Woods regains form in opening 66 at The Greenbrier

By Will GrayJuly 2, 2015, 8:32 pm

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – The look on his face was familiar. So, too, was the saunter from fairway to green, and the cheers that echoed across the misty expanse of The Greenbrier Classic.

Tiger Woods was in control of his golf ball – at least for one day.

Woods seemed to expend very little effort during his 4-under 66 on the Old White TPC, a stark contrast to his last three starts that have seen him either sweating cut lines or rocketing toward the bottom of the standings.

There he stood, splitting fairways with his driver and sending approach after approach on a rope toward the pin. As putts began to drop, the sentiment among the ever-growing gallery seemed to vacillate between “Who is this guy?” and “Where has he been hiding all these months?”

When Woods announced his trip to the Mountain State earlier this year, he likely didn’t anticipate the pivotal role the event now plays in his season. This was supposed to be the bonus start, a rare trek to a relatively unfamiliar venue to pile up the competitive reps that eluded him last year.

But following his startling 85 at the Memorial and subsequent bottoming out at the U.S. Open, this tournament became a life raft floating in an expanse of dark ocean. Here was a chance for Woods to lick his wounds, to rack up a few birdies and conjure some much-needed confidence before heading to St. Andrews.

Highlights from Woods' opening-round 66

With his lowest round in more than a year, Woods certainly took a step in the right direction.

Granted, one round at The Greenbrier does not absolve a season’s worth of blunders for Woods. Not even a 66, not after weeks and weeks of frustration, disappointment and rationalization.

But the game that has so humbled him during the first half of the year once again appeared easy. The smooth swing and consistent results that he showed in Wednesday’s pro-am finally showed up when the scores started to count.

This was a seismic shift from his most recent displays, even if Woods insists the product was never as troubling as the results.

“I knew I made that pattern shift at Memorial, and I wasn’t that far off, even though my scores don’t indicate it,” Woods said. “My swings don’t indicate it, but my feels were telling me that I wasn’t that far off. I was proving it to myself time and time again away from a tournament site and on the range, but my feel in my hands and body weren’t far off. It was just a matter of just getting into a little bit of a rhythm and the flow of it, and I found that.”

Buzzwords aside, the value of Woods’ opener was clear.

This was his lowest round since the 2014 WGC-Cadillac Championship, and his lowest opening round since the 2013 BMW Championship. His seven birdies were only one fewer than he compiled across 36 holes here in 2012, when he showed up at The Greenbrier with his game in much better shape but still missed the cut.

Woods found 15 of 18 greens in regulation, and his closing birdie brought him to 4 under – a cumulative score he hadn’t seen in competition since leaving Augusta National in April.

Woods played the opening round alongside friend Steve Stricker and David Lingmerth, who knows a little bit about breaking out of a slump at a moment’s notice. Lingmerth missed four of five cuts before his breakthrough win at the Memorial last month, and the Swede wasn’t shocked to see Woods’ sudden return to form.

“It wasn’t a surprise. He’s Tiger Woods,” Lingmerth said. “Tiger has been through some struggles, but he can turn it around on any given week.”

There were, of course, some costly miscues. Woods blocked his drive into a hazard on No. 17, then made what he described as a “stupid” double bogey on No. 6 following a series of short game errors.

It was following that hole, after he pushed a 3-wood on No. 7 for his third straight missed fairway, that there was a moment to consider if the round could still unravel. That a morning’s worth of progress might be wiped out by a flurry of miscues just before the closing bell.

Rather than let the round turn into a mountain of what-ifs, Woods steeled his nerves and got things back on track with his very next swing.

“I was telling (caddie) Joey (LaCava) that I felt like I was playing so well,” Woods said. “I’m not going to lose this round. I’m playing too well to let it go awry. I’m hitting the ball too well, I’m putting too well.”

And just like that, Woods seemingly began to will his ball into position as he has done so many times before. An expertly-carved approach from the rough on No. 7 barely trickled over a ridge bisecting the green and gently rolled to within 3 feet of the hole.

His birdie putt on No. 8 hung on the lip for an instant, just long enough for Woods to add a little body English and an extra fist pump when it curled in and finally dropped. His final putt on No. 9 was never in doubt, but it did supply Woods with what has lately been a rare commodity – momentum.

“Felt like if we could get it back to 3 (under) would be great,” he said. “I happened to pull off a hat trick coming in.”

Whether this sparks a turnaround or simply gets washed away in a sea of patterns, shifts and feels remains to be seen. But at least for one morning in between the mountains, Tiger Woods started to play like Tiger Woods again.

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.

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One & Done: 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 5:55 pm

Beginning in 2018, Golf Channel is offering a "One & Done" fantasy game alternative. Choose a golfer and add the salary they earn at the event to your season-long total - but know that once chosen, a player cannot be used again for the rest of the year.

Log on to www.playfantasygolf.com to start your own league and make picks for this week's event.

Here are some players to consider for One & Done picks this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, where Hudson Swafford returns as the defending champion:

Zach Johnson. The two-time major champ has missed the cut here three years in a row. So why include him in One & Done consideration? Because the three years before that (2012-14) included three top-25s highlighted by a third-place finish, and his T-14 at the Sony Open last week was his fifth straight top-25 dating back to September.

Bud Cauley. Cauley has yet to win on Tour, but that could very well change this year - even this week. Cauley ended up only two shots behind Swafford last year and tied for 14th the year prior, as four of his five career appearances have netted at least a top-40 finish. He opened the new season with a T-7 in Napa and closed out the fall with a T-8 at Sea Island.

Adam Hadwin. Swafford left last year with the trophy, but it looked for much of the weekend like it would be Hadwin's tournament as he finished second despite shooting a 59 in the third round. Hadwin was also T-6 at this event in 2016 and now with a win under his belt last March he returns with some unfinished business.

Charles Howell III. If you didn't use him last week at the Sony Open, this could be another good spot for the veteran who has four top-15 finishes over the last seven years at this event, highlighted by a playoff loss in 2013. His T-32 finish last week in Honolulu, while not spectacular, did include four sub-70 scores.

David Lingmerth. Lingmerth was in that 2013 playoff with Howell (eventually won by Brian Gay), and he also lost here in overtimei to Jason Dufner in 2016. The Swede also cracked the top 25 here in 2015 and is making his first start since his wife, Megan, gave birth to the couple's first child in December. Beware the sleep-deprived golfer.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.