Ryder Cup: Playing will outweigh bonding for U.S.

By Will GrayFebruary 26, 2016, 11:41 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Let the record show that 218 days before the first ball will be struck at Hazeltine, American players past, present and future formally met to begin solving the Ryder Cup riddle.

A group of 26 men descended upon Jack Nicklaus’ humble abode to share a meal, players swapped stories and the host regaled them with motivational tales from victories past.

It was the first step on a long path toward redemption for a U.S. squad that will be eager to erase nearly two decades of disappointment. It started the process of “changing the culture,” as players from various rungs of the PGA Tour ladder gathered to begin bonding as a team.

It was also a move that left several of Europe’s former stalwarts sporting a collection of wry grins.

Culture and camaraderie are all well and good, but the American response to the loss at Gleneagles – including the breaking of bread that occurred Thursday at Chez Nicklaus – largely constitutes an effort to quantify that which is unquantifiable.

Put it this way: Don Quixote had better luck chasing windmills than the Americans do with recreating the magical formula the Europeans have conjured over the past two decades.

A few of the Euros who have been instrumental in sending the Americans to their current 1-6 skid even seem keenly aware of the fact that these task force-driven efforts could amount to paralysis by analysis.

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“I think at the end of the day, some of this golf and these results are circumstantial,” said Padraig Harrington, a veteran of five Ryder Cups. “We’re having a good run, the U.S. aren’t, everybody’s trying to find an answer. I don’t think it’s as measured as you’d think it would be.”

It’s a long way from Palm Beach Gardens to Chaska, Minn., and there is plenty of golf to be played before teams are even finalized. Based on the simple rules of math, nearly half of those in attendance for the first team-building exercise will play no role in American success or failure seven months from now.

And while the powers-that-be hope that dinners and fishing trips initiate the creation of a more cohesive unit, it’s unlikely that any team members will think back to Thursday’s meal while grinding over a critical up-and-down at Hazeltine.

“There’s so little influence that the captain can have on the team, I think,” Graeme McDowell said. “Apart from creating a good atmosphere in the team room and on the week, it comes down to holing shots and holing putts. You look at these last four Ryder Cups, how little there is when it comes down to a Sunday afternoon. It’s putts holed and putts not holed.”

Remember, after all, that it took what McDowell again termed a “miracle” for the Europeans to defeat Love’s squad four years ago at Medinah. The margin between the two teams has been measured recently not in miles, but in inches.

Yet here the Americans toil, attempting to reinvent the wheel while the Europeans sit back and watch them try to hit a moving target.

“I don’t know, we’ll see. If it works, it’s great. If it doesn’t then, you know, they will try something else,” Sergio Garcia said with a smile. “We’ll see if it pays off or not in September.”

The European Tour has long been viewed as the gold standard of team-building, a circuit whose unique venues and travel demands force players to forge strong bonds before the Ryder Cup is even on the horizon.

They hang out more often, they share meals more often, they travel together more often. By the time the biennial matches arrive, a captain’s work has largely been done for him by virtue of the path his players traveled together.

While that theory may be rooted in truth, Harrington focused more on his continent’s ability to retain a chip on its collective shoulder even while pulling off victory after victory.

“No matter what you say, we need it more than the U.S.,” Harrington said. “Maybe now the U.S. needs it a lot as well, but for the last number of years, the last 20 years, we needed to win the Ryder Cup to justify our status. We’re the ‘country cousins’ and we want to prove ourselves.”

If nothing else, the recent American efforts indicate a level of investment in the event – but even that, according to Harrington, shows they’re only just beginning to catch up to their competition.

“The greatest achievement by the European team over the years is we have made the U.S. guys care,” he said, “and they really care.”

As the American team psyche begins its latest overhaul, the Europeans remain a united front. What’s more, these highly publicized meetings and dinners allow the defending champs to cling to the role of humble underdogs despite their recent run of success. 

“You only have to look at the leaderboards to see who the favorites are for this year,” McDowell said. “They’ve got an incredible team, when you look at Rickie [Fowler] and Jordan [Spieth] and Brooks Koepka and all of these guys that are playing as well as they’re playing.

“Yeah, we’re going to go in there as underdogs, just the way we like it,” he added. “We like the underdog tagline. It’s worked well in the past for us.”

Should the Americans leave Minnesota with the Ryder Cup, some may point back to this week as a turning point – a collective shift of a mindset that had largely been mired in losing since the turn of the century.

More than likely, though, it will be much ado about nothing. The trophy will be won by making shots in October, not by sharing a meal in February. The game’s most fundamental, quantifiable metric  – the scorecard – will be the final arbiter.

The Europeans know this as well as anyone, but they seem more than content to let the Americans keep chasing windmills all summer long.

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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.”