Punch Shot: Who most needs to win World Challenge?

The Northwestern Mutual World Challenge is this week. It's an unofficial Tour event, but world ranking points count and, as host Tiger Woods showed by winning in 2011, a victory this week could lead to greater things next season. With that in mind, GolfChannel.com writers offer up who most needs a win at Sherwood Country Club.


By RANDALL MELL

Jim Furyk could use the boost that comes from beating a small but talented field in Tiger's event. While Furyk has enjoyed an excellent career, the near misses in the last couple of years have to be aggravating. The failed chances to close can't sit well with this proud champion.

With the PGA Tour reviewing its Hall of Fame criteria, you have to wonder where Furyk will stand in future consideration with 16 PGA Tour titles that include one major. An unofficial win this week just might help Furyk gain the momentum he needs to make a final push to finish off a Hall of Fame career with another major next year. 


By REX HOGGARD

Maybe this was always going to be Bubba Watson’s modus operandi. Either by design or DNA, the big left-hander doesn’t scream consistency, but following his maiden major in 2012 the masses expected more.

More than just three top-10 finishes in 21 starts this season; more than just one legitimate chance at victory at the Travelers Championship, which was spoiled by closing rounds of 70 and a heated exchange with his caddie; more than a 37th-place finish on the final FedEx Cup point list and a playoff run that ended at the BMW Championship.

A victory this week at the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge wouldn’t turn an underwhelming season into something worth celebrating, but it would make the normal winter break a little more cheerful.

Nor would a victory this week be entirely out of character for Watson, who has finished inside the top 10 in his last two starts at Tiger Woods’ invitational (T-9 in 2012 and T-6 in ’11), and he began his 2013-14 campaign with a tie for eighth at the WGC-HSBC Champions.

More than any of the other 17 world-class players assembled this week at Sherwood, Watson needs a victory, be it official or otherwise, to give him something to remember from what was a forgettable season.


By RYAN LAVNER

His performance in Australia passed the eyeball test, but another victory would confirm that he is truly back (or close) to the player who ruled 2012. A streaky talent, Rory McIlroy has the chance to rewrite expectations for 2014 if he can rattle off back-to-back wins, this time against 17 of the top 30 players in the world. Unless his game disappears on the 13-hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, he should be freed up after his first win in more than 12 months. Re-watch his winning putt – his exhale afterward told you all you need to know about how much it meant to him. With his swing sorted out (four top-6s in his last five worldwide starts), and with a comfortable driver-and-ball combination, he can return to being the freewheeling player who simply picks a target and makes an aggressive swing. We forgot how beautiful it can be.


By JASON SOBEL

Of the 18 players in this week’s Northwestern Mutual World Challenge field, none of 'em could use a win more than Jim Furyk.

Think about the enormous monkey that Rory McIlroy extracted from his back with that Australian Open victory this past weekend. There’s no denying he needed a title to both gain some confidence and silence the critics. But let’s keep this in mind: McIlroy’s winless drought lasted just over a year, while Furyk’s current streak is more than three times longer.

In the three years and three months since Furyk dually claimed the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup, he has experienced enough heartache and heartbreak for a lifetime. He was in pole position at last year’s U.S. Open with three holes to play … and lost. He was the 54-hole leader at this year’s PGA Championship … and lost. Despite 19 top-10 finishes and more than $8 million in earnings since that rainy afternoon at East Lake Golf Club, he hasn’t claimed any hardware.

With 16 career wins and one major, he’s resting on the fault line of a World Golf Hall of Fame induction someday. But he could certainly use a few more wins to help his case.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that potential candidates for this assignment have been crossing their names off the list in recent weeks. Jason Day broke through with a win in Australia. McIlroy finally got one, too. Maybe now it’s Furyk’s turn.

He won this tournament four years ago, a prelude to the winningest season of his career. Repeating that feat would be the first step to winning more in the future, too.


By WILL GRAY

It’s hard for me to believe there’s much urgency for any player in the 18-man field to win this week’s unofficial – albeit lucrative – event. That being said, the person that might need it the most would be Lee Westwood.

It seems like a decade has passed since the Englishman topped the world rankings, and it’s been 18 months since his last worldwide victory. Westwood has had a solid 2013 campaign, but his year will likely be remembered most for the one that got away – his squandering of a 54-hole lead at the British Open en route to a tie for third. Much like Graeme McDowell used his victory last year at Sherwood to break out of a mini-drought and propel him into a new season that included three worldwide wins, so, too, Westwood could parlay a victory in California into even more success as the calendar flips to 2014.

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.


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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.


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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.


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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”