Getty Images

Good and bad: Woods puts on a variety show

By Rex HoggardMarch 9, 2018, 12:03 am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Tiger Woods’ round on Thursday at the Valspar Championship had a little bit of everything.

There was drama, excitement, frustration and even a moment of trepidation when the game’s most injury-plagued athlete took on an oak tree and appeared to lose (spoiler alert: He said he’s fine).

He entertained and aggravated with equal abandon on a demanding day at Innisbrook Resort, which Woods hasn’t seen since pleated pants and baggy shirts were all the rage.

There was even some vintage rivalry banter between Woods and his longtime antagonist Phil Mickelson, who won last week’s WGC-Mexico Championship to end a victory drought that had stretched beyond four years.

“I wouldn't be surprised if [Woods] went out and won this weekend to one-up me again,” Mickelson said Thursday on the Dan Patrick Show.

Seems Lefty’s not just a 43-time winner on the PGA Tour. Perhaps he’s a bit clairvoyant as well.

Despite the ebb and flow of Day 1’s outing at Innisbrook, which Tiger last played in 1996 when it was a mixed team event, Woods emerged with a 1-under 70 which left him tied for eighth place and just three strokes off the lead.

He missed as many greens (nine) as he hit in regulation, wasn’t much better at finding fairways (7 of 13) and seemed to follow every birdie with a bogey, and yet when he completed a chilly round on a blustery day he sounded like a man who’d just checked an item off his bucket list.

Full-field scores from the Valspar Championship

Valspar Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It feels great,” Woods said when asked the state of his game. “Today was tough, man. I don't know if these people really understand how hard it was out there trying to pull a club, trying to figure out the wind direction, the gusts.”

The roller coaster started early, with a tap-in birdie at the first hole, followed by a bogey at No. 4. He birdied the eighth only to bogey the ninth. You get the idea.

There were back-to-back birdies at Nos. 10 and 11 to move to within two strokes of the lead, which is held by first-year Tour player Corey Conners, only to slip back with bogeys at the 12th and 13th holes.

As has been the case throughout this most recent comeback, Woods’ short game was vintage. He was 5-for-9 in scrambling, but he continued to struggle off the tee.

But if his ball-striking was a concern, Woods wasn’t letting on.

Although the Tampa-area stop was never a part of Woods’ rotation, he’s embraced the Copperhead Course, which ranked as the 17th-toughest on Tour last season, for what it is – a demanding test of every area of his game.

“I enjoy when par is a good score, it's a reward,” he said. “There are some tournaments when about four holes you don't make a birdie you feel like you're behind. Today I made a couple birdies, all of a sudden that puts me fourth, fifth, right away. That's how hard it is. It's the reward to go out there and make a couple birdies here and there and I like that type of challenge.”

To his point, Woods’ playing partners on Thursday – Jordan Spieth, the field’s highest-ranking player, and Henrik Stenson – combined to shoot 8 over par.

On Wednesday, Woods said he decided to add the Valspar Championship to his schedule after playing the Honda Classic, where he finished 12th. It was his second consecutive week of tournament golf and an encouraging sign that his body could withstand the rigors of competition.

With that box checked, he’s now turned his attention to honing his game with an eye toward the Masters. To do that he must test his swing under pressure, and although Innisbrook isn’t a major it certainly asks major questions.

His play at the par-4 16th hole was a microcosm of Woods’ eventful day. Hitting an iron off the tee, Woods watched it sail well left of the fairway. From an impossible lie and with a tree restricting his backswing he hooked his approach just right of the green. He also banged his arm into the tree, which prompted a wince from Woods and a collective deep breath from his fan base.

“The hand is fine. I didn't hit my hand. My forearm hit the tree a little bit,” Woods explained.

Woods would par the hole, chipping to 3 feet to complete the magic trick, and nearly dropped his tee ball at the 17th hole for an ace, a shot that stopped a foot from the flagstick for the day’s final birdie.

Perhaps it wasn’t Woods’ score that gave him confidence as much as it was his position on a leaderboard that was crowded with the relatively unproven likes of Conners, Whee Kim and Kelly Kraft, who were tied for second place and have a combined zero victories on Tour.

Or maybe it’s the progress he’s made with his game in an exceedingly short period of time that lifted Woods’ spirits on a gloomy afternoon.

“I'm pleased with every aspect of my game,” he said. “I drove it well, I hit a lot of good iron shots today and I had some good speed on the putts. Greens are a little bit grainy and I hit a lot of good ones. Spanked a couple here and there. I thought I really did well today, overall.”

Overall, it was impressive and irksome. You know, a little bit of everything.

Getty Images

Match Play security tightens after Austin bombings

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 8:06 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – A fourth bombing this month in Austin injured two men Sunday night and authorities believe the attacks are the work of a serial bomber.

The bombings have led to what appears to be stepped-up security at this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club.

“I was out here [Sunday]; typically that's the most relaxed day. But they had security officials on every corner of the clubhouse and on the exterior, as well,” said Dylan Frittelli, who lives in Austin and is playing the Match Play for the first time this week. “It was pretty tough to get through all the protocols. I'm sure they'll have stuff in place.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

The PGA Tour told The Associated Press on Monday that it doesn't comment on the specifics of its security measures, but that the safety of players and fans is its top priority. The circuit is also coordinating closely with law enforcement to ensure the safety of players and fans.

Despite the bombings, which have killed two people and injured two others, the Tour has not yet reached out to players to warn of any potential threat or advise the field about increased security.

“It’s strange,” Paul Casey said. “Maybe they are going to, but they haven’t.”

Getty Images

Rosaforte Report: Faxon helps 'free' McIlroy's mind and stroke

By Tim RosaforteMarch 19, 2018, 8:00 pm

With all the talk about rolling back the golf ball, it was the way Rory McIlroy rolled it at the Arnold Palmer Invitational that was the story of the week and the power surge he needed going into the Masters.

Just nine days earlier, a despondent McIlroy missed the cut at the Valspar Championship, averaging 29 putts per round in his 36 holes at Innisbrook Resort. At Bay Hill, McIlroy needed only 100 putts to win for the first time in the United States since the 2016 Tour Championship.

The difference maker was a conversation McIlroy had with putting savant Brad Faxon at The Bears Club in Jupiter, Fl., on Monday of API week. What started with a “chat,” as McIlroy described it, ended with a resurrection of Rory’s putting stroke and set him free again, with a triumphant smile on his face, headed to this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and Augusta National in two weeks.

The meeting with Faxon made for a semi-awkward moment for McIlroy, considering he had been working with highly-regarded putting coach Phil Kenyon since missing the cut in the 2016 PGA Championship. From “pathetic” at Baltusrol, McIlroy became maker of all, upon the Kenyon union, and winner of the BMW Championship, Tour Championship and FedExCup.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

As a professional courtesy, Faxon laid low, respecting McIlroy’s relationship with Kenyon, who also works with European stars Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Tommy Fleetwood and Henrik Stenson. Knowing how McIlroy didn’t like the way Dave Stockton took credit after helping him win multiple majors, Faxon let McIlroy do the talking. Asked about their encounter during his Saturday news conference at Bay Hill, McIlroy called it “more of a psychology lesson than anything else.”

“There was nothing I told him he had never heard before, nothing I told him that was a secret,” Faxon, who once went 327 consecutive holes on Tour without a three-putt, said on Monday. “I think (Rory) said it perfectly when he said it allowed him to be an athlete again. We try to break it down so well, it locks us up. If I was able to unlock what was stuck, he took it to the next level. The thing I learned, there can be no method of belief more important than the athlete’s true instinct.”

Without going into too much detail, McIlroy explained that Faxon made him a little more “instinctive and reactive.” In other words, less “mechanical and technical.” It was the same takeaway that Gary Woodland had after picking Faxon’s brain before his win in this year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Sunday night, after leading the field in strokes gained-putting, McIlroy was more elaborative, explaining how Faxon “freed up my head more than my stroke,” confessing that he was complicating things a bit and was getting less athletic.

“You look at so many guys out there, so many different ways to get the ball in the hole,” he said. “The objective is to get the ball in the hole and that’s it. I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”

All of this occurred after a conversation I had Sunday morning with swing instructor Pete Cowen, who praised Kenyon for the work he had done with his player, Henrik Stenson. Cowen attributed Henrik’s third-round lead at Bay Hill to the diligent work he put in with Kenyon over the last two months.

“It’s confidence,” Cowen said. “(Stenson) needs a good result for confidence and then he’s off. If he putts well, he has a chance of winning every time he plays.”

Cowen made the point that on the PGA Tour, a player needs 100-110 putts per week – or an average of 25-27 putts per round – to have a chance of winning. Those include what Cowen calls the “momentum putts,” that are especially vital in breaking hearts at this week’s WGC-Dell Match Play.

Stenson, who is not playing this week in Austin, Texas, saw a lot of positives but admitted there wasn’t much he could do against McIlroy shooting 64 on Sunday in the final round on a tricky golf course.

“It's starting to come along in the right direction for sure,” Stenson said. “I hit a lot of good shots out there this week, even though maybe the confidence is not as high as some of the shots were, so we'll keep on working on that and it's a good time of the year to start playing well.”

Nobody knows that better than McIlroy, who is hoping to stay hot going for his third WGC and, eventually, the career Grand Slam at Augusta.

Getty Images

Golf's Olympic format, qualifying process remain the same

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 6:25 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Potential Olympic golfers for the 2020 Games in Tokyo were informed on Monday that the qualification process for both the men’s and women’s competitions will remain unchanged.

According to a memo sent to PGA Tour players, the qualification process begins on July 1, 2018, and will end on June 22, 2020, for the men, with the top 59 players from the Olympic Golf Rankings, which is drawn from the Official World Golf Ranking, earning a spot in Tokyo (the host country is assured a spot in the 60-player field). The women’s qualification process begins on July 8, 2018, and ends on June 29, 2020.

The format, 72-holes of individual stroke play, for the ’20 Games will also remain unchanged.

The ’20 Olympics will be held July 24 through Aug. 9, and the men’s competition will be played the week before the women’s event at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

Getty Images

Webb granted U.S. Women's Open special exemption

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 6:22 pm

Karrie Webb's streak of consecutive appearances at the U.S. Women's Open will continue this summer.

The USGA announced Monday that the 43-year-old Aussie has been granted a special exemption into this year's event, held May 31-June 3 at Shoal Creek in Alabama. Webb, a winner in both 2000 and 2001, has qualified for the event on merit every year since 2011 when her 10-year exemption for her second victory ended.

"As a past champion, I'm very grateful and excited to accept the USGA's special exemption into this year's U.S. Women's Open," Webb said in a release. "I have always loved competing in the U.S. Women's Open and being tested on some of the best courses in the country."

Webb has played in the tournament every year since 1996, the longest such active streak, meaning that this summer will mark her 23rd consecutive appearance. She has made the U.S. Women's Open cut each of the last 10 years, never finishing outside the top 50 in that span.

Webb's exemption is the first handed out by the USGA since 2016, when Se Ri Pak received an invite to play at CordeValle. Prior to that the two most recent special exemptions went to Juli Inkster (2013) and Laura Davies (2009). The highest finish by a woman playing on a special exemption came in 1994, when Amy Alcott finished sixth.