Woods shows softer side ahead of difficult Players

By Randall MellMay 5, 2015, 7:46 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Tiger Woods continues to reveal a side of himself we haven’t seen.

He’s still hugging folks like PGA Tour events are more family reunions than heavyweight title bouts.

Sean Foley, Woods’ former coach, got a warm embrace on the back of the driving range Tuesday with Woods preparing for The Players Championship.

In his news conference after nine practice holes, Woods gave media the equivalent of hugs. Instead of stiff-arming questions, he embraced them. He dropped his guard, just like he did at the Masters a month ago. He continued to give us more revealing answers than we grew used to hearing in bygone days. He even showed the kind of vulnerability he would never have shown in his prime.

“It does affect me,” Woods said when asked indirectly about his breakup earlier this week with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, his girlfriend of three years. “It is tough. There’s no doubt.”

Woods relayed how this time of year is tough on him, anyway. He and Vonn announced their split on Sunday. Woods reminded us that the news came out on the ninth anniversary of the death of his father, Earl.

The Players Championship: Articles, videos and photos

“I haven’t slept,” Woods said.

By the time Woods left the stage in the interview area at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, you wondered if he needed a hug.

“It’s been, these three days ... just brutal on me,” he said.

Leaving the news conference, Woods stopped beside a disabled reporter in a wheelchair. He stopped to give a one-one-one interview. He leaned over to better hear the reporter, and he leaned in with his answers.

Moments before, Woods was asked by another reporter if he was hoping to build on the momentum he created playing the Masters, where he tied for 17th. That was Woods’ first tournament appearance since he limped away from the Farmers Insurance Open two months earlier with both his body and game broken down. The question about momentum was aimed at Woods’ play at Augusta National, but it could have been aimed at the change in his public persona. Woods may still guard his private life, but not quite as intensely. He did, after all, make his return to the Masters Par 3 Contest with his two young children on very public display in caddie uniforms beside him.

This Tiger Woods 3.0 leaves a lot of new questions in his wake.

“He’s a much softer person now,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said. “His relationships matter to him, and he’s much friendlier. I’m not sure that’s great for his golf game, but it’s sure nice to see.”

Miller made that observation in an NBC/Golf Channel conference call before the breakup with Vonn was announced. Who knows what happened in the relationship, but with Woods’ children so obviously close to Vonn, people care.

What does all of this have to do with golf?

Miller wonders, too.

The TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course is a ruthless inquisitor. Come Thursday, it’s going to be asking Woods all the hard questions about his game. Who knows how a man’s inner life gets channeled into tests like this. There’s no telling. What we will quickly discern is how Woods’ swing changes continue to evolve. Pete Dye’s unforgiving design will expose flaws in brutish fashion.

Woods made a nice return at the Masters. He answered questions about the state of his short game, which appeared in shambles before his arrival. He fixed his chipping, and he was thrilled about it. The Stadium Course’s questions are a lot different than Augusta National’s. The interrogation will turn harder to Woods’ ball-striking this week.

“I've never really seen anything like it,” Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee said of Woods’ radically improved short game at the Masters. “I've never seen anybody overcome that sort of problem in their pitching game. If you just look at what he accomplished there, and you don't consider anything else ...”

But if you look closer, if you look harder at Woods’ swing ...

“Tiger hit the fewest fairways he's ever hit in his career at Augusta National,” Chamblee said. “He's never driven it worse in his entire career than he drove it this year at Augusta. And only one time in his entire career has he ever ranked worse in greens in regulation. Augusta National is a place where he could get away with some errant drives, and he could get away with missing it in the right spot, and his scrambling was so good that he was able to save himself. But if he hits the ball the way he did at Augusta at The Players, The Players will eat his lunch.”

Woods played his practice round Tuesday with Jason Day. According to folks who followed them, Woods didn’t hit the ball very well. Day adeptly tiptoed around a question about how Woods played, but his answer was revealing nonetheless.

“We were both out there just ... I mean ... I wasn’t really watching too much,” Day said. “He hit a few squirrely ones here and there, but once again, it was just practice. He didn’t look like he was concentrating too much, just kind of going around having a look at the course.”

Day loved the chance to play with Woods. They arranged it before this week. They laughed easily coming up the ninth fairway at the end of their practice round, and again leaving the green. Day said Woods seemed in good spirits.

“Everything seemed all right to me,” Day said. “I don’t know where he’s at mentally. I don’t ask him about personal stuff. It’s none of my business to ask about that stuff.”

Day knows the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course will ask the tough questions of Woods and everyone else come Thursday. Dye’s design usually leaves everyone pretty much wanting a hug when they’re done playing.

Getty Images

Koepka (wrist) likely out until the Masters

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 9:08 pm

Defending U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka is expected to miss at least the next two months because of a torn tendon in his left wrist.

Koepka, who suffered a partially torn Extensor Carpi Ulnaris (ECU), is hoping to return in time for the Masters.

In a statement released by his management company, Koepka said that doctors are unsure when the injury occurred but that he first felt discomfort at the Hero World Challenge, where he finished last in the 18-man event. Playing through pain, he also finished last at the Tournament of Champions, after which he underwent a second MRI that revealed the tear.

Koepka is expected to miss the next eight to 12 weeks.

“I am frustrated that I will now not be able to play my intended schedule,” Koepka said. “But I am confident in my doctors and in the treatment they have prescribed, and I look forward to teeing it up at the Masters. … I look forward to a quick and successful recovery.”

Prior to the injury, Koepka won the Dunlop Phoenix and cracked the top 10 in the world ranking. 

Getty Images

Cut Line: Color Rory unafraid of the Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardJanuary 19, 2018, 7:09 pm

In this week’s edition, Rory McIlroy gets things rolling with some early Ryder Cup banter, Dustin Johnson changes his tune on a possible golf ball roll-back, and the PGA Tour rolls ahead with integrity training.

Made Cut

Paris or bust. Rory McIlroy, who made his 2018 debut this week on the European Tour, can be one of the game’s most affable athletes. He can also be pointed, particularly when discussing the Ryder Cup.

Asked this week in Abu Dhabi about the U.S. team, which won the last Ryder Cup and appears to be rejuvenated by a collection of new players, McIlroy didn’t disappoint.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

McIlroy has come by his confidence honestly, having won three of the four Ryder Cups he’s played, so it’s understandable if he doesn't feel like an underdog heaidng to Paris.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that,” he said. “The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

September can’t get here quick enough.

Mr. Spieth goes to Ponte Vedra Beach. The Tour announced this year’s player advisory council, the 16-member group that works with the circuit’s policy board to govern.

There were no real surprises to the PAC, but news that Jordan Spieth had been selected to run for council chair is interesting. Spieth, who is running against Billy Hurley III and would ascend to the policy board next year if he wins the election, served on the PAC last year and would make a fine addition to the policy board, but it is somewhat out of character for a marquee player.

In recent years, top players like Spieth have largely avoided the distractions that come with the PAC and policy board. Of course, we’ve also learned in recent years that Spieth is not your typical superstar.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

On second thought. In December at the Hero World Challenge, Dustin Johnson was asked about a possible golf ball roll-back, which has become an increasingly popular notion in recent years.

“I don't mind seeing every other professional sport. They play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball,” he said in the Bahamas. “I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage.”

The world No. 1 appeared to dial back that take this week in Abu Dhabi, telling BBC Sport, “It's not like we are dominating golf courses. When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy?”

Maybe it didn’t feel that way, but DJ’s eight-stroke romp two weeks ago at the Sentry Tournament of Champions certainly looked pretty easy.

Long odds. I had a chance to watch the Tour’s 15-minute integrity training video that players have been required view and came away with a mixture of confusion and concern.

The majority of the video, which includes a Q&A element, focuses on how to avoid match fixing. Although the circuit has made it clear there is no indication of current match fixing, it’s obviously something to keep an eye on.

The other element that’s worth pointing out is that although the Tour may be taking the new program seriously, some players are not.

“My agent watched [the training video] for me,” said one Tour pro last week at the Sony Open.

Missed Cut

Groundhog Day. To be fair, no one expected Patton Kizzire and James Hahn to need six playoff holes to decide last week’s Sony Open, but the episode does show why variety is the spice of life.

After finishing 72 holes tied at 17 under, Kizzire and Hahn played the 18th hole again and again and again and again. In total, the duo played the par-5 closing hole at Waialae Country Club five times (including in regulation play) on Sunday.

It’s worth noting that the playoff finally ended with Kizzire’s par at the sixth extra hole, which was the par-3 17th. Waialae’s 18th is a fine golf hole, but in this case familiarity really did breed contempt.

Tweet of the week:

It was a common theme last Saturday on Oahu after an island-wide text alert was issued warning of an inbound ballistic missile and advising citizens to “seek immediate shelter.”

The alert turned out to be a mistake, someone pushed the wrong button during a shift change, but for many, like Peterson, it was a serious lesson in perspective.

Getty Images

Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

Getty Images

DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.”