Q-School Pressure Relieved
The pressure of the final round of the PGA TOUR Qualifying Tournament is second to none in terms of the pressure it imparts on so many contestants. Combine the pressure of fighting for your professional life with the almost fictional-looking PGA West Stadium Course, and it would be understandable if officials checked ID's at the gate. PG-13 would be too mild.
One player admitted to playing in a group that 'might have exceeded 1,000 expletives amongst us.' The final blow came when a player cursed his luck over a perceived bad break by uttering the same offensive word repeatedly, then looked up to unexpectedly see the nearby face of the lovely middle-aged lady who had volunteered her time to be the walking scorer. An immediate attempt to grovel and beg for forgiveness ensued before he was interrupted by a kind and understanding soul. 'I play this (blanking) game, too,' his scorekeeper uttered, and all was instantly forgiven.
It's unfortunate that the superlatives often used in trying to describe the action at many important sporting events are the same words used in describing true life-or-death realities, such as our men and women in the military putting their lives on the line in the defense of our national values and liberties. A game, or sport of any magnitude obviously isn't remotely comparable; however, when your lifelong dreams are on the line and when you're trying to perform under the most grueling pressure you've ever faced in a game that can be maddening even at the best of times, the fact is that the internal battle within a player's soul might have a hard time discerning the difference. Even a golf-addicted, middle-aged lady volunteer could instantly relate.
In the end, a 31-year-old part time mini-tour player, part time assistant pro, claimed medalist honors with a remarkable five-shot victory. And although it may seem like it came out of nowhere, George McNeill's five-shot victory was simply business as usual for the three-stage qualifying process where he set himself apart from the competition at every level.
McNeill's 23-under-par, six-round Q-school finals score brought his 2006 cumulative total to 58 under par for all three stages that totaled 14 rounds of golf. He was medalist at his first stage site by six strokes, followed by a third-place finish at his second stage site, and just after sunset Monday, he added his name to the history books and sent a message to his new group of contemporaries. Anybody can have one lucky week at finals, but his play over the last five weeks should serve notice that although they may not have heard of him in the past, they just might hear a lot about him next year. Not bad for a guy who's lived with the nickname 'Fly' for most of his adult life. Fly's not the worst nickname around, but when you consider that it was based on the 'Back to the Future' character 'McFly,' the air-headed father of Michael J. Fox's character, one could assume that George is use to being underestimated. And in the life imitating art department, just like the movie's sequels portrayed, McFly eventually got the last word.
There were 40 graduates from Q-school this year, each with a feel-good story of his own. Matt Hendrix was one of seven players in the last eight groups to find the water at the island green 17th hole nicknamed Alcatraz. Then he was faced with a must-make putt at the last to get his PGA TOUR card, and he calmly drained it. Michael Bradley, Kyle Reifers, Jaco Van Zyl, and Brian Bateman each made clutch putts on their last hole to make it on the number. Van Zyl's was a double-breaking birdie putt for a final-round 64 that included three birdies on his last four holes. And in the end, the heartbreaking finishes we're accustomed to seeing when the Q-school visits the 'Dyeabolical' Stadium Course, well, they were outnumbered by the players who summoned the ability to perform when it mattered most.
Now comes the tough part. Sixty-one players this year (combined Nationwide Tour and Q-school) were added to the PGA TOUR roster in a system that was designed to handle 50. Combine that with the uncertainty that surrounds the number of playing opportunities for new card holders due to the new FedEx Cup system, and the pressure that Q-school brought for six days will be expanded to an entire season next year. Three-time Nationwide Tour graduate Gavin Coles said it best, 'I got a ticket on the bus, but no seat.' TOUR officials on site at Q-school were already concerned over the 'big cut'. Twelve players tied for the last card and 40 were given out when the plans were for 30.
Monday night in La Quinta, Calif., wasn't a time for concerns over the uphill battle next year could bring. Rather, it was a time for celebration. It was a time to gather with family and friends, take a swig of that long-awaited beverage, sigh to the heavens and thank their lucky stars. Monday night was the reward for a life's passion and for the 17 rookies of this year's class, it's safe to say that they've never felt anything like it.
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Simpson, Noren share Honda lead after challenging Rd. 1
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Tiger Woods had what he called ''easily'' his best round hitting the ball, and he didn't even break par at the Honda Classic.
Alex Noren and Webb Simpson shared the lead at 4-under 66 in steady wind on a penal PGA National golf course, and felt as though they had to work hard for it. Both dropped only one shot Thursday, which might have been as great an accomplishment as any of their birdies.
''When you stand on certain tee boxes or certain approach shots, you remember that, 'Man, this is one of the hardest courses we play all year, including majors,''' said Simpson, who is playing the Honda Classic for the first time in seven years.
Only 20 players broke par, and just as many were at 76 or worse.
Woods had only one big blunder - a double bogey on the par-5 third hole when he missed the green and missed a 3-foot putt - in an otherwise stress-free round. He had one other bogey against three birdies, and was rarely out of position. Even one of his two wild drives, when his ball landed behind two carts that were selling frozen lemonade and soft pretzels, he still had a good angle to the green.
''It was very positive today,'' Woods said. ''It was a tough day out there for all of us, and even par is a good score.''
It was plenty tough for Adam Scott, who again stumbled his way through the closing stretch of holes that feature water, water and more water. Scott went into the water on the par-3 15th and made double bogey, and then hit into the water on the par-3 17th and made triple bogey. He shot 73.
Rory McIlroy was at even par deep into the back nine when he figured his last chance at birdie would be the par-5 18th. Once he got there, he figured his best chance at birdie was to hit 3-wood on or near the green. Instead, he came up a yard short and into the water, made double bogey and shot 72.
Noren, who lost in a playoff at Torrey Pines last month, shot 31 on the front nine and finished with a 6-foot birdie on the ninth hole into a strong wind for his 66.
The Swede is a nine-time winner on the European Tour who is No. 16 in the world, though he has yet to make a connection among American golf fans - outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma, from his college days at Oklahoma State - from not having fared well at big events. Noren spends time in South Florida during the winter, so he's getting used to this variety of putting surfaces.
''I came over here to try to play some more American-style courses, get firmer greens, more rough, and to improve my driving and improve my long game,'' Noren said. ''So it's been great.''
PGA champion Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Morgan Hoffmann - who all live up the road in Jupiter - opened with a 67. There's not much of an advantage because hardly anyone plays PGA National the other 51 weeks of the year. It's a resort that gets plenty of traffic, and conditions aren't quite the same.
Louis Oosthuizen, the South African who now lives primarily in West Palm Beach, also came out to PGA National a few weeks ago to get a feel for the course. He was just like everyone else that day - carts on paths only. Not everyone can hole a bunker shot on the final hole at No. 9 for a 67. Mackenzie Hughes of Canada shot his 67 with a bogey from a bunker on No. 9.
Woods, in his third PGA Tour event since returning from a fourth back surgery, appears to be making progress.
''One bad hole,'' he said. ''That's the way it goes.''
It came on the easiest hole on the course. Woods drove into a fairway bunker on the par-5 third, laid up and put his third shot in a bunker. He barely got it out to the collar, used the edge of his sand wedge to putt it down toward the hole and missed the 3-foot par putt.
He answered with a birdie and made pars the rest of the way.
''I'm trying to get better, more efficient at what I'm doing,'' Woods said. ''And also I'm actually doing it under the gun, under the pressure of having to hit golf shots, and this golf course is not forgiving whatsoever. I was very happy with the way I hit it today.''
Woods played with Patton Kizzire, who already has won twice on the PGA Tour season this year. Kizzire had never met Woods until Thursday, and he yanked his opening tee shot into a palmetto bush. No one could find it, so he had to return to the tee to play his third shot. Kizzire covered the 505 yards in three shots, an outstanding bogey considering the two-shot penalty.
Later, he laughed about the moment.
''I was so nervous,'' Kizzire said. ''I said to Tiger, 'Why did you have to make me so nervous?'''
Players battle 'crusty' greens on Day 1 at Honda
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Tiger Woods called the greens “scratchy” on PGA National’s Champion Course.
Rory McIlroy said there is “not a lot of grass on them.”
Morgan Hoffmann said they are “pretty dicey in spots, like a lot of dirt.”
The first round of the Honda Classic left players talking almost as much about the challenge of navigating the greens as they did the challenge of Florida’s blustery, winter winds.
“They looked more like Sunday greens than Thursday,” McIlroy said. “They are pretty crusty. They are going to have a job keeping a couple of them alive.”
The Champion Course always plays tough, ranking annually among the most challenging on the PGA Tour. With a very dry February, the course is firmer and faster than it typically plays.
“Today was not easy,” Woods said. “It's going to get more difficult because these greens are not the best . . . Some of these putts are a bit bouncy . . . There's no root structure. You hit shots and you see this big puff of sand on the greens, so that shows you there's not a lot of root structure.”
Brad Nelson, PGA National’s director of agronomy, said the Champion Course’s TifEagle Bermuda greens are 18 years old, and they are dealing with some contamination, in spots, of other strains of grasses.
“As it’s been so warm and dry, and as we are trying to get the greens so firm, those areas that are not a true Tifeagle variety anymore, they get unhappy,” Nelson said. “What I mean by unhappy is that they open up a little bit . . . It gives them the appearance of being a little bit thin in some areas.”
Nelson said the greens are scheduled for re-grassing in the summer of 2019. He said the greens do have a “crusty” quality, but . . .
“Our goal is to be really, really firm, and we feel like we are in a good place for where we want them to be going into the weekend,” he said.
McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy and the rest of his group had a forgettable end to their rounds Thursday at the Honda Classic.
McIlroy was even par for the day and looking for one final birdie to end his opening round. Only two players had reached the par-5 finishing hole, but McIlroy tried to hold a 3-wood up against the wind from 268 yards away. It found the water, leading to a double bogey and a round of 2-over 72.
“It was the right shot,” McIlroy said. “I just didn’t execute it the right way.”
He wasn’t the only player to struggle coming home.
Adam Scott, who won here in 2016, found the water on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17. He made double on 15, then triple on 17, after his shot from the drop area went long, then he failed to get up and down. He shot 73, spoiling a solid round.
The third player in the group, Padraig Harrington, made a mess of the 16th hole, taking a triple.
The group played the last four holes in a combined 10 over.
Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Consider it a sign of the times that Tiger Woods was ecstatic about an even-par score Thursday at the Honda Classic.
It was by far his most impressive round in this nascent comeback.
Playing in a steady 20-mph wind, Woods was better in all facets of the game Thursday at PGA National. Better off the tee. Better with his irons. And better on and around the “scratchy” greens.
He hung tough to shoot 70 – four shots better than his playing partner, Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season and the current FedExCup leader – and afterward Woods said that it was a “very positive” day and that he was “very solid.”
It’s a small sample size, of course – seven rounds – but Woods didn’t hesitate in declaring this “easily” his best ball-striking round of the year.
And indeed it was, even if the stats don’t jump off the page.
Officially, he hit only seven of 14 fairways and just 10 greens, but some of those misses off the tee were a few paces into the rough, and some of those iron shots finished just off the edge of the green.
The more telling stat was this: His proximity to the hole (28 feet) was more than an 11-foot improvement over his first two starts this year. And also this: He was 11th among the early starters in strokes gained-tee to green, which measures a player’s all-around ball-striking. Last week, at Riviera, he ranked 121st.
“I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knockdown shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways, and occasionally downwind, straight up in the air.
“I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”
The Champion Course here at PGA National is the kind of course that magnifies misses and exposes a player if he’s slightly off with his game. There is water on 15 of the 18 holes, and there are countless bunkers, and it’s almost always – as it was Thursday – played in a one- or two-club wind. Even though it’s played a half hour from Woods’ compound in Hobe Sound, the Honda wasn’t thought to be an ideal tune-up for Woods’ rebuilt game.
But maybe this was just what he needed. He had to hit every conceivable shot Thursday, to shape it both ways, high and low, and he executed nearly every one of them.
The only hole he butchered was the par-5 third. With 165 yards for his third shot, he tried to draw a 6-iron into a stiff wind. He turned it over a touch too much, and it dropped into the bunker. He hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot, but it got caught in the overseeded rye grass around the green and stayed short. He chipped to 3 feet and then was blown off-balance by a wind gust. Double.
But what pleased Woods most was what he did next. Steaming from those unforced errors, he was between a 2- and 3-iron off the tee. He wanted to leave himself a 60-degree wedge for his approach into the short fourth hole, but a full 2-iron would have put him too close to the green.
So he took a little off and “threw it up in the air” – 292 yards.
“That felt really good,” Woods said, smiling. And so did the 6-footer that dropped for a bounce-back birdie.
"I feel like I'm really not that far away," he said.
To illustrate just how much Woods’ game has evolved in seven rounds, consider this perspective from Brandt Snedeker.
They played together at Torrey Pines, where Woods somehow made the cut despite driving it all over the map. In the third round, Woods scraped together a 70 while Snedeker turned in a 74, and afterward Snedeker said that Woods’ short game was “probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”
A month later, Snedeker saw significant changes. Woods’ short game is still tidy, but he said that his iron play is vastly improved, and it needed to be, given the challenging conditions in the first round.
“He controlled his ball flight really well and hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey, because he was rusty,” said Snedeker, who shot 74. “So it was cool to see him flight the ball and hit some little cut shots and some little three-quarter shots and do stuff I’m accustomed to see him doing.”
Conditions are expected to only get more difficult, more wind-whipped and more burned out, which is why the winning score here has been single-digits under par four of the past five years.
But Woods checked an important box Thursday, hitting the shots that were required in the most difficult conditions he has faced so far.
Said Snedeker: “I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”