Punch Shot: Best pro comeback last 20 years

By Golf Channel DigitalSeptember 4, 2013, 1:00 pm

Henrik Stenson returned from golf oblivion to the winner's circle with his victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship. Is that the most impressive professional golf comeback in the last 20 years? The GolfChannel.com team weighs in with their choices.


By REX HOGGARD

Lee Westwood’s ascent from the abyss that had become his career in the early 2000s is rivaled only by the free fall that precipitated his unlikely and inspiring comeback.

On May 13, 2001, the Englishman had secured his spot squarely within the game’s world order at fourth in the world ranking. Two years later, on May 23, 2003, he’d bottomed out at 266th.

Whether it was a mechanics issue or merely a loss of confidence, Westwood failed to post a single top-10 finish on the European Tour in 2002 and ’03 wasn’t shaping up to be any better with missed cuts in six of his first nine starts.

In June 2003, however, he posted his first top-10 finish in a stroke-play event in nearly two years at the European Open and two months later he won the BMW International Open followed by another victory at the Dunhill Links Championship in October.

“I have goals all the time and getting back into the top 100 in the world rankings would be a short-term one. You never know what’s around the corner,” he said on the eve of his Dunhill victory in 2003.

Within a year, he’d climbed back into the top 50 in the world and in 2010 he peaked at No. 1 in the ranking.

Few, if any, in the modern game have endured such a plummet or such a spirited comeback.


By RANDALL MELL

Johnny Miller’s career was finished.

With knee, neck and elbow injuries slowing him while still in his prime in the '80s, it was the dreaded yips that ultimately derailed him. His putting woes became so debilitating after he won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in 1987, he couldn’t really compete anymore. The yips trumped his still majestic ball striking. He was through.

Or, so golf thought.

Surprisingly, in ’94, seven years after what seemed sure to be his last PGA Tour title, five years after he announced he was retiring, Miller won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He wasn’t even a part-time player after stepping away from the Tour in ’89, playing one or two PGA Tour events a year in purely ceremonial fashion. He didn’t even practice that much anymore, but somehow, some way, Miller beat Tom Watson down the stretch to win his 25th and last PGA Tour title. Miller was 46, still battling a hellacious case of the yips, but he beat them and everyone else that week imagining he was a carefree teenager over putts.

That might be the greatest comeback over the last 20 years.


By RYAN LAVNER

Steve Stricker’s comeback was so impressive, he won the PGA Tour’s award for persistence – two years in a row.

It seems unfathomable now, of course, because the semi-retired and supremely steady Stricker can take a month off, finish second and then repeat the process. But there was a stretch in the mid-2000s when his game was in such disarray, he missed 38 of 69 cuts, lost his card, dropped to 337th in the world and failed to qualify for 11 of 12 majors. To emerge from that dark period he beat balls out of a three-sided trailer in Wisconsin.

By 2006, though, he was back to 34th on the money list. That brought the first Comeback Player of the Year award. A year later, he won it again after rising all the way to fourth in earnings, including a victory at The Barclays that snapped a six-year winless drought.

Since then, he’s enjoyed success well into his 40s, playing in seven consecutive team competitions (including this year’s Presidents Cup), pushing his career victory total to 12 and amassing nearly $40 million in earnings. The only missing piece, of course, is a major title. Considering a decade ago his career seemed irretrievably lost, it’s a fair trade-off. 


By JASON SOBEL

There are golf fans who only seriously started watching the game less than a decade ago and never realized that Lee Westwood hasn’t always been among the game’s best players.

He was, of course, for a while, climbing into the world’s top five early in his career. Ten years ago, though, his game had endured such a precipitous drop-off that he fell to 266th – miles from qualifying for majors and WGC events and other noteworthy tournaments.

It is a testament to Westwood’s work ethic and innate talent that in the years since he’s become the game’s greatest recent reclamation project. His second act has proven longer and better than his first.

From Justin Rose to Paul Casey to Henrik Stenson, there have been a number of players who have gone from riches to rags and back to riches again, but none has enjoyed as steep an incline as Westwood, who continues competing at a world-class level a decade after it appeared these days could have been over.


By MERCER BAGGS

Tiger Woods. Players have overcome poor mechanics and lack of confidence, but no one over the last 20 years, perhaps ever in this sport, has battled back from what Woods endured. Embarrassment, public humiliation, the destruction of a carefully crafted image, the demise of his marriage, fodder for tabloids and late-night TV shows. That's not to mention the injuries and the swing change.

A few years ago, we were wondering if Woods would ever win anything again. He dropped outside the OWGR top 50. He needed a captain's pick to make the U.S. Presidents Cup team. He's now a five-time champ in 2013, the clear-cut world No. 1 and a legitimate threat to claim more majors than anyone in golf history.

He's also put his personal life back together. And he's marketable again. It's the greatest professional comeback since Ben Hogan.

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After Further Review: Haas crash strikes a chord

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 19, 2018, 2:39 am

Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.


On the horrifying car crash involving Bill Haas ...

I spent a lot of time this week thinking about Bill Haas. He was the passenger in a car crash that killed a member of his host family. That man, 71-year-old Mark Gibello, was a successful businessman in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and a new friend.

Haas escaped without any major injuries, but he withdrew from the Genesis Open to return home to Greenville, S.C. When he’ll return to the Tour is anyone’s guess. It could be a while, as he grapples with the many emotions after surviving that horrifying crash – seriously, check out the photos – while the man next to him did not.

The entire Haas clan is some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Wish them the best in their recovery. – Ryan Lavner


On TIger Woods' missed cut at the Genesis Open ...

After missing the cut at the Genesis Open by more than a few car lengths, Tiger Woods appeared to take his early exit in stride. Perhaps that in and of itself is a form of progress.

Years ago, a second-round 76 with a tattered back-nine scorecard would have elicited a wide range of emotions. But none of them would have been particularly tempered, or optimistic, looking ahead to his next start. At age 42, though, Woods has finally ceded that a win-or-bust mentality is no longer helpful or productive.

The road back from his latest surgery will be a winding one, mixed with both ups and downs. His return at Torrey Pines qualified as the former, while his trunk slam at Riviera certainly served as the latter. There will surely be more of both in the coming weeks and months, and Woods’ ability to stomach the rough patches could prove pivotal for his long-term prognosis. - Will Gray


On the debate over increased driving distance on the PGA Tour ...

The drumbeat is only going to get louder as the game’s best get longer. On Sunday, Bubba Watson pounded his way to his 10th PGA Tour title at the Genesis Open and the average driving distance continues to climb.

Lost in the debate over driving distances and potential fixes, none of which seem to be simple, is a beacon of sanity, Riviera Country Club’s par-4 10th hole. The 10th played just over 300 yards for the week and yet yielded almost as many bogeys (86) as birdies (87) with a 4.053 stroke average.

That ranks the 10th as the 94th toughest par 4 on Tour this season, ahead of behemoths like the 480-yard first at Waialae and 549-yard 17th at Kapalua. Maybe the game doesn’t need new rules that limit how far the golf ball goes, maybe it just needs better-designed golf holes. - Rex Hoggard


On the depth of LPGA talent coming out of South Korea ...

The South Korean pipeline to the LPGA shows no signs of drying up any time soon. Jin Young Ko, 22, won her LPGA debut as a tour member Sunday at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and Hyejin Choi, 18, nearly won the right to claim LPGA membership there. The former world No. 1 amateur who just turned pro finished second playing on a sponsor exemption. Sung Hyun Park, who shared Rolex Player of the Year honors with So Yeon Ryu last year, is set to make her 2018 debut this week at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And Inbee Park is set to make her return to the LPGA in two weeks at the HSBC Women’s World Championship after missing most of last year due to injury. The LPGA continues to go through South Korea no matter where this tour goes. - Randall Mell

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Bubba Golf takes long road back to winner's circle

By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 1:55 am

LOS ANGELES – Bubba’s back.

It’s been just two years since he hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, but with a mind that moves as fast as Bubba Watson’s, it must have felt like an eternity.

Since his last victory, which was also a shootout at Riviera Country Club in 2016, Watson was passed over for a captain’s pick at the 2016 Ryder Cup, endured a mystery illness, lost his confidence, his desire and the better part of 40 pounds.

He admits that along that ride he considered retirement and wondered if his best days were behind him.

“I was close [to retirement]. My wife was not close,” he conceded. “My wife basically told me to quit whining and play golf. She's a lot tougher than I am.”

What else could he do? With apologies to his University of Georgia education and a growing portfolio of small businesses, Watson was made to be on the golf course, particularly a golf course like Riviera, which is the canvas that brings out Bubba’s best.

In a game that can too often become a monotonous parade of fairways and greens, Watson is a freewheeling iconoclast who thrives on adversity. Where others only see straight lines and one-dimensional options, Bubba embraces the unconventional and the untried.

For a player who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it was a perfectly Bubba moment midway through his final round on Sunday at the Genesis Open. Having stumbled out of the 54-hole lead with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6, Watson pulled his 2-iron tee shot wildly right at the seventh because, “[his playing partners] both went left.”

From an impossible lie in thick rough with his golf ball 2 feet above his feet, Watson’s often-fragile focus zeroed in for one of the week’s most entertaining shots, which landed about 70 feet from the hole and led to a two-putt par.


Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


“His feel for that kind of stuff, you can’t go to the range and practice that. You can’t,” said Watson’s caddie Ted Scott. “Put a ball 2 feet above your feet and then have to hold the face open and then to swing that easy. That’s why I have the best seat in the house. That’s the essence of Bubba golf.”

There were plenty of highlight moments on Sunday for Watson. There were crucial putts at Nos. 11 (birdie), 12 (par) and 13 (par) to break free of what was becoming an increasingly fluid leaderboard, and his chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker at the 14th hole extended his lead to two strokes.

“It was just a bunker shot, no big deal,” smiled Watson, who closed with a 69 for a two-stroke victory over Kevin Na and Tony Finau.

A player that can often appear handcuffed by the most straightforward of shots was at his best at Riviera, withstanding numerous challenges to win the Genesis Open for his 10th PGA Tour title.

That he did so on a frenzied afternoon that featured four different players moving into, however briefly, at last a share of the lead, Watson never appeared rattled. But, of course, we all know that wasn’t the case.

Watson can become famously uncomfortable on the course and isn’t exactly known for his ability to ignore distractions. But Riviera, where he’s now won three times, is akin to competitive Ritalin for Watson.

“[Watson] feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins,” said Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for sixth after moving to within one stroke of the lead early in round. “A lot of guys don't feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30 footer in the center of the green. He ends up making a lot more birdies than a lot of guys.”

It’s the soul of what Scott calls Bubba Golf, which is in simplest terms the most creative form of the game.

Watson can’t explain exactly what Bubba Golf is, but there was a telling moment earlier this week when Aaron Baddeley offered Watson an impromptu putting lesson, which Bubba said was the worst putting lesson he’d ever gotten.

“He goes, ‘how do you hit a fade?’ I said, ‘I aim it right and think fade.’ How do you hit a draw? I aim it left and think draw,” Watson said. “He said, ‘how do you putt?’ I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘well, aim it to the right when it breaks to the left, aim it to the left when it breaks to the right,’ exactly how you imagine your golf ball in the fairway or off the tee, however you imagine it, imagine it that way.”

It’s certain that there’s more going on internally, but when he’s playing his best the sum total of Watson’s game can be simply explained – see ball, hit ball. Anything more complicated than that and he runs the risk of losing what makes him so unique and – when the stars align and a course like Riviera or Augusta National, where he’s won twice, asks the right questions – virtually unbeatable.

That’s a long way from the depths of 2017, when he failed to advance past the second playoff event and dropped outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But then, Watson has covered a lot of ground in his career on his way to 10 Tour victories.

“I never thought I could get there,” he said. “Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let's be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can't putt, you know? Somehow we're here making fun of it.”

Somehow, through all the adversity and distractions, he found a way to be Bubba again.

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Spieth: 'I feel great about the state of my game'

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:43 am

LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth is starting to feel confident again with the putter, which is probably a bad sign for the rest of the PGA Tour.

Spieth struggled on the greens two weeks ago at TPC Scottsdale, but he began to right the ship at Pebble Beach and cracked the top 10 this week at the Genesis Open. Perhaps more important than his final spot on the leaderboard was his standing in the strokes gained putting category – 12th among the field at Riviera Country Club, including a 24-putt performance in the third round.

Spieth closed out the week with a 4-under 67 to finish in a tie for ninth, five shots behind Bubba Watson. But after the round he spoke like a man whose preparation for the season’s first major is once again right on track.


Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


“I was kind of, you know, skiing uphill with my putting after Phoenix and the beginning of Pebble week, and really just for a little while now through the new year,” Spieth said. “I just made some tremendous progress. I putted extremely well this week, which is awesome. I feel great about the state of my game going forward, feel like I’m in a great place at this time of the year as we’re starting to head into major season.”

Spieth will take a break next week, and where he next tees it up remains uncertain. He still has not announced a decision about playing or skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship, and he will have until 5 p.m. ET Friday to make a final decision on the no-cut event.

Whether or not he flies down to Mexico City, Spieth’s optimism has officially returned after a brief hiccup on the West Coast swing.

“For where I was starting out Phoenix to where I am and how I feel about my game going forward the rest of the year, there was a lot of progress made,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to figure out what the best schedule is for myself as we head into the Masters.”

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McIlroy encouraged by T-20: 'Didn’t quite reflect how I played'

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:23 am

LOS ANGELES – Rory McIlroy sees plenty of reasons to smile despite the fact that the first half of his 2018 Masters prep has officially wrapped without lifting a trophy.

After an injury-plagued campaign last year, McIlroy set out an ambitious schedule that called for eight worldwide starts before heading down Magnolia Lane. He started off with a pair of near-misses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, then followed last week’s missed cut at Pebble Beach with a T-20 finish at the Genesis Open.

McIlroy birdied his final two holes to close with a 3-under 68 at Riviera Country Club, his lowest score of the week. He explained that a “destructive” tee shot on the 12th hole Saturday led to a double bogey and stunted any potential momentum, but he remained encouraged after closing the week on a high note.

“I feel like the position that I finished didn’t quite reflect how I played,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I played better than finishing whatever it is, 25th or whatever it’s going to be. I feel good about my game, just need to sharpen up a couple little areas here and there. But for the most part it’s been OK.”


Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


McIlroy will now head across the country to tee it up in the Honda Classic, where he reached world No. 1 for the first time with a win in 2012 and also lost in a playoff in 2014. Although he continued to tinker with his putter this week following a mediocre effort on the greens at Pebble Beach, he believes that some of his putting woes may be solved simply by swapping out tricky poa annua surfaces for more familiar Bermuda greens.

“It was nice to play sort of early the last couple days, the greens didn’t get too crusty or too bumpy. I felt like even coming down the last few holes there, they were still good surfaces,” McIlroy said. “Nice to get back onto Bermuda and surfaces being a little truer than what we’ve experienced the last couple weeks.”