The Home Stretch

An entire week has clicked by at the Honda Classic at PGA National Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and now the field makes the turn and heads down Sunday’s home stretch.

In the lead is the hottest golfer on the planet, Rory McIlroy. He’s at 11-under and leads by two strokes over journeyman, Tom Gillis, and rookie, Harris English. If he wins Sunday, he will ascend to his rightful place on the throne of No. 1 in the world, a technical milestone acknowledging what everybody already knows anyway. He was asked what his plan for the day was:

Again, I have to just try and focus on what I’ve been trying to do all week, which is hit fairways and hit greens.  Really stay in the present, stay in the moment and not think about everything else that could happen, whether it be going to No. 1 or winning my first tournament.  I’ve just got to go out there and try to put a good number on the board.

This is what levelheaded golf is all about. You can only think about one thing at a time when you’re on the golf course and that’s playing golf. But wouldn’t thinking about being No. 1 creep into his mind a little?

I definitely feel like I need to put it out of my mind tomorrow.  I need to focus on just trying to win this golf tournament. Yeah, you know, it might be a little bit difficult.  It might creep in every now and again, but if you can keep it out for the majority of the time, I think it’s the best thing to do.

And then he pointed out something really subtle in terms of his preparation. Because they are expecting a 50% chance of afternoon thundershowers, instead of playing twosomes, the Tour has paired them in threesomes and they’re going to start them off both the 1st and 10th tees. The hope is that they’ll be able to get enough of the field through so that any rain delays won’t push the finish into Monday. That has an impact of the player because it takes longer for three guys to hit their shots than just two; you have to manage your “waits” while the other two guys play.

It’s always nice at the weekend when you are playing two balls because play goes a little bit faster.  Tomorrow it’s threes again, so it’s something that you have to prepare for as well.

For his part, Tom Gillis, is just glad he finally has a chance to win his first tournament after 22 years. And he has his own strategy for dealing with the pressure: just play like it’s a Tuesday practice round. The media asked him how hard that was going to be:

Well, I think that’s a choice you make.  You know, it’s hard to do that, I’m sure if it was easy everybody would be doing it.

But I could do it.  I thought — I was a little more concerned about today probably than anything, just because I knew it was going to be tough in that 20‑ to 25‑mile‑an‑hour wind.  I just knew it was going to be tough. So I feel like I held up fairly well.

And he has something else going for him as well, his sense of the nuance of the greens:

I see these greens real well.  I know I can — for some reason, I can feel the wind and I can feel the grain and the slope, and I’ve been seeing them well all week.  I think I’m just seeing them better than I did on the West Coast.

And then he was asked about the intimidation factor playing against someone like McIlroy who has been striping it all week long:

Well, I think if you’re striping it all day, it’s not very intimidating.  But if the other guy is and you’re all over the lot, I think — I don’t know if intimidation is the word.  Maybe a little demoralizing if you’re trying to catch somebody.

But you know, I mean, I don’t know how much intimidation golf has.  We are not really fighting out there.  I always get a kick out of that, everybody always talks about how intimidating Tiger is.  And I’m thinking, he’s a great player, but it’s not like we have to stand there toe‑to‑toe.  I would say the whole environment might be intimidating or the whole arena.

Harris English is the latest phenom. He hasn’t really made a name for himself on Tour yet, but he certainly impressed everyone when he played in a Nationwide Tour event last year as an amateur out of the University of Georgia…and won it.

He played in the Walker Cup, turned pro in September and won his Tour card at Q-School at the end of the year. So given all of that notoriety, he was asked how big a stage it was playing in the last group on Sunday.

Oh, it’s awesome. The past year has been unbelievable for me, starting with making it to the finals of the NCAA Championship while at Georgia. Unfortunately we lost that last round, but that kind of I guess kick started my summer and then working into Q-School and then this winter. It’s been awesome.

I mean, playing the Walker Cup was probably the biggest stage I’ve ever played on. It was just really good for me. I’ve learned a lot this past year, especially. Hopefully I can keep learning a lot. These veterans out here have helped me a good bit, and hopefully I can just keep learning and keep getting in contention like this and keep having some good experiences.

And winning that Nationwide event was a big deal in other ways too.

That was probably my third Nationwide I played in. Coming down the stretch with John Peterson was really good and I learned a lot about myself and how I play under pressure. It was a really good boost for me, winning that tournament. Kind of let me know that–I don’t know if I’m actually ready to play and win a tournament yet but it kind of helped me get over that first hump of knowing I can do it. I’ve been learning a lot these past five weeks, six weeks, playing on the PGA TOUR and I feel like I’ve learned a lot and had some good experiences and I’m ready to play tomorrow.

And while his West Coast results were decent, he feels that he has a big advantage coming back to the East Coast:

I grew up on bermudagreens, bermuda fairways. Going out west was pretty tough on me because I had never seen those golf courses and travelling. Never really got a day off, playing Monday through Sunday, every week, five weeks in a row. It was really tough for me and I learned how to travel better and how to get my rest better and how to eat better.

I had two weeks off after Pebble Beach and really got my rest and worked on my game some. I came down here very prepared, and I definitely like these bermudagreens a lot better. I feel like I can read them very well and get the speed down. So it’s been good for me. Driving down here five hours was really easy. I could pack a lot of stuff in my car and not fly, which was very easy.

And so the stage is set for Sunday’s run to the wire. There seems a certain inevitability in McIlroy’s victory, but Gillis and English don’t sound like they’re just going to roll over for the coronation.

It should be a great day on a great golf course. Let’s just hope the weather holds off and let’s them get it in.

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