2013 a good year for the good guys

By John FeinsteinDecember 4, 2013, 2:47 pm

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Or, with all due respect to Charles Dickens, it was a year that tested the patience of those who love golf and, ultimately, rewarded those who were most deserving.

The year produced four worthy major champions: Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson and Jason Dufner. Tiger Woods won five times but was again shut out in the majors. Rory McIlroy’s year was a complete washout for 11 months. Like the PGA Tour, he began 2014 early with a win on the first day of December that may prove to be a starting point for the new beginning he clearly needs. Jordan Spieth became the latest ‘it’ kid with a breath-taking rookie season – much of it taking place while he was still a teenager. Inbee Park won the first three women’s majors of the year and almost didn’t win Player of the Year under the LPGA’s points system.

There was endless talk about anchored putters, perhaps the all-time “inside-baseball” story in sports history, but one that seemed to consume people in golf for a large chunk of the year.

Vijay Singh sued the PGA Tour after it decided NOT to suspend him for taking what was once a banned substance. One can only imagine what he might have done if the Tour had suspended him.

The Tour unveiled its new wrap-around schedule, beginning the 2013-14 season about 15 minutes after the 2013 season ended. The new schedule has received mixed reviews. Then again, a lot of people still don’t know it exists. They are waiting to kick off the new season next month in Hawaii.

Hey, maybe commissioner Tim Finchem’s next goal should be to have two seasons going on at the same time.

As is the case in most years, the majors provided a large chunk of the drama and almost all the highlights. If Scott’s playoff victory over Angel Cabrera at Augusta National had been the only sublime moment of the year, it would have been a pretty good year. His victory was about as popular as any in recent memory, in part because he finally lived up to the huge potential he flashed years ago when he first came to the U.S. as a kid with a pretty swing and a smile that made women swoon.

But it was more than that. It was the putt on 18 in the rain and the putt in the gloaming on the 10th green to clinch the green jacket. It was also Cabrera’s classy thumbs-up gesture to Scott after he had stuck his second shot to within 12 feet to set up the winning putt.

If Cabrera’s thumbs-up was the classiest gesture of the year, then Rose pointing to the sky in honor of his father – on Father’s Day – after his last putt went in the hole on the 18th at Merion, was the sweetest. There was a lot of concern prior to Day 1 at the U.S. Open that Merion would play like PGA West and the cut would be 4 under par.

It didn’t turn out that way. Rose’s winning score was 1 over and for all the whining about the golf course set-up and the narrowness of the fairways, it was a wonderful Open and it did, without question, identify the best player that week. Mickelson almost wrote a fairytale ending when he began the championship a couple hours after returning from his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation in California, but two blown wedge shots late on Sunday did him in. Rose was magnificent down the stretch; Mickelson wasn’t.

In the movies, the guy who suffers that heartbreak somehow finds a way to come back before the closing credits to be a hero. It never happens that way in real life.

Except in 2013, when Mickelson did exactly that. Coming off what he readily admitted was the most heartbreaking loss of a career that’s seen its share of heartache, he played the most gratifying – and brilliant – round of his life on the last day at Muirfield to win the Open Championship.

Like a lot of American players, it took Mickelson a long time to develop an affinity for links golf. In fact, he dreaded the entire experience when he made the trip to the British Isles each summer. He didn’t like driving on the wrong side of the road; the endless rotas; the tiny showers or the food. For a long time, he would fly in at the last possible minute, grit his teeth all week and breathe a sigh of relief when he got back on the plane to go home.

That changed in 2004 when, in his 12th attempt, he finished third, the first time he was even close to being in contention. He began coming over early to play the Scottish Open and almost won at Royal St. George’s in 2011. With another chance this past July at age 43, he shot 66 on a cold, windy Sunday to blow by everyone and win by three shots.

Finally, there was Dufner at Oak Hill. Many believed his one chance at greatness had come and gone in Atlanta two years earlier when he let a five-shot lead melt away down the stretch and lost to Keegan Bradley in a playoff. But, going head-to-head the final day of the PGA Championship with Jim Furyk, he played an almost perfect ball-striking round and was in control on the back nine. While it was tough to see Furyk once again miss a golden chance at his second major, it was heartwarming to see Dufner bounce back after the kind of loss that often kills careers to become a major champion.

Bradley’s decision to turn back after leaving the golf course on that glistening August Sunday afternoon so he could be one of the first to give Dufner a hug coming off 18, made for a perfect ending to golf’s majors season.

McIlroy tied for eighth at Oak Hill, the first time all year he was even on the golf course late on Sunday at a major. The fact that a top 10 was considered a big deal for him was a clear sign of how difficult his year had been. From the minute he fired Chubby Chandler as his agent soon after winning the 2012 PGA, McIlroy couldn’t seem to put a foot right on or off the course.

He got very rich by signing with Nike – he wasn’t exactly poor pre-Swoosh – but struggled from the start with the new clubs, the newfound notoriety of being No. 1 and the added pressure of being Woods’ latest business partner. He played badly, and then acted badly when he stalked off the golf course at the Honda Classic in the second round when he was en route to missing the cut by a million.

Then he fired his new agents; got embroiled in various lawsuits; endured rumors about his relationship with Caroline Wozniaki and continued to look lost on the golf course most of the summer. If he hadn’t been on Tour since he was a teenager it would have been a sophomore slump.

Slowly, starting with the PGA, things began to get better. He had two top-10s overseas in November and then, on the first of December, he outdueled Scott in what was very much a road game, to win the Australian Open – shooting 66 that day and finishing with a walk-off birdie for the win. It was vintage McIlroy, circa 2011 and ‘12.

Regardless of when the official season, began, McIlroy’s win sent golf into the New Year on a high: four classy major champions to savor from last year and a 2014 that should bring a rejuvenated McIlroy; the drama of Mickelson going for a career Grand Slam at Pinehurst; Woods desperately seeking to break his majors drought; Spieth continuing to ascend and, to top it off, a Ryder Cup with Tom Watson captaining the U.S. in Scotland, the country where he is an adopted son.

A lot to look forward to. And a lot to look back on with a smile.

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Balky putter leaves Stenson with another close call

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 12:34 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – After missing a short birdie attempt on the 16th green Sunday, Henrik Stenson raised his putter and seemed poised to break it over the top of his head. It’s easy to see, then, where things went wrong for the big Swede during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Stenson started the final round with a one-shot lead, and he appeared ready to turn a number of close calls at Bay Hill into a victory after rolling in birdies on two of his first four holes. But he made just one more birdie the rest of the way and could only watch as Rory McIlroy raced past him to claim victory.

“I got the pace wrong on a couple of putts. Whipped it by on 15 and I left it short on 16,” Stenson said. “They’re very slick and undulated, and when you get the grain slightly wrong, you’re going to look a bit of a fool at times. It’s very shiny around the hole and you’ve got to get the pace right, and I was off on a couple of them.”

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Stenson bogeyed his final hole to finish his second straight round of 1-under 71, this time needing 30 putts. At 13 under, he ended up alone in fourth place, four shots behind McIlroy – the fourth time since 2014 that he has finished T-5 or better in this tournament that he has yet to win.

Despite yet another close call in his hometown event, Stenson opted to view things with a positive slant following a missed cut at the Valspar Championship and with a week off before his final start of Masters prep at the Houston Open.

“I haven’t felt comfortable with my swing and my long shots for quite some time, and it’s starting to come along in the right direction for sure,” Stenson said. “I hit a lot of good shots out there this week, even though maybe the confidence is not as high as some of the shots were. So we’ll keep on working on that. It’s a good time of the year to start playing well.”

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Focus shifts to Augusta as Woods continues to impress

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 12:30 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – On the final question of his final meeting with the media at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tiger Woods offered his shortest and most direct response of the week.

Back when he launched this latest version of his comeback, before the Hero World Challenge in December when his world was filled with more doubt than possibility, could he have envisioned heading down Magnolia Lane carrying as much momentum as he’ll have on his fused back in a couple weeks?

“No,” he said.

That was it, outside of maybe the slightest hint of a grin. But there was also nothing more that needed to be said.

Woods’ bid for a record ninth title at Bay Hill ended when his tee shot on No. 16 bounded over a fence and out of bounds Sunday. His title bid last week at the Valspar Championship lasted two holes longer but eventually arrived at the same conclusion: close, but not quite enough.

But given where Woods stood a few months ago – even a few weeks ago – his Masters preparation has been nothing short of a success.

“If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year, that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments, I would have taken it in a heartbeat,” Woods said.

In three straight starts in the Sunshine State, Woods compiled three top-12 finishes. He nearly broke the Trackman equipment with his driver swing speed, flaunted a transformative short game and stirred memories of years gone by with each shockwave he sent through the galleries.

And yes, that continued in a big way Sunday at Bay Hill as there was about a 45-minute stretch where it seemed like maybe, possibly, Woods might somehow find a way to chase down Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson.

“It was a clinic I thought today, except for two tee balls,” said caddie Joe LaCava. “No. 9 he got away with it, but you know what I mean. It was a clinic ball-striking except for the tee balls at 9 and 16. Other than that, it was great.”

This week Woods officially became the Masters betting favorite in Las Vegas, a statement that would have seemed ludicrous to type in the wake of his missed cut at the Genesis Open just four short weeks ago. At that point his ability to simply tee it up the following week at PGA National was seen as a great coup, and a sign that he might still be able to make a go of it in his latest comeback attempt after so many previous attempts were aborted or derailed by further injury.

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Now here we sit, with his last competitive shot before the Masters in the rear-view mirror, and suddenly the man seems to have all the shots necessary to make a legitimate run at a fifth green jacket.

“I’m looking forward to it. I miss playing there,” Woods said. “I’ve been there for the dinner, and as great as that is, it’s frustrating knowing that I’m, I would have to say, young enough to play the event where some of the other champions are not. And I just have not been able to physically do it, which is difficult.”

It’s a testament to Woods’ rapid ascent that the number of questions he faces about his health and stamina dwindle with each passing round. Seemingly overnight, the focus has shifted back to mental preparedness, shot selection and equipment tweaks he might make in order to nab his first win in nearly five years.

In the span of a few weeks, performances that once seemed on the brink of extinction have become the new normal.

“I don’t want to get too high or too low. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But you’re seeing improvement each week,” LaCava said. “I know you hear that from him, too. But it just seems like he’s getting better and better with his swing and trusting it more, which I think is huge.”

The latest effort came Sunday on a course he knows like few others. Woods realized entering the day that the odds were stacked against him, and as it turns out even his most valiant effort wouldn’t have been enough to keep pace with McIlroy. But when he buried a birdie putt on No. 13 to get within a shot of the lead, his third in the last four holes, a familiar glint returned to his eye as he trudged to the 14th tee.

Realizing the moment, the ever-expanding crowd responded with a “Tiger! Tiger!” chant that enveloped the tee box and caused McIlroy to step back off his birdie putt across the lake on the 11th green. And while his title bid ended in abrupt fashion a couple holes later, it was still a snapshot from a scene that so recently seemed improbable.

For a second straight Sunday, Woods donned his traditional red and black and exceeded expectations. Even, as it turns out, the ones he set for himself.

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Tiger can't commit, goes OB on 16: 'That’s on me'

By Will GrayMarch 18, 2018, 11:05 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Standing on the 16th tee with the leaders in sight and the roars of the crowd still ringing in his ears, Tiger Woods contemplated three different options for his most critical tee shot of the week.

He couldn’t decide on any of them, and as a result deposited his chances of winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational into a backyard adjacent to the fairway.

Woods was only one shot back through 15 holes, but with the leaders well behind him on the course he knew he needed at least a birdie on the par-5 16th to keep pace. Instead, he pulled his tee shot left and out of bounds, leading to an untimely and costly bogey on the easiest hole on the course.

“I was caught,” Woods said. “I couldn’t decide what I was going to do.”

In Woods’ mind, he had three options: “fit” a driver left to right with the shape of the fairway, “bomb it over the top” of the dogleg or just hit a 3-wood “straight away.” He opted for the driver, but after missing right the first three days he sent his ball sailing left.

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“I bailed out and hit a bad shot,” Woods said. “And that’s on me for not committing.”

Woods went on to bogey the next hole, but after a par save on No. 18 he finished the week in a tie for fifth at 10 under for his third straight top-12 finish. Given the sizzling close of Rory McIlroy, an eagle on 16 likely would have still left him looking up at the Ulsterman on the leaderboard.

“Even though I got up there, I just knew I needed to keep making birdies,” Woods said. “Those guys had so many holes behind me, where I just birdied the same holes and so if they made birdie on those holes, I would have to keep going. I got to 16, I figure I’ve got to play the last three holes in 3 under to have a chance and probably force a playoff. And maybe that wouldn’t have been good enough the way Rory is playing back there.”

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McIlroy (64) storms to Arnold Palmer victory

By Nick MentaMarch 18, 2018, 10:48 pm

Rory McIlroy fired a bogey-free, final-round 64, birdied the 72nd hole in Tiger-esque fashion and stormed to a three-shot victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Here’s how Rory ended his winless drought, and how the aforementioned Woods made a Sunday charge before collapsing late:

Leaderboard: McIlroy (-18), Bryson DeChambeau (-15), Justin Rose (-14), Henrik Stenson (-13), Woods (-10), Ryan Moore (-10)

What it means: This is McIlroy’s 14th PGA Tour victory and his first worldwide win since Sept. 25th, 2016. That was the day he walked away from East Lake with both the Tour Championship and the FedExCup. It was also the day Arnold Palmer passed away at the age of 87. With the win, McIlroy reasserts himself as a force following a winless 2017 in which he was plagued by a nagging rib injury. The four-time major winner will make one more start at next week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and then make his way to Augusta National, where he looks to complete the career Grand Slam.

Round of the day: Two back to start the final round, McIlroy made his eight birdies in bunches. He circled three of his last four holes on the front nine – Nos. 6, 7 and 9 – to make the turn in 3-under 33 and work his way into the mix. Following three pars at 10-12, he caught fire, ripping off five birdies in his final six holes. He took the outright lead at 14, chipped in at 15, and sealed the deal at 18.

Best of the rest: DeChambeau made McIlroy earn it, cutting the lead to just one when he eagled the 16th hole as McIlroy was walking to the final tee. A par at 17 and a bogey at 18 netted him 68 and solo second.

Big disappointment: This is Stenson’s fourth top-five finish at this event in the last six years. The overnight leader by one, he went 71-71 over the weekend and bogeyed 18 to finish fourth.

Biggest disappointment: Woods made a vintage Sunday charge at Bay Hill before bogeying two of his final three holes and settling for a final-round 69 and a tie for fifth.The eight-time API winner was minus-5 on the day and just one off the lead when he sniped his tee shot at the par-5 16th out of bounds to the left. He bogeyed both 16 and 17 before making a scrambling par at 18 to finish the week 10 under par.

Shot of the day: McIlroy’s birdie putt at 18.

Remind you of anything?

Quote of the day: "It means a lot. You know, the last time I won a PGA Tour event was the day Mr. Palmer passed away, so it's a little bit ironic that I come here and win. He set a great example for all of us players to try and follow in his footsteps. If everyone on Tour could handle themselves the way Arnie did, the game of golf would be in a better place. ... To be able to win his event, I wish I walked up that hill and got a handshake from him but I'm so happy to my name on that trophy." - McIlroy