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Woods making the difficult look easy

By Will GrayMarch 9, 2018, 8:51 pm

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The biggest sign of progress in Tiger Woods’ latest comeback effort may have been the normalcy of it all.

Starting his second round at the Valspar Championship when the air was crisp and the breeze barely above a flutter, Woods didn’t have a single standout shot that turned the tide. There wasn’t a near-ace like he had in his opening round, nor a cringe-worthy moment like his arm ricocheting off a neighboring tree.

This was simply a man in control of his game, going about his business. As playing partners Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson – two of the highest-ranked players in a record-setting field this week at Innisbrook Resort – flailed in frustration, Woods clinically dissected the Copperhead Course like he has so many tracks before.

Tee shots were properly positioned. Misses were manageable. Iron distances were dialed in. The short game, reliable as ever, stepped in when called upon.

It was a display of control and finesse, not brawn. And what made it all the more enthralling was just how easy he made it look.

“I felt like I was able to grind today out,” Woods said after a 3-under 68 gave him a brief share of the lead. “Today was a tough day, especially early on with it being so cold. I thought I was very patient in the way I hit the golf ball today, placed it away from a lot of the flags, and then when I had a few chances I took a run at them. I was able to convert.”

It’s the kind of tactical approach Woods flexed in his prime: minimize the errors, capitalize on the opportunities. Let the other players press and make mistakes. Wash, rinse, repeat.

“The margin is very small, so I enjoy that aspect where par is a reward,” Woods said. “I don’t feel like I’m behind if I make four pars in a row. You make a couple birdies here, you shoot up the board. I like that kind of golf. I like that kind of test.”

But until a few weeks ago, the general consensus was that that player now lived only on YouTube. When Woods missed the cut at the Genesis Open, the conversation was about whether his body could endure the physical toll of flying across the country and suiting up for another tournament at the Honda Classic the next week.

Full-field scores from the Valspar Championship

Valspar Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Woods speaks often about incremental improvements, and he made a big step with his 12th-place performance at PGA National. That was followed by his unexpected decision to add this event to his schedule, and suddenly after landing on the Valspar leaderboard it’s hard to even fathom some of the challenges and choices he was facing just a few short weeks ago.

“I felt like I was playing well at Honda, just a matter of cleaning up a few holes and a few shots here and there,” Woods said. “What I was doing, it worked. Little changes I made from L.A. worked and, you know, I’m especially feeling more comfortable this week than I was at the Honda with the changes I made.”

Were it not for a missed 5-footer on his final hole of the day, Woods would have turned in a blemish-free scorecard and entered the weekend riding a streak of 23 holes without a bogey. This despite swirling winds and firm conditions that sent Spieth, among others, heading for the exits after missing the cut.

Spieth’s last grouping with Woods in an official PGA Tour event came at the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, where Woods struggled mightily with his chipping and stumbled to a second-round 82. Having seen Woods at one of his low points, he had an appreciation for the standout performance he witnessed over the first two days.

“The roars are a little louder, and there’s certainly an energy about the gallery that you don’t have anywhere else,” Spieth said. “There certainly is a difference in the feelings and the sounds within the group.”

Whether Woods can sustain his newfound momentum remains to be seen. Inevitably, there will be unexpected challenges and compounded errors that will threaten to derail what is already a performance that exceeds expectations.

But projecting beyond this week, with the Masters looming on the horizon, the most encouraging aspect of Woods’ effort outside Tampa was just how ordinary he made it look.

As he continues to improve, the barometer for what constitutes a progress inevitably shifts. But if he’s able to carefully craft a game plan to take down an unfamiliar course – and if his fused back will allow him to execute that plan successfully, point by point – the rest of the Tour might soon be re-acquainted with a man they thought was long gone.

“I’m up there. I don’t think this will be leading, but at least I’m there with a chance going into the weekend,” Woods said. “Today was a good day.”

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Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders

By Randy SmithMarch 18, 2018, 2:45 am

PHOENIX – Brittany Lincicome is farther back than she wanted to be going into Sunday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she’s in a good place.

She’s keeping the momentum of her season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic victory going this year.

Her confidence is high.

“Last year, I won in the Bahamas, but then I didn't do anything after that,” Lincicome said. “I don't even know if I had a top 10 after my win in the Bahamas. Obviously, this year, I want to be more consistent.”

Lincicome followed up her victory in the Bahamas this year with a tie for seventh in her next start at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And now she’s right back on another leaderboard with the year’s first major championship just two weeks away. She is, by the way, a two-time winner at the ANA Inspiration.

Missy Pederson, Lincicome’s caddie, is helping her player keep that momentum going with more focus on honing in the scoring clubs.

“One of our major goals is being more consistent,” Pederson said. “She’s so talented, a once in a generation talent. I’m just trying to help out in how to best approach every golf course.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Pederson has helped Lincicome identify the clubs they’re likely to attack most with on the particular course they are playing that week, to spend more time working with those clubs in practice. It’s building confidence.

“I know the more greens we hit, and the more chances we give ourselves, the more our chances are to be in contention,” Pederson said. “Britt is not big into stats or details, so I have to figure out how to best consolidate that information, to get us exactly where we need to be.”

Lincicome’s growing comfort with clubs she can attack with is helping her confidence through a round.

“I’ve most noticed consistency in her mental game, being able to handle some of the hiccups that happen over the course of a round,” Pederson said. “Whereas before, something might get under her skin, where she might say, `That’s what always happens,’ now, it’s, `All right, I know I’m good enough to get this back.’ I try to get her in positions to hit the clubs we are really hitting well right now.”

That’s leading to a lot more birdies, fewer bogeys and more appearances on leaderboards in the start to this year.

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Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 2:09 am

PHOENIX – In the long shadows falling across Wildfire Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, Inbee Park conceded she was tempted to walk away from the game last year.

While healing a bad back, she was tempted to put her clubs away for good and look for a second chapter for her life.

But then . . .

“Looking at the girls playing on TV, you think you want to be out there” Park said. “Really, I couldn't make my mind up when I was taking that break, but as soon as I'm back here, I just feel like this is where I belong.”

In just her second start after seven months away from the LPGA, Park is playing like she never left.

She’s atop a leaderboard at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, looking like that’s exactly where she belongs.

With a 9-under-par 63 Saturday, Park seized the lead going into the final round.

At 14 under overall, she’s one shot ahead of Mariajo Uribe (67), two ahead of Ariya Jutanugarn (68) and three ahead of 54-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies (63) and Chella Choi (66).

Park’s back with a hot putter.

That’s not good news for the rest of the tour. Nobody can demoralize a field with a flat stick like Park. She’s one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, and on the front nine Saturday she looked as good as she ever has.

“The front nine was scary,” said her caddie, Brad Beecher, who was on Park’s bag for her long run at world No. 1, her run of three consecutive major championship victories in 2013 and her gold medal victory at the Olympics two years ago.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The front nine was great . . . like 2013,” Park said.

Park started her round on fire, going birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. She was 6 under through five holes. She holed a wedge from 98 yards at the third hole, making the turn having taken just 10 putts. Yeah, she said, she was thinking about shooting 59.

“But I'm still really happy with my round today,” she said.

Park isn’t getting ahead of herself, even with this lead. She said her game isn’t quite where she wants it with the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, just two weeks away, but a victory Sunday should go a long way toward getting her there.

Park is only 29. LPGA pros haven’t forgotten what it was like when she was dominating, when she won 14 times between 2013 and ’15.

They haven’t forgotten how she can come back from long layoffs with an uncanny ability to pick up right where she left off.

Park won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year in just her second start. She left the tour again in the summer with an aching back.

“I feel like Inbee could take off a whole year or two years and come back and win every week,” said Brittany Lincicome, who is four shots behind Park. “Her game is just so consistent. She doesn't do anything flashy, but her putting is flashy.

“She literally walks them in. It's incredible, like you know it's going in when she hits it. It's not the most orthodox looking stroke, but she can repeat it.”

Park may not play as full a schedule as she has in the past, Beecher said, but he believes she can thrive with limited starts.

“I think it helps her get that fight back, to get that hunger back,” Beecher said. “She knows she can play 15 events a year and still compete. There aren’t a lot of players who can do that.”

Park enjoyed her time away last year, and how it re-energized her.

“When I was taking the long break, I was just thinking, `I can do this life as well,’” Park said. “But I'm glad I came back out here. Obviously, days like today, that's the reason I'm playing golf.”

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Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:57 am

PHOENIX – Tiffany Joh was thrilled making a run into contention to win her first LPGA title Saturday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she comically cracked that her hole-in-one might have been ill-timed.

It came on St. Patrick’s Day.

“This is like the worst holiday to be making a hole-in-one on,” Joh said. “You'll go broke buying everyone green beers.”

Joh aced the fifth hole with a 5-iron from 166 yards on her way to an 8-under-par 64. It left her four shots behind the leader, Inbee Park (63).

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

One of the more colorful players on tour, Joh said she made the most of her hole-in-one celebration with playing partner Jane Park.

“First I ran and tackled Jane, then I high-fived like every single person walking to the green,” Joh said.

Joh may be the LPGA’s resident comedian, but she faced a serious challenge on tour last year.  Fourteen months ago, she had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. She won the LPGA’s Heather Farr Perseverance Award for the way she handled her comeback.

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Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:22 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies limped around Wildfire Golf Club Saturday with an ache radiating from her left Achilles up into her calf muscle at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Every step is just misery,” Davies said after. “It’s just getting older. Don’t get old.”

She’s 54, but she played the third round as if she were 32 again.

That’s how old she was when she was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year and won two major championships.

With every sweet swing Saturday, Davies peeled back the years, turning back the clock.

Rolling in a 6-foot birdie at the 17th, Davies moved into a tie for the lead with Inbee Park, a lead that wouldn’t last long with so many players still on the course when she finished. Still, with a 9-under-par 63, Davies moved into contention to try to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.

Davies has won 20 LPGA titles, 45 Ladies European Tour titles, but she hasn’t won an LPGA event in 17 years, since taking the Wegmans Rochester International.

Can she can surpass the mark Beth Daniel set winning at 46?

“I still think I can win,” Davies said. “This just backs that up for me. Other people, I don’t know, they’re always asking me now when I’m going to retire. I always say I’m still playing good golf, and now here’s the proof of it.”

Davies knows it will take a special day with the kind of final-round pressure building that she hasn’t experienced in awhile.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The pressure will be a lot more tomorrow,” she said. “We'll see, won’t sleep that well tonight. The good news is that I’ll probably be four or five behind by the end of the day, so the pressure won’t be there as much.”

Davies acknowledged confidence is harder to garner, as disappointments and missed cuts pile up, but she’s holding on to her belief she can still win.

“I said to my caddie, `Jeez, I haven't been on top of the leaderboard for a long time,’” Davies said. “That's nice, obviously, but you’ve got to stay there. That's the biggest challenge.”

About that aching left leg, Davies was asked if it could prevent her from challenging on Sunday.

“I’ll crawl around if I have to,” she said.

Saturday’s 63 was Davies’ lowest round in an LPGA event since she shot 63 at the Wendy’s Championship a dozen years ago.

While Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in ’01. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Davies said she still dreams about qualifying.

“You never know,” she said.