Golf doing just fine in the post-Tiger era

By Rex HoggardApril 6, 2016, 6:01 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The pall was as real as the water trickling through Rae’s Creek and the traffic inching its way down Washington Road.

Two years ago, just 10 days before the first round, Tiger Woods announced he would not play the Masters, marking the first time since 1994 the four-time winner would not play the year’s first major.

The news that the then-world No. 1 wouldn’t play created a chorus of concern, some even going so far as to question the event’s relevance without him.

Last Friday the now-world No. 476 posted a similar message on his website.

“I've been hitting balls and training daily, but I'm not physically ready,” Woods wrote. “I've said all along that this time I need to be cautious and do what's best for my long-term health and career. Unfortunately, playing Augusta next week wouldn't be the right decision.”

Although it’s a similar injury, multiple back procedures performed late last year, and Woods’ relevance at Augusta National is far from diminished, this time is different.

This time there are no headlines lamenting Woods’ absence, no handwringing about the future of the game without its biggest star, no foreboding predictions that the event will be an afterthought without a red shirt leading the way on Sunday.

Much of that tempered reaction is the byproduct of a lineup of young stars who are as compelling as they are competitive.

Jordan Spieth’s victory last year at the Masters began to change the narrative and his run through the major championship season is still being digested. Jason Day’s breakthrough last year at the PGA Championship, followed by impressively consistent play ever since – including back-to-back victories in his last two PGA Tour starts – solidified his status as a bona fide star.

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Although he’s yet to win this year, Rory McIlroy – who would complete the career Grand Slam with a victory this week – has more finishes inside the top 6 (four) this season than outside (three); and Rickie Fowler continues to inch closer to his first major as evidenced by his impressive victory over a deep field earlier this year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

It’s taken a village, but golf without Tiger Woods has not been as bleak as originally predicted.

Woods’ sabbatical has also been dulled by the reality that he has played a full Tour schedule just twice since 2012 because of an assortment of injuries.

Whatever the reasons, the result is a list of varying degrees of favorites that stretches 10 to 15 players deep depending on who you ask.

This isn’t to say Woods is a complete afterthought this week, it’s just a question of embracing the new norm, as evidenced by Phil Mickelson’s answer when asked about the missing star.

“Well, it's not like we shared a house together, so I don't notice it that way,” Lefty joked. “But the Tour misses him. The game misses him. Hopefully he'll get back to his winning ways. It was only a few years ago he won five times in a year, so it's not like he's that far off.”

But then missing him as a fan and as a fellow competitor is two different things.

“As a player, no, I don't like getting beat by Tiger all the time.  I mean, it sucked,” Day said. “But as a fan, it was fantastic golf to watch.”

On Tuesday, the man Woods is most often compared to was asked about the missing major champion. Jack Nicklaus didn’t miss a Masters from 1959 to ’98 and he explained that, unlike Tiger, he never dealt with the kind of injuries that Woods has.

As he’s quick to point out, however, Nicklaus – who won his final major at age 46 at Augusta National in 1986 – doesn’t subscribe to the theory that Woods’ best days are behind him.

“He's got to show up for his 1980 [when Nicklaus won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship at 40 years old] and his 1986. I think he'll show up for that a little bit,” Nicklaus said.

Woods’ shadow continues to loom large over Augusta National. Asked a random question about playing certain holes, Paul Casey quickly lapsed into a Tiger anecdote.

“I played with Tiger the first or second year I was in and we’re walking down [No.] 11 and I said, ‘Good thing I watched the Masters as a kid and saw those shots. Thanks to you I will never get to hit them,’” the Englishman laughed, referring to the changes made to Augusta National following Woods’ historic 1997 victory.

Woods also made a cameo at Tuesday’s Champions Dinner, tweeting, “Pretty cool that at dinner tonight three of us sitting next to each other have won a combined 14 green jackets,” and reports from the event suggest he’s closer to a return to competition than some may think.

“Last night, he looked good. He looked better than me,” said Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, who recently underwent his own back surgery. “I could tell the fire is building back up in his belly, and I suspect Tiger's going to be back fairly quickly.”

The difference this time, unlike two years ago there is an unstated understanding that the Masters, that golf marches forward with or without Tiger.

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DeChambeau, Day impressed by Woods in practice round

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 11:27 pm

SAN DIEGO – Bryson DeChambeau played with Tiger Woods for the first time Tuesday morning, and the biggest surprise was that he wasn’t overcome by nerves.

“That’s what I was concerned about,” DeChambeau said. “Am I just gonna be slapping it around off the tee? But I was able to play pretty well.”

So was Woods.

DeChambeau said that Woods looked “fantastic” as he prepares to make his first PGA Tour start in a year.

“His game looks solid. His body doesn’t hurt. He’s just like, yeah, I’m playing golf again,” DeChambeau said. “And he’s having fun, too, which is a good thing.”

Woods arrived at Torrey Pines before 7 a.m. local time Tuesday, when the temperature hadn’t yet crept above 50 degrees. He warmed up and played the back nine of Torrey Pines’ South course with DeChambeau and Jason Day.

“He looks impressive; it was good to see,” Day told afterward. “You take (Farmers) last year and the Dubai tournament out, and he hasn’t really played in two years. I think the biggest thing is to not get too far ahead, or think he’s going to come back and win straight away.

“The other time he came back, I don’t think he was ready and he probably came back too soon. This time he definitely looks ready. I think his swing is really nice, he’s hitting the driver a long way and he looks like he’s got some speed, which is great.”

Woods said that his caddie, Joe LaCava, spent four days with him in South Florida last week and that he’s ready to go.

“Before the Hero I was basically given the OK probably about three or four weeks prior to the tournament, and I thought I did pretty good in that prep time,” Woods told, referring to his tie for ninth in the 18-man event.

“Now I’ve had a little more time to get ready for this event. I’ve played a lot more golf, and overall I feel like I’ve made some nice changes. I feel good.”

Woods is first off Torrey Pines’ North course in Wednesday’s pro-am, scheduled for 6:40 a.m. local time. 

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With blinders on, Rahm within reach of No. 1 at Torrey

By Rex HoggardJanuary 23, 2018, 10:10 pm

SAN DIEGO – The drive over to Torrey Pines from Palm Springs, Calif., takes about two and a half hours, which was plenty of time for Jon Rahm’s new and ever-evolving reality to sink in.

The Spaniard arrived in Southern California for a week full of firsts. The Farmers Insurance Open will mark the first time he’s defended a title on the PGA Tour following his dramatic breakthrough victory last year, and it will also be his first tournament as the game’s second-best player, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking.

Rahm’s victory last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his second on Tour and fourth worldwide tilt over the last 12 months, propelled the 23-year-old to No. 2 in the world, just behind Dustin Johnson. His overtime triumph also moved him to within four rounds of unseating DJ atop the global pecking order.

It’s impressive for a player who at this point last year was embarking on his first full season as a professional, but then Rahm has a fool-proof plan to keep from getting mired in the accolades of his accomplishments.

“It's kind of hard to process it, to be honest, because I live my day-to-day life with my girlfriend and my team around me and they don't change their behavior based on what I do, right?” he said on Tuesday at Torrey Pines. “They'll never change what they think of me. So I really don't know the magnitude of what I do until I go outside of my comfort zone.”

Head down and happy has worked perfectly for Rahm, who has finished outside the top 10 in just three of his last 10 starts and began 2018 with a runner-up showing at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and last week’s victory.

According to the world ranking math, Rahm is 1.35 average ranking points behind Johnson and can overtake DJ atop the pack with a victory this week at the Farmers Insurance Open; but to hear his take on his ascension one would imagine a much wider margin.

“I've said many times, beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task,” Rahm said. “We all know what happened last time he was close to a lead in a tournament on the PGA Tour.”

Farmers Insurance Open: Articles, photos and videos

Rahm certainly remembers. It was just three weeks ago in Maui when he birdied three of his first six holes, played the weekend at Kapalua in 11 under and still finished eight strokes behind Johnson.

And last year at the WGC-Mexico Championship when Rahm closed his week with rounds of 67-68 only to finish two strokes off Johnson’s winning pace, or a few weeks later at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when he took Johnson the distance in the championship match only to drop a 1-up decision to the game’s undisputed heavyweight.

As far as Rahm has come in an incredibly short time - at this point last year he ranked 137th in the world - it is interesting that it’s been Johnson who has had an answer at every turn.

He knows there’s still so much room for improvement, both physically and mentally, and no one would ever say Rahm is wanting for confidence, but after so many high-profile run-ins with Johnson, his cautious optimism is perfectly understandable.

“I'll try to focus more on what's going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win,” he reasoned when asked about the prospect of unseating Johnson, who isn’t playing this week. “I'll try my best, that's for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

If Rahm’s take seems a tad cliché given the circumstances, consider that his aversion to looking beyond the blinders is baked into the competitive cake. For all of his physical advantages, of which there are many, it’s his keen ability to produce something special on command that may be even more impressive.

Last year at Torrey Pines was a quintessential example of this, when he began the final round three strokes off the lead only to close his day with a back-nine 30 that included a pair of eagles.

“I have the confidence that I can win here, whereas last year I knew I could but I still had to do it,” he said. “I hope I don't have to shoot 30 on the back nine to win again.”

Some will point to Rahm’s 60-footer for eagle at the 72nd hole last year as a turning point in his young career, it was even named the best putt on Tour by one publication despite the fact he won by three strokes. But Rahm will tell you that walk-off wasn’t even the best shot he hit during the final round.

Instead, he explained that the best shot of the week, the best shot of the year, came on the 13th hole when he launched a 4-iron from a bunker to 18 feet for eagle, a putt that he also made.

“If I don't put that ball on the green, which is actually a lot harder than making that putt, the back nine charge would have never happened and this year might have never happened, so that shot is the one that made everything possible,” he explained.

Rahm’s ability to embrace and execute during those moments is what makes him special and why he’s suddenly found himself as the most likely contender to Johnson’s throne even if he chooses not to spend much time thinking about it.

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Rahm focusing on play, not shot at No. 1

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 9:06 pm

SAN DIEGO – Jon Rahm’s meteoric rise in the world rankings could end with him reaching No. 1 with a win this week at Torrey Pines.

After winning last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his fourth title in 51 weeks, Rahm has closed the gap on Dustin Johnson – less than 1.5 average points separates them.

With Johnson not playing this week, the 23-year-old Spaniard has a chance to reach the top spot for the first time, but only if he defends his title at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Farmers Insurance Open: Articles, photos and videos

“Beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task. It’s no easy task,” he said Tuesday. “We still have four days of golf ahead and we’ll see what happens. But I’ll try to focus more on what’s going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win.

“I’ll try my best, that’s for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

Rahm has already become the fourth-youngest player to reach No. 2 in the world, behind Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. 

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Rahm: Playoff wasn't friendly, just 'nervous'

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 8:53 pm

SAN DIEGO – Too chummy? Jon Rahm says he and Andrew Landry were just expending some nervous energy on the walk up to the fairway during the first playoff hole of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

“I wouldn’t have been that nervous if it was friendly,” Rahm said with a smile Tuesday. “I think it was something he said because we were talking going out of the first tee.

“I didn’t know Andrew – I think it was a pretty good time to get to know him. We had at least 10 minutes to ourselves. It’s not like we were supporting each other, right? We were both in it together, we were both nervous together, and I felt like talking about it might have eased the tension out of both of us.”

Farmers Insurance Open: Articles, photos and videos

On Sunday, two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange saw the exchange on TV and tweeted: “Walking off the tee talking to each other. Are you kidding me? Talking at all?”

Strange followed up by saying that, in a head-to-head situation, the last thing he’d want to do was make his opponent comfortable. When his comments went viral, Strange tweeted at Rahm, who won after four holes: “Hopefully no offense taken on my comment yesterday. You guys are terrific. I’m a huge fan of all players today. Made an adverse comment on U guys talking during playoff. Not for me. A fan.”

Not surprisingly, the gregarious Rahm saw things differently.

“We only talked going out of the first tee up until the fairway,” he said. “Besides that, all we said was, ‘Good shot, good putt, see you on the next tee.’ That’s what it was reduced to. We didn’t say much.”