Woods returns to Royal Melbourne a far different man

By Rex HoggardNovember 15, 2011, 1:21 pm

MELBOURNE, Australia – On Tuesday Tiger Woods marveled at how much differently Royal Melbourne played since the last time he stalked the Alister MacKenzie masterpiece for Cup and country.

“I hit the ball a lot (farther) now than I did in ’98. That's just the technology,” Woods said when asked to compare where he was in1998 to the current model.

But then juiced-up golf balls and oversized drivers seem trivial when compared to everything else that has transpired over the last baker’s dozen for that one-time rookie.

In no particular order, the former world No. 1 has slipped to 50th in the world rankings; embraced and largely emerged from 3 ½ swing changes; won 64 PGA Tour titles and 13 majors; hit a tree, a fire hydrant and eventually the competitive skids; and endured a sex scandal and divorce.

The 22-year-old Woods was the youngest on Jack Nicklaus’ team “by far,” Woods recalls, and he went 2-3 in his rookie Presidents Cup.

At the time “Hello, world,” had not come fully into bloom; 13 years later everything seems to have come full circle – a curious mix of limitless potential tempered by the capriciousness of life.

He was skinny in ’98 with a swagger that masked his inexperience. Some would say that swagger has, if not fully returned, then at least is within view as evidenced by last week’s third-place finish at the Australian Open and a swing that is looking less like a work in progress with each round.

In ’98 Woods stalked the property like he knew an answer to a question others had not even thought of. Within weeks he would begin piecing together one of the greatest runs ever, winning eight times in 1999 and laying the groundwork for an even more historic 2000 – nine wins and the front end of the “Tiger Slam.”

If Woods is reluctant to embrace the “then and now,” John Cook, who, after Mark O’Meara, has had as close to an unobstructed view of Woods’ ascent and plummet as anyone offers his take.

“Well, there’s a lot of stages of that we all know,” said Cook when asked to dissect the difference between the current version and the ’98 model. “When we first got to playing and hanging around each Other quite a bit you could see a young kid that was so incredibly talented but didn’t quite know what to do with it maturity-wise.”

Like most observers, Cook uses Woods’ ever-evolving swing as signposts. “Through the Butch 1, Butch 2 to Hank as far as golf goes and to Sean,” the American assistant captain said. “Just to see the progression of the swings and also asking him if he really believes in what he was doing and he’s always been quite honest.”

Both Butch Harmon swing changes produced history and, despite revisionist claims to the contrary, Hank Haney’s model netted a 50 percent winning clip.

So far, Woods is O-fer on Sean Foley’s watch, although in the affable swing coach’s defense Woods has only played an injury-riddled 12 official events since he began working with the Canadian.

What’s changed since ’98? “I have way more shots than I did in '98 and a much better understanding of how to map out a golf course and how to play myself around a golf course,” Woods, who turns 36 December 30, figured, unwilling or unable to concede that nearly everything has changed.

Since the last time an American dozen ventured to Oz, Woods redefined greatness and pulled golf from its niche status. He made history and defied conventional wisdom and lulled the golf world into believing that there was nothing he couldn’t do.

Similarly, he tumbled dramatically and publically from the top of the dais and forced the golf world to reexamine the complexities of hero worship.

“Those are just parts of life,” said Cook of Woods’ competitive and personal evolution. “He’s come out of them pretty well. He’s more relaxed and confident and healthy. Confident Tiger Woods is very good.”

The evidence of that truth can be found on the twisting fairways of Royal Melbourne. In ’98 the wunderkind set out in Sunday’s second-to-last group against Greg Norman, the International side’s anchor and an Australian icon.

When the two began their round the matches were virtually over thanks to a 14 ½-5 ½ International advantage through four team sessions. The Australian galleries sensed a quick end and wildly cheered the “Shark’s” every step. Undaunted, Woods grinded out a 1-up victory to quiet the crowds, however briefly.

“Like any road team, you try to make the gallery quiet,” Woods said on Tuesday. “We have done that in other Cups before in the past and it's fun when that happens.”

Of everything that has changed for Woods since ’98, perhaps the only remaining constant is his drive to win, his desire to quiet the gallery.

Watch wall-to-wall coverage of the Presidents Cup live on Golf Channel beginning Monday at 6PM. Tournament air times: Golf Channel Wednesday 9PM-2AM, Thursday 7:30PM-2AM, Friday 3PM-2AM and Saturday 6:30PM-12:30AM. NBC coverage Saturday at 8AM and Sunday at noon. (Note: all times are ET)

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.