#AskLav: Health trumps results this week for Tiger

By Ryan LavnerJune 26, 2014, 1:00 pm

A few years ago, I served as a backup beat writer for MLB.com. During that stint I covered many of the secondary stories for the Atlanta Braves – the unsung heroes, the prospects, the terrible opponents. The most common assignments, however, were the injury updates, and that year the Braves had no shortage of them. Blisters and obliques. Ankles and shoulders. Exploding hamstrings and elbows.

In May 2008, my editor sent me to north Georgia to watch future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz make his final rehab start for the Class-A Rome Braves. A few days earlier the then-41-year-old had been rocked in just one inning of work, but he’d reported no signs of shoulder discomfort. 

That, of course, was the most significant takeaway: In rehab assignments, health always trumped results. Though players admittedly were rusty, if they could get through a DL stint without incident, without a setback, then the box score mattered little.    

Anyway, on this night, Smoltz entered in the eighth inning, threw 13 pitches, exited to a standing ovation from the 5,105 fans in attendance, signed a few autographs for the teammates half his age in the dugout and declared himself fit to return, despite lingering soreness and a fastball that hovered in the mid-80s. 

I’ve thought about that night a lot this week, because Tiger Woods is making his own minor-league rehab start outside D.C., albeit in front of a decidedly larger audience and with a $6.5 million purse up for grabs. 

Like Smoltz, Woods has been medically cleared to return, but, post-surgery, he’s dealing with his new normal. He’s 38, with a banged-up body that surely feels older than that. In baseball parlance, his fastball might not have the same zip on it, but he knows he can still be effective. Athletes evolve.

Tiger won’t win this week’s Quicken Loans National, but that is not cause for alarm. Aces and sluggers don’t come off the DL and immediately resume throwing one-hit shutouts or stringing together multi-homer games. Returning to an All-Star-caliber level takes time, even for the world’s best. 

In Smoltz’s case, his comeback proved short-lived. Hours after he was activated off the disabled list, he faced a save situation in the Braves’ game against the Marlins. He gave up three hits and two runs, blew the 4-3 lead and complained afterward of discomfort. Two days later, at a hastily called news conference, he announced that he was undergoing season-ending surgery. Smoltz was never the same player again.

For his sake (and the sport in general), let’s hope Tiger enjoys a different outcome. More important than how he scores this week is how he feels. In rehab assignments, health always trumps results.

Your mailbag questions for the week:

 

 

Instagram#AskLav: Do you think Tiger’s recent back surgery will affect his style of play? – Randall Daigle, via Instagram

Popular question, apparently. Earlier this week Tiger conceded that he wouldn’t go full bore on shots at Congressional, that his explosiveness hadn’t yet returned. You’ll know when it does – it’s a more violent game. Woods will still be able to score, but he’ll have to do so differently, relying on course management and strategy. His short game should be plenty sharp too, after a few months of only chipping and putting.


 

 

At first, mental – he’ll have to learn to trust his body again. That’s why it’s so important for him to play four rounds this week, to get some reps. Once that hurdle is cleared, his focus will return to the physical – to swinging and scoring and competing. 


 

 

Hmm, how do I put this … not good? He may have a new love and appreciation for links golf, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that Phil has been out of sorts all season long. He struck the ball well enough to put himself in contention at Pinehurst, but once again he fell apart on the greens. This season he’s ranked 107th in strokes gained-putting, and if that doesn’t improve he won’t win a tournament in the States, overseas or even in his backyard. 


Instagram#AskLav: Is Tiger a realistic contender for the Open Championship now that he has returned from injury? – Gareth Judge, via Instagram

Obviously we’ll have a better idea after this week, but right now, on the spot, I’d say no. Yes, his game plan in ’06 was predicated on the burned-out conditions, but when Tiger won at Hoylake he put on an absolute ball-striking clinic. He’s likely too rusty to replicate that performance this year. There are a few things working in his favor, however: The Open is the flukiest of the majors, in terms of bounces and draws and weather, and it’s the only major that doesn’t demand perfection on the greens. Barring any setbacks, I’d expect Tiger to have a better chance to be a factor at Valhalla, where he won in 1999. Even if he is not at 100 percent, Woods will have been practicing regularly for two full months, which is plenty for the best player in the world. 


 

 

We ask this question all the time on the men’s side after another major champion is crowned. The reality is, it hardly ever happens: Only once in the past seven years has a male player won multiple majors in a season. Sure, the competition isn’t quite as deep on the LPGA, but the caliber of winners this season – from Inbee Park to Stacy Lewis to Lexi Thompson to Lydia Ko – shows that it’s harder than ever to win on the women’s tour. As great as Michelle Wie is playing this season – second in scoring average, third in greens hit, third in putts per GIR – and with three, not two, more majors to play, the fact remains that it’s hard to win the Big Ones and she’s battling a lot of worthy competitors. She’ll contend in one or two but nonetheless go 0-for-3 at the season’s remaining majors.


Instagram#AskLav: How many tournaments will TW play in this year? His presence is undeniable. – @Addiq001, via Instagram

This year? Well, he could play in several more, which would allow him to salvage a year that only a few weeks ago seemed lost. This season? Well, the season ends in September, and assuming he stays healthy, he’ll probably make four starts between now and the end of the regular season: Quicken Loans, Open, Bridgestone, PGA. Currently, he’s No. 209 on the FedEx Cup points list, just ahead of Alex Prugh. If he performs well enough in his next four tournaments, Tiger will reach the playoffs. If he doesn’t, he’ll be on the sidelines for a month and a half by the time the Ryder Cup rolls around, which would only put his spot on the team in further jeopardy. It’s not yet clear if he will join Rory at the season-opening Frys.com Open, but one start is certain: The Oct. 21-26 Americas Golf Cup in Argentina. He could make another appearance or two overseas and then close out the year, like usual, at his own tournament. In other words, we could see plenty of Tiger, health permitting. 

Getty Images

Stock Watch: Strange grumpy; Tiger Time again?

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 1:00 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): This should put his whirlwind 17 months in the proper context: Rahm (38) has earned four worldwide titles in 25 fewer starts – or a full season quicker – than Jordan Spieth (63). This kid is special.

Tommy Fleetwood (+7%): Putting on a stripe show in windy conditions, the Englishman defended his title in Abu Dhabi (thanks to a back-nine 30) and capped a 52-week period in which he won three times, contended in majors and WGCs, and soared inside the top 15 in the world.

Sergio (+3%): Some wholesale equipment changes require months of adjustments. In Garcia’s case, it didn’t even take one start, as the new Callaway staffer dusted the field by five shots in Singapore.

Rory (+2%): Sure, it was a deflating Sunday finish, as he shot his worst round of the week and got whipped by Fleetwood, but big picture he looked refreshed and built some momentum for the rest of his pre-Masters slate. That’s progress.

Ken Duke (+1%): Looking ahead to the senior circuit, Duke, 48, still needs a place to play for the next few years. Hopefully a few sponsors saw what happened in Palm Springs, because his decision to sub in for an injured Corey Pavin for the second and third rounds – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard – was as selfless as it gets.


FALLING

Austin Cook (-1%): The 54-hole leader in the desert, he closed with 75 – the worst score of anyone inside the top 40. Oy.

Phil (-2%): All of that pre-tournament optimism was tempered by the reality of his first missed cut to start the new year since 2009. Now ranked 45th in the world, his position inside the top 50 – a spot he’s occupied every week since November 1993 – is now in jeopardy.

Careful What You Wish For (-3%): Today’s young players might (foolishly) wish they could have faced Woods in his prime, but they’ll at least get a sense this week of the spectacle he creates. Playing his first Tour event in a year, and following an encouraging warmup in the Bahamas, his mere presence at Torrey is sure to leave everyone else to grind in obscurity.

Curtis Strange (-5%): The two-time U.S. Open champ took exception with the chummy nature of the CareerBuilder playoff, with Rahm and Andrew Landry chatting between shots. “Are you kidding me?” Strange tweeted. “Talking at all?” The quality of golf was superb, so clearly they didn’t need to give each other the silent treatment to summon their best.

Brooks Koepka (-8%): A bummer, the 27-year-old heading to the DL just as he was starting to come into his own. The partially torn tendon in his left wrist is expected to knock him out of action until the Masters, but who knows how long it’ll take him to return to game shape.

Getty Images

What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

Getty Images

Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

Getty Images

Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”



McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.