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.
Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long
Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.
Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.
"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"
The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.
Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.
"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."
Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.
"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.
"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.
"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."
Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA
Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.
Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.
Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.
With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.
“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”
Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.
Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday:
"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."
Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return
Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.
Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.
Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.
Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.
“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.
As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar
Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.
With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.
That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.
That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.
And that’s a magic word in golf.
There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.
Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.
The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.
Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.
A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.
The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.
Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.
For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.
The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.
The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.
“It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida. “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’
“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”
And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.
“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”
The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.
Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.
The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.
Parity was the story this year.
Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.
Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.
The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.
The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.
“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”
If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.
Parity was the theme from the year’s start.
There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.
This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.
Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.
Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.
She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.
The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.