Woods' most potent weapon in comeback? His mind

By Will GrayDecember 3, 2016, 11:57 pm

NASSAU, Bahamas – Beyond the fist pumps and the club twirls, past the booming drives and approach shots that left you weak in the knees, Tiger Woods has always had one tool at his disposal that gave him a leg up over any field.

It wasn’t a swing technique, or even a physical advantage. Instead, it was something that Woods took only two seconds to identify Saturday when asked about the biggest strength of his game through three rounds at the Hero World Challenge.

“My mind,” he said. “Always has been.”

There are many adjectives to describe Woods’ prowess over the last two decades, but one that is perhaps underutilized is cerebral. Seemingly from youth, he has been a creature that wholly and willfully operated within his own sphere.

It was a tendency that took him to unprecedented heights, one that allowed him to crush competitors. More recently, though, it became counterproductive: Woods spent the last three years relying on his innate drive to power a body that simply couldn’t hold up.

But this time, as he continues to chart a course on his most important comeback, the space between his ears could hold the key to a potential return to glory.

For the third day in a row, Woods checked off several boxes that showed he is ready once again to compete against the game’s best. He opened with three straight birdies. He added a hole-out bunker shot that thrilled the handful of spectators who made the trek out to Albany Golf Club, and he rolled in putt after putt with the Scotty Cameron that may never again leave his clutches.

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Some of that regression can be chalked up to physical fatigue; some can be attributed to overall rust. But frankly, it doesn’t matter. No one, including Woods, is going to catch Hideki Matsuyama this week, and a third-place finish won’t be materially different for Woods than the 10th-place position he currently occupies.

What does matter, though, is how he feels. How he reacts. How he internalizes and assesses these first few competitive strokes that at one point seemed like they might never happen.

That’s where the mind kicks in, and that’s where Woods is showing that this time might be different.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t really have much [expectations] because I didn’t know,” Woods said. “I hadn’t played in a very long time and I didn’t know what it was going to feel like after each round.”

When was the last time you heard Woods approach anything – from a round of golf to a game of soccer in the backyard against his kids – without expectations?

Make no mistake, this is a different Tiger Woods than the man who limped off into the abyss at the 2015 Wyndham Championship. Woods spent his warm-up session cracking jokes with caddie Joe LaCava and John Wood, who loops for Matt Kuchar. He chatted throughout the round with Rickie Fowler, each needling the other at different points, and his mood barely dampened after he doubled No. 18 for the second time this week.

“I’m very pleased to be back and to be able to compete at this level again. It’s been a very, very difficult road,” he said. “You guys were all here last year and I did not feel very good. I was really, really struggling and I struggled for a very long time. Worked with my physios and had to be very patient and finally was able to start building, and here we are.”

Woods made his mark for years as being perhaps the fieriest competitor the game has ever known. But he appears finally ready to take a tactical approach to his return, building from one piece to the next.

It’s not a mission he can fulfill with any single result in the Bahamas, so why sweat a three-putt or a rinsed approach?

After his round, Woods went up into the television tower and a remarkable scene broke out that further shed light on his mindset. Woods sat with host Dan Hicks and analyst David Feherty and he, well, actually appeared to be having a good time. There were laughs, and jokes, and a few more laughs on top of that.

After living in isolation for 15 months, Woods is clearly relishing just being back. The sights, the sounds of competition – even one as unique as a 17-man event on an island – appear to have rejuvenated him.

“[LaCava] and I tried to simulate tournament golf, but there’s nothing quite the same as playing, and the waiting, and the grinding, and the wind, and getting the numbers right and camera phones going off and people moving, sounds,” he said. “These are all different things you can’t simulate at home.”

Some of Woods’ physical skills will return in time. Some, as he nears age 41, will never be seen again.

But the mind – that’s an unwavering mainstay. It’s an asset Woods has used to his advantage for years, and he seems eager to lean on it once again to fuel a comeback that still seems very much on track.


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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials contacted Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial.