Tiger, Phil have big goals in 2014 despite age

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 22, 2014, 11:45 pm

SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have combined to play 797 events and 2,824 rounds on the PGA Tour. They’ve enjoyed remarkable success, winning a combined 121 times, and they’ve been handsomely rewarded for their efforts, amassing more than $182 million in on-course earnings.

But, to repeat: They’ve played nearly 800 events. Or, think about it this way: Mickelson is entering his 22nd full season on Tour, which means he’s been competing on the world’s best circuit longer than Rookie of the Year Jordan Spieth has been alive. There’s a lot of mileage on these Ferraris.

High-profile athletes in other sports talk often about the grind of a sporting life, about how each year it gets more and more difficult to put on the uniform and go to work. Not Tiger and Phil.

As they arrived here at Torrey Pines to make their 2013-14 domestic debuts, the two greatest players of their generation talked about being hungrier than ever – an attitude derived from how, in recent years, they’ve adapted and evolved their disparate games. 

Since last January there have been 19 wins by players in their 20s, but Tiger and Phil continue to thrive amid the youth movement. Woods, 38, won five times in 2013, including at a venue (TPC Sawgrass) that has never fit his eye. Mickelson, 43, meanwhile, won three times around the world and enjoyed one of the most satisfying wins of his career at the Open, a major that required a complete overhaul of his game.

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This, though, figures to be an important year for both stars, legacy-wise, as they chase the tournaments they covet most.

Let’s start with Woods. Even though he is major-less since summer 2008 and has battled injuries for years and had his personal life tossed into a blender, he’s still on pace to reach 18 majors. Jack Nicklaus won his 15th, the 1978 Open, at age 38. Woods turned 38 last month. Entering their age-38 season, Tiger has just as many pro major starts (64) under his Nike belt as Jack did.

“Every year is a big year,” Woods said Wednesday, rebuffing the notion that this year, with a favorable foursome of major venues, is a critical year. “Every year counts. … I know that I don’t have 20 years in my prime (remaining). Most guys don’t jump from the foul line at age 58.”

Still, Woods says that he still pushes his body to the limit to prepare and be ready to compete. In recent years, though, his body has pushed back, and playing a full schedule, with no setbacks, has proved elusive. Since 2009 there has been a variety of assorted ailments: neck, knee, Achilles’ tendon (twice), back, elbow. More so than the fierce competition or the major weekend struggles, a clean bill of health likely remains his biggest hurdle.

Woods acknowledged that although he’s still able to generate the same clubhead speed as he once did (between 118 and 120 mph each of the past four years), he cannot summon that velocity on every shot. “I don’t have the rotational speed that I used to,” he said, before adding that he’s “infinitely stronger” and “more explosive” in exercises.

So, yes, even Woods, with his boxer’s waistline and running back’s biceps, cannot escape the signs of aging. As a result, his game has needed to evolve.

These days, Woods finds himself thinking his way around the course more than ever before. Depending on tournament conditions, he can either rear back and bomb it, like he did last year at Firestone, or he can “dink and dunk” and play “small ball,” like he did at The Players.

“You’re still able to be successful,” he said, “but you do it a different way. You evolve as you age.”

Mickelson has undergone a similar transformation. Five years older than Woods, Lefty has avoided serious setbacks with injuries but revealed in 2010 that he suffers from psoriatic arthritis. Though he’s been able to manage the symptoms with medication – while also being more conscientious of his diet and workouts – Mickelson clearly has lost distance off the tee, dropping from 299 yards per pop in 2010 to just 287 last year.

“It’s just more effort to be able to play golf at the highest level,” he said.

Unlike Woods, who now relies more on his mind and course management, Mickelson has instead turned to his equipment to help sustain his high level of play. Over the past few years, he says he has been able to turn his weaknesses into strengths. He has improved nearly 130 spots in strokes gained-putting since 2011 (all the way to No. 6 last year), and the new technology in his driver – lowering the center of gravity, reducing the spin rate – has bolstered his belief off the tee.

“I’m more excited about this year than any year ever,” he said. 

That’s typical Phil gusto, of course, but his game was surprisingly sharp a week ago in Abu Dhabi, where he likely would have won if not for an ill-advised decision from the bushes in the final round. His renewed confidence is also a significant reason why Mickelson has embraced his pursuit of the career grand slam, why, even in January, the upcoming Open at Pinehurst is a topic of discussion.

“I feel like it’s just a matter of time,” Mickelson said of the U.S. Open breakthrough. “I actually believe I’ll win a couple.”

How about that? In golf, it seems, you’re never too old to win something new.

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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 Web.com 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.