Hawk's Nest: Dealing with swing problems

By John HawkinsJanuary 20, 2014, 3:00 pm

In a perfect world, every PGA Tour event would seem like a big deal. The game’s best players would show up almost every week, not less than half the time. Those gatherings would be held at the game’s most hallowed venues, not the TPC at Bulldozer Mounds.

Instead of having two major tours – one of which allows a golfer to make more money for entering a tournament than winning it – the leagues would merge and create a dynamic international presence. The season would be trimmed (40 weeks) to maximize player incentive and increase pro golf’s mainstream market value. Isn’t the NFL so successful because every game really matters?

Back when he was preparing to rule the earth like no one else in the game’s history, Tiger Woods played in six of the eight stops on the 1999 West Coast swing. In the last 15 years, however, Woods and basically every top-tier player have dropped one or two of those events to spend part of the early season on the Persian Gulf.

Even Phil Mickelson, a native San Diegan and a homebody if ever there was one, has journeyed to Abu Dhabi twice in the last four years.

This collective migration has weakened the local product. In the simplest of terms, the PGA Tour has suffered because its own players are getting paid to perform for the European Tour, which makes it a rival company. Given the amount of money being exchanged these days, that amounts to an obvious conflict.

Since the players are independent contractors, there’s not much anyone can do. The PGA Tour has added four World Golf Championships and a playoff system to bring the top golfers together more often, but that has hurt the West Coast swing, too. Playing a bunch of early-season events doesn’t have a huge effect on your overall position in the FedEx Cup derby, as the last few years have shown.

Dating back to 2010, those in the top 10 in FedEx Cup points after exiting the West Coast remained there just 27.5 percent of the time. Some of that has to do with the fact that the Mark Wilsons of the world aren't given $200,000 just for traveling to Abu Dhabi – middle-class players aren’t offered the same financial rewards as those in the game’s top tier. Still, that doesn’t do anything to make the appearance-fee premise seem less corrupt.

Woods could begin his PGA Tour season in March, win four or five events and finish atop the regular-season points race by a comfortable margin. Perhaps Camp Ponte Vedra should consider it a blessing that both he and Mickelson will be at Torrey Pines this week. After all, Woods did skip the Farmers, a tournament he has won seven times, to play in Abu Dhabi in 2012.

Blood is thicker than water, and money is stronger than common sense.

TWENTY YEARS LATER, Mickelson rarely ceases to amaze me. His third-round 63 in Abu Dhabi was outrageously good – three strokes better than anyone else in the field. It vaulted him squarely into the mix Sunday, and Mickelson responded with a 68.

There was just one little problem.

He tripled the 13th hole. In typical Lefty fashion, it was as good a triple as you’re ever likely to see.

His 3-wood off the tee landed squarely in a bush left of the fairway. After pondering a drop that would have cost him a penalty stroke, he took a right-handed swipe at his ball with a long iron and double-hit it, leaving him in no better shape than he’d been. At that point, Philip did take relief, so now he’s lying 4 and still has nothing.

He managed to slap a ground ball into a nearby bunker, where the lie wasn’t very good. At this point, Phil’s chili was running a bit hot. Without further ado, he struck his sixth shot (he appeared to be about 100 yards from the green) to the fringe – and holed out a 20-foot chip for a 7.

“If I could just get the ball to go 10 feet, I would have been fine,” Mickelson said of his second shot. “I make my bogey and try to make up ground later on.”

Now there’s a lot to examine and discuss here, some of it relevant to the situation. Some media reports have depicted Mickelson’s decision as reckless, at best overly risky. Anyone who saw the sequence knows that simply wasn’t the case. His options included going back to the tee, which tour pros rarely do, playing the ball as it lay, or accepting the penalty and taking relief as far back as he wanted while remaining in line with the flagstick.

That final option was a non-starter – the entire area behind Mickelson was full of unplayable brush. The verdict? Lefty got unlucky. In golf, bleep happens. When you’ve won 42 Tour events and five majors, it seems to happen quite often, but when you pull off more crazy stuff than just about anyone in golf history, you occasionally wrap your arm around failure’s shoulder.

This situation was remarkably similar to one in the final round of the 2012 Masters, when Mickelson missed the green left at the par-3 fourth and tried to play a shot with one hand and his back to the hole. That one also led to a triple bogey, but of course, Philip had already won the Masters three times by then.

He can play in that tournament until he’s 100 years old if he wants. By finishing T-2 at Abu Dhabi, Mickelson has no obligation to return as the defending champion. He can show up at the Humana Challenge and help a tournament that could really use some star power.

BACK TO 1999. It was a year of memorable performances, none more spectacular than David Duval’s victory at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Duval’s final-round 59 has to be one of the five greatest rounds in golf history, majors included. Not only was it the first time someone shot the magic number on a Sunday, it wiped out a seven-stroke deficit and allowed Duval to beat Steve Pate by a single stroke.

Having spent more than a decade in search of his long-lost form, Duval might be more popular as golf’s most famous hardship case than as one of the game’s best players. His collapse and repeated attempts at a comeback are among the most consistent topics on my live chats. A valiant performance at the 2009 U.S. Open (T-2, two strokes back) fueled optimism and thickened the plot, but since the start of 2012, Duval has made just five cuts in 28 starts.

Like a lot of golf fans, I find Duval’s persistence remarkable, but it appears his attempts at a career revival are nearing an end. His status has all but evaporated. Last year’s changes to the Tour’s qualifying process and the wraparound schedule have made it more difficult for unproductive veterans to get starts.

Duval continues to write letters to tournament directors, searching for sponsor exemptions, but at some point, hope collides with reality. “You shouldn’t have to ask for help year after year,” he told me this past weekend. “You have to prove yourself on the golf course. You have to take care of business.”

We don’t talk as often as we once did, but my relationship with Duval has survived nicely through all his ups and downs. No way could I have envisioned the level of perseverance he has shown over the years. There was a time during his prime when he almost seemed bored with the grind of tournament golf – he made it clear during one of our conversations that he could walk away from pro golf and not feel an ounce of remorse.

Go figure: He still sees his game a work in progress 11 years later. A terrible start last season led Duval to swing coach Chris O’Connell, whose work with Matt Kuchar has become one of the modern era’s more notable reclamation projects. O’Connell was able to restore many of the nuances of the unorthodox-but-successful swing that made Duval so good in the old days.

Then, something weird happened. “My putting just got completely disastrous, which is something I’m not used to,” Duval said. “There were weeks when I should have been in 20th place after two days and I’m sitting on 67 putts – no pro golfer can survive that way. At the McGladrey I’m 1 or 2 over and I’ve got 36 putts. Get me back to 29 and I’m right there.”

For all his struggles, Duval’s optimism has remained unyielding – almost too unbreakable when you consider all he’s gone through. I think he originally saw his downfall as a great personal challenge, a chance to show himself what he was made of. As the years went by and things didn’t get better, the guy basically told himself he’d invested too much time and energy in the fight to simply walk away.

He might get into a couple of tournaments before the Masters – the only sure things at this point are the Puerto Rico Open and British Open, which he won in 2001. I’m perplexed as to why the people who run the Humana Challenge (formerly the Hope) denied Duval’s request for a sponsor exemption for a second consecutive year.

Take a look at the names in last week’s field and tell me he didn’t deserve a spot.

Getty Images

Simpson, Noren share Honda lead after challenging Rd. 1

By Doug FergusonFebruary 23, 2018, 1:25 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Tiger Woods had what he called ''easily'' his best round hitting the ball, and he didn't even break par at the Honda Classic.

Alex Noren and Webb Simpson shared the lead at 4-under 66 in steady wind on a penal PGA National golf course, and felt as though they had to work hard for it. Both dropped only one shot Thursday, which might have been as great an accomplishment as any of their birdies.

''When you stand on certain tee boxes or certain approach shots, you remember that, 'Man, this is one of the hardest courses we play all year, including majors,''' said Simpson, who is playing the Honda Classic for the first time in seven years.

Only 20 players broke par, and just as many were at 76 or worse.

Woods had only one big blunder - a double bogey on the par-5 third hole when he missed the green and missed a 3-foot putt - in an otherwise stress-free round. He had one other bogey against three birdies, and was rarely out of position. Even one of his two wild drives, when his ball landed behind two carts that were selling frozen lemonade and soft pretzels, he still had a good angle to the green.

''It was very positive today,'' Woods said. ''It was a tough day out there for all of us, and even par is a good score.''

It was plenty tough for Adam Scott, who again stumbled his way through the closing stretch of holes that feature water, water and more water. Scott went into the water on the par-3 15th and made double bogey, and then hit into the water on the par-3 17th and made triple bogey. He shot 73.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Rory McIlroy was at even par deep into the back nine when he figured his last chance at birdie would be the par-5 18th. Once he got there, he figured his best chance at birdie was to hit 3-wood on or near the green. Instead, he came up a yard short and into the water, made double bogey and shot 72.

Noren, who lost in a playoff at Torrey Pines last month, shot 31 on the front nine and finished with a 6-foot birdie on the ninth hole into a strong wind for his 66.

The Swede is a nine-time winner on the European Tour who is No. 16 in the world, though he has yet to make a connection among American golf fans - outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma, from his college days at Oklahoma State - from not having fared well at big events. Noren spends time in South Florida during the winter, so he's getting used to this variety of putting surfaces.

''I came over here to try to play some more American-style courses, get firmer greens, more rough, and to improve my driving and improve my long game,'' Noren said. ''So it's been great.''

PGA champion Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Morgan Hoffmann - who all live up the road in Jupiter - opened with a 67. There's not much of an advantage because hardly anyone plays PGA National the other 51 weeks of the year. It's a resort that gets plenty of traffic, and conditions aren't quite the same.

Louis Oosthuizen, the South African who now lives primarily in West Palm Beach, also came out to PGA National a few weeks ago to get a feel for the course. He was just like everyone else that day - carts on paths only. Not everyone can hole a bunker shot on the final hole at No. 9 for a 67. Mackenzie Hughes of Canada shot his 67 with a bogey from a bunker on No. 9.

Woods, in his third PGA Tour event since returning from a fourth back surgery, appears to be making progress.

''One bad hole,'' he said. ''That's the way it goes.''

It came on the easiest hole on the course. Woods drove into a fairway bunker on the par-5 third, laid up and put his third shot in a bunker. He barely got it out to the collar, used the edge of his sand wedge to putt it down toward the hole and missed the 3-foot par putt.

He answered with a birdie and made pars the rest of the way.

''I'm trying to get better, more efficient at what I'm doing,'' Woods said. ''And also I'm actually doing it under the gun, under the pressure of having to hit golf shots, and this golf course is not forgiving whatsoever. I was very happy with the way I hit it today.''

Woods played with Patton Kizzire, who already has won twice on the PGA Tour season this year. Kizzire had never met Woods until Thursday, and he yanked his opening tee shot into a palmetto bush. No one could find it, so he had to return to the tee to play his third shot. Kizzire covered the 505 yards in three shots, an outstanding bogey considering the two-shot penalty.

Later, he laughed about the moment.

''I was so nervous,'' Kizzire said. ''I said to Tiger, 'Why did you have to make me so nervous?'''

Getty Images

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.”

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

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.

Getty Images

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.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

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.

Getty Images

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.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

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.”