Mixed Emotions for Big Easy at Famed Riviera

By Associated PressFebruary 14, 2006, 5:00 pm
2006 Nissan OpenErnie Els returns to the PGA Tour for the first time in eight months, and he could not have picked a more appropriate setting than Riviera Country Club.
The Hollywood script of his career undoubtedly would start with something like, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,' and it would take place at the fabled course off Sunset Boulevard. Riviera might be the best reminder of his awesome potential, and the failures that have kept Els from fulfilling it.
'I won this event in 1999, shooting 14 under for four rounds to beat Tiger and a couple of other guys,' Els wrote on his Web site before leaving his home outside London for the Nissan Open.
The leaderboard that Sunday afternoon was loaded with the biggest names in golf -- Els, Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, David Duval and Nick Price, all ranked in the top 10 and separated by two shots until birdies on the 11th, 12th and 13th holes carried the Big Easy to a two-shot victory.
At his best, Els could stand toe-to-toe with anyone and not flinch.
But that wasn't the case at Riviera four years earlier at the PGA Championship. He was 25 and a rising star, having captured his first major at Oakmont the previous summer by winning the U.S. Open in a three-man playoff. Curtis Strange was so impressed that he referred to Els as 'the next guy,' although it was reported as 'the next god' because of Strange's rich, Virginia drawl.
Els was good enough that no one thought the wiser.
He dismantled Riviera that week, building a three-shot lead going into the final round, and all that awaited was the coronation. Woods was not around. He was 19 years old, preparing to defend his U.S. Amateur title before starting his sophomore year at Stanford.
Golf belonged to a big South African whose swing blended grace with power.
And then the little man in his head started harvesting doubt. Els went conservative in the final round as everyone around him was firing at flags, and he wound up with a 72 to tie for third.
'Felt I should have won that one, to be honest with you,' Els said.
How might his career have been different with that PGA Championship at Riviera?
Els would have had consecutive years winning a major, and perhaps would have been better equipped to handle Woods turning pro in '96 and winning everything in sight. Then again, the way Woods has mown through the majors, it might not have mattered.
Els returns to Riviera for his 2006 PGA Tour debut, and he finds himself at another crossroads.
Coming off knee surgery that kept him out of golf for four months, Els is gearing up for another challenge at a time when Woods has won his last three tournaments and appears to be hitting his stride. Els is now 36, a prime age for golfers, and he plans to cut down on his global travels to give himself the best chance to play well when it matters.
His career has been a tug-of-war with Woods, and no one has more rope burns. Els has been runner-up to Woods seven times -- three more than any other player -- and victories like the '99 Nissan Open are rare.
More common is what happened two weeks ago in Dubai.
Els made a 6-foot birdie putt on the final hole, only to watch Woods match his birdie from the final group and force a playoff. Woods went first and hit the fairway on the par-5 18th. Els hooked his drive into the sandy soil of a palm grove, then failed to clear the water by no more than a foot to lose the playoff.
'I cannot complain,' Els said that day. 'After all the hassle I had with the leg, to come back -- this was the strongest field in the world this week -- and to almost win it is fine.'
It would be easy to look at Dubai as another layer of scar tissue, although Els is looking at a broader picture. His knee is not quite there, but he was good enough to get into a playoff with the world's No. 1 player.
Besides, the majors are still two months away.
Els was forgotten last year, first because of a lackluster showing in the majors, then when he tore ligaments in his left knee in July during a family holiday in the Mediterranean. But he very well could be the primary rival to Woods in 2006, especially if other members of the Big Five start sliding.
Vijay Singh is No. 2 and starting to look ordinary. This is the first week he has taken off -- two weeks in Hawaii, two weeks in the Middle East, followed by Phoenix and Pebble Beach -- and he has not been a factor since losing in a playoff to Stuart Appleby at Kapalua.
Something seems to be missing from Phil Mickelson's game, which is not alarming except that he traditionally thrives during the West Coast Swing. Lefty has gone only three seasons in his career without winning before Florida, and two of those years he failed to win a PGA Tour event.
Retief Goosen has quietly struggled since closing with an 81 at Pinehurst. When he is on, he can beat anyone. But he continues to search for a swing that will hold up over four days.
Woods has had a revolving door of rivals, and it might be Els' turn again.
While the Masters is two months away, these next three weeks can set the tone for Els. Riviera is a course that suits his eye. Els dislikes La Costa so much he stayed away for two years, although anything goes in match play. Then comes Doral, where Els won in 2002 by holding off a late charge by Woods.
It starts Thursday at Riviera. Still in the prime of his career, Els is not quite finished with the script.
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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.”