By Matthew Rudy
By John HugganHUMBLE, TEXAS -- Ask any bookmaker and he'll tell you Rory McIlroy is the favorite to win next week's Masters. That's understandable. In the last three years, the young Ulsterman has won two major titles by wide margins, the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship. At his best, McIlroy is the best, albeit he has slipped to No. 7 in the World Ranking.
That high level of performance, however, was only glimpsed occasionally during the second round of the Shell Houston Open. While McIlroy's good shots were their usual exceptional selves -- he outdrove playing partner Luke Donald by a yawning 66 yards on the par-4 fourth hole at the Golf Club of Houston on Friday -- there were also moments of uncertainty en route to a 71 that left him nine shots off the early pace set by Sergio Garcia.
"I left a couple out there," McIlory admitted. "I was three under par through 10 holes with two par 5s to come. I was thinking I could get a couple more but ended up giving a couple back. So I'm a little disappointed. I could be standing here a few shots better."
Or, it must be said, a few worse. While claiming "all aspects of my game feel pretty good," McIlroy was erratic off the tee, particularly on the front nine (his back). A wild drive to the right finished unplayable at the par-4 sixth. And that was soon followed by a low smother off the eighth tee, an ugly shot that finished in the left fairway bunker. Long before it expired, however, McIlroy made his displeasure known by slamming his driver into the turf then uttering a prolonged and guttural "aaarrgghhh."
Still, it would be wrong to conclude the boy from Belfast isn't within touching distance of top form. He is. If one or two well-struck putts had dropped rather than sliding by, both his mood and score would have been much improved.
"I'm about 80 percent of where I want to be," McIlroy insisted. "I'm playing nicely and confident in my game. I'd just love to string a few birdies together and get on some sort of run."
If and when he does: watch out.
Photo: Getty Images
By John Huggan
HUMBLE, TEXAS -- Looks like Augusta National's injured list just got shorter. In the wake of a bogey-free, four-under-par 68 to open the Shell Houston Open, Phil Mickelson was -- ironically -- at pains to emphasize the significant improvement in the oblique muscle strain that caused him to withdraw from San Antonio last week.
"I feel a lot better," claimed Mickelson after his four-birdie effort at the Golf Club of Houston. "Instead of feeling hurt, it just felt sore. And today I didn't even think about it, which is nice. Last week I was worried about the Masters. But it has healed a lot quicker than I thought it might. I felt great today."
The 43-year-old Californian had good company too. Playing in the same threesome with Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley, the three members of the 7:50 a.m. starting time went all 18 holes without dropping a single shot.
"It was the first time I remember that happening in my career," Mickelson said. "It was such a fun day. We probably wanted a few more birdies, but to not make any bogeys in a group is pretty special."
Even as Mickelson was enjoying the short-term buzz that comes with a sound start to a tournament he won in 2012, his competitive instinct was wandering further ahead. Specifically, to Augusta National and the imminent opportunity to win what would be his sixth major title and fourth green jacket.
"One of the things I really worked hard on today was staying focused on each shot," he said. "I did have to back away a few times when my concentration wandered. But, generally, I kept my focus, which is something I've struggled with this year. I needed to play here this week and really challenge myself in that regard to give myself the best chance for next week."
Photo: Getty Images
By Alex Myers
We're a week away from the Masters, but this week's Shell Houston Open has a major-like field with 22 major winners teeing it up at the Golf Club of Houston. Who do we like to win this final tuneup in Texas? Here's the lineup:
Starters -- (A-List): Henrik Stenson. Arguably the best player without a major, Stenson is coming off a T-5 and he finished runner-up at this tournament last year.
(B-List): Jordan Spieth. The Dallas kid has lived on leader boards all year, but hasn't won. We think that changes this week.
(B-List): Dustin Johnson. If it seems like we play him every week, it's because we do. We're going to eventually have to start conserving his starts, but for now, we'll play the man who has made nearly $600,000 per start in 2013-14.
(C-List): Carl Pettersson. A runner-up at this event in 2012, Pettersson has quietly turned his game around with three consecutive top-20 finishes.
Bench/Backups: Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Graham DeLaet, and Sergio Garcia.
Knockout/One-and-done pick: Jordan Spieth. There are plenty of big names in this field, but with such a huge event looming next week, few have the motivation to go all out for a win that this 20-year-old does. Think anyone in the gallery will be rooting for him if he's wearing that burnt orange shirt?
Previously used: Keegan Bradley (Doral), Tim Clark (Sony), Graham DeLaet (Phoenix), Luke Donald (Valspar), Rickie Fowler (Honda Classic), Bill Haas (Farmers), Charles Howell III (Humana), Freddie Jacobson (Valero), Dustin Johnson (Northern Trust), Martin Laird (Kapalua), Graeme McDowell (Bay Hill), Jimmy Walker (Pebble -- winner!).
By Alex Myers
On Tuesday, Tiger Woods' announcement that he had undergone successful back surgery and would miss the Masters for the first time as a pro led to two main questions: What is a microdiscectomy and how long will Woods be out of action?
We asked Dr. Andrew Hecht, the Chief of Spine Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, to answer both.
"A microdiscectomy is a treatment for someone with a disc herniation," Hecht said. "If you think of a disc like a jelly donut, the outer cover tears and the jelly comes out. That jelly starts to irritate a nerve."
Woods said in a statement he had surgery in Utah on Monday for a pinched nerve that had been bothering him for several months. The No. 1 player in the world and four-time Masters winner had to withdraw during the final round of the Honda Classic early last month before skipping the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Such an injury, according to Hecht, is often the cause of pain in the leg and buttock, as well as in the lower back. It can get better with rest, but many athletes opt to have this procedure because of its high success rate. Hecht said approximately 90 percent of elite athletes return to their former level of competition.
Of course, that will take time. Hecht said there is a gradual phase of rehabilitation followed by a more intense phase and finally the return of an athlete to activities for his/her specific sport.
"The golf swing is a very powerful, twisting motion," Hecht said. "Just because you're not getting tackled, doesn't mean you can't hurt your back."
Hecht said on average the rehab process takes three to four months. Woods could recover more quickly, but a three-month layoff wouldn't have Woods returning until the end of June, meaning he'd miss the U.S. Open in addition to the Masters. A four-month recovery would mean he'd miss the British Open as well, and anything more could result in him missing all four major championships.
In other words, Woods picked the worst time to miss a three-to-four month chunk of the season.
No two injuries are the same, of course, but Graham DeLaet is a recent example of a golfer to undergo the same surgery as Woods. He spoke about his microdiscectomy at the 2012 Sony Open:
"I had a herniated disk over to the right, so they go in and shave off a piece of that to alleviate the pinch on the nerve," DeLaet said. "I had terrible pain in my right leg. Yeah, it was not fun. I'm glad it's all over and I'm feeling great now."
DeLaet made a full recovery and was one of 2013's breakout stars when he was the best player for the International squad at the Presidents Cup. That's the good news for the 38-year-old Woods. The bad news? DeLaet had the surgery when he was 10 years younger than Woods and it essentially wiped out his entire 2011 season.
Odds are, Woods won't miss as much time as DeLaet. But due to the timing of the procedure, he could wipe out his entire major championship season. For a man so focused on golf's four biggest events, that might hurt just as much.
Here's how it shook out:
Bill Haas: 13 secondsAngel Cabrera: 14 secondsRickie Fowler: 15 secondsSteve Stricker: 19 secondsKevin Na: 19 secondsAdam Scott 20 (2013 Masters Playoff)Phil Mickelson: 21 secondsDustin Johnson: 21 secondsTiger Woods: 22 secondsRory McIlroy: 22 secondsAdam Scott 23 secondsJason Dufner: 26 secondsMatt Kuchar: 29 secondsJim Furyk: 31 secondsJustin Rose: 33 secondsAndrew Loupe: 39 secondsJum Furyk: 57 seconds (2013 PGA Championship)Kevin Na: 1:10 seconds (2011 Players Championship)Andrew Loupe: 1.15 seconds (2014 Valero Texas Open)
By John Strege
SAN ANTONIO -- Google "Phil Mickelson" and "tinkering" and more than 69,000 results turn up. Mickelson tinkers with his swing, his putting stroke, his equipment, attempting to find the square peg that fits a round hole.
This time, at the Valero Texas Open, he was tinkering with a driver swing to take to the Masters, working on a custom fit for Augusta National's generous fairway widths. He was swinging hard and hitting it high and hurt himself doing so.
Mickelson pulled an oblique muscle hitting driver on the first tee (his 10th hole) on Saturday and withdrew from the tournament. His status for the Shell Houston Open this week and even the Masters the following week is not yet known.
Couple Mickelson's injury with Tiger Woods' bulging disc and his own uncertainty about Augusta, and a question posed by Dottie Pepper recently gives one pause.
"We've been pretty spoiled with easy story lines and high expectations for a very long time. Is it time to look beyond @TigerWoods and Phil?" she wrote on Twitter.
It's not time yet -- Woods won five tournaments last year, Mickelson three, including the British Open. But sooner clearly is gaining on later, and when the day comes, the hangover golf might experience could be colossal.
Woods and Mickelson have anchored golf's marquee for nearly two decades. A television promo for the Valero Texas Open began this way: "Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy. Every week champions will rise. Every week history will be made."
The first two names have 19 major championships and 121 PGA Tour victories between them. The second duo have three majors and 16 PGA Tour wins between them. McIlroy is equipped to help fill the eventual void, but it remains an open question as to whether he will.
Woods' dominion over the game has resulted in tournaments being categorized: Tiger tournaments, those in which he played, and the others, those in which he did not play. The buzz in the former is palpable, but its falloff in the latter is usually dramatic.
Mickelson in the Tiger era, meanwhile, has always been an entertaining second fiddle, one capable of playing lead violin from time to time, and he might have been on the cusp of doing so again at Augusta.
The Texas Open was the first of what was to be a three-week run of tournament golf, culminating with the Masters. Each of the three times Mickelson won at Augusta, it was his third straight tournament. Ditto the British Open he won last year and the Players Championship he won in 2007. On the 10 occasions that he played the two weeks prior to the Masters, he finished out of the top 10 only once.
A day later, he joined Woods on the disabled list. They'll still dominate story lines in the run-up to the Masters, but by Thursday's start, we might already be looking beyond Tiger and Phil, for one week, at least.
DraftKings (available in iTunes) is believed to be the first fantasy app that incorporates golf (along with pro and college football and basketball, baseball and hockey). Fans can use the app to run their own free Masters pools--or hold similar weekly PGA Tour fantasy competitions.
If you want to run a league where more is on the line than simply pride, DraftKings also hosts individual leagues for a small commission based on the overall purse that's available.
The app offers several public golf contests with cash prizes for the winners, each requiring an entry fee to play. (Last week, I won $45 on a $12 entry fee for the Arnold Palmer Invitational.)
For the Masters, DraftKings is running a contest with $300,000 in guaranteed payouts, including a $100,000 prize to first place. The cost, however, is not for the faint of heart. To get into the game requires a $200 entry fee.
For more, go to DraftKings.com.
By Alex Myers
Think your NCAA bracket is ugly? You should have seen our fantasy golf picks last week. We picked Tiger Woods. Then he pulled out. We turned to Bubba Watson. Then he shot an 83 and withdrew. But like in basketball, where good shooters keep on shooting, we will not be deterred with our predictions -- especially since we had the winner, Matt Every, as one of our four starters. Yeah, baby! Who makes our Final Four this week for the Valero Texas Open? Here's the lineup:
Starters -- (A-List): Matt Kuchar. Outside of Kuchar and Phil Mickelson, it's pretty slim pickings in this group. Kuchar seems the safest bet.
(B-List): Freddie Jacobson. This guy either misses cuts (five times in 2013-14) or finishes in the top 20 (five times this season). We're banking on the latter happening at a course where he's finished in the top 20 in all four tries, including a solo second in 2010.
(B-List): Jim Furyk. Is Furyk the slowest player on the PGA Tour? Debatable. Not debatable? He finished T-3 last year in his only time teeing it up at TPC San Antonio.
(C-List): Jimmy Walker. Remember this guy? Yeah, it's been a few weeks since he won so it's probably time to plug him back into the lineup.
Bench/Backups: Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Billy Horschel, and Ryan Palmer.
Knockout/One-and-done pick: Freddie Jacobson. In the spirit of March Madness, we'll go with a bit of an underdog. How do you say "Final Four" in Swedish?
Previously used: Keegan Bradley (Doral), Tim Clark (Sony), Graham DeLaet (Phoenix), Luke Donald (Valspar), Rickie Fowler (Honda Classic), Bill Haas (Farmers), Charles Howell III (Humana), Dustin Johnson (Northern Trust), Martin Laird (Kapalua), Graeme McDowell (Bay Hill), Jimmy Walker (Pebble -- winner!).