Blame game for the U.S. Ryder Cup loss

By John HawkinsOctober 1, 2012, 1:30 pm

Since the guy who built my house forgot to put in a full-court gymnasium or a high-ceiling spa like the one at Doral, the only place I can swing a golf club indoors is the master bedroom. This is where the carpet bears the effects of my obsession with the perfect move. This is where I solve all my ball-striking problems, at least until I add a ball to the equation and substitute the rug for grass.

And since the people who clean my house have been instructed not to remove the set of Ben Hogan irons leaning against the wall next to that roughed-up carpet, I swing a club quite frequently. Like six times every eight minutes during Ryder Cup week, when my passion for the game suddenly regains its own high ceiling – and I can behave like a little boy who thinks he might actually get better.

You see, I can’t get to my office without walking through the master bedroom. So maybe the guy who built my house knew exactly what he was doing ...

WE CAN TALK into next week about how the United States blew a four-point lead at home and lost to Europe in the 39th Ryder Cup. We can question various elements of U.S. captain Davis Love III’s strategy – every collapse provides acres of opportunity for the second-guessers and shameless peddlers of 20/20 hindsight.

You can fire bottle-rockets of blame in just about any direction and not hit an innocent bystander – 10-6 advantage heading into singles is akin to a three-touchdown lead at the start of the fourth quarter. To give away such a large margin on home soil and lose before the final match even reaches the 18th green? Pretty astonishing.

No question, it was the darkest day in U.S. Ryder Cup history. From there, emotion governs opinion. Disillusion distorts reality. Logic gets lost in a rubble of shock and disappointment, but at some point, you try to get a clear sense of what happened and why. This is where I start.

• Not only did Europe win the first five singles matches, it beat five of America’s most dependable players: guys who had combined to win six of eight partnered matches by a whopping margin of 22 holes. It’s certainly not Love’s fault that all five woke up on the wrong side of the bed Sunday morning.

• To no one’s surprise, Euro captain Jose Maria Olazabal front-loaded his lineup. To everyone’s surprise, it turned out to be fully loaded – the Yanks managed just one victory in the last five singles bouts. Three crucial losses on that back end came from veterans who had been put there to serve as a safety net, but Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar and Steve Stricker played the final six holes in a combined 3 over par.

As much as it hurt America’s cause to lose each of the first five singles games, it could be reconciled by acknowledging Olazabal’s top-heavy batting order. The last five? That’s where the 2012 Ryder Cup was lost, which begs the question: Did Love have too many holes in his net?

• Everyone points to Medinah’s 17th and 18th as the site of America’s undoing, and indeed, you can’t go 2-9-4 on the final two holes of any course and expect good things to happen. The drivable par-4 15th, however, offered a great opportunity to reverse the mojo, and just three Americans birdied it Sunday. Two of the three (Dustin Johnson and Jason Dufner) won their matches. The nine who didn’t went 1-7-1.

And so goes the autopsy, an examination that isn’t complete unless we diagnose what I consider the biggest decision to contribute to America’s stunning loss.

IN WHAT AMOUNTS to almost 30 years in the sports-journalism business, I can’t ever recall quoting myself. But at 12:53 Saturday afternoon – about halfway through my portion of that day’s live chat – I posted the following response in agreement with those who disapproved of Love’s benching of Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley in the afternoon fourballs.

“If you lead by six going into Sunday, doesn’t matter how tired anyone is. You can take your blankie and pillow out there if you must…”

I’m regurgitating the post only because sitting Mick/Keegs looked like a mistake long before the big picture played itself out. Love had said he wouldn’t play anyone in all five sessions because he didn’t want fatigue to factor into Sunday, but DL3 was either dealing with faulty historical data or no research at all.

I turn to Golf Digest executive editor Mike O’Malley, a longtime teammate and one of the best in the business. O’Malley dug up this beauty: Since 1979, Europeans playing in all five Ryder Cup matches were 21-29-9 in singles. Americans who played in all five were 17-11-7. So Love’s rest-'em-and-they-will-win premise, however well-intentioned, was a misguided hunch.

Beyond that, however, is the simplest here-and-now perspective. Mickelson/Bradley had just demolished Luke Donald/Lee Westwood, 7 and 6, their third consecutive victory together. You don’t bench a duo that just won a match on the 12th green. You don’t rest a pair that needed just 44 holes to win those three points – a full nine of downtime and then some.

The two had just earned the longest lunch break in Ryder Cup history, and besides, we’re not playing tackle football. You send your best team back out and collect as many points as you can. You try to turn 8-4 into 12-4, at which point Sunday is nothing more than a victory parade. You step on the neck until the body is no longer moving, then you step on the neck again.

Ever the good leader, Mickelson offered a full-blooded defense of his captain Sunday evening. “You can’t put that on [Love],” Mickelson said. “If anything, you put that on me. I told him [he couldn’t go back out] on the 10th tee [Saturday morning].”

Doesn’t matter. A hands-on captain goes in at lunch and tells his Dynamic Duo that he needs them. He tells them 11-5 is much better than 10-6, that nobody on earth is more likely to win another point than Lefty and his pet piranha. You stroke and coddle and plead for full throttle.

Knowing Mickelson as I do, for as long as I have, there’s no question in my mind: He goes back out. He’s stubborn, but he’s totally about the team, about what’s best for the big picture. A similar situation occurred at the 2004 Ryder Cup with Chris Riley, who had partnered with Tiger Woods to claim a must-have point Saturday morning.

Riley didn’t want to go back out that afternoon. Woods picked up Love as a fourball partner and got paddled, 4 and 3. Riley’s reticence didn’t really affect the final outcome eight years ago, but you’d have a hard time convincing me that sitting Mickelson and Bradley didn’t mean something this time.

WHEN YOU DO 14 hours of live chat during the Ryder Cup, you begin to notice a few trends. Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the crowd basically hates everything. Another 20 percent really doesn’t get it. And among the rest, the urge to look into the future – be it six hours or two years – is difficult to resist.

There we were in the final stages of the Saturday foursomes matches, some big points in the balance, and my people wanted to talk about the next U.S. captain. The timing made no sense to me, but I told them it would be David Toms, the 2001 PGA champion and perhaps the most productive player on the American side during losses in 2002 and '04.

Toms is one of the best-liked guys on the PGA Tour, a former policy-board member who is enormously respected by his peers, all of which makes his pending captaincy a no-brainer, in my opinion. I’ve had two veteran players tell me the same thing, but that doesn’t sit well with the Fred Couples Fan Club, of which I will admit to being a member in a weak journalistic moment.

Anyway, I don’t see Couples getting the job, which isn’t to say I don’t think he’d be a terrific choice. His success as skipper of two victorious Presidents Cup teams probably should be a huge plus in the grand scheme, but that’s not how golf’s governing bodies work. Nobody has crossed over to captain in both events since the Prez Cup was conceived in 1994, and I don’t think it will happen now.

The Tour was smart to jump on Couples, who doesn’t really fit the PGA of America’s mold: a past champ with a strong Ryder Cup history. Toms clearly does, as does Justin Leonard, whom I see as a heavy favorite to get the job in 2016. Heck, Leonard gets Hazeltine on The Putt alone – the 40-footer on Brookline’s 17th in 1999, which capped the rally and triggered the post-celebration outrage.

So there you have it. Toms and Leonard. If Couples overcomes conventional wisdom and proves me wrong, I’d be just fine with that. Either Toms or Leonard would make an excellent choice two years later.

AMERICA MIGHT HAVE played worse than Afghanistan in singles, but this was still one hell of a Ryder Cup. Perfect weather, enormous crowds providing an ideal competitive atmosphere, some incredible play for long stretches every day, which takes us to my shout-outs for those who went above and beyond … and too far below.

Man of the match: Ian Poulter turns golf into an emotional contact sport, and he’s the only one wearing pads. Undefeated in four matches, the unbelievable Saturday evening finish … I don’t care that Poulter sat out a session. This might be the most significant Ryder Cup performance ever.

Sharpest dagger: Justin Rose’s 35-foot birdie putt Sunday at the 17th. After Mickelson almost holed his chip from behind the green, Rose buried the bomb to square the match, which he won on the 18th. It was the only birdie on the 17th all day. And only the biggest momentum-shifter on an afternoon that turned into a six-hour seesaw ride.

Best Yank: With his long putter propping as a microphone – and his medley of histrionics after winning a hole – Bradley carried himself like a rock star. Authentic and unbridled, he’s American golf’s new darling, regardless of the singles loss or the overall result.

Biggest disappointment: Steve Stricker finished 0-4 and struggled to help Woods in all three of their matches together. Tiger pulled the pair out of trouble in both of their fourball tilts, but when Stricker had perhaps a half-dozen chances to make a positive difference, he didn’t. Good guy, bad week.

Weirdest stat: Woods’ meaningless halve vs. Francesco Molinari in the final game of the week was the only match played to a draw. By comparison, there were five halves in 2010, six in 2008 and seven in 2006. It should be pointed out that in ’06, a halve actually felt like a victory for the U.S.

Most unlikely to succeed (but did): Hey, give Martin Kaymer credit. Olazabal tried to hide him in the 11th slot of the Euro singles lineup, where he was lucky to draw Stricker, but Kaymer shot 2 under and clinched the cup with a 6-footer for par at the 18th.

Most likely to succeed (but didn’t): Love was, in my estimation, the perfect captain for this U.S. squad. A great listener who seeks out consultation, a gentle voice who wouldn’t over-manage a squad with four decorated veterans. In a hero-or-goat world, his decision to rest his best tandem Saturday afternoon was a costly one, but in final analysis, his legacy as skipper was ultimately undermined by a team that pulled up lame on the day when 43 percent of the total points were at stake.

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Players battle 'crusty' greens on Day 1 at Honda

By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 11:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Tiger Woods called the greens “scratchy” on PGA National’s Champion Course.

Rory McIlroy said there is “not a lot of grass on them.”

Morgan Hoffmann said they are “pretty dicey in spots, like a lot of dirt.”

The first round of the Honda Classic left players talking almost as much about the challenge of navigating the greens as they did the challenge of Florida’s blustery, winter winds.

“They looked more like Sunday greens than Thursday,” McIlroy said. “They are pretty crusty. They are going to have a job keeping a couple of them alive.”

The Champion Course always plays tough, ranking annually among the most challenging on the PGA Tour. With a very dry February, the course is firmer and faster than it typically plays.

“Today was not easy,” Woods said. “It's going to get more difficult because these greens are not the best . . . Some of these putts are a bit bouncy . . . There's no root structure. You hit shots and you see this big puff of sand on the greens, so that shows you there's not a lot of root structure.”

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Brad Nelson, PGA National’s director of agronomy, said the Champion Course’s TifEagle Bermuda greens are 18 years old, and they are dealing with some contamination, in spots, of other strains of grasses.

“As it’s been so warm and dry, and as we are trying to get the greens so firm, those areas that are not a true Tifeagle variety anymore, they get unhappy,” Nelson said. “What I mean by unhappy is that they open up a little bit . . . It gives them the appearance of being a little bit thin in some areas.”

Nelson said the greens are scheduled for re-grassing in the summer of 2019. He said the greens do have a “crusty” quality, but . . .

“Our goal is to be really, really firm, and we feel like we are in a good place for where we want them to be going into the weekend,” he said.

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McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 11:03 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy and the rest of his group had a forgettable end to their rounds Thursday at the Honda Classic.

McIlroy was even par for the day and looking for one final birdie to end his opening round. Only two players had reached the par-5 finishing hole, but McIlroy tried to hold a 3-wood up against the wind from 268 yards away. It found the water, leading to a double bogey and a round of 2-over 72.  

“It was the right shot,” McIlroy said. “I just didn’t execute it the right way.”

He wasn’t the only player to struggle coming home.

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Adam Scott, who won here in 2016, found the water on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17. He made double on 15, then triple on 17, after his shot from the drop area went long, then he failed to get up and down. He shot 73, spoiling a solid round.

The third player in the group, Padraig Harrington, made a mess of the 16th hole, taking a triple.

The group played the last four holes in a combined 10 over.

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Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:40 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Consider it a sign of the times that Tiger Woods was ecstatic about an even-par score Thursday at the Honda Classic.

It was by far his most impressive round in this nascent comeback.

Playing in a steady 20-mph wind, Woods was better in all facets of the game Thursday at PGA National. Better off the tee. Better with his irons. And better on and around the “scratchy” greens.

He hung tough to shoot 70 – four shots better than his playing partner, Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season and the current FedExCup leader – and afterward Woods said that it was a “very positive” day and that he was “very solid.”

It’s a small sample size, of course – seven rounds – but Woods didn’t hesitate in declaring this “easily” his best ball-striking round of the year.

And indeed it was, even if the stats don’t jump off the page.

Officially, he hit only seven of 14 fairways and just 10 greens, but some of those misses off the tee were a few paces into the rough, and some of those iron shots finished just off the edge of the green.

The more telling stat was this: His proximity to the hole (28 feet) was more than an 11-foot improvement over his first two starts this year. And also this: He was 11th among the early starters in strokes gained-tee to green, which measures a player’s all-around ball-striking. Last week, at Riviera, he ranked 121st.

“I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knockdown shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways, and occasionally downwind, straight up in the air.

“I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”

The Champion Course here at PGA National is the kind of course that magnifies misses and exposes a player if he’s slightly off with his game. There is water on 15 of the 18 holes, and there are countless bunkers, and it’s almost always – as it was Thursday – played in a one- or two-club wind. Even though it’s played a half hour from Woods’ compound in Hobe Sound, the Honda wasn’t thought to be an ideal tune-up for Woods’ rebuilt game.

But maybe this was just what he needed. He had to hit every conceivable shot Thursday, to shape it both ways, high and low, and he executed nearly every one of them.

The only hole he butchered was the par-5 third. With 165 yards for his third shot, he tried to draw a 6-iron into a stiff wind. He turned it over a touch too much, and it dropped into the bunker. He hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot, but it got caught in the overseeded rye grass around the green and stayed short. He chipped to 3 feet and then was blown off-balance by a wind gust. Double.

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But what pleased Woods most was what he did next. Steaming from those unforced errors, he was between a 2- and 3-iron off the tee. He wanted to leave himself a 60-degree wedge for his approach into the short fourth hole, but a full 2-iron would have put him too close to the green.

So he took a little off and “threw it up in the air” – 292 yards.

“That felt really good,” Woods said, smiling. And so did the 6-footer that dropped for a bounce-back birdie.

"I feel like I'm really not that far away," he said. 

To illustrate just how much Woods’ game has evolved in seven rounds, consider this perspective from Brandt Snedeker.

They played together at Torrey Pines, where Woods somehow made the cut despite driving it all over the map. In the third round, Woods scraped together a 70 while Snedeker turned in a 74, and afterward Snedeker said that Woods’ short game was “probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”

A month later, Snedeker saw significant changes. Woods’ short game is still tidy, but he said that his iron play is vastly improved, and it needed to be, given the challenging conditions in the first round.

“He controlled his ball flight really well and hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey, because he was rusty,” said Snedeker, who shot 74. “So it was cool to see him flight the ball and hit some little cut shots and some little three-quarter shots and do stuff I’m accustomed to see him doing.”

Conditions are expected to only get more difficult, more wind-whipped and more burned out, which is why the winning score here has been single-digits under par four of the past five years.

But Woods checked an important box Thursday, hitting the shots that were required in the most difficult conditions he has faced so far.

Said Snedeker: “I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”

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Players honor victims of Parkland school shooting

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:36 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA Tour players are honoring the victims in the Parkland school shooting by wearing ribbons on their hats and shirts.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located about 45 miles from PGA National, site of this week’s Honda Classic.

“It’s awful what happened, and anytime the Tour can support in any way a tragedy, we’re always going to be for it,” Justin Thomas said. “Anytime there’s a ribbon on the tees for whatever it may be, you’ll see most, if not all the guys wearing it. Something as simple and easy as this, it’s the least we could do.”

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The school shooting in Parkland, which claimed 17 lives, is the second-deadliest at a U.S. public school.

Tiger Woods, who lives in South Florida, offered this: “It’s just a shame what people are doing now, and all the countless lives that we’ve lost for absolutely no reason at all. It’s just a shame, and what they have to deal with, at such a young age, the horrible tragedy they are going to have to live with and some of the things they’ve seen just don’t go away.”