Tiger's 40s full of questions and uncertainty

By Damon HackDecember 30, 2015, 1:00 pm

His 40s were always going to be a little complicated. 

For so long Tiger Woods seemed destined to arrive at his milestone birthday with more than 20 major championships and chasing 100 PGA Tour wins, and the biggest question would have been, how will he stay motivated in a record book of one?

That was his trajectory when he gutted his way to a 14th major on a postcard pretty Monday at Torrey Pines in 2008, back when Tiger was still picking off a major a season, back when his golden years looked like they would be one long standing ovation, a whistle-stop tour through the schedule. 

Maybe he'd get a surfboard in San Diego. Jack might gift him with a lifetime supply of Memorial milkshakes. Arnie? He'd just bust Tiger's chops with a rocking chair at Bay Hill.

You could easily picture it because that's where this story was going – until Thanksgiving 2009 changed everything, and the greatest player of his generation became fodder for the New York Post. 

Many observers thought he would never recover from that dark episode, but he emerged from the bottom rung of tabloid hell to win three times in 2012, five times in 2013 and reclaim the world No. 1 ranking with a third swing coach. When he won the ’13 Players by carving shots through Pete Dye's labyrinth, he spiked the football in the face of his doubters, and it all felt so right. 

"I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done," Woods said in that post-victory press conference. "But I'm not."

Could major No. 15 have been that far behind?

Instead, we were given the vision of Woods crumbling to his knees at that year's Barclays, followed by two more years of fits and starts, three back surgeries, and an unspecified number of skulled chips. Then came his unexpected pronouncements at his Hero World Challenge earlier this month that he had no timetable for a return to the PGA Tour and that anything accomplished in golf henceforth would be “gravy.”

Those were the sound bites played over and over, plus nuggets from a revealing Q & A in Time Magazine that showed Tiger in a way few had ever seen.

"He's matured from a 20-year-old that was thrown into the spotlight into a 40-year-old who's learned from the good, the bad and the ugly – all of it," says his long-time friend, John Cook. "He's looking at the big picture now. 'What are the next 10 years of my life going to look like?'"

We thought we had a pretty good idea. Tiger would put miles between himself and Jack, joust with this young wave of players who grew up in his image, and ride off into a Scottish sunset, just like the greats before him.

What now? Doubt, is what. With Tiger, 40 isn't the new 30. It's just 40, or maybe older. It's surgically repaired. It's nearly eight years removed from a major and six from scandal. 

With Tiger, 40 is anybody's guess.

"At 38, 39, 40, Tiger Woods very quickly became the oldest 38-, 39-, 40-year-old in the history of golf," says Brandel Chamblee, who nevertheless calls Tiger the greatest golfer to ever play. "You cannot name me another player in the history of the game that has sustained the injuries Tiger Woods has sustained. Then you add the cost of the technical change, the changes to his swing. And when you throw into the mix that he completely lost his short game, it is the trifecta, the perfect storm."

But what about 59-year-old Tom Watson, a survivor of the putting yips, nearly winning the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry? Or 54-year-old Greg Norman, star crossed in the majors, taking a lead into Sunday at Royal Birkdale the previous summer? Or 51-year-old Davis Love III winning at Greensboro last season, just 2 1/2 years after neck surgery? Can't Tiger – more accomplished than all three – find his way back to winning? Can't he have his Jack-in-1986-Masters moment, or even a few of them?

"If he comes back – and I hope he does because there is nothing like watching Tiger Woods play golf – it will be the greatest comeback story in the history of golf, and maybe sports, because no other athlete had risen so high and fallen so low," Chamblee says.

Love, though, doesn't see a comeback as farfetched, if Tiger's body will allow it. He sees a gifted player robbed of the reps required to compete at the highest level. 

"If he comes out and plays, that means he's healthy, and if he can play a whole season, then he can get his game back," Love says. "I don't think you're going to do it playing once a month and then getting hurt again, like he's been doing for four years. You can't be sharp unless you play. It doesn't matter how good you've been in the past, you've got to play. You have to have confidence and you have to do it enough where you screw up some and build on it. He hasn't had a chance to build on anything for a long, long time. If his back gets good, if anybody can play for a long time, it's him because he is so strong."

Golf would be lucky to have Tiger grinding in his 40s because nobody generates the same electricity, even now.

But there are other sentiments, of course. Turn the page to the ascendant 20somethings. Leave him be, he's given enough. Be thankful we had the high because the game never had it so good, with the fate of Wall Street seeming to rise with every Tiger win, with golfers suddenly the kids at the cool table.

Tiger built the modern golf industry, fueling global commerce as a one-man stimulus package. Equipment, instruction, fashion, charity, architecture, media, all benefitted wildly from the Woods machine (to say nothing of skyrocketing Tour purses). 

But that's why it is difficult to fathom that Tiger may have won his last major at 32, an age before Ben Hogan and Phil Mickelson won their first. Tiger was supposed to rule the world for as long as he wanted.

"I'm pissed that he doesn't have 25 majors," says Rocco Mediate, the last man Tiger vanquished in a major,

We are brutal on our sports heroes, incredulous when they lose speed on their fastballs or lift on their jump shots or start showing nerves on and around the greens. Their frailties are reminders of our own. 

To see Tiger in the Bahamas, moving slowly around a practice green with his peers, was a vision few could have predicted during the go-go years. 

But if you looked closely enough during the Hero, you also saw a more relaxed Tiger, free from expectations, free from tee times and gym work, free to ride around in a golf cart with his children, dishing out love and discipline.

"He understands that part of his life, how fulfilling it is, the connection, what it means to the kids and your own self-being," Cook says.

Who is Tiger Woods at 40? What a big question. He's a legend hoping for a few more sunsets, sure, but also a single dad with a bad back and one heck of a story to tell.

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Own history, grow the game with Open memorabilia auction

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 1:00 pm

Get a piece of history and help grow the game, that's what The Open is offering with its memorabilia auction.

The official Open Memorabilia site features unique Open assets from famous venues and Champion Golfers of the Year. All net proceeds received by The R&A from this project will be invested to support the game for future generations, including encouraging women’s, junior and family golf, on the promotion and progression of the sport in emerging golf nations and on coaching and development.

Items for auction include limited edition prints of Champion Golfers of the Year, signed championship pin flags and limited edition historical program covers. Memorable scorecard reproductions and caddie bibs are also available to bid for on the website, with all items featuring branded, serialized holograms for authenticity.

Click here to own your piece of history and to get more information on the auction.

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No indication when Trump Turnberry will next host an Open

By Jay CoffinJuly 18, 2018, 12:25 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Turnberry last hosted The Open in 2009, during that magical week where Tom Watson, at age 59, nearly won his sixth claret jug. Ultimately, Stewart Cink won in a playoff.

While Turnberry remains on The Open rota, according to the R&A, there is no clear understanding of when the club, purchased by Donald Trump in 2014 before he became President of the United States, will next host the championship. The next open date is 2022.

“With respect to 2022, I’ve already said, ’21 we’re going to be celebrating the 150th playing of The Open at St. Andrews,” R&A chief executive Marin Slumbers said Wednesday on the annual news conference on the eve of The Open. “And in ’22, we’ll be going south of the border.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

South of the border means the 2022 Open will be at one of the three venues in England. Since the 2020 Open is at Royal St. George’s, that leaves Royal Lytham & St. Annes and Royal Liverpool as the two remaining options. Since Lytham (2012, Ernie Els) last hosted The Open before Liverpool (2014, Rory McIlroy), that’s the likely choice.

Trump was at Turnberry for two days last weekend, 150 miles southwest of Carnoustie. The R&A said it did not receive any communication from the U.S. president while he was in the country.

Turnberry hosted the Women’s British Open in 2015. Inbee Park beat Jin-young Park by three shots.

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Slumbers explains driver test; Rory weighs in

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2018, 12:18 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Players and manufacturers were informed about three weeks ago that the R&A intended to test individual drivers at this week’s Open Championship, marking the first time the rule makers have taken the current standards to players.

Although the R&A and USGA have been COR (coefficient of restitution) tests on drivers for some time, they have been pulling the tested clubs from manufacturers, not players.

“We take our governance role very seriously, not just on the Rules of Golf and amateur status, but also equipment standards, and we felt it was an appropriate next step to more actively seek to test players' drivers straight out of the bag,” said Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive.

Thirty players were notified their drivers would be tested this week - including Paul Casey, Brooks Koepka, Jason Day and Henrik Stenson - from a list that roughly mirrored the breakdown of various brands based on current equipment counts.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

The R&A test center was set up on the Carnoustie practice range, and according to Slumbers there were no violations of the testing limits, which essentially measure the spring-like effect of the driver clubface.

Although none of the drivers failed the testing, Rory McIlroy did say that TaylorMade was “singled out a bit more than anyone else.”

“A manufacturer is always going to try and find ways to get around what the regulations are. It's a bit of an arms race,” said McIlroy, who plays TaylorMade equipment but said his driver was not tested. “If there is some drivers out there that have went a little bit over the limit, then obviously guys shouldn't be playing them. I think the manufacturers are smart enough to know not to try to push it too much.”

There was no individual driver testing at last month’s U.S. Open, and it’s not expected to become the norm on the PGA Tour, but Slumbers did say the R&A tested drivers at an event earlier this year on the Japan Golf Tour.

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Carnoustie open to any number of scenarios

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2018, 12:07 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Carnoustie holds a distinct position within the Open Championship’s rotation of storied venues. It’s come by its nickname, Car-Nasty, honestly as the undisputed rough-and-tumble heavyweight of all the championship links.

Historically, Carnoustie is a beast. A punch in the mouth compared to the other stops on The Open dance card. If the likes of the Old Course and Muirfield are the fair ladies of the rotation, the Angus Coast brute would be the unfriendly bouncer.

As personas go, Carnoustie wears its reputation well, but the 147th edition of the game’s oldest championship has taken on a new look this week. It’s not so much the softer side of Carnoustie as it is a testament to the set up philosophy of the R&A.

Unlike its sister association in the United States, the R&A allows Mother Nature to decide what kind of test a championship will present and this Open is shaping up to be something far different than what the golf world is accustomed.

Instead of the thick, lush rough that ringed the fairways in 1999 and 2007, the last two stops at the par-71 layout, this year has a dust bowl feel to it. The stories have already become legend: Padraig Harrington hit a 457-yard drive on the 18th hole during a practice round that bounced and bounded into Barry Burn and on Monday Tiger Woods slashed a 333-yard 3-iron down the same power alley.

“It’s so fast. It’s nothing like ’99 – that was like a jungle. It was wet, rough was up, there was wind. In 2007, it was cold and green,” said Ernie Els, who has played two championships at Carnoustie. “But this is very, very dry. Very different.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Anywhere else these divergent conditions would simply be the nature of the game’s most hands-off major, but at Carnoustie it’s created an information vacuum and wild uncertainty.

Within a 48-hour window, two of the championship’s easy favorites offered diametrically contrasting philosophies on how they might play Carnoustie.

“There's eight or nine drivers we hit. Depending on the wind direction, we could hit more,” said Brooks Koepka, who won his second consecutive U.S. Open last month. “It's so burnt out, where there's a lot of opportunity where the rough's not quite as thick as I expected it to be.”

That was in contrast to how Jordan Spieth, this week’s defending champion, was thinking he would play the course.

“I talked to [caddie Michael Greller] a little bit about what he thinks, and he said, ‘You might hit a lot of 5-irons off the tee, you might wear out 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you're used to,’” Spieth said.

Unlike previous championships that were played at Carnoustie, which were won by the player best prepared to take a punch, this one might come down to which strategy, controlled and calculated or bold and brash, works best.

In theory, the bombers seem to be on to something, primarily as a result of the dry conditions that have produced uncharacteristically thin and playable rough. The alternative is weaving irons in between the countless bunkers that pepper each fairway, which on links courses are widely considered true hazards compared to what players face at other major venues.

“I would definitely say it is a bomber’s course,” said Gary Woodland, who counts himself among the long-hitting set. “A lot of the bunkers here are 285, 290 [yards] to cover, for us that’s nothing. You can take them out of play, which normally isn’t the case because it’s windy and rainy over here.”

That line of thinking leads to a rather narrow list of potential contenders, from betting favorite Dustin Johnson to Rory McIlroy and Koepka. But that logic ignores the inherent unpredictability of The Open, where countless contenders have been undercut by the rub of a bad draw and the always-present danger of inclement weather.

Although this week’s forecast calls for continued dry weather, winds are currently forecast to reach 25 mph on Sunday which could upend game plans, regardless of how aggressive or conservative one intended to play the course.

Despite conventional thinking and the realities of a modern game that is being dominated more and more by long hitters, there are compelling arguments for the other side of the bash-or-bunt debate.

One needs to look no further than Woods’ record on similarly dusty tracks as an example of how a conservative approach can produce championship results. In 2006 at Royal Liverpool, Woods, who is playing his first Open since 2015, famously hit just one driver all week on his way to victory, and he was just as effective in 2000 at St. Andrews when the Old Course also played to a bouncy brown.

“It could be that way,” Woods said when asked to compare ’06 at Hoylake to this week. “Either case, I'm not going to hit that many long clubs off the tees.”

Adding to that uncertainty is Carnoustie’s track record in producing late drama on Sunday. This is, after all, the same slice of coast where Jean Van de Velde stepped to the 18th tee box with a three-stroke lead in 1999 only to slash his way to a closing triple-bogey 7 and the game’s most memorable, or regrettable, runner-up showing.

In ’07, the heartbreak went extra frames for Sergio Garcia, who appeared poised to win his first major championship before he bogeyed the last hole and lost a playoff to Harrington.

Even this week’s baked-out conditions can’t mitigate the importance and challenge of what many consider the most difficult Grand Slam finish; but the yellow hue has certainly created an added degree of uncertainty to an already unpredictable championship.