Hooks & Cuts: Tiger, Jack and Jesse Owens

By Rich LernerJanuary 6, 2015, 1:25 pm

KAPALUA, Hawaii - It's a new year, which offers a lot of new and intriguing storylines. We've got some old topics to tackle as well in this opening edition of Hooks & Cuts:

• For Tiger Woods, it’s not as simple as, healthy back equals healthy game. He has to be healthy psychologically to win big again. Tiger was always better cloaked in invincibility than he has been in vulnerability.

• An Ohio State victory over Oregon might be the biggest Buckeye win since Jack Nicklaus at the Masters in ’86. The greatest Buckeye triumph of all time remains Jesse Owens’ four gold-medal rebuke of Aryan supremacy at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

• Proof that it’s tough to win on Tour: Woods, Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Jason Dufner, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth failed to do so in 2014.

• Yippy and lifty, I’d been missing 3-footers all day. After another shove right at 17 I turned to my caddie and said, “This is sad.” He replied, “No, no, it’s not sad.” Empathetic, I thought. Then he added, “It’s pathetic.”

• A stab at the next three U.S. Ryder Cup captains: Steve Stricker, Mickelson and Jim Furyk.

• Rookies to watch in 2015: Tony Finau and Daniel Berger. Finau’s built like an NFL tight end and hits it miles. He’s gracious and he smiles. The son of former tennis pro Jay Berger, Daniel’s intense, long enough, and highly competitive. 

• Curious to see how they fare in '15: Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson and Michelle Wie.

• The Masters is a feeling as much as it is a competition. No one understands that better than two-time winner Ben Crenshaw, who bids farewell to Augusta this April. Pass the tissues. 

• Struck by the beautiful vista from an elevated tee during a recent round, I stood transfixed in a moment of reflection, thinking, “This is golf.” I turned around and saw my buddy smoking a cigarette as he relieved himself in a bush and I thought, “No, THIS is golf.”

• When does Mickelson get his own tournament?

• I would not be surprised if Jason Day, Adam Scott, Garcia and Spieth won majors this year, or if Rory McIlroy won the career slam at the Masters. I would be pleasantly surprised if Larry Nelson were named Ryder Cup captain and if Tiger played an entire season injury free and won his 15th major.

• People do still read newspapers. At least I wish they did. On a recent flight the guy next to me kept loudly folding and shaking his newspaper as I was trying to sleep. Every 15 seconds, he crinkled and crunched it. I was dying to say, “Settle on something, anything. Page 12: Australian Panda gives birth to triplets. It’s a terrific story.”   

• We in the media too often focus on big names because it’s easy and it sells. Actually, rank-and-file tends to rule week-to-week on Tour. Rank-and-file works at it. Rank-and-file shoots 65. In 2014, Jimmy Walker, Reed, Kevin Stadler, Scott Stallings, Russell Henley, John Senden, Matt Every, Steven Bowditch and Matt Jones all won before the Masters.  

• Eighteen majors is still the singular record in golf, the most coveted and most talked about. But Sam Snead’s mark of 82 Tour wins isn’t far behind and I hope as Tiger, now with 79, inches closer that feat grows in magnitude. Let it marinate in your mind, the phrase, winningest golfer of all time. That also underscores the idea that Kathy Whitworth, with 88 career victories on the ladies' side, is underappreciated.

Jesse Owens

• Former USGA president and NCAA champion Sandy Tatum is now 94. He told me maybe the greatest single sports story I’ve ever heard and it involves Jesse Owens (pictured above). At 16, Tatum traveled alone from America to Europe to visit his sister, in 1936. Tatum went to the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. “Chilling,” is how he describes the feeling as a stadium full of Germans stood to give the Nazi salute to Adolf Hitler when he arrived each day. With a German, ironically named Luz Long, on the cusp of winning the long jump, Owens had one last chance to puncture Nazi propaganda that boasted of racial superiority. A smile comes across Tatum’s face as he readies for the story’s crescendo, the picture as clear and beautiful today as it was almost 80 years ago. “Owens took off on that final jump,” Tatum recounts. “And he never came down.”

• Masters wins that would move the needle most: Tiger, Rory, Rickie, Phil and Jordan, in that order. Hideki Matsuyama winning, and that’s not a remote possibility, would move it in Asia.  

• Anirban Lahiri of India and Antonio Lascuna of the Phillipenes are currently qualified for golf’s return to the Olympics next summer in Rio. Tiger and Phil are not.

• Tom Watson will likely play his 40th and final Open Championship this summer at the Old Course at St. Andrews. It’s just a few steps over the Swilcan Bridge, but miles and miles from Gleneagles, by then a long nine months shaking off the stench of the Ryder Cup to again bask in glory.

• Carlos Ortiz, the 2014 Web.com Tour Player of the Year with three victories, has a chance to become the first Mexican-born winner on Tour since Victor Regalado won the Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open in 1978. By the way, Quad Cities, now the John Deere Classic, is one of the most underrated tournaments, producing some good moments through the years. Payne Stewart always said that it was his most cherished win, in 1982, because it was his first on Tour and the only one his father, Bill, got to see before he died of cancer in 1985. The Grip, Eddie Fiori, took down Tiger there in 1996. And Spieth winning there in 2013 at age 19, the youngest in some 80 years on Tour, may someday turn out to be significant.

• Billy Horschel’s proud of his Fed Ex Cup title, but prouder of his mom, Kathy, who recently earned a college degree.

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Woods impresses DeChambeau, Day on Tuesday

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 11:27 pm

SAN DIEGO – Bryson DeChambeau played with Tiger Woods for the first time Tuesday morning, and the biggest surprise was that he wasn’t overcome by nerves.

“That’s what I was concerned about,” DeChambeau said. “Am I just gonna be slapping it around off the tee? But I was able to play pretty well.”

So was Woods.

DeChambeau said that Woods looked “fantastic” as he prepares to make his first PGA Tour start in a year.

“His game looks solid. His body doesn’t hurt. He’s just like, yeah, I’m playing golf again,” DeChambeau said. “And he’s having fun, too, which is a good thing.”

Woods arrived at Torrey Pines before 7 a.m. local time Tuesday, when the temperature hadn’t yet crept above 50 degrees. He warmed up and played the back nine of Torrey Pines’ South Course with DeChambeau and Jason Day.

“He looks impressive; it was good to see,” Day told PGATour.com afterward. “You take (Farmers) last year and the Dubai tournament out, and he hasn’t really played in two years. I think the biggest thing is to not get too far ahead, or think he’s going to come back and win straight away.

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“The other time he came back, I don’t think he was ready and he probably came back too soon. This time he definitely looks ready. I think his swing is really nice, he’s hitting the driver a long way and he looks like he’s got some speed, which is great.”

Woods said that his caddie, Joe LaCava, spent four days with him in South Florida last week and that he’s ready to go.

“Before the Hero I was basically given the OK probably about three or four weeks prior to the tournament, and I thought I did pretty good in that prep time,” Woods told ESPN.com, referring to his tie for ninth in the 18-man event.

“Now I’ve had a little more time to get ready for this event. I’ve played a lot more golf, and overall I feel like I’ve made some nice changes. I feel good.”

Woods is first off Torrey Pines’ North Course in Wednesday’s pro-am, scheduled for 6:40 a.m. local time. 

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With blinders on, Rahm within reach of No. 1 at Torrey

By Rex HoggardJanuary 23, 2018, 10:10 pm

SAN DIEGO – The drive over to Torrey Pines from Palm Springs, Calif., takes about two and a half hours, which was plenty of time for Jon Rahm’s new and ever-evolving reality to sink in.

The Spaniard arrived in Southern California for a week full of firsts. The Farmers Insurance Open will mark the first time he’s defended a title on the PGA Tour following his dramatic breakthrough victory last year, and it will also be his first tournament as the game’s second-best player, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking.

Rahm’s victory last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his second on Tour and fourth worldwide tilt over the last 12 months, propelled the 23-year-old to No. 2 in the world, just behind Dustin Johnson. His overtime triumph also moved him to within four rounds of unseating DJ atop the global pecking order.

It’s impressive for a player who at this point last year was embarking on his first full season as a professional, but then Rahm has a fool-proof plan to keep from getting mired in the accolades of his accomplishments.

“It's kind of hard to process it, to be honest, because I live my day-to-day life with my girlfriend and my team around me and they don't change their behavior based on what I do, right?” he said on Tuesday at Torrey Pines. “They'll never change what they think of me. So I really don't know the magnitude of what I do until I go outside of my comfort zone.”

Head down and happy has worked perfectly for Rahm, who has finished outside the top 10 in just three of his last 10 starts and began 2018 with a runner-up showing at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and last week’s victory.

According to the world ranking math, Rahm is 1.35 average ranking points behind Johnson and can overtake DJ atop the pack with a victory this week at the Farmers Insurance Open; but to hear his take on his ascension one would imagine a much wider margin.

“I've said many times, beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task,” Rahm said. “We all know what happened last time he was close to a lead in a tournament on the PGA Tour.”

Farmers Insurance Open: Articles, photos and videos

Rahm certainly remembers. It was just three weeks ago in Maui when he birdied three of his first six holes, played the weekend at Kapalua in 11 under and still finished eight strokes behind Johnson.

And last year at the WGC-Mexico Championship when Rahm closed his week with rounds of 67-68 only to finish two strokes off Johnson’s winning pace, or a few weeks later at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when he took Johnson the distance in the championship match only to drop a 1-up decision to the game’s undisputed heavyweight.

As far as Rahm has come in an incredibly short time - at this point last year he ranked 137th in the world - it is interesting that it’s been Johnson who has had an answer at every turn.

He knows there’s still so much room for improvement, both physically and mentally, and no one would ever say Rahm is wanting for confidence, but after so many high-profile run-ins with Johnson, his cautious optimism is perfectly understandable.

“I'll try to focus more on what's going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win,” he reasoned when asked about the prospect of unseating Johnson, who isn’t playing this week. “I'll try my best, that's for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

If Rahm’s take seems a tad cliché given the circumstances, consider that his aversion to looking beyond the blinders is baked into the competitive cake. For all of his physical advantages, of which there are many, it’s his keen ability to produce something special on command that may be even more impressive.

Last year at Torrey Pines was a quintessential example of this, when he began the final round three strokes off the lead only to close his day with a back-nine 30 that included a pair of eagles.

“I have the confidence that I can win here, whereas last year I knew I could but I still had to do it,” he said. “I hope I don't have to shoot 30 on the back nine to win again.”

Some will point to Rahm’s 60-footer for eagle at the 72nd hole last year as a turning point in his young career, it was even named the best putt on Tour by one publication despite the fact he won by three strokes. But Rahm will tell you that walk-off wasn’t even the best shot he hit during the final round.

Instead, he explained that the best shot of the week, the best shot of the year, came on the 13th hole when he launched a 4-iron from a bunker to 18 feet for eagle, a putt that he also made.

“If I don't put that ball on the green, which is actually a lot harder than making that putt, the back nine charge would have never happened and this year might have never happened, so that shot is the one that made everything possible,” he explained.

Rahm’s ability to embrace and execute during those moments is what makes him special and why he’s suddenly found himself as the most likely contender to Johnson’s throne even if he chooses not to spend much time thinking about it.

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Rahm focusing on play, not shot at No. 1

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 9:06 pm

SAN DIEGO – Jon Rahm’s meteoric rise in the world rankings could end with him reaching No. 1 with a win this week at Torrey Pines.

After winning last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his fourth title in 51 weeks, Rahm has closed the gap on Dustin Johnson – less than 1.5 average points separates them.

With Johnson not playing this week, the 23-year-old Spaniard has a chance to reach the top spot for the first time, but only if he defends his title at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Farmers Insurance Open: Articles, photos and videos

“Beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task. It’s no easy task,” he said Tuesday. “We still have four days of golf ahead and we’ll see what happens. But I’ll try to focus more on what’s going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win.

“I’ll try my best, that’s for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

Rahm has already become the fourth-youngest player to reach No. 2 in the world, behind Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. 

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Rahm: Playoff wasn't friendly, just 'nervous'

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 8:53 pm

SAN DIEGO – Too chummy? Jon Rahm says he and Andrew Landry were just expending some nervous energy on the walk up to the fairway during the first playoff hole of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

“I wouldn’t have been that nervous if it was friendly,” Rahm said with a smile Tuesday. “I think it was something he said because we were talking going out of the first tee.

“I didn’t know Andrew – I think it was a pretty good time to get to know him. We had at least 10 minutes to ourselves. It’s not like we were supporting each other, right? We were both in it together, we were both nervous together, and I felt like talking about it might have eased the tension out of both of us.”

Farmers Insurance Open: Articles, photos and videos

On Sunday, two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange saw the exchange on TV and tweeted: “Walking off the tee talking to each other. Are you kidding me? Talking at all?”

Strange followed up by saying that, in a head-to-head situation, the last thing he’d want to do was make his opponent comfortable. When his comments went viral, Strange tweeted at Rahm, who won after four holes: “Hopefully no offense taken on my comment yesterday. You guys are terrific. I’m a huge fan of all players today. Made an adverse comment on U guys talking during playoff. Not for me. A fan.”

Not surprisingly, the gregarious Rahm saw things differently.

“We only talked going out of the first tee up until the fairway,” he said. “Besides that, all we said was, ‘Good shot, good putt, see you on the next tee.’ That’s what it was reduced to. We didn’t say much.”