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Monday Scramble: Wait just a minute (or 4)

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 29, 2018, 6:30 pm

Tiger Woods returns, Jason Day prevails, J.B. Holmes stalls, Haotong Li stuns and more in this week’s redeye edition of Monday Scramble:

In the most highly anticipated debut of the new year, Tiger Woods not only made the cut at one of the most difficult regular-season stops on the PGA Tour, but he climbed into the top 25 after shooting all four rounds at par or better.

It’s just the third time he’s done that since his last victory in 2013, an encouraging sign after so little competition the past few years.

The goal was to play four rounds and test his body, and in that sense, absolutely, the week was a resounding success. But watching Woods up close last week, there is little evidence to suggest that he’s ready to be a regular contender anytime soon.

Though his short game and putting showed plenty of promise, his long game was in such disarray that he set a career-low mark for fairways hit and never found more than 12 greens per round. Other courses, including his next start at Riviera, won’t be so forgiving.

Can Woods win again?

Sure, in time, if he stays healthy and drastically tightens up his game. But for now, it’s best to keep expectations low: He plays a limited schedule on demanding courses against the top fields.

The road ahead is long. 


1. It’s best to break down Woods’ return like this:

THE POSITIVES:

He remained upright. That was a major question mark heading into the week, even after his encouraging performance in the Bahamas last month. How would Woods handle hacking out of the thick, juicy rye grass at Torrey Pines? Turns out it wasn’t a problem. At all. Despite missing 70 percent of his fairways, Woods never so much as flinched while taking a few mighty lashes out of the rough, and he felt strong enough to practice after his rounds. A great sign for his surgically repaired back.

His short game. Woods said one of the biggest misconceptions about his back injury was that he’d be able to work more on his short game than his full swing. The opposite was true, because it hurt more to bend over and address the ball while chipping and putting. That’s not the case anymore, and he clearly was sharper on and around the greens than he has been over the past few years. (The chip yips appear, at least for now, to be in remission.) That Woods took extra time during his practice rounds to hit putts and try different shots out of the rough paid off, too. Said Brandt Snedeker: “His short game is probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”

His heart. Does Woods still have the desire and determination to compete at age 42? He offered a resounding answer last week. Even without anywhere close to his best stuff, he pulled off some incredible short-game shots and sank a few clutch putts to make the cut on the number. Shooting 2 under on the weekend, while finding just six fairways total, was a master class in grinding.

His patience. Woods might be the only one who seems content to let the process play out. Despite the chaos that constantly surrounds him, he seems happy, reenergized and at peace in his latest comeback. There is such an urgency to declare that he is back, or that he’s going to win again, but golf doesn’t lend itself to instant analysis. He acknowledges that he’s very much a work in progress, and it could take all season, or longer, before he figures it out. 

THE NEGATIVES:

His driving. There’s no way to sugarcoat: It was dreadful. He had a two-way miss, and some of his tee shots were off-the-planet bad. Woods chalked up his errant driving to his ever-evolving “feels,” but it’s clear that he needs to continue to tinker with his equipment. (He switched from the TaylorMade M2 to the M3 over the seven-week break.) His 30-percent clip was the worst of his career, and his absence of a go-to shot is worrisome moving forward.

His iron play. Woods’ driver put him in some awful spots off the tee, but even when he did find the short grass he struggled to hit the ball close enough to the hole, ranking in the middle of the pack in proximity. His wedge play was particularly poor, and only on the last day did he have good distance control with his irons. Not every tournament is going to be a grind-fest like Torrey; he needs to be able to make a lot of birdies, and he won’t with iron play like that.



2. Day desperately needed a reset in 2018.

Last year was the most difficult year of his career, not only professionally but personally. On the course, after beginning the year as the world No. 1, he plummeted outside the top 10, lost confidence in his two most important clubs (driver and putter) and split with his longtime caddie Colin Swatton, who has been a father figure to Day since he was a teenager.

He didn’t find much relief off the course, either. His mother was diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year, leading to a tearful withdrawal from the WGC-Match Play and months of listless play, and at the end of the year, his wife, Ellie, announced that she had suffered a miscarriage with the couple’s third child.

Better days are ahead.


3. Day’s inspired play at Torrey, which culminated with a birdie on the sixth playoff hole Monday to put away Alex Noren, was a reminder that he’s too talented to go months without contending. When he’s on, there isn’t a shot or moment he can’t handle.

He’ll be a force – as long as he’s healthy.

4. So … about that. Day’s back continues to be a problem.

Two weeks ago, he underwent an MRI after throwing out his back in Palm Springs. He was still in such rough shape at Torrey Pines that he withdrew from the Wednesday pro-am and didn’t think he’d be able to play. Swinging and walking around uncomfortably in the cooler temperatures, he started sluggishly with a 73, then heated up with rounds of 64-71-70. He was helped immensely by the 80-degree weather Sunday.

Day said that he’s looking into making changes in his swing to relieve some of the pressure on his lower back. When his back goes out, as it did a few weeks ago, he experiences burning pain down both legs. Not good. 

5. Still think Noren is just another flash-in-the-pan European player?

The nine-time European Tour winner recently cracked the top 10 in the world ranking, but that still didn’t convince many American golf observers that this late bloomer (he didn’t even win in three years of college golf at Oklahoma State) was the real deal.

There should be no questions now, after Noren nearly won in his first start as a Tour member. He stood tall in difficult conditions Sunday, and he only bowed out after his 3-wood on the sixth playoff hole came up short, in the water, effectively ending his chances.

Noren is known among his peers as one of the hardest workers in the game – these horrifying pictures of his calloused hands are all the proof you need – and he’s finally pushed himself to the brink of the game’s elite. 

6. What’s up with all of these playoffs? This is the third consecutive week that the Tour had a multi-hole playoff.

From 2002-17, there were two playoffs that went six or more holes. In the past three WEEKS, there have been two – Day's marathon and Patton Kizzire outlasting James Hahn on the sixth hole at the Sony Open.

The trend might not end soon, either. There has been a playoff each of the past two years at the Phoenix Open. That’s bad news for sports fans, of course, since the action bumps into the Super Bowl.



7. It’s rare to see PGA Tour players criticize their peers, but that’s exactly what happened Sunday when J.B. Holmes brought the final round to a screeching halt with his 4-minute, 10-second standoff with his caddie in the middle of the 18th fairway.

The debate centered on whether to hit 3-wood (long) or 5-wood (short), and in the end he chose a 7-iron layup in the rough, believing that his best chance to make eagle and tie was to hole a wedge shot. (Shocker: He did not.)

Yes, these guys have a lot at stake – money, world-ranking, FedExCup and Ryder Cup points – but to take four minutes making that decision, WITH THE CO-LEADER OF THE TOURNAMENT WAITING, was one of the most egregious 72nd-hole icings this scribe can remember.

8. Holmes, of course, did himself no favors afterward. Last year, when Jordan Spieth took forever to play the 13th hole at Royal Birkdale because of an unusual ruling, he apologized profusely to playing partner Matt Kuchar for the holdup. Holmes offered no such apology.

When asked whether he regretted taking that much time to make his decision and impacting Noren’s second shot, Holmes sniffed: “No, I was still trying to win.”

Already tagged as one of the game’s slowest players, Holmes’ reputation took another massive hit Sunday.  



9. Rory McIlroy’s Revenge Tour made another stop last week in Dubai, where he finished second.

It was his second week in a row in contention, though this one probably stung more than his T-3 in Abu Dhabi – on Sunday, he was two clear with eight to play, but stalled the rest of the way, allowing Haotong Li to pass him on the back nine.

“If someone had told me at the start of the year you’d finish third and second in your first two events, I would have said I’d take that,” he said afterward. “But being in the positions I’ve been in and having two close calls the first couple of weeks of the year, it’s a little difficult.

“The competitor in me is very disappointed right now. I wanted to win. I always want to win, and I just didn’t do enough when I needed to.”

McIlroy is 40 under for his first two events of the year. He will tee it up again in two weeks at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. 

10. That’s not to take anything away from Li, the 22-year Chinese star who is becoming a force on the world stage. He birdied four of his last six holes to steal the title – even more impressive considering the player he chased down.

Last year, Li surged up the leaderboard at The Open, after a final-round 63. This victory, over McIlroy, against a strong field, should boost his confidence even more. He is now No. 32 in the world.


Five days later, and we still don’t really know who was at fault in the bizarre situation that unfolded at last week’s Bahamas Great Abaco Classic.

Depending on whom you talk to, Rhein Gibson’s caddie, Brandon Davis, either did or didn’t pick up Gibson’s ball in a hazard on the 18th hole of the Web.com Tour event.

Gibson received a one-shot penalty (and lost $12,000), chucking his putter headcover at Davis and firing him on the spot.

Suspiciously, Davis went on a media blitz to share his side of the story … and then a Web.com Tour official publicly disputed that account.

Here’s what we do know: Caddies will think twice about working for Gibson, and Davis will have a hard time finding another gig.

This section was MADE for incidents like these. Seriously: WTH?

This week's award winners ... 


Trending Upward: Ryan Palmer. Winless since 2010, Palmer was the first to drop out of the playoff at Torrey Pines. Considering all he has been through recently, however – his wife, Jennifer, undergoing treatment for breast cancer, having shoulder surgery and needing to play well to keep his card via a major medical – he wasn’t about to sulk about another close call. 

Opening Stumble: LPGA season. Brittany Lincicome won the LPGA’s season opener in the Bahamas, which was reduced to 54 holes because of high winds. The 2013 edition of the event was shortened to 36 holes because of inclement weather. Paradise, we think not.

Best Of Luck: Guy who distracted Tiger. An angry mob seemed to descend on the visor-wearing dude who blurted out, “Get in the hole!” while Woods was making his backstroke on an 8-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole Sunday. Apparently there's no need for marshals when fans police each other. 


Death, Taxes and …: Charles Howell III at the Farmers. His tie for sixth at Torrey was his fourth consecutive top-20 there, and his eighth top-10 in 16 career starts. ATM. 



Didn’t See That Coming: Jon Rahm. One shot back after two rounds, on the verge of becoming world No. 1 with a victory, Rahm backed up on the weekend with rounds of 75-77, eventually finishing in a tie for 29th, behind even Tiger Woods. Now he doesn’t even have a chance to claim the top spot this week in Phoenix. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Rickie Fowler. Maybe we should have known better, since the Farmers ambassador doesn’t have a top-60 here since 2013. Apparently, that history was more telling than his recent form, because he exited early again, with rounds of 72-72. Sigh. 

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.


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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.


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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.


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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”