Hawk's Nest: If a ball moves in the woods ...

By John HawkinsSeptember 16, 2013, 4:20 pm

Maybe his golf ball moved from its original position behind Conway Farms’ first green last Friday afternoon. Maybe it didn’t. When it comes to judging the man moving the stick, however, Joe Sixpack never oscillates. Opinions on Tiger Woods were set in stone long ago. For a guy who owns one of the greatest short games ever, Woods’ powers of polarization are even more remarkable.

There are lovers and there are haters – two massive groups very comparable in size. The Tigerphiles defend their man to the death and tell you with a straight face that Sir Eldrick will blow past Jack Nicklaus sometime in 2016. The Anti-Tigers chuckle and tell you the good old days are long, long gone.

Longtime loyalists laid low during Woods’ personal trauma in 2009-10, renewing their memberships to Club Red Shirt in a very discreet manner. They don’t remember any of that stuff now. As for the other half, Tiger’s off-course behavior served as the ultimate confirmation of his selfish behavior. Forgive and forget? Probably never. Definitely not yet.

It all came into play again after the second round of the BMW Championship, when Woods was penalized two strokes for being the most famous golfer who ever lived. If David Lynn decides to clear a loose impediment that might interfere with his next shot, there is no freelance videographer around to document the occurrence. Only Lynn would know if he broke a rule, at which point he would have to decide whether to turn himself in.

When I heard about the Woods incident, which began to unfold shortly after my live chat, I found the video and watched it three or four times. Frankly, I was expecting indisputable evidence that Tiger had committed a violation, but that’s not what I saw. I woke up Saturday morning and looked at it again. And again.

No question, the Nike logo shifts perhaps a quarter of a rotation as Woods tries to remove the stick, but that doesn’t mean the ball wound up in a different spot. A round object can roll without moving laterally. What happened in those trees certainly looked dubious, but did the visual transcript prove conclusive?

I’ll let you make that call because you already did.

“I feel like nothing happened,” the defendant would say a day later. “I felt like the ball oscillated and that was it.” In other words, if Woods were David Lynn, he wouldn’t have called a penalty on himself. Two different worlds on the same piece of property. Life in the fishbowl as opposed to the comforts of invisibility.

If I had to make an educated guess, perhaps 55 to 60 percent of all Woods’ shots in competition are shown on television. Nobody else probably reaches 10 percent. It’s not that Tiger is chained to a higher standard than anyone else, but a totally different set of parameters in terms of instant public access. There are no hiding places in his universe.

The problem with greatness is that it never vanishes, never takes a day off. It can be your best friend one minute, a monumental hindrance the next. It all comes with the territory, as does a sharply divided populace. I’m surprised PGA Tour official Slugger White slapped two strokes on Woods. I’m not surprised Tiger was fairly defiant about it.

Most players would just take it like a man. None of them, however, would have been sent to the principal’s office to begin with.

RAIN HAPPENS. In 2013, it has happened quite often on the tour – the BMW became the 22nd tournament (among 39) to be affected by Mutha Nature. All three playoff events have dealt with weather-related suspensions, annoying my West Coast friends to no end.

They point to their blue skies and ask why a postseason tourney isn’t held Out There. It’s a fair question without a real good answer, the best explanation being that the four title sponsors are very happy with the markets they’re in now. When you pony up an elephant-sized share of loot to host gatherings of this significance, you get a say on where they’re held.

New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta. Hard to argue with that group, rain or shine, but the absence of the West Coast is somewhat notable in that the Tour doesn’t take advantage of televising at least one event in prime time. Football is the villain here, and while there is no avoiding a head-on confrontation with the mighty pigskin no matter where you play, an evening golf telecast wouldn’t be the stupidest idea ever.

One potential snag could involve finding an appropriate venue. The West Coast simply doesn’t have an abundance of courses capable of staging (or willing to stage) a big-league Tour stop. I’ve been saying for years that the FedEx Cup playoffs should end with a match-play tournament at Pebble Beach, but it’s not like Camp Ponte Vedra cares what I think.

Some funny irony: When the AT&T National Pro-Am was struggling through another rough weather week back in the late 1990s, I wrote a piece wondering why the Tour didn’t come to Pebble Beach in the early fall instead of February. I was told the Monterey Peninsula couldn’t accommodate such a move because autumn is its busy season. Without hotel rooms, claimed the naysayers, you can’t have a golf tournament.

Wouldn’t you know it? Five years later, the Champions Tour began spending the last week of September at Pebble Beach in a tournament known as the First Tee Open, at which point I felt like I’d been sold a bunch of fake gold jewelry. I’m guessing the older fellas aren’t sleeping in pup tents. And that the Tour could have appropriated that scheduling slot to the big boys if it really wanted to, then turned it into a Fedex Cup fiesta a few years later.

Meanwhile, the match-play finale isn’t going to happen because Accenture is said to hold exclusive rights on the format – someone must think a second collection of matches would weaken the WGC event. Anyway, there’s no crime in envisioning a perfect world, which it obviously isn’t.

Instead of having perfect weather and tiny galleries at Pebble Beach next week, we’ll probably get perfect weather and tiny galleries in Atlanta.

IT’S NOT LIKE I don’t think Jim Furyk is a Hall of Famer. In the golden age of pro golf’s power era, Furyk is by far the most successful control player alive. Sixteen career wins and a major title, eight U.S. Ryder Cup teams, the FedEx Cup overall crown in 2010 ...

You can find plenty of enshrined guys who have done less, which is the problem. When the Hall relocated to northern Florida and fell under Tour auspices 15 years ago, I was given a vote, which might have lasted two years. I quickly realized my WGHOF standards were quite different from those of most others – I originally thought you needed multiple major titles to even warrant consideration.

Then again, I wasn’t using the new Hall to sell real estate or cross-promote various business interests. Some sports journalists are under the godforsaken impression that commercial motives shouldn’t come into play on the highest of honors – silly me. So I gave back my vote and have watched the WGHOF lower its standards to the point where someone has to be inducted every year, which doesn’t make me angry or sad. Just a bit uninterested.

Back to Furyk. If Colin Montgomerie, who never won an official golf tournament in the United States, can get in so quickly, they should give Not-So-Jumbo Jimbo the keys to the place. Yes, Monty won seven consecutive European Tour money titles and was indeed a Ryder Cup hero many times over, but his dominance overseas came at a time when most top-tier European players were competing in the United States.

A big fish in a small pond, Montgomerie’s reluctance to go head-to-head on a regular basis as a member of the world’s best tour never sat well with me – and might have accounted for his inability to win in the U.S. That said, the guy is in the Hall, and they’re not gonna be holding a re-vote anytime soon.

Furyk’s 59 last Friday was a milestone achievement in a career defined by accomplishment. One great round may not strengthen his WGHOF case, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Over the years, I’ve gotten a sense that Furyk has been a bit unloved. It’s not unusual for one of my live chats to include a complaint about his deliberate manner, the perception being that Furyk is a slow player, which he really isn’t.

His late collapses at last year’s U.S. Open and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational didn’t exactly fortify his popularity level, and his inability to hole a crucial putt at the Ryder Cup reaffirmed to some that he has underachieved against the Euros. I see a dude who has been one of America’s best players for the better part of two decades, a gritty short hitter who has thrived in the land of giants.

He’s a virtual lock to make the Hall of Fame regardless, and when he does get inducted, nobody will remember that Furyk squandered another final-round lead at the BMW Championship Monday afternoon. For better or worse.

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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.