The keys to Tiger's stretch of dominance

By John HawkinsFebruary 6, 2012, 9:13 pm

Back when he ruled the earth with a steel shaft (in his driver) and a putter that usually listened, Tiger Woods was a frequent participant on the PGA Tour’s West Coast swing. He played in five of the year’s first eight events in 2000, kicking off his miracle season with ultra-dramatic victories at Kapalua and Pebble Beach. By 2006, however, both events had been removed from Woods’ schedule, as had the Tour stops in Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Looking at the exodus from a distance, it’s justifiable to wonder why a guy who was born and raised in southern California would drop all those tournaments, but there were extenuating circumstances. The Tour schedule itself changed to make room for the FedEx Cup playoffs in late summer – Woods began playing more in August and September. He also added events in Charlotte and Washington, D.C.

Injuries and personal issues have affected Tiger’s competitive frequency in recent years, but from a career high of 21 starts in 1999, he hasn’t played in more than 17 when fully healthy since the FedEx Cup structure was implemented in 2007. Among the tournaments he dumped, Pebble always seemed the most puzzling, which makes Woods’ return to this week’s AT&T National Pro-Am somewhat significant.

If his 15-stroke triumph at the ’00 U.S. Open was the greatest single-week performance in golf history, Tiger’s victory on the same famed links five months earlier was equally remarkable, if not nearly as historic. Woods trailed Matt Gogel by seven strokes with seven holes to play, finished eagle-birdie-par-birdie and won by two. Run that last sentence through your department of logic a couple of times and tell me what you think.

That final round was completed on Monday because of weather – I was covering the event for Golf World, a weekly magazine that went to press later that afternoon. The usual Sunday finish was no big deal: you write 1,500 words, send your article at maybe 2 a.m. and move on after five or six hours of sleep. If the tournament leaked into the next day, however, you were dealing with a newspaper-like deadline.

They would need your piece as quickly as possible, meaning an hour or so after the final putt, so if you had any common sense, you would have 75 percent of your story written, then top it off with a few hundred words and hope you didn’t make any factual errors. I basically had my homage to Gogel entirely written before Woods went on his rampage. Not only was most of that stuff useless, I had about 90 minutes to chronicle one of the greatest comebacks ever. In any sport.

It also happened to be Woods’ sixth consecutive Tour victory, a streak that had begun the previous August. The fifth of those wins had occurred four weeks earlier in Hawaii – an unforgettable regulation-to-playoff duel with Ernie Els – so there wasn’t much concern about overstating the otherworldly nature of Tiger’s accomplishments. His ability to succeed under immense competitive duress was extraordinary, but then, we’d seen that years earlier when he’d won three consecutive U.S. Amateurs.

The fact that he did it over and over again still blows my mind, not so much as a sports fan, but as a semi-trained journalist. Twelve years after Maui and the incredible Pebble rally, I look at Woods’ stretch from the ’99 PGA Championship to his defending the PGA title in overtime against Bob May as the finest 12-month performance ever produced by a sportsman.

Greatness arrives, usually for a reason. Having been given a front-row seat to view Tiger’s invincibility at the turn of the century, I see five clear points that triggered his dominance, listed here in chronological order:

Butch and Stevie – It took Woods more than a year to tighten his swing under the tutelage of former coach Butch Harmon, but once he was able to synchronize his arms and body without any excess at the top, he consistently drove the ball in the fairway and rarely dealt with the killer miss. Harmon also was responsible for Woods’ hiring caddie Steve Williams to replace Fluff Cowan in March 1999. Six months into the partnership, Woods liked and trusted Williams to the point where every decision made on the golf course was a comfortable one.

Here comes Sergio – No question, the swift emergence of 19-year-old Garcia, who took Tiger to the wire at the ’99 PGA, forced Woods to realize that as good as he was, he had to keep working to realize any visions of superiority. David Duval had resided atop the World Ranking for five months until Woods reclaimed the top spot at Medinah, but Garcia was four years younger, every bit as marketable and perhaps just as gifted.

Brookline and Payne – A bit of a philosophical tangent here. The amazing U.S. rally at the ’99 Ryder Cup reminded Tiger that everyone loves a winner, that losers are bums, and heightened his comfort level in the team dynamic. Payne Stewart’s death a month later reminded Woods, at least subconsciously, that life can be way too short, that there are no guarantees. You make hay when there is hay to make.

The Pebble comeback – The miraculous Monday surge vaulted Woods’ confidence to an unprecedented level. No deficit was too large if you wipe out all margin for error, and for the balance of 2000, Tiger was as close to error-free as a golfer has ever gotten. This guy didn’t need a phone booth to change into his Superman outfit.

Singh’s Masters victory – The only major title Woods didn’t win in the 22-month stretch from August ’99 to June 2001 turned into the ultimate motivational factor for a guy who could find incentive in a pile of bread crumbs. Neither Tiger nor Williams was fond of Singh, whose claim to the green jacket in 2000 sent Woods to the U.S. Open with smoke pouring from his ears.

At Pebble, Williams recalls Tiger working on his putting until dark that Wednesday night. “During the practice rounds, he couldn’t find a stroke he was comfortable with,” the caddie told me in 2010. “So he went to the practice green and stayed there for hours. He was making a lot of putts, but he didn’t like the way they were going in.”

Such a level of devotion is almost impossible to maintain, but at the age of  24, unmarried and uncommonly focused, armed with a competitive drive that seemed to fuel his skill and willpower, Tiger Woods did things no other golfer has ever done. He has returned to Pebble Beach several times since, most notably at the 2010 U.S. Open, where his attempt to win a 15th major succumbed to a lackluster Sunday, but there is no dismissing the notion that two milestones in his illustrious career were achieved on American golf’s most hallowed seaside turf.

It’s nice that he’s back. We’ll see if it’s just a one-shot deal.

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Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 6:07 pm

An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.

It was too much “socializing.”

“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”

Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.

“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.

His plan for doing that?

“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

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Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.

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McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”