Tiger's 40s full of questions and uncertainty

By Damon HackDecember 30, 2015, 1:00 pm

His 40s were always going to be a little complicated. 

For so long Tiger Woods seemed destined to arrive at his milestone birthday with more than 20 major championships and chasing 100 PGA Tour wins, and the biggest question would have been, how will he stay motivated in a record book of one?

That was his trajectory when he gutted his way to a 14th major on a postcard pretty Monday at Torrey Pines in 2008, back when Tiger was still picking off a major a season, back when his golden years looked like they would be one long standing ovation, a whistle-stop tour through the schedule. 

Maybe he'd get a surfboard in San Diego. Jack might gift him with a lifetime supply of Memorial milkshakes. Arnie? He'd just bust Tiger's chops with a rocking chair at Bay Hill.

You could easily picture it because that's where this story was going – until Thanksgiving 2009 changed everything, and the greatest player of his generation became fodder for the New York Post. 

Many observers thought he would never recover from that dark episode, but he emerged from the bottom rung of tabloid hell to win three times in 2012, five times in 2013 and reclaim the world No. 1 ranking with a third swing coach. When he won the ’13 Players by carving shots through Pete Dye's labyrinth, he spiked the football in the face of his doubters, and it all felt so right. 

"I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done," Woods said in that post-victory press conference. "But I'm not."

Could major No. 15 have been that far behind?

Instead, we were given the vision of Woods crumbling to his knees at that year's Barclays, followed by two more years of fits and starts, three back surgeries, and an unspecified number of skulled chips. Then came his unexpected pronouncements at his Hero World Challenge earlier this month that he had no timetable for a return to the PGA Tour and that anything accomplished in golf henceforth would be “gravy.”

Those were the sound bites played over and over, plus nuggets from a revealing Q & A in Time Magazine that showed Tiger in a way few had ever seen.

"He's matured from a 20-year-old that was thrown into the spotlight into a 40-year-old who's learned from the good, the bad and the ugly – all of it," says his long-time friend, John Cook. "He's looking at the big picture now. 'What are the next 10 years of my life going to look like?'"

We thought we had a pretty good idea. Tiger would put miles between himself and Jack, joust with this young wave of players who grew up in his image, and ride off into a Scottish sunset, just like the greats before him.

What now? Doubt, is what. With Tiger, 40 isn't the new 30. It's just 40, or maybe older. It's surgically repaired. It's nearly eight years removed from a major and six from scandal. 

With Tiger, 40 is anybody's guess.

"At 38, 39, 40, Tiger Woods very quickly became the oldest 38-, 39-, 40-year-old in the history of golf," says Brandel Chamblee, who nevertheless calls Tiger the greatest golfer to ever play. "You cannot name me another player in the history of the game that has sustained the injuries Tiger Woods has sustained. Then you add the cost of the technical change, the changes to his swing. And when you throw into the mix that he completely lost his short game, it is the trifecta, the perfect storm."

But what about 59-year-old Tom Watson, a survivor of the putting yips, nearly winning the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry? Or 54-year-old Greg Norman, star crossed in the majors, taking a lead into Sunday at Royal Birkdale the previous summer? Or 51-year-old Davis Love III winning at Greensboro last season, just 2 1/2 years after neck surgery? Can't Tiger – more accomplished than all three – find his way back to winning? Can't he have his Jack-in-1986-Masters moment, or even a few of them?

"If he comes back – and I hope he does because there is nothing like watching Tiger Woods play golf – it will be the greatest comeback story in the history of golf, and maybe sports, because no other athlete had risen so high and fallen so low," Chamblee says.

Love, though, doesn't see a comeback as farfetched, if Tiger's body will allow it. He sees a gifted player robbed of the reps required to compete at the highest level. 

"If he comes out and plays, that means he's healthy, and if he can play a whole season, then he can get his game back," Love says. "I don't think you're going to do it playing once a month and then getting hurt again, like he's been doing for four years. You can't be sharp unless you play. It doesn't matter how good you've been in the past, you've got to play. You have to have confidence and you have to do it enough where you screw up some and build on it. He hasn't had a chance to build on anything for a long, long time. If his back gets good, if anybody can play for a long time, it's him because he is so strong."

Golf would be lucky to have Tiger grinding in his 40s because nobody generates the same electricity, even now.

But there are other sentiments, of course. Turn the page to the ascendant 20somethings. Leave him be, he's given enough. Be thankful we had the high because the game never had it so good, with the fate of Wall Street seeming to rise with every Tiger win, with golfers suddenly the kids at the cool table.

Tiger built the modern golf industry, fueling global commerce as a one-man stimulus package. Equipment, instruction, fashion, charity, architecture, media, all benefitted wildly from the Woods machine (to say nothing of skyrocketing Tour purses). 

But that's why it is difficult to fathom that Tiger may have won his last major at 32, an age before Ben Hogan and Phil Mickelson won their first. Tiger was supposed to rule the world for as long as he wanted.

"I'm pissed that he doesn't have 25 majors," says Rocco Mediate, the last man Tiger vanquished in a major,

We are brutal on our sports heroes, incredulous when they lose speed on their fastballs or lift on their jump shots or start showing nerves on and around the greens. Their frailties are reminders of our own. 

To see Tiger in the Bahamas, moving slowly around a practice green with his peers, was a vision few could have predicted during the go-go years. 

But if you looked closely enough during the Hero, you also saw a more relaxed Tiger, free from expectations, free from tee times and gym work, free to ride around in a golf cart with his children, dishing out love and discipline.

"He understands that part of his life, how fulfilling it is, the connection, what it means to the kids and your own self-being," Cook says.

Who is Tiger Woods at 40? What a big question. He's a legend hoping for a few more sunsets, sure, but also a single dad with a bad back and one heck of a story to tell.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

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.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

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.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

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.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

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.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.