Why we still care about Tiger Woods

By Joe PosnanskiMay 8, 2015, 9:01 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Tiger Woods stood on the ninth tee, his final hole of the day, and he knew what he had to do. How many times had he faced this exact situation? It had to be birdie … nothing else would work. He looked over the fairway of this par 5 and went into that concentration sector where few have been able to go. He needed a good drive. And he got one — he hit his drive down the left side, 269 yards, just where he was aiming.

That put him too far from the pin to go for it. He hit his layup shot in the center of the fairway, and when he got to the ball he realized that it was 103 yards from the pin … this is what players call “a bad number.” Players would like to have a distance that perfectly fits the full swing of a certain club. A shot of 103 yards would normally be a good fit for a Tiger sand wedge, but because of the wind, because he was hitting uphill, the right club was sort of a quiet little pitching wedge. This was a shot that required all the finesse and touch and feel that Woods has developed in his many years as the world’s singular golfer.

He choked down on the pitching wedge and feathered a little shot that hopped and rolled to 9 feet from the cup. Wonderful stuff. The crowd — the biggest crowd by far for anyone — was ecstatic. Then the fans were quiet. They watched nervously as Woods studied his putt. He had to make it, everyone knew it, and few in the history of this game have ever been better at making putts that had to be made. Hearts were in throats.

He stood over the putt with the steadiness we have come to know and admire. Has anyone ever looked so sure? He hit it. The ball rolled toward the cup like a child running to her father. There was never even the slightest doubt it would drop, and it did drop, and the roar was enormous, and Woods pumped his fist happily, then reached into the hole for the ball and pumped his fist again.

“It felt good,” Woods said happily when it was all over. “I hit a really good putt there.”

And that is the story of how Tiger Woods made the cut at The Players Championship.

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Why do we still care so much? Why does he still matter even when he is playing simply to make cuts? It has been seven years since Woods has won a major championship. It has been almost two years since he has won any sort of golf tournament. Since his glorious, one-legged victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, he has had as many cuts and DNPs at major championships as top-10 finishes (nine each). He is, at this moment, ranked 125th in the Official World Golf Ranking, right between Freddie Jacobson and Andrew Dodt, two players who get mentioned only when used as a barometer for how far Tiger Woods has fallen in the ranking.*

*Much in the way Rhode Island gets mentioned only when someone is trying to prove how small an area is.

So why do we still care? We do, you know, even if there will be those who will write in the comments that they do not care about Tiger Woods (as they write often in the comments). At The Players, the tournament smartly paired the two hottest players in the world, No. 1 Rory McIlroy and No. 2 Jordan Spieth. The following for Tiger Woods was noticeably bigger. When McIlroy wins the match play, it’s news. When Woods and Lindsey Vonn split up, it’s NEWS, all capital letters. The ratings when Tiger Woods plays in a tournament barely even resemble the ratings when he doesn’t; the Masters this year saw a 48 percent surge with Woods in the field. This was true even though Woods had taken months off because his game was so erratic.

All of this isn’t just because Woods was such a great player. In the declining days of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and the like, sure, they had nice followings but they did not overshadow the best players of the time.

It isn’t just because Woods was such a social and pop-culture phenomenon either; Even Michael Jordan stopped being the biggest thing in the game in the last year of his career. By then, Kobe, Shaq, Duncan and a high school kid named LeBron had passed him by.

But no one passes by Woods, not in the public’s mind, and I have a theory why: I think it has something to do with an unfulfilling end, the same reason people took so long to give up on Mike Tyson. With every great athlete, there’s a scope we come to expect. They show youthful promise. They grow into stardom. They do extraordinary things at their best. They begin to show signs of age. Then all of us clearly see the end. Then, if we’re lucky, they give us one lasting moment, and they gracefully fade away into our memories.

Think of how it ended for Derek Jeter. Think of how it ended for Greg Maddux. Think of how it will end for Tim Duncan or Roger Federer; there will be sadness, sure, but it will feel right, feel like it had been a full career.

No one had a fuller career than Jack Nicklaus, of course. He had his time as the young upstart who blew a couple of tournaments. He was a phenomenon who could hit the ball higher and longer than anyone. He became the smartest golfer, and because of that his peak lasted longer than anyone’s.

Then when he was 40, he reinvented his swing and he won two more major championships. Then he played some good tournaments — proved the foil to Tom Watson’s chip shot at Pebble Beach — and finally he had the last great victory at the Masters in 1986 to make golf fans everywhere cry. Players felt like they grew up with him and, then, grew older with him. Every single thing about Jack Nicklaus’ career was fulfilling.

But with Tiger, there’s so much unfinished business. There had never been a player as good as he was when he was playing that U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. There were times he could barely even stand up, his knee hurt so badly (and shortly after the tournament ended, he had ACL surgery). Still, on the 72nd hole, he needed to make a 12-foot putt over a chewed-up green to force a playoff, and the story was not that he made it but that everyone KNEW he would make it. When he beat a game Rocco Mediate in the playoff, it was his 14th major championship, and he was not yet 33 years old, and even after the knee surgery it still felt like there would be so many more highs.

What we could not know then was this: There were no more highs. A year later, he would lose a duel to Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship. Then, things would come apart after the tabloids pulled the curtains back on his out-of-control private life. He has won some tournaments since then. He even made it back to the official No. 1 spot in the world rankings for a time. But he was never Tiger Woods again, not in the biggest tournaments, not in the ways that really matter to most of us. His career has felt so … unfinished.

And so, it seems to me, we keep waiting for the proper finish. Every good shot he hits spurs the hope that it will magically bring him back. Every optimistic statement he makes — “I haven’t gotten anything out of my rounds,” he said Friday after a heroic finish got him inside the cut number. “I should be a few under par each day” — sparks the belief that he’s really figured it out this time.

Woods’ play has given no reason for any of those hopes or beliefs; we’re talking about dreams now. If he wasn’t named Tiger Woods, we would not have watched his 17th-place finish at Augusta or his birdie on the last hole at The Players and thought: “Yes, this is a player to watch.”

But his name IS Tiger Woods. And we can’t give up on the finish that once seemed so certain. How great would it be to see Woods dueling with McIlroy and Spieth and these young players who grew up watching him? How great would it be to see Woods win a major championship again and threaten that extraordinary Nicklaus record of 18 majors? How great would it be even for his critics to just root against him again?

So, yes, everyone in the gallery stood and cheered and high-fived as he made the putt to make the cut. He’s only eight shots back at The Players Championship

“Do you still feel like you have a chance?” he was asked.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely. … I feel like I’m playing well enough to get myself up there. I just need one good round and narrow the gap between myself and lead, and I feel I can do that.”

Right. What is eight shots when we are talking about dreams?

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.