Greg Norman declares victory, Rory McIlroy pulls away | Monday Finish

April 29, 2024

Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry headed to New Orleans for a good time and left with a win. JONATHAN BACHMAN / GETTY IMAGES

Welcome back to the Monday Finish, where I’m hunting for a talented PGA Tour player to invite me to next year’s Zurich Classic. Only catch: they’ll have to hit all the good shots. To the news!

Golf playoffs are funny. You’d think they’d be a statistical toss-up — you just shot the same score for 72 holes, after all — but then you see that Tiger Woods’ career playoff record is 11-1 and Phil Mickelson’s is 8-4 and you figure that the intimidation factor is probably worth something after all.

So it seemed on Sunday at the team-format Zurich Classic, when the duo of Martin Trainer and Chad Ramey teed off early and shot an incredible 11-birdie alternate-shot 63 to seize the clubhouse lead — only to wait around for three hours and watch as Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry caught them at 25 under par.

“I feel for Martin and Chad a little bit,” McIlroy said post-round. “To be sitting around and not really knowing — they might be in a playoff, they might not be, and then I’m sure they obviously had time to warm up and everything, but still, it’s different than us just coming straight back off the golf course and straight back into it.”

Whatever the reason, the Trainer-Ramey duo that had just shot 63 did not show up to the par-5 18th for the playoff hole. Trainer’s drive sailed left. Ramey’s approach sailed way, way left. Trainer chunked his pitch. Ramey pulled putter from the fairway and shorted that, too. Then Trainer wiped the six-foot par putt that would have extended the playoff. Pressure golf is hard. One playoff hole was all they got.

But Team Traimey wasn’t the only duo to tee it up alongside McIlroy and Lowry on Sunday. The twosome of Ryan Brehm and Mark Hubbard did, too — and I loved Hubbard’s perspective on the experience.

“My brother texted me last night. He was like — obviously I want more in this game for myself — but he said, realistically you’re about to turn 35, who knows if you’ll ever get to play a Ryder Cup, so this is about the closest thing certainly that I’ve had so far in my career. I definitely took that to heart and tried to be really grateful for that opportunity today to kind of feel what that might feel like, playing against an all-Euro team and that crazy format. Alternate shot is just so stressful. Yeah, I just tried to be really grateful for every shot I got to hit today.”

Hubbard, typically self-deprecating, added that he wished he’d hit those shots a little better; he and Brehm finished at 24 under par, one shot outside the playoff.

Brehm felt a lift from the weekend, too. “It’s a big confidence boost for me because when you get paired with Rory McIlroy there’s a lot going on,” he said. “We can each draw a lot from that.”

As for the perspective of McIlroy’s own partner?

“He’s getting old, but he can still move the needle a little bit,” Lowry said, referencing a standing ovation the duo had gotten while out to dinner Saturday night. “Rory brings a crowd, and people love him. We’ve got a lot of love this week in New Orleans, and we’ve had just the best week.”

He’s no Tiger Woods; nobody is. But playing with Rory McIlroy still has an effect on people, whether he’s your teammate or he’s beating the hell out of you. Other players’ appreciation for those moments in the spotlight? That’s golf stuff I like.

Hannah Green won the JM Eagle LA Championship for the second consecutive year thanks to a stretch on her back nine Sunday at Wilshire Country Club; she went birdie-birdie-par-eagle-birdie from 12-16 and went on to win by three. With the win she becomes the fifth Aussie to win five or more events; she also gets meaningfully closer to securing her spot in this summer’s Olympics.

Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry won the Zurich Classic, turning a “drunken lunch” decision to add the event into a meaningful victory.

“It’s amazing,” Lowry said. “You know, we both felt like we needed to come in here and have a very strong week because we wanted to get our summers going, and we’ve got a lot of big golf coming up soon.” They leapt from 44 and 41 to 15 and 12 in the FedEx Cup, respectively. McIlroy also now has 25 PGA Tour wins, breaking a tie with Gary Player and Dustin Johnson and moving him into increasingly rarified air.

Brendan Steele won LIV’s event in Adelaide; he credited teammate Phil Mickelson for his clutch short-game play down the stretch. “I lean on Phil pretty hard with everything, with how to hit shots around the green, how to approach things. He’s one of the best players ever, and if he can give me advice, I’m going to take it,” he said. “He’s a big reason I’m sitting up here.”

Yuto Katsuragawa won the ISPS Handa Championship in his home country of Japan, earning his first DP World Tour title and jumping from No. 434 to No. 179 in the world.

Tim Widing won the Veritex Bank Championship on the Korn Ferry Tour by four shots; it was his second consecutive victory and he moves to No. 118 in the world.

Sungjae Im won the Woori Financial Group Championship on the KPGA to move to No. 37 in the world.

LIV’s Adelaide event was a rollicking success, drawing a combined crowd of 94,000 over the three days. League commissioner Greg Norman, himself an Aussie, didn’t hold back in his post-event triumph.

“Vindication is not the right word,” Norman told Australian Golf Digest. “It’s the ignorance of others who simply didn’t understand what we were trying to do. I actually feel sorry for them because they now see the true value of LIV Golf and want to be a part of it.”

He cited what LIV Golf has gone through since its inception, “both as a league and what I’ve copped personally … the hatred … this makes it all worthwhile.”

Bluster aside, this event is a fascinating case study for LIV and for professional golf as a whole. Clearly LIV tapped into something special in Adelaide. The fans were there and they were invested. The team format panned out like a dream, too, with the all-Aussie Ripper GC beating out the all-South African Stinger GC in a playoff. Ripper captain Cameron Smith called it the best tournament he’s ever been to, and Norman as well as the LIV players cited the passion in the crowd as evidence that the format is working.

I see their successful weekend as evidence that tapping into golf-starved markets by bringing top-level competition is a great idea. I see that as evidence that Australia should figure into any potential world-tour plans. I see that as evidence that for team golf to be meaningful it helps to have common ties that bind, as with the geographic unity on the two top teams. In reporting by Golf Digest AU‘s Evin Priest there was some talk of “home” and “away” courses going forward; that’s intriguing, no doubt, though most of the teams currently lack meaningful geographic synergy.

I’m curious if Jon Rahm‘s presence will yield a similar local response when LIV heads to Valderrama later this summer. I’m curious what would happen if LIV made its way to Chile for an event hosted by Torque GC’s Joaquin Niemann and Mito Pereira. And would South Africa rally behind Stinger GC?

I’m not convinced that this means instant international viability for LIV; the specific circumstances at play could make Adelaide a one-off. This week’s LIV event in Singapore, for instance, is unlikely to boast a significant audience, never mind booing or shoeys. There are probably more but aren’t an infinite number of massive untapped golf markets like Adelaide — or else big pro tournaments would already be there. And while the Aussie audience tuned in at an impressive rate the global TV audience still hasn’t reached meaningful mass, given LIV’s 10-figure talent investment.

What’s the point? The point is I still don’t know where men’s pro golf is headed. In a week that Norman declared LIV to be plowing forward and McIlroy renewed calls for unity and the DP World Tour head pointed to 2026 as the earliest potential date for peace and two different tours played two different brands of team golf on opposite sides of the world, the only thing we know is that nobody has this thing figured out all the way just yet.

For the second consecutive week, Maja Stark left the LPGA event as runner-up. But there was no quibbling with her finish; Stark made four birdies in her last six holes to close out a three-under 68 and put the pressure on Green. How’d she do it?

“I just kind of thought, ‘screw it,’ she said. “Now is not the time to hold back anymore. I think that just made me swing a little bit more freely.”

Stark said her mind had been clouded by technical thoughts, particularly in her putting stroke. But once she made the switch?

“I was just focusing on the hole and it obviously works well. Going to try to keep doing that,” she said.

“Sometimes when I stand over the ball I hesitate and then I obviously don’t hit very good shots because it’s impossible,” she said. “When I say screw it, it just kind of relieves myself of the pressure and I just tell myself I don’t care where that goes. Obviously I do care, but something clicks in my brain to just pretend like I don’t care.”

I played nine holes of golf on Sunday, a significant development given I haven’t played any golf, almost literally, since our daughter was born a few months ago — and given that I’ve stupidly signed up for U.S. Open Qualifying later this week. Time to start cramming for the test…

He enters this week’s CJ Cup (now the title sponsor of the Byron Nelson) as the tournament favorite despite only a single top-25 in his last six starts. It’s guaranteed to be a good watch…

Right now Team USA consists of Scottie Scheffler, Wyndham Clark, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay. Could anyone sneak past Cantlay for that fourth spot? Brian Harman? Max Homa? Spieth? Can Min Woo Lee keep hold of his spot on Team Aussie? Sungjae Im, Ben An and Si Woo Kim are battling for the second Korean spot. Corey Conners is on the outside looking in for Team Canada. You get the idea; there’s a lot to play for if guys want to rep their country in France come August. The next chapters of that little subplot come this week.