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Monday Scramble: Let Tiger mania resume

By Will GrayNovember 27, 2017, 4:00 pm

Tiger Woods gets set for his return to competition, President Donald Trump makes (quick) time for golf during the holidays, the governing bodies float out the idea of diversifying the ball offerings and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

In a week where most of us spent time scarfing down leftovers and sharing reasons to be thankful, the golf news cycle rolled right along with two prominent names at the top.

A normally quiet stretch of the season, with the PGA Tour beginning its longest hibernation of the year, still received plenty of attention because of the presence of Woods and Trump.

The fact that the two men intersected for a leisurely round together without breaking the internet shows that we are in a quiet portion of the calendar, but it's still a testament to the interest in both that golf became a discussion point this weekend around turkey, stuffing and football.

Amid this season of reflection and giving thanks, one thing is certain in golf media: with Tiger and Trump making headlines, there will always be something to talk about - even when the sport makes a rare attempt at having an off-season.

1. We start with Woods, whose return to competition this week is somehow being greeted with as much, if not more, anticipation than the same scenario a year ago.

Last year he made his first competitive swipes in more than 15 months at the Hero World Challenge, where he finished 15th out of a 17-man field. This time he'll be teeing it up for the first time since early February, less than two months removed from comments where he entertained the notion of never playing competitive golf again.

It's a remarkable course correction, one whose Zapruder film intrigue has shifted from Twitter videos to first-hand accounts of Woods' game.

He's more than four years removed from his last win, almost 10 years removed from his last major and staring down birthday No. 42 next month. But based on the interest and speculation surrounding Woods, it might as well be 2008.

2. Quickly becoming an annual fall tradition akin to pumpkin pie, the eyewitness accounts of Woods' on-course progress are rolling in at record speed.

After Rickie Fowler explained earlier this month that Woods was hitting it "way by" him at Medalist, Jason Day told reporters in Australia that Woods is currently "the best he's ever felt in three years."

Then came Brad Faxon's detailed account of their round together over the weekend, where he shared that Woods hit it past world No. 1 Dustin Johnson on half the holes.

It all adds up to brimming optimism surrounding Woods' return, a four-day harbinger of what might be in store for 2018 and beyond.

3. But nothing quite matches hearing from the man himself, as Woods' presence in the Bahamas meant that Hero tournament week started a full day early.

Woods zipped around Albany in a cart, with caddie Joe LaCava along for the ride. Afterwards, he explained that "life is so much better" following his lumbar fusion surgery in April.

There's sure to be rust this week as he rounds out a star-studded field amid the sandy fairways at Albany, but the thought of an optimistic Woods holding his own for 72 holes - and more importantly, remaining healthy for more than a couple days at a time - is enough to merit a quick peek at the countdown clock to the Masters.

4. While Woods played over the holiday weekend with Faxon and Johnson, the fourth in the group just happened to be the leader of the free world.

President Trump took to Twitter to explain that he would (quickly) be pegging it with the current and former world No. 1s. The round continued a year in which the commander-in-chief has made frequent appearances on the course, and it was the second time that he and Woods had played together since Trump's election.

According to Faxon, the best-ball match ended in a tie with Woods and Johnson tipping out Trump International around 7,600 yards while he and President Trump played the blue tees at 6,500 yards.

5. One day after his round with Woods, Trump shifted gears by playing with the only golfer ever to win more major titles.

Jack Nicklaus teed it up with the president Saturday at Trump's course in Jupiter, Fla. Nicklaus has worked together with Trump on course projects and was vocally supportive of his potential in the White House, both before and after the election.

"I like what Donald has done," Nicklaus said last year. "I like that he's turning America upside down. He's awakening the country. We need a lot of that."

No word on how that particular match ended up, but it's hard to think of a better 36-hole itinerary than playing with Nicklaus and Woods in the span of two days. Then again, when you top the organizational chart in Washington, D.C., you can sometimes get the tee sheet to bend in your favor.

6. A change to the rules is far from imminent, but the USGA and R&A appear willing to at least consider an equipment option that might restrict some of the eye-popping distance numbers top players continue to uncork.

The two governing bodies are researching the topic together, and last week USGA executive director Mike Davis went so far as to say that the recent uptick in distance has "horrible" implications.

Davis' remarks weren't tied to the 400-yard drives themselves, but rather to the ripple effects they cause. Longer shots mean longer courses, which means expanded footprints and ultimately increased maintenance costs and environmental impact.

"I don't care how far Tiger Woods hits it," Davis said. "The reality is this is affecting all golfers and affecting them in a bad way. All it's doing is increasing the cost of the game."

It's an intriguing angle with which to approach the situation, and Davis' comments signal the powers-that-be might finally be willing to listen to calls for change.

7. But make no mistake, the possible introduction of a tournament ball won't go down without a fight from equipment manufacturers - specifically Titleist executive Wally Uihlein.

In the wake of Davis' comments, Uihlein wrote a stern letter to the Wall Street Journal questioning some of Davis' claims and insisting, among other points, that the motivation for longer "championship" golf courses was simply to sell more houses along the fairways.

As one of the leading ball manufacturers, Titleist could potentially have the most to lose from any effort to curb technological innovations, even if a reduced-distance model were offered to complement - not replace - consumer options. It seems like the seeds have been planted for what could become an intriguing power struggle within the game.

8. The groundswell to "do something" about the ball certainly did not start at the USGA offices.

The chorus of players adding their voice to the issue has included Woods and, more recently, Geoff Ogilvy. The former U.S. Open champ is one of the most thoughful players with a microphone in his hand, and last week in Sydney he compared the distance craze to the use of aluminum bats in baseball.

"We’ve completely outgrown the stadiums," Ogilvy said. "So do you rebuild every stadium in the world? That’s expensive. Or make the ball go shorter? It seems relatively simple from that perspective.’’

9. There was some actual tournament golf played last week, including an almost-perfect homecoming for Jason Day.

The Aussie was making his first start Down Under since 2013, and he carried a one-shot lead into the final round of the Australian Open. But the birdies dried up in a difficult final round, where he fell back into a tie for fifth as 22-year-old Cameron Davis surged to victory.

It was great to see Day back in Australia playing in a top-notch event. The finish, though, was another example of just how frustrating the year has been for a player who was ranked No. 1 as recently as February but now sits outside the top 10.

10. The defending champ didn't exactly challenge, but Jordan Spieth still left Oz with reason to smile.

With caddie Michael Greller back home with a newborn, swing coach Cameron McCormick took the bag and helped Spieth to an eighth-place showing in an event he has won twice before.

Lifting the Stonehaven Cup proved to be a predecessor for Spieth's major triumphs in both 2015 and 2017. Next year he'll look to show that it's not a requirement as he tries to track down major No. 4.

Move aside, Steph Curry.

After the two-time NBA champ exceeded expectations with his appearance at the Tour's Ellie Mae Classic in August, now it's country superstar Jake Owen's turn to try his hand against the world's best.

Owen is an avid golfer and regular partner with Spieth at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he'll play in his hometown at the Nashville Golf Open in May. His 3 handicap is pretty stout compared to most amateurs, but it's also a far cry from the 0.8 Curry currently posts.

Owen is almost certain to miss the cut, and likely won't be as competitive as Curry was with rounds of 74-74. But before the "he's stealing a start" crowd gets riled up, remember that both Curry and Owen accepted unrestricted sponsor invites. Even two rounds in the 80s will bring attention and media to a circuit that often struggles to gain traction, and that's never a bad thing.

This week's award winners ... 

Officially Expecting: Gerina Piller. The former Olympian and Solheim Cup hero announced that she'll miss the start of the 2018 LPGA season because she is pregnant with her first child, due in May.

Still in Shock: Cameron Davis, who appeared beside himself after hanging on to a one-shot win at the Australian Open. The win vaulted Davis - who had won at Royal Sydney as an amateur only two years prior - from No. 1494 to No. 229 in the world rankings.

Better Late Than Never: Wade Ormsby. The 34-year-old Aussie finally broke through at the UBS Hong Kong Open, holding off a group that included Rafael Cabrera-Bello for his first European Tour win in 264 career starts. To the resilient go the spoils.

On the Mend: Davis Love III, who is back to rehab following hip replacement surgery. The 53-year-old has targeted the Florida swing in March for his return to the PGA Tour.

Ko 2.0: Jin Young Ko, no relation to Lydia, who announced her intentions to join the LPGA tour before guiding a group of Korean LPGA Tour stars to victory in a team event against LPGA pros from South Korea.

Packing for Scotland: Former PGA Tour winners Matt Jones and Jonas Blixt, who along with Davis, qualified for The Open at Carnoustie based on their finishes at the Australian Open in the first of 15 Open Qualifying Series events.

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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.”