Honeymoon over for Tiger-Stricker pairing

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 29, 2012, 1:25 am

MEDINAH, Ill. – The spark that was supposed to propel Tiger Woods to an improbable comeback victory – or at least a half point – occurred on the 16th hole, as you probably know, since your TV sets at home likely shook because of the roar.

At the time, the once-unbeatable team of Woods and Steve Stricker were 2 down to world No. 3 Lee Westwood and a lanky, awesomely talented Belgian named Nicolas Colsaerts, who was playing in his first Ryder Cup. Already on Friday the U.S. pair had lost in morning foursomes, a defeat so uninspiring that it led many to wonder if Woods should sit out a session for the first time in his career.

That seemed a distant memory, however, as Woods faced a slippery 25-foot putt on the 16th at Medinah. He barely touched his putt, the ball picking up speed as it rolled down the slope, and eventually it rammed into the back of the cup for a vintage birdie-3. One down.

Unlike some of his other memorable moments, Woods didn’t scream or pump his fist when the putt dropped. Instead, he simply pointed his finger in the direction of the 17th tee – onward!

This, after all, was the moment that American golf fans had been clamoring for.

Phil Mickelson, who sported a ghastly 11-17-6 record in the Ryder Cup, had gone 2-0 on Day 1, clearly reinvigorated by the stirring play of rookie Keegan Bradley. And now Woods had a chance to ensure that the Americans would not drop a full point in the afternoon session. The teeing ground at No. 17 shook.

But on that watery par-3, where everything was supposed to swing in his opponent’s favor, Colsaerts answered Woods’ tight approach by draining a 20-foot birdie from the front of the green. Woods would make his 5-foot birdie putt too, ensuring the match would indeed go the distance, but it was Colsaerts who had best seized the moment. It was a high-stakes, international game of H-O-R-S-E.

Despite a valiant charge from Woods (five back-nine birdies, seven in all), his comeback ended on a sour note. His 12-foot putt on the final green – the putt that could have secured a half point for the Americans and given his team 3 1/2 points in the afternoon – slid by on the low side. Walking up to the cup, he swatted away the ball in disgust.

It was the lone lowlight on an otherwise sterling afternoon for the U.S. team, which now leads, 5-3, heading into Saturday.

“We had a chance to go all square on the last hole,” Woods said, “and I missed it.”

In an epic anchor match that featured 17 birdies and an eagle, Colsaerts and Westwood held on to win, 1 up, and avoid an American sweep in the fourball session.

Well, no, sorry, that’s not quite accurate.

Colsaerts won, 1 up, after a near-flawless, 1-on-2 performance that rivaled any these biennial matches have ever produced. He was 7 under on his own ball through 10 holes, and he fired the stroke-play equivalent of a 10-under 62.

“It was one of the best putting rounds I’ve ever seen,” Woods said afterward.

The defeat in fading light Friday ultimately will signal the end of the Woods-Stricker Era, at least in 2012.

Tiger single-handedly kept his team in the match – as Colsaerts did his – but the more popular headline Saturday inevitably will be “Woods loses another team match,” and not “Colsaerts thwarts Woods’ late rally.”

The former is true, of course, however harsh the reality. Woods’ record in team play now stands at 9-15-1, after his oh-fer on Friday.

Tiger himself said earlier this week that he accepts blame for the past failures of the U.S. Ryder Cup team; he didn’t earn the points he needed.

He shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for this, though, especially with the U.S. leading after Day 1.

That said, it’s time for a change, for Tiger to test free agency, to find a new partner.

His partnership with Stricker was always predicated on the fact that Stricker’s steady play and otherworldly putting would make the difference. But if suddenly those putts don’t drop, if he begins to waver, what remains? Well, for this U.S. duo, four consecutive losses in team competition. Call that irreconcilable differences.

Perhaps sensing the need for change – or at least a break – Love opted to bench Woods for Saturday morning foursomes, the first time that the world No. 2 has ever sat out a session.

“We really don’t have room for guys to play five (sessions),” Love reasoned. “We don’t have enough basketballs for this team.”

Maybe so, but they do, however, have a surplus of good putters.

Pair Woods with one of them Saturday afternoon, and his disappointing Ryder Cup may be salvaged, after all.

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Players battle 'crusty' greens on Day 1 at Honda

By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 11:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Tiger Woods called the greens “scratchy” on PGA National’s Champion Course.

Rory McIlroy said there is “not a lot of grass on them.”

Morgan Hoffmann said they are “pretty dicey in spots, like a lot of dirt.”

The first round of the Honda Classic left players talking almost as much about the challenge of navigating the greens as they did the challenge of Florida’s blustery, winter winds.

“They looked more like Sunday greens than Thursday,” McIlroy said. “They are pretty crusty. They are going to have a job keeping a couple of them alive.”

The Champion Course always plays tough, ranking annually among the most challenging on the PGA Tour. With a very dry February, the course is firmer and faster than it typically plays.

“Today was not easy,” Woods said. “It's going to get more difficult because these greens are not the best . . . Some of these putts are a bit bouncy . . . There's no root structure. You hit shots and you see this big puff of sand on the greens, so that shows you there's not a lot of root structure.”

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Brad Nelson, PGA National’s director of agronomy, said the Champion Course’s TifEagle Bermuda greens are 18 years old, and they are dealing with some contamination, in spots, of other strains of grasses.

“As it’s been so warm and dry, and as we are trying to get the greens so firm, those areas that are not a true Tifeagle variety anymore, they get unhappy,” Nelson said. “What I mean by unhappy is that they open up a little bit . . . It gives them the appearance of being a little bit thin in some areas.”

Nelson said the greens are scheduled for re-grassing in the summer of 2019. He said the greens do have a “crusty” quality, but . . .

“Our goal is to be really, really firm, and we feel like we are in a good place for where we want them to be going into the weekend,” he said.

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McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 11:03 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy and the rest of his group had a forgettable end to their rounds Thursday at the Honda Classic.

McIlroy was even par for the day and looking for one final birdie to end his opening round. Only two players had reached the par-5 finishing hole, but McIlroy tried to hold a 3-wood up against the wind from 268 yards away. It found the water, leading to a double bogey and a round of 2-over 72.  

“It was the right shot,” McIlroy said. “I just didn’t execute it the right way.”

He wasn’t the only player to struggle coming home.

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Adam Scott, who won here in 2016, found the water on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17. He made double on 15, then triple on 17, after his shot from the drop area went long, then he failed to get up and down. He shot 73, spoiling a solid round.

The third player in the group, Padraig Harrington, made a mess of the 16th hole, taking a triple.

The group played the last four holes in a combined 10 over.

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Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:40 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Consider it a sign of the times that Tiger Woods was ecstatic about an even-par score Thursday at the Honda Classic.

It was by far his most impressive round in this nascent comeback.

Playing in a steady 20-mph wind, Woods was better in all facets of the game Thursday at PGA National. Better off the tee. Better with his irons. And better on and around the “scratchy” greens.

He hung tough to shoot 70 – four shots better than his playing partner, Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season and the current FedExCup leader – and afterward Woods said that it was a “very positive” day and that he was “very solid.”

It’s a small sample size, of course – seven rounds – but Woods didn’t hesitate in declaring this “easily” his best ball-striking round of the year.

And indeed it was, even if the stats don’t jump off the page.

Officially, he hit only seven of 14 fairways and just 10 greens, but some of those misses off the tee were a few paces into the rough, and some of those iron shots finished just off the edge of the green.

The more telling stat was this: His proximity to the hole (28 feet) was more than an 11-foot improvement over his first two starts this year. And also this: He was 11th among the early starters in strokes gained-tee to green, which measures a player’s all-around ball-striking. Last week, at Riviera, he ranked 121st.

“I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knockdown shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways, and occasionally downwind, straight up in the air.

“I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”

The Champion Course here at PGA National is the kind of course that magnifies misses and exposes a player if he’s slightly off with his game. There is water on 15 of the 18 holes, and there are countless bunkers, and it’s almost always – as it was Thursday – played in a one- or two-club wind. Even though it’s played a half hour from Woods’ compound in Hobe Sound, the Honda wasn’t thought to be an ideal tune-up for Woods’ rebuilt game.

But maybe this was just what he needed. He had to hit every conceivable shot Thursday, to shape it both ways, high and low, and he executed nearly every one of them.

The only hole he butchered was the par-5 third. With 165 yards for his third shot, he tried to draw a 6-iron into a stiff wind. He turned it over a touch too much, and it dropped into the bunker. He hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot, but it got caught in the overseeded rye grass around the green and stayed short. He chipped to 3 feet and then was blown off-balance by a wind gust. Double.

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But what pleased Woods most was what he did next. Steaming from those unforced errors, he was between a 2- and 3-iron off the tee. He wanted to leave himself a 60-degree wedge for his approach into the short fourth hole, but a full 2-iron would have put him too close to the green.

So he took a little off and “threw it up in the air” – 292 yards.

“That felt really good,” Woods said, smiling. And so did the 6-footer that dropped for a bounce-back birdie.

"I feel like I'm really not that far away," he said. 

To illustrate just how much Woods’ game has evolved in seven rounds, consider this perspective from Brandt Snedeker.

They played together at Torrey Pines, where Woods somehow made the cut despite driving it all over the map. In the third round, Woods scraped together a 70 while Snedeker turned in a 74, and afterward Snedeker said that Woods’ short game was “probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”

A month later, Snedeker saw significant changes. Woods’ short game is still tidy, but he said that his iron play is vastly improved, and it needed to be, given the challenging conditions in the first round.

“He controlled his ball flight really well and hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey, because he was rusty,” said Snedeker, who shot 74. “So it was cool to see him flight the ball and hit some little cut shots and some little three-quarter shots and do stuff I’m accustomed to see him doing.”

Conditions are expected to only get more difficult, more wind-whipped and more burned out, which is why the winning score here has been single-digits under par four of the past five years.

But Woods checked an important box Thursday, hitting the shots that were required in the most difficult conditions he has faced so far.

Said Snedeker: “I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”

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Players honor victims of Parkland school shooting

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:36 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA Tour players are honoring the victims in the Parkland school shooting by wearing ribbons on their hats and shirts.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located about 45 miles from PGA National, site of this week’s Honda Classic.

“It’s awful what happened, and anytime the Tour can support in any way a tragedy, we’re always going to be for it,” Justin Thomas said. “Anytime there’s a ribbon on the tees for whatever it may be, you’ll see most, if not all the guys wearing it. Something as simple and easy as this, it’s the least we could do.”

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The school shooting in Parkland, which claimed 17 lives, is the second-deadliest at a U.S. public school.

Tiger Woods, who lives in South Florida, offered this: “It’s just a shame what people are doing now, and all the countless lives that we’ve lost for absolutely no reason at all. It’s just a shame, and what they have to deal with, at such a young age, the horrible tragedy they are going to have to live with and some of the things they’ve seen just don’t go away.”