As Tiger returns to competition so does Mickelson
After an absence of just over eight months, as speculation intensified whether his best golf was behind him, he now looks as good as ever and has helped bring some buzz back to the PGA Tour. He might even be considered the favorite at Augusta National.
Welcome back, Lefty.
About the only thing better than the return of Tiger Woods is the revival of Phil Mickelson, renewing this generations best rivalry with the Masters right around the corner.
Mickelson wasnt really gone, of course, but it sure seemed that way.
He was the one player who had the most to gain when Woods had season-ending knee surgery after winning the U.S. Open and disappeared for eight months. The stage was set for Mickelson, for the first time in his career, to win a PGA Tour money title, be voted player of the year, perhaps move up to No. 1 in the world.
And then he vanished.
Mickelson opened with a 79 at Royal Birkdale, the first major without Woods, and was never a factor.
He never broke par at Oakland Hills in the PGA Championship.
He didnt win a single tournament the rest of the year, and really came close only twice.
Few other players truly relish competition against Woods, and you have to wonder if golf is as much fun for Lefty without Woods around. He doesnt buy into this. Asked at the 2004 Masters what it was like to have the lead with Woods nine shots behind, Mickelson smiled and said, It doesnt suck, I can say that.
Even so, the timing is peculiar.
The week Woods announced his return to competition, Mickelson had rounds of 63 and 62 at Riviera to win the Northern Trust Open, his first victory since the month before Woods won his 14th major at Torrey Pines.
Playing in the same 72-hole event with Woods for the first time since the U.S. Open, Mickelson went wire-to-wire at Doral to win the CA Championship. He closed with a 69 on Sunday, despite spending a few hours in the hospital the night before with a stomach virus.
The victory moved him to No. 2 in the world, which is where he was when Woods left, and has put him closer than ever to No. 1. Depending on how Woods does at Bay Hill next week, Mickelson could have a mathematical chance to reach the top when he next plays at the Shell Houston Open.
The question is how long Mickelson can keep this going ' and how soon before Woods hits his stride.
Woods went 68-68 on the weekend at Doral to finish in the top 10, but there was no cause for alarm. His swing looked as sound as ever, and he had every chance to contend except for his putting. The rust of being out for eight months showed in his inability to post a score.
For someone who finished eight shots behind, he appeared to be at peace.
I have not controlled the golf ball that well in a very long time, and that was fun, Woods said after the third round. I was hitting shots that I had not been able to hit before, which was such a great feeling. Im just not making any putts.
After his victory, someone asked Mickelson if he felt Woods would be in peak form sooner than some expected.
I dont think anybody is concerned about that, Mickelson said. Hes the greatest player of all time, arguably, he or Jack (Nicklaus). And hell get back to that level. Im hoping its in five weeks and not four.
That was a reference to the Masters being four weeks away.
Both will play one more tournament before then ' Woods at Bay Hill, Mickelson at Houston ' and no telling who will be atop the world rankings when they sit down for the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night at Augusta National.
What excites Mickelson are tee shots that are going longer'and straighter ' than he can remember, and producing a short-game DVD that forced him to keep it simple for the consumers. It allowed him to go back to the basics, and his short game was superb at Doral.
Plus, he said he has finished making changes with swing coach Butch Harmon, and now is simply fine-tuning everything.
Im playing some of my best golf, said Mickelson, whose 36 career victories include three majors.
This could get good over the next few months.
For all the talk over emerging young players like Anthony Kim and Rory McIlroy, and despite Padraig Harrington going for a third straight major at the Masters, these are the two names that drive golf.
Woods transcends the sport. That much was clear by the size of his gallery, even when he was never in weekend contention. But every star needs a foil, and no one plays that role like Mickelson.
Mickelson had history in his grasp three years ago at Winged Foot, when Woods father died and he sat out two months, returning at the U.S. Open only to miss the cut for the first time in a major. Mickelson had a chance to win his third straight major until throwing it away with a double bogey on the last hole. He has not contended for a major since.
Woods is on the rebound again, this time for health reasons.
Mickelson is hitting his stride.
Golf was without its biggest star for eight months. Now it has two of them back.
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.”