Its All About the Long Ball
Now he might be overshadowed by some powerful company.
The theme for this year's edition of the 'Battle at the Bridges' is all about the long ball, featuring four players renowned for their prodigious length off the tee -- Woods and Hank Kuehne against Masters champion Phil Mickelson and John Daly in an 18-hole match.
ABC Sports will broadcast it live at 8 p.m. EDT, with ESPN picking up the first hour of the match.
Daly led the PGA Tour in driving distance for eight consecutive years, a streak that ended last year when Kuehne won the distance title by averaging a record 321.4 yards off the tee.
'I've played with Hank a lot, but we don't really pay attention to how long we hit it,' Daly said. 'What matters is your score. In the Skins Game in Canada, we hooked up and went back and forth a few times. He hit it five yards past me, I hit it five yards past him. We really don't think about it that much.'
Mickelson has sacrificed distance this year in an effort to have more control, and it already has paid off with a victory in the Masters and close calls in the U.S. Open and British Open. Still, he has spent most of his career salivating over distance, and he took some heat last year for joking that Woods 'hates that I can fly it past him now.'
As for Woods?
He might have to get used to hitting first Monday on The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe.
Woods finished out of the top 10 in driving distance for the first time last year, and concedes that he's not as long off the tee as he used to be. 'I kind of dink it around,' he often says.
The better-ball match is all about making birdies and shooting the lowest score, but there is a twist this year. Four holes have been designated for a long-drive competition, with each of them worth $75,000.
'Normally, I'd be ecstatic about a long-drive championship,' Mickelson said. 'But against Hank Kuehne, John Daly and Tiger Woods, I'm less than thrilled -- except that my partner, John Daly, is one of the longest guys in the game and probably holds his own.'
Along with the 18-hole match and the long drive contest, the third way of keeping score -- and perhaps the most important -- is the television ratings.
The national rating climbed as high as 7.6 in the second year of these hit-and-giggle affairs, when Sergio Garcia beat Woods on the 18th hole at Bighorn in 2000. Since the exhibition switched to a team format the following year, however, ratings have steadily declined. It dropped to 4.6 last year, when Mickelson and Garcia beat Woods and Ernie Els.
If it's true that everyone digs the long ball, this could be just what Monday Night Golf needs.
Woods always draws a big audience beyond regular golf fans, but he now has help from Mickelson, whose popularity soared even higher with his Masters victory. Plus, there is the fascination of two guys who swing from the heels.
Well, at least Kuehne does.
The former U.S. Amateur champion has tried hitting less club off the tee, but can't seem to get it in the fairway. After a while, he figured he was better off bashing his driver.
'At this point, I'm not really changing the way that I play golf because I really wasn't hitting the club that you're supposed to hit into the fairway ... into the fairway,' Kuehne said. 'I was actually hitting less fairways with that than the driver. So, I just play golf the best way I know how, and that's how it will be.'
Woods has increased his distance slightly this year by going to a larger driver with a graphite shaft. Statistically speaking, he is not the shortest hitter in this foursome, ranked No. 7 in driving distance. Kuehne is No. 2 on tour, followed by Daly, while Mickelson weighs in at No. 29.
'I have sacrificed a little bit of distance and have gained more accuracy,' Mickelson said.
Daly, whose grip-it-and-rip-it method has long been a gallery attraction, has gone to a control cut to keep the ball in the short grass. He's still long off the tee, just not as long as he could be. He can't argue with the results, having won at Torrey Pines in February for his first regular PGA Tour victory in 10 years.
'That's why I've had a better year this year, because I don't care about distance right now,' Daly said. 'If I tried to hit a big draw like I used to, I could probably hit it 25, 30 yards farther. But I wouldn't be able to control it.'
Still, they all figure to reach for a little something extra Monday night -- especially on the four holes where the longest drive will be handsomely rewarded.
Organizers can only hope the ratings come up big, too.
Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy and the rest of his group had a forgettable end to their rounds Thursday at the Honda Classic.
McIlroy was even par for the day and looking for one final birdie to end his opening round. Only two players had reached the par-5 finishing hole, but McIlroy tried to hold a 3-wood up against the wind from 268 yards away. It found the water, leading to a double bogey and a round of 2-over 72.
“It was the right shot,” McIlroy said. “I just didn’t execute it the right way.”
He wasn’t the only player to struggle coming home.
Adam Scott, who won here in 2016, found the water on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17. He made double on 15, then triple on 17, after his shot from the drop area went long, then he failed to get up and down. He shot 73, spoiling a solid round.
The third player in the group, Padraig Harrington, made a mess of the 16th hole, taking a triple.
The group played the last four holes in a combined 10 over.
Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Consider it a sign of the times that Tiger Woods was ecstatic about an even-par score Thursday at the Honda Classic.
It was by far his most impressive round in this nascent comeback.
Playing in a steady 20-mph wind, Woods was better in all facets of the game Thursday at PGA National. Better off the tee. Better with his irons. And better on and around the “scratchy” greens.
He hung tough to shoot 70 – four shots better than his playing partner, Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season and the current FedExCup leader – and afterward Woods said that it was a “very positive” day and that he was “very solid.”
It’s a small sample size, of course – seven rounds – but Woods didn’t hesitate in declaring this “easily” his best ball-striking round of the year.
And indeed it was, even if the stats don’t jump off the page.
Officially, he hit only seven of 14 fairways and just 10 greens, but some of those misses off the tee were a few paces into the rough, and some of those iron shots finished just off the edge of the green.
The more telling stat was this: His proximity to the hole (28 feet) was more than an 11-foot improvement over his first two starts this year. And also this: He was 11th among the early starters in strokes gained-tee to green, which measures a player’s all-around ball-striking. Last week, at Riviera, he ranked 121st.
“I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knockdown shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways, and occasionally downwind, straight up in the air.
“I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”
The Champion Course here at PGA National is the kind of course that magnifies misses and exposes a player if he’s slightly off with his game. There is water on 15 of the 18 holes, and there are countless bunkers, and it’s almost always – as it was Thursday – played in a one- or two-club wind. Even though it’s played a half hour from Woods’ compound in Hobe Sound, the Honda wasn’t thought to be an ideal tune-up for Woods’ rebuilt game.
But maybe this was just what he needed. He had to hit every conceivable shot Thursday, to shape it both ways, high and low, and he executed nearly every one of them.
The only hole he butchered was the par-5 third. With 165 yards for his third shot, he tried to draw a 6-iron into a stiff wind. He turned it over a touch too much, and it dropped into the bunker. He hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot, but it got caught in the overseeded rye grass around the green and stayed short. He chipped to 3 feet and then was blown off-balance by a wind gust. Double.
But what pleased Woods most was what he did next. Steaming from those unforced errors, he was between a 2- and 3-iron off the tee. He wanted to leave himself a 60-degree wedge for his approach into the short fourth hole, but a full 2-iron would have put him too close to the green.
So he took a little off and “threw it up in the air” – 292 yards.
“That felt really good,” Woods said, smiling. And so did the 6-footer that dropped for a bounce-back birdie.
"I feel like I'm really not that far away," he said.
To illustrate just how much Woods’ game has evolved in seven rounds, consider this perspective from Brandt Snedeker.
They played together at Torrey Pines, where Woods somehow made the cut despite driving it all over the map. In the third round, Woods scraped together a 70 while Snedeker turned in a 74, and afterward Snedeker said that Woods’ short game was “probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”
A month later, Snedeker saw significant changes. Woods’ short game is still tidy, but he said that his iron play is vastly improved, and it needed to be, given the challenging conditions in the first round.
“He controlled his ball flight really well and hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey, because he was rusty,” said Snedeker, who shot 74. “So it was cool to see him flight the ball and hit some little cut shots and some little three-quarter shots and do stuff I’m accustomed to see him doing.”
Conditions are expected to only get more difficult, more wind-whipped and more burned out, which is why the winning score here has been single-digits under par four of the past five years.
But Woods checked an important box Thursday, hitting the shots that were required in the most difficult conditions he has faced so far.
Said Snedeker: “I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”
Players honor victims of Parkland school shooting
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA Tour players are honoring the victims in the Parkland school shooting by wearing ribbons on their hats and shirts.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located about 45 miles from PGA National, site of this week’s Honda Classic.
“It’s awful what happened, and anytime the Tour can support in any way a tragedy, we’re always going to be for it,” Justin Thomas said. “Anytime there’s a ribbon on the tees for whatever it may be, you’ll see most, if not all the guys wearing it. Something as simple and easy as this, it’s the least we could do.”
The school shooting in Parkland, which claimed 17 lives, is the second-deadliest at a U.S. public school.
Tiger Woods, who lives in South Florida, offered this: “It’s just a shame what people are doing now, and all the countless lives that we’ve lost for absolutely no reason at all. It’s just a shame, and what they have to deal with, at such a young age, the horrible tragedy they are going to have to live with and some of the things they’ve seen just don’t go away.”
Thomas' game on track for Masters
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas likes where his game is trending.
He said that on the eve of the Honda Classic.
With the Masters just six weeks away, that’s where trends are aimed as the Florida swing makes its start.
Thomas made another encouraging move Thursday to get his game ready for a chance at winning back-to-back major championships.
A 3-under-par 67 moved him a shot off the lead in the first round at PGA National’s Champion Course.
Thomas, who won five times on his way to winning PGA Tour Player of the Year honors last season, is feeling something special brewing as he seeks to claim his first title of this calendar year.
“I've been playing well all year,” Thomas said. “Just haven't had much to show for it. I feel like I'm close to reeling off a couple tournaments here. I just need to stay patient.”
Thomas put together a strong start playing in a pairing in front of Tiger Woods, a spot that comes with challenges, with galleries on the move setting up to watch Woods.
Thomas, who played with fans causing problems at Riviera last week, said galleries weren’t an issue.
The Honda Classic isn’t a major, but it looks like it will present the sternest test of the year so far.
The Champion Course is always a brute, but it sets up as a particularly grueling test this year, with Florida’s winter winds blowing briskly right from Thursday morning’s start.
“It was a very tough day out there, very windy, tough crosswinds,” Thomas said. “I was a little bummed to see that the weather showed a little bit more wind in the morning than the afternoom.”
The course is also playing firmer and faster than it typically does.
Thomas, 24, confirmed how solid his ball striking is in a round of six birdies and three bogeys.
“The players know it's a tough golf course,” Jack Nicklaus said earlier this week. “It's going to be a handfull this week, with a dry golf course. This golf course plays much more difficult when it's dry ... and it's a little breezy.
“You're going to see some very interesting rounds. You might hear a couple complaints.”
Not from Thomas, who lives in nearby Jupiter.
“Any time you're even or better on this course, on a day like today, was definitely positive,” he said.
Thomas’ 67 is confirmation his game is shaping up for the test at Augusta National, where he will be looking to add a green jacket to the Wanamaker Trophy he won at the PGA Championship last August.
“I love where my game is trending for Augusta,” Thomas said Wednesday. ”I feel like I'm getting, just very, very slowly, better every week ... I'm improving on the things I need to improve on.”
A victory would be the ultimate confirmation he’s getting major championship ready.
“I'd like to have a chance to win one of these next three events before Augusta,” he said.
Thomas is coming off a tie for ninth at the Genesis Open last week. He was T-17 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open before that and T-14 at the Sony Open before that.
Thursday’s round heated up with Thomas making four birdies in the middle of the round. He chipped in for birdie at the seventh (his 16th hole of the day) to get to 4 under before making bogey at the difficult 17th, where he just missed the green short playing into the wind and left his chip 20 feet short.
“I hit probably one of my better shots in the Bear Trap, that just ended up in a horrible lie,” he said.
Thomas headed home eager to keep his promising trend going.
“It's definitely a little better feeling going to sleep and waking up in your own bed,” Thomas said.