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Hero comeback a success for healthy Woods

By Rex HoggardDecember 3, 2017, 10:00 pm

NASSAU, Bahamas – Decked out in his signature red and black and replete with a confidence that transcended his spot on the leaderboard, Tiger Woods offered a wry smile as he made his way to Sunday’s award ceremony at the Hero World Challenge.

He’s wasn’t a winner, but he was far from a ceremonial golfer, which was the fear held by some following his fourth back procedure in April.

When scorecards are reviewed years from now it will be that opening-nine 40 on Saturday that derailed any chance for the Cinderella story that will stand out, but it wasn’t that windswept effort on Day 3, or even his spirtied finish on Sunday, that provided the final snapshot of Woods’ first start in 301 days.

His tie for ninth place at Albany, a full 10 shots behind champion Rickie Fowler, tells only a fraction of the tale. For four days, Woods drove the ball as well as he has in a decade, putted better than his final statistics might suggest and largely controlled his golf ball with the notable exception of his opening loop on Saturday.

“This is the way I've been playing at home and when I came out here and played, I was playing very similar to this. Not quite hitting it as far, but I had the adrenaline going and overall I'm very pleased,” Woods said following a final-round 68.

It was well documented that Woods’ short game wasn’t exactly in midseason form, but then the rust from 10 months of competitive inactivity would always manifest itself within the blades of Albany’s grainy Bermuda grass collection areas. He also didn’t appear entirely comfortable playing shots into right-to-left gusts, but that’s nothing a few more trips around a tournament course can’t cure.

No, what mattered on Sunday was the same thing that was crucial on Monday when he set out on his 10th professional comeback following a break of 10 weeks or more – the long-term prognosis.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how was the pain?

The response, however anecdotal, came early on Sunday as Woods bounded off the first tee to catch up with playing partner Justin Thomas. It wasn’t that long ago when prolonged periods of sitting were unheard of because of the discomfort and pain it caused. That he’s now able to throttle a 3-iron with the force of a man half his age was the essence of his Bahamas experiment.

Last year when he finished 15th at the Hero World Challenge there was a general air of optimism after a similar injury-induced layoff, but that comeback lasted just three more competitive rounds before he went back on the disabled list. This iteration feels different, for an assortment of reasons, but mostly because of that favorable bill of health.

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Full-field scores from the Hero World Challenge

Woods played nine consecutive days before teeing off for Thursday’s opening frame, a self-imposed endurance test to prove to himself he was ready.

His surgeon had given him the green light to begin golf activities, his trainer had provided additional moral and physical support, but he needed to see for himself if his body, broken and battered for so long, could answer the call.

“I'm excited the way this week has gone,” said Woods, whose relaxed demeanor matched his dramatically improved quality of life. “I’m excited with not only the competitive rounds but also all the functions at night. I still got my training in. It was a very good week.”

There was no false hope, no bravado, no excuses, just an honest assessment of his game, a game that had more unknowns before this week’s member-member than the College Football Playoff selection process.

From an objectively competitive point of view, the current generation of stars who have largely never played against Woods at his best have no interest in slowing down – Fowler did, after all, birdie eight of his first nine holes on Sunday on his way to victory – but there’s no shelf life on talent and anyone who doesn’t believe in Woods’ desire wasn’t paying attention.

The answers Woods needed couldn’t be found in an MRI machine or back at home in South Florida playing “friendlies” at Medalist. Those truths could only be discovered on the physical scorecard that 72 holes of tournament golf can provide.

“No doubt about it,” Patrick Reed said when asked if the happy host could win in 2018. “Just hopefully he’s not winning any of the events I’m playing because I plan on beating him every week. It’s awesome to see him back playing well. What I saw on Monday when we played a practice round was effortless power.”

Woods largely stayed on message throughout the week, making numerous references to “coming out on the good side” of what has been a trying year that began with his withdrawal from the Dubai Desert Classic after just one round in February which led to the surgeon’s table and eventually a messy arrest for DUI on Memorial Day.

We may never truly know the physical and mental toll 2017 had on the 14-time major champion, but if the smile etched into Woods’ face as he presented the champion’s hardware to Fowler was any indication, there was no better tonic than what was, by all accounts, a successful rehab start.

It will be seven weeks before Woods’ next presumed start at the Farmers Insurance Open in January. Time to reflect, time to refine and, most importantly, time to reassess what’s possible with a clean bill of health.

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Korda happy to finally be free of jaw pain

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 2:43 am

PHOENIX – Jessica Korda isn’t as surprised as everyone else that she is playing so well, so quickly, upon her return from a complex and painful offseason surgery.

She is inspired finally getting to play without recurring headaches.

“I’d been in pain for three years,” she said after posting a 4-under-par 68 Friday to move two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Korda had her upper jaw broken in three places and her low jaw broken in two places in December in a procedure that fixed the alignment of her jaw.

Korda, 25, said the headaches caused by her overbite even affected her personality.

“Affects your moods,” Korda said. “I think I was pretty snappy back then as well.”

She was pretty pleased Friday to give herself a weekend chance at her sixth LPGA title, her second in her last three starts. She won the Honda LPGA Thailand three weeks ago in her first start after returning from surgery.

“I'm much happier now,” Korda said. “Much calmer.”

Even if she still can’t eat the things she would really like to eat. She’s still recuperating. She said the lower part of her face remains numb, and it’s painful to chew crunchy things.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“Chips are totally out of question,” Korda said.

She can eat most things she likes, but she has to cut them into tiny pieces. She can’t wait to be able to eat a steak.

“They broke my palate, so I can't feel anything, even heat,” Korda said. “So that's a bit difficult, because I can't feel any heat on my lip or palate. I don't know how hot things are going in until they hit my throat.”

Korda has 27 screws in her skull holding the realignment together. She needed her family to feed her, bathe her and dress her while she recovered. The procedure changed the way she looks.

While Korda’s ordeal and all that went into her recovery has helped fans relate to her, she said it’s the desire to move on that motivates her.

“Because I was so drugged up, I don't remember a lot of it,” Korda said. “I try to forget a lot of it. I don't think of it like I went through a lot. I just think of it as I'm pain-free. So, yeah, people are like, `Oh, you're so brave, you overcame this and that.’ For me, I'm just going forward.”

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Finally adapted to short putter, Martin near lead

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 1:54 am

PHOENIX – Mo Martin loved her long putter.

In fact, she named her “Mona.”

For 10 years, Martin didn’t putt with anything else. She grew up with long putters, from the time she started playing when she was 5.

While Martin won the Ricoh Women’s British Open in 2014, about nine months after giving up Mona for a short putter, she said it’s taken until today to feel totally comfortable with one.

And that has her excited about this year.

Well, that and having a healthy back again.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“I've had a feeling that this year was going to be a good one,” Martin said. “My game is in a special place.”

Martin was beaming after a 6-under-par 66 Friday moved her two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Just a beautiful day,” Martin said. “I was able to play my game, make my putts.”

Martin hit all 14 fairways in the second round, hit 15 greens in regulation and took just 27 putts. After struggling with nagging back pain last year, she’s pain free again.

She’s happy to “just to get back to a place now where my ball striking is where it has been the last few years.”

Martin, by the way, says Mona remains preserved in a special place, “a shrine” in her home.

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Clanton rides hole-out eagle to lead at Founders

By Associated PressMarch 17, 2018, 1:47 am

PHOENIX - Cydney Clanton holed out from the fairway for eagle on the par-4 13th and closed with a birdie Friday to take the second-round lead in the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Clanton shot a 5-under 67, playing the back nine at Desert Ridge in 5-under 31 to reach 9-under 135.

Clanton's wedge on the 13th flew into the cup on the first bounce. She also birdied the par-5 11th and 15th and the par-4 18th. The 28-year-old former Auburn player is winless on the LPGA.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Ariya Jutanugarn, Marina Alex, Karine Icher and Mariajo Uribe were a stroke back on a calmer day after wind made scoring more difficult Thursday.

Jessica Korda and Mo Martin were 7 under, and Michelle Wie topped the group at 6 under.

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Ko's struggles continue with Founders MC

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 1:26 am

PHOENIX – Lydia Ko loves the Bank of Hope Founders Cup and its celebration of the game’s pioneers, and that made missing the cut Friday sting a little more.

With a 1-over-par 73 following Thursday’s 74, Ko missed the cut by four shots.

After tying for 10th at the HSBC Women’s World Championship in her last start, Ko looked to be turning a corner in her quest to find her best form again, but she heads to next week’s Kia Classic with more work to do.

“I just have to stay patient,” Ko said. “I just have to keep my head high.”

It was just the fifth missed cut in Ko’s 120 career LPGA starts, but her fourth in her last 26 starts.

Ko’s ball striking has been erratic this year, but her putting has been carrying her. She said her putting let her down Friday.

“It seemed like I couldn’t hole a single putt,” she said. “When I missed greens, I just wasn’t getting up and down. When I got a birdie opportunity, I wasn’t able to hole it.”

Ko came to Phoenix ranked 112th in driving distance, 121st in driving accuracy and 83rd in greens in regulation. She was sixth in putting average.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Cristie Kerr saw the struggle playing two rounds with Ko.

“Her game’s not in good shape,” Kerr said. “She seemed a little lost.”

Ko, 20, made those sweeping changes last year, starting 2017 with a new coach (Gary Gilchrist), a new caddie (Peter Godfrey) and new equipment (PXG). She made more changes at this year’s start, with another new coach (Ted Oh) and new caddie (Jonnie Scott).

Ko doesn’t have to look further than Michelle Wie to see how a player’s game can totally turn around.

“It always takes time to get used to things,” Ko said. “By the end of last year, I was playing solid. I’m hoping it won’t take as much time this year.”

Ko had Oh fly to Asia to work with her in her two starts before the Founders Cup, with their work showing up in her play at the HSBC in Singapore. She said she would be talking to Oh again before heading to the Kia Classic next week and then the ANA Inspiration. She has won both of those events and will be looking to pull some good vibes from that.

“This is my favorite stretch of events,” she said. “And I love the Founders Cup, how it celebrates all the generations that have walked through women’s golf. And I love the West Coast swing. Hopefully, I’ll make more putts next week.”

Ko, whose run of 85 consecutive weeks at Rolex world No. 1 ended last summer, slipped to No. 12 this week.