Bunker Shots Hail to the Chiefs

By Randall MellOctober 6, 2009, 7:17 pm

With the Presidents Cup in strong focus, we set the week’s storylines with American presidents guiding the way.

Norman, Couples lead parade of stars

“We grow great by dreams. All men are dreamers.”  Woodrow Wilson

They were golf’s superstars when Tiger Woods came along.

Nick Faldo might have won more major championships in the pre-Tiger era, but Greg Norman and Fred Couples were more popular.

The Shark and Boom Boom were two of the game’s biggest draws in much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, big hitters with even bigger personas, charismatic presences with movie-star looks.

Norman and Couples step back onto golf’s center stage this week as captains of the International and American Presidents Cup teams.

The Presidents Cup may not have the Ryder Cup’s history or its passionate following, but it has stars galore. Michael Jordan will be more than a spectator at Harding Park this week. He’ll be an honorary assistant captain to Couples. Woods and Phil Mickelson will draw giant galleries.

Though Norman and Couples won’t hit a shot all week, their personalities promise to loom large in the storylines.

It’s a shame, though, that these captains won’t play Sunday singles. They can still summon magic. Norman, 54, nearly won the British Open last year. Couples, 50, tied for third at both the Northern Trust Open and Shell Houston Open this season and also tied for fifth at the Wyndham Championship.

A captains’ match might add some compelling competitive history to their relationship because it’s surprisingly lacking.

Norman and Couples were full-time players in 14 seasons together on the PGA Tour, but it’s as if they competed in parallel universes. In Norman’s 20 PGA Tour victories, Couples never finished second to him. In Couples’ 15 PGA Tour victories, Norman never finished second to him. In all of their years together, they shared a 54-hole lead just once. They were tied atop the leaderboard through three rounds of the 1991 Western Open, but neither won. Russ Cochran charged late to claim the title.

The closest they came to dueling in a PGA Tour event was the rain-shortened Memorial in 1990, when they reached the 54th and final hole tied and Couples handed Norman the title with a double bogey.

In the 67 major championships they played together, Norman and Couples never seriously contended together coming down the stretch. In all those majors, they finished in the top five the same year on two occasions. They each tied for fifth at the ’88 Masters won by Sandy Lyle. Couples tied for third at the '82 PGA Championship, four shots behind Raymond Floyd, with a Sunday 66. Norman tied for fifth five shots back.

Perhaps this Presidents Cup will mark the most serious collision of their parallel universes.

Norman’s bid for re-election

“Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” Teddy Roosevelt

Norman never saw the Presidents Cup as a two-year investment of himself.

He saw it as a four-year commitment. The Shark’s always had his eye on also being the captain when the Presidents Cup is staged at Royal Melbourne in his native Australia in two years, but the PGA Tour has yet to announce those assignments.

“That was part of my discussions with Tim Finchem when he asked me initially to be captain at Harding Park,” Norman told Mark Wood, Tim Rosaforte and yours truly during a Golf World On-Air radio interview earlier this year. “I said, `Tim, quite honestly, if I was ever going to be captain, I was hoping to be captain in my home country of Australia in 2011. Let’s just face reality. If I had a choice, I would rather stand down for the Harding Park Presidents Cup and be available for the 2011 Presidents Cup. We talked about it, and we had very good conversations about it. There weren’t any guarantees, but at the same time 2009 has a good chance of leading into 2011.”

You get the feeling it will be an unpleasant shock for Norman if he isn’t designated to stay on as captain at Royal Melbourne.

A celebrated return to golf is at hand

“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Abraham Lincoln

As far as all the stars on display this week, count Phil Mickelson’s wife among them.

Amy Mickelson’s arrival might be the most celebrated.

Amy is expected to make her first appearance at a PGA Tour event since it was announced five months ago that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Tour wives enjoy elevated status at the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup. They’re allowed inside the ropes and are frequently shown on camera rooting or fretting. Amy’s sure to find the camera’s focus often if she does make an appearance.

Amy’s return is good timing. October is breast cancer awareness month.

The heart is a lonely hunter

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence . . . The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” Calvin Coolidge

While Amy’s arrival promises to be uplifting, Norman’s arrival without his wife of 15 months, tennis great Chris Evert, comes with a sad undertow.

With the couple announcing their separation last week, Norman will be without the woman he credited with inspiring his run at winning the British Open last year. It’s only human nature that his players, PGA Tour officials, media and fans will be watching to see how the split affects the captain's spirits. If Norman were actually hitting shots this week, matters of the heart might really matter in the outcome, but he’s not.

Dancing with a Tiger

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”  Thomas Jefferson

Remember when captains couldn’t find a good match as partner to Woods in team events?

It wasn’t that long ago, tour pros appeared lost alongside Woods, consistently failing to deliver their best when paired with him in the Ryder or Presidents cups.

Now Americans are practically jostling in line for the chance to play with him.

Jim Furyk lobbied for the pairing when he played with Couples at the PGA Championship in August. Steve Stricker and Woods talked about how they wanted to pair up this week while they played the Deutsche Bank Championship in September. Sean O’Hair left the Tour Championship wanting to team with Woods, and then there’s Anthony Kim, who has made no secret of his desire to see what he and Woods can accomplish together.

It’s a nice problem for Couples, who was the very first partner to Woods in a Presidents Cup. Couples and Woods teamed to rout Ernie Els and Vijay Singh 5 and 4 in the ’98 matches. Woods, however, went 1-3 with teammates that year, the start of his inexplicably poor start in partners golf. Woods was cumulatively 10-17-2 with partners in his first three Presidents Cups and first four Ryder Cups, but he turned his fortunes around with Furyk at the ’05 Presidents Cup. The Woods-Furyk team combined to go 2-0-1 that year. They’re 5-3-1 as foursomes and four-ball partners in international team competition.

Will Tiger get a rematch?

“A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”  Harry S. Truman

Y.E. Yang said he didn’t want a rematch after he defeated Woods to win the PGA Championship in August.

But he may have no choice this week.

Unlike the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup matchups aren’t blind luck. Captains can arrange matchups. Instead of a blind submission of their lineups, the captains get together with one submitting a team, or singles player’s name, and the other allowed to counter with whomever he sees as the best counter punch. The captains take turns doing that.

Fate brought Yang together in their Hazeltine duel in Augusta. Something more contrived appears in order this week.

Unwanted golf vacations ahead

“In the time of darkest defeat, victory may be the nearest.” William McKinley

Angela Stanford won’t get to defend her title at the Bell Micro LPGA Classic on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Mobile, Ala., this week.

The Bell Micro was postponed this year and moved to next spring. The LPGA is off for the next three weeks with play scheduled to resume Oct. 30-Nov. 1 in South Korea (Hana Bank-Kolon Championship), move to Japan Nov. 6-8 (Mizuno Classic) and then hop to Mexico Nov. 12-15 (Lorena Ochoa Invitational) before returning to the United States for the season-ending LPGA Tour Championship in Houston Nov. 19-22. 

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

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.

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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.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

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.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

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.

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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.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

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.

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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.”