Tiger's vice captain role reveals unselfish side

By Rex HoggardSeptember 29, 2016, 7:27 pm

CHASKA, Minn. – The last time the U.S. won a Ryder Cup, Jordan Spieth couldn’t legally drive. The last time Tiger Woods won a major, Patrick Reed was a freshman at the University of Georgia.

Both occurred in 2008 and Woods wasn’t on that victorious team at Valhalla because of injury.

It’s an interesting benchmark as the U.S. team is perched on what they hope is a new Ryder Cup era. And nothing paints that picture more vividly than Woods tooling around Hazeltine National in a personalized golf cart.

By all accounts, Woods has embraced his leadership position with the same zeal that led him to 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour titles.

He’s talking strategy, holding court in the team room and lending an air of credibility to a process that began with last year’s Ryder Cup task force.

In fact, the only thing he’s not doing is taking a swing.

“No, he has not swung a golf club, unfortunately,” Reed said.

In a strange way, maybe that’s for the best.

Maybe Woods returns next month at the Safeway Open, his first start in 14 months after being sidelined with an ailing back, and picks up his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ all-time majors mark. Maybe his mind and body cooperate for an inspired comeback. But this week, in an utterly foreign role, it’s impossible to ignore how he’s embarked on a new chapter.

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For those watching from outside the fishbowl, the scene at Hazeltine is as surreal as it is surprising with Woods, who has always projected an image of detached aloofness, emerging as coach and confidant.

 Woods’ pod includes Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Reed, and his influence has been anything but subtle.

“I didn't quite know what to expect,” Reed admitted. “To have a guy like that who, if you ask him any question or if you need anything, he is there. He's all-in. He'll answer any question, whether it's about golf, on the golf course, off the golf course, anything.”

Given the U.S. Ryder Cup record since Woods played his first match in 1997 – Europe has won seven of the last nine meetings in that span – it’s convenient to attribute at least a portion of those losses to Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Woods’ Ryder Cup record is 13-17-3, although his singles history (4-1-2) is probably a more accurate depiction of his play in the matches. But there’s no denying that in the biennial showdown with Europe, the former world No. 1 has struggled to find partners and an identity that dovetails with his record the other 51 weeks of the year.

Whether it’s fair, U.S. fans and media have expected more from Woods and Mickelson, and there’s certainly something to be said for leadership by example. But if their play hasn’t exactly set the desired tone, the notion that the game’s most dynamic twosome has sidestepped the responsibility of leadership is blatantly unfair and false.

It may have been subtle and largely out of the public spotlight, but for those who have played with Woods his leadership is beyond question.

“Regardless of what people want to believe, what you see now is a more out front form of leadership compared to the way he has been,” said David Duval, a teammate of Woods’ at the 1999 and ’02 matches. “He’s always had a public persona of being businesslike and private, but behind closed doors he’s always been heavily involved. The idea he hasn’t been a leader is entirely false.”

If Woods’ actions this week are any indication, his leadership goes beyond hollow words of encouragement and detached support.

On Tuesday as a cold wind swept across Hazeltine National, the majority of the U.S. team limited their practice rounds to nine holes, but Reed wanted to see the closing nine and decided to walk the loop backward starting at the 18th green.

Tiger joined him for the frigid stroll.

“He walked it with me, helping me figure out the golf course. You don't get that very often,” Reed said. “To have somebody do that for you, especially a guy like Tiger Woods, it meant a lot to me.”

Woods didn’t play the last Ryder Cup and wasn’t a part of the public panning of then-captain Tom Watson; that uncomfortable chapter was handled by Mickelson. But he has been involved ever since.

Woods was a member of the original 11-man task force that was the foundation of the dramatically reworked American team, and transitioned to the new committee that gave Davis Love III his second turn as captain.

For Love, Woods has become a constant reminder of how this time needs to be different, and proved once and for all that the one person who sleeps less than the captain is Tiger.

“I think Phil figured it out; Tiger figured it out. They became team leaders,” Love said. “I'll never forget Jack Nicklaus saying Phil was his MVP one year and he got zero points in the Presidents Cup, and Phil was a team leader. That's what Tiger has figured out.”

This is so much more than a passing interest or a distraction for Woods. He’s a lot of things – obsessive, complicated, larger than life – but as this week has proven there is another layer to Tiger that the vast majority of fans have never seen. It’s unselfish and passionate. It’s leadership.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.