It’s back to Firestone for the NEC, the second of the World Golf Championship events of the year. After missing the cut last week it is nice to go into an event that has no cut. I am happy with my game; I just need to get some more competitive golf under my belt. This is an event that I have not done particularly well in the past. Last year I remember that I finished nearly last in the field. However this year, I am coming into the week with a little more confidence, but it would have been nice to make the cut last week and have played four rounds.
This is a course that the PGA Tour has been coming to for many years now. For me, I have played several NEC events here. As I was saying it is not a course that I have played particularly well in the past. I am not entirely sure why that is as I think it is a really good course, tough but good. You have to play well on every hole to make a score here. It is another par 70 that measures over 7,300 yards. While this sounds long it doesn’t really play its length as there are several elevation changes and also it is usually very warm and the ball tends to travel a little bit further. There are only two par 5’s on this course, the second and the sixteenth. The second measures 526 yards and is within range in 2 shots. It plays 12 yards uphill but is still a good birdie chance. The other par 5, the sixteenth measures 667 yards but plays about 25 yards downhill from the tee to the green. It is not quite on in two. If you get a good tee shot away you might be within range but it is not worth the risk as there is water in front of the green. The green is very small, even with a lob wedge in your hands this green looks small. This will be a key hole by the end of the week as it is not a bad thing to be able to say that you made four 5’s here but everybody will be wanting to make a birdie as you feel that you should birdie the par 5’s. There are several tough par 4’s on the course, especially as the rough is very penal. If you miss the fairway you can be struggling to make the green on some holes. A couple of holes where it is key to hit the fairway are the 4th and 6th. Both these holes measure over 465 yards and if you are not coming off the fairways they are tough pars.
I have been in Akron since Monday night; the day was spent doing a day for my sponsor, Wilson. As it is a course that I am very familiar with I have only played 18 holes in practice this week, nine of them with Graeme McDowell. I have spent the rest of the week practicing my wedge play, bunker play and putting. Even though I missed the cut last week I am not panicking about my game, as I am happy with the way I am swinging the club. I am looking forward to playing this week and getting four more rounds under my belt. I have spent quite a bit of time trying to work on the mental game, getting used to focusing on my target on the range so that it will be easier to do it on the course.
I am certainly happy with the way that I am hitting the ball. The interesting thing about my game all year is that my swing has stayed more or less the same all the time. It’s not a swing issue or anything like that. Like last summer when I didn’t play very well, I’m not taking it from the range or the practice rounds onto the golf course in tournaments. It’s all to do with mental sharpness. I know where I need to be focused and what needs to be turned around for the next three months. With this in mind I am working hard on getting my mind sharp so that when I get on the course I am fully ready.
As I have said I am looking forward to this tournament. It is a guaranteed four rounds, which is exactly what I need and it is a big event. Although I haven’t done well here before it does not necessarily mean that I can’t or won’t play well here this year. As always I am looking to try and get into contention come Sunday afternoon and then see what happens. Last year it was wet and the course played long and tough form the rough. This year the forecast is for it to be dry and I am shifting the ball better from the rough than any other time in the year. Hopefully, I won’t have to worry about the rough much but if I do at least I know that I can get it out far better.
The tournament went as I would have expected, I started slowly and managed to play better as the week went on. My first round left me too far behind to challenge but the main thing for me was that I knew that I was playing four rounds of competitive golf no matter what. As I was saying in my preview that is really what I needed the most. I felt coming into the USPGA and this week that I hadn’t played enough competitive golf and it showed by missing the cut at the PGA and then with a poor first round at the NEC. I opened up with a 75, 5 over par, and then played the next three rounds in 3 under par to finish on 2 over for the tournament and a tie for 24th. I am coming away from this tournament taking a lot of positives as I definitely felt like I was getting back to my normal self by the end of the week. Small things like getting up and down when you need to, to keep your momentum going; these were things that I hadn’t been doing but by the end of the week I was getting the ball up and down and wasn’t too worried if I hit it in the rough or missed a green.
My first round started nicely from the 10th, I opened up with 3 solid pars. Then on the 13th, a 472 yard par 4, I hit 3 wood off the tee and pulled it into the fairway bunker. I was blocked by a tree and had 203 yards to the pin, I tried to hit a big hook with an 8 iron but caught it a bit thin and hit the lip of the bunker and left it in. From there I could only hack it out and then pitch onto the green. Two putts later and I had made a double bogey. Not the start I was looking for! This is a tough enough course without making double bogies; it is very hard to recover from a double. I bogeyed the 14th and the 18th and parred the rest of the holes to be out in 4 over. My back nine was better, I made one mistake on the 4th and again took a double bogey - after hitting it in the trees I had to lay it up short of the green and had 83 yards to the pin. It was into a little bit of wind and off an upslope, I hit a lob wedge but it just wasn’t enough - I was hitting it too hard and as a result it spun off the front of the green and I failed to get it up and down - another 6! However the only bright ray of sunshine was a 5 iron to the 200 yard 5th hole which left me with an 8 footer for birdie, which I holed to go back to 5 over. I parred my way in from here to shoot 75 and leave me well down the field; although I was reminded when I rang home it was two shots better than my start last year!
The next three rounds were a vast improvement. The second round was my first bogey-free round for quite a while. I birdied the 3rd and the 16th and parred the rest of the holes. It was a round that I had opportunities to be better and also could have been worse. I couldn’t manage to hole any putts for birdie but I did manage to make four good saves for par during the round. The best of these was the 14th - I had hit it left off the tee, from the rough I tried to punch a shot under the trees but it didn’t make it out and it left me 133 yards still from the rough. I hit a lovely wedge right over the pin to 25 feet and managed to hole the putt for a good save. While I was happy with the way I played in this round, as I gave myself plenty of birdie chances, it was the par saves that I was most pleased with, which is what I hadn’t been doing in previous rounds. When I hit it in trouble I was making bogies, whereas here I turned them into pars and it makes a big difference to how you score and feel. I finished with a 68, 2 under par and moving in the right direction…
Round three started great. I birdied the first three holes and then the 5th to be 4 under for the day and 1 under for the tournament. I missed a 6 footer on the 6th and an 8 footer on the 7th, both for birdies. However I made my first bogey in 27 holes on the 9th to put me back to 3 under for the day. I was three under playing the 16th and made yet another double bogey to put me back to 1 under for the day, which is where I finished. My double bogey came about from a bad drive - I hit it left into the trees; my attempt to get it back to the fairway hit a tree and rebounded further into them and into very heavy grass. All I could do from here was to hack it out sideways. After getting it out I had to lay up short of the water and then try and get it up and down for a bogey. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to do so and I finished with a 7!! I was disappointed with my score as I knew that it should have been much better. Through 5 holes I really had a chance of shooting a low one and getting myself well up the leader board. But it was still another round in red figures and it moved me up to a tie for 25th.
The Final Round
I knew going out that if I could shoot a good final round that I would have a chance of high finish. I started off nicely with 2 pars and a birdie on the third. I hit a lot of good shots but just couldn’t convert any of the putts; I also made some good up and downs and parred everything to the 13th. After a good drive down the 13th I had 182 yards to the pin. The wind was strong off the left, I hit a 7 iron and was very happy with it but it flew about 8 yards further than I wanted it to. It pitched over the back of the green, got a huge bounce and ended up 4 yards over the green in front of the 18th tee. I played a flop shot from here to 15 feet with Fred Funk and Niclas Fasth watching me while they were waiting to play the 18th. I missed it for par and then went on to three putt the 14th from 25 feet. This put me back to 1 over for the day. However I got back to level par for the day with a birdie two on the 15. I parred my way in to shoot 70, level par for the day and 2 over for the tournament.
After the first round I would have been happy with finishing 2 over par, but I know that I could have done better. I managed to get myself back into a competitive frame of mind. All in all it was a good week as I got four more competitive rounds under my belt and saw a definite improvement. Tiger managed to make it four wins in the NEC but it was an interesting final round. For a while it seemed like nobody wanted to win it. I would have like to see Paul hang on and take the title but it wasn’t to be, although 3rd was a great finish. For me it’s onto the BMW International in Munich, I have played well there in previous years, although not last year. Hopefully it will bring back some good memories.