Tiger one day away from return, but answers will wait

By Will GrayNovember 30, 2016, 8:47 pm

NASSAU, Bahamas – The stage has been cleared.

The conjecture and the false starts are a thing of the past. Finally, after nearly 16 arduous months of waiting, Tiger Woods is ready to once again walk inside the ropes on the PGA Tour.

It’s a statement that Tour pros as well as golf fans at large have embraced this week. Woods, approaching his 41st birthday, is a welcome sight on tournament grounds regardless of the state of his game.

“He’s still just turning every head when he walks into the dining area,” Jordan Spieth said. “Or if he’s on the driving range, I mean everybody’s looking up to see him hit some shots.”

Yes, Woods is back. But the state of his game is perhaps the most coveted information in the sport. The ensuing four days will provide a glimpse, even if they won’t tell the full story.

Questions that once focused on his health, or even if he would return to competition, have now shifted to what version of Woods we will see in the debut of what he described Tuesday as “Phase 2” of his career.

“I felt good with pretty much everything,” Woods said Wednesday. “I was able to hit all the shots I needed to hit.”

Sure, some feedback will be gleaned. His swing will inevitably be dissected from all angles, and the short game that bogged him down so often last year will be on full display, for better or worse.

Hero World Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

And given such a small sample size, dangerous levels of extrapolation are sure to follow. Every made birdie will mean a 15th major is a fait accompli; every flubbed chip will lead others to question if his career has run its course.

It’s hardly a fair scenario, but such is life when you’re Tiger Woods.

Woods was a marvel of control when at his peak, and he has flexed that trait once again in making his long-anticipated return. The Hero World Challenge is as close to golf in a bubble as you can get on Tour – an isolated location with few media and even fewer fans.

It’s a tournament he runs on a course he knows well, and it’s a limited field in which he feels comfortable and doesn’t have to sweat a cut. None of those factors were in play last month at the Safeway Open, from which he withdrew.

But despite the hopes of even the most ardent fans or naysayers, 72 holes in a controlled environment won’t tell the whole tale. Instead, it’s the first step in a journey that will likely feature a few more.

“I think he’s accepted the fact that he’ll be patient,” Spieth said. “But like anybody that takes off a year and a half for injury or whatever other reasons, you don’t just come back and expect anything. It’s going to take a little time.”

Prognostications about next year’s schedule, or focus over Woods’ future fate in majors, will have to wait. Woods’ latest and most-discussed comeback will likely be an incremental build, one that could take still more time to fully develop.

Former New York Yankee star Derek Jeter played in the pro-am group behind Woods on Wednesday, and the two have shared several casual rounds together. Like Woods, Jeter missed a long stretch of playing time in 2012-13 that led to a few stops and starts along the comeback trail.

“I can’t speak on him and what he’s feeling, but for me,” Jeter said, “you come back and you’re told you’re healthy, but you’ve still got to get out there and experience different things before you’re really sure. So yeah, there’s some uncertainty there, at least there was for me.”

For his part, Woods has checked off all the boxes. For once in his career he has taken the deliberate path to injury recovery, and he now claims a full bill of health. He has bided his time, surveying his options for a possible return, and chosen carefully.

He even put on a strong display during the pro-am, with a pair of par-5 eagles to go along with a handful of up-and-downs that belied a man with any short-game woes.

“I’ll be focused,” Woods said of Thursday’s opening round. “I’ll be ready.”

Fifteen months is a long time to wait on a legend. But now he’ll start to provide some answers, even if the biggest riddles can’t be solved by a few rounds in the Bahamas. 

Getty Images

Korda happy to finally be free of jaw pain

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 2:43 am

PHOENIX – Jessica Korda isn’t as surprised as everyone else that she is playing so well, so quickly, upon her return from a complex and painful offseason surgery.

She is inspired finally getting to play without recurring headaches.

“I’d been in pain for three years,” she said after posting a 4-under-par 68 Friday to move two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Korda had her upper jaw broken in three places and her low jaw broken in two places in December in a procedure that fixed the alignment of her jaw.

Korda, 25, said the headaches caused by her overbite even affected her personality.

“Affects your moods,” Korda said. “I think I was pretty snappy back then as well.”

She was pretty pleased Friday to give herself a weekend chance at her sixth LPGA title, her second in her last three starts. She won the Honda LPGA Thailand three weeks ago in her first start after returning from surgery.

“I'm much happier now,” Korda said. “Much calmer.”

Even if she still can’t eat the things she would really like to eat. She’s still recuperating. She said the lower part of her face remains numb, and it’s painful to chew crunchy things.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“Chips are totally out of question,” Korda said.

She can eat most things she likes, but she has to cut them into tiny pieces. She can’t wait to be able to eat a steak.

“They broke my palate, so I can't feel anything, even heat,” Korda said. “So that's a bit difficult, because I can't feel any heat on my lip or palate. I don't know how hot things are going in until they hit my throat.”

Korda has 27 screws in her skull holding the realignment together. She needed her family to feed her, bathe her and dress her while she recovered. The procedure changed the way she looks.

While Korda’s ordeal and all that went into her recovery has helped fans relate to her, she said it’s the desire to move on that motivates her.

“Because I was so drugged up, I don't remember a lot of it,” Korda said. “I try to forget a lot of it. I don't think of it like I went through a lot. I just think of it as I'm pain-free. So, yeah, people are like, `Oh, you're so brave, you overcame this and that.’ For me, I'm just going forward.”

Getty Images

Finally adapted to short putter, Martin near lead

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 1:54 am

PHOENIX – Mo Martin loved her long putter.

In fact, she named her “Mona.”

For 10 years, Martin didn’t putt with anything else. She grew up with long putters, from the time she started playing when she was 5.

While Martin won the Ricoh Women’s British Open in 2014, about nine months after giving up Mona for a short putter, she said it’s taken until today to feel totally comfortable with one.

And that has her excited about this year.

Well, that and having a healthy back again.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“I've had a feeling that this year was going to be a good one,” Martin said. “My game is in a special place.”

Martin was beaming after a 6-under-par 66 Friday moved her two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Just a beautiful day,” Martin said. “I was able to play my game, make my putts.”

Martin hit all 14 fairways in the second round, hit 15 greens in regulation and took just 27 putts. After struggling with nagging back pain last year, she’s pain free again.

She’s happy to “just to get back to a place now where my ball striking is where it has been the last few years.”

Martin, by the way, says Mona remains preserved in a special place, “a shrine” in her home.

Getty Images

Clanton rides hole-out eagle to lead at Founders

By Associated PressMarch 17, 2018, 1:47 am

PHOENIX - Cydney Clanton holed out from the fairway for eagle on the par-4 13th and closed with a birdie Friday to take the second-round lead in the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Clanton shot a 5-under 67, playing the back nine at Desert Ridge in 5-under 31 to reach 9-under 135.

Clanton's wedge on the 13th flew into the cup on the first bounce. She also birdied the par-5 11th and 15th and the par-4 18th. The 28-year-old former Auburn player is winless on the LPGA.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Ariya Jutanugarn, Marina Alex, Karine Icher and Mariajo Uribe were a stroke back on a calmer day after wind made scoring more difficult Thursday.

Jessica Korda and Mo Martin were 7 under, and Michelle Wie topped the group at 6 under.

Getty Images

Ko's struggles continue with Founders MC

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 1:26 am

PHOENIX – Lydia Ko loves the Bank of Hope Founders Cup and its celebration of the game’s pioneers, and that made missing the cut Friday sting a little more.

With a 1-over-par 73 following Thursday’s 74, Ko missed the cut by four shots.

After tying for 10th at the HSBC Women’s World Championship in her last start, Ko looked to be turning a corner in her quest to find her best form again, but she heads to next week’s Kia Classic with more work to do.

“I just have to stay patient,” Ko said. “I just have to keep my head high.”

It was just the fifth missed cut in Ko’s 120 career LPGA starts, but her fourth in her last 26 starts.

Ko’s ball striking has been erratic this year, but her putting has been carrying her. She said her putting let her down Friday.

“It seemed like I couldn’t hole a single putt,” she said. “When I missed greens, I just wasn’t getting up and down. When I got a birdie opportunity, I wasn’t able to hole it.”

Ko came to Phoenix ranked 112th in driving distance, 121st in driving accuracy and 83rd in greens in regulation. She was sixth in putting average.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Cristie Kerr saw the struggle playing two rounds with Ko.

“Her game’s not in good shape,” Kerr said. “She seemed a little lost.”

Ko, 20, made those sweeping changes last year, starting 2017 with a new coach (Gary Gilchrist), a new caddie (Peter Godfrey) and new equipment (PXG). She made more changes at this year’s start, with another new coach (Ted Oh) and new caddie (Jonnie Scott).

Ko doesn’t have to look further than Michelle Wie to see how a player’s game can totally turn around.

“It always takes time to get used to things,” Ko said. “By the end of last year, I was playing solid. I’m hoping it won’t take as much time this year.”

Ko had Oh fly to Asia to work with her in her two starts before the Founders Cup, with their work showing up in her play at the HSBC in Singapore. She said she would be talking to Oh again before heading to the Kia Classic next week and then the ANA Inspiration. She has won both of those events and will be looking to pull some good vibes from that.

“This is my favorite stretch of events,” she said. “And I love the Founders Cup, how it celebrates all the generations that have walked through women’s golf. And I love the West Coast swing. Hopefully, I’ll make more putts next week.”

Ko, whose run of 85 consecutive weeks at Rolex world No. 1 ended last summer, slipped to No. 12 this week.