Phil, Tiger's Masters dominance nearing an end

By Randall MellApril 4, 2014, 4:50 pm

Spring feels more like autumn with the arrival of this year’s Masters.

The chill in the morning air at Augusta National portends winter more than it does spring this time around.

Fallen, dying leaves rustling past the feet of players would be more apropos this year than dogwoods and azaleas blooming. There is, after all, this ominous sense that we’re approaching the end of a season rather than the beginning of one.

That’s because we’re acutely aware that the end of an era may be at hand.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have had more to say about who wins the Masters in the last 20 years than anyone in the game, but those days appear to be nearing an end.

They’ve combined to win seven of the last 17 Masters. Even when they weren’t winning, they were contending. Did you know there hasn’t been a Masters without Woods or Mickelson finishing in the top five since 1999? Or that they have both finished T-10 or better in seven of the last 14 Masters? In fact, there hasn’t been a Masters without Woods or Mickelson finishing in the top 10 since 1994.

Their shadows fall prominently over the Masters next week. Since the turn of the century, they have been Larry Bird and Magic Johnson there.

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Tiger and Lefty haven’t merely won a lot at the Masters. They’ve awed us with spectacular shots there. From Woods’ impossible, circuitous chip-in for birdie at the 16th on his way to winning in ‘05, to Mickelson’s threading the trees from the pine straw to make birdie at the 13th on his way to winning in ’10, they’ve produced riveting theater.

In ’05, Mickelson put the green jacket on Woods in the trophy presentation. In ’06, Woods put it on Mickelson.

The days the Masters revolved around Woods and Mickelson may not quite be over, but we all know we’re getting to the end of the book now. We don’t know how many pages are left in this story, but we know there aren’t many.

With Woods, 38, unable to play while recovering from back surgery, and with Mickelson, 43, playing through his own injury issues, this Masters will begin with the feeling it is as much about the magic no longer possible as it is the magic still possible.

“There's probably not another player in the history of sports – it’s arguable – that has had as big an impact on his sport as Tiger, as far as viewership and ratings and money,” said Paul Azinger, the 12-time PGA Tour winner who will help call the Masters for ESPN. “Maybe Muhammad Ali, in boxing. I just can't think of anybody, that when he's not there, the void is any greater in any sport.”

This will be the first Tiger-less Masters since 1994.

“It's a huge disappointment for us in the business of TV,” Azinger said. “There's going to be a day when Tiger is just not around anymore, period. The shock, disappointment and the reason he's not here, I think it will present a little bit of a challenge, possibly, at first, but once that tournament gets going, the Masters carries its own weight and everybody will be fine.”

While Mickelson’s appearance at the Masters seemed uncertain after he withdrew from the Valero Texas Open with a pulled oblique muscle last weekend, he’s looking ready at the Shell Houston Open this week. Still, the question looms over just how his body will continue to hold up. He withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open with pain in his back early in the year.

Healthy or not, Tiger and Lefty haven't been quite right all season.

There's probably not one player that would have said, going into the Masters, ‘I wish I hit it like Tiger Woods,’” Azinger said.

Neither Woods nor Mickelson has won this year. That’s just the second time in 20 years that one or the other hasn’t arrived at Augusta National with a victory already in hand for the season.

“It might be one of the most open Masters we've had where there are so many different guys that could win,” said two-time U.S. Open winner Andy North, who also will help on ESPN’s broadcast of the Masters. “I just think you look at Phil, he's been a mess lately. He’s hurt a little bit, but he was there practicing the last couple days. He drives down Magnolia Lane, and the switch goes on, and there's no better place for him to play than there. And if his back is doing well, I think he's going to be a threat there before the week is up.”

Mickelson hasn’t been a threat all year. In six starts, he has two WDs and a missed cut. His best finish is a tie for 16th at WGC-Cadillac.

Woods may not be teeing it up, but he’ll be a big story early in the week. His absence will be palpable.

“I think golf is always better when Tiger is in the conversation,” Rory McIlroy said at the Shell Houston Open this week. “And even though he’s not playing, he’s still in the conversation.”

No Tiger? Questions over Lefty’s readiness? It leaves the door open in what’s been a wide open year on the PGA Tour. The winners of the last six PGA Tour events provide a disconcerting feel for what golf could be like without Woods and Mickelson. Henley, Hadley, Reed, Senden, Every and Bowditch. It’s not exactly a Murderer’s Row of golf.

“I don’t think it’s just the Masters, but golf in general is just very wide open,” McIlroy said.

Woods’ surgery may prove regenerating, but there are going to be doubts lingering until his return. Have we seen him contend for his last Masters? Will he be back, with Mickelson rejuvenated, too? Even the game’s insightful experts can’t be sure.

“I got sick [with cancer] when I was in the prime of my career,” Azinger said. “Tiger is a little bit past his prime. I was out for six months or so, and I tell you what, I lost my edge. It was nice to be home. I was the kind of guy, I played with a chip on my shoulder. Tiger plays with a chip on his shoulder, a little bit, for whatever reason. His challenge now will be: How self-motivated is he going to be?

“You know, when Tiger was an amateur, his dad said Tiger Woods will win 14 majors. Well, he has won 14 majors. I don't know why Earl didn't say 19, but he said 14.”

It’s among the reasons this Masters will begin with the feeling it’s more like autumn than spring.

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Tiger Tracker: Honda Classic

By Tiger TrackerFebruary 25, 2018, 4:45 pm

Tiger Woods is making his third start of the year at the Honda Classic. We're tracking him at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

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Hahn jabs USGA over possible ball rollback

By Will GrayFebruary 25, 2018, 4:43 pm

As debate continues to heat up over possible sweeping changes to the golf ball amid distance concerns, PGA Tour pro James Hahn chimed in to question the merits of a potential rollback.

The ball and distance debate gained traction earlier this week when Jack Nicklaus offered that the ball should be rolled back to the approximate distances achieved in 1995, and he put blame for the current situation squarely at the feet of Titleist. That drew a response from former Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein, who put the onus back on the governing bodies.

It's an issue that will likely be discussed for months to come, but Hahn took to Twitter to throw a jab toward the USGA and play devil's advocate on some key arguments related to a possible rollback:

Hahn, who has two career PGA Tour wins and lost in a playoff last month at the Sony Open, ranks 55th on Tour this season in driving distance with an average of 301.2 yards off the tee.

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Na fires back over slow play criticism from cricketer

By Will GrayFebruary 25, 2018, 4:00 pm

Kevin Na fired back over recent criticism he received about his purported slow play at last week's Genesis Open.

Kevin Pietersen is a retired English cricketer with more than 3.6 million followers on Twitter. He tweeted a video of Na, known as one of the slower players on the PGA Tour, taking more than a minute to line up and hit what he described as a "Tap In" during the final round at Riviera:

He then added another video of himself on a green in Dubai, where he again called out Na and showed how long he believed it should take for a player to brush in a short putt:

Na has faced his fair share of slow play criticism, but this time he decided to defend himself. Na isn't on Twitter, but he took to Instagram to tell Pietersen to "stick to your own sport," pointing out both the length of the putt in question and the stakes that were involved during the final round, when Na went on to tie for second behind Bubba Watson:

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Pepperell wins his first European Tour title in Qatar

By Associated PressFebruary 25, 2018, 3:31 pm

DOHA, Qatar - Eddie Pepperell survived a tense finish to win the Qatar Masters at the Doha Golf Club on Sunday for his maiden European Tour title.

The 27-year-old Englishman held off a spirited challenge from compatriot Oliver Fisher, who needed a third successive birdie on the 18th hole to force a playoff, but had his putt from six feet slip past the hole for a par.

Pepperell shot a 2-under-par 70 for a four-day tally of 18 under 270, while Fisher, who started the day tied for the lead, could only manage a 71.

Sweden's Marcus Kinhult (68) finished third at 16-under.

The No. 154-ranked Pepperell made things difficult for himself with a bogey on the 15th hole, but hit a superb wedge to three feet on the next to get back to 18 under again.

Fisher, who appeared to have fallen out of contention with three bogeys starting on the third hole, stormed back with birdies on the 14th, 16th and 17th holes.

On the last, Pepperell laid up with his second into the thick rough, made wet and unwieldy by rain in the Qatar capital, but found the green in three and two-putted for the win when Fisher missed his birdie putt.

Full-field scores from the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters

''I did the things I needed to do, I didn't play fantastic but I won ugly and for the first win to be ugly is good. Hopefully, I'll have some prettier ones in the future,'' said Pepperell.

''I knew I was playing well, especially tee to green, so I expected a lot of myself this week and I guess to pull it off is amazing. When Oli birdied the 17th, that was when it really caught up with me that I was only one ahead. I was in my own zone, I knew I had a couple of shots of lead but Oli did great. It was a tough front nine for him and I had to stay right in my own way and out of the two guys' way because they were struggling a bit and it's sometimes easy to get dragged into that.''

Fisher was disappointed, but saw the silver lining in the way he fought back.

''It went all the way to the last hole which, after my front nine, was what I was hoping for on the back nine,'' said Fisher, who won the 2011 Czech Open, but recorded his first top-three finish since the 2014 Africa Open.

''I hit a lot of good shots coming down the back nine and gave myself a lot of good chances, but there were just too many bogeys today, four in total, so you're never going to win a tournament making that many mistakes on a Sunday. But at least I pressed him all the way.''

Italian Renato Paratore (66) had the low round of the day and finished tied for fourth place at 15 under par, where he was joined by the Spanish pair of Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Pablo Larrazabal along with Gregory Havret of France.