Rory McIlroy’s return to glory, Jon Rahm’s disastrous caddie overrule, and Brooks Koepka's bizarre weight loss
Welcome to another edition of The Grind, where we have a fierce battle taking place inside our head right now. Last week, I underestimated the new Players Championship theme music. While it will still never top Yanni’s “In Celebration of Man,” it’s a majestic piece that has become my new jam. Well, my new jam along with an old jam, John Tesh's classic “Round Ball Rock” anthem, which was resurrected this year and featured during last week's Big East Tournament. I can’t get either out of my head, and honestly, it’s glorious. I wake up hearing them. I go about my daily activities hearing them. And I fall asleep hearing them. Well, try to fall asleep. They both get the blood pumping. Cue the orchestra!
OK, now that we're all properly fired up, let's run through a brick wall everything else happening in the world of golf.
Rory McIlroy: That’s more like it. The four-time major champ finally ended his stretch of close calls by closing out a tournament, and he picked the right place to do it. McIlroy captured his first Players title, picked up a record $2.25 million winner’s check, and emerged as the new Masters favorite. Forget about the career Grand Slam, McIlroy will have a chance at Augusta next month to complete the career SEASON OF CHAMPIONSHIPS SLAM now that he has a Players to go with his 2016 FedEx Cup title. And he’ll have plenty to talk about on the next Rory & Carson Pod, including these snazzy gold-bottom shoes:
Seriously, I don’t think we quite appreciate how good this dude is. With 15 PGA Tour titles and four majors before 30, he joins Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Pretty heady GOATy stuff. And he’s definitely the first golfer to win a PGA Tour event the week after dropping an Abraham Lincoln reference in a press conference. Impressive.
Jim Furyk: The running joke on Golf Twitter over the weekend was that this was the U.S. Ryder Cup Captain’s revenge on the entire European squad. And amazingly, he nearly pulled it off. It’s been almost four years since Furyk hoisted a PGA Tour trophy, but at 48, Mr. 58 was able to hang with McIlroy despite hitting woods into par 5s that Rory was reaching with irons. And how about those last two approach shots in which he strutted towards the hole as soon as the ball was in the air?
So saucy. Furyk would have loved to earn an elusive Players title no doubt, but we’re guessing he’s pretty happy with that $1.35 million runner-up check, which matches the biggest payday of his career. Bernhard Langer better enjoy his dominance while he can, because this grinder is going to clean up on the Champions Tour when he turns 50.
The Players in March: As long as I’m not there covering it, that is. Conditions were brutal in Ponte Vedra Beach (It got down in the 50s!) on the weekend. But TPC Sawgrass looked spectacular (If your Players drinking game included the word "OVERSEED," I'm sending thoughts and prayers) and it provided another fantastic leader board. More importantly, moving to March created more of a buzz than being in the middle of major championship season.
Valentino Dixon: What a treat it was to finally meet this inspirational man at his first solo art show in NYC:
In case you don’t know the story, Dixon spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, but eventually was freed thanks in part to a Golf Digest story by Max Adler, who was intrigued by Dixon’s story and impressed with his golf art created behind bars. Max conducted a riveting Q&A with Dixon at the Andrew Edlin Gallery in which Dixon spoke of his awful experience, his uplifting craft, and his crusade for prison sentencing reform. I’m also excited he’ll be part of our Golf Digest team at the Masters next month, but if he thinks I’m going easy on him in ping pong, he’s got another thing coming.
Jon Rahm’s Masters chances: Kidding! He’s still my pick to win at Augusta National next month, but I’m hoping his Sunday 76 at TPC Sawgrass will throw everyone else off the scent. Truth be told, watching Rahm’s brain fart on No. 11 on Sunday in which he lost the lead for good didn’t make me feel anymore confident about him closing out the Masters, where water lurks as well (He found that out on No. 15 last year when I had him at 28-to-1 to win. Sigh. . .). But at least it gave us one of the great player-caddie conversations of the year. Unfortunately, you'll have to watch my video about it, because the PGA Tour took the video down. . .
Tiger’s quadruple bogey: When you think you’ve seen it all at TPC Sawgrass’ 17th hole, this devilish par 3 always finds a way to surprise you. There was the slam dunk ace by Ryan Moore on Thursday, the 50- and 70-foot bombs by Eddie Pepperell and Jhonny Vegas on Sunday, and of course, Tiger’s quad on Friday. What made it so stunning is that it took 100 players coming through the par 3 for another ball to find the water that day after Woods deposited two Bridgestones. And it was made even worse when Brandel Chamblee and David Duval revealed Woods could have taken a drop on the hole's walkway and possibly walked away with par. How about Brandel helping out Tiger! A few hours too late, but still. Anyway, Woods said his game is "Right on track" for next month's Masters. But just in case, considering what happened—and at Augusta in 2013—he should probably brush up on golf's drop rules. . .
Brooks Koepka’s body transformation: Apparently, winning two majors and PGA Tour Player of the Year wasn’t enough. Koepka revealed he’s intensified training and restricted his diet, which has led to him shedding 22 pounds. Is it possible he didn’t like how he looked in the infamous “thong” pic? (WARNING: I'm about to show Brooks' infamous thong pic. . .)
(Sorry, but you were warned.)
Seriously, on what planet does this dude need to lose weight? He's jacked!
I know that's from the end of 2017, but what did he do last year? Eat ice cream from the Wanamaker Trophy every night?! Koepka is being very cagey about his weight loss—some people are speculating it's for an ESPN Body Issue shoot—but he says he's going back to eating cheeseburgers this week. Look, we all go through phases to get healthier. Heck, I even gave up dessert for an entire month to start the year and it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. But Brooks was in a pretty good place with his golf game, and now he’s losing distance. And of course, this happens after co-worker Joel Beall and I made him the third overall pick in our fantasy draft. So in the words of worrying moms everywhere, "Eat, eat! You're skin and bones!"
The PGA Tour continues its Florida Swing with the Valspar Championship, AKA that event Tiger Woods almost won last year early in his comeback, but Paul Casey ruined for everyone. Thanks, Paul. Actually, considering the condensed schedule and the lack of Tiger, there will still be a pretty strong field at Innisbrook this week, highlighted by World No. 1 Dustin Johnson. You know, that guy who was all the rage before Rory's win. He's still pretty decent as well.
Random tournament fact: A Patrick (Reed in 2018 and 2015 and Cantlay in 2017) has finished runner-up here three of the past four years. And Sunday was St. Patrick’s Day. And none of this means anything.
RANDOM PROP BETS OF THE WEEK
— This year’s Valspar will have better TV ratings than last year's: 1 MILLION-to-1 odds
— Rory McIlroy will win the 2019 Masters: 8-to-1 odds (Actual odds, new favorite)
— Rory McIlroy is going to wish the phrase "career Grand Slam" didn't exist by the time the Masters gets here: LOCK
PHOTO OF THE WEEK
Kudos to Tiger for handling this well, but that fan should have been tossed. Respect THE GOAT, people!
VIRAL VIDEO(S) OF THE WEEK
Is it possible Rory only made his Honest Abe reference because it was part of a Jimmy Fallon prank? Now every time a tour pro says something odd, I’ll wonder if the late-night host is behind it after pulling this off at the Players:
Bonus points to Adam Scott for doing the best acting job and to Tiger for nailing the most difficult line. Speaking of Woods, more kudos to him for playing along with impressionist Conor Moore in this funny new Bridgestone ad:
Really, really good, indeed.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Patrick Reed on what he'll serve at the Masters champions dinner (Brooks Koepka, cover your ears and look away. . . )
"Oh, I knew that back when I was 13. I mean, it was always a bone-in ribeye, mac and cheese, creamed corn, creamed spinach. I'm going to fatten those boys up a little bit." Creamed spinach AND creamed corn? What an incredible combo.
THIS WEEK IN "PROS ARE JUST LIKE US!"
Obviously, forget about the fact that Tiger Woods and Kevin Na turned one golf’s most intimidating holes into a simple pitch-and-putt on Saturday. That was very unlike us hacks. But the good-natured ribbing of a playing partner is something every weekend foursome can relate to:
Amazing. Also, I’m a big fan of Na’s cocky early walk in general, but an underrated part of this clip is that he still pulled it out on a day when he was struggling to break 80. Love it.
THIS AND THAT
UCLA sophomore Devon Bling, last year's U.S. Amateur runner-up has found a creative way to prepare for Augusta National's slick greens next month:
Nicely done, Devon, but remember not to describe the greens as "bikini-waxed" once you get there. . . . Seventeen-year-old Akshay Bhatia, the top-ranked junior golfer and ninth-ranked amateur golfer, will make his PGA Tour debut at the Valspar. Get to know the phenom a little better with our recent podcast with him. . . . Luke Donald will be playing at Innisbrook as well. Luke is especially excited since this means a week off from going to the mall. . . . Ryan Moore’s hole-in-one résumé now includes aces at Augusta National, Riviera, Bay Hills, Innisbrook, and TPC Sawgrass. And I can’t even nab one on a crappy par 3 course. . . . And finally, my daughter celebrated her first birthday by smashing the heck out of this beautiful cake:
I know, I know, she's totes adorbs. But what a waste of cake. . .
RANDOM QUESTIONS TO PONDER
Why is Brooks Koepka losing all that weight?
What would you serve at the Masters champions dinner?
Would Patrick Reed approve of the calorie count?