Woods close to major breakthrough or just delusional?

By John HawkinsAugust 12, 2013, 6:00 pm

PITTSFORD, N.Y. – On his visit to the Augusta National media center prior to the 1992 Masters, Jack Nicklaus shared a joke he’d heard about a guy who walks into a bar with his dog. On the television in that bar, Nicklaus is playing in a golf tournament. Jack birdies a hole and the dog does a backflip. Nicklaus heads to the next tee and blasts a huge drive down the fairway, prompting the dog to sprint up and down the bar.

“Boy, he really loves Jack,” the bartender says. “What does he do when he wins?”

“I don’t know,” the dog’s owner replies. “I’ve only had him for six years.”

Nicklaus delivered the punchline with a self-deprecating smirk, and the room erupted in laughter. Can you imagine Tiger Woods resorting to such humor when asked about his major-championship drought? One thing is for certain: Woods has the next eight months to work on his explanation for not claiming a big title since he hobbled past Rocco Mediate to win the 2008 U.S. Open.

I truly believe he's trying too hard to win,” said Butch Harmon, Woods' swing coach from 1993-2002. “The (longer) he goes without winning one, the more pressure he puts on himself to do it.”

 It has become golf’s longest and most complicated saga. The Dry Spell From Hell if you’re a card-carrying Tiger fan, justice served for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you’re not. From mid-1997 until the summer of 1999, Woods played in 10 consecutive majors without a victory. He would go majorless for 10 again from mid-2002 until the 2005 Masters.



The current stretch is at 18, an ironic sort of number. Woods remains unwilling to address the matter in anything other than optimistic or shortsighted terms. “Is it concerning? No,” he said Sunday at Oak Hill. “I’ve been there [contending] in half of them, so that’s about right. If you’re there with a chance to win three-quarters of the time or half the time on the back nine, it’s just a matter of getting it done.”

Half the time? Really? We’ll examine that claim in a moment. Has Tiger become a man in denial? Depends on who’s listening – the truth is in the ear of the beholder. As brilliant as he’s been over the years when it comes to striking a golf ball, Woods has been equally adept at deflecting suggestions of fallibility. His competitive mindset simply doesn’t allow admissions of weakness. It doesn’t matter what the numbers say or how long it has been since …

In Eldrick Almightyville, you never take off the bulletproof vest. Even after the pistols have been put away.

“The only time it was really hard was going into 2001,” he said of the eight months between the PGA Championship and following year’s Masters.

“That was tough because I was asked every day, ‘Is it a Grand Slam? Not a Grand Slam?’ To hear it for that long, and to hear I was in a slump when I didn’t win for three tournaments, or something like that.

“I heard it for a long time. So that was a long wait.”

Jeepers. And we thought Sean Foley was trying to lower Tiger’s spin rate.

Back to that “half the time” claim. At what point is a player “in the hunt” with nine holes to go at a major championship? Must he be within three shots of the lead? At a Masters, where we’ve seen so many fireworks from Amen Corner on, do you still have a chance if you’re four or five back?

We’re talking about an abstract and very subjective measure. A different scenario every time, depending on the course, conditions, scoring, the guy in the lead and how many players stand between you and that leader.

Astonishingly, Woods has played 16 consecutive weekend rounds at the majors without breaking 70, but that doesn’t mean he entered every Sunday without a chance.

Since falling to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA, Tiger has five top-five finishes in 13 major starts. Here is an extended look at Woods top post-Yang performances and an assessment whether he was truly in the hunt:

2012 British Open. Tied for third, four strokes behind Ernie Els and three behind Adam Scott, whose late collapse was the story. Woods’ losing battle with a front greenside bunker at the Lytham’s par-4 sixth led to a triple bogey and ended any serious thoughts of a winning charge. Three straight birdies on the back nine made for a nice run, but to say Red Shirt had a realistic chance down the stretch is a reach.

2013 Masters. Tied for fourth, four strokes out of a Scott-Angel Cabrera playoff. Tiger’s third shot Friday at the par-5 15th, which hit the flagstick and tumbled into the water and led to the infamous illegal drop, ultimately served as a convenient reason for his not being closer to the lead Sunday afternoon. Woods played the final 10 holes in 4 under, but six behind Cabrera at the turn? I wouldn’t call that much of a chance, given the multitude of scoring opportunities on Augusta National’s back nine.

2011 Masters. Tied for fourth, four back. A remarkable tournament in that so many guys were in the picture so late, and when you look at the ebb and flow of the final 90 minutes that day, Woods certainly had a chance with nine holes to play. He’d gone out earlier than most of the contenders and shot a front-nine 31 to become a legitimate contender, but an even-par back nine left him in the dust. High-end dust, but dust still the same.

2010 U.S. Open. Tied for fourth, three back. An obvious missed chance in that Woods closed with a 75 after a brilliant 66 Saturday. Paired in the second-to-last group at Pebble Beach with Gregory Havret, Tiger played the final 10 holes in 4 over – a big reason Graeme McDowell was able to win despite a Sunday 74. In contention? Yes. Draw your own conclusions from there.

2010 Masters. Tied for fourth, five back. Woods’ first major appearance after the blowup of his personal life was, in a sense, rather impressive. Again, Tiger was in the second-to-last group. He made a ton of noise after a lousy start Sunday, holing out for eagle at the par-4 seventh and carding another eagle at the par-5 15th, but from a wide-angle perspective, this was a two-man duel featuring Phil Mickelson, who beat Lee Westwood by three.

In final analysis, Woods can believe whatever he wants in terms of his career trajectory, recent performances at the majors and pursuit of Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles. You can call him delusional, or a hammer-headed optimist. He has reasserted himself as perhaps the game’s best player in 2013, but when majors become the measure, discussions turn into arguments.

One thing that can’t be argued, however, is that Woods, at least publicly, has dramatically lowered his standards on the definition of excellence. Back when he was a skinny kid with a crude golf swing and a putter that rarely betrayed him, Tiger would tell you “second sucks” and refer to the runner-up spot in any tournament as “first loser.”

Times have changed. The swing has been refined several times, the lithe body stacked with muscle, and second doesn’t suck anymore. Neither does a tie for third or fourth. Woods says his five victories make this a great year despite a lack of major titles. It’s an attitude adjustment made out of convenience by a man who has never been good at handling failure, regardless of its form.

You take a step back. Clarity emerges. Maybe Tiger isn’t as tough as he once was. Maybe he just isn’t as good. Maybe he knows it, maybe he doesn’t. Optimism, confidence and performance are moving in strange directions, doing lots of funny things.

Kind of like that dog in the Nicklaus joke.

Getty Images

Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm

Getty Images

Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.


CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos


Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

Getty Images

Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.

@tommyfleetwood_1

A post shared by Alex Noren (@alexnoren1) on

The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.

Getty Images

Mickelson starts fast, fades to 70 at La Quinta

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:07 pm

Phil Mickelson got off to a fast start in his first competitive round of 2018 - for six holes, at least.

The 47-year-old is making his first start since the WGC-HSBC Champions this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and only his third competitive appearance since the BMW Championship in September. Four birdies over his first six holes indicated that a strong opener might be in the cards, but Mickelson played his subsequent holes in 2 over.

It added up to a 2-under 70 at La Quinta Country Club, typically the easiest of the three courses in rotation this week, and left Mickelson eight shots behind Jon Rahm.

"It was fun to get back out and be competitive," Mickelson told reporters. "I for some reason am stuck on 70 here at La Quinta, whether I get off to a good start or a bad one, I end up shooting the same score."


Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos


Mickelson stunted his momentum with a tee shot out of bounds on the par-4 eighth hole, but he managed to save bogey and otherwise drove the ball relatively well. Instead, he pointed to his normally reliable iron play as the culprit for his back-nine backslide on a day when more than 120 players in the 156-man field broke par.

Mickelson will now head to the Nicklaus Tournament Course with the Stadium Course on tap for Saturday's third round. While there were several low scores Thursday at La Quinta, Mickelson remains bullish about the birdie opportunities that still lie ahead.

"This isn't the course where I go low on," Mickelson said. "I feel more comfortable on Stadium and Nicklaus. Neither of them are nearly as tight and I tend to score a lot lower on those other two than I do here, historically."