Age of Tiger: Woods has already run out of time

By Joe PosnanskiAugust 15, 2015, 6:00 pm

So, if you’re a Peanuts fan, you might remember that for a time Peppermint Patty believed that she was an angel put on earth to pass along one specific message. The message? “If a foul ball is hit behind third base, it’s the shortstop’s ball.”

I’ve often wondered, as many have I suppose: What is my message to the world?

And I think it’s this: Athletes always age faster than you think they do.

OK, it’s not exactly that kinetic energy equals mass times the speed of light squared or that brevity is the soul of wit or that Soylent Green is made from people, but it’s the best I’ve got. It just seems like people keep refusing to accept that athletes in all sports — every single one — fade so much more quickly than you would expect them to. This is particularly tough to accept in baseball and golf, two sports where there is little violence* and numerous examples of older players beating the odds.

(*Aside from an occasional John Daly club throw into the ocean.)

In baseball, the unwillingness to understand how quickly players decline has cost teams billions of dollars. GM’s will keep signing 30-somethings with the hope and expectation that they will perform more or less like they did in their younger days. This is baseball’s definition of insanity.

Three years ago, I asked this question: Which duo of baseball players would you rather have for the next five years, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton or Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez? I emphasized the point by adding that money is no object: I was simply asking which would be the better duo for five years, Pujols and Hamilton or Hosmer and Perez.

The question seemed so stupid at the time that, well, you can read some of the comments if you want. At the time, there was so much buzz about the Angels acquiring the two former MVPs. Pujols had been the best player in baseball for a decade. Hamilton was thought by many to be pretty close to that level when healthy. Few knew who Hosmer and Perez even were.

Well, we’re only three years into the deal — the turn happened even faster than I thought it would:

Since 2012:

Pujols and Hamilton: 11 WAR (wins above replacement), one All-Star appearance.

Perez and Hosmer: 17.7 WAR, three All-Star appearances, five Gold Gloves, one World Series appearance.

Hamilton has already been dumped. Pujols is having something of a renaissance season because he has 30 home runs, but it’s a facade: He’s now a defensive liability (after being a great defender), and his on-base percentage is down to .312 — he has basically become a one-dimensional homerun hitter. Meanwhile, Perez is probably the best catcher in the American League and Hosmer is coming into his own at age 25. If you asked the question now, the answer would be even more obvious than it was in 2012 — and it would be the opposite answer of 2012. Bet on youth. Always bet on youth.

This premise of aging fast is even more controversial in golf. I’ve written about this so many times that, yes, you’re undoubtedly sick of it. But the message just isn’t getting out there. Again and again, there are stories and analyses and comments asking what’s wrong with Tiger Woods? And people just refuse to accept that there’s nothing wrong with Tiger Woods. He’s 40 years old or will be in a few months. And this is what happens.

Take a look at these two charts. First will be the golfers who have won the most majors through age 35. The second will be the golfers who have won the most majors 36 and older.

Most Majors through age 35:

T-1. Tiger Woods, 14.
T-1. Jack Nicklaus, 14.
3. Walter Hagen, 10
4. Tom Watson, 8
5. Arnold Palmer, Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, 7.

Bobby Jones is obviously a tricky one because he actually won six U.S. and British amateur championships that were considered major in his day. But you get the point.

Most majors 36 and older:

1. Ben Hogan, 8
2. Sam Snead, 5
3. Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Phil Mickelson, 4.

You will notice only one player makes the Top 5 of both lists — Nicklaus. It is what sets him apart. But it goes beyond that. Now, let’s give you the first list again, but in parentheses I’ll show you how many majors those golfers won after age 35.

T-1. Tiger Woods, 14 (0)
T-1. Jack Nicklaus, 14 (4)
3. Walter Hagen, 10 (1)
4. Tom Watson, 8 (0)
T-5. Arnold Palmer, 7 (0)
T-5. Gene Sarazen, 7 (0)
T-5. Bobby Jones, 7 (0)

Other than Nicklaus, who reinvented himself after 35, these top golfers won a combined one major championship after they turned 35. Yes, they had different circumstances (Jones retired, for instance). But Byron Nelson never won one after 35. Seve Ballesteros never won won after 35. Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo won one each after 35. Of the greatest golfers, the only two who were great on both sides of the 35-year line are Nicklaus and Player. And Player is famous for being, essentially, unbreakable.

Woods’ real issue, when it comes to catching Nicklaus on the all-time majors list, isn’t what he’s doing now. He lost the race when he didn’t win a major championship in 2009, when he was 33, then after the scandal didn’t win majors at ages 34 and 35. That was when he physically could still win. He finished top six on six occasions then. He did have a real shot, at 36, to win the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham — he entered the final day a shot ahead of eventual winner Ernie Els. But Els, who is six years older than Woods, shot 68 on the final day. Tiger shot 73, and that was that.

Though Woods has talked about how he has given himself many chances to win majors since then, he really has not. He made an illegal drop at the 2013 Masters and finished fourth (many thought he should have disqualified himself) and he entered the final day of the Open Championship that year just two shots back, but he never sparked on Sunday. Since then, he has missed more major championship cuts (four) than he has made (three).

And sure, you can talk about his many swing changes. You can talk about how he won five regular tournaments in 2013 and made it back to No. 1 in the world. You can talk about how there are moments, sometimes nine-hole stretches, occasionally even entire days when he looks like the old Tiger.  But these are the illusions that keep us thinking that the years are standing still. And they are just that: Illusions.

The swing changes are the sign of a man whose body is breaking down – he can’t swing the club like he once did, and he keeps looking for remedies. Getting back to No. 1 in the world in 2013 was nice, but it was a paper title at best – you can’t truly be the best golfer in the world if you are not winning majors. Heck, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood have also been No. 1 in the world. And the short stretches where he looks like the young Tiger? Sure, they’ll keep happening. You know what? There are times still when Tom Watson looks like the young Tom Watson, and he’s turning 66 next month. It doesn’t last.

People keep wanting to make this about some mystical thing in the desperate belief that Woods will someday turn on a switch and become great again. Well, people have been looking for that switch since a guy named Juan Ponce de Leon. Woods can keep practicing, keep adjusting, keep searching for his feels, keep trying to find the bottom of his swing, keep working on his alignment and all that but in the end, he’s 40 now. This is who Tiger is now. People want to talk about how he has 10 more years of being competitive; it seems to me they’re just kidding themselves. Maybe with practice and a new focus and a shift in his thinking he might at some point become competitive again, and if he can become competitive again there’s a chance he can have a magical week or two. But even if that does happen – and the odds are against it happening – he will have to find a way to compete as an older golfer. This is not a new story. It’s the oldest story going.

It was sad watching Woods flounder at the Open Championship last month, and it was sad watching him stagger and stumble at the U.S. Open the month before that, but something felt different about his third consecutive major championship missed cut this week at the PGA Championship. This time, it felt a bit more ceremonial, somehow. Yes, he still cursed up a storm after bad shots, and he still looked frustrated, and his self-evaluations still seemed somewhat separated from reality. But he was introduced as the 1999, 2000, 2006 and 2007 PGA champion. Fans gave him a few standing ovations. There was a “let’s appreciate what Tiger Woods has meant to us” vibe.

And it reminds me of when I went to the eye doctor a few weeks ago. The doctor said, “Congratulations. You have hit bottom.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said: “Your eyes have now lost 100 percent of their ability to focus. That’s it. You have zero percent capacity for focus now. This is what happens when you get to be our age.”

I looked at him (or tried to – I can’t focus) and asked why he offered congratulations.

“Well,” he said, “it can’t get any worse.”

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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.