Woods Eager For Return to Action
But the biggest change was more subtle.
Woods began his pro-am round at the Tour Championship on the 10th tee. He usually is the first one off on the first tee, a perk he has been afforded the last five years. But the first tee was occupied Tuesday by Vijay Singh, who is firmly entrenched at No. 1 in the world.
Then, Woods had to wait for Singh to finish his interview before he could step to the microphone. And once Woods finished talking about his three-week honeymoon on a 150-foot yacht in the Caribbean, he was bombarded with questions about Singh - just like so many other players who for years grew weary talking about Woods.
'He's played some just unbelievable golf this year,' Woods said. 'For him to play as much as he does and still maintain that edge, and as much as he practices, it's pretty impressive to do all that.'
Woods still has eight majors. He is the only professional to hold all four major championship trophies at the same time. He has won more tournaments than anyone else still playing.
But he now is just one of the 31 players at the Tour Championship trying to end his year on a good note. Children still ran after him for his autograph when he arrived at East Lake. He still had more people in his gallery than any other players. If television ratings go up this week, Woods will be the reason.
Still, he now looks like one of the guys - and not just because he's married.
'The fear factor is gone,' one caddie said on the practice range as he watched Woods warm up.
The last time Woods and Singh played together was outside Boston on Labor Day, when the 41-year-old Fijian won a thrilling back-nine duel in the Deutsche Bank Championship to end Woods' five-year reign at No. 1 in the world.
Since then, Woods had a disastrous pairing with Phil Mickelson and another losing record in the Ryder Cup. He barely made it through 72 holes of the American Express Championship with a back injury. And he got married Oct. 5 in Barbados to Swedish nanny Elin Nordegren.
And since becoming No. 1 in the world, Singh has won three times and was runner-up in his other PGA Tour start.
It reminds Woods of the last time someone else was No. 1 in the world - David Duval, who won 11 times in 18 months and became the first man to shoot 59 in the final round of a PGA Tour event.
'Everybody has a run,' Woods said. 'I had one. Duval had one. Johnny Miller, (Jack) Nicklaus, (Tom) Watson, everyone has their run. It's just a matter of how long can you continue. Fortunately for me, I lasted five years.'
The question is how long Singh can keep this up - and whether Woods can come back.
Woods had such a good time in the Caribbean that he skipped Disney for the first time since turning pro, and he nearly called it a year by not playing in the Tour Championship.
Let's see - he's on a private yacht with his Swedish bride, with no one to bother him but the U.S. Coast Guard. Why even bother coming back for one tournament?
'Trust me,' Woods said with a big grin. 'That thought went through my head a lot of times.'
Eventually, the honeymoon has to end.
'I miss competing,' Woods said. 'That's what I love to do.'
He hasn't been shown much love in return.
Woods' only victory this year is the Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa at the end of February. His drought in the majors is 10 and counting. He is No. 3 in the world ranking, No. 4 on the money list.
But even on the open sea, Woods still found room for golf.
'When I was on the boat, I was actually thinking about my game quite a bit and organizing my 'To Do' list - what causes what in the golf swing, and basically prioritizing what I needed to work on,' Woods said.
He thought his game was close before he got married.
Woods was runner-up at Firestone to Stewart Cink. He was runner-up to Singh at Deutsche Bank. He was going for his third straight title in the American Express Championship until injuring his back.
'I was so excited when I got over there, and then I couldn't move,' Woods said. 'I thought that the way I played in finishing ninth there, with limited ability to play the game, I thought I had a chance to come back and do some pretty good things.'
Woods has been saying all year his game is close, and not many believed him. Count Masters champion Phil Mickelson among those who do. Lefty came off his worst year on tour by winning his first major and coming within five shots of winning all four of them.
'I got re-motivated, excited about working hard, came out and had a wonderful year,' Mickelson said. 'And I think that Tiger is going to do the same thing. I expect him to be the dominant force that he's been in the past.'
This being the present, about all Woods can do at East Lake is end a weak year on a strong note.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile
Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.
The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from a trip to Augusta.
He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).
Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.
Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.
Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.
Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.
The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.
McIlroy gets back on track
There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:
He is well ahead of schedule.
Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.
“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”
To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”
And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.
After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out.
Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.
“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”
The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.
The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)
But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.
Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.
Everything in his life is lined up.
Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.
Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.
There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.
Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.
The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.
Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.
It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.
Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.
While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.