Dont Take Your Eyes Off Phil

By Brian HewittApril 4, 2007, 4:00 pm
Tiger Woods is the player you have to watch this week at Augusta National where he will attempt to win his fifth Masters Tournament and third straight major championship. But Phil Mickelson will be the player you wont be able to take your eyes off of.
 
To be sure, Mickelson can be as unconventional and unorthodox as the previous sentence of this column'it ended with two prepositions. To be double sure, Mickelson is, after all, a lefty.
 
Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson works on his shorts game Tuesday. (WireImage)
And he will have two drivers in his bag when his attempted defense of this title begins Thursday morning. One of them will have a square shaped head. Similarly, he put two drivers into play last year at Augusta where his final-round 69 held off Tim Clark by two shots for Mickelsons second Masters triumph in three years.
 
When I need distance, I use the square one, Mickelson explained this week. And when I try to hit little low shots or work it around the trees on 10 or 13, Ill use the regular-shaped driver.
 
Mickelson has been drilling down on this years Masters ever since his arrival at the golf course last Thursday. By comparison, Woods didnt get to Augusta National until Sunday and that was the earliest ever for him. Typically at major championships, Mickelson shows up hours before his tee time and spends an inordinate amount of time on the putting green.
 
Most players will tell you that major championships are mental endurance contests; that they only have so much mental gas in their tanks for a 72-hole event. And they will shake their heads at the way Mickelson goes about his business at the big stages.
 
Ive been out here a little bit practicing, Mickelson allowed Tuesday. Which was like Hillary Clinton saying she had been doing a little campaigning.
 
This is the same Phil Mickelson who told us he was an idiot after ruining what was supposed to be a perfectly good and unspoiled walk up the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot last June. Several bad decisions later he wound up with double-bogey when a simple par would have won the championship.
 
He is not an idiot. He is a bright guy with a high golf intelligence quota. But he is flawed in at least two ways that Woods is not and both involve decision making: Mickelson is prone to being stubborn at the wrong times. And he is subject to being a victim of his own immense talent and vivid imagination.
 
In short, even though he can navigate his way around the worlds hardest golf courses in ways that would make a rear admiral proud, he doesnt always play the percentages.
 
And now it is time to find out if the collateral emotional fallout from Winged Foot has left permanent mental scars. Mickelson followed Winged Foot with indifferent golf the remainder of 2006. Notably uninspired was his play at the Open Championship, the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.
 
Ive had to overcome tough losses in the past, he maintains. None, however, of the magnitude of Winged Foot.
 
Now Mickelson is back at a place where, it appears, he was born to succeed. Mickelsons record in the last eight Masters shows eight straight top-10s. Yes, he won earlier this year at the AT&T National Pro-Am. But Mickelson wont have earned a full clean bill of health from Winged Foot until he plays well at Augusta.
 
That having been said, it will be surprising to me if Mickelson doesnt finish in the top 5 this week and not surprising at all if he wins his third Masters.
 
Unlike the opportunistic Nick Faldo who played in 23 Masters with only three top-10s, Mickelson is money in the bank when he gets down among the dogwoods and azaleas. Faldo won all three times he got close and thats all credit to him. Mickelson is always close.
 
Im not really thinking about the U.S. Open as much as Im trying to defend my Masters championship, Mickelson said bravely in his pre-tournament press conference.
 
By early Sunday evening we will know for sure whether this was just so much whistling past the golf graveyard or whether Mickelson really has put Winged Foot behind him. Meanwhile, we will be watching his every step.
 
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    Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda

    By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:40 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Consider it a sign of the times that Tiger Woods was ecstatic about an even-par score Thursday at the Honda Classic.

    It was by far his most impressive round in this nascent comeback.

    Playing in a steady 20-mph wind, Woods was better in all facets of the game Thursday at PGA National. Better off the tee. Better with his irons. And better on and around the “scratchy” greens.

    He hung tough to shoot 70 – four shots better than his playing partner, Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season and the current FedExCup leader – and afterward Woods said that it was a “very positive” day and that he was “very solid.”

    It’s a small sample size, of course – seven rounds – but Woods didn’t hesitate in declaring this “easily” his best ball-striking round of the year.

    And indeed it was, even if the stats don’t jump off the page.

    Officially, he hit only seven of 14 fairways and just 10 greens, but some of those misses off the tee were a few paces into the rough, and some of those iron shots finished just off the edge of the green.

    The more telling stat was this: His proximity to the hole (28 feet) was more than an 11-foot improvement over his first two starts this year. And also this: He was 11th among the early starters in strokes gained-tee to green, which measures a player’s all-around ball-striking. Last week, at Riviera, he ranked 121st.

    “I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knockdown shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways, and occasionally downwind, straight up in the air.

    “I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”

    The Champion Course here at PGA National is the kind of course that magnifies misses and exposes a player if he’s slightly off with his game. There is water on 15 of the 18 holes, and there are countless bunkers, and it’s almost always – as it was Thursday – played in a one- or two-club wind. Even though it’s played a half hour from Woods’ compound in Hobe Sound, the Honda wasn’t thought to be an ideal tune-up for Woods’ rebuilt game.

    But maybe this was just what he needed. He had to hit every conceivable shot Thursday, to shape it both ways, high and low, and he executed nearly every one of them.

    The only hole he butchered was the par-5 third. With 165 yards for his third shot, he tried to draw a 6-iron into a stiff wind. He turned it over a touch too much, and it dropped into the bunker. He hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot, but it got caught in the overseeded rye grass around the green and stayed short. He chipped to 3 feet and then was blown off-balance by a wind gust. Double.


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    But what pleased Woods most was what he did next. Steaming from those unforced errors, he was between a 2- and 3-iron off the tee. He wanted to leave himself a 60-degree wedge for his approach into the short fourth hole, but a full 2-iron would have put him too close to the green.

    So he took a little off and “threw it up in the air” – 292 yards.

    “That felt really good,” Woods said, smiling. And so did the 6-footer that dropped for a bounce-back birdie.

    "I feel like I'm really not that far away," he said. 

    To illustrate just how much Woods’ game has evolved in seven rounds, consider this perspective from Brandt Snedeker.

    They played together at Torrey Pines, where Woods somehow made the cut despite driving it all over the map. In the third round, Woods scraped together a 70 while Snedeker turned in a 74, and afterward Snedeker said that Woods’ short game was “probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”

    A month later, Snedeker saw significant changes. Woods’ short game is still tidy, but he said that his iron play is vastly improved, and it needed to be, given the challenging conditions in the first round.

    “He controlled his ball flight really well and hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey, because he was rusty,” said Snedeker, who shot 74. “So it was cool to see him flight the ball and hit some little cut shots and some little three-quarter shots and do stuff I’m accustomed to see him doing.”

    Conditions are expected to only get more difficult, more wind-whipped and more burned out, which is why the winning score here has been single-digits under par four of the past five years.

    But Woods checked an important box Thursday, hitting the shots that were required in the most difficult conditions he has faced so far.

    Said Snedeker: “I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”

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    Players honor victims of Parkland school shooting

    By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:36 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA Tour players are honoring the victims in the Parkland school shooting by wearing ribbons on their hats and shirts.

    Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located about 45 miles from PGA National, site of this week’s Honda Classic.

    “It’s awful what happened, and anytime the Tour can support in any way a tragedy, we’re always going to be for it,” Justin Thomas said. “Anytime there’s a ribbon on the tees for whatever it may be, you’ll see most, if not all the guys wearing it. Something as simple and easy as this, it’s the least we could do.”


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    The school shooting in Parkland, which claimed 17 lives, is the second-deadliest at a U.S. public school.

    Tiger Woods, who lives in South Florida, offered this: “It’s just a shame what people are doing now, and all the countless lives that we’ve lost for absolutely no reason at all. It’s just a shame, and what they have to deal with, at such a young age, the horrible tragedy they are going to have to live with and some of the things they’ve seen just don’t go away.”

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    Thomas' game on track for Masters

    By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 8:22 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas likes where his game is trending.

    He said that on the eve of the Honda Classic.

    With the Masters just six weeks away, that’s where trends are aimed as the Florida swing makes its start.

    Thomas made another encouraging move Thursday to get his game ready for a chance at winning back-to-back major championships.

    A 3-under-par 67 moved him a shot off the lead in the first round at PGA National’s Champion Course.

    Thomas, who won five times on his way to winning PGA Tour Player of the Year honors last season, is feeling something special brewing as he seeks to claim his first title of this calendar year.

    “I've been playing well all year,” Thomas said. “Just haven't had much to show for it. I feel like I'm close to reeling off a couple tournaments here. I just need to stay patient.”

    Thomas put together a strong start playing in a pairing in front of Tiger Woods, a spot that comes with challenges, with galleries on the move setting up to watch Woods.

    Thomas, who played with fans causing problems at Riviera last week, said galleries weren’t an issue.

    The Honda Classic isn’t a major, but it looks like it will present the sternest test of the year so far.

    The Champion Course is always a brute, but it sets up as a particularly grueling test this year, with Florida’s winter winds blowing briskly right from Thursday morning’s start.

    “It was a very tough day out there, very windy, tough crosswinds,” Thomas said. “I was a little bummed to see that the weather showed a little bit more wind in the morning than the afternoom.”


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    The course is also playing firmer and faster than it typically does.

    Thomas, 24, confirmed how solid his ball striking is in a round of six birdies and three bogeys.

    “The players know it's a tough golf course,” Jack Nicklaus said earlier this week. “It's going to be a handfull this week, with a dry golf course. This golf course plays much more difficult when it's dry ... and it's a little breezy.

    “You're going to see some very interesting rounds. You might hear a couple complaints.”

    Not from Thomas, who lives in nearby Jupiter.

    “Any time you're even or better on this course, on a day like today, was definitely positive,” he said.

    Thomas’ 67 is confirmation his game is shaping up for the test at Augusta National, where he will be looking to add a green jacket to the Wanamaker Trophy he won at the PGA Championship last August.

    “I love where my game is trending for Augusta,” Thomas said Wednesday. ”I feel like I'm getting, just very, very slowly, better every week ... I'm improving on the things I need to improve on.”

    A victory would be the ultimate confirmation he’s getting major championship ready.

    “I'd like to have a chance to win one of these next three events before Augusta,” he said.

    Thomas is coming off a tie for ninth at the Genesis Open last week. He was T-17 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open before that and T-14 at the Sony Open before that.

    Thursday’s round heated up with Thomas making four birdies in the middle of the round. He chipped in for birdie at the seventh (his 16th hole of the day) to get to 4 under before making bogey at the difficult 17th, where he just missed the green short playing into the wind and left his chip 20 feet short.

    “I hit probably one of my better shots in the Bear Trap, that just ended up in a horrible lie,” he said.

    Thomas headed home eager to keep his promising trend going.

    “It's definitely a little better feeling going to sleep and waking up in your own bed,” Thomas said.

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    Hoffmann's goal: Use golf to cure muscular dystrophy

    By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 7:17 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Morgan Hoffmann sees more opportunities on a leaderboard than ever before.

    His run into early contention at the Honda Classic Thursday gives him more than a chance to win a trophy and a big check.

    He sees it as a chance to change more than his life.

    Hoffmann has muscular dystrophy.

    He shared that news with the world at the end of last year in a heart-rendering fashion.

    “Today I know that am so damn lucky,” he wrote about his opportunities as a PGA Tour pro in a first-person story for The Players’ Tribune in December. “Because I’ve found my calling, and it’s one far beyond golf.”

    With a 3-under-par 67 at PGA National’s Champion Course, Hoffmann moved into contention to win his first PGA Tour title. He also moved into position to advance his cause.

    “Hopefully find a cure,” Hoffmann, 28, said after a round of four birdies and a bogey left him a shot off the lead.

    Hoffmann believes that is why he was put on this earth.

    “So that when a child is diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, there will be a cure,” he says.

    Hoffmann has to overcome some physical challenges to keep playing, and he has been struggling with his game this year, but he says that is more about the dynamics of the swing than the disease. He arrived at the Honda Classic off five consecutive missed cuts and a first-round withdrawal from last week’s Genesis Open.


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    “I've lost a lot of speed in my swing, but my swing is still there,” Hoffman said. “I'm on plane. It's not like it's really killing my golf game. This isn't the reason for the last missed cuts. I've been working on a lot of things.”

    Hoffman’s type of MD causes degeneration of muscles in the chest, back, neck, arms and sometimes the legs. He has particularly struggled with his pectoral muscles.

    With a special diet, he’s attacking his issues. And with the help of his team of family and friends, he’s fighting for the larger cause. He’s aiming to build a wellness center, a kind of health superstore. He’s planning an inaugural fundraising pro-am Aug. 20 in Paramus, N.J.

    Hoffmann was shaken by the blow when a doctor delivered the diagnosis in 2016, but his attitude since has been inspiring.

    “The doctor wasn't nice,” Hoffman said. “He was like, `Yeah, you have it.’ I went, `Well, all right, I'm speechless . . . What can I do?’ He's like, `There's no cure,’ and he basically hung up. I was pretty pissed off.”

    But Hoffman came out of that quickly. He’s excited about the doctor he’s working with today and the health and wellness plan he is following.

    “I could become a recluse and feel bad for myself, but what's that going to do?” he said. “I love being out here, and I love playing on the PGA Tour, and that's my dream. To help people, ultimately, is my goal. I think I can do really special things with this platform.”