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This Woods, nothing like we've seen in several years

By Ryan LavnerMarch 12, 2018, 12:15 am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Over four days, Tiger Woods blew into a new city, shattered attendance records, boosted TV ratings, ignited social media and surged into contention – serious contention – for the first time in ages, teeing it up in Sunday’s penultimate pairing.

Afterward, he stood in front of a pack of reporters and sounded pleased that he’d given himself an opportunity, sure, but disappointed that he’d come up short.

“I gave myself a chance,” he said, “and I had all the opportunity in the world today to do it. I didn’t get it done.”

That exact scenario unfolded Aug. 23, 2015 – 932 days ago – at the Wyndham Championship, when Woods last gave himself a realistic chance to win for the 80th time on the PGA Tour. The circumstances surrounding Sunday’s final round here at the Valspar Championship were almost identical, but with one key difference.

“He’s a completely different person,” said Notah Begay III, a longtime Woods confidant. “He’s gone through public humiliation. He’s gone through personal challenges. He’s gone through physical injury. He’s gone through technical problems in all parts of his game.

“He’s risen above it all, and the end result is a guy who is out here really appreciative of his ability to go out and play the type of golf that he’s capable of.”

Full-field scores from the Valspar Championship

Valspar Championship: Articles, photos and videos

And that type of golf, Woods proved yet again Sunday, will be good enough to win tournaments. 

He wasn’t as sharp with his irons in the final round, and he struggled with the speed of the greens while taking 32 putts, and yet he arrived on Innisbrook’s 18th tee needing a birdie to force a playoff with Paul Casey.

Woods had just canned a 44-foot birdie on 17, offering a sarcastic smirk when the putt found the bottom of the cup, and then he tried to settle himself on the final tee, taking a deep breath and wiping his palms.

“All you want is a shot coming up 18,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “We knew what we had to do.”

Woods blistered a 258-yard 2-iron off the tee, then strode purposefully up the last, the adrenaline flowing, fans young and old lining the fairway and hollering, “Let’s go Tiger!”, trying to will the game’s most popular figure to a victory that seemed improbable even five months ago. His 35-footer to match Casey came up two feet shy.

Woods should win again, and maybe soon, but he settled for a tie for second, his best finish since August 2013, when his back betrayed him for the first time in public. It was at that Barclays event that, in the midst of a Player of the Year season, he fell to his knees after playing a shot in the final round. Later, he blamed his sore neck and back on a soft hotel bed, but less than a year later he went under the knife for his first of four back surgeries.

Woods made only 17 starts over the next two seasons before summoning that out-of-nowhere performance at the Wyndham, where he shared the 36-hole lead and sat just two shots back heading into the final round. He wound up in a tie for 10th, but it was a fluke – he didn’t play another Tour event for 17 months.

The player four starts into this latest comeback bears little resemblance to that aging warrior.

Start with his speed. In 2015, his clubhead speed was 118 mph. Here on Saturday, he uncorked a 129-mph rocket – the fastest recorded on Tour this season.

And then check out his short game. In 2015, it was in utter disarray, a collection of thinned and flubbed chips and pitches that Woods chalked up to conflicting “release patterns” but in reality looked an awful lot like the yips. Only three years later it is apparent that Woods’ body was broken, and that it was uncomfortable for him to assume that setup position. At the Valspar, Woods played a series of deft pitch shots, somehow only holing out once and finishing the week fifth in strokes gained-around the green.

And then, well, just look at him: “I think he’s for real healthy this time,” LaCava said. For how long, no one knows, but in 2015 Woods was trying to scale back his schedule to preserve his body. Now, he’s trying to redline it, adding new and intriguing events during this run-up to the Masters.

What hasn’t changed is Woods’ post-round assessment, both then at the Wyndham and here at the Valspar.

“I felt very comfortable,” he said Sunday.

And: “I was close.”

And: “I had a chance today.”

That Woods contended at the Wyndham was a testament to his otherworldly talent and his grit and his course-management skills.

This is something different entirely. In just 14 rounds Woods has checked every box in his comeback: Staying upright for two rounds. Battling for a score. Making the cut. Playing consecutive weeks. Moving into the fringes of contention. Hovering around the lead.

Then on Sunday, he assumed a position that used to be so familiar: Chasing down the leader.

“The trend is going the right way,” LaCava said.

And unlike three years ago, it’s no aberration.

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Monday Scramble: Who's the (Masters) man?

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 3:00 pm

Rory McIlroy stars at Bay Hill, Tiger Woods stumbles late, the Masters favorites take shape, Inbee Park wins again and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Rory McIlroy is back, and not a moment too soon, with the Masters now just two and a half weeks away.

After dealing with a nagging rib injury and slumping for the better part of the past two years, McIlroy reminded everyone of his awe-inspiring talent at Bay Hill, playing fearlessly and making five birdies in the last six holes to leave a star-studded field in the dust.

Two mental tweaks (to his backswing and putting stroke) have McIlroy feeling as though it’s 2014 all over again. That’s the year he won two majors, and if he can roll the rock like he did at Bay Hill, he’ll be a force at the Masters.

Suddenly, the thought of him capturing the career Grand Slam this year doesn't seem so far-fetched.

1. Today, Brad Faxon’s phone number is getting passed around like the flu.

First he helped Gary Woodland with his putting stroke during the offseason, turning the big hitter into the Phoenix Open champion.

And then he turned his attention to Rory McIlroy, who spent three hours with Faxon in South Florida last Monday. McIlroy was totally lost on the greens, requiring 39 putts in an embarrassing second round at the Valspar Championship, but with Faxon he flipped a switch, feeling less rigid over the ball and more reactive with his stroke.

The result? The best putting performance of McIlroy's career, as he needed just 100 putts to shoot 18 under.

Golfweek reported that by the time McIlroy’s final putt dropped – a 25-footer, of course – Faxon had already been contacted by three other former major champions.

One thing’s for sure: His rate just went up.

2. The completeness of McIlroy’s game at Bay Hill was breathtaking.

He led the field in driving distance, proximity to the hole, scrambling and strokes gained-putting.

“It’s so nice that everything finally came together,” he said.

Said Justin Rose, his final-round playing competitor: “He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

3. Wrote more about McIlroy here on Sunday night, but the Arnold Palmer connections were a little eerie.

4. Tiger Woods rolls into the Masters with 10 consecutive rounds of even par or better – and, yes, even a sense that he could have earned a victory or two.

He finished in a tie for fifth at Bay Hill, the first time he’s had consecutive top-5 finishes on Tour since May 2013.

He’s MILES ahead of where most of us thought he’d be when he came back at the Hero.

“If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments,” he said, “I would have taken that in a heartbeat.” 

5. And so, if we’re maintaining the proper perspective, what comes next is nitpicking of the highest variety.

But here goes: Woods had yet another questionable final round when in the hunt.

At the Honda, Woods made a little bit of a run, playing the first eight holes in 3 under to create a buzz at PGA National. Then he immediately bogeyed the ninth, and instead of one last vintage finishing kick, he rinsed his tee shot on 15, bogeyed 16 and carded an even-par round of 70 to finish outside the top 10.

At the Valspar, he made more progress, going off in the penultimate pairing on Sunday. Even though he played conservatively, because he wasn’t sharp with his irons, he still had a chance to force a playoff on the 72nd hole. Then he took 2-iron off the tee, leaving him a 185-yard approach, and left his long birdie putt to tie about 2 feet SHORT.

At Bay Hill, he pulled within a shot of the lead as he stepped up to the par-5 16th. He had missed right during the previous three rounds, but he still made birdie each time. On Sunday, uncommitted with the driver, he shockingly pulled his tee shot left, out of bounds, leading to a deflating bogey. He dropped a shot on the next hole, too, and did well just to save par on the last.

All of the physical tools are there for Woods to succeed, but his last three starts suggest there’s a mental hurdle for him to overcome, as well.

He needs to relearn how to win.

6. Once again, Woods’ short game carried him to success at Bay Hill.

He finished the week ranked inside the top 10 in both strokes gained-putting (eighth) and around the green (second). He missed only one of his 64 chances inside 10 feet.

His long game raised plenty of red flags, however. Of the 77 players who made the cut, he was 71st in strokes gained-off the tee.

Yes, Augusta is more accommodating than most venues, but the world’s best players – Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Rory, Jon Rahm – all use their driver as a weapon. Woods isn’t there, yet.

7. Woods apparently has shown enough to become the betting favorite for the Masters, with 8-1 odds. He’s ahead of Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and McIlroy, all of whom are listed at 10-1.

Two weeks out, here’s one man’s list of the top five favorites:

1. Justin Rose

2. Phil Mickelson

3. Justin Thomas

4. Rory McIlroy

5. Dustin Johnson

8. Bryson DeChambeau didn’t back down in the final round.

Playing in a final group for the first time on Tour, and facing a bevy of stars, DeChambeau eagled the 16th hole to pull within a shot of the lead and eventually finished solo second.

To win the John Deere last July, he made six birdies on the back nine. His inward 33 at Bay Hill wasn’t enough to overtake McIlroy, but the 24-year-old said he’ll take plenty of confidence into the Masters.

“Ultimately it kind of stinks, but at the same point in time I’m happy with where my game’s at,” he said. “Finishing second out here is not an easy task with all of these great players, and this is, honestly, my first time being in the big thick of things with a lot of guys. So it was great to be comfortable out here and to actually make a couple clutch putts.”  

9. As for Henrik Stenson, it was another close call at Arnie’s Place.

The 54-hole leader shot a second consecutive 71 on the weekend and got lapped. It was his sixth top-15 finish there in his past seven starts.

10. Woods and Ernie Els were named captains for the 2019 Presidents Cup … 21 months ahead of time.

That was the most curious aspect of this announcement. Not that Woods and Els were going to lead their respective teams – it was a natural progression in their careers – but rather, why now?

The matches won’t be played for nearly two years. Woods is just beginning to reassert himself as a contender, not a ceremonial figure. And it was made during the late Arnold Palmer’s event, with a stacked field assembled and only three weeks until the Masters.

Couldn’t this have waited until, like, late April?

11. The most interesting note to come out of the news conference was this: That Woods was the one who approached PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan about becoming the 2019 captain.

That phone call was preceded by a group chat with Woods, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Fred Couples and Davis Love III, when it became clear that Woods was next in line, in keeping with the succession plan Team USA is trying to push through the Ryder Cup committee.

So Woods called Monahan to ask about the possibility.

“Silence,” Woods said, “and then he said, ‘Yeah, we might be able to work that out.'”

12. Inbee Park continues to impress.

Nineteen wins. Seven majors. An Olympic gold medal. Qualifying for the Hall of Fame at age 27.

Her latest feat was a runaway win at the Founders Cup, the first domestic stop on the LPGA schedule.

13. And Lydia Ko continues to struggle.

She entered the week ranked outside the top 80 in driving distance, accuracy and greens hit, and she didn’t do anything to improve those numbers, missing the cut in Phoenix after rounds of 74-73.

Said Cristie Kerr, who was paired with Ko for the first two rounds: “Her game’s not in good shape. She seemed a little lost.”

Bryson DeChambeau in the first round of the 2017 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open

DeChambeau is smart, very smart, something that was reinforced yet again Saturday night at Bay Hill.

He was talking about his recent back injury when he went Full Bryson:

“Well it was the QL and that really got inflamed for me,” he explained. “It was because my quadratus lumborum wasn’t working, my illiacus, longissimus thoracis, they were all kind of overworking, if you want to get technical on that.”

No. We don’t want to get technical on that.

We’re sportswriters. We’re barely college-educated. Just spelling those medical terms was difficult enough. 

So how about a translation?

“Pretty much my lower back was hurting and I rested it,” he said. “How about that?”

Yes, much better. Thanks. 

This week's award winners ... 

You Know You’re a Baller When …: Laura Davies. Now 54 years old, and nursing an Achilles injury, she turned back the clock with a sweet 63 that put her in position to become the LPGA’s oldest winner (by eight years!). She eventually tied for second, her best finish on tour in a decade.

Growing Trend?: WGC-Match Play. Five players will skip this week’s event in Austin, and that number could grow next spring, with the event awkwardly positioned just two weeks before the Masters and following a busy stretch that includes Riviera, Mexico, Honda, Bay Hill and The Players.

Name of the Game: Sergio Garcia’s baby. He and wife Angela named their baby girl “Azalea,” after the lovely flowers at Augusta National and, perhaps, after the par-5 13th hole, where Garcia made a crucial par en route to his breakthrough major. What, no love for “Tea Olive”?  

More Fan Complaints: Rory. After the third round, McIlroy suggested that the PGA Tour should consider curbing alcohol sales at events. More and more players are complaining about fan behavior, but it seems the only way something will change is if a spectator costs a player a tournament on the 72nd hole.  

So, This is Awkward: Grayson Murray and Ben An. We’re guessing not many words were exchanging in this Sunday pairing, not after Murray went scorched earth on Twitter last year during their infamous world-ranking debate.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Kiradech Aphibarnrat. All of the usual contenders hit, so we had to look further down the list and find the disappointing Barnrat. With two wins in his last four starts, and T-6s in each of his past two appearances at Bay Hill, he was a trendy sleeper pick this week. Instead, he shot rounds of 73-74 to miss the cut. Sigh.

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Luiten (wrist) withdraws from WGC-Match Play

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 2:38 pm

Joost Luiten was one of the last men to qualify for this week's WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, but he's the first one out of the tournament after withdrawing because of a wrist injury.

Luiten, who won the European Tour's Oman Open in February, posted on Instagram about his withdrawal and also wrote a lengthy explanation in Dutch on his website.

"Very disappointed to say that I have to withdraw from the WGC Dell Match Play because of a wrist injury," Luiten wrote. "Gutted because I love playing match play! I will be back strong."

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Luiten explained that the injury is on his left wrist, which was previously operated on in 2010. The exact cause is unknown, but he started to experience pain while at home in the Netherlands the week before the WGC-Mexico Championship.

Luiten went on to play in Mexico City, finishing T-37, and he tied for ninth the following week at the Hero Indian Open. But his wrist pain continued to increase, and when it didn't respond to treatment over the weekend he decided to withdraw.

Luiten will now be replaced in the field by world No. 72 Julian Suri. Bill Haas is now first alternate, while Brandt Snedeker is second alternate.

Golf Channel will air a live selection show from 7:30 to 9 p.m. ET Monday to determine the four-player pods in Austin, with round-robin matches beginning Wednesday.

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Rory inside OWGR top 10; Tiger near top 100

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 2:20 pm

Rory McIlroy is back inside the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking after rallying to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

McIlroy shot a final-round 64 at Bay Hill to race past Henrik Stenson and Bryson DeChambeau for a three-shot victory, his first on the PGA Tour in nearly 18 months. As a result, he jumped six spots to No. 7 in the latest rankings, his highest position since October.

DeChambeau finished alone in second place, jumping 34 spots to No. 61 in the world. Justin Rose remained No. 5 after finishing third, while Henrik Stenson moved up one spot to No. 14 after finishing fourth.

Tiger Woods finished T-5, his third top-12 result in as many starts. As a result he's up another 44 spots to No. 105, his best ranking since April 2015. Woods, who started the year ranked No. 656, was 388th before a runner-up finish at the Valspar Championship.

The top 50 in next week's world rankings will qualify for the upcoming Masters, meaning there are 13 players currently in the field for the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play who could sew up an invite to Augusta National with a strong finish in Austin, including No. 47 Chez Reavie and No. 50 Cam Smith.

Dustin Johnson remains world No. 1 for another week, followed by Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth and Rose. Hideki Matsuyama remains at No. 6, with McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka and Sergio Garcia rounding out the top 10.

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Denied relief, Reed jokes: 'Guess my name needs to be Spieth'

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 1:45 pm

A rules controversy broke out during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational involving a player dressed in red and black, but it had nothing to do with Tiger Woods.

Patrick Reed was playing in the group in front of Woods for the second straight Sunday, and he became embroiled in a situation after launching his approach into an area of trees behind the 11th green. As captured by a fan video, Reed got into a lengthy discussion with an on-site rules official before being told that he would not receive the free relief he was requesting.

"I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys," Reed said, drawing laughs from a few gallery members.

Spieth and Reed have a successful history together as Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup partners. But last summer Spieth was at the center of the biggest rules decision of the year, when he dropped on the driving range during the final round of The Open after taking an unplayable lie from an errant drive.

After taking a penalty drop, Reed ended up making double bogey on No. 11 en route to a 1-under 71. He finished the week in a tie for seventh at 8 under.