Lining Up at the Gates

By Rich LernerApril 10, 2002, 4:00 pm
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Much has changed since Tiger shot 22-under over the final 63 holes in 1997.
Woods has added probably 25 pounds to his defensive backs frame, while Augusta Nationals bulked up by 285 yards.
And yet some essentials remain the same.
Hes going to be the guy to beat, said Phil Mickelson, referring to the man hes yet to defeat in a major.
Woods got the attention of the committee here with his onslaught on the record books five years ago. The result is what most feel is a seamless makeover to an historic venue. The clocks basically been turned back so that players are hitting the same clubs into greens that they did a decade ago before new age golf balls married titanium.
I think theyve done a tremendous job with it, remarked Greg Norman.
Woods offered a slightly different slant on the changes, saying, I dont think they were as necessary right now, but I understand where they are coming from. The guys are getting longer and they dont want to see the winning score being 16- or 18-under. They would much rather see it in single digits. They dont want to see us hitting wedges to a lot of these par-4s where they used to hit 5-irons and 6-irons and 7-irons.
Nine tees were stretched to add yardage, bunkers were enlarged and some fairway landing areas were regraded.
We just got tired of seeing players hit pitching wedge to so many of our par-4s, said Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Hootie Johnson.
Power is a very big issue on this course, added a man who would know, Jack Nicklaus. I think theyve eliminated part of the field.
Johnson disagrees with Jack. Paul Azinger and Rocco Mediate played the course last week, recalled Johnson. Theyre medium hitters and they agreed that theyd rather be hitting 6-iron where the big hitters may be hitting 8-iron as opposed to on the previous shorter layout hitting 8-iron while the power guys hit wedges.
Bottom line is that Augusta Nationals a much more complete test. Length and accuracy will help, and as always putting on these slick and undulating surfaces will be critical.
There are other changes, notably expanded television coverage for Sundays final round. For the first time ever, youll see the leaders from start to finish.
One of those who expects a late tee time on Sunday is Phil Mickelson. On the subject of his aggressive play, Mickelsons earned the right to do it his way. But reality is that hes trailing Tiger in the category that matters most in this sport, major championships. Phils down 6-0. If he goes down 7-0 but is comfortable with how it played out, so be it.
David Duvals been runner-up twice here in the last four years and seems to be healthy and positive.
Ernie Els game is well suited to this layout, and hes rested and ready. His last major victory, the 1997 U.S. Open, came at the outset of the Tiger era. This is the second phase of Ernies career, and hes as hungry as ever to validate his place in the game.
His countryman, Retief Goosen, has quietly risen to the No. 4 slot in the world rankings, one notch below Els. Goosens syrupy swing, deft putting touch and unflappable demeanor stamp him as a contender not just this week, but for years to come. A victory here will mean that the best South African player in the game will for the first time in years not be named Els.
Sergio Garcias growing in confidence, bordering on brashness, and thats not necessarily a bad thing. He drives the ball superbly and can heat up on the greens. The third generation of hot-running Spaniards is primed to continue his countrys proud tradition of five green jackets.
Of course, Jose Maria Olazabal could well win his third and no one would be surprised, so good is he around the greens. His drivers improved, and that makes him very dangerous.
John Daly is the peoples favorite. In an era of pre-packaged tour pros who can at times be a bit bland and predictable, Johns an open book. In an era of scientific swings concocted in Leadbetters labs, Dalys inimitable move is home-brewed. John Dalys straight out of NASCAR in a world of leather-appointed Mercedes Benzes. The question with John is, can he remain patient for 72 holes, and as well will his slightly balky putter be an issue. If he does surface on Sunday afternoon, rest assured youll see the highest ratings in tournament history.
Alas, Tiger remains the prohibitive favorite. And in that regard, not much has really changed here.
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Rahm, with blinders on, 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.”

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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.

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“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.”

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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.” 

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Tiger grouped with Reed, Hoffman at Torrey Pines

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 8:35 pm

SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods will make his 2018 debut alongside Patrick Reed and Charley Hoffman.

The threesome will go off Torrey Pines’ South Course at 1:40 p.m. ET Thursday at the Farmers Insurance Open. They begin at 12:30 p.m. Friday on the North Course.

Woods is an eight-time winner at Torrey Pines, including the 2008 U.S. Open, but he hasn’t broken 70 in his last seven rounds on either course. Last year, he shot rounds of 76-72 to miss the cut.

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Reed, who has grown close to Woods after being in his pod during the past two international team competitions, is coming off a missed cut last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Hoffman, a San Diego native, has only two top-10s in 20 career starts at Torrey.

Other featured groups for the first two rounds include:

• Jon Rahm, Jason Day and Brandt Snedeker: 1:30 p.m. Thursday off South 1, 12:20 p.m. Friday off North 10

• Rickie Fowler, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele: 12:30 p.m. Thursday off North 10, 1:30 p.m. Friday off South 1

• Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Hideki Matsuyama: 12:40 p.m. Thursday off North 10, 1:40 p.m. Friday off South 1