Woods needs to do whatever he thinks is best for him

By Jason SobelOctober 20, 2014, 9:47 pm

Monday brought the inevitable news that Tiger Woods resumed hitting golf balls last week in his latest step toward a return to competitive golf. Inevitable because – let's face it – this was always going to be part of the plan anyway.

"The doctors said he could hit golf balls again, and he's listening to his doctors and to his body," Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, told USA Today. "He will keep listening to his doctors and body. … He's feeling pretty good."

Because he's Tiger Woods, because he's chasing the all-time PGA Tour victory record and the all-time major championship record, because he's the most polarizing athlete of this generation and because, frankly, the soft launch of the 2014-15 season isn't drawing much attention so far, this news will be scrutinized and Woods will invariably be criticized by anyone with even a tangential connection to the game.

He needs to work harder, they'll say.

He needs to stop working so hard, they'll cry.

He needs a new swing coach, they'll maintain.

He needs to do it alone, they'll contend.

He needs to come back as soon as possible, they'll proclaim.

He needs to take his time, they'll insist.

We’ve seen and heard it all for years. Woods’ name reaches the headlines and all of a sudden, everyone becomes an expert on what is best for him moving forward.


Report: Tiger Woods back to hitting full shots


Well, far be it from me to avoid uniting with the masses like the lemming that I am, so allow me to join the chorus in offering some unsolicited advice for Woods:

He needs to do whatever he thinks will help him return to high-level competitive golf.

OK, so that may not be the scalding hot take most consumers of such information are seeking in light of this recent news, but it is the only logical one.

What often gets lost in the constant scrutiny of Woods – from his swing to his workout regimen to his injury status – is that he’s done just fine managing himself for the past two decades. He’s become one of the greatest players ever by maintaining a routine that has worked for him. Some of it may be unorthodox; some of it may not work for other upper-echelon players. But it’s impossible to argue that whatever route he’s taken has somehow resulted in a failure.

And yet, every time he is seemingly confronted by a crossroads, whether recovering from injury or relearning his swing, offering up opinion on why (and how) he can (and should) improve isn’t just fair game. It’s the most popular game.

Funny thing, though. I still have yet to run into anyone who knows Woods better than he knows himself.

Don’t get me wrong: Like any accomplished athlete, he is forever open to criticism within the confines of his performance. However, it feels like the erstwhile No. 1 player is too often deemed guilty until proven innocent. 

His swing appears too stilted – until he starts winning once again. His body is too muscular – until he starts winning once again. His practice regimen is too faulty – until he starts winning once again.

Stop me if you see the pattern here.

Woods won’t rid himself of any critics while taking some batting practice cuts on the range at Medalist or his backyard or wherever he chooses to get back into the groove. He likewise won’t push them away in his next competitive event, believed to be his own Hero World Challenge during the first week of December, if all goes according to plan. He might not even dissuade them if he charges into next year with victories at veritable home games like Torrey Pines and Bay Hill.

No, Woods may not silence all of the doubters until he turns over that major championship odometer from 14 to 15, which will be seven years in the making when the calendar soon turns over.

He certainly won’t quiet them in the wake of Monday’s news that he is once again hitting golf balls.

It has become lively sport to react to his name in the headlines with contradicting charges. Not that he cares, of course. Woods has taken delight in proving naysayers wrong over the years and he’ll undoubtedly relish fueling himself with any criticism regarding this latest comeback, as well.

If there comes a point when someone understands his game, his swing, his body and his injuries better than himself, then Woods should start listening. Until that time, he should continue doing what he’s always done – exactly what he thinks will work best for himself.

Hey, it’s worked for him this long. So has ignoring the scrutiny.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.