Going Through the Alphabet in 2007
A is for ... Australians. There are seven Aussies inside the top 50 in the world rankings, second only to 15 Americans. They won five tournaments on the PGA and European Tours' 2007 schedules, and they have probably the most promising newcomer in golf: Nationwide Tour grad Nick Flanagan.
B is for ... Balls. The most important part of a golfer's equipment, according to Phil Mickelson's latest commercial, because 'we need them to do so many different things.' (Hey, not every letter is going to be a home run.)
C is for ... Commissioners. They're becoming more recognizable, outspoken and important on a yearly basis. Consider the PGA's Tim Finchem and the LPGA's Carolyn Bivens and their involvement in the soon-to-be implemented drug- testing policies for golfers.
D is for ... Dubai. Already a player in the golfing world, this emirate in the Middle East is where Tiger Woods has chosen to build his first golf course. It will also be the site of the world's richest golf tournament, the $10 million Dubai World Championship, on the European Tour's 2009 schedule. The European Tour's Order of Merit will be renamed The Race to Dubai, an overseas answer to the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup.
E is for ... Europeans. They finally won another major championship -- Padraig Harrington at the British Open -- and will be going for another win at the Ryder Cup in 2008.
F is for ... FedEx Cup. The PGA Tour's Policy Board voted to make several changes to the FedEx Cup beginning in 2008, including the addition of an off- week following the third playoff event, the BMW Championship. The winner will no longer have to wait until his 40s to collect the $10 million payout (a maximum of $1 million will be deferred).
G is for ... Golf Channel. 2007 marked the first season of the Golf Channel's 15-year commitment as the PGA Tour's home on cable television. Rocky at the beginning, the coverage grew steadier by the week.
H is for ... Hybrids. The clubs are affecting decisions golfers make on the course in every round, professionals and amateurs alike. More than half of the pros now carry at least one in their bag.
I is for ... Inside. It is becoming more and more important to be 'inside' certain designations in golf, especially when they pertain to money lists and rankings. Inside the top 144 on the FedEx Cup points list will get you a mathematical shot at winning $10 million, the biggest prize on the PGA Tour. Making the 32-player field at the ADT Championship will give you a chance to win the biggest paycheck on the LPGA Tour, $1 million. Inside a certain number on the money list means you don't have to grind your way through Q-school.
J is for ... Jack Nicklaus. Relevant as ever in the world of golf, Nicklaus led the United States to another win at the Presidents Cup while keeping a team full of American stars looser than John Daly at a wedding reception. Even Woody Austin. His name is still mentioned every time Tiger Woods wins another major, and then there's this: He should be the next U.S. Ryder Cup captain. That's a fact.
K is for ... Koreans. There are 32 players from South Korea inside the top 100 on the women's world rankings, including 15 in the top 50 and six in the top 20. Their relevance in the women's game can be traced to the impact of Se Ri Pak, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame this year as a 30-year- old. Pak joined the LPGA Tour full-time in 1998 and won two majors in her first season. When she claimed her 24th title at the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic in July, there were around 50 more Korean players competing on the LPGA Tour than there were during her rookie season.
L is for ... LPGA Tour. Dominated for so many years by Annika Sorenstam, the tour now has a new No. 1 in Lorena Ochoa and a host of burgeoning stars like Suzann Pettersen, Morgan Pressel, Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis who are helping to drive prize purses up. Women's golf is alive and well, and you should be paying attention.
M is for ... Majors. Before Tiger Woods won the PGA Championship in August, each of the seven major winners on the PGA and LPGA Tours had been first- timers: Morgan Pressel, Suzann Pettersen, Cristie Kerr and Lorena Ochoa on the LPGA Tour; and Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera and Padraig Harrington on the PGA Tour. Among them, the wins for Kerr, Ochoa and Harrington stood out as long- overdue.
N is for ... Nationwide Tour. The graduating class of 2006 produced mixed results on the PGA Tour this season. Two players claimed their first PGA Tour wins: Boo Weekley and Brandt Snedeker, who both finished in the top 25 on the money list. Eighteen Nationwide Tour grads posted top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour in '07, but they combined for only 39 of them. Twenty-one came from Weekley, Snedeker, Ken Duke and Jeff Quinney.
O is for ... Ochoa, Lorena. The new force in women's golf, Ochoa grabbed the No. 1 ranking from Annika Sorenstam early in the season, then vindicated her position with an eight-win season that included her first major championship at the Women's British Open. On the way, the Mexican star became the first player in LPGA Tour history to pass the $3 million plateau in single-season earnings. Then she broke the $4 million barrier. She has won 14 times since April 2006.
P is for ... Performance-enhancing drugs. Every major golf tour in the world will implement a drug-testing policy in 2008 with the hopes of proving that their sport is clean. And it probably is -- for the most part. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't demand assurance that the players we watch on a weekly basis are competing fairly, which is why the drug-testing policies are a good thing for the sport. (Don't be surprised, however, if a positive test comes from someplace like one of the many developmental tours. Those are the players who would be looking for an edge.)
Q is for ... Q-school. The last two winners at PGA Tour Q-school -- George McNeill and J.B. Holmes -- both won the next season on tour. The 2004 champion, Brian Davis, joined McNeill in winning more than $1 million this season.
R is for ... Ryder Cup. The U.S. team has lost each of the last three Ryder Cups by a combined 21 points, including the last two by nine points apiece. The Europeans, while mostly absent from the winner's circle in major championships over the last eight years, play better as a team than the Americans (see the 'J' entry for our proposed solution). This year's Ryder Cup will be played on American soil at Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky, where Tiger Woods won the 2000 PGA Championship.
S is for ... Sorenstam, Annika. When Sorenstam lost a three-way playoff for the last two spots in the second-round cut at the season-ending ADT Championship, her streak of 12 consecutive years with at least one win on the LPGA Tour came to an end. Next season will be one of the most critical of her career: Either she bounces back and challenges Lorena Ochoa for her old No. 1 ranking, or she recedes a little more into the shadows. Competitive as she is, that latter possibility may not be the worst thing for the recently engaged- again Sorenstam, who could be nearing a point in her career when she decides to concentrate on starting a family of her own. Although if there is one female athlete who could have kids and win golf tournaments at the same time, wouldn't that be Sorenstam?
T is for ... Time off. It became increasingly rarer to see stars like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson play tournaments near the end of the season, which is one of the reasons the PGA Tour created the FedEx Cup. A funny thing happened when they got their time off anyway. After many players -- especially Mickelson -- went public with their disdain for playing four weeks in a row during this year's playoffs, the PGA Tour's Policy Board inserted a week off into the schedule for next year. It's good to be one of the kings.
U is for ... Universality. The top of the men's world rankings, while dominated by Americans, also features players from South Africa, Australia, Ireland, England, Fiji, Korea, Spain, Argentina, Sweden, Canada, Japan, Denmark, Wales, etc. Asians and Americans feature prominently in the women's rankings, but the No. 1 player is from Mexico, and there are also top-50 players from Australia, Sweden, Norway, Scotland, Brazil and Paraguay.
V is for ... Vibe-Hastrup, Mads. A European Tour staple from Denmark with our favorite name in golf. (Sports Network golf office joke: 'Who's your favorite Vibe-Hastrup?' Maybe you have to be here to appreciate it.)
W is for ... Woods, Tiger. My friend was on Jupiter Island for Thanksgiving, staying at a house down the street from the property Woods purchased for $38 million last year. The compound doesn't have an address. It has something like 12 addresses. In one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the country, Woods is the top dog. Sound familiar?
X is for ... X factor. The biggest X factor in golf? Physical fitness. When Tiger Woods hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy at the PGA Championship in August, it was early evening in Tulsa and still more than 100 degrees. Woods was sweating along with the rest of them, but it was clear that his tip-top shape gave him an advantage during a sultry four days at Southern Hills. Lorena Ochoa climbs mountains in her free time, and is one of the fittest golfers of either gender.
Y is for ... Youth. As in: where are the good, young American players?
Z is for ... Shane Zywiec. The last golfer in our alphabetical player database here at the Sports Network, Zywiec played two rounds on the Nationwide Tour last year. We're guessing he's played caboose in every yearbook he's ever appeared in, so he should be used to this by now.
Simpson, Noren share Honda lead after challenging Rd. 1
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Tiger Woods had what he called ''easily'' his best round hitting the ball, and he didn't even break par at the Honda Classic.
Alex Noren and Webb Simpson shared the lead at 4-under 66 in steady wind on a penal PGA National golf course, and felt as though they had to work hard for it. Both dropped only one shot Thursday, which might have been as great an accomplishment as any of their birdies.
''When you stand on certain tee boxes or certain approach shots, you remember that, 'Man, this is one of the hardest courses we play all year, including majors,''' said Simpson, who is playing the Honda Classic for the first time in seven years.
Only 20 players broke par, and just as many were at 76 or worse.
Woods had only one big blunder - a double bogey on the par-5 third hole when he missed the green and missed a 3-foot putt - in an otherwise stress-free round. He had one other bogey against three birdies, and was rarely out of position. Even one of his two wild drives, when his ball landed behind two carts that were selling frozen lemonade and soft pretzels, he still had a good angle to the green.
''It was very positive today,'' Woods said. ''It was a tough day out there for all of us, and even par is a good score.''
It was plenty tough for Adam Scott, who again stumbled his way through the closing stretch of holes that feature water, water and more water. Scott went into the water on the par-3 15th and made double bogey, and then hit into the water on the par-3 17th and made triple bogey. He shot 73.
Rory McIlroy was at even par deep into the back nine when he figured his last chance at birdie would be the par-5 18th. Once he got there, he figured his best chance at birdie was to hit 3-wood on or near the green. Instead, he came up a yard short and into the water, made double bogey and shot 72.
Noren, who lost in a playoff at Torrey Pines last month, shot 31 on the front nine and finished with a 6-foot birdie on the ninth hole into a strong wind for his 66.
The Swede is a nine-time winner on the European Tour who is No. 16 in the world, though he has yet to make a connection among American golf fans - outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma, from his college days at Oklahoma State - from not having fared well at big events. Noren spends time in South Florida during the winter, so he's getting used to this variety of putting surfaces.
''I came over here to try to play some more American-style courses, get firmer greens, more rough, and to improve my driving and improve my long game,'' Noren said. ''So it's been great.''
PGA champion Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Morgan Hoffmann - who all live up the road in Jupiter - opened with a 67. There's not much of an advantage because hardly anyone plays PGA National the other 51 weeks of the year. It's a resort that gets plenty of traffic, and conditions aren't quite the same.
Louis Oosthuizen, the South African who now lives primarily in West Palm Beach, also came out to PGA National a few weeks ago to get a feel for the course. He was just like everyone else that day - carts on paths only. Not everyone can hole a bunker shot on the final hole at No. 9 for a 67. Mackenzie Hughes of Canada shot his 67 with a bogey from a bunker on No. 9.
Woods, in his third PGA Tour event since returning from a fourth back surgery, appears to be making progress.
''One bad hole,'' he said. ''That's the way it goes.''
It came on the easiest hole on the course. Woods drove into a fairway bunker on the par-5 third, laid up and put his third shot in a bunker. He barely got it out to the collar, used the edge of his sand wedge to putt it down toward the hole and missed the 3-foot par putt.
He answered with a birdie and made pars the rest of the way.
''I'm trying to get better, more efficient at what I'm doing,'' Woods said. ''And also I'm actually doing it under the gun, under the pressure of having to hit golf shots, and this golf course is not forgiving whatsoever. I was very happy with the way I hit it today.''
Woods played with Patton Kizzire, who already has won twice on the PGA Tour season this year. Kizzire had never met Woods until Thursday, and he yanked his opening tee shot into a palmetto bush. No one could find it, so he had to return to the tee to play his third shot. Kizzire covered the 505 yards in three shots, an outstanding bogey considering the two-shot penalty.
Later, he laughed about the moment.
''I was so nervous,'' Kizzire said. ''I said to Tiger, 'Why did you have to make me so nervous?'''
Players battle 'crusty' greens on Day 1 at Honda
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.”
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.
McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda
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.
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.
Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda
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.
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.”