Practice partners Rickie, Phil playing for bigger stakes

By Rex HoggardAugust 10, 2014, 1:36 am

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It was during the traditional Tuesday game earlier this year at Augusta National when things began to click for Rickie Fowler.

The 25-year-old had been working with new swing coach Butch Harmon for just four months when he teamed with Phil Mickelson against Jason Dufner and Dustin Johnson. When the match was complete, a reported 2-and-1 triumph for Fowler and Mickelson, the guy in the flat-bill hat had posted nine birdies and an eagle.

It was, according to Fowler’s caddie Joe Skovron, an epiphany for one of the game’s most popular players and sent him down the road to his most consistent season on the PGA Tour.

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On Sunday at the PGA Championship, Fowler and Mickelson will unite again, this time in the day’s penultimate pairing at Valhalla Golf Club.

Fowler carded a 6-under 65 on Saturday to move to within two strokes of front-runner Rory McIlroy and within 18 holes of his fourth consecutive top-5 finish in a major championship.

That he will be vying for his first major championship alongside his regular Tuesday practice round partner will only make the opportunity that much more enjoyable.

“We’re going to have some fun and hopefully (he) and I are going to get things rolling like we do on Tuesdays against the boys,” Fowler said. “We’ll have a good time, that’s for sure.”

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Rory almost channels Tiger with 72nd-hole celebration

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:11 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy’s final putt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational felt awfully familiar.

He rolled in the 25-footer for birdie and wildly pumped his fist, immediately calling to mind Woods’ heroics on Bay Hill’s 18th green.

Three times Woods holed a putt on the final green to win this event by a stroke.

McIlroy was just happy to provide a little extra cushion as the final group played the finishing hole.

“I’ve seen Tiger do that enough times to know what it does,” McIlroy said. “So I just wanted to try and emulate that. I didn’t quite give it the hat toss – I was thinking about doing that. But to be able to create my own little bit of history on the 18th green here is pretty special.”

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DeChambeau comes up short: 'Hat’s off to Rory'

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 12:48 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Amid a leaderboard chock full of big names and major winners, the person that came closest to catching Rory McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational turned out to by Bryson DeChambeau.

While Henrik Stenson faltered and Justin Rose stalled out, it was DeChambeau that gave chase to McIlroy coming down the stretch at Bay Hill. Birdies on Nos. 12 and 13 were followed by an eagle out of the rough on No. 16, which brought him to within one shot of the lead.

But as DeChambeau surveyed his birdie putt from the fringe on the penultimate hole, McIlroy put an effective end to the proceedings with a closing birdie of his own to polish off a round of 64. DeChambeau needed a hole-out eagle on No. 18 to force a playoff, and instead made bogey.

That bogey ultimately didn’t have an effect on the final standings, as DeChambeau finished alone in second place at 15 under, three shots behind McIlroy after shooting a 4-under 68.

“I thought 15 under for sure would win today,” DeChambeau said. “Rory obviously played some incredible golf. I don’t know what he did on the last nine, but it was deep. I know that.”

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DeChambeau will collect $961,000 for his performance this week in Orlando, just $47,000 less than he got for winning the John Deere Classic in July. While he would have preferred to take McIlroy’s spot in the winner’s circle, DeChambeau was pleased with his effort in Sunday’s final pairing as he sets his sights on a return to the Masters.

“For him to shoot 64 in the final round, that’s just, hat’s off to him, literally. I can’t do anything about that,” DeChambeau said. “I played some great golf, had some great up-and-downs, made a couple key putts coming down the stretch, and there’s not really much more I can do about it. My hat’s off to Rory, and he played fantastic.”

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Balky putter leaves Stenson with another close call

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 12:34 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – After missing a short birdie attempt on the 16th green Sunday, Henrik Stenson raised his putter and seemed poised to break it over the top of his head. It’s easy to see, then, where things went wrong for the big Swede during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Stenson started the final round with a one-shot lead, and he appeared ready to turn a number of close calls at Bay Hill into a victory after rolling in birdies on two of his first four holes. But he made just one more birdie the rest of the way and could only watch as Rory McIlroy raced past him to claim victory.

“I got the pace wrong on a couple of putts. Whipped it by on 15 and I left it short on 16,” Stenson said. “They’re very slick and undulated, and when you get the grain slightly wrong, you’re going to look a bit of a fool at times. It’s very shiny around the hole and you’ve got to get the pace right, and I was off on a couple of them.”

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Stenson bogeyed his final hole to finish his second straight round of 1-under 71, this time needing 30 putts. At 13 under, he ended up alone in fourth place, four shots behind McIlroy – the fourth time since 2014 that he has finished T-5 or better in this tournament that he has yet to win.

Despite yet another close call in his hometown event, Stenson opted to view things with a positive slant following a missed cut at the Valspar Championship and with a week off before his final start of Masters prep at the Houston Open.

“I haven’t felt comfortable with my swing and my long shots for quite some time, and it’s starting to come along in the right direction for sure,” Stenson said. “I hit a lot of good shots out there this week, even though maybe the confidence is not as high as some of the shots were. So we’ll keep on working on that. It’s a good time of the year to start playing well.”

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Focus shifts to Augusta as Woods continues to impress

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 12:30 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – On the final question of his final meeting with the media at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tiger Woods offered his shortest and most direct response of the week.

Back when he launched this latest version of his comeback, before the Hero World Challenge in December when his world was filled with more doubt than possibility, could he have envisioned heading down Magnolia Lane carrying as much momentum as he’ll have on his fused back in a couple weeks?

“No,” he said.

That was it, outside of maybe the slightest hint of a grin. But there was also nothing more that needed to be said.

Woods’ bid for a record ninth title at Bay Hill ended when his tee shot on No. 16 bounded over a fence and out of bounds Sunday. His title bid last week at the Valspar Championship lasted two holes longer but eventually arrived at the same conclusion: close, but not quite enough.

But given where Woods stood a few months ago – even a few weeks ago – his Masters preparation has been nothing short of a success.

“If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year, that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments, I would have taken it in a heartbeat,” Woods said.

In three straight starts in the Sunshine State, Woods compiled three top-12 finishes. He nearly broke the Trackman equipment with his driver swing speed, flaunted a transformative short game and stirred memories of years gone by with each shockwave he sent through the galleries.

And yes, that continued in a big way Sunday at Bay Hill as there was about a 45-minute stretch where it seemed like maybe, possibly, Woods might somehow find a way to chase down Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson.

“It was a clinic I thought today, except for two tee balls,” said caddie Joe LaCava. “No. 9 he got away with it, but you know what I mean. It was a clinic ball-striking except for the tee balls at 9 and 16. Other than that, it was great.”

This week Woods officially became the Masters betting favorite in Las Vegas, a statement that would have seemed ludicrous to type in the wake of his missed cut at the Genesis Open just four short weeks ago. At that point his ability to simply tee it up the following week at PGA National was seen as a great coup, and a sign that he might still be able to make a go of it in his latest comeback attempt after so many previous attempts were aborted or derailed by further injury.

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Now here we sit, with his last competitive shot before the Masters in the rear-view mirror, and suddenly the man seems to have all the shots necessary to make a legitimate run at a fifth green jacket.

“I’m looking forward to it. I miss playing there,” Woods said. “I’ve been there for the dinner, and as great as that is, it’s frustrating knowing that I’m, I would have to say, young enough to play the event where some of the other champions are not. And I just have not been able to physically do it, which is difficult.”

It’s a testament to Woods’ rapid ascent that the number of questions he faces about his health and stamina dwindle with each passing round. Seemingly overnight, the focus has shifted back to mental preparedness, shot selection and equipment tweaks he might make in order to nab his first win in nearly five years.

In the span of a few weeks, performances that once seemed on the brink of extinction have become the new normal.

“I don’t want to get too high or too low. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But you’re seeing improvement each week,” LaCava said. “I know you hear that from him, too. But it just seems like he’s getting better and better with his swing and trusting it more, which I think is huge.”

The latest effort came Sunday on a course he knows like few others. Woods realized entering the day that the odds were stacked against him, and as it turns out even his most valiant effort wouldn’t have been enough to keep pace with McIlroy. But when he buried a birdie putt on No. 13 to get within a shot of the lead, his third in the last four holes, a familiar glint returned to his eye as he trudged to the 14th tee.

Realizing the moment, the ever-expanding crowd responded with a “Tiger! Tiger!” chant that enveloped the tee box and caused McIlroy to step back off his birdie putt across the lake on the 11th green. And while his title bid ended in abrupt fashion a couple holes later, it was still a snapshot from a scene that so recently seemed improbable.

For a second straight Sunday, Woods donned his traditional red and black and exceeded expectations. Even, as it turns out, the ones he set for himself.