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If this is it, Prez Cup a fitting swan song for Mickelson

By Will GraySeptember 30, 2017, 9:40 pm

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Under cloudy skies with a brisk breeze starting to sweep across Liberty National Golf Club, Phil Mickelson stood to the side of the 17th green and took it all in.

He and Kevin Kisner had just polished off a closely-contested match against Jhonattan Vegas and Emiliano Grillo. Kisner tugged at his partner’s arm, imploring him to turn around for a quick on-camera interview as the players in the next match approached the putting surface. But Mickelson’s attention was elsewhere.

“Yeah,” Mickelson said. “That’s gonna have to wait.”

And with that, he turned away from one camera lens and toward another. He put one arm around his wife, Amy, and a second around his brother-turned caddie, Tim. The trio was flanked by Mickelson’s two youngest children, 15-year-old Sophia and 14-year-old Evan.

After capping an unbeaten team performance in his 12th – and perhaps final – Presidents Cup appearance, Mickelson had earned a brief reprieve from media obligations. It was picture time.

“My kids are at an age where they appreciate these moments now,” Mickelson said. “They couldn’t understand what it meant when they were little. Now that they’re teenagers, for them to share these moments means a lot to me.”

After 23 straight years representing the U.S. in annual team competitions, Mickelson’s record already has plenty of decoration. He entered this week with more Presidents Cup points than any American, and his win with Kisner Saturday was his record 25th match victory – one more than Tiger Woods.

But the growth of his family over his career serves as a more personal marker of just how much time has passed as the 47-year-old inches closer to the twilight of his playing career.

When Mickelson made his Presidents Cup debut at age 24 in 1994, he was the only player on the U.S. roster under age 30. He played that week on a team captained by Hale Irwin, and he paired three times with Tom Lehman.

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He and Amy were also still two years away from tying the knot, and it would be five more years before Mickelson’s “you’re going to be a father” moment with Payne Stewart on the 18th green at Pinehurst. The same man who teed it up as a bachelor in his team debut couldn’t wait to hug his daughter after Kisner holed the winning 7-footer Saturday.

“I think about it more as experiences rather than records,” Mickelson said. “I have a lot of experiences, and those are the things that I really cherish.”

As he stood there next to his family and basked in the glow of another age-defying performance, it seemed fair to wonder whether this week could be his swan song as a player in this emotionally-charged environment. He insists that making the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris remains “a big goal,” but he also hasn’t won a tournament in four years and didn’t sniff qualifying automatically for this year’s team.

Father Time remains undefeated, as the assistant captains on either side of the ledger can attest, and Mickelson’s immediate move toward family photo hour may have tipped his hand.

If this weekend is it, he wants to savor the moment with those he loves the most.

“When they look at me like I’m cool, it means a lot,” Mickelson said, locking eyes with Sophia as his voice wavered a hint of emotion. “You know what I mean. As a dad, when your kids look at you a certain way, it means a lot.”

While his inclusion on this week’s team wasn’t much of a surprise, his ability to contribute was hardly a sure thing. Mickelson struggled for much of the summer, enduring a caddie switch and missed cuts in the season’s final two majors.

But on cue, he seems to bring out his best stuff in team match-play settings, regardless of incoming form. In fact, his record in the last three team competitions – two of which saw him added as a captain’s pick – is now a stout 7-1-3.

This time he took Kisner under his wing as a rookie, and the two combined for a 2-0-1 record. It was an unexpected mix of a California product and a self-described “South Carolina redneck,” but one that oozed confidence from the start.

“Having been able to come down the stretch with him, and to see how well he performs under the gun, is unbelievable,” Kisner said. “I’ll always look back and think about who I played with. Nobody can ever take that from me. I played with a Hall-of-Famer, and we did great together. No matter what happens in my future, that will always be something I look at.”

Kisner is simply the latest player who can attest to the rejuvenating effect team match play has on Mickelson, a lengthy list that includes everyone from Jay Haas to Anthony Kim. The pair offered one of the highlights of the tournament with an impromptu “Three Amigos” dance after Mickelson clinched their Friday fourballs win.

“They’ve been giggling the entire time,” Amy Mickelson said. “Giggles for a week, these two.”

Asked to assess his partner’s performance after seeing it up close and personal for three straight days, Kisner simply shook his head and offered a wry grin.

“If Bones was still caddying, I’d really be spinning. But at least Tim is just like, ‘Whatever,’” Kisner said. “They’re going through ‘Pelz’ and draws, and trying to hit 126 (yards). I’m like, ‘Man, it’s blowing 30 (mph) and it’s 40 degrees. Who knows how far you’re going to hit it?’ Then he hits it to 4 feet, and I can’t say anything about it.”

Such is the magic Mickelson seems to conjure simply by showing up and donning the red, white and blue.

After putting another point on the board, and before embarking on an afternoon as cheerleader and selfie star with Kisner and Rickie Fowler, Mickelson rode the wave of his latest performance and posed with family to commemorate the occasion.

“Maybe towards the end I’ll look back, and I’ll look back at the highlights and the many moments,” Mickelson said. “But right now, I’m just trying to create more.”

He’ll have another chance to do just that during Sunday’s singles session, with the outcome of this Presidents Cup no longer in doubt, and perhaps a few more in the years to come. But should his participation streak fail to reach Year 24, should the shadow of Lady Liberty be the last place he hits a shot for his country, this would certainly serve as a fitting conclusion.

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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.”