Tiger faces failed legacy

By Jason SobelJune 8, 2011, 5:15 pm

Will Tiger pass Jack?

It's a question that for years has been batted around in 19th holes worldwide like a kitten going after a ball of yarn. Which is to say, everyone gets their turn and no one can unravel the situation.

Those four little words have become the “Who shot J.R.?” of the current sports lexicon, the query firmly entrenched in our consciousness.

Tiger, of course, is Tiger Woods, the second all-time major championship victory leader with 14, currently sidelined once again by injuries. Jack is Jack Nicklaus, a legendary figure and the only man to own more major titles.

And while the former is chasing the latter in many of the game's vaunted records, this is the only one that matters. Can Tiger win five more majors?

I'm here to give you my absolute, unequivocal, expert opinion.

I have no idea.

Anyone who says otherwise is simply speculating and hoping to be correct.

That's not what this column is about, though. I'll let the weary souls in the 19th holes debate the – for now – unanswerable question about Tiger trying to pass Jack.

Instead, let's focus on the byproduct of such long-term debates. Let's discuss what it means for a man to chase history in the midst of physical, technical and emotional issues within his life.

When Roger Maris was trying to surpass Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in 1961, he was chided by opponents and booed lustily from fans. He broke the record, but not without some heartache and losing his hair.

Similarly, when Hank Aaron was in the midst of surpassing Ruth's all-time home run record more than a decade later, he was taunted by racial derisions and often received death threats.

Woods may not face the same witch-hunt against his cause as those record-breakers, but there are certainly those who don't wish for him to pass Nicklaus. It has become such a widely held subplot within the game, though, that there may only be two logical conclusions.

If Tiger passes Jack, he's a success. And if he doesn't, he's a failure.

Think about that for a minute. If Woods never wins another major championship for a combination of reasons including injury and emotional distress, his lasting legacy won't be that of the second-greatest winner, but of the first loser.

Seve Ballesteros recently passed away with five major victories and was hailed as an all-time great – as well he should have been. Woods owns nine more majors and yet if he fails to reach Nicklaus the lasting image of his career will be more about what he didn't accomplish than what he did.

That's a brutally difficult concept under which to play championship-caliber golf – even for one of the mentally toughest players in the game's history.

You've got to wonder whether Woods believes it, too. He's a guy who grew up with a Nicklaus poster on his bedroom wall, who knew all about the man's records – especially the most important one.

Everything he does to advance his professional career these days is toward that one common goal: To win major championships. As Woods said last month and has said numerous times over his career, 'The whole idea is that I peak four times a year.'

As much pressure as Woods places on himself to continue chasing Nicklaus’ record, it may pale in comparison to the pressure being placed on him from the outside world. For so long, he wasn’t just a candidate to become the all-time leader in major victories, he was expected to ascend to that throne. It was always less a matter of “if” than “when.”

Now, of course, that preconceived probability has been downgraded to a possibility – or as some believe, an impossibility.

Woods announced on Tuesday that he would forego next week’s U.S. Open due to lingering leg injuries. That means he will have gone more than three years without a major win before he makes his next appearance.

At 35, there is still plenty of time to conquer Nicklaus’ achievement, but if he doesn’t – if he fails to fulfill what was long believed to be his destiny – he will be remembered more for coming up short than contending for the title.

It isn’t that Woods will fail to break the record, it’s that he brought such failure upon himself. If he didn’t change his swing so frequently during his career … if he didn’t commit infidelity in his marriage … if he didn’t continue trying to play through injuries … then maybe we would have witnessed history.

That will be the backlash against him should he someday close his career as the second all-time major winner. The prevailing sentiment will be less about celebrating his career and more about how he robbed observers from getting an opportunity to see what could have been the most enthralling sports moment of their lives.

There’s still a long way to go until we get to that point. Will Tiger pass Jack? Maybe, maybe not. If he doesn’t, though, his legacy will forever endure as the guy who let it get away rather than the one who came so close.

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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.”