Climbing the Mountain Top

By Rex HoggardJanuary 14, 2009, 5:00 pm
Each year they climb from the far reaches of the tee sheet, sending on-air analysts scrambling for bios and infusing the normally ordered world of the PGA Tour with a refreshing dose of uncertainty.
Consider them leaderboard lagniappe. These are the fresh-faced Tour pros who defy odds and conventional wisdom and nerves to climb from near obscurity to near stardom with what seems like a single revolution.

Five to watch

Steve Marino: Tap-in ' Solid ballstriker who makes birdies, which could make him a favorite at user-friendly layouts at the Bob Hope and Pebble Beach.
Peter Tomasulo: Tap-in ' California kid paid his dues and learned patience on the Nationwide Tour and will feel at home on the West Coast.
Webb Simpson: Tap-in ' Has solid amateur pedigree and an intangible quality that could make him a quick study on Tour.
Colt Knost: Tap-in ' Tough competitor who quieted critics when he passed on his 2008 Masters invitation. Dont be surprised to see Texan heading down Magnolia Lane this year.
Derek Fathauer: Tap-in ' Finished tied for 69th at Torrey Pines during last years U.S. Open, which should make a Buick Torrey look like a pitch-and-putt.

Flash back to 2007 and a beaming Brandt Snedeker stealing everyones thunder with a front-nine 27 on Thursday at the Buick Invitational. Last year it was Kevin Streelman who landed the Buick breakthrough, surging into second place through two rounds at Torrey Pines on his way to a breakout year.
They are Tour staples, like azaleas in April and five-hour pro-am rounds, and they will begin their climb from obscurity this week at the Sony Open. The years first full-field event is ripe with potential and soulful Steve Marino tops any list of PGA Tour prospects.
Marinos swing is a tad more upright than your off-the-shelf Tour pro and his on-course demeanor is more Jerry Seinfeld than Jerry Kelly, but the results have been unmistakable. He earned over $1 million and played three of the four FedEx Cup playoff events his rookie year (2007) and defied the sophomore slump last year, missing just five cuts during a Herculean 32-event campaign and finishing 34th in earnings.
Statistically, the highlight of 2008 was a runner-up showing at the Mayakoba Golf Classic. Sentimentally, the Kodak moment came more than four months later when he led after the first round of the AT&T National and he remained in contention throughout.
At that point in the season I wasnt playing real well and wasnt expecting much, so to play like that was pretty exciting, said Marino, who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. That was the best part of my year, getting to go out and perform in my home town in front of all my friends and everyone.
On the course, the 27-year-old brings a potent combination of style and substance. The above-average ballstriker recorded the seasons third-longest drive in 2008 ' a 424-yard bomb during Round 4 of the Valero Texas Open ' and had more birdies (440) than anyone else on Tour.
The only missing element on an ever-expanding resume is a Tour title. In Mexico he came within a stroke of eventual champion Brian Gay and he posted five other top-10s. Many contend the only thing standing between Marino and his first Tour tilt are a few good breaks on Sunday and more reps in contention.
He has an insouciance about him. Hes habitually nonchalant. Youd want him to be your college roommate, said Mike Dunphy, player development manager for Cleveland Golf/Srixon. Hes not going to get all wacked out about anything.
Marino also concedes that a hectic 2008 schedule probably didnt help. In two years Marino has played 63 Tour events, which is manna from heaven for events in need of potential star power but not the best recipe to stay fresh. Consider, by comparison, thats the same number of events Tiger Woods played in 2004, 05, 06 and 07.
Im going to try and play a little less so I can be a little fresher, said Marino, who estimates hell play about 25 events in 2009. Ive realized theres a point of mental fatigue. You dont realize it but your mind is not ready to perform.
That shouldnt be a problem this week for Marino. His last event was the Childrens Miracle Network Classic in November and he went nearly a month without touching a golf club. When he did return to work, Marino ' a self-described feel player who normally prepares for the season by standing on the practice range at Bear Lakes Country Club in south Florida hitting countless buckets of golf balls ' focused on his short game.
I wanted to get back to more of a feel so I spent a lot of time chipping and putting, he said. Nothing real exciting, just playing games with myself and focused more on a practice routine. Id never done that before.
Talent, meet tenacity.
Each year those little-known climbers spring atop leaderboards seemingly from nowhere. The odds are good this years Cinderella began his climb on the chipping green at Bear Lakes.
Email your thoughts to Rex Hoggard
Getty Images

Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

Getty Images

Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

Getty Images

Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

Getty Images

Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”