-hour drive from Dublin and an hour drive from Belfast doesn’t sound so bad except that it’s all by two-lane roads, making the logistical setup part of the story this week. Fans will be dropped off on the other side of Newcastle and be asked to take a 15-minute walk through the beautiful town. There are worse experiences to be had in golf spectating.

-- Golf Channel is offering no shortage of chances to see Rickie and Rory re-uniting at Royal County Down. Thursday the network is live from 3-8 a.m. ET, with a second live window from 11-1 p.m ET. Friday is one window from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET. The weekend is live too, with Saturday coverage starting at 8:30 a.m. and Sunday commencing at 8 a.m.

-- You can play Royal County Down and take a Game of Thrones tour, too. While it’s a private golf club, like most U.K. courses, they will gladly take your money to fund their operations and offer up their beautiful course for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Check out the details on Royal County Down’s website. For fans of the HBO show, the Winterfell Castle & Demesne, home to many of the visuals used in filming, is not too far away.

Finally, for some visuals to get you in the mood for Royal County Down, check out Ben Sargent’s two tours of a place we’re pretty sure you’ll never get tired of looking at.




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My Usual Game

How to hit a lob shot from the back of a pickup truck

Recently, the Sunday Morning Group held a shootout in which the prizes were some stuff sent to us by Famous Smoke Shop, our tobacco sponsor and smoking connection, which sells cigars online, by mail order, and in person (at the company’s headquarters and retail super store, in Easton, Pennsylvania). The format was lob wedge over the patio to the practice green, closest to the pin, from the bed of Fritz's pickup truck.

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The prizes were two cutters, a humidor, and a handful of cigars. The cutters and the humidor had the awesome logo of one of Famous Smoke Shop's subsidiary websites, CigarMonster, which sells cigar-related gear. The cigars were Infernos.

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Fritz backed his truck up to the fence and dropped the tailgate. The truck's bed has a plastic liner -- good for spin. Climbing into the truck while holding a wedge, a ball, and a beer took some doing. Here's Hacker (real name) using the bumper as a step:

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And here's Nick P., taking a shot:


Nick's ball didn't stay on the green, so he didn't win anything, but he did earn points for bringing lunch, including an SMG semi-first: barbecued chicken.

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Mike A. and Peter P. came in first and second in the cigar shootout, and each picked a cutter. Chic came in third and took the Cigar Monster humidor:

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Chic is our golf chairman. One Sunday, he came close to shooting his pants: waist size on the front, inseam on the back.

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After the shootout, we held a quick meeting to decide whether to play a second eighteen or go home and do chores (i.e., take a nap).

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News & Tours

Chris Kirk is far less boring than he'll let on

The problem for the CBS team on Sunday, as the Colonial wound to a close, was that they didn’t have anything to say about Chris Kirk--good or bad. By the time he stood over a seven-footer on 18 that would secure a one-stroke win over Jordan Spieth, they’d settled for descriptions like “steady,” while admitting a slight lack of “flair.” Even the euphemisms were bland, and their conundrum was apparent: Golf’s bright young wonder child waited in the wings, literally overlooking the green, and the man about to beat him was hopelessly boring.

And it’s not like Kirk took great pains to disprove them. When he sunk that seven-footer, to the secret chagrin of everyone, he gave a fist pump that fell somewhere between awkward and mundane. He wore a thin smile for the camera as he played with his two young sons and watched Ian Poulter fail to force a playoff. He was cordial to David Feherty, and he answered every question without complaint, but nobody would call him engaging. (You can judge a player’s charisma by the length of Feherty’s interviews--the Kirk conversation was short.)


This is why, despite the fact that he turned 30 less than three weeks ago and has been ranked inside the top 25 for almost a full year, you never hear Kirk’s name mentioned among the surging batch of millennials who have begun to dominate the sport--he may have just left his twenties, but he looks and acts like a 40-something who invests wisely and will never endure a midlife crisis.

Ask around about Kirk, though, and you’ll hear a different refrain: This guy is stubborn. The white-bread looks, the retreating manner, and the slight nasal quality of his voice all predict that he’ll wilt like a shrinking violet under pressure. But first impressions with Kirk are a red herring--on a golf course, he’s relentless.

It seemed to fit with my perception from interacting with Kirk in 2014--his reserve wasn’t the product of a man with nothing to say, but an active refusal to deviate from a path he had set for himself a long time ago--as far back as childhood. That word, stubborn, also describes him on the course when he’s in contention--his demeanor rarely changes, and he forges ahead with his mechanical swing and his unbending will, scorching the earth as he goes--unspectacular, unrepentant, and blindingly effective. 

“Stubborn” explains why he’s the rare PGA Tour pro who refuses to hire a full-time caddie, instead using a small rotation in order to keep things fresh. “Stubborn” is how he beat Rory McIlroy over two days at the Deutsche Bank last fall, at a time when nobody could beat Rory McIlroy. “Stubborn” is the word for his absolute refusal to speak a positive word about the Ryder Cup in the aftermath of that win, when even a modicum of enthusiasm would likely have made him a very attractive captain’s pick to Tom Watson.

And “stubborn” is the reason why he’s now won four PGA Tour events, which puts him among the best of his age group--when Chris Kirk is in contention on Sunday, it’s a good bet that he’ll bludgeon his stubborn way to a stubborn victory.

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The relevant biographical details:

1. When Kirk was eight years old, his parents took him to a junior golf clinic near his childhood home in the Atlanta suburb of Woodstock, GA. At the end of the clinic, all the kids competed in a three-hole tournament. The holes were shortened to 150 yards, and there, the eight-year-old Kirk registered his first career win. They gave him a small trophy for his efforts, but it’s a fair bet that the organizer weren’t aware of the obsession they’d just spawned.

2. In first grade, sick of being called by his middle name ‘Brandon’ (a family custom observed mostly in the south), he told his teacher and classmates that he wanted to go by his first name, ‘Chris.’ He didn’t just ask--he insisted--and from that day forth he was Chris to his friends. Interestingly, he never demanded the same change from his family, and remained ‘Brandon’ at home. By the time he was in college, his mother would often ask Georgia head coach Chris Haack how ‘Brandon’ was doing, and Haack would give her a report on Kirk’s roommate, future Tour pro Brendon Todd. Confusion abounded.

3. Kirk’s passion was so extreme that his parents actually worried that he’d gone over the deep end. His intense focus and natural shyness meant he had virtually no social life in high school--he read golf books and studied famous swings instead--and as long as he managed to keep his grades up, his parents gave him free license to follow his obsession wherever it led. Even the picture on their mantle came back to golf--Kirk as a sophomore in high school, with long sideburns and braces, standing beside Davis Love III at a junior event.

4. Kirk looked like a perfect recruit for Chris Haack at Georgia, though Gary and Kim warned the coach that their son was hard-headed--which was confirmed almost immediately. 

Unlike most coaches, Haack runs a complex qualifying system to determine who will represent Georgia in tournaments. As a freshman trying to make the big tournaments, Kirk came close time and again before faltering at Athens’ Jennings Mill Country Club in the final round. There, Haack watched him reach the verge week after week, only to attempt to use driver on the par-5 16th, a high risk/reward hole with out-of-bounds markers surrounding the narrow fairway. Even when he found himself in position to make the cut, Kirk would opt for driver instead of a safe four-iron, inevitably hitting out of bounds, making seven or eight, and missing out by a stroke.

“You would think he’d learn his lesson,” Haack recalled, “but the next qualifying event, he’d do the same thing again. You’d say to him, ‘have you ever thought about backing down on that hole?’ But he was so stubborn that he wouldn’t do it. It was like he was out to prove to you that the driver was the right play, so he went through almost an entire fall with this happening to him every week.”

Finally, not knowing what else to do, Haack deputized him as an assistant coach and took him to the Jerry Pate in Alabama. They set up shop at a drivable par-4 on the back nine, where Kirk’s job was to advise each player off the tee. All of them, of course, hit it everywhere except the spot Kirk had pointed out. He came back to Haack, steaming.

“These guys won’t listen!” he grumbled, missing the irony.

5. In 2010, playing on the Nationwide Tour, Kirk traveled to Fingal, Australia to play in the Moonah Classic. He had never won a professional tournament, but after making birdies on 14 and 15 on Sunday, he led the field by two strokes. Three pars, or even two pars and one bogey, and the tournament was his. Instead, he tried to be too aggressive, and bogeyed 16 and 17. Now he was tied with Jim Herman, but Kirk hit a pinpoint approach on 18 and had a four-foot putt to win the tournament outright. He missed.

When he emerged from his mini-depression, he internalized Haack’s lesson: In certain situations, it’s okay to play conservative golf.

Four months later, at the Fort Smith Classic in Arkansas, he was there again: A three-shot lead with three holes to play on Sunday. There was nobody on the course to challenge him; just like in Australia, he could only beat himself. He remembered that awful Sunday, and he took the lesson to heart--he aimed for the middle of the greens, two-putted for pars, and tapped in on 18 for his first professional victory. 

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And we know the rest--the four wins, the triumph over Rory. 

Like most intrinsic qualities, Kirk’s stubbornness can be an asset and a detriment. When he won the Deutsche Bank, he adamantly refused to show any enthusiasm for the Ryder Cup, to the point that the AP’s Doug Ferguson jokingly asked if he would make something up. 

“I don’t know,” he told me later. “Maybe it’d be a better story if I was like Keegan [Bradley], and was freaking out about it and really, really excited and going nuts, but I’m just not.”

Finally, I understood--if Watson wanted to pick him, great, but he wasn’t about to kiss the ring. Even by PGA Tour standards, Kirk is a capital-I Individual, and he’s not interested in faking anything, for anyone. 

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The CBS announcers at the Colonial politely dodged the word “boring,” but my guess is that the label wouldn’t bother Kirk. He has self-belief, and a professional golfer can’t ask for a better gift, because it girds him against criticism and doubt. It’s not that Kirk was destined to make the putt at Colonial. It’s just that, unlike you or I, and unlike the majority of his fellow pros, he was too stubborn in that white-knuckle moment to believe he could miss. 

So walk away Jordan, from your perch overlooking the 18th, and take solace in that green jacket. This year, the tartan version belongs to the hard-headed Georgian--the man with the thin smile, who is far less boring than he’ll ever let on.

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How He Hit That

How He Hit That: Colin Montgomerie's major precision

Colin Montgomerie had to hear plenty of "best player to never win a major talk" during his years on the regular tours. 

That's over now, literally and figuratively. 


Monty won his third senior major in 10 starts, repeating at the Senior PGA Championship with a dominating four-shot win over Esteban Toledo. Montgomerie finished 8-under par for the week, and was one of only five players in red figures at the fierce Pete Dye Course in French Lick, Indiana.

Precise iron play in windy conditions led to five birdies in an eight hole stretch on Sunday afternoon, expanding a 2-shot lead over Toledo to cruise-in width. 

"Monty has always been an incredible ball-striker, and it's because of how stable he is down through the ball," says top New York teacher Michael Jacobs, who is based at X Golf School at Rock Hill Country Club in Manorville, on Long Island. "He repeats that 'execution phase' over and over again, and he makes such good contact that wind doesn't really bother his shots."

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To get more of Monty's precision in your game, try to copy his left arm position down through impact, says Jacobs. "As he comes down to the ball, his left arm is hanging straight down. Most people have their arm raised up, either because the club is coming from the outside or they're trying to pull it around from the inside," says Jacobs. "That straight down position when the club is about waist high in the downswing is a great checkpoint position for anybody. When Monty is there, he basically can't miss."

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Missing Links

The U.S. Open at Chambers Bay 'will be most stunning sports venue ever televised'

Stories of interest you might have missed…

Ron Read is a former long-time USGA staffer, who is predicting success for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, notwithstanding early criticism. “This opinion is offered as one who stood with John Ladenburg, course visionary, [and] Robert Trent Jones, Jr, its designer, on the rim overlooking the raw, undeveloped, 940 acre county property,” he writes at Golf Traditions. “Together, that day in ’05, we shared a dream — that of hosting the US Open on this site, one that had yet to even be touched by a bulldozer…I am on record. This will be the most stunning sports venue ever televised.”

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(Getty Images)

For the first time ever, the U.S. will be played on fescue grass. “This isn’t your father’s golf grass at Chambers Bay,” Craig Smith of the Seattle Times writes in this look at another interesting feature of this Open. “This grass is fescue, and it is one of many reasons this U.S. Open is special. Fescue fairways, fescue greens, fescue rough. A regular fescue festival involving four strains of the grass, with two strains on fairways and greens and two for the rough.”

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The Irish Open at Royal County Down this week is a step out for Rory McIlroy, who is serving as a host of sorts for the event. The Rory McIlroy Foundation is the charitable beneficiary. “When I was younger my parents sacrificed everything to allow me to play the game I loved,” he says in this story by Peter Hutcheon of the Belfast Telegraph. “But I know that not every child is so fortunate. My aim is that the Rory Foundation will support children’s charities big and small around the world that try to give kids a helping hand.”

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“Colonial Country Club only got a combined 1.6 inches of rain overnight Saturday and Sunday,” Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News writes, noting potential problems at the next PGA Tour stop, the AT&T Byron Nelson. “Just 31 miles to the Northeast at the Four Seasons Las Colinas, site of this week’s AT&T Byron Nelson, the TPC course was drenched by 3.75 inches of overnight rain and a storage tent left of the 18th fairway was obliterated by an apparent EF-1 tornado.”

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News & Tours

Remember the Ryder Cup snub? Another Chris Kirk victory underscores it again

Chris Kirk was notoriously overlooked once, but he has a new loud tartan jacket that will won’t allow him to blend into a crowd as maybe he did before.

Neither will four PGA Tour victories in four years and two in the last eight months, the latest coming in the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial on Sunday, earning the victor’s red plaid jacket.

Kirk’s languid swing and seemingly placid demeanor belie the talent that briefly made him part of the Ryder Cup conversation last year.

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(Getty Images)

He won the Deutsche Bank Championship, his second victory of the season and one that made him a viable candidate as a Ryder Cup captain’s pick. Instead, a day later, Tom Watson took Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson, a trio that has two victories among them since the 2012 Ryder Cup and only one since October, 2013.

Yet Kirk handled the rejection with aplomb. “I was like, ‘hey, I just won the biggest tournament of my life yesterday, so it’s going to take a lot more than this to get me in a bad mood.’”

Kirk, 30, similarly was unruffled on Sunday, when he had to scramble on the final two holes to protect a one-stroke lead and sealed the victory with a seven-foot par putt at 18.

“I was as nervous as I’ve ever been today,” he said, though there was no outward indication of nerves . “Those ups and downs the last couple of holes and especially making that putt on 18 was pretty sweet.”

Kirk has ensured he’ll be part of the Presidents Cup conversation later this year, too, though this time he is in a strong position to play his way onto the team. Tough to overlook a player ranked in the top 20 in the world.

This victory was a moderate surprise only in that he staved off a challenge from local favorite Jordan Spieth, the Masters champion, who tied for second. Kirk expects to play well at Colonial Country Club, given his appreciation for the course that dates to the 2007 Ben Hogan Award ceremony.

Kirk, then a senior at Georgia, won the award given to the best collegiate player, and the ceremony was held the week of the Colonial tournament.

“I’ve always loved this golf course,” he said. “This has been my favorite tournament on the tour since before I was on the tour, when I came here for the Ben Hogan Award ceremony. Just to be a part of the history of this tournament is really just amazing to me.”

He will have his name added to Colonial’s Wall of Champions, a fairly illustrious list of names, few of them obscure. Or, as it were, easy to overlook.

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Equipment

Winner's bag: The putter that propelled Chris Kirk to a win at Colonial

At a shorter course such as Colonial C.C., putting is at a premium and Kirk did well on the greens with his Odyssey ProType 10 putter, ranking third in strokes gained/putting and first in putts per GIR. Kirk needed all the help he could get picking up strokes with his putting as he was below the tour average for the week in driving distance, driving accuracy and greens in regulation.

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Ball: Titleist Pro V1x
Driver: Callaway XR Pro (Mitsubishi Diamana S+ Blue Board 60x), 8.5 degrees
3-wood: Callaway X2 Hot, 15 degrees
Irons (2-3): Callaway Apex UT; (4-9): Callaway RAZR X MB; (PW): Callaway Mack Daddy 2
Wedges: Callaway Mack Daddy 2 (52, 58 degrees)
Putter: Odyssey ProType 10 Putter

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News & Tours

Billy Horschel and Brandt Snedeker try to set up bet on Twitter, but outfit scripting gets in the way

Florida alum Billy Horschel was happy with the school's men's baseball team winning to advance to Sunday's SEC Championship against Vanderbilt. Of course, as a modern-day pro, that meant a celebratory tweet and a challenge to fellow modern-day pro and Vanderbilt alum Brandt Snedeker.

And of course, Snedeker responded:

Leading to this:

Leading to this:

Good idea. So it's settled then? Nope.

Oh, right, scripting. Along with being on social media, that's another crucial element of being a modern-day pro.

Apparently, Snedeker doesn't script. So Horschel repeated his predicament.

Guess we'll have to wait until the Travelers to see if either pays off the bet. In the meantime, we learned a crucial piece of information. Remember those octopus pants he wore at the 2013 U.S. Open?

Too bad.

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Video

Video: Jimenez makes yet another hole-in-one, third this year

Miguel Angel Jimenez no doubt has bought his share of rounds over the years, but his bar bill has grown exponentially this year.

On Saturday, Jimenez made a hole-in-one for the second week in a row, this one in the third round of the BMW PGA Championship, and has made three this year, a tour record 10 in his career.


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Missing Links

Texas isn't a lone star state, as Jordan Spieth expects to have company

Stories of interest you might have missed…

“[Jordan] Spieth headlines a corps of North Texans who have won six of the last 16 U.S. Junior Amateur titles and four of the last six, with Spieth winning in 2009 and 2011,” Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News writes in this look at the emerging strength of North Texan golfers. “In that sense he’s still one of the boys. Spieth not only is keenly aware of his fellow North Texas Junior Amateur winners and which kids might be on deck to carry on the tradition, but he has desire and financial means to further nurture this region’s fertile golf landscape. ‘I think a lot of professionals in the coming years will come out of Dallas/Fort Worth — or, really, out of the state of Texas,’ Spieth said. ‘It’s arguably the strongest state right now as far as junior golf goes. And that’s really cool.’”

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Rory McIlroy missed the cut in the BMW PGA Championship, but is that a good thing? Maybe so. “The ghost of Friday past visited Rory McIlroy here in the BMW PGA Championship but far from being spooked missing the cut he actually sounded a touch relieved to have the weekend off,” James Corrigan of the Telegraph writes. “At least the world No 1 will arrive at next week’s Irish Open, the event he is calling ‘my fifth major’, with his batteries recharged.”

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McIlroy might not be appreciated enough in his hometown of Holywood. “He's one of the world's most famous sportsmen, yet a visitor would be hard-pressed to know that Holywood is Rory McIlroy's home town,” Joanne Sweeney writes in the Belfast Telegraph.

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Where have you gone Adam Scott? “A year after capturing the so-called Texas Slam, Adam Scott finds himself in a much different state,” Bill Nichols of the Dallas Morning News writes. “The popular Australian begins defense of his Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial title juggling multiple changes.”

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