Road to the Top Always Goes Through Woods
Phil Mickelson had a two-shot lead with three holes to play at the U.S. Open. He looked like a lock to win his third straight major and head to Hoylake for a shot at his own Grand Slam, and a spot in history that was supposed to be the private domain of Tiger Woods.
Four days on the crispy, brown links of Royal Liverpool changed everything.
The cheers Mickelson heard as he finished up the British Open on Sunday were coming from behind the 18th green, where Woods had a one-shot lead and was just getting started. Woods then matched the best round of the day (67) while playing in the final group and won by two shots for his 11th career major.
Woods now has won three of the last seven majors, slightly better than the 3-of-9 mark Mickelson brought to Winged Foot.
Mickelson might never get another chance like the one he had at the U.S. Open, making double bogey on the 18th hole to lose by one shot. Woods winning the next major was almost like slamming shut a door that was halfway open.
The points separating Woods (No. 1) and Mickelson (No. 2) in the world ranking are equal to the points that separate Mickelson and Brett Rumford at No. 126. The actual gap isn't that wide, but considering how they finished off the last two majors, it might seem that way.
Heading to Medinah next month for the PGA Championship, this is how the landscape looks now.
Mickelson had been the best player through six months of the season, but now it's a toss-up.
He won by 13 shots at the BellSouth Classic and followed that with his second victory in the Masters and should have won the U.S. Open.
Woods, however, leads the PGA Tour in victories. Along with his silver claret jug, he won the Buick Invitational in a playoff and the Ford Championship at Doral in a shootout.
Not to be forgotten is Geoff Ogilvy. Along with winning the U.S. Open after Mickelson's collapse, the 29-year-old Australian was the comeback kid at the Accenture Match Play Championship, surviving four matches that went extra holes.
Woods might have the edge right now because his victory at Royal Liverpool put him atop the PGA Tour money list for the first time this year at just over $4.2 million, even though he has played only 10 tournaments.
The money title is significant because it's something Mickelson has never won. He also has never been voted player of the year.
Barring a victory at Medinah next month, Mickelson will not be allowed to take time off over the last month of the season -- including the Tour Championship -- if he wants to win those awards.
'We have one more major coming up, and I really want to be prepared for that,' Mickelson said.
Still, the message that came out of Hoylake was that all roads ultimately have to go through Woods.
Just as glaring as the absence of Mickelson among the leaders at the British Open was the presence of Sergio Garcia, playing in the final group with Woods while dressed in an outfit that some would say was the color of a lemon.
Garcia was outclassed from the start. With shorter irons in his hand, he couldn't get the ball closer to the hole than Woods. And his putting is so poor, some wonder whether he is battling the yips at age 26. He looked closer to Woods at age 19 when he chased after him at Medinah in the '99 PGA Championship than he did on Sunday.
Ernie Els had his chances, too.
He held his own playing with Woods in the final group Saturday, when both shot 71. But it was an ideal situation in the final round when Els played in the second-to-last group, and put pressure on Woods with no mistakes and a two-putt birdie on No. 5 to tie for the lead.
But the Big Easy blinked, and he had to settle for his best finish in a major in two years.
Els has three majors and is among the few players in their prime to have been No. 1 in the world. But one can only wonder how many more majors he would have won without Woods in the picture.
'Competing against a guy like Tiger for our generation of players is really tough,' Els said. 'He has really found a way to win majors. For me, I can do a couple of things better under pressure, so I'm going to be working on that for the next time I play a major.'
Vijay Singh sustained his battle with Woods longer than anyone. He rose to No. 1 in the world in 2004 with nine victories, beating Woods head-to-head and staying at the top for six months. That's longer than anyone else has been No. 1 since Woods turned pro.
But he missed the cut at Royal Liverpool, his first weekend off at a major in four years.
It was a strong leaderboard going into the last day at the British Open -- Woods by one over Garcia, Els and DiMarco, all of whom Woods has beaten while paired together in the final group of a major.
DiMarco must wonder what it takes to win a major. He shot 68 in the final round, didn't make a bogey over the final 17 holes, and still was reduced to a footnote after finishing two shots behind.
'He's a hard guy to catch,' DiMarco said. 'He's got an uncanny ability, when somebody gets close to him, to turn it up to another level.'
And until that changes, Woods will be in the driver's seat.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Goal for new world No. 1 Koepka: Stay healthy
Last season Brooks Koepka bagged a pair of majors en route to the PGA Tour's Player of the Year award. He started the new wraparound season with an emphatic win at the CJ Cup to reach world No. 1 for the first time.
But amid the best form of his career, Koepka has a simple goal in mind as he gets ready to turn his attention to the new year.
"Stay healthy," Koepka told reporters. "That's been the big thing. I need to be healthy to be able to play all these events, play all the majors."
Koepka's breakthrough year comes despite the fact that he missed four months in the spring, including the Masters, while recovering from a wrist injury. He hit the ground running once he returned, with strong finishes at TPC Sawgrass and Colonial preceding wins at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.
Now Koepka has added a third trophy after cruising to a four-shot win in South Korea on Sunday that allowed him to move past Dustin Johnson at world No. 1.
"I'm 1-for-1 this year, which is nice," Koepka joked about his undefeated record in the new wraparound season.
Koepka will be in the field next week in China for the WGC-HSBC Champions before putting the clubs on the shelf. With Justin Thomas paving the way by making the goal-setting process more public in recent years, Koepka explained that even after summiting the world rankings he plans to wait until 2019 to adjust his expectations for himself.
"I keep the same goals through the calendar year," Koepka said. "On Jan. 1 I go to the beach in the morning and go write down my goals and figure them out for the calendar year, but I just need to finish this year off. I've got next week and I would like to, coming out the first week as No. 1, I'd like to play well."
Birdie binge for Woodland comes up short at CJ Cup
Gary Woodland mounted an impressive rally at the CJ Cup, but in the end even 11 birdies weren't enough to catch Brooks Koepka.
Woodland started the final round in South Korea five shots behind the new world No. 1, but he made the biggest move of the day amid chilly conditions on Jeju Island. With six birdies over his first nine holes, including four in a row on Nos. 6-9, he briefly caught Koepka at the top of the leaderboard.
But Woodland bogeyed No. 10, and even with five more birdies coming home to finish a 9-under 63 he still finished alone in second, four shots behind Koepka who closed with a bogey-free 29 to put the trophy out of reach.
"Yesterday I didn't get any putts to go in, and today I saw a lot of putts go in," Woodland told reporters. "Brooks with the lead, not much fazes him. So you knew you had to make a lot of birdies, and I made a lot today. But I was just too far behind."
It's the second straight strong performance from Woodland to start the new wraparound season, as he tied for fifth at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia after holding a share of the 54-hole lead. A closing 63 would have gone a long way last week, but he was still pleased to be able to make Koepka sweat a little on a day when even the bad holes resulted from good shots.
"I made two bogeys on the back and I said, 'Be right' on both shots," Woodland said. "I was just maybe a little too amped up, a little excited. I hit them both perfect. All in all, I would have liked for a couple more putts to go in yesterday and been a little closer going into today."
Kang (69) wins Buick LPGA Shanghai by two
SHANGHAI - Danielle Kang shot a 3-under 69 on Sunday to win the LPGA Shanghai by two strokes for her second career title.
Kang, who started the final round one stroke off the lead, offset a lone bogey on the par-5 fourth hole with four birdies after the turn to finish at 13-under 275 and hold off a late charge by Lydia Ko, who had the day's lowest score of 66.
''I hope I win more,'' Kang said. ''I did the best I can. I'm going to keep working hard and keep giving myself chances and keep putting myself in contention. I'll win more. I'll play better.''
Ko, who had seven birdies and a lone bogey, tied for second at 11 under with a group of seven players that included Brittany Altomare (71), Ariya Jutanugarn (71) and overnight co-leader Sei Young Kim (72).
Carlota Ciganda, who also held a share of the lead after the third round, shot a 73 to fall into a tie for ninth with Bronte Law and local favorite Lu Liu.
Paula Creamer carded three birdies against a pair of bogeys for a 71 to finish in sole possession of 12th place.
The tournament is the second of five being played in South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan in the LPGA's annual Asian swing.
New world No. 1 Koepka already wants more
If there is a knock on Brooks Koepka, it’s that he’s a little too cool.
Gary Woodland, who threw 11 birdies at Koepka on Sunday and still finished four shots back, inadvertently captured that exact sentiment after Saturday's third round.
“You know," he said, "Brooks doesn't seem like he cares too much."
In context, Woodland meant that there was little anyone in the field could do to rattle the 54-hole leader. (He proved himself right, by the way.)
And out of context, the comment speaks to the general narrative surrounding Koepka. That he’s just detached enough for fans to have trouble attaching themselves to him. That he’s just a jock here to cash checks and collect trophies, to kick ass and chew bubblegum.
But for a few moments Sunday in South Korea, it became clear that Brooks Koepka does care. Crouched on the 72nd green with some time to stop and think as Ian Poulter lagged a bit behind, Koepka finally let a moment get to him. Cameras caught the three-time major champion appearing unusually emotional.
Of course, less than a minute later, those same cameras caught him yawning. The contrast was almost too perfect. It was as if he knew he had just been found out and needed to snap back into character – which he did.
He promptly poured in an eagle putt to cap off a final-round 64, to win the CJ Cup by four, and to ascend to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time in his career.
“To be world No. 1 is something I dreamed of as a kid,” Koepka said on the 18th green, moments after closing out his fifth PGA Tour victory and third this year. “I don't think this one's going to sink in.”
What is beginning to sink in is that Koepka now unequivocally belongs in the conversation, the one golf fans and analysts have been having over and over since Tiger Woods fell from golf's greatest heights.
Who’s the best at their best?
In the two years between his first PGA Tour win and his first U.S. Open victory, Koepka was touted as having the kind of talent to compete with the game's elites. It took a little while for him to get here, but Koepka has taken over as the latest player to look like he’ll never lose again. Just as it was for Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas before him, this is Koepka's moment. This is his run of dominance.
It’s a run that will have to end at some point. Every one of the guys just mentioned did cool off eventually. Koepka will, too. Maybe it will be fatigue, maybe it will be injury, and maybe it’ll just be golf. This talent pool is simply too deep for anyone to remain on top for too long.
But what Koepka has done this year – in defending his U.S. Open title, in staring down Tiger at the PGA, in claiming the Player of the Year Award, in ascending to the top of the world rankings – is put his name at the forefront of the conversation. If he was unappreciated at times before, those days are behind him. He's already accomplished too much, proven himself too good to be overlooked any longer.
And he’s far from done.
“For me, I just need to keep winning,” the new world No. 1 said Sunday. “I feel like to win a few more regular Tour events and then keep adding majors. I feel like my game's set up for that. I've gotten so much confidence off winning those majors where, it's incredible, every time I tee it up, I feel like I really have a good chance to win whether I have my A-game or not. It's something I'm so excited [about] right now, you have no idea. I just can't wait to go play again.”