A Leap for Major Champions Baby Steps for the LPGA
Karrie Webb hit the best shot in women's golf this year -- maybe the best shot in all of golf -- when her pitching wedge from 116 yards on the final hole of the Kraft Nabisco Championship landed a yard in front of the pin and crept into the cup, sending her into a playoff that she won.
Even more memorable was the raw emotion of Webb sprinting to caddie Mike Paterson and leaping into his arms.
'I think my heart just about jumped out of my chest, because it was aching for five minutes,' she said.
Ten weeks later, Se Ri Pak matched her in more ways than one. She won the LPGA Championship in a sudden-death playoff (over Webb), hitting a hybrid 4-iron from 201 yards that stopped 3 inches from the cup. After an uppercut, she also leapt into her caddie's arms.
'First time I jumped on the golf course,' Pak said.
How much of a leap forward the LPGA Tour made as an organization remains to be seen.
The start could not have been much worse. LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens picked an unnecessary fight with the media that led to a one-day boycott in Hawaii and strained her relationship with the people who publicize a tour in dire need of publicity.
It could not have ended much better, with a novel format at the ADT Championship that paid $1 million to a rookie from Paraguay who closed the deal at Trump International.
Along the way, there was a mixed bag of successes and failures:
The first three majors were decided in a playoff, which alone is compelling stuff. What added to the sizzle was the number of players who had a chance to win those majors in the final holes, including 16-year-old Michelle Wie at the Kraft Nabisco, LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open.
Lost in Webb's magic at Rancho Mirage was coming from seven shots behind on the last day to match the largest comeback in the history of LPGA majors. And while the LPGA Championship came down to Webb and Pak, there were 10 other players separated by two shots on the back nine at Bulle Rock.
The U.S. Women's Open turned into a marathon between Annika Sorenstam and Pat Hurst, who played together the final 54 holes over two days. And while the playoff was a snoozer (Sorenstam won by four), the Swede ended a 10-year drought in the showcase event of women's golf.
Sorenstam's standards are so celestial that winning three times, including the U.S. Open, and finishing third on the LPGA Tour money list with nearly $2 million constitutes a bad year.
It's healthy for any sport to have a revolving door of stars, and Lorena Ochoa finally shoved aside Sorenstam. The question now is how long the 24-year-old Mexican stays there. Ochoa swept all the major awards with six victories, a 69.24 scoring average and more than $2.5 million to win the money title. The only thing missing was a major, and that could be around the corner.
Webb, meanwhile, won four times and went over $2 million for the first time in her career.
How's this for star power? Three major champions are Hall of Famers (Pak won't be inducted until next year).
The good news is that six rookies finished among the top 24 on the LPGA Tour money list, and Julieta Granada (No. 4) set a record for rookie earnings at more than $1.6 million.
But that figure was skewed by the $1 million payoff at the ADT Championship. And the rookies who had the best year were not the players getting all the attention at the start of the season.
Morgan Pressel had only one finish in the top three and failed to register a top 10 in any of the majors. Ai Miyazato had three good chances to win, but blew up in the final round each time, including the LPGA Championship. The best rookie was Seon-Hwa Lee.
They were the American faces of the future on the LPGA Tour after leading their team to victory in the Solheim Cup, but all of them -- Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis and Christina Kim -- were an afterthought this year.
Gulbis has never won on the LPGA Tour, and keeping that streak going was hardly newsworthy.
The surprise was Creamer, who was second on the money list as a rookie and vowed to replace Sorenstam at No. 1. But she piled up far more endorsements than victories, never contended in a major and her only consolation was becoming the first LPGA player to crack $1 million without winning.
The LPGA Tour finally released its world ranking, and two things happened.
First, there was outrage that Wie was ranked No. 3 despite having not won on the LPGA Tour. Then, everyone yawned.
The rankings began with a minimum requirement of 15 tournaments, which explained why Wie was listed so highly. They were tweaked in the summer to make it a minimum of 35 events, which is why Wie is now No. 10.
But there was never a debate about No. 1 (Sorenstam), and the rankings have so little relevance that even the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship did not rely exclusively on them.
The LPGA Tour made headlines at the end of the year by announcing it would begin drug testing in 2008.
Ultimately, this is a good move to eliminate any questions about golfers using performance-enhancing drugs, even though there has never been any evidence. The peculiar part was the rush to make an announcement, especially since the LPGA does not know what it will test for or how it will test its players. It said details would follow, which smacks of grandstanding.
Business leaders typically do research first, develop a plan, then make an announcement.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta
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.
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.
Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA
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.
Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic
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.
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.
Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe
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.
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.”