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Grateful Woods happy with opening round at Hero

By Rex HoggardNovember 30, 2017, 10:42 pm

NASSAU, Bahamas – Those with even a passing interest in social media likely noticed over the last few days the return of one 14-time major champion.

You may have even noticed that much of the conversation has focused on how far Tiger Woods is hitting his driver, which by every account is dial-back-the-golf-ball long. On Thursday, paired with Justin Thomas, Tiger hammered that narrative home – literally.

At the first hole, he pounded his drive down the fairway. Yep, past JT, who last year averaged 309.7 yards off the tee. At the second, Woods launched another missile high into the windy Caribbean sky. You guessed it, well by the reigning PGA Championship winner.

Again and again, Woods turned back the clock with an impressive combination of power and, with a few notable exceptions, precision off the tee. But that tells only a portion of the Day 1 story.

There’s so much more to golf than simply prodigious drives, like a short game which still seems to be a work in progress for Woods. He caught his chip heavy at the fourth, and again at the ninth on his way to his first bogey of the day. Two holes later he sent another delicate pitch some 30 feet long (although to be fair, there were some highlights like the up-and-down at No. 12).

“It's frustrating because I have a hard time with this into-the-grain, ball sitting down,” said Woods, who turned in 1 under. “I have to hit the ball high. I'm used to using the bounce and hitting behind it a little bit and getting it up, but it's so sticky that it's really hard to do. I haven't quite figured it out yet.”

You could see this coming. Since he started his run up to this week’s start, his first since having fusion surgery on his lower back in April, Woods has spent extra time working on his short game.

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Before the social media universe begins coming up with answers for Woods’ short game woes, know that Albany is an exacting test around the greens, with putting surfaces that are ringed with swales and collection areas; and following more than eight months of complete inactivity a player’s touch is always going to be the final tumbler to fall into place.

But it was neither Woods’ wonderful driving or his wanting short game that mattered on Thursday. It wasn’t even an opening-round 69 that left him tied for eighth, three strokes off the lead held by Tommy Fleetwood. No, what mattered was his participation.

He wasn’t going to be perfect straight off the DL. In fact, it’s highly unlikely he figures it all out before Sunday’s curtain call. But for those watching his round the most important takeaway was that he remained upright and off the trainer’s table.

“All I'm trying to do is just keep plodding along. Today if I take away the two 6s and play the round correctly, then I'm probably tied for the lead,” Woods said. “So it's just little things like that I need to clean up and hopefully I can do that tomorrow.”

Moral victories have meant little to Woods throughout his career and he probably won’t spend Thursday night celebrating on his yacht, Privacy, which is moored in the nearby harbor.

With Woods the story never ends at the quantifiable.

More than two years removed from his last competitive tournament and five years since his last PGA Tour victory, Tiger’s reach still far transcends his competitive relevance.

Forget the final score, 41 million Google results can’t be wrong.

“What do you guys want to talk about?” joked Thomas following his round when he was approached by reporters, a playful nod at this week’s headliner.

The instant analysis came fast and, to be honest, without many facts at this early juncture. Woods largely drove the ball well, putted well, but needs to clean up his short game and the big miss – like at the 15th hole when he airmailed his drive into the dunes right of the fairway.

Completing an under-par round with an edge to his voice that hasn’t been there in some time, however, is what those who have awaited this day should celebrate.

“He was such an inspiration to me, I had to come out and watch,” said Tour frat brother Bryson DeChambeau, the winner of this year’s John Deere Classic who ventured out to Albany to play the role of spectator.

DeChambeau’s take was shared by many and helped temper expectations for what is always the best story in sports – the reclamation project.

Through the 1,000-yard gaze that defined so much of his career, Woods seemed to allow a moment of contemplation after having so many years of pain and uncertainty. The man whose aura has always been defined by his ability to compartmentalize and stay grounded in the here and now, was asked his thoughts before teeing off on Thursday.

“I was very thankful this morning,” he allowed. “I was in my head thanking all the people who have helped me in giving me a chance to come back and play this round again. There were a lot of people that were instrumental in my life; friends, outside people I've never met before, obviously my surgeon. I was very thankful.”

Of all the elements that defined Woods’ Day 1 return, it may be that gratitude that should give golf a reason to be truly optimistic.

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.

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Spieth vs. Reed random? Hmm, wonders Spieth

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 6:42 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Monday’s blind draw to determine the 16 pods for this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play didn’t exactly feel “blind” for Jordan Spieth, whose group includes Patrick Reed.

Spieth and Reed have become a staple of U.S. teams in recent years, with a 7-2-2 record in the Ryder and Presidents Cup combined. So when the ping-pong ball revealed Reed’s number on Monday night Spieth wasn’t surprised.

“It seems to me there's a bit more to this drawing than randomness,” laughed Spieth, whose pod also includes Haotong Li and Charl Schwartzel. “It's not just me and him. It's actually a lot of groups, to have Luke List and Justin [Thomas] in the same group seems too good to be true. It might be some sort of rigging that's going on, I'm not sure.”

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Spieth will play Reed on Friday in the round-robin format and knows exactly what to expect from the fiery American.

“I've seen it firsthand when he's been at his best. And we have history together in a couple of different playoffs, which is a match-play scenario,” Spieth said. “I've got to take care of work tomorrow and the next day for that day to even matter. But even if it doesn't matter, trust me, it will matter to both of us.”