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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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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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Bubba Golf takes long road back to winner's circle

By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 1:55 am

LOS ANGELES – Bubba’s back.

It’s been just two years since he hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, but with a mind that moves as fast as Bubba Watson’s, it must have felt like an eternity.

Since his last victory, which was also a shootout at Riviera Country Club in 2016, Watson was passed over for a captain’s pick at the 2016 Ryder Cup, endured a mystery illness, lost his confidence, his desire and the better part of 40 pounds.

He admits that along that ride he considered retirement and wondered if his best days were behind him.

“I was close [to retirement]. My wife was not close,” he conceded. “My wife basically told me to quit whining and play golf. She's a lot tougher than I am.”

What else could he do? With apologies to his University of Georgia education and a growing portfolio of small businesses, Watson was made to be on the golf course, particularly a golf course like Riviera, which is the canvas that brings out Bubba’s best.

In a game that can too often become a monotonous parade of fairways and greens, Watson is a freewheeling iconoclast who thrives on adversity. Where others only see straight lines and one-dimensional options, Bubba embraces the unconventional and the untried.

For a player who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it was a perfectly Bubba moment midway through his final round on Sunday at the Genesis Open. Having stumbled out of the 54-hole lead with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6, Watson pulled his 2-iron tee shot wildly right at the seventh because, “[his playing partners] both went left.”

From an impossible lie in thick rough with his golf ball 2 feet above his feet, Watson’s often-fragile focus zeroed in for one of the week’s most entertaining shots, which landed about 70 feet from the hole and led to a two-putt par.


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“His feel for that kind of stuff, you can’t go to the range and practice that. You can’t,” said Watson’s caddie Ted Scott. “Put a ball 2 feet above your feet and then have to hold the face open and then to swing that easy. That’s why I have the best seat in the house. That’s the essence of Bubba golf.”

There were plenty of highlight moments on Sunday for Watson. There were crucial putts at Nos. 11 (birdie), 12 (par) and 13 (par) to break free of what was becoming an increasingly fluid leaderboard, and his chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker at the 14th hole extended his lead to two strokes.

“It was just a bunker shot, no big deal,” smiled Watson, who closed with a 69 for a two-stroke victory over Kevin Na and Tony Finau.

A player that can often appear handcuffed by the most straightforward of shots was at his best at Riviera, withstanding numerous challenges to win the Genesis Open for his 10th PGA Tour title.

That he did so on a frenzied afternoon that featured four different players moving into, however briefly, at last a share of the lead, Watson never appeared rattled. But, of course, we all know that wasn’t the case.

Watson can become famously uncomfortable on the course and isn’t exactly known for his ability to ignore distractions. But Riviera, where he’s now won three times, is akin to competitive Ritalin for Watson.

“[Watson] feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins,” said Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for sixth after moving to within one stroke of the lead early in round. “A lot of guys don't feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30 footer in the center of the green. He ends up making a lot more birdies than a lot of guys.”

It’s the soul of what Scott calls Bubba Golf, which is in simplest terms the most creative form of the game.

Watson can’t explain exactly what Bubba Golf is, but there was a telling moment earlier this week when Aaron Baddeley offered Watson an impromptu putting lesson, which Bubba said was the worst putting lesson he’d ever gotten.

“He goes, ‘how do you hit a fade?’ I said, ‘I aim it right and think fade.’ How do you hit a draw? I aim it left and think draw,” Watson said. “He said, ‘how do you putt?’ I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘well, aim it to the right when it breaks to the left, aim it to the left when it breaks to the right,’ exactly how you imagine your golf ball in the fairway or off the tee, however you imagine it, imagine it that way.”

It’s certain that there’s more going on internally, but when he’s playing his best the sum total of Watson’s game can be simply explained – see ball, hit ball. Anything more complicated than that and he runs the risk of losing what makes him so unique and – when the stars align and a course like Riviera or Augusta National, where he’s won twice, asks the right questions – virtually unbeatable.

That’s a long way from the depths of 2017, when he failed to advance past the second playoff event and dropped outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But then, Watson has covered a lot of ground in his career on his way to 10 Tour victories.

“I never thought I could get there,” he said. “Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let's be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can't putt, you know? Somehow we're here making fun of it.”

Somehow, through all the adversity and distractions, he found a way to be Bubba again.

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Spieth: 'I feel great about the state of my game'

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:43 am

LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth is starting to feel confident again with the putter, which is probably a bad sign for the rest of the PGA Tour.

Spieth struggled on the greens two weeks ago at TPC Scottsdale, but he began to right the ship at Pebble Beach and cracked the top 10 this week at the Genesis Open. Perhaps more important than his final spot on the leaderboard was his standing in the strokes gained putting category – 12th among the field at Riviera Country Club, including a 24-putt performance in the third round.

Spieth closed out the week with a 4-under 67 to finish in a tie for ninth, five shots behind Bubba Watson. But after the round he spoke like a man whose preparation for the season’s first major is once again right on track.


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“I was kind of, you know, skiing uphill with my putting after Phoenix and the beginning of Pebble week, and really just for a little while now through the new year,” Spieth said. “I just made some tremendous progress. I putted extremely well this week, which is awesome. I feel great about the state of my game going forward, feel like I’m in a great place at this time of the year as we’re starting to head into major season.”

Spieth will take a break next week, and where he next tees it up remains uncertain. He still has not announced a decision about playing or skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship, and he will have until 5 p.m. ET Friday to make a final decision on the no-cut event.

Whether or not he flies down to Mexico City, Spieth’s optimism has officially returned after a brief hiccup on the West Coast swing.

“For where I was starting out Phoenix to where I am and how I feel about my game going forward the rest of the year, there was a lot of progress made,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to figure out what the best schedule is for myself as we head into the Masters.”

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McIlroy encouraged by T-20: 'Didn’t quite reflect how I played'

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:23 am

LOS ANGELES – Rory McIlroy sees plenty of reasons to smile despite the fact that the first half of his 2018 Masters prep has officially wrapped without lifting a trophy.

After an injury-plagued campaign last year, McIlroy set out an ambitious schedule that called for eight worldwide starts before heading down Magnolia Lane. He started off with a pair of near-misses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, then followed last week’s missed cut at Pebble Beach with a T-20 finish at the Genesis Open.

McIlroy birdied his final two holes to close with a 3-under 68 at Riviera Country Club, his lowest score of the week. He explained that a “destructive” tee shot on the 12th hole Saturday led to a double bogey and stunted any potential momentum, but he remained encouraged after closing the week on a high note.

“I feel like the position that I finished didn’t quite reflect how I played,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I played better than finishing whatever it is, 25th or whatever it’s going to be. I feel good about my game, just need to sharpen up a couple little areas here and there. But for the most part it’s been OK.”


Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

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McIlroy will now head across the country to tee it up in the Honda Classic, where he reached world No. 1 for the first time with a win in 2012 and also lost in a playoff in 2014. Although he continued to tinker with his putter this week following a mediocre effort on the greens at Pebble Beach, he believes that some of his putting woes may be solved simply by swapping out tricky poa annua surfaces for more familiar Bermuda greens.

“It was nice to play sort of early the last couple days, the greens didn’t get too crusty or too bumpy. I felt like even coming down the last few holes there, they were still good surfaces,” McIlroy said. “Nice to get back onto Bermuda and surfaces being a little truer than what we’ve experienced the last couple weeks.”

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Opinions split on lengthening No. 5 at Augusta

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:07 am

LOS ANGELES – Few topics spark a diverse range of player opinions quite like the whisper of changes to Augusta National Golf Club, and the latest proposed alteration of the par-4 fifth hole is no exception.

According to an Augusta Chronicle report, the club has submitted preliminary plans that would call for the construction of a new tee later this year behind what currently is Old Berckmans Road. The new tee could reportedly lengthen the hole by 20-30 yards and would alleviate congestion with the adjacent fourth green. It would also signal the first club-enacted changes to the famed layout since 2006.

Phil Mickelson has three green jackets hanging in his closet, and he sees no problem with adding teeth to a hole that already measures 455 yards on the scorecard.

“I’m a big fan of making the hard holes harder and the easy holes easier,” Mickelson said Sunday at the Genesis Open. “So making No. 5 harder, which is perennially a difficult par, or should be one of the harder par-4s out there, I’m a big fan of. What I’m not a fan of is taking a hole like 7 and making it the second-toughest par on the golf course. I think that’s a mistake. I think making 5 more difficult is not.”


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Jordan Spieth believes the proposed changes would force driver into players’ hands on what he described as a “3-wood hole” given the pitch of the fairway, and added that firm and fast conditions could potentially push a longer fifth hole to the brink of playability.

“It would make an already very difficult hole even harder,” Spieth said. “If the greens are firm and fast, then it’s a pretty dicey hole given how severe that green is. But when you can still land a mid-iron on and stop it on the back of that green, then it makes sense. So I think they’d probably do a mix of the tees.”

While former champs Mickelson and Spieth welcome the promise of a more difficult Masters test, Graeme McDowell simply shook his head and grinned before explaining that his love of Augusta National remains unrequited after nine career Masters appearances.

“That green, it’s just not a 5-iron green. I’m sort of hitting between 5- and 7-iron into there as it is,” McDowell said. “It’s a tough golf course, and (No.) 5 is one of the toughest holes on the course. Certainly doesn’t need any lengthening for my money.”