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Woods giving everyone a reason to believe at Valspar

By Rex HoggardMarch 9, 2018, 8:15 pm

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – There was a time in the not-so-distant past when golf, however reluctantly, had moved on.

For all of Tiger Woods’ on-course heroics throughout the years, it seemed he’d finally met an opponent he couldn’t beat. It’s a familiar story in sports, a legend at the top of his game is undone by his own body.

Since his last victory at the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Woods has played just 27 events on the PGA Tour - but so much has changed.

Jordan Spieth has won 10 times and three majors in that span. Justin Thomas earned his Tour card and has collected eight victories, a major and a FedExCup. Dustin Johnson moved from 23rd in the world rankings to first. Jon Rahm graduated from Arizona State and collected three wins worldwide.

You get the idea.

In the years since Tiger reigned supreme, a new generation stepped in to fill the void left by countless surgeries and assorted injuries. The game lamented the absence of true greatness, pined for the glory days even, but golf moved on.

On some level, even Woods had moved on, as evidenced by his self-assessment last fall at the Presidents Cup. “The pain's gone, but I don't know what my golfing body is going to be like, because I haven't hit a golf shot yet,” the 43-year-old allowed.

New stars emerged. Johnson, Spieth, Thomas and Rory McIlroy all won majors and took turns in what became a star-by-committee rotation. There was legitimate concern for Woods’ health and a genuine thought that, if healthy, he could return to something close to his old form. But as the months and years passed and the trips to the doctor’s office piled up it seemed less likely.

“You just don't know because you don't know the effects of injury,” explained Paul Casey. “Not only the physical side of things, the mental side effects. When I dislocated my shoulder, I didn't trust the shoulder for a long, long time, wasn't able to release a club and hit it.

“I was thinking will Tiger have that, all his back surgeries and sort of mental scar tissue, can I trust the back, do I have to worry?”

As Woods prepared for his second round at the Valspar Championship the answer to those questions had been a hopeful maybe.

Full-field scores from the Valspar Championship

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He’d shown signs of life in his starts since returning from fusion surgery to his lower back last April, the highlight coming two weeks ago with his 12th-place finish at the Honda Classic, but the body of work was far from complete.

But an answer, if not the answer, came early Friday.

Although the Valspar Championship had just reached intermission, this rebuilt version of Tiger looked impressively familiar.

He birdied his third and fourth holes to move to within a stroke of the lead, added another at his 12th hole to grab a share of first place for the first time since the 2015 Wyndham Championship and took the solo lead with a 5-footer for birdie at his 14th hole.

Woods said he didn’t know where he stood on the leaderboard, but he got a sense from the record crowds that followed his every move at Innisbrook Resort. Certainly those around him sensed what was happening.

As the crowds grew, so did the anticipation that this could be the comeback everyone openly anticipated but privately doubted. Woods has defied convention his entire career. He’s won the Masters by 12, the U.S. Open by 15 and another national championship on one leg. But this was about more than rewriting record books and outplaying opponents, this was a soul-searching match against his own competitive mortality.

Tiger has always been reluctant to indulge in self-examination, and after so many injury-induced setbacks it was difficult to imagine the road back to relevance; but as he gazed out across the crowds that have descended on Innisbrook, he allowed himself a moment of retrospection.

“Could I have envisioned myself being here? No,” Woods said. “My surgeon hadn't told me I was fused. If I'm not fused, this is a totally different game. Am I going to feel what I did for the last four, five years or am I going to be like this?”

For all the doubt the golf world had when it came to Woods, it was the internal dialogue that made the last few years such a challenge. The mind was willing, but the body had become an unrelenting adversary.

“You can see the desire, even at Hazeltine [during the 2016 Ryder Cup] he was dying to get back out there to hit golf balls,” said Brandt Snedeker, who was tied with Woods at 4 under after the morning wave finished.

Desire, however, could only go so far. Since returning from surgery in December, Woods had said all the right things and his improved health was evident, but the results were mixed, at best.

That was until Friday, when Woods followed what he called a poor warm-up with his second consecutive sub-par round. It was all too familiar – the cheers, the club twirls, the walk-off birdie putts. Whatever it was that had been missing from Woods’ game was all so normal again.

“Just like the old days, one behind Tiger. Lose by four at the end of the week,” laughed Casey, who was also in the group at 4 under.

A game that had begrudgingly moved on was, for a few hours, energized again. As entertaining as the current crop of young stars can be, nothing ignites the masses like Tiger.

Woods was quick to stress restraint. With 36 holes remaining, he knows better than anyone that his 80th Tour title is far from in the bag. But regardless of what happens this weekend at Innisbrook, he’s given everyone, even himself, a reason for genuine, unquantified optimism, a reason to imagine a game that includes Tiger again.

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Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders

By Randy SmithMarch 18, 2018, 2:45 am

PHOENIX – Brittany Lincicome is farther back than she wanted to be going into Sunday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she’s in a good place.

She’s keeping the momentum of her season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic victory going this year.

Her confidence is high.

“Last year, I won in the Bahamas, but then I didn't do anything after that,” Lincicome said. “I don't even know if I had a top 10 after my win in the Bahamas. Obviously, this year, I want to be more consistent.”

Lincicome followed up her victory in the Bahamas this year with a tie for seventh in her next start at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And now she’s right back on another leaderboard with the year’s first major championship just two weeks away. She is, by the way, a two-time winner at the ANA Inspiration.

Missy Pederson, Lincicome’s caddie, is helping her player keep that momentum going with more focus on honing in the scoring clubs.

“One of our major goals is being more consistent,” Pederson said. “She’s so talented, a once in a generation talent. I’m just trying to help out in how to best approach every golf course.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Pederson has helped Lincicome identify the clubs they’re likely to attack most with on the particular course they are playing that week, to spend more time working with those clubs in practice. It’s building confidence.

“I know the more greens we hit, and the more chances we give ourselves, the more our chances are to be in contention,” Pederson said. “Britt is not big into stats or details, so I have to figure out how to best consolidate that information, to get us exactly where we need to be.”

Lincicome’s growing comfort with clubs she can attack with is helping her confidence through a round.

“I’ve most noticed consistency in her mental game, being able to handle some of the hiccups that happen over the course of a round,” Pederson said. “Whereas before, something might get under her skin, where she might say, `That’s what always happens,’ now, it’s, `All right, I know I’m good enough to get this back.’ I try to get her in positions to hit the clubs we are really hitting well right now.”

That’s leading to a lot more birdies, fewer bogeys and more appearances on leaderboards in the start to this year.

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Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 2:09 am

PHOENIX – In the long shadows falling across Wildfire Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, Inbee Park conceded she was tempted to walk away from the game last year.

While healing a bad back, she was tempted to put her clubs away for good and look for a second chapter for her life.

But then . . .

“Looking at the girls playing on TV, you think you want to be out there” Park said. “Really, I couldn't make my mind up when I was taking that break, but as soon as I'm back here, I just feel like this is where I belong.”

In just her second start after seven months away from the LPGA, Park is playing like she never left.

She’s atop a leaderboard at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, looking like that’s exactly where she belongs.

With a 9-under-par 63 Saturday, Park seized the lead going into the final round.

At 14 under overall, she’s one shot ahead of Mariajo Uribe (67), two ahead of Ariya Jutanugarn (68) and three ahead of 54-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies (63) and Chella Choi (66).

Park’s back with a hot putter.

That’s not good news for the rest of the tour. Nobody can demoralize a field with a flat stick like Park. She’s one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, and on the front nine Saturday she looked as good as she ever has.

“The front nine was scary,” said her caddie, Brad Beecher, who was on Park’s bag for her long run at world No. 1, her run of three consecutive major championship victories in 2013 and her gold medal victory at the Olympics two years ago.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The front nine was great . . . like 2013,” Park said.

Park started her round on fire, going birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. She was 6 under through five holes. She holed a wedge from 98 yards at the third hole, making the turn having taken just 10 putts. Yeah, she said, she was thinking about shooting 59.

“But I'm still really happy with my round today,” she said.

Park isn’t getting ahead of herself, even with this lead. She said her game isn’t quite where she wants it with the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, just two weeks away, but a victory Sunday should go a long way toward getting her there.

Park is only 29. LPGA pros haven’t forgotten what it was like when she was dominating, when she won 14 times between 2013 and ’15.

They haven’t forgotten how she can come back from long layoffs with an uncanny ability to pick up right where she left off.

Park won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year in just her second start. She left the tour again in the summer with an aching back.

“I feel like Inbee could take off a whole year or two years and come back and win every week,” said Brittany Lincicome, who is four shots behind Park. “Her game is just so consistent. She doesn't do anything flashy, but her putting is flashy.

“She literally walks them in. It's incredible, like you know it's going in when she hits it. It's not the most orthodox looking stroke, but she can repeat it.”

Park may not play as full a schedule as she has in the past, Beecher said, but he believes she can thrive with limited starts.

“I think it helps her get that fight back, to get that hunger back,” Beecher said. “She knows she can play 15 events a year and still compete. There aren’t a lot of players who can do that.”

Park enjoyed her time away last year, and how it re-energized her.

“When I was taking the long break, I was just thinking, `I can do this life as well,’” Park said. “But I'm glad I came back out here. Obviously, days like today, that's the reason I'm playing golf.”

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Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:57 am

PHOENIX – Tiffany Joh was thrilled making a run into contention to win her first LPGA title Saturday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she comically cracked that her hole-in-one might have been ill-timed.

It came on St. Patrick’s Day.

“This is like the worst holiday to be making a hole-in-one on,” Joh said. “You'll go broke buying everyone green beers.”

Joh aced the fifth hole with a 5-iron from 166 yards on her way to an 8-under-par 64. It left her four shots behind the leader, Inbee Park (63).

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

One of the more colorful players on tour, Joh said she made the most of her hole-in-one celebration with playing partner Jane Park.

“First I ran and tackled Jane, then I high-fived like every single person walking to the green,” Joh said.

Joh may be the LPGA’s resident comedian, but she faced a serious challenge on tour last year.  Fourteen months ago, she had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. She won the LPGA’s Heather Farr Perseverance Award for the way she handled her comeback.

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Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:22 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies limped around Wildfire Golf Club Saturday with an ache radiating from her left Achilles up into her calf muscle at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Every step is just misery,” Davies said after. “It’s just getting older. Don’t get old.”

She’s 54, but she played the third round as if she were 32 again.

That’s how old she was when she was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year and won two major championships.

With every sweet swing Saturday, Davies peeled back the years, turning back the clock.

Rolling in a 6-foot birdie at the 17th, Davies moved into a tie for the lead with Inbee Park, a lead that wouldn’t last long with so many players still on the course when she finished. Still, with a 9-under-par 63, Davies moved into contention to try to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.

Davies has won 20 LPGA titles, 45 Ladies European Tour titles, but she hasn’t won an LPGA event in 17 years, since taking the Wegmans Rochester International.

Can she can surpass the mark Beth Daniel set winning at 46?

“I still think I can win,” Davies said. “This just backs that up for me. Other people, I don’t know, they’re always asking me now when I’m going to retire. I always say I’m still playing good golf, and now here’s the proof of it.”

Davies knows it will take a special day with the kind of final-round pressure building that she hasn’t experienced in awhile.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The pressure will be a lot more tomorrow,” she said. “We'll see, won’t sleep that well tonight. The good news is that I’ll probably be four or five behind by the end of the day, so the pressure won’t be there as much.”

Davies acknowledged confidence is harder to garner, as disappointments and missed cuts pile up, but she’s holding on to her belief she can still win.

“I said to my caddie, `Jeez, I haven't been on top of the leaderboard for a long time,’” Davies said. “That's nice, obviously, but you’ve got to stay there. That's the biggest challenge.”

About that aching left leg, Davies was asked if it could prevent her from challenging on Sunday.

“I’ll crawl around if I have to,” she said.

Saturday’s 63 was Davies’ lowest round in an LPGA event since she shot 63 at the Wendy’s Championship a dozen years ago.

While Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in ’01. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Davies said she still dreams about qualifying.

“You never know,” she said.