Watson Leads US Open

By Mercer BaggsJune 12, 2003, 4:00 pm
OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- You dont need a catchy headline. Dont need a clever lead. All you need are eight little words: Tom Watson is leading the United States Open.
 
Yep. Tom Watson. The 53-year-old. The man who won at Pebble Beach 21 years ago.
 
Why not? Whether irony or coincidence, this just happens to be where Watson played in his first professional tournament. Not the event, but the site. He played in the 1968 Western Open at Olympia Fields, won by Jack Nicklaus. Watson, an 18-year-old amateur at the time, achieved his goal of making the cut.
 
I relied on a lot of past memories, Watson said Thursday. Its come full circle, I guess you might say, from my first professional golf tournament in 1968 to maybe my last National Open in 2003, you never know.
 
Watson, who is in on a special exemption, bogeyed his first hole at Olympia Fields, and then proceeded to tie his career-best score in 105 rounds in this championship. Over an indomitable final three holes, he made two birdies and saved par at the last for a 5-under 65.
 
Its been said this event ' on this course ' can be won by manybut Tom Watson?
 
I am still the guy I used to be, he said, sweater draped over his shoulders, looking ever-so at ease in the interview room. Maybe its just for one round, lets find out after Sunday.
 
Joining the eight-time major champion at the top of the leaderboard is self-described underachiever Brett Quigley. Quigley gathered some inspiration from playing partner Brian Davis, who was 5 under through his first four holes Thursday before fading to a 1-over 71.
 
That was some of the best golf I had ever seen, Quigley said. Then, all of a sudden, I birdied 6 and I was 3 under.
 
Taking a carefree approach ' and not focused on playing perfect golf ' the two-time Nationwide Tour winner recorded seven birdies and two bogeys.
 
I think in the past, Ive gotten caught up in, Its a U.S. Open; youve got to hit fairways, youve got to hit greens, he said. My game is, I dont hit it very straight, but I can move it out there plenty good, and I make a lot of birdies and a lot of bogeys. And today was a pretty good indication of that.
 
In all, 24 players broke par. Justin Leonard and Jay Don Blake went out early and posted 4-under 66. Australian Stephen Leaney and Jim Furyk had 67s.
 
It was the lowest first day of scoring in the U.S. Open in a decade. The easiest came in 1990 at Medinah ' outside of Chicago, as well ' when 39 players finished in the red. Incidentally, Hale Irwin was the winner, making him the oldest Open champion, at 45 years 15 days. He, too, received a special invitation to play that week.
 
Two-time champion Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie are all in a logjam at 1-under 69. Masters champion Mike Weir had 73. Leading money earner Davis Love III shot 76.
 
Then theres defending champion Tiger Woods, who failed to make a birdie in the first round for the second consecutive major. He managed that dubious accomplishment in a Thursday 76 at the Masters.
 
This time, he used an eagle to offset a pair of bogeys for an even-par 70. He hit only six of 14 fairways and took 33 putts. He did hit 14 of 18 greens in regulation, but that didnt set up many green-light opportunities at birdie.
 
His lone highlight came when he roped a 3-iron from 256 yards to 25 feet on the 555-yard, par-5 sixth, his 15th hole of the day, and converted the putt.
 
When I trusted my swing I hit it perfect, and when I tried to steer it just a touch or bow it down and just try to get it in play, I didnt hit the ball straight at all, he said. Im hitting it well when I step up and trust it, Ive just got to do that more often.
 
Trust ' though an enemy for years ' was Watsons ally Thursday. After the bogey at the 10th, his first hole, he holed his 6-iron approach shot from 171 yards at the par-4 12th. He added birdies at Nos. 16 and 1 to get to 3 under.
 
Following a series of pars from holes 2-6 ' which along with the No. 1 are deemed the easiest stretch on the golf course ' Watson birdied the 212-yard, par-3 seventh. His 45-foot putt died on the edge of the cup. He smiled at his misfortunate, and then erupted in celebration ' throwing his hands in the air and jumping all of six inches off the ground ' when it finally dropped in. He closed in style, making a 20-footer at the eighth and a eight-footer to save par from a greenside bunker at the 496-yard, par-4 ninth.
 
Watson took the fewest putts of the field in Round 1. He said he used an old Ping putter, thanks to some encouragement from his caddie, Bruce Edwards
 
Twenty-one years ago, Watson chipped in on the 71st hole en route to defeating Nicklaus for his first and only U.S. Open crown. While running around in jubilation on the 17th green on that occasion, he pointed to Edwards, to whom he told he would make the impossible shot.
 
Edwards is now suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrigs Disease. Each time you see him you notice a deterioration in his condition.
 
Watson has seen it from the start.
 
He helps his caddie of 30 years and great friend of equal amount pay medical expenses. He provides whatever he can. If only he could offer a cure.
 
Thats why Watson went into a lengthy speech about the insidious disease, trying to educate the media, as well as those watching the televised interview at home. He said a cure may be found in five to 10 years.
 
The average lifespan for someone with ALS is three years.
 
Thursday was more special than even Watson could express, though he tried.
 
Its quite a memory for me, to be able to play the last few holes in the U.S. Open, my favorite tournament, most difficult tournament to win, with my friend and caddie for 30 years, he said. If I shoot 90 tomorrow, I dont care.
 
Quigley has a special relationship with his caddie as well. After missing five consecutive cuts, he decided to drop his bagman of 2 1/2 years and employ his father. Its worked well thus far; theyve made two cuts and qualified for this event.
 
Though its not always a Norman Rockwell painting inside the ropes.
 
At the seventh, Brett hit his tee shot into Butterfield Creek. Dad said take a drop; son said, Its a U.S. Open, I have to go in the water.
 
Indeed, it is the U.S. Open ' where men do, and sometimes achieve the indescribable.
 
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    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.


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    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.”

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    Players honor victims of Parkland school shooting

    By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:36 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA Tour players are honoring the victims in the Parkland school shooting by wearing ribbons on their hats and shirts.

    Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located about 45 miles from PGA National, site of this week’s Honda Classic.

    “It’s awful what happened, and anytime the Tour can support in any way a tragedy, we’re always going to be for it,” Justin Thomas said. “Anytime there’s a ribbon on the tees for whatever it may be, you’ll see most, if not all the guys wearing it. Something as simple and easy as this, it’s the least we could do.”


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    The school shooting in Parkland, which claimed 17 lives, is the second-deadliest at a U.S. public school.

    Tiger Woods, who lives in South Florida, offered this: “It’s just a shame what people are doing now, and all the countless lives that we’ve lost for absolutely no reason at all. It’s just a shame, and what they have to deal with, at such a young age, the horrible tragedy they are going to have to live with and some of the things they’ve seen just don’t go away.”

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    Thomas' game on track for Masters

    By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 8:22 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas likes where his game is trending.

    He said that on the eve of the Honda Classic.

    With the Masters just six weeks away, that’s where trends are aimed as the Florida swing makes its start.

    Thomas made another encouraging move Thursday to get his game ready for a chance at winning back-to-back major championships.

    A 3-under-par 67 moved him a shot off the lead in the first round at PGA National’s Champion Course.

    Thomas, who won five times on his way to winning PGA Tour Player of the Year honors last season, is feeling something special brewing as he seeks to claim his first title of this calendar year.

    “I've been playing well all year,” Thomas said. “Just haven't had much to show for it. I feel like I'm close to reeling off a couple tournaments here. I just need to stay patient.”

    Thomas put together a strong start playing in a pairing in front of Tiger Woods, a spot that comes with challenges, with galleries on the move setting up to watch Woods.

    Thomas, who played with fans causing problems at Riviera last week, said galleries weren’t an issue.

    The Honda Classic isn’t a major, but it looks like it will present the sternest test of the year so far.

    The Champion Course is always a brute, but it sets up as a particularly grueling test this year, with Florida’s winter winds blowing briskly right from Thursday morning’s start.

    “It was a very tough day out there, very windy, tough crosswinds,” Thomas said. “I was a little bummed to see that the weather showed a little bit more wind in the morning than the afternoom.”


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    The course is also playing firmer and faster than it typically does.

    Thomas, 24, confirmed how solid his ball striking is in a round of six birdies and three bogeys.

    “The players know it's a tough golf course,” Jack Nicklaus said earlier this week. “It's going to be a handfull this week, with a dry golf course. This golf course plays much more difficult when it's dry ... and it's a little breezy.

    “You're going to see some very interesting rounds. You might hear a couple complaints.”

    Not from Thomas, who lives in nearby Jupiter.

    “Any time you're even or better on this course, on a day like today, was definitely positive,” he said.

    Thomas’ 67 is confirmation his game is shaping up for the test at Augusta National, where he will be looking to add a green jacket to the Wanamaker Trophy he won at the PGA Championship last August.

    “I love where my game is trending for Augusta,” Thomas said Wednesday. ”I feel like I'm getting, just very, very slowly, better every week ... I'm improving on the things I need to improve on.”

    A victory would be the ultimate confirmation he’s getting major championship ready.

    “I'd like to have a chance to win one of these next three events before Augusta,” he said.

    Thomas is coming off a tie for ninth at the Genesis Open last week. He was T-17 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open before that and T-14 at the Sony Open before that.

    Thursday’s round heated up with Thomas making four birdies in the middle of the round. He chipped in for birdie at the seventh (his 16th hole of the day) to get to 4 under before making bogey at the difficult 17th, where he just missed the green short playing into the wind and left his chip 20 feet short.

    “I hit probably one of my better shots in the Bear Trap, that just ended up in a horrible lie,” he said.

    Thomas headed home eager to keep his promising trend going.

    “It's definitely a little better feeling going to sleep and waking up in your own bed,” Thomas said.

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    Hoffmann's goal: Use golf to cure muscular dystrophy

    By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 7:17 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Morgan Hoffmann sees more opportunities on a leaderboard than ever before.

    His run into early contention at the Honda Classic Thursday gives him more than a chance to win a trophy and a big check.

    He sees it as a chance to change more than his life.

    Hoffmann has muscular dystrophy.

    He shared that news with the world at the end of last year in a heart-rendering fashion.

    “Today I know that am so damn lucky,” he wrote about his opportunities as a PGA Tour pro in a first-person story for The Players’ Tribune in December. “Because I’ve found my calling, and it’s one far beyond golf.”

    With a 3-under-par 67 at PGA National’s Champion Course, Hoffmann moved into contention to win his first PGA Tour title. He also moved into position to advance his cause.

    “Hopefully find a cure,” Hoffmann, 28, said after a round of four birdies and a bogey left him a shot off the lead.

    Hoffmann believes that is why he was put on this earth.

    “So that when a child is diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, there will be a cure,” he says.

    Hoffmann has to overcome some physical challenges to keep playing, and he has been struggling with his game this year, but he says that is more about the dynamics of the swing than the disease. He arrived at the Honda Classic off five consecutive missed cuts and a first-round withdrawal from last week’s Genesis Open.


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    “I've lost a lot of speed in my swing, but my swing is still there,” Hoffman said. “I'm on plane. It's not like it's really killing my golf game. This isn't the reason for the last missed cuts. I've been working on a lot of things.”

    Hoffman’s type of MD causes degeneration of muscles in the chest, back, neck, arms and sometimes the legs. He has particularly struggled with his pectoral muscles.

    With a special diet, he’s attacking his issues. And with the help of his team of family and friends, he’s fighting for the larger cause. He’s aiming to build a wellness center, a kind of health superstore. He’s planning an inaugural fundraising pro-am Aug. 20 in Paramus, N.J.

    Hoffmann was shaken by the blow when a doctor delivered the diagnosis in 2016, but his attitude since has been inspiring.

    “The doctor wasn't nice,” Hoffman said. “He was like, `Yeah, you have it.’ I went, `Well, all right, I'm speechless . . . What can I do?’ He's like, `There's no cure,’ and he basically hung up. I was pretty pissed off.”

    But Hoffman came out of that quickly. He’s excited about the doctor he’s working with today and the health and wellness plan he is following.

    “I could become a recluse and feel bad for myself, but what's that going to do?” he said. “I love being out here, and I love playing on the PGA Tour, and that's my dream. To help people, ultimately, is my goal. I think I can do really special things with this platform.”