The Games Two Masters

By Randall MellApril 4, 2011, 6:34 pm

While Phil Mickelson is back in winning form with his victory in Houston, Tiger Woods still seems lost.

The Masters, however, could be Woods' true north. It could be his way back.

Working his way through the labyrinth that is Augusta National, immersing his wits in the business of unlocking the course’s secrets one more time, there’s the possibility he finds himself along the journey.

There’s the possibility he finds his game as he makes his way through so many triumphant memories.

There’s even the possibility he rediscovers his greatness.

Yes, major championship pressure, severe conditions like we’ll see at Augusta National, they work to exacerbate what’s wrong with a player’s game, but it can work the other way. If you don’t believe it, ask Jack Nicklaus. He says returning to Baltusrol for the U.S. Open in 1980 snapped him out of the worst slump of his career.

“I wasn’t very happy going to the U.S. Open,” Nicklaus said. “But you just keep working at it, and you keep doing things, and all of a sudden, something kicks in. I think that’s what will happen with Tiger.”

Nicklaus plummeted to 71st on the PGA Tour money list in 1979. He said his confidence was as low as it had ever been, and he re-worked his swing starting the ‘80 season. Though he wasn’t very satisfied with his progress going to Baltusrol, something happened in his return there. Baltusrol is where Nicklaus broke Ben Hogan’s 72-hole U.S. Open scoring record when he won in 1967.

Nicklaus needed to rediscover his greatness all those years ago, and he did so at Baltusrol in ‘80. He set the U.S. Open scoring record for a second time.

“I shot 63 in the first round and missed a little putt for 62 on the last hole,” Nicklaus said. “All of a sudden, I said, 'Hey, maybe this is my time to start doing it the right way again.’ All of a sudden your mind turns around.”

Woods hasn’t had much success trying to find his game on his favorite venues since he made his return to golf from his well-documented personal woes at last year’s Masters. He’s struggled at Firestone, Torrey Pines, Dubai, Doral and Bay Hill, but Augusta National is different. No venue rewards those who know its secrets more than Augusta National.

“There’s no other major where knowledge of how to play that golf course comes into play more,” Woods said. “That’s why you see so many repeat winners there.”

With Woods having won four green jackets, nobody's won more Masters titles except Nicklaus, who won six.

There’s just one other contender in this year’s Masters’ field who knows the mysteries of Augusta National as well as Woods. That’s Mickelson, winner of three green jackets.

So while there’s the possibility Woods finds his game trying to win the Masters, there’s also the compelling possibility he finds Mickelson in his path.

With Mickelson winning Sunday at the Shell Houston Open, Ladbrokes makes him a 7-to-1 favorite to win the Masters. Woods is 10-to-1. Nearly all the bookmakers now list Mickelson as the favorite.

It isn’t just Mickelson’s victory in Houston; it’s the sense that Mickelson owns more Masters magic now.

“I feel like a kid when I play Augusta,” Mickelson said. “It gets me rejuvenated, energized, and I just really look forward to practicing hard and working and playing golf. There's something very spiritual about Augusta for me.

“It reminds me of when I was 10 years old watching Seve Ballesteros win in 1980 and saying to my mom, 'I want to win that tournament. I want to be like that and win that event'.”

Woods may have won more Masters titles than Mickelson, but it’s been awhile since Woods has won a green jacket. He hasn’t won at Augusta National since 2005.

Mickelson’s the defending champ. He’s emboldened with the fresh memory of his 6-iron through the trees at the 13th in last year’s final round, with the memory of his victorious hug with his wife, Amy, in her first public return to the game after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

For all those years, Woods loomed as the man blocking Mickelson’s dreams. Now, Mickelson looks like he’s standing in Woods’ way. Mickelson even jumped in front of Woods in the world rankings for the first time in 14 years.

Bookmakers don’t set odds based on who they think is going to win an event. They base them on their gauge of what they believe bettors are thinking.

Golf fans are losing faith in Woods. The betting lines say so.

But Nicklaus isn’t.

“I still think he’ll break my record,” Nicklaus said.

Woods said he found comfort in that faith.

“That's something that is very humbling,” Woods said. “I respect the heck out of Jack, and what he's done and the person he is. And for him to still believe that I can still play top-notch golf, it certainly is a confidence-booster, there's no doubt.”

Back in ’97, after foundering with a 40 on his first nine in his first Masters as a pro, Woods found greatness. He found it on the way to a record 12-shot Masters rout.

If Woods is ever going to rediscover his greatness, Augusta National feels like the place.

But Woods may have to get through Mickelson this time to find it.

Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell

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Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders

By Randy SmithMarch 18, 2018, 2:45 am

PHOENIX – Brittany Lincicome is farther back than she wanted to be going into Sunday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she’s in a good place.

She’s keeping the momentum of her season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic victory going this year.

Her confidence is high.

“Last year, I won in the Bahamas, but then I didn't do anything after that,” Lincicome said. “I don't even know if I had a top 10 after my win in the Bahamas. Obviously, this year, I want to be more consistent.”

Lincicome followed up her victory in the Bahamas this year with a tie for seventh in her next start at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And now she’s right back on another leaderboard with the year’s first major championship just two weeks away. She is, by the way, a two-time winner at the ANA Inspiration.

Missy Pederson, Lincicome’s caddie, is helping her player keep that momentum going with more focus on honing in the scoring clubs.

“One of our major goals is being more consistent,” Pederson said. “She’s so talented, a once in a generation talent. I’m just trying to help out in how to best approach every golf course.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Pederson has helped Lincicome identify the clubs they’re likely to attack most with on the particular course they are playing that week, to spend more time working with those clubs in practice. It’s building confidence.

“I know the more greens we hit, and the more chances we give ourselves, the more our chances are to be in contention,” Pederson said. “Britt is not big into stats or details, so I have to figure out how to best consolidate that information, to get us exactly where we need to be.”

Lincicome’s growing comfort with clubs she can attack with is helping her confidence through a round.

“I’ve most noticed consistency in her mental game, being able to handle some of the hiccups that happen over the course of a round,” Pederson said. “Whereas before, something might get under her skin, where she might say, `That’s what always happens,’ now, it’s, `All right, I know I’m good enough to get this back.’ I try to get her in positions to hit the clubs we are really hitting well right now.”

That’s leading to a lot more birdies, fewer bogeys and more appearances on leaderboards in the start to this year.

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Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 2:09 am

PHOENIX – In the long shadows falling across Wildfire Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, Inbee Park conceded she was tempted to walk away from the game last year.

While healing a bad back, she was tempted to put her clubs away for good and look for a second chapter for her life.

But then . . .

“Looking at the girls playing on TV, you think you want to be out there” Park said. “Really, I couldn't make my mind up when I was taking that break, but as soon as I'm back here, I just feel like this is where I belong.”

In just her second start after seven months away from the LPGA, Park is playing like she never left.

She’s atop a leaderboard at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, looking like that’s exactly where she belongs.

With a 9-under-par 63 Saturday, Park seized the lead going into the final round.

At 14 under overall, she’s one shot ahead of Mariajo Uribe (67), two ahead of Ariya Jutanugarn (68) and three ahead of 54-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies (63) and Chella Choi (66).

Park’s back with a hot putter.

That’s not good news for the rest of the tour. Nobody can demoralize a field with a flat stick like Park. She’s one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, and on the front nine Saturday she looked as good as she ever has.

“The front nine was scary,” said her caddie, Brad Beecher, who was on Park’s bag for her long run at world No. 1, her run of three consecutive major championship victories in 2013 and her gold medal victory at the Olympics two years ago.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The front nine was great . . . like 2013,” Park said.

Park started her round on fire, going birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. She was 6 under through five holes. She holed a wedge from 98 yards at the third hole, making the turn having taken just 10 putts. Yeah, she said, she was thinking about shooting 59.

“But I'm still really happy with my round today,” she said.

Park isn’t getting ahead of herself, even with this lead. She said her game isn’t quite where she wants it with the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, just two weeks away, but a victory Sunday should go a long way toward getting her there.

Park is only 29. LPGA pros haven’t forgotten what it was like when she was dominating, when she won 14 times between 2013 and ’15.

They haven’t forgotten how she can come back from long layoffs with an uncanny ability to pick up right where she left off.

Park won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year in just her second start. She left the tour again in the summer with an aching back.

“I feel like Inbee could take off a whole year or two years and come back and win every week,” said Brittany Lincicome, who is four shots behind Park. “Her game is just so consistent. She doesn't do anything flashy, but her putting is flashy.

“She literally walks them in. It's incredible, like you know it's going in when she hits it. It's not the most orthodox looking stroke, but she can repeat it.”

Park may not play as full a schedule as she has in the past, Beecher said, but he believes she can thrive with limited starts.

“I think it helps her get that fight back, to get that hunger back,” Beecher said. “She knows she can play 15 events a year and still compete. There aren’t a lot of players who can do that.”

Park enjoyed her time away last year, and how it re-energized her.

“When I was taking the long break, I was just thinking, `I can do this life as well,’” Park said. “But I'm glad I came back out here. Obviously, days like today, that's the reason I'm playing golf.”

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Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:57 am

PHOENIX – Tiffany Joh was thrilled making a run into contention to win her first LPGA title Saturday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she comically cracked that her hole-in-one might have been ill-timed.

It came on St. Patrick’s Day.

“This is like the worst holiday to be making a hole-in-one on,” Joh said. “You'll go broke buying everyone green beers.”

Joh aced the fifth hole with a 5-iron from 166 yards on her way to an 8-under-par 64. It left her four shots behind the leader, Inbee Park (63).

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

One of the more colorful players on tour, Joh said she made the most of her hole-in-one celebration with playing partner Jane Park.

“First I ran and tackled Jane, then I high-fived like every single person walking to the green,” Joh said.

Joh may be the LPGA’s resident comedian, but she faced a serious challenge on tour last year.  Fourteen months ago, she had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. She won the LPGA’s Heather Farr Perseverance Award for the way she handled her comeback.

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Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:22 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies limped around Wildfire Golf Club Saturday with an ache radiating from her left Achilles up into her calf muscle at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Every step is just misery,” Davies said after. “It’s just getting older. Don’t get old.”

She’s 54, but she played the third round as if she were 32 again.

That’s how old she was when she was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year and won two major championships.

With every sweet swing Saturday, Davies peeled back the years, turning back the clock.

Rolling in a 6-foot birdie at the 17th, Davies moved into a tie for the lead with Inbee Park, a lead that wouldn’t last long with so many players still on the course when she finished. Still, with a 9-under-par 63, Davies moved into contention to try to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.

Davies has won 20 LPGA titles, 45 Ladies European Tour titles, but she hasn’t won an LPGA event in 17 years, since taking the Wegmans Rochester International.

Can she can surpass the mark Beth Daniel set winning at 46?

“I still think I can win,” Davies said. “This just backs that up for me. Other people, I don’t know, they’re always asking me now when I’m going to retire. I always say I’m still playing good golf, and now here’s the proof of it.”

Davies knows it will take a special day with the kind of final-round pressure building that she hasn’t experienced in awhile.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The pressure will be a lot more tomorrow,” she said. “We'll see, won’t sleep that well tonight. The good news is that I’ll probably be four or five behind by the end of the day, so the pressure won’t be there as much.”

Davies acknowledged confidence is harder to garner, as disappointments and missed cuts pile up, but she’s holding on to her belief she can still win.

“I said to my caddie, `Jeez, I haven't been on top of the leaderboard for a long time,’” Davies said. “That's nice, obviously, but you’ve got to stay there. That's the biggest challenge.”

About that aching left leg, Davies was asked if it could prevent her from challenging on Sunday.

“I’ll crawl around if I have to,” she said.

Saturday’s 63 was Davies’ lowest round in an LPGA event since she shot 63 at the Wendy’s Championship a dozen years ago.

While Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in ’01. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Davies said she still dreams about qualifying.

“You never know,” she said.