Season Starts with No Guarantees

By Associated PressJanuary 4, 2006, 5:00 pm
04 Mercedes ChampionshipsKAPALUA, Hawaii -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are absent by choice. So many others are not at the season-opening Mercedes Championships because they failed to meet the toughest criteria on the PGA Tour.
This is for winners only.
Golf offers no guarantees, and there is no better reminder than to scan the list of results at Kapalua last year to see who didn't make it back.
Vijay Singh
Vijay Singh is one of only eight players returning from the 2005 Mercedes field.
Ernie Els nearly won twice in Hawaii last year, but his season ended in July with surgery on his knee and no PGA Tour victories to his credit for the first time since 2001. Jonathan Kaye was on the verge of getting into a playoff at Kapalua until he muffed a chip on the final hole and finished second. He never came close to winning the rest of the year.
Mike Weir will have to wait two weeks to start his season. Zach Johnson, a promising rookie in 2004, went winless as a sophomore. Adam Scott won a tournament that didn't count. For all the fist pumps and theatrical moments for Chris DiMarco, none included posing with a trophy.
Of the 31 players in the field at Kapalua last year, only eight of them will be teeing it up Thursday on the Plantation course to start the new season. Throw in three guys who are taking this week off -- Woods, Mickelson and Retief Goosen -- and just more than one-third of the players were eligible.
'There were eight guys that played last year? That means 20 new guys? Wow,' said Brad Faxon, who is one of those 20 having won the Buick Championship for his first PGA Tour victory in four years. 'That just shows it's harder to win. And there are a few guys that aren't here that win a lot.'
There are 48 chances to get into the Mercedes Championships. Woods and Mickelson combined to take away 10 of those opportunities, including three of the majors. Vijay Singh won four times, and other multiple winners were Justin Leonard, Padraig Harrington, Kenny Perry and Bart Bryant, all of whom won twice.
If the veterans looks over their shoulder, they will find 12 players at Kapalua here for the first time. That list includes Sean O'Hair, a Q-school graduate a year ago, and Jason Gore, who went from nowhere to the final group of the U.S. Open and back to nowhere, until his meteoric rise to the big leagues.
Gore is new, but he gets it.
'I was a little worried when the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve, going into a new year,' Gore said. 'That's what makes golf a great game. You're only as good as the last shot you hit. You move on from there, and hopefully get off to a good start this week, see what happens.'
The great thing about golf is that no one knows where it all will lead.
At this time a year ago, Woods had gone 15 months without a stroke-play victory and was a distant second to Singh in the world ranking. The hype was the Big Five -- Woods, Singh, Mickelson, Els and Goosen -- and who would emerge as the best player in golf.
By year end, Woods had six victories, two majors and an overwhelming margin at No. 1.
The new season gets under way at Thursday with the attention already shifting to several storylines for 2006, from the return to traditional major championship sites like Winged Foot (U.S. Open) and Medinah (PGA Championship), to who makes the Ryder Cup team, to whether Els can bounce back and the 42-year-old Singh can hang on.
The immediate question is whether Stuart Appleby can become the first player in 50 years to win this elite tournament three straight times. The only other player was Gene Littler, from 1955-57, when it was played at Desert Inn Country Club in Las Vegas and appropriately called the Tournament of Champions.
'I know what I have to do,' Appleby said. 'I know how to play, I know what sort of golf is required to win here. Having Phil and Tiger not here, Retief, is a good thing for me. Maybe they're a little scared.'
Despite his success, Appleby will have to get used to the new greens on the Plantation course, with grass that stands taller so it can be cut shorter. They are smoother than ever, and capable of being faster than ever, although they still have the severe breaks toward the island of Molokai on the horizon.
Among the injured are Faxon and Bryant, both coming off knee surgeries.
Faxon's was more severe, as he had torn ligaments in his left knee repaired in September. Faxon was supposed to be out until at least Pebble Beach, but when a player loves Kapalua like he does, and when he goes four years without winning, the motivation to return is a little stronger.
And he already is looking ahead.
'When you're here, you want to be here the next year,' Faxon said.
It all begins to unfold Thursday morning on a course perched atop the hills overlooking the Pacific, where it is not unusual to see humpback whales breeching below, sharing the blue waters with surfers.
The Mercedes Championship doesn't have Woods or Mickelson or Goosen -- in fact, only three of the top 10 in the world ranking are at Kapalua -- but it has 28 guys hungry to start the year off right, and guaranteeing a spot next year.
'This is where you want to start out,' said Mark Calcavecchia, back at Kapalua for the first time in four years. 'Everybody here won a tournament. That's a big thing nowadays.'
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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.”