Empty Season for Tiger
Tiger Woods was headed toward another first-round loss at the Match Play Championship in February, trailing Rollins with two holes to play. Woods squared the match with an 8-iron into 18 inches on the 17th, then was let off the hook when his opponent hit sand wedge into the bunker on the final hole and made bogey.
Woods survived the scare, scraped through five more matches and won for the 40th time in his PGA Tour career.
No one suspected that would be the only trophy he held all year.
It's bad enough that Woods just completed his second straight season without a major, matching his career-long drought at 10 without winning the tournaments that matter the most.
Imagine the heat Woods would feel if he had lost that match to Rollins, and faced the final three months of the season trying to avoid a winless season while relying on a game that looks ordinary.
The bigger question: Where does he go from here?
'We have some big ones coming up,' Woods said, trying to convince himself that the year is not lost.
He mentioned the NEC Invitational this week at Firestone and the American Express Championship next month in Ireland, two World Golf Championships that he has dominated.
There's the Ryder Cup, which has never been his favorite event, and the season ends at East Lake in Atlanta with the Tour Championship.
Yes, he's still eligible for that.
Just like last year, the Tour Championship could go a long way toward determining who wins the money list, the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average, and who states his case as PGA Tour player of the year.
Only this time, Woods won't be in the mix.
For the first time since he turned pro in 1996 at the Greater Milwaukee Open, the No. 1 player in the world - for at least one more week, anyway - has nothing to motivate him but pride.
His rookie season, Woods was trying to earn enough money to avoid going to Q-school. He won twice in his first seven events and wound up qualifying for the Tour Championship, still one of the most amazing feats of his career.
Even in 1998, when the BellSouth Classic was his only victory, Woods still had a chance to win the money title and the Vardon Trophy going into the Tour Championship, but David Duval wrapped up both awards.
There is still hope.
Woods won the NEC Invitational three straight times and has never finished worst than fifth in his six appearances at Firestone. He is the two-time defending champion at the American Express.
Even so, that would only dress up a tattered season.
The Big Three is now Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, even though Woods remains No. 1 in the ranking.
With a victory handed to him in the PGA Championship for his third major, Singh took a commanding lead on the money list with just over $6.9 million. That's nearly twice as much money as Woods.
Mickelson and Els are battling for the Vardon Trophy, separated by .04 in adjusted scoring average. Even more telling is that they have finished higher than Woods is the last five majors.
Woods still draws the big crowds.
He remains the only player who can drive television ratings, another example coming from Whistling Straits - the overnight rating was up 4 percent from last year (Shaun Micheel beating Chad Campbell), which was down 41 percent from the year before (Rich Beem holding off Woods).
But he no longer is the favorite in every tournament he plays, even when he has the lead going into the weekend.
The focus the rest of the year now shifts to Singh and Mickelson, and possibly Els.
Even that debate over who had the best season might only last until the 41-year-old Fijian wins again and rises to No. 1. Singh's five victories are three more than anyone else, and while Mickelson had an outstanding year in the majors, he still wound up with as many as Singh.
Mickelson came within five shots of winning all four majors, which could be a deciding factor if the race with Singh is close come November. Then again, one would think that a player of his ability would have won more than two times given that many chances. His other victory was the Bob Hope Classic.
Mickelson has played five fewer tournaments than Singh and has won more money per start, but Singh's five victories (three of those with Lefty in the field) are impossible to ignore.
Els was crushed by letting another major slip away, the last three his own doing. He shot 80 in the final group at the U.S. Open; missed a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th in regulation and lost in a playoff at the British Open; then made bogey on the 72nd hole at the PGA Championship that cost him a spot in the playoff.
Unlike Woods, the Big Easy still has a chance to make this a big year.
He is one tournament away from returning to No. 1 in the world for the first time in six years. And while he would have to win all three of the big events left, still in the picture is becoming the first player to win the money title on both sides of the Atlantic.
It could be a pretty good show - one that Woods can only watch unfold.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might
Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.
“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”
Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”
“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”
Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)
Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”
Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.
“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"
As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.
"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.
Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”
McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks
The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.
McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.
“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”
At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.”
And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.
“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.
“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”
Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic
No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.
Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.
With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.
“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”
Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.
Ortiz takes Web.com Tour clubhouse lead in Bahamas
Former Web.com Tour Player of the Year Carlos Ortiz shot a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68 Monday to take the clubhouse lead in The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay.
Four other players - Lee McCoy, Brandon Matthews, Sung Jae Im and Mark Anderson - were still on the course and tied with Ortiz at 6-under 210 when third-round play was suspended by darkness at 5:32 p.m. local time. It is scheduled to resume at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday.
Ortiz, a 26-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, is in search of his fourth Web.com Tour victory. In 2014, the former University of North Texas standout earned a three-win promotion on his way to being voted Web.com Tour Player of the Year.
McCoy, a 23-year-old from Dunedin, Fla., is looking to become the first player to earn medalist honors at Q-School and then win the opening event of the season.