Tiger the Masters Favorite But Not the Lock
If there wasnt the little matter of having to play the back nine on Sunday, we might as well name Woods the Masters champ and take the week off. But theres the business of having to play all 72 before they award the jacket. And surprises have happened since he won by an incredible 12 strokes in 1997, his rookie year.
Last year, it was a matter of two bad holes the first day. A double bogey on 10 and a triple on 12 sent him spiraling to a first-round 75, and he never could recover. It was the only major to elude him. Putting killed him in 1999 ' I just didnt give myself a lot of opportunities, he said. He shot 40 on the front nine Sunday. In 1998 he was busy revamping the swing that had won by such an awesome number in 1997.
If not Tiger, who surely is the favorite here, then who?
Well, somebody else has been able to do it the last three years. Last year it was Vijay Singh, and he has that face on again. He may finally have mastered the final piece of the Masters puzzle.
Singh appears to have finally made his peace with the greens of Augusta. No, no one ever gets comfortable with them. But he won last year by making all the putts he had to make on Sunday. He didnt do anything stupid on the greens, which is exactly what he needed to do, said his caddy at the time, Dave Renwick.
Singh is obviously playing well. He has two wins in the Far East this year. He finished second at L.A. in the Nissan, tied for third in the Genuity at Doral, tied for fourth at Bay Hill and was second at the Players in his last four starts. One faulty swing was all it took to doom him at Ponte Vedra Beach. He splashed down in the lake at 14 Sunday, and it was a mistake from which Tiger never let him recover.
Putting used to be his shaky statistic, but he has rolled it beautifully this year, standing third in that category. And no one, not even Woods, has birdied the par-5s with such regularity as Singh has this year. He stands No. 1 on the PGA Tour, and the par-5s are critical at Augusta. Both back-nine par-5s are completely fronted by water, so the price is severe if you go for it in two and come up short. That can be huge come Sunday afternoon.
Phil Mickelson has this thing going for him: he is absolutely fearless. Of course, he has a lot of golf shots in his bag, too. He won a playoff at the Buick Invitational, finished second to Woods at Bay Hill and tied for third at AT&T.
But Mickelson has had his down moments, too. He finished in a tie for 28th in a small field at the Mercedes and missed the cut at Phoenix and Nissan. He tied for 33rd at the Players Championship. But he has no bad statistics. Somewhat of a streaky player, if the streak happens to be on, watch out!
Mickelson has finished in the top 12 at Augusta the last five years, except for a missed cut in 1997. Hes finished in a tie for sixth and a tie for seventh the last two years. He never has played in the final group with Tiger when they both had a chance to win, but in head-to-head battles, Mickelson has won a couple of times. It should really be enlightening should they be the ones competing for the jacket Sunday.
Davis Love III is an interesting study. Hes had some impressive Masters in the not-to-distant past ' second in 1999, ties for seventh place in 96 and 97, a second in 95. He finished in the top-10 in five of seven tournaments this year, including a win at the AT&T and a playoff loss at the Buick Invitational. And he is the low scorer on Tour this year.
Negatives? He missed the cut at the first big tournament this year, the Players Championship. And he has been a mediocre putter.
Europeans? Jose Maria Olazabal, who has won twice at Augusta and whose balky driver doesnt hurt him nearly as much here as most PGA Tour courses, stands the best chance. Colin Montgomerie, who seems perplexed by these greens, did win the money title in Europe seven years in a row but has never played this course particularly well. Longshots Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn rate a look-see.
One other player merits a mention. David Duval has finished tied for second, tied for sixth and tied for third the last three years. Injuries have beaten him up last year and this year, however. He says the Masters is his sole focus, but he hasnt been able to play enough to be in top shape.
Still, the mind wonders
Full Coverage of the 2001 Masters Tournament
Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.
The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.
Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.
Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.
Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.
Rahm (62) fires career low round
The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:
Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)
What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.
Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.
Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.
Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.
Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.
Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.
Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm
Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder
Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.
Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.
"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."
Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.
Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.
"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."
Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn
There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.
Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.
Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.
Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.
The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.