Reversal Of Fortune
Els, who finished second in each of the year's first two majors, shot an eight-birdie, two-bogey 6-under-par 66 to lead Woods and Steve Flesch by one shot. The 30-year-old South African carded four birdies and one bogey on both the outward and inward halves, with his final birdie coming courtesy of a 10-foot putt at the treacherous 'Road Hole' 17th.
This is the first time Els has led after any round in a major championship since he won the 1997 U.S. Open. Last week, he broke a 17-month winless streak at the Standard Life Loch Lomond. He seems to have carried that momentum from Glasgow to St. Andrews.
'After last week's win, I feel on form,' Els said. 'I have a lot of confidence now.'
In reference to the last time he and Woods did battle, Els said: 'If he beats me by 15 shots from now, there would be an inquiry.'
While Els is trying to add the Claret Jug to his pair of U.S. Open trophies, Woods is in search of the career Grand Slam. Woods, who won the '97 Masters, '99 PGA Championship and 2000 U.S. Open, started slowly, but caught fire in the middle of his round. Tiger parred his first eight holes on Thursday, before playing his next seven in 5-under. His first birdie of the day came at the 9th. He then picked up another at the 10th. Then another at the 13th. And at the 14th. And at the 15th. Woods finished the day as he began, with a string of pars.
On a mild, breezy day in Scotland, Woods only found trouble once while playing around the Old Course. At the 17th, Woods hit his tee shot into the left knee-high grass. With all his strength, Tiger chopped through the hay and forced his ball to the front of the green, from where he got up and down for par.
'I figured anything in red would be good,' said Woods, 'and I've accomplished that.'
Woods is trying to become the 5th player, and youngest at 24, to win the career Grand Slam. He looks to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, who are the only players in golf history to capture each of the four current majors.
While Woods was saving par early, his former college teammate, Notah Begay III, was blistering the course. Seven-under through 16 holes, Begay entered the 17th with the lead. But just as Woods would eventually do, Begay found the rough off the tee. However, unlike Woods, Begay hit his second shot into the Swilken Burn. To the delight of the crowd, Begay rolled up his pants, stepped into the water (shoes still on) and played his ball where it lay. He did manage to get his ball out, but eventually made triple-bogey. Begay also bogeyed the 18th to shoot a 3-under-par 69.
'That was more fun than taking a drop,' Begay said of his shot out of the burn. 'It wasn't a bad start. I wish it could have been better.'
Begay is seeking his third consecutive PGA TOUR victory. He won his last two starts at the Fed Ex St. Jude Classic and the Canon Greater Hartford Open.
At 5-under, Woods is tied with Flesch, who is making his first career Open appearance. The two lead a number of other players by one, including Dennis Paulson, Tom Lehman, Shigeki Maruyama, Padraig Harrington, Scott Dunlap, Sergio Garcia and Ian Garbutt. Garbutt made four straight threes on the front and was 7-under through 12 holes, but bogeyed the 13th, 15th and 17th to finish the day at 4-under-par.
Garcia was 21 shots better on Thursday than he was a year ago at the Open. In 1999, Garcia shot 89-83 to miss the cut at Carnoustie. St. Andrews proved to be more friendly in the first round. The 20-year-old Spaniard chipped in for eagle on the par-5 14th en route to his 4-under-par 68.
Paul Lawrie opened his title defense with a career-high 41 putts in a 6-over-par 78. 1999 runners-up Justin Leonard and Jean Van de Velde are at 2-under and 1-under, respectively. John Daly, who won the last time the Open was contended at St. Andrews in 1995 shot 76. Jack Nicklaus, playing in perhaps his final Open Championship, shot 77.
Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.
Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.
Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.
So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.
How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:
1. Stay healthy
So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.
Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.
Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.
2. Figure out his driver
Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.
That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.
In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.
Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron.
Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”
That won’t be the case at Augusta.
3. Clean up his iron play
As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.
At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.
Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.
That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.
Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”
4. Get into contention somewhere
As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.
In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.
“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”
Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.
And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go.
“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”
Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.
Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA
Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.
The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.
According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.
Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.
The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.
Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.
Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.
“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.
Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.
Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”
With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.
Thomas was asked about that.
“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.
“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”
Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.
“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.
“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”
Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.
“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”
Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.
“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.
Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.
McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.
“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said. “That's what he said.”
The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.
The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.
“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”