Tour players excited to have Woods back

By Nick MentaNovember 1, 2017, 8:38 pm

LAS VEGAS – He’s coming back.  Again.

And thus his colleagues on Tour are getting asked about him. Again.

Tiger Woods on Monday announced that he will make his return to competitive golf at the Hero World Challenge in Albany.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because we were all in this position one year ago, when Tiger ended another injury layoff with a start in the Bahamas. That return lasted just seven competitive rounds before he withdrew from the Dubai Desert Classic in early February and underwent anterior lumbar interbody fusion surgery in April.

Thereafter, it seemed highly unlikely we would see Woods again in 2017. Even just a month ago at the Presidents Cup, the U.S. assistant captain made it clear that he hadn’t been greenlit to hit balls farther than 60 yards and admitted he didn’t know what his future held.

At the time, Charley Hoffman, one of the 17 players who will compete against Woods in Albany, had “zero” idea he would be in a field with Tiger so quickly.

“There were times, playing ping pong or doing whatever, where you could tell he had movement but that he wasn’t fully healed yet,” Hoffman said Wednesday at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. “I don’t know if Tiger knew [he’d be playing so quickly]. This is just me talking, but I think he was waiting for doctor’s clearance. I don’t think he knew if they were going to say yes, no, or indifferent.”

“But, you know Tiger, once he gets the OK to do something, he’s probably full-bore in.” 

That mindset is likely how Woods went from “there’s no rush” to “I am excited to return to competitive golf at the Hero World Challenge” over the course of a month.

Like Hoffman, many of Woods’ peers on Tour – those who were willing to engage in Tiger talk during practice rounds at the Shriners – weren’t surprised by Woods’ desire to come back and compete.

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That list starts with Kevin Chappell, who hit balls beside the 14-time major winner at the Tiger Woods Invitational earlier this month.

“I was fortunate enough to do a clinic with him a week [after the Presidents Cup]. I saw how good he was hitting it. I was not surprised to see him commit based on what I saw in Monterrey,” Chappell said.

“He said he’d only been practicing a few days, but we got into … not a full game of HORSE, but it was kind of like, ‘Hey, can you hit this shot? Can you hit the shot?’ He had them all. It was kind of impressive to see. It was tough to tell how far the ball was going, just because we were on the range, but I was impressed with the sound. He’s always made a special sound. To hear that, and to see the ball control he had only a few days into practicing, was impressive.”

And even if Woods’ progression from chipping to competition seems quick, Kevin Na will tell you it really isn’t.

“Once you start swinging full, for a professional golfer, I only think it takes about a month to be ready,” Na said.

Still, he stressed, there’s a difference between being “ready” and being “tournament-ready.” And the only way for Tiger to get tournament-ready, as we’ve heard him say so many times before, is to participate in actual tournaments.

Regardless of whether he’s competitive or not in his first start, Bubba Watson made it clear that it will be a treat just to see Tiger tee it up, considering how little Woods has been around on Tour the last few years.

“When Tiger Woods says he’s going to play again, how would you not love it?” Watson asked. “You always want your legends to keep playing. It’s a sad day when they hang it up.

“We should all be thrilled to see a great champion like that show up and be able to play again, not just [for his own health], but also for the game of golf.”

Na echoed Watson’s excitement, but offered reasonably tempered expectations about what’s possible for a soon-to-be 42-year-old coming off four back surgeries.

“I’m excited he’s coming back. He’s a living legend, obviously,” Na said. “Hopefully, he plays to the level that – to be honest, I don’t think he’ll ever get back to the level he once played at – but, you know, good enough to where he plays.”

Ernie Els, who’s been on Tour for Woods’ entire career and has battled him at his very best, is optimistic Woods could find his form again if his health just cooperates.

“Hopefully, the back holds up, because I do feel he can get to some of his best play, but people have to be patient with him,” Els said. “It’s been a long layoff. Out here, things have changed dramatically. Performance-wise, if he gets a couple top-20s, top-30s in his first few goes, that’s great stuff. And then, once the juices start flowing, who knows what he can do?

“He’s, mentally, the strongest player I’ve ever seen. Physically, if he can get over the hurdle, get into the swing of things out here, and get comfortable, I think he can do good things again.”

To Ernie’s point about just how much the PGA Tour has changed, Woods’ success in his early 20s was once an outlier. Instead, it’s now the norm, with guys like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas making their marks early. Woods played a big part in reshaping the Tour as more and more young players modeled themselves in his image. If he is able to once again play on a consistent basis, he’ll have to contend with monsters he helped create.

“It will be great to see him back out here competitive again among this group of young, talented individuals,” Graeme McDowell said. “I feel like he’s moved the bar to a very, very high level, and guys are stepping up.”

Unlike when guys were scrambling to keep up with Woods, it will be Tiger’s turn to catch up with the Tour. Assuming, of course, his back lets him try.

“Hopefully,” Watson added amidst his enthusiasm, “he is truly healthy enough when he gets to that moment to tee it up.”

Cook fires 62 for one-shot lead at RSM Classic

By Associated PressNovember 17, 2017, 10:26 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – PGA Tour rookie Austin Cook sank a 6-foot birdie putt on his final hole for an 8-under 62 and a one-shot lead going into the weekend at RSM Classic.

Cook has gone 36 holes without making a bogey on the Plantation Course or the Seaside Course at Sea Island Golf Club. He played Seaside on Friday and ran off four straight birdies on his opening nine holes.

Cook was at 14-under 128 and had a one-stroke lead over Brian Gay, who shot 64 on Seaside. No one else was closer than five shots going into the final two rounds.

Brandt Snedeker is looking strong in his first start in some five months because of a sternum injury. Snedeker shot a 67 on the Plantation course and was six shots back.

Bubba (64) fires his lowest round of 2017

By Rex HoggardNovember 17, 2017, 10:12 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Bubba Watson’s plan when he left the Dell Technologies Championship in September was to take a few months off and come back fresh in 2018

Those plans changed after a few weeks.

“What we figured out was the mental side, preparing for kindergarten - not for me, for my son - preparing for [wife] Angie's knee surgery. It's been a tough go,” Watson said.

“Being home and being with the family and everything, I realized how much I missed the game of golf, and that's why I wanted to come and play in these tournaments.”

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Full-field scores from the RSM Classic

The plan has paid off this week at the RSM Classic, where Watson is tied for 12th place after a second-round 64 on the Seaside course moved him to 7 under par.

Watson, who tied for 51st two weeks ago in Las Vegas, got off to a quick start on Day 2, playing the opening nine in 29. Despite a miscue at the 14th hole, when his tee shot wedged into a tree, he was solid coming in for his best individual round this year.

The left-hander was particularly sharp with his ball-striking after what has been a difficult year.

“I want to play golf now and right now I'm swinging at it pretty nicely,” he said.

S.H. Park (65) builds three-shot lead at LPGA finale

By Doug FergusonNovember 17, 2017, 9:58 pm

NAPLES, Fla. – Golf felt so easy to Sung Hyun Park that only when she took out her card to catch up on her scores did she realize she had closed out the front nine with five straight birdies at the CME Group Tour Championship.

Park kept right on attacking.

The 24-year-old from South Korea added a 30-foot eagle putt late in her second round and finished with a 7-under 65, giving her a three-shot lead going into the weekend at Tiburon Golf Club.

Nothing seems to bother her, even the chance to cap off an amazing rookie season by sweeping all the big awards on the LPGA Tour.

''To be honest, I don't feel quite as nervous as I thought I would,'' Park said through an interpreter. ''After the first shot, after the first hole, I felt a lot more comfortable. I'm not feeling as nervous as I thought I might be going into today.''

Leave that to the players chasing her.

Even with a three-putt bogey on the final hole, Park was at 12-under 132 and was three shots clear of Caroline Masson (66) and Sarah Jane Smith (69).

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Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship

More importantly, none of the other players in the chase for the $1 million Race to the CME Globe bonus or any other big award was within five shots of Park, who is trying to become the first rookie since Nancy Lopez in 1978 to win LPGA player of the year.

Lexi Thompson, who leads the Race to the CME Globe and the Vare Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average, shot a 67 and wound up losing ground. She was six shots behind and must stay within 10 shots of Park to win the Vare.

So Yeon Ryu, who leads the points-based award for player of the year, managed a 71 with her sore right shoulder but was 11 shots back.

The other two players who need to win the tournament to collect the $1 million bonus also had their work cut out for them. Brooke Henderson had another 70 and was eight shots behind, while world No. 1 Shanshan Feng shot 73 and was 11 shots behind.

Park was in control, only she didn't see it that way.

''I don't think it's quite that far of a lead,'' Park said. ''Two, three shots of a lead can change at any moment. We will have to see what's in store for this weekend.''

Park began her big run with an 18-foot birdie on No. 5, got up-and-down for birdie from just off the green at the par-5 sixth, holed a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 7, and then closed out the front nine with birdie putts from 8 feet and 15 feet.

''I actually didn't know that I was going five birdies in a row,'' Park said. ''Come hole No. 10, I realized that I hadn't been jotting down my scores as diligently, and so I realized it a little bit later on. And it felt great.''

That gave her the lead by one shot over Suzann Pettersen, except that Pettersen faded badly on the back nine.

Pettersen dropped four shots in a three-hole stretch by getting out of position off the tee and she shot 39 on the back nine for a 70 to fall five shots behind.

''I feel like I'm playing good,'' Pettersen said. ''Three bad drives on the back nine cost me four shots. That should not be possible on this course, where the fairways are about 100 yards wide.''

Park was honored at an awards banquet Thursday night as the LPGA rookie of the year. Now, she has more awards in her sights. A victory would give her the award for player of the year. She would capture the money title, which she leads over Ryu. And depending on how the weekend goes, she might be able to surpass Thompson in the race for the Vare Trophy.

Thompson did well to recover from two bogeys on her opening three holes.

''I hit a few really erratic shots in the beginning. It wasn't a good start to the round,'' Thompson said. ''Just tried to stay positive and find something that could work for the last 14, 15 holes.''

Lydia Ko fell six shots behind in her bid to avoid a winless season. She was one shot behind going into the second round but managed only three birdies in her round of 71.

Park, meanwhile, had everything going her way. Even when she pulled her drive on the par-5 14th into a sandy area with a root next to her ball, she picked it clear and sent it through a goal post of trees back to the fairway. Three holes later, she blasted a drive and had only a 7-iron into the green at the par-5 17th, which she hit to 30 feet and made the long putt.

Does anything make her nervous?

''I hate spiders,'' she said. ''But in terms of golf, I always get nervous to this day on the first tee. I can feel my heart pounding.''

It's a feeling that doesn't appear to last very long.

Korda sisters poised to make a run at CME

By Randall MellNovember 17, 2017, 9:47 pm

NAPLES, Fla. – Jessica Korda wasn’t feeling well making her way around the CME Group Tour Championship battling congestion Friday, but the leaderboard walking to the ninth tee gave her a nice lift.

That’s where she saw younger sister Nelly’s name tucked right next to hers.

They were within a shot of each other amid hard charges up the leaderboard, with Nelly playing just in front of her.

“I was like, 'Dang!’ It was good to see,” said Jessica, 24. “It’s fun to see her playing this well. I know what she puts into it. I’m kind of jealous of the rookie year she’s having, because mine sucked.”

Nelly, 19, is looking to put a special ending on her first year on tour. She posted a 6-under-par 66, good for a tie for fourth, six shots behind Sung Hyun Park (65). Nelly has given herself a weekend shot at her first victory.

Just a year ago, Nelly was here as a spectator, watching her sister.

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Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship

“I found it funny,” Nelly said. “I was walking to the range on Tuesday, thinking just last year, people were asking me, 'When are you going to be out here?’ It seems surreal to be out here, playing alongside my sister and the best players in the world.

“Being in contention is really, really special.”

Jessica shot 68 and sits a shot behind her sister.

Nelly said seeing the leaderboard gave her a lift, too.

“Maybe it amps me up just a little bit,” Nelly said. “It’s a friendly competition. Even though we want each other to succeed, we also want to beat each other. I think she would say that, too.”

Jessica is seeking her fifth LPGA title. She’s coming off a tie for third at the Blue Bay LPGA last week.

Jessica is 35th on the LPGA money list this year, with $515,521 in earnings. Nelly is 51st, with $388,983 in earnings.

“I definitely look for Jess on the board,” Nelly said. “We’ve very supportive of each other.”