Masters is on Woods' mind

By Randall MellFebruary 26, 2014, 10:59 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – You won’t find any azaleas blooming along PGA National’s Champion Course this week.

No dogwoods, either.

But if you’re Tiger Woods, you can almost smell them anyway.

Or imagine draws on the practice range here turning around the bend at No. 13 at Augusta National.

Or high fades settling down on the 15th green on a Masters Sunday.

Woods says the specter of the Masters looms strong now with the PGA Tour schedule turning to the Honda Classic and this week’s start of the Florida swing.

“Once we get to Florida, I think we're all thinking about our way to Augusta,” Woods said after his pro-am round Wednesday. “Some guys usually start at Doral, some guys start here, but once we get to Florida, now most of the guys are getting pretty serious about their prep to Augusta.”

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Phil Mickelson can feel it, too, as he makes his first start at the Honda Classic in a dozen years.

“This is kind of where guys like myself and others are getting geared up for that event,” Mickelson said. “It’s important to get competitive, get sharp mentally and focused, and play some good golf, get in contention.”

That is something Woods hasn’t done in his sluggish beginning to 2014. In his two starts this year, he has tied for 41st at the Omega Dubai Masters and failed to make the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open. There’s the usual fretting and angst among analysts over Woods’ lack of form. Woods posted a 79 at one of his favorite venues, Torrey Pines, in his last PGA Tour start.

His pedestrian start is fueling speculation that at 38 Woods is more beatable than ever despite his five wins a year ago. It’s fueling speculation that major championship titles will be harder to come by. Woods, after all, is looking for his first major championship victory since ’08, his first Masters title since ’05.

“I think now the players really believe that, yes, Tiger is terrific, and he won five times last year, and he was really good, but he was beatable,” NBC’s Johnny Miller said. “Before, it was like, if he had his A-game, you could just kiss it off.  It wasn't going to happen.  He was just so much better than everybody, and so much better under pressure, and so much better on Sundays, and so much better in the majors. It was not a fair fight. Now, it’s a fair fight.”

Woods is looking for his first top-10 finish this year. If he doesn’t get it, alarms are sure to go off among the experts. Woods has never failed to finish among the top 10 in his first three starts in his 18 years as a pro.

Even Notah Begay, the NBC course reporter who knows Woods’ game as well as any analyst, recognizes a narrowing of the gap between Woods and other top players. He sees Woods less able to contend when he’s not on his game.

“I think his game has come back down to earth a little bit,” Begay said. “I do think he has the ability to create that separation, and he doesn't necessarily have to have his A-game. But it used to be that he could be somewhat off of his game and still finish in the top 10. If you just look at his top-10 performances over the last two or three years, they're not as high of a percentage as they were prior to the scandal.”

Woods is making just his third start at the Honda Classic. He was brilliant closing with a 62 in his first year in the field in 2012, nearly catching Rory McIlroy after starting the final round nine shots back. Last year, he was ordinary at PGA National, tying for 37th.

A victory this week does more than soothe the angst around Woods’ sluggish start. It sends a message he is ready for the year’s first major. He has never made the Masters his first win in any season. All four years he won a green jacket, he took at least one win with him to Augusta National.

Woods played his pro-am Wednesday with swing coach Sean Foley in tow. He said he isn’t focused on form. He’s focused on winning.

“It feels good,” Woods said about his overall game. “I was pleasantly surprised how well I was hitting it today, and just getting a feel for the greens and how the short game is playing out of this grass, versus up at Medalist.”

What Woods ultimately wants is the feeling he’s ready to win the Masters.

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials phoned Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial. 

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Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.

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Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm