After Long Break Tiger in Full Flight

By Associated PressJanuary 29, 2007, 5:00 pm
2007 Buick InvitationalSAN DIEGO -- The clubs finally came out of the closet after a winter break, and Tiger Woods laid out his plans for the new year. He didn't talk about the Grand Slam. He didn't say anything about his PGA TOUR winning streak.
And he sure didn't mention the FedExCup.
'The only thing that matters to him is getting better,' swing coach Hank Haney said.
Haney said this a week ago Tuesday, waiting in darkness behind the first tee on the South Course with a dozen or so fans for the world's No. 1 player to show up at Torrey Pines for his first practice round of the year.
Five days later, with the grandstands full and the fairways two-deep with fans, Woods captured the Buick Invitational for his seventh straight PGA TOUR victory, the second-longest streak on the PGA TOUR behind Byron Nelson.
Looks like he's getting better.
'What we're witnessing is something special,' said Mark O'Meara, who played two groups behind Woods on Sunday, although he finished his final round on the ninth green. 'We've been watching history being made these past 10 years.'
The immediate history is Nelson's streak of 11 straight victories in 1945, thought to be as untouchable as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or UCLA's basketball team winning 88 straight games under John Wooden.
What seemed so improbable now looks possible, depending on where Woods plays next when he returns from the Middle East.
Woods flew across 11 times zones Sunday night to get to the Dubai Desert Classic, where he is defending champion. And while he will have a slightly shorter trip home to Florida on his Gulfstream V, he said it was tougher on his body coming back.
'We'll see how it goes,' he said, meaning he will either play Feb. 15 at Riviera in the Nissan Open or the following week at the Accenture Match Play Championship at a new venue in Tucson, Ariz.
Woods made his PGA TOUR debut at Riviera at age 16 in 1992 and missed the cut with rounds of 72-75. It is the only tournament he has played at least four times without winning, and it must gnaw at him that it is a hometown event. He has had only one serious chance of winning, closing with a 70 in 1999 and finishing two shots behind Ernie Els.
During his last great streak in 1999-00, he won nine times in 15 starts on the PGA TOUR and only once finished out of the top five during that stretch -- a tie for 18th at Riviera. His last two top 10s, he got there with rounds of 65 and 64 on the last day. A year ago, he narrowly made the cut and then withdrew when he got sick.
Assume he skips Riviera.
The Match Play is always a crapshoot, although Woods won twice when it was at La Costa. His next two starts likely would be Bay Hill, where he has won four times; and Doral, where he is the two-time defending champion. That would take him to Augusta National with a chance to reach 11 in a row.
Suddenly, 'untouchable' becomes a remote possibility.
And while this streak will always be messy because he failed to win twice in Asia and once in Europe -- tournaments that do not count in the PGA TOUR record books -- Woods is impressed by one aspect. Since missing the cut at the U.S. Open for the first time in a major, he has not finished worse than second in stroke play anywhere in the world.
'That's pretty good, I think,' Woods said.
So is he better than he was a year ago?
Better than eight PGA TOUR victories in one season, and two majors that ran his total to 12?
Woods softly nodded as he leaned back in his chair to chat with a few reporters while waiting to do a television interview. He doesn't measure improvement by numbers alone. He uses statistics as a gauge, not a gospel.
And he doesn't look only at his golf.
Woods hit nine fairways on the meaty South during the second round and shot even-par 72. He hit only nine fairways in the third and fourth rounds combined -- and found 16 bunkers on the weekend -- but shot 9 under par to surge past a trio of PGA TOUR rookies and beat Charles Howell III by two shots.
'The stats may not show I hit the fairways, but my misses were so much better,' he said. 'I could play these misses and I could easily fix them, which I did. They were not misses off the planet, they were just off the fairway or in the rough or bouncing in the bunker. That's how I know I've really improved over this offseason and toward the end of last year.
He also said he has a better understanding of how to manage his game, the product of maturity.
'And off the course,' he added, 'is 180 degrees.'
He walked off the 18th green and gave his mother a hug. Also waiting for him was his wife, Elin, who is expecting their first child in July, along with her father and a couple of her brothers and sisters. All of them were in Colorado last month, skiing and spending time during the holidays, when Woods broke the news about becoming a father.
Woods rarely makes any comparisons these days without taking inventory of his emotions.
He spoke before the tournament about the difference between dreading 2006 because his father was dying of cancer, and being excited about 2007 because he was going to become a father for the first time. Woods spent the previous offseason not skiing on the slopes in Colorado but sleeping on the floor at his father's home in Cypress, spending as much time him as he could.
'Last year, I would rather spend time at home with Dad than practice,' he said. 'I've been able to practice harder this year.'
O'Meara waited around the final three hours to catch a ride with him to Dubai. He has known him better than any player since Woods turned pro, and notices a peace about the world's No. 1 player.
Coupled with a game that is getting better, it's a frightening combination.
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    Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

    By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

    Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

    Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

    So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

    How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

    1. Stay healthy

    So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

    Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

    Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

    2. Figure out his driver

    Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

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    That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

    In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

    Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

    Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

    That won’t be the case at Augusta.

    3. Clean up his iron play

    As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

    At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

    Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

    That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

    Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

    4. Get into contention somewhere

    As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

    In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

    “I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

    Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

    And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

    “It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

    Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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    Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

    By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

    Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

    The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

    According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

    Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

    The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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    Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

    By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

    Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

    “Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

    Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

    Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

    With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

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    Thomas was asked about that.

    “I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

    “I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

    Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

    “It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

    “I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

    Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

    “That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

    Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

    “Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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    Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

    By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

    McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

    “Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

    The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

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    The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

    “He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”