Renewed inspiration has a healthy Tiger on right track

By Damon HackDecember 13, 2016, 3:33 pm

Tiger Woods was sizing up a five-foot par putt in the Bahamas two weeks ago when a small woman in a beige sun hat leaned in for a closer look.

She had followed Woods countless times, but she remained interested in the 40-year-old’s every step.

As soon as Woods struck the ball, she broke the silence.

“In,” Tida Woods, Tiger’s mother, said before the ball dropped into the hole. She turned away and disappeared back into the Bahamian gallery.

All throughout the week at the Hero World Challenge, there were echoes of a time gone by. The greatest player of his generation, raised from the crib to be a champion, broke a 466-day leave of absence with his most emphatic flourishes since he was the game’s No. 1 player three years ago.

The week was tantalizing, rife with rust and double bogeys but also more birdies than anyone. (“Only Tiger Woods could take a year and a half off and put up the numbers he’s putting up,” said the eventual Hero champion, Hideki Matsuyama.)

Woods was far more than a surgically-repaired legend playing out the string. He was a confident shot-maker spinning clubs and turning heads. He was at ease throughout the week, cracking jokes with Patrick Reed, poking fun with reporters (and at himself about his world ranking, which shot up 248 spots, to 650, after the tournament.)

What it means for his final act, however, remains murky, no matter how powerful the nostalgia.

The PGA Tour is overflowing with youngsters who crave the power game and long gym session that Woods once did.

By his own admission, Woods can no longer beat balls for hours on end, nor can he log 30 miles of runs in a week.

But he does have new motivation beyond the resumption of major championship glory.

One Woods confidant in the Bahamas said Woods’s children – who were too young to enjoy his dominant years - are his primary inspiration these days.

Woods also has the perspective that comes with age, accomplishment and defeat, both on and off the course. Through long stretches of doubt, he has rebuilt a body, a golf game and a life.

“I can’t imagine from where he was in the early 2000s, arguably the best to ever play the game, to having to deal with struggle,” said Rickie Fowler, a frequent practice partner of Woods in Jupiter, Fla. “Not being able to put the same move on the ball and hit the same shots he’s used to seeing, and to be patient and go through that whole process and wait until he was ready to make that progress in the last few months. It’s not surprising, but it’s impressive.”

The significance of a 15th place finish in a field of 17 players (many of them counting down the days to Christmas) is unclear, but many of Woods’s peers saw a turning point in his career in the Bahamas.

One year ago at the same venue, he moved stiffly around the golf course, going through his hosting duties while wondering out loud if he would ever play again.

His comeback included months of tiny, tedious repetitive movements to strengthen a back that had been operated on three times.

At the Ryder Cup, after a week of hugs and chest bumps, he postponed a long-awaited comeback at the Safeway Open in October, when he described his game as “vulnerable.”

To some, it was stunning choice of words, an admission of fragility from the player once considered the most mentally tough.

“Napa, as interesting as that was, a nick in the armor, ‘I’m not ready to do this in front of people,’ he’s now shown that he didn’t really care what anybody else was going to think,” Jordan Spieth said. “He wanted to make sure that he was going to come back and be as confident as possible.”

Said Woods: “I wanted to have a more well-rounded game. I just felt like, ‘What’s the point?’ My competitive juices said ‘You can pull this off,’ but why pull it off instead of being more ready? I think I did the right thing.”

Upon his return, Woods showed bursts of the old brilliance, in particular a bogey-free round of 65 in the second round punctuated by par saves reminiscent of his game at its height.

And though he is more than three years removed from his last win – and nearly nine from his last major – he has a new incentive that could boost him.

“Golfers play for different reasons in their 20s, 30s and 40s and these changes are developmentally predetermined,” said Dr. Gio Valiante, the sports psychologist and author who once interviewed 100 golfers for a study in 2002 on golfers and inspiration. “Jack Nicklaus said the hardest thing is finding motivation over a long career.”

In 2002, at age 26, Woods had finished off a run of seven major titles in 11 starts.

“In his 20s, Tiger’s motivation was to see how good he could be, to actualize his talent,” Valiante said. “In the 30s, it shifted during the dark years. It went from mastery to ego. ‘I want to beat that guy.’ His demise was preceded by a loss of motivation. When motivation left him, so did his ability to be great.”

But Valiante sees another shift in motivation for Woods now, just as Jay Haas found a spark in his own game as his son, Bill, neared the PGA Tour, or Mark O’Meara, a practice partner and father figure to Woods, raised his level to win two majors in 1998 at age 41.

“You can have high desire, but if it’s for the wrong reasons, that leads to bad outcomes,” Valiante said. “Wanting your kids to see you be great is a natural and healthy source of motivation.”

Woods beams at the mention of his children, Sam and Charlie, the latter of who finished tied for second in a junior golf tournament in West Palm Beach, Fla., in June.

In the Bahamas, Woods told the story of the two Scotty Cameron putters he doesn’t allow 7-year-old Charlie to touch. The clubs combined to win 14 majors.

“Touch any other putter, do anything you want with any other putter,” Woods said. “These putters are off-limits. These two, Daddy only.”

A renewed drive alone won’t bring birdies or good health, but victory seems farfetched without it.

Woods left the Hero World Challenge in a better place than he arrived. He knows there are those who believe he will win more majors and others who say he is finished.

“It’s noise and you block out the noise,” Woods said. “My job is to go out and execute and win golf tournaments.”

It sounded so familiar, one last reverberation, with a legend trying to keep his hold on the game for just a bit longer.

Luke List, Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood and Tiger Woods at the 2018 Honda Classic Getty Images

Honda leaders face daunting final day

By Randall MellFebruary 25, 2018, 12:46 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The winner may need a cut man in his corner more than he needs a caddie on his bag in Sunday’s finish to the Honda Classic.

Smelling salts might come in handy, too.

“It just feels like you are getting punched in the face every single hole here,” Daniel Berger said of the test PGA National’s Champion Course offers. “Every single shot is so hard.”

Final rounds have been especially rough and tumble since the Honda Classic moved to PGA National in 2007.

That usually makes Sundays here as much about who can figuratively take a punch as who can throw one.

Luke List will have his jaw tested after taking sole possession of the lead Saturday with a second consecutive round of 4-under-par 66, but he can take comfort in the fact that punishment is doled plentifully around here.

“Just realizing that everyone is facing the same obstacles out there is huge,” List said. “You're not alone out there, if you make a bogey or a bad swing here or there.”

At 7-under 203, List is one shot ahead of a pair of major championship winners, Justin Thomas (65) and Webb Simpson (66). He is two ahead of Tommy Fleetwood (67), the reigning European Tour Player of the Year, and Jamie Lovemark (68).

List, 33, is seeking his first PGA Tour title in his 104th start. He will have to hold off some heavyweights, including Tiger Woods (69), who is seven shots back but feeling like he has a chance again. Woods closed with a 62 here six years ago when he finished second to Rory McIlroy.

“You never know what can happen the last few holes here,” Woods said. “A lot of things can happen and have happened in the past.”


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Crazy things have happened here.

Three years ago, Padraig Harrington was five shots down with eight holes to play and won. He made two double bogeys in the final round but ended up beating Berger in a playoff.

Berger, by the way, was nine shots back entering the final round.

That was the year Ian Poulter took a share of lead into Sunday, hit five balls in the water and still finished just a shot out of the playoff.

Last year, Rickie Fowler made four bogeys and a double bogey in the final round and still won by four shots.

List will have a heavyweight playing alongside him in the final pairing, with 24-year-old Justin Thomas looking to claim his eighth PGA Tour title. Thomas was last season’s PGA Tour Player of the Year.

List has never held a 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour event.

“You guys build up certain players,” List said. “I know I'll be an underdog going against Justin Thomas and guys like that, which is fine.”

There is some inspiration for List in what Ted Potter Jr. did two weeks at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Potter, largely unknown even though he already had a PGA Tour title to his credit, held off stars Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day in the final round to win. 

Thomas earned the right to play alongside List in the final pairing Sunday with his 65, which equaled the low round of the tournament.

Thomas makes his home in nearby Jupiter and knows the punishment the Champion Course can dish out.

“It's a difficult course,” Thomas said. “If you let it get to you, it can be frustrating, but if you go into it understanding and realizing it's difficult, you just kind of embrace it and deal with it.”

Thomas played the Bear Trap’s trio of daunting holes (Nos. 15-17) in 2 under on Saturday. He birdied the 15th and 17th holes.

Fleetwood got in contention Saturday with a pair of eagles. He’s a four-time European Tour winner.

“I would love to get my first win on the PGA Tour this week,” he said. “It’s just great to be out here. It's great to be playing on courses like this that are such a test of every part of your game.”

Alex Noren, a nine-time European Tour winner, is also seeking his first PGA Tour title. He is three shots back. He lost in a playoff to Day at the Farmers Insurance Open last month.

Though this is just Noren’s second start at the Honda Classic, he knows how wildly momentum can swing on the Champion Course. He shot 65 Saturday after shooting 75 on Friday.

“I’m a few back, but anything can happen,” Noren said.

That’s the theme around here.

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Thomas: Winning hometown Honda would 'mean a lot'

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 24, 2018, 11:53 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas is trying to join Rickie Fowler as a winner of his hometown event.

Thomas will play in the final group alongside Luke List on Sunday at the Honda Classic after matching the low round of the week with a 5-under 65. He is at 6-under 204, one shot back of List.

The reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year is one of several residents of nearby Jupiter. After Fowler won last year, Thomas (who missed the cut) returned to the course to congratulate his neighbor on his fourth Tour title.

“I hope I give him the opportunity or the choice to come back,” Thomas said. “But I’ve got a lot of golf in front of me before I worry about him coming here.”

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More important to Thomas, however, is winning this event, which is played at PGA National, one of the most difficult non-major courses on Tour.

“It would mean a lot,” he said. “It means a lot to win any golf tournament, but it would mean more because of how prestigious this golf tournament is and the list of winners that have won this event, how strong of a field it is, how difficult of a golf course.

“A decent number of my wins have been on easier golf courses, so it would be cool to get it done at a place like this.”

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Woods paired with hotshot rookie Burns at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 24, 2018, 11:38 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rookie Sam Burns will be in the biggest spot of his career Sunday – playing alongside Tiger Woods.

Burns, the reigning Nicklaus Award winner who turned pro after two standout years at LSU, will go off with Woods at 12:45 p.m. at the Honda Classic.

Burns, 20, who earned his Tour card via Q-School, is playing this week on a sponsor exemption, his fourth of the season. He is 13th on the money list this year, after a tie for second two weeks ago in Colombia.

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Burns and Woods are tied for 11th, at even-par 210.

Sunday is an important round for Burns, who can earn a spot into the Valspar Championship with a top-10 finish here.

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List leads Honda; Thomas one back

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 24, 2018, 11:25 pm

Luke List, one of a legion of PGA Tour players who live in Jupiter, just two exits up I-95 from PGA National, shot a 4-under 66 on Saturday to take a one-shot lead after three rounds of the Honda Classic. Here's how things stand going into the final round at PGA National:

Leaderboard: Luke List (-7), Justin Thomas (-6), Webb Simpson (-6), Tommy Fleetwood (-5), Jamie Lovemark (-5), Alex Noren (-4) 

What it means: Leader List has played well this season, with no finish lower than T-26 in six starts. Thomas, of course, is the reigning Player of the Year. The next best pedigree among the leaders belongs to Simpson, winner of the 2012 U.S. Open and three other PGA Tour titles.

Round of the day: Thomas and Noren both shot 5-under 65s. Thomas made two of his six birdies in the Bear Trap (at the par 3s, Nos. holes 15 and17), while Noren played that stretch (15-17) in 1 over. Noren made his hay elsewhere, including an eagle at the last that canceled out his two bogeys.

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Best of the rest: List, Simpson and Kelly Kraft all shot 66.

Biggest disappointment: After an opening 76, Jimmy Walker probably thought he was back on track with a 68 that allowed him to make the cut. Alas, the improvement was temporary, as he ballooned back to a 74 on Saturday.

Shot of the day: Tommy Fleetwood hit a fairway wood from 282 yards to within 8 feet of the cup on the 18th hole. He then made the putt for his second eagle of the day.

Quote of the day: "The course played a fair bit easier with not as much wind." - Thomas

Biggest storyline going into Sunday: List may be in the lead, but most eyes will be on Thomas, a five-time winner last year who has yet to lift a trophy in 2018. And of course, more than a few people will be keeping tabs on Tiger Woods. He'll begin the day seven shots back, trying to channel Tiger of 2012 - when he posted a 62 on Sunday at PGA National (which was good only for a runner-up finish to Rory McIlroy).