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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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.

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One & Done: 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 5:55 pm

Beginning in 2018, Golf Channel is offering a "One & Done" fantasy game alternative. Choose a golfer and add the salary they earn at the event to your season-long total - but know that once chosen, a player cannot be used again for the rest of the year.

Log on to to start your own league and make picks for this week's event.

Here are some players to consider for One & Done picks this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, where Hudson Swafford returns as the defending champion:

Zach Johnson. The two-time major champ has missed the cut here three years in a row. So why include him in One & Done consideration? Because the three years before that (2012-14) included three top-25s highlighted by a third-place finish, and his T-14 at the Sony Open last week was his fifth straight top-25 dating back to September.

Bud Cauley. Cauley has yet to win on Tour, but that could very well change this year - even this week. Cauley ended up only two shots behind Swafford last year and tied for 14th the year prior, as four of his five career appearances have netted at least a top-40 finish. He opened the new season with a T-7 in Napa and closed out the fall with a T-8 at Sea Island.

Adam Hadwin. Swafford left last year with the trophy, but it looked for much of the weekend like it would be Hadwin's tournament as he finished second despite shooting a 59 in the third round. Hadwin was also T-6 at this event in 2016 and now with a win under his belt last March he returns with some unfinished business.

Charles Howell III. If you didn't use him last week at the Sony Open, this could be another good spot for the veteran who has four top-15 finishes over the last seven years at this event, highlighted by a playoff loss in 2013. His T-32 finish last week in Honolulu, while not spectacular, did include four sub-70 scores.

David Lingmerth. Lingmerth was in that 2013 playoff with Howell (eventually won by Brian Gay), and he also lost here in overtimei to Jason Dufner in 2016. The Swede also cracked the top 25 here in 2015 and is making his first start since his wife, Megan, gave birth to the couple's first child in December. Beware the sleep-deprived golfer.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.