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Despite the numbers, it's advantage, Woods

By Rex HoggardJanuary 28, 2018, 11:09 pm

SAN DIEGO – It was a magical day for one of the sporting world’s most accomplished, if injury-plagued, legends.

No, not Tiger Woods. The honor went to Roger Federer, the ageless champion who at 36 years, 173 days became the second-oldest man to win a tennis Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.

Through injury and collective doubt and against a growing collection of younger, more powerful opponents, Federer etched Grand Slam No. 20 into his portfolio. That’s six more Grand Slam titles than Woods, who has always been linked to Federer as a benchmark of greatness, but on the same day the Swiss magician turned back the clock at Melbourne Park, Tiger was chipping away at his own reclamation project at Torrey Pines.

There were no victory laps for Woods at the Farmers Insurance Open, the site of so many seminal moments in his career, no familiar brushes with greatness, just a gritty performance that may not look like much on paper but added up to something much greater than the sum of its parts.

For the week, Woods failed to break 70 and batted a dismal .303 from the tee – hitting just 17 of 56 fairways. His iron play was, at times, something we’d expect from a 14-handicap, not a 14-time major champion.

“I need to work on some things,” Woods reasoned after a closing 72 in increasingly difficult Santa Ana winds.

Indeed, he does.

This new version of Woods looks something like the old version of Phil Mickelson, a player who is prone to miss fairways by first downs, not paces, yet someone who seemed to relish the challenge of escaping from even the most precarious of situations.

Woods was an equal opportunity offender, missing fairways right (62 percent) and left (37 percent), and appeared utterly baffled by his driver, which seemed so promising the last time he played at the Hero World Challenge.

Full-field scores from the Farmers Insurance Open

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But this wasn’t Albany, site of December’s “friendly” in the Bahamas, and Woods quickly came to the conclusion that playtime was over.

For Woods, all of those concerns are part and parcel of this most recent comeback. Following a year of competitive isolation after fusion surgery on his lower back in April, he’s clearly content with the long view.

“I can feel some of the things I'm doing wrong in my swing, so we're going to go back to work,” he explained. “It's nice to have two weeks off, but it's more important that I got this tournament under my belt where I can feel some of the things I need to work on because hometown speed versus game speed is two totally different things.”

If wild misses off the tee and iron shots that too often came out short and spinny aren’t exactly what we’ve come to expect from arguably the game’s greatest player, Woods’ tone was downright conciliatory.

Contending would be nice and winning is always the ultimate end game, but on the grand check list of things he wanted to accomplish this week remaining off the disabled list and getting a feel for a game that after so much time – the last time he played the weekend in an official PGA Tour event was the 2015 Wyndham Championship – were the primary conclusions.

There were moments of clarity, particularly on Sunday when he set out some two hours and eight strokes off the lead. He played a strangely predictable game of bounce-back golf just before the turn, finishing the loop birdie-bogey-birdie-bogey-birdie.

In less time than it took Hideki Matsuyama, who was paired with Woods on Sunday, to complete his backswing, he was brilliant – like his 323-yard drive down the middle of the 14th hole – and the next moment just bad – such as when his drive sailed helplessly right on the next hole.

Throughout it all, his short game was vintage Tiger and his putting a savior, particularly on Friday when he birdied two of his final three holes to make the cut on the number.

“Obviously, he has to drive it better. The short game looked pretty tight, and that’s always a plus. And he looks comfortable putting. He just needs to get some reps,” his caddie, Joey LaCava, said. “He needs to get back to Florida to get more practice in, get more reps, and get tournaments under his belt. It’s like when I started with him in late 2011 and early 2012, he just needs some time and he just needs some competitive rounds.”

And he was healthy, healthier than he’s been in five years, healthy enough to hit balls after his round and endure cold, morning starts that had become his competitive kryptonite in recent years.

“It was nice,” Woods smiled when asked about his surgically repaired back. “Some of the shots I had to hit out of the rough, out of the trees, shaping them both ways, and a few times I had to jack up the speed and had no issues at all.”

There was a time when Woods and Federer had running text exchanges, giving each other the needle every time one would add to his Grand Slam total the way only legends who are rewriting the record books can.

Those exchanges have reportedly fallen off in recent years, a byproduct of Woods’ major drought, no doubt. The last time Tiger was on the right side of one of those bouts was a decade ago when he won the 2008 U.S. Open on this same course.

“He's young, he's 36. I guess it's all relative,” Woods joked when asked about Federer’s victory. “In that sport he's very old, but in our sport, I'm only 42, that's not that old.”

Nor did he feel as far off as his statistics would suggest. For the first time in some time Woods is healthy and happy enough to believe, truly believe, that the road ahead may hold some promise after all.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”