Column: Tales from the PGA Tour
KAPALUA, HI – Rory McIlroy won his fourth event of the year at the HSBC Champions and returned home from Shanghai to a surprise.
His wife had finished the room in their new house to display his trophies. McIlroy had not seen them — the claret jug, Wanamaker Trophy, U.S. Open trophy, World Golf Championships trophies — since the summer of 2018.
“It's sort of the last room that we've been waiting on to get finished in the house,” McIlroy said. “People walk into my house, it's not as if they are front and center. But I like to have them out so in a reflective moment, I can go and have a look at all I've achieved on the golf course the last few years.”
It's also a time to think about what else he wants to do. Golf, as in life, is about going forward. That still leaves time to look back on a few tales from the tour that go beyond birdies, bogeys and knee-high drops.
Golfers usually are the celebrities in their families. Charles Howell III had a different outlook.
He was chatting outside the locker room at Kapalua when the conversation turned to his father, who arranged for his first lessons with David Leadbetter during a medical conference in Florida. It was his father who joined Augusta Country Club so his son could play. It was his father who was there for his development from junior golfer to PGA Tour member.
For about 20 minutes, he raved about Dr. Charles G. Howell, a renowned pediatric surgeon. He told about one surgery that lasted 18 hours and required his father's full focus with no bathroom breaks. There was another high-profile case in which his father was among the few surgeons around the world who was called in to perform.
It was a special moment in which the son spoke about the feats of his father the way most people talk about athletes.
Justin Thomas was talking in Mexico about how he hates losing more than he enjoys winning. Phil Mickelson was asked his opinion on the matter, and he agreed.
“I can certainly relate to what he's saying,” Lefty said. “I can identify exactly where he's coming from.”
The next day, Mickelson stopped for a quick chat with NBC Sports analyst Paul Azinger. They played plenty of money games in Mickelson's early days, and they were reminiscing about the wins and losses.
Azinger brought up a match they had one year at Bay Hill.
"I'll never forget Olympic Club," Mickelson replied.
Bay Hill is where Mickelson had a 15-foot putt on the last hole that was worth $1,600 if he made it. The others could have opted out for $800 if they conceded the putt. Azinger wouldn't concede. He wanted to see it. Mickelson poured it in the heart of the cup.
So what happened at Olympic Club?
Mickelson delivered another big shot into the 18th to 4 feet for birdie. He already was ahead in the match. Azinger came up short of the green and conceded the birdie — and then he changed his mind. Azinger chipped in for birdie. Mickelson missed the short put.
Twenty-one years later, Mickelson still remembered. The sting of losing can last longer than the joy of winning.
He looked like a typical fan on vacation at the Sony Open with board shorts and flip-flops as he waited outside the ropes on the 18th green. This was Marc Leishman, who had played earlier in the day. Leishman was with his two sons, who wanted to get an autograph from Peter Malnati.
“They watched him once on a day he made a hole-in-one, and he was always smiling,” Leishman said. “They're big fans.”
Maybe they learned what to like from their father. Moments later as Leishman turned to leave, two fans recognized him and asked for his autograph. Another wanted a selfie. Then, a man asked Leishman if he could help fix his slice.
The Aussie had time for all of them. With the last fan, he took a stance and pointed to a man a few feet away with his back turned and said: “If you wanted to hit him in the back, you wouldn't swing up or down. You'd go straight into the back. That's how you want the driver.”
Time for everyone.
The only one in Ian Poulter's household who might be more passionate about golf is his son, Luke, who came out to Liberty National for the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs, the final event before going back to school.
Poulter played the last round with Jordan Spieth, who was making everything as he moved up the leaderboard. Luke couldn't get enough of it as he watched Spieth line up a 15-foot birdie putt on the 10th.
“Watch this! He'll make this,” Luke said. “He makes everything. Do you know he's had only 10 putts on the front nine? Ten putts!”
Spieth missed. Luke was no less impressed and continued to rave about Spieth.
“He's brilliant,” he said. “Best putter on tour.”
Finally, it was pointed out to the teenage Poulter that his father is not bad either. In fact, his father has made his share of big putts in his career.
Luke grinned, narrowed his eyes and offered the self-assured nod of a proud son.
"I know," he said.
Pat Ruddy is a former golf journalist and intensely proud golf owner of The European Club south of Dublin. It is a strong test of golf, lacking only a reasonable traffic pattern to host big events. But it has held a number of tournaments, including the Irish Amateur Open Closed.
The day after the British Open, Ruddy was showing photos on the wall of the course and the competitions it has held. One photo he loves is of 17-year-old Rory McIlroy, curly hair spilling out from under his cap, hitting a shot against Simon Ward in the final of the Irish Amateur Open Closed. McIlroy won, 4 and 2.
The photo required a closer look. Irish golf is a tightly knit group, and it was not unusual for someone eliminated in an early round to stay around to caddie for a mate. Ward and his caddie were in the background of the photo watching McIlroy hit.
The caddie in the photo from 2006 was Shane Lowry. On this day, he was known better as "Champion Golfer of the Year."
For all his work with title sponsors and television negotiations, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan still appreciates the core product of his business.
He spent more than an hour walking outside the ropes Sunday morning at East Lake for the conclusion of the third round at the Tour Championship. He stopped briefly to consult on the lightning strike that sent six people to the hospital and halted play the day before, and then resumed his role as spectator.
Monahan was following along the 13th fairway with the final group of Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas when he stopped to watch tee shots on the 18th. Tommy Fleetwood drilled a driver down the middle.
"Did you see that?" Monahan said. "Man, these guys are really good."
The smile suggested he realized exactly what he had said.
Yes, these guys are good. In fact, the PGA Tour used to have a slogan along those lines.
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