Closing out tournaments harder for some

By Joe PosnanskiMay 13, 2013, 3:07 am

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Tiger Woods is the greatest closer in the history of golf, one of the greatest in the history of sports. We can get into some numbers in a minute but first we ask the question: Why?

Sure, Woods is one of the greatest drivers, one of the greatest iron players, one of the greatest scramblers and one of the greatest putters ever. Those things are obviously kind of important when closing out a golf tournament. Woods played brilliantly Sunday when he won The Players Championship – except for one shot he hit the ball about as well as he has ever hit it.

Yes, also, Woods is a competitive force of nature and he has shown a knack for hitting great shots in the most important moments. His up-and-down on No. 15 Sunday was world class; it seems the more you know about golf the more amazing and improbable that up-and-down became. “His calm intensity goes up a notch in pressure moments,” tweets legendary tennis star Chris Evert, whose own calm intensity was often celebrated. She adds: “Unmatched.”

But, it seems, there’s something else, a rule of closing, a principle of closing, an ABC of closing. It is not a secret. But it is something Woods always remembers and others too often forget.

When Sergio Garcia reached the 17th hole Sunday, he was tied with Tiger Woods for the lead, and he felt pretty good. No. Better than that. The early part of the day had been a bit of a struggle, but the last five or six holes had been outstanding. He was hitting the ball just where he wanted to hit it. His confidence – always a shifting wind for the mercurial Sergio – was overflowing. Truth is: He felt AWESOME.

An hour earlier, he seemed to be out of this tournament. Woods led by three, and everyone knows Woods doesn’t blow tournaments on the last day. More than that, Garcia felt kind of lethargic, kind of lifeless, his shots were spraying astray, he was working too hard just to keep his score still. It just wasn’t his day, or as he explained: “Some days… you feel like your whole body is moving the way you want it. Some days it wants to fight a little bit with you.”

So, when the shocking turn happened – when Woods hooked a drive into the water on No. 14 and, at almost that exact same moment Garcia made a birdie and started feeling like his body was moving the right way again – Garcia felt like this might be his day. On the par-5 16th hole, he striped a drive, hit a brilliant second shot on the green, lagged his eagle putt and made birdie to tie the tournament. As he went to the 17th hole, he would say, he felt great.

Then he stood over the ball – facing the famous island green – and he still felt great. What a day. He was tied for the lead. The crowd was buzzing. Then he hit the ball, high in the air, he watched it, and he still felt great. The ball was heading straight for the flagstick. “Straight at it!” Sergio would say afterward.

OK, so what is this little principle of closing that Tiger Woods knows? It is the same thing that the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera knows as he closes out games 89 percent of the time. It is the same thing that Vince Lombardi knew when he coached his Green Bay Packers to victory 75 percent of the time. It is the same thing Chris Evert understood when she won seven French Opens and six U.S. Opens.

It is simply this: You don’t have to be perfect to win. You can’t be perfect anyway. You just have to hang in there, put the bad stuff behind you, think good thoughts and more than anything be good enough to make your opponent perform under pressure. Then, more often than not, they will make the big mistake.

This is at the heart of Rivera’s success. He almost never walks anybody. He almost never throws a wild pitch. He almost never makes an error. He throws the same pitch again and again and again and hitters constantly break their bats in an effort to hit it. The hitters beat themselves. Rivera is simply the mirror.

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And Woods, if anything, is an even more effective mirror. He makes opponents face themselves – not just their fears but also their arrogance and their doubts and their flaws and their history. Woods has now won 52 of 56 times he has either led or shared the lead after three rounds. That’s 93 percent of the time, which is extraordinary. Yes, sometimes along the way, everything clicks and he runs away from the field. But most of the time he doesn’t. Most of the time he just minimizes his mistakes and lets time and pressure do their thing. Time and pressure are his friends.

So it went Sunday. When Woods hit his terrible shot on the 14th hole, he quickly put it behind him and nailed his next drive. When he needed to make his brilliant par-save on 15, he made it. When he faced the island green on 17, he did not think about anything except putting the ball on the green. Woods knew that he could not win the tournament there on No. 17 but he COULD lose it. When you asked Tiger Woods what he was thinking about on the 17th tee, he talked in technical terms. Distance to the front of the green. Distance to the flag. Wind direction. There was one objective, and that was to keep the ball dry. Objective accomplished.

As Michael Corleone, another successful closer, said: “It’s just business.”

When Sergio Garcia stood on the 17th green, well, you know, he felt good. He felt like maybe he was going to win the golf tournament. He felt like he was so buzzed with adrenaline that he better take a lesser club.

“Maybe a little too confident,” he would admit.

Garcia and Woods had a silly little spat over the weekend. The spat was technically over what was probably a misunderstanding – Saturday, on the second hole, Woods pulled a club and the crowd started cheering just as Garcia was trying to hit his shot – but the truth is that it had been bubbling for a long time. They don’t like each other. That little scene was just an excuse to let it all out.

Best I can tell: Tiger thinks Sergio is a whiner and kind of a loser.

Best I can tell: Sergio thinks Tiger is a bully and kind of a jerk.

That might or might not be overselling it, but they clearly don’t like each other. However, that dislike means something different to each of them. Woods, I imagine, could not care less about Garcia. Woods has won 14 major championships and 78 Tour events and is not just the preeminent golfer of his day but probably the best who ever lived. Garcia, meanwhile, has won zero majors, has had an up-and-down career, often feels cursed and has never beaten Woods head-to-head. So, yeah, they have different emotions about their feud.

“If you had to do it over again,” someone asked Garcia about his Woods complaining, “would you do things differently?”

“No, no,” Garcia said. “I don’t know, you sound like I was the bad guy here. I was the victim. I don’t have any regrets of anything.”

Yes, inevitably, Garcia sees himself as the victim.

And so, we go back to the 17th tee, ball in the air, Garcia watching and thinking he hit a really good shot. Woods had put him in this place. Woods had made his mistakes, and he had missed his putts, and he had not run away with the tournament when it looked like he had the chance. But that’s not at the heart of closing. At the heart of closing is that on the 17th, Woods put his shot on the green. It wasn’t a perfect shot or anything close. But it was on the green.

Garcia’s shot landed 20 yards short of the pin and in the water. His next shot hit water too. His tee shot at 18? It hit water too.

“We just go out there and play,” Woods said when asked if it was special beating Sergio. “I had an opportunity to win the golf tournament when I was tied for the lead today.”

Here, I could have sworn, he smiled just a little. He had an opportunity. Sergio had an opportunity. In fact, they had the same opportunity.

“And,” Woods continued, “I thought I handled the situation well.”

One last word about closing: A reporter asked Tiger Woods who would win in match play between the current version of himself and the young Tiger Woods. His answer was fairly typical and expected. “I would win now,” Woods said.

The surprise came when the reporter asked the score. “Would you win 9 and 8?” he asked. Woods was ready for this.

“I don’t care,” he said. “As long as I won.”

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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.”