Woods needs one thing at this time: Butch Harmon

By John FeinsteinJune 9, 2015, 11:10 am

During the 1992 presidential campaign, James Carville, who managed the message for Bill Clinton, kept a sign on his desk that has since become the rallying cry for almost anyone and everyone who has run for President: “The economy, stupid.”

Carville’s point was both simple and direct: When you cut through all the rhetoric of a campaign, it is the state of the economy – and what a candidate proposes to do about it – that decides elections. 

Perhaps Tiger Woods should consider hiring Carville.

When you cut to the heart of the train wreck that Woods’ golf game is right now, it isn’t about a two-way miss, taking an inch off his driver, looking at old video, whether his back hurts, his knees are bothering him or whether he needs yet another new teacher. 

It’s about what’s between his ears, stupid. 

There’s no doubting that Woods is as physically gifted as anyone who has ever played. But what made him so unbelievably dominant from that first Masters win in 1997 to his last major victory at the 2008 U.S. Open was his mind.

Woods was smarter, tougher, meaner and more confident than anyone. What’s more, the guys who were trying to compete with him KNEW he was smarter, tougher and meaner. He made every putt that mattered, found ways to get up and down that weren’t possible and, on days when his golf swing wasn’t what he wanted, still figured out how to score. 

Remember Rocco Mediate’s reaction when Woods made the 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole on Sunday to create the playoff at Torrey Pines in 2008?

“I knew he was going to make it,” Rocco stated.

Everyone knew he was going to make it because that’s who Tiger Woods was in those days. 

Of all the remarkable rounds Woods has played in his career, those who witnessed it will tell you that his second round at the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills might have been as impressive as anything they’ve ever seen. Woods was in his Hank Haney swing transition and was having trouble finding the planet off the tee. If it were possible to have a three-way miss going, he would have had it. No one had any idea where the ball might be going when he took the club back. 

Woods shot 1-under 69 that day. He finished T-17 that week but the argument can be made that any other player hitting the ball that poorly wouldn’t have sniffed the cut. Or, if they had somehow made the weekend, an 85 might very well have shown up on Saturday. 

That would never happen to Woods back then. On the final day of that Open, when the USGA lost the greens, (stroke average was 78.7 and no one broke par) the still-struggling Woods shot 76. In those conditions, the Woods of today might not have broken 90. 

One of the most underrated parts of Woods’ greatness has always been his ability to grind. That’s part of the reason why he once made 142 straight cuts and why he always appeared to be a threat even when he was way behind. He’s still grinding. He DID make the cut at both The Players and the Memorial – both times making putts on his final hole on Friday to make the weekend on the number. 

There’s no give up in him, just as there has never been give up in the game’s greatest players. It’s why Jack Nicklaus not only won that Masters at 46 but had a chance on Sunday at Augusta when he was 58. It’s why Tom Watson came within 2 inches of winning the British Open at 59. 

Woods isn’t going to give up, but he needs more than a great work ethic to become a good or very good or even great player again. Right now he’d be fighting for his life on the Web.com Tour. 

What he needs is Butch Harmon. He needs to go to Harmon – fly to Las Vegas to see him – and say: “Butch, I know hindsight is 20-20, but I never should have fired you in 2002. I had won seven of the previous 11 majors when I fired you at Muirfield that summer. I’d won a Tiger Slam and I was halfway to a calendar slam when I fired you. 

“I played some great golf with Hank Haney teaching me but I lost two-and-half-years (10 majors) making the change and even when I got it, I wasn’t the player I’d been with you. I won six more majors because I was still the best player out there, but I wasn’t miles ahead of everyone. 

“I know you aren’t going to stop working with Phil Mickelson and I know how busy you are with all your pupils during majors. So how about this: Once or twice a month, I’ll fly to Vegas. We’ll spend a day together. We’ll work on the range some, on the golf course some, on the putting green some. Then we’ll just talk over lunch, over dinner, you name it. 

“You tell me how to become Tiger Woods again. Or at least some semblance of him. I’m not yet 40. Guys win majors in their 40s. 

“Here’s a blank check. Fill in the number and let’s get to work.”

Remember, Harmon cracked open the door a few months back when he said he’d be willing to talk to Woods. What exactly does Woods have to lose by asking Harmon for a meeting? His pride? Could it be any worse than shooting 82 at Phoenix or 85 at Muirfield Village? Could it be worse than being the object of sympathy among golf circles? 

Even if Harmon said “no” it couldn’t possibly be worse. And it could give Woods a chance to find himself one more time before it’s too late. Woods was transcendent when he worked with Harmon; he was great when he worked with Haney; he had some (non-major) moments with Sean Foley and he’s been lost with Chris Como. There’s a trend. 

Woods doesn’t need to look at video or break down his swing technique. He needs someone to tell him he can be great again, someone he will believe when he hears it. 

Harmon’s a lot like Carville: a no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. The only reason he wouldn’t say, “it’s between your ears, stupid,” is because he’d likely say it in a much more profane way. 

Which is exactly what Woods needs right now. 

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.