Woods Drawing Scrutiny
He teed it up in the Bay Hill Invitational with a chance to make history as the first player to win a tournament five straight times. By the end of the week, he had his worst finish in five years, a tie for 46th that left him 18 strokes behind.
It all led to another round of questions about his game.
What's wrong with Tiger?
'I just don't understand it,' Woods said Tuesday. 'That was the first time I finished out of the top 10 this year. Going into that week, no other player can say that. Every player has their hot streaks, their lulls. Last week was one of those times I didn't play well. That happens.'
Still, scrutiny on the world's No. 1 player picked up, probably because of what's on the horizon.
Coming off three straight rounds over par - the first time he has done that in a regular PGA Tour event - Woods leads a strong field at The Players Championship on a course that doesn't forgive even the slightest misses.
Two weeks later is the Masters, the major championship Woods has geared himself for since January.
His results suggest he will be the favorite this week, at Augusta National, everywhere he plays. Woods won the Match Play Championship, has three other top 10s and is fifth on the money list, despite playing only five times.
But Match Play is too fickle to gauge a game, and Woods had only one other good chance at winning this year.
Asked how he knows if he's peaking at the right time, Woods mentioned quality shots.
'When you make a golf swing, you don't feel like the ball was really there,' he said. 'And you look up, and it's right where it needs to be. That's a cool feeling. If you can do that more repeatedly heading into a major championship, you're looking pretty good.
'I'm starting to see some signs where that's coming back.'
Now would be a good place to start.
The Players Championship is widely regarded as the fifth major. Woods considers it the hardest tournament to win.
The 149-man field is among the strongest in golf, featuring 48 out of the top 50 in the world. The exceptions are U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, out with a wrist injury; and Rocco Mediate, who withdrew Tuesday with a bad back.
The Stadium Course on the TPC at Sawgrass simply won't allow players to get by without their best golf.
'You've really got to be very accurate off the tee, and your second shots are so important - same with Augusta,' Ernie Els said. 'If you have a good week, if you finish top 10, you can look at those players. They're going to have a good week at Augusta.
'If you're peaking, you're going to be well-prepared for Augusta.'
That's not always the case. Craig Perks won The Players Championship two years ago, then shot 81-71 at the Masters. Davis Love III won at Sawgrass last year, opened with a 77 at Augusta National and rallied to tie for 15th.
Woods is the only player to have won at Sawgrass and Augusta the same year.
But if he struggles this week, he probably will face even more questions about his game.
Part of that is due to his split from swing coach Butch Harmon a year ago. Dozens of players say privately that Woods needs to go back.
'Butch and I really didn't work a lot the last two or three years,' Woods said. 'Our biggest task was from '97 through '98, when I changed my swing. After that, it was basically kind of maintenance here and there. I've been doing that the last two years on my own.'
Even so, he is judged by a different standard than everyone else.
Woods was made aware of that last week when Vijay Singh and Els, the Nos. 2 and 3 players in the world, were never a factor at Bay Hill and escaped unnoticed.
Els missed the cut, ending his current streak at 30. Woods' record cut streak continues at 119.
'There wasn't any mention in the paper back home that Ernie missed the cut,' Woods said.
Els is trying to put that behind him, as well as what happened last year in The Players Championship.
The Big Easy won four times in the first two months, but injured his right wrist on a punching bag at home in London. He wound up having to pull out of The Players Championship.
This year, having won the Sony Open and the Heineken Classic at Royal Melbourne, Els skipped the Match Play Championship to cut down on his global travel and be fresh for this important stretch of golf.
Missing the cut was a wake-up call.
'I've got to get over it and get going this week,' he said. 'It's a new week for everybody.'
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McCarthy wins Web.com Tour Championship by 4
ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Denny McCarthy won the season-ending Web.com Tour Championship on Sunday to earn fully exempt PGA Tour status and a spot in the Players Championship.
McCarthy closed with a 6-under 65 for a four-stroke victory over Lucas Glover at Atlantic Beach Country Club. The 25-year-old former Virginia player earned $180,000 to top the 25 PGA Tour card-earners with $255,793 in the four-event Web.com Tour Finals.
''It's been quite a journey this year,'' McCarthy said. ''The PGA Tour was tough to start out the year. I stuck through it and got my game. I raised my level and have been playing some really good golf. Just feels incredible to finish off these Finals. So much work behind the scenes that nobody really sees.''
McCarthy finished at 23-under 261.
Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, closed with a 69. He made $108,000 to finish seventh with $125,212 in the series for the top 75 players from the Web.com regular-season money list, Nos. 126-200 in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings, and non-members with enough money to have placed in the top 200.
Jim Knous earned the 25th and final card from the four-event money list with $41,931, edging Justin Lower by $500. Knous made a 5-foot par save on the final hole for a 71 that left him tied for 57th. Lower missed an 8-footer for birdie, settling for a 69 and a tie for 21st.
''It was a brutal day emotionally,'' Knous said. ''I wasn't quite sure how much my performance would affect the overall outcome. It kind of just depended on what everybody else did. That's pretty terrifying. So I really just kind of did my best to stay calm and inside I was really freaking out and just super psyched that at the end of the day finished right there on No. 25.''
The top-25 finishers on the Web.com regular-season money list competed against each other for tour priority, with regular-season earnings counting in their totals. Sungjae Im topped the list to earn the No. 1 priority spot of the 50 total cards.
LaCava pushed Woods to work on bunker game
ATLANTA – Last week as Tiger Woods prepared to play the season finale at East Lake he sent a text message to his caddie Joey LaCava that simply asked, what do I need to do to get better?
Although when it comes to Woods his proficiency is always relative, but LaCava didn’t pull any punches, and as the duo completed the final round on Sunday at the Tour Championship with a bunker shot to 7 feet at the last the two traded knowing smiles.
“We had a talk last week about his bunker game and I said, ‘I’m glad you kept that bunker game stuff in mind,’” LaCava said. “I told him he was an average bunker player and he worked at it last week. There were only two bunker shots he didn’t get up-and-down, I don’t count the last one on 18. He recognized that after two days. He was like, ‘What do you know, I’m 100 percent from the bunkers and I’m in the lead after two days.”
For the week, Woods got up-and-down from East Lake’s bunkers seven out of nine times and cruised to a two-stroke victory for his first PGA Tour title since 2013. That’s a dramatic improvement over his season average of 49 percent (100th on Tour).
“His bunker game was very average coming into this week,” LaCava said. “I said you’ve got to work on your bunker game. If you had a decent bunker game like the Tiger of old you would have won [the BMW Championship].”
For Woods, is this only the beginning?
If this is Tiger Woods nine months into a comeback, wait until he actually shakes the rust off.
This was supposed to be the year he kicked the tires, to see how his body held up after all those knives digging into his back.
To see if a short game could truly be rescued from chunks and skulls.
To see if a 42-year-old living legend could outfox the kids.
On the final breath of the PGA Tour season, it was Tiger Woods who took ours away.
Playing alongside Rory McIlroy on Sunday at the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club – and one group behind the current World No. 1 and eventual FedEx Cup champion Justin Rose – Woods bludgeoned the field and kneecapped Father Time.
It was Dean Smith and the Four Corners offense. Emmitt Smith moving the chains. Nolan Ryan mowing them down.
And all of a sudden you wonder if Phil Mickelson wishes he’d made alternate Thanksgiving plans.
Even if everybody saw a win coming, it was something else to actually see it happen, to see the man in the red shirt reach another gear just one more time.
Win No. 80 reminded us, as Roger Maltbie once said of Woods when he came back from knee surgery in 2009: “A lot of people can play the fiddle. Only one guy is Itzhak Perlman.”
It wasn’t long ago that Tiger Woods seemed headed toward a disheartening final chapter as a broken man with a broken body.
He would host a couple of tournaments, do some great charity work, shout instructions into a walkie talkie at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and call it a career.
There would be no Nicklaus 1986 Masters moment, no Hogan Mystique at Merion.
He would leave competitive golf as perhaps both the greatest to ever play the game and its greatest cautionary tale.
Willie Mays with the New York Mets. Muhammad Ali taking punishment from Larry Holmes.
But then Brad Faxon and Rickie Fowler started whispering at the end of 2017 that Tiger was healthy and hitting the ball hard.
There was that hold-your-breath opening tee shot at the Hero World Challenge, a bullet that flew the left bunker and bounded into the fairway.
Rollercoaster rides at Tampa and Bay Hill, backward steps at Augusta and Shinnecock, forward leaps at The Open and the PGA.
He switched putters and driver shafts (and shirts, oh my!) and seemed at times tantalizingly close and maddeningly far.
That he even decided to try to put his body and game back together was one of the all-time Hail Marys in golf.
Why go through all of that rehab again?
Why go through the scrutiny of having your current game measured against your untouchable prime?
Because you’re Tiger Woods, is why, because you’ve had way more wonderful days on the golf course than poor ones, despite five winless years on the PGA Tour.
Suddenly, Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour wins is in jeopardy and Jack Nicklaus, holder of a record of 18 major championships, is at the very least paying attention.
Woods has put the golf world on notice.
It won’t be long until everyone starts thinking about the 2019 major schedule (and you’d better believe that Tiger already is).
The Masters, where he has four green jackets and seven other Top 5 finishes. The PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, where he won in 2002 by 3. The United States Open at Pebble Beach, where he won in 2000 by 15.
The Open at Royal Portrush, where his savvy and guile will be a strong 15th club.
But that’s a talk for a later date.
Tiger is clearly still getting his sea legs back.
Nonfactor McIlroy mum after lackluster 74
ATLANTA – Rory McIlroy didn’t have anything to say to the media after the final round of the Tour Championship, and that’s understandable.
McIlroy began the final round at East Lake three shots behind Tiger Woods. He finished six back.
McIlroy closed in 4-over 74 to tie for seventh place.
In their matchup, Woods birdied the first hole to go four in front, and when McIlroy bogeyed the par-4 fourth, he was five in arrears. McIlroy went on to make three more bogeys, one double bogey and just two birdies.
McIlroy was never a factor on Sunday and ultimately finished tied for 13th in the FedExCup standings.
The two rivals, Woods and McIlroy, shared plenty of conversations while walking down the fairways. On the 18th hole, Woods said McIlroy told him the scene was like the 1980 U.S. Open when people were shouting, “Jack’s back!”
“I said, ‘Yeah, I just don’t have the tight pants and the hair,’” Woods joked. “But it was all good.”
It’s now off to Paris for the upcoming Ryder Cup, where Woods and McIlroy will again be foes. It will be McIlroy’s fifth consecutive appearance in the biennial matches, while Woods is making his first since 2012.