A Return To Form
From the very early rounds of The Australian Open (played at aptly named, Royal Sydney Golf Club), it became obvious that it would be a two man battle between two of golf’s “royalty”.
32 year old Australian superstar, Adam Scott, has had an iconic year that was headlined by his thrilling victory at the Masters (becoming the first Australian to put on a Green Jacket) and being supported by his latest run of blazing form. The world’s best swinger of the club has in the last three weeks, won the Australian PGA Championship, The Australian Masters (the Aussie version gives you a Gold Jacket so the dapper Mr. Scott is accumulating some great formal attire) and was one half of the winning two man team in last week’s World Cup with Jason Day.
Scott’s opening salvo at Royal Sydney was a course record shattering 10-under par 62 (he broke the existing course record by 3 shots). That would leave him 3 shots ahead of his nearest competitor and a street ahead of his main rivals who included 24 year old Rory McIlroy. McIlroy had battled back from some early mistakes in his round to record a respectable 3-under par, 69.
McIlroy’s year has been the antithesis of Scott’s. The two time Major Champion has not won a tournament in 2013 and has missed several cuts, walked off during the second round of the Honda event (in which he was going to miss the cut), and had a well published argument with his wedge at the US Open (the wedge lost). Mixed in with his poor play were lawsuits with his former management company, a sponsor, and the paparazzi soaked on again off again relationship with his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. With the continuing circus that flaps its garish tent everywhere that Rory goes, it has been a wonder that he could swing the club at all.
The last three months however, McIlroy’s game has most certainly shown signs of improvement. In September he finished 8th at the PGA Championship, tied for fifth at the WGC – HSBC Champions, and tied for sixth at the European Tour’s marquee event, the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai two weeks ago.
Taking advantage of the much calmer morning conditions in Friday’s second round, the fluid swing of McIlroy began firing on all cylinders to storm into contention with a 7-under par, 65, which left him at 10-under after two days. This would still leave him 2 behind Scott who played well in much windier conditions in his afternoon round and shot a 2-under, 70. Those 2 shots would be his leading margin heading into Saturday’s third round in which the two stars would also be paired together.
Royal Sydney is a parkland course (tree lined) that has a great many links characteristics and rests serenely only 300 yards from Sydney’s famed harbor. Small raised undulating greens that are protected by severe run-off areas and diabolically placed deep bunkers that collect golf balls like a whirlwind gathering tumbleweed, demand perfect ball striking and accuracy.
Royal Sydney has four reachable par-5’s and two drivable par-4’s. It is always a mistake for someone who has not played the course before to see the scorecard before stepping on the tee and think that they will shoot something in the low 60’s. Danger lurks at almost every sand based area off the fairways and in the dense trees and shrubs that envelop you on every hole.
Short in length, especially by today’s standards, at just over 7,000 yards, the course is also protected by the elements: specifically, wind. When the prevailing winds that come from the north-east and then swing to the south-east start to blow at 20-30 mph, you find yourself in a test, as stiff as any.
Saturday’s third round gave everyone exactly what they were looking for. McIlroy shot a very steady 2 under par 70 while home country favorite Scott increased his 2 shot lead to 4 with a superb 4-under par, 68.
Sunday’s final round began with McIlroy making an early charge to be 4-under par after 8 holes to pull even with Scott before Scott birdied the ninth to reclaim sole possession of the lead. Scott’s ball-striking was its usual flawless self but he missed short putts (it is the Achilles in his game) on the 16th and 17th holes for birdies that would have him given command of the Championship again. Nonetheless he still maintained a 1 shot lead going into the 18th hole.
After finding the fairway with his tee shot Scott hit his approach shot over the green opening the door for McIlroy who promptly hit his approach shot twelve feet from the hole. After Scott failed to get up and down, McIlroy seized his opportunity and made his birdie putt to claim a one stroke victory.
Finding one’s form in this game takes time. In the last three months you could see McIlroy beginning to recapture his momentum. It is kind of like watching a huge wave develop. The swell propels across an expanding body of water as the sea rises more and more powerfully before reaching its crescendo and breaking in a surge of foam. That foam can dissipate quickly or continue for many leagues until it exhausts itself.
Is McIlroy reaching a crescendo, and if so how long will he able to ride its crest?