How will Tiger know when it's over?

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 11, 2017, 2:05 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Golfers don’t retire so much as they simply fade from view. They cut down their schedules. Limit their appearances. Spend more time with their families. Usually, it’s a peaceful transition.

But this latest Tiger Woods comeback has been anything but smooth. Each return goes through the same four phases – despair, optimism, anticipation, frustration – only to end with a familiar outcome: Woods on the sidelines, and plenty of questions about his immediate future.

The current and former athletes here at this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am can relate to this endless cycle. They’ve asked themselves the same questions, confronting retirement both publicly and privately. They’ve been stuck in competitive limbo. And then, after months of soul-searching, they reach a decision, either forging ahead or biding farewell.

Sometimes, the decision is made for them. It’s possible that, at 39, Peyton Manning wouldn’t have been cleared to play another NFL season, with doubts over his surgically repaired neck and nerve damage in his throwing arm. And why would he return anyway? It was a storybook ending, Manning retiring after 18 seasons and another Super Bowl title.

“It’s never an easy decision when you put a lot into something,” he said Friday. “One thing I always took a lot of pride in was having good timing as a quarterback, good timing with my receiver. It felt like it was the right time for me.

“It might have been the right time no matter how it ended up, but it certainly made it sweet, being able to go out winning your last game.”

But it’s exceedingly rare for stars to exit on top – and it never happens in golf – so athletes are often left to face their own professional mortality with diminishing skills.

Former American tennis star Andy Roddick retired at the 2012 U.S. Open, at age 30, after plummeting in the rankings and dealing with a series of injuries. It wasn’t a bombshell; Roddick was no longer an elite player. The surprise was that he conceded as much, a phase that Woods has not yet reached: Acceptance. 

“With the way my body feels, with the way that I’m able to feel like I’m able to compete now, I don’t know that it’s good enough,” Roddick said then. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone who’s interested in ‘existing’ on tour.”

Woods never has expressed an interest in that, either. He’s never said that he’s content to sit outside the top 600 in the world rankings, to miss the top events and to become an afterthought, sometimes even a sideshow, at majors. But that’s only one aspect. Regardless of how his body holds up, Woods will always face an uphill battle against today’s best players, who are younger, bigger, stronger, faster – better in every facet of the game.

That’s not necessarily the case with Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who is still one of the NFL’s best receivers, leading the league in catches last season. But for months he was non-committal about his future plans, saying that he’d revisit the topic in the offseason. It took him a few weeks to decide, but Fitzgerald announced earlier this week that he’d return for his 14th NFL season.

Like Woods, Fitzgerald has dealt with nagging injuries and admitted that he’ll never again be 100 percent healthy. It’s the cost of a long career. But unlike Woods, who is still an entire Phil Mickelson career from surpassing Jack Nicklaus on the major mountaintop, there is plenty of incentive for Fitzgerald, 33, to keep going, to play the final year of his contract – with another 1,000-yard season, he can move up to third on the list of all-time NFL receiving leaders. Woods’ place, meanwhile, is virtually secure. 

“My fire and desire to win and compete versus the best still burns,” Fitzgerald said this week.

It stands to reason that Woods’ fire still burns, as well, or he wouldn’t subject himself to the public humiliation of aborted comebacks and missed cuts and rounds in the 80s. But the past few years have required significant introspection.

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Kelly Slater has reached a similar crossroads. His dominant surfing career is winding down, too. He has captured 55 career titles, and a record 11 world championships, but the 45-year-old has been off his game for the past couple of years, looking increasingly vulnerable in heats.

“If you’re just wanting to be there and make up some numbers, that’s one thing, but if you’re trying to win and be the No. 1 guy, you have to be honest with where your levels are at,” Slater said Friday. “That’s kind of where I’m coming from. If I can put in a full healthy year with the right desire and I can’t win a world title, if that’s out of my grasp, then it’s time to retire. I don’t think I’m there yet. But I think that’s what the conversation is for me.”

Slater, like Woods, has been inspired and motivated by the next generation. Surfers like John John Florence, last year’s world champion, have raised the bar for everyone. “I looked at that,” Slater said, “and I said to myself, ‘Man, I remember what that feels like. I want to put that back together again.’” And so he recommitted to his craft and summoned an epic performance, beating Florence with a near-perfect score last August in Tahiti. Afterward, he described it as “one of the best wins I’ve ever had.” Woods, of course, is chasing the same feeling.

“With Tiger, he set such a high bar for himself for so long, I think it would be sad for him to not be competitive,” Slater said. “If there’s some physical, mental, emotional or spiritual problems that he’s having that’s blocking him, that could be a reality, too. You can’t shake that until you do. Only he knows if that’s part of it. But I can’t help but think that it is.” 

Woods has always said that he craves the competition, that during these injury-plagued years he has missed “mixing it up with the boys.” Now that he’s at the tail end of his career, however, Slater feels the opposite.

“If I got injured and never surfed again, that’s the only thing I’d worry about,” Slater said. “I don’t worry about filling up my life some way. These days, I’m probably happier to go surfing than to compete. I’m trying to keep that fire and the competitiveness burning for an extended period of time. But there’s nothing more I’d like to do than fly halfway around the world and get a good wave.”

What would Woods’ post-golf life look like? He’s already offered a glimpse. Last fall, he launched the second chapter of his career – his new brand TGR, which combines all of his various businesses, including tournament management and golf-course design. He’d also be heavily involved in team competitions each year.

Maybe Woods will be different – perhaps he could retire, but not fade from view.

If he has reached that final phase, only Woods knows for sure. 

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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.

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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.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.

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Ortiz leads LAAC through 54; Niemann, Gana one back

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 8:15 pm

Mexico's Alvaro Ortiz shot a 1-under 70 Monday to take the 54-hole lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship in Chile.

At 4 under for the week, he leads by one over over Argentina's Jaime Lopez Rivarola, Chile's Toto Gana and Joaquin Niemann, and Guatemala's Dnaiel Gurtner.

Ortiz is the younger brother of three-time winner Carlos. Alvaro, a senior at Arkansas, finished tied for third at the LAAC in 2016 and lost in a three-way playoff last year that included Niemann and Gana, the champion.

Ortiz shared the 54-hole lead with Gana last year and they will once again play in the final group on Tuesday, along with Gurtner, a redshirt junior at TCU.

“Literally, I've been thinking about [winning] all year long," Ortiz said Monday. "Yes, I am a very emotional player, but tomorrow I want to go out calm and with a lot of patience. I don't want the emotions to get the better of me. What I've learned this past year, especially in the tournaments I’ve played for my university, is that I have become more mature and that I have learned how to control myself on the inside on the golf course.”

In the group behind, Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who is poised to turn professional, unless of course he walks away with the title.

“I feel a lot of motivation at the moment, especially because I am the only player in the field that shot seven under (during the second round), and I am actually just one shot off the lead," he said. "So I believe that tomorrow I can shoot another very low round."

Tuesday's winner will earn an invitation to this year's Masters and exemptions into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open, and final qualifying for The Open.