Tiger, Rory, Phil, Augusta ... believe the hype

By Rex HoggardApril 10, 2013, 2:40 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – From unrealistic expectations normally comes disappointment. If something is too good to be true, it probably is.

Beware buzz words like epic, awesome and historic, because the capriciousness of competition historically tempers even the most optimistic forecast. Truth is grand, title bouts rarely go to script (see Watson, Bubba, 2012 Masters).

But as the stars and azaleas align for this week’s Masters it’s impossible not to imagine the Sunday possibilities – Tiger vs. Phil, Tiger vs. Rory, Tiger vs. Sneds. OK, Tiger head-to-head with almost anyone late on Sunday is worth the price of admission. It’s been that way since he won one for the ages in 1997.

The difference this year is that for the first time in at least seven calendars the entire cast seems up to the task.

Woods has now played 14 major championships since he collected Grand Slam glory and his title drought is at an inexplicable 0-for-7 at Augusta National. In Woods’ first six Masters as a professional he won three green jackets – that’s right, he batted .500 straight out of spring training. In his last 10 starts on the former fruit nursery he has just one victory.

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Whether you attribute that record to the so-called “Tiger proofing” of the Peachtree playground in 2002, when officials lengthened nine holes, or simply a competitive quirk really doesn’t matter. For Woods, the seven-year itch has turned into a nasty rash.

“I wouldn’t have been happy with that,” Woods said on Tuesday when asked how he would have felt in 2005 had he known it would be at least another seven years before he slipped into his fifth green jacket.

For Woods, the dichotomy of the drought is simple. In the seven Masters he’s played since outdueling Chris DiMarco in ’05, he has finished inside the top 10 in putting for the week just once.

Although Augusta National officially added driving and chipping to the annual putting contest on Monday when they announced a new junior initiative that will be played at the club in 2014, winning the Masters is, and will always be, about putting.

“I was there ball-striking-wise a few years through that stretch, where I think I hit it pretty well. Hit a lot of greens, but just didn't make enough putts,” said Woods, who has finished inside the top 10 in all but one of his last seven Masters. “You have to make the majority of the putts inside 10 feet, and you've got to be just a great lag putter for the week.”

For all his near-misses, however, Woods sounded positively upbeat on Tuesday, the byproduct of one of his fastest starts on Tour in years. He has three victories in five starts and, perhaps even more important this week, leads the circuit in strokes gained-putting, the convoluted formula that is the benchmark for success at Augusta National.

But Woods’ 2013 momentum is only part of the frenzied formula that has turned the 77th Masters into the acme of hyperbole.

In contrast to Woods’ relative swoon since officials began tinkering with Augusta National, Phil Mickelson has won all three of his green jackets since the changes and has only been out of contention on Sunday twice since 2000.

What Lefty lacks in recent form – in his last three starts he’s gone T-3 (Doral), missed cut (Bay Hill) and T-16 (Houston) – he makes up for in passion. In short, the right turn onto Magnolia Lane off of Washington Road is akin to a competitive B-12 shot for the big left-hander.

“Having the opportunity to be in the thick of it and to feel that excitement, to feel that pressure, to grace Amen Corner knowing that you need birdies and trying to win a green jacket, that is the greatest thrill a golfer can possibly experience,” Mickelson said.

The thrill for fans is simply to watch Mickelson, both on and off the golf course, and he didn’t disappoint on Tuesday.

The man who has played the Masters with two drivers and one of the longest courses in U.S. Open history with no driver will tee off on Thursday with something in between in his bag.

Mickelson has replaced his driver with what has been dubbed “Phrankenwood,” a fairway wood chassis with a driver face. Or, put another way, it is essentially a 2-wood.

“It just bores through the air and I don't have to manipulate it and it just goes so far,” Mickelson said.

However unintended, Mickelson’s maneuvers dovetail with a collective move to play this year’s Masters with a more measured approach. Power, it seems, is passé, likely mitigated by lush conditions, in favor of control.

It is a philosophy that will be embraced by Rory McIlroy, of all players. McIlroy, the man who blew his title chances into the cabins right of the 10th fairway in 2011, has emerged from an early slump and is sounding surprisingly restrained.

“I’m going to try to hit it into the fat parts of the fairway,” said McIlroy, who heightened this week’s pre-tournament rhetoric with his runner-up finish last week in Texas. “Is there really a difference between hitting an 8-iron or a 6-iron into a par 4? There's certain holes on this golf course that if you play them the right way, you play them smart, you can make a birdie every day or you can definitely limit the mistakes and not make a big number.”

But if the Big 3 has created a vacuum, the list of legitimate contenders goes well beyond the top of the marquee.

World No. 3 Justin Rose may be the game’s most consistent player having finished inside the top 20 in every event he’s played in 2013, and following his runner-up to Woods at Bay Hill he seems poised to take the next step; while Brandt Snedeker, the hottest player in golf following runner-up finishes at Torrey Pines and Phoenix, and his victory at Pebble Beach, appears fully recovered from a muscle injury.

Historically, embracing expectations is the quickest path to disappointment, but on the eve of the year’s first major it’s impossible to not revel in the hype.

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J. Korda fires flawless 62, leads by 4 in Thailand

By Associated PressFebruary 23, 2018, 12:48 pm

CHONBURI, Thailand – Jessica Korda shot a course-record 62 at the Honda LPGA Thailand on Friday to lead by four strokes after the second round.

Playing her first tournament since having jaw surgery, Korda fired eight birdies and finished with an eagle to move to 16 under par at the halfway point, a 36-hole record at the tournament.

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Korda, who is the daughter of former tennis player Petr Korda, leads fellow American Brittany Lincicome, who carded a 65 to go 12 under.

Minjee Lee of Australia is third and a shot behind Linicome on 11 under after a 67. Lexi Thompson, the 2016 champion, is fourth and another shot behind Lee.

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Simpson, Noren share Honda lead after challenging Rd. 1

By Doug FergusonFebruary 23, 2018, 1:25 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Tiger Woods had what he called ''easily'' his best round hitting the ball, and he didn't even break par at the Honda Classic.

Alex Noren and Webb Simpson shared the lead at 4-under 66 in steady wind on a penal PGA National golf course, and felt as though they had to work hard for it. Both dropped only one shot Thursday, which might have been as great an accomplishment as any of their birdies.

''When you stand on certain tee boxes or certain approach shots, you remember that, 'Man, this is one of the hardest courses we play all year, including majors,''' said Simpson, who is playing the Honda Classic for the first time in seven years.

Only 20 players broke par, and just as many were at 76 or worse.

Woods had only one big blunder - a double bogey on the par-5 third hole when he missed the green and missed a 3-foot putt - in an otherwise stress-free round. He had one other bogey against three birdies, and was rarely out of position. Even one of his two wild drives, when his ball landed behind two carts that were selling frozen lemonade and soft pretzels, he still had a good angle to the green.

''It was very positive today,'' Woods said. ''It was a tough day out there for all of us, and even par is a good score.''

It was plenty tough for Adam Scott, who again stumbled his way through the closing stretch of holes that feature water, water and more water. Scott went into the water on the par-3 15th and made double bogey, and then hit into the water on the par-3 17th and made triple bogey. He shot 73.

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Rory McIlroy was at even par deep into the back nine when he figured his last chance at birdie would be the par-5 18th. Once he got there, he figured his best chance at birdie was to hit 3-wood on or near the green. Instead, he came up a yard short and into the water, made double bogey and shot 72.

Noren, who lost in a playoff at Torrey Pines last month, shot 31 on the front nine and finished with a 6-foot birdie on the ninth hole into a strong wind for his 66.

The Swede is a nine-time winner on the European Tour who is No. 16 in the world, though he has yet to make a connection among American golf fans - outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma, from his college days at Oklahoma State - from not having fared well at big events. Noren spends time in South Florida during the winter, so he's getting used to this variety of putting surfaces.

''I came over here to try to play some more American-style courses, get firmer greens, more rough, and to improve my driving and improve my long game,'' Noren said. ''So it's been great.''

PGA champion Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Morgan Hoffmann - who all live up the road in Jupiter - opened with a 67. There's not much of an advantage because hardly anyone plays PGA National the other 51 weeks of the year. It's a resort that gets plenty of traffic, and conditions aren't quite the same.

Louis Oosthuizen, the South African who now lives primarily in West Palm Beach, also came out to PGA National a few weeks ago to get a feel for the course. He was just like everyone else that day - carts on paths only. Not everyone can hole a bunker shot on the final hole at No. 9 for a 67. Mackenzie Hughes of Canada shot his 67 with a bogey from a bunker on No. 9.

Woods, in his third PGA Tour event since returning from a fourth back surgery, appears to be making progress.

''One bad hole,'' he said. ''That's the way it goes.''

It came on the easiest hole on the course. Woods drove into a fairway bunker on the par-5 third, laid up and put his third shot in a bunker. He barely got it out to the collar, used the edge of his sand wedge to putt it down toward the hole and missed the 3-foot par putt.

He answered with a birdie and made pars the rest of the way.

''I'm trying to get better, more efficient at what I'm doing,'' Woods said. ''And also I'm actually doing it under the gun, under the pressure of having to hit golf shots, and this golf course is not forgiving whatsoever. I was very happy with the way I hit it today.''

Woods played with Patton Kizzire, who already has won twice on the PGA Tour season this year. Kizzire had never met Woods until Thursday, and he yanked his opening tee shot into a palmetto bush. No one could find it, so he had to return to the tee to play his third shot. Kizzire covered the 505 yards in three shots, an outstanding bogey considering the two-shot penalty.

Later, he laughed about the moment.

''I was so nervous,'' Kizzire said. ''I said to Tiger, 'Why did you have to make me so nervous?'''

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Players battle 'crusty' greens on Day 1 at Honda

By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 11:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Tiger Woods called the greens “scratchy” on PGA National’s Champion Course.

Rory McIlroy said there is “not a lot of grass on them.”

Morgan Hoffmann said they are “pretty dicey in spots, like a lot of dirt.”

The first round of the Honda Classic left players talking almost as much about the challenge of navigating the greens as they did the challenge of Florida’s blustery, winter winds.

“They looked more like Sunday greens than Thursday,” McIlroy said. “They are pretty crusty. They are going to have a job keeping a couple of them alive.”

The Champion Course always plays tough, ranking annually among the most challenging on the PGA Tour. With a very dry February, the course is firmer and faster than it typically plays.

“Today was not easy,” Woods said. “It's going to get more difficult because these greens are not the best . . . Some of these putts are a bit bouncy . . . There's no root structure. You hit shots and you see this big puff of sand on the greens, so that shows you there's not a lot of root structure.”

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Brad Nelson, PGA National’s director of agronomy, said the Champion Course’s TifEagle Bermuda greens are 18 years old, and they are dealing with some contamination, in spots, of other strains of grasses.

“As it’s been so warm and dry, and as we are trying to get the greens so firm, those areas that are not a true Tifeagle variety anymore, they get unhappy,” Nelson said. “What I mean by unhappy is that they open up a little bit . . . It gives them the appearance of being a little bit thin in some areas.”

Nelson said the greens are scheduled for re-grassing in the summer of 2019. He said the greens do have a “crusty” quality, but . . .

“Our goal is to be really, really firm, and we feel like we are in a good place for where we want them to be going into the weekend,” he said.

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McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 11:03 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy and the rest of his group had a forgettable end to their rounds Thursday at the Honda Classic.

McIlroy was even par for the day and looking for one final birdie to end his opening round. Only two players had reached the par-5 finishing hole, but McIlroy tried to hold a 3-wood up against the wind from 268 yards away. It found the water, leading to a double bogey and a round of 2-over 72.  

“It was the right shot,” McIlroy said. “I just didn’t execute it the right way.”

He wasn’t the only player to struggle coming home.

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Adam Scott, who won here in 2016, found the water on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17. He made double on 15, then triple on 17, after his shot from the drop area went long, then he failed to get up and down. He shot 73, spoiling a solid round.

The third player in the group, Padraig Harrington, made a mess of the 16th hole, taking a triple.

The group played the last four holes in a combined 10 over.