Woods' absence looms large over Augusta National

By Associated PressApril 8, 2014, 10:05 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – One after another, some of the world's best players and favorites to win the Masters trudged up the hill on the opening hole to start their practice rounds.

Phil Mickelson. Rory McIlroy. Adam Scott.

It was typical of any Tuesday at Augusta National, except for the scoreboard to the right of where they were walking. The board has the names of all 97 players in the field, with blank boxes to put their scores when the tournament begins. On the far right side of the board is a list of this year's noncompeting invitees.

Tommy Aaron. Doug Ford. Tiger Woods.

''It's a weird feeling not having him here, isn't it?'' said Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion and the chief foil for Woods over the years. ''He's been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. It's awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon. I hope he's back for the other majors. As much as I want to win - and I know how great he is and tough to beat – it makes it special when he's in the field and you're able to win.''

Woods hasn't been the same all year, even before back surgery last week. He is missing the Masters for the first time. His presence looms as large as some of the Georgia pines lining the fairways, though it will be forgotten when the opening shot is in the air Thursday, and a green jacket is awarded Sunday.


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Even so, Woods brings a buzz to any tournament, even at Augusta National.

And this year, his absence has brought talk of the most wide-open Masters in nearly 20 years. Las Vegas has installed Scott and McIlroy as the betting favorites at 10-1, followed by Mickelson, Jason Day and Matt Kuchar at 12-1.

McIlroy had his own version of a betting sheet on the table where he sat during his interview – the tee times for the opening two rounds. Told that 97 players were in the field, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland figured 70 had a chance to win.

''There's a few past champions that play that might not be able to compete. There might be a few first-timers or a few amateurs that won't compete,'' McIlroy said. ''But then you've got the rest. I'm just looking down the list here. Stewart Cink. Tim Clark. Ian Woosnam - no.''

The room filled with laughter as McIlroy smiled and said, ''Sorry, Woosie,'' referring to the 56-year-old former champion.

''You've got a lot of guys that can win, a lot of guys that have won PGA Tour events,'' McIlroy said. ''OK, we're playing at Augusta. Because it's the Masters and because it's so big and so hyped up or whatever you want to say, you ought to remember that you're still playing against the same guys you play with week in and week out.

''I've beaten them before,'' he said. ''They've beaten me before.''

The PGA Tour is 21 tournaments into the season, and only one player (Zach Johnson) won while he was in the top 10 in the world. McIlroy and Scott each had comfortable leads going into the final round and lost to players outside the top 100.

''I think in the past, certainly that's been easy to go to events and look at a guy who is the guy to beat,'' Scott said, not naming Woods because he didn't need to. ''I think that scope has kind of broadened now. There's a lot of guys with the talent and the form that aren't necessarily standing out above the others. But on their week, they're going to be tough to beat.

''I'd like to think my name is one of those guys,'' Scott said. ''And I feel like I'm going to be one of the guys who has got a chance if I play well this week.''

Scott had one more occasion to wear his green jacket Tuesday night as host of the Champions Dinner. Then, he sets out in a bid to join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods as the only players to win back-to-back Masters.

For years, the Masters was seen as having the smallest group of contenders, and not just because it had the smallest field of the four majors. Augusta National is a puzzle that can take years to figure out. The roars that reverberate through the trees and from deep in Amen Corner on Sunday can be unsettling.

Scott won two years after he was a runner-up. Jason Day has completed two Masters and has yet to finish worse than third. As for Mickelson? There's no telling what he might accomplish next. Even though he has withdrawn from two tournaments with different injuries this year, Augusta invigorates the 43-year-old Mickelson.

All of them would love to be near the top of the leaderboard Sunday afternoon. By then, no one will be thinking about anything except a green jacket.

''No matter who is in contention or who is going to win this week, the Masters always provides a great finish,'' McIlroy said. ''Regardless of who is there.''

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.


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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”


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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.


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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”


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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”