Woods returns in time for one last shot at glory

By Doug FergusonAugust 6, 2011, 6:09 pm

Given the circumstances of a most peculiar year, the slogan of the final major - “Glory’s Last Shot” - might not apply to Tiger Woods.

In some respects, the PGA Championship is more like a fresh start.

This is the seventh time in his 15 years on Tour that Woods has come to the last major of the year without having made any progress toward the record that matters the most to him - the 18 professional majors won by Jack Nicklaus.

In three of those seasons, he was changing his swing. Last year, he was going through a divorce.

This year, he simply hasn’t played.

Since closing with a 67 at the Masters, briefly sharing the lead on Sunday until his game stalled and he tied for fourth, Woods went four months without playing a full round because of recurring pain in his left knee and Achilles tendon. He missed only four tournaments he ordinarily would have played, but two of them were the U.S. Open and British Open.

Woods returned to golf only one week before the PGA Championship. His scores at the Bridgestone Invitational weren’t terribly impressive, but what mattered as much to him was that his left leg felt as strong as ever.

“We get four chances to peak per year, and unfortunately, I was only able to try and peak for one,” Woods said. “Obviously, my timetable isn’t very long to try and peak for the last one here.”

Yes, it’s his last shot of the year to try to win a major.

Could this also be his last shot at restoring belief that he still can reach or even break the Nicklaus benchmark? That he could get back to No. 1 in the world? That his red shirt on Sunday could still mean something?

Some of these could get answered when the 93rd PGA Championship gets under way Thursday at Atlanta Athletic Club.

Woods is only 35. Nicklaus, when he was this age, went on to win five more majors in his career, and the Golden Bear might have won more if he had not already broken the record once held by Bobby Jones.

But the trauma in Woods’ life - physical and emotional - makes him an old 35.

It’s more than the four surgeries on his left knee dating to his freshman year at Stanford. Woods used to walk into the locker room or onto the practice range fully aware that the other players were looking at him as golf’s best player, and the guy they would have to beat. Now they look at him the way everyone else does, wondering what’s going on inside his head, curious what kind of scores he might post.

The swagger is gone because Woods hasn’t won a tournament in 20 months. The aura is gone because golf looks deeper than ever. Three of the last five major champions are in the top 10 in the world and still in their 20s - U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and defending PGA champion Martin Kaymer.

Like so many other young players, they have no reason to be afraid of Woods because they have not competed again him at his best.

And there are no guarantees they ever will.

“It would be a little intimidating if you knew for sure that he was going to come back and play the way he did in 2000 or 2001,” McIlroy said. “But who knows for sure what way the game is going to go?”

It’s a question that has been asked - and not answered - since Woods first returned at the Masters last year after his image was shredded over extramarital affairs.

His “comeback” lasted one tournament - a tie for fourth in the 2010 Masters - until he missed the cut in his next tournament with his highest 36-hole score ever, then withdrew a week later from another tournament with a neck injury. He picked up a new swing coach in Sean Foley late last summer and showed signs of immediate improvement, only to start this year with ordinary results.

He came back at The Players Championship on May 12 from what was described as “minor injuries,” only to quit after nine holes. Woods pledged not to return until he was 100 percent healthy, even to the point of missing two majors.

Another setback now and the skepticism will be as great as ever.

Still, he doesn’t see the PGA Championship any differently from other years, whether he was trying to win his first major of the year or his third in a row.

“It’s a major championship,” he said. “We get four a year and try to peak four times a year. It’s as simple as that.”

Not even after 13 majors have come and gone without his name on the trophy? Not even after not being certain for most of the summer that he could play the PGA Championship this year?

Woods shook his head.

“Feels the same,” he said, then raising his eyebrow with a slight grin and adding, “Looking forward to it.”

So many others feel the same way.

The PGA Championship doesn’t get the same respect from the public as the other majors, some of that because it’s at the end of the schedule and football starts to occupy American minds.

But there is no denying how tough it is to win. It features by far the strongest field of any major, with 99 of the top 100 in the world ranking scheduled to be at Atlanta Athletic Club when it gets under way on Thursday. If no one withdraws, that will be the most top-100 players at any major since the world ranking began in 1986.

For some, there could be a sense of urgency.

That particularly holds true for Lee Westwood, the first golfer to replace Woods at No. 1 in the world late last year and the best active player to have never won a major. And there had to be a feeling of “When is it my turn” for the 38-year-old Englishman when he watched one of his best friends, 42-year-old Darren Clarke who was No. 110 in the world, cradle the silver claret jug at the British Open last month.

Westwood is represented by Chubby Chandler at International Sports Management, who is going for an agent’s Grand Slam. His clients have won all three majors this year - and four of the last five including Louis Oosthuizen at St. Andrews last year. Not many could have imagined Westwood would not be among them.

Luke Donald is No. 1 in the world and also without a major.

And don’t forget the Americans, although that’s been easy to do lately. They now have gone six majors without winning, dating to Phil Mickelson at the 2010 Masters, the longest drought since this configuration of majors began in 1934. The highest-ranked American is Steve Stricker, who is 44 and starting to run out of time.

“It’s the last chance this year, and then we’re all a year older,” Stricker said. “And for me, a year older means the window is getting shorter. It would be nice to get one. I’m not putting pressure on myself to win. Don’t get me wrong - I’d love to win one. But I’m not putting extra pressure on myself to do it.”

That’s the worst way to come into the PGA Championship, because as this major has shown, it could be anybody's.

More evidence comes from a year on the PGA Tour that few saw coming.

There already have been six PGA Tour rookies to win this year, the most since the Tour began keeping complete records in 1970. Some of that might be due to Woods being out of the mix because he used to win five or more every season.

Only three Americans from the Ryder Cup team last October have won tournaments - Mickelson, Stricker and Bubba Watson. And 12 of the top 30 players in the world who are PGA Tour members have failed to win on golf’s strongest Tour this year, a list that includes Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Adam Scott and yes, Tiger Woods.

“It’s been a weird year,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “At least six or seven people have won Tour events that at the start of the year you would never have heard of unless you followed the Nationwide Tour or Q-school. Jim Furyk is struggling to make cuts, Dustin is not playing like he normally does.”

Then he paused and showed a slight grin.

“Tiger might win,” he said. “Hard to believe, but he might. It’s been an odd year.”

Maybe that shows the state of Woods more than anything. Woods could win the PGA Championship, and it would be considered a surprise.

Getty Images

Lopez fires flawless 63 for lead in Arkansas

By Associated PressJune 23, 2018, 12:41 am

ROGERS, Ark. – Since its first year on the LPGA Tour in 2007, the crowds at the NW Arkansas Championship have belonged to Stacy Lewis.

Another former University of Arkansas star staked her claim as the hometown favorite Friday when Gaby Lopez shot a career-low 8-under 63 to take the first-round lead at Pinnacle Country Club.

Like Lewis, the two-time winner of the tournament, Lopez starred as a three-time All-American for the Razorbacks before joining the LPGA Tour in 2016. Despite flashes of potential, Lopez had yet to join Lewis among the ranks of the world's best - missing the cut in her last two tournaments and entering this week ranked 136th in the world.

For a day, at least, the Mexican standout felt right at home atop the leaderboard in her adopted home state.

''I feel like home,'' Lopez said. ''I feel so, so comfortable out here, because I feel that everyone and every single person out here is just rooting for us.''


Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship


Moriya Jutanugarn was a stroke back along with Minjee Lee, Catriona Matthew, Nasa Hataoka, Lizette Salas, Mirim Lee and Aditi Ashok. Six others finished at 6 under on a day when only 26 of the 144 players finished over par, thanks to some mid-week rain that softened the greens and calm skies throughout the day.

Jutanugarn finished second at the tournament last year and is trying to win for the second time on the LPGA Tour this year. Her younger sister, Ariya, is already a two-time winner this year and shot an opening-round 66.

Lewis, the former world No. 1 who won the event in 2007 in 2014, finished with a 66. She's expecting her first child in early November

Defending champion So Yeon Ryu, coming off a victory Sunday in Michigan, shot a 67.

Friday was Lopez's long-awaited day to standout, though, much to the delight of the pro-Arkansas crowd.

After missing the cut her last two times out, Lopez took some time off and returned home to Mexico City to rest her mind and work on her game. The work paid off with two straight birdies to open her round and a 6-under 30 on her front nine.

Lopez needed only 25 putts and finished two shots off the course record of 61, and she overcame a poor drive on the par-5 18th to finish with a par and keep her place at the top of the leaderboard. Her previous low score was a 64 last year, and she matched her career best by finishing at 8 under.

''(Rest) is a key that no one really truly understands until you're out here,'' Lopez said. ''... Sometimes resting is actually the part you've got to work on.''

Getty Images

Harman rides hot putter to Travelers lead

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:28 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – There are plenty of big names gathered for the Travelers Championship, and through two rounds they’re all chasing Brian Harman.

Harman opened with a 6-under 64, then carded a 66 during Friday’s morning wave to become the only player to finish the first two rounds in double digits under par. The southpaw is currently riding a hot putter, leading the field in strokes gained: putting while rolling in 12 birdies and an eagle through his first 36 holes.

“Putted great today,” said Harman, who ranks 22nd on Tour this season in putting. “Got out of position a couple of times, but I was able to get myself good looks at it. I started hitting the ball really well coming down the stretch and made a few birdies.”


Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos


Harman, 31, has won twice on the PGA Tour, most recently at last year’s Wells Fargo Championship. While he doesn’t have a win this year, he started his season in the fall by reeling off five straight finishes of T-8 or better to quickly install himself as one of the leaders in the season-long points race.

Now topping a leaderboard that includes the likes of Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy, he realizes that he’ll have his work cut out for him if he’s going to leave Connecticut with trophy No. 3.

“The putter has been really good so far, but I’ve been in position a lot. I’ve had a lot of good looks at it,” Harman said. “I’m just able to put a little pressure on the course right now, which is nice.”

Getty Images

10-second rule costs Zach Johnson a stroke

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:06 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Zach Johnson heads into the weekend one shot back at the Travelers Championship, but he was a matter of seconds away from being tied for the lead.

Johnson had an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 3 at TPC River Highlands, his 12th hole of the day, but left the ball hanging on the lip. As Johnson walked up to tap the ball in, it oscillated on the edge and eventually fell in without being hit.

Was it a birdie, or a par?

According to the Rules of Golf, and much to Johnson’s chagrin, the answer was a par. Players are afforded “reasonable” time to walk to the hole, and after that they are allowed to wait for 10 seconds to see if the ball drops of its own accord. After that, it either becomes holed by a player’s stroke, or falls in and leads to a one-shot penalty, resulting in the same score as if the player had hit it.

According to Mark Russell, PGA Tour vice president of rules and competitions, Johnson’s wait time until the ball fell in was between 16 and 18 seconds.


Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos


“Once he putts the ball, he’s got a reasonable amount of time to reach the hole,” Russell said. “Then once he reaches the hole, he’s got 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, the ball is deemed to be at rest.”

Johnson tried to emphasize the fact that the ball was oscillating as he stood over it, and even asked rules officials if marking his ball on the edge of the hole would have yielded a “bonus 10 seconds.” But after signing for a 2-under 68 that brought him within a shot of leader Brian Harman, the veteran took the ruling in stride.

“The 10-second rule has always been there. Vague to some degree,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is I went to tap it in after 10 seconds and the ball was moving. At that point, even if the ball is moving, it’s deemed to be at rest because it’s on the lip. Don’t ask me why, but that’s just the way it is.”

While Johnson brushed off any thoughts of the golf gods conspiring against him on the lip, he was beaming with pride about an unconventional par he made on No. 17 en route to a bogey-free round. Johnson sailed his tee shot well right into the water, but after consulting his options he decided to drop on the far side of the hazard near the 16th tee box.

His subsequent approach from 234 yards rolled to within 8 feet, and he calmly drained the putt for an unexpected save.

“I got a great lie. Just opened up a 4-hybrid, and it started over the grandstands and drew in there,” Johnson said. “That’s as good of an up-and-down as I’ve witnessed, or performed.”

Getty Images

Travelers becoming marquee event for star players

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 11:29 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Get lost in the throngs following the defending champ, or caught up amongst the crowds chasing the back-to-back U.S. Open winner, and it’s easy to forget where this tournament was a little more than a decade ago.

The Travelers Championship was without a sponsor, without a worthwhile field, without a consistent date and on the verge of being jettisoned to the PGA Tour Champions schedule. The glory days of the old Greater Hartford Open had come and gone, and the PGA Tour’s ever-increasing machine appeared poised to leave little old Cromwell in its wake.

The civic pride is booming in this neck of the woods. Main Street is lined with one small business after the next, and this time of year there are signs and posters popping up on every corner congratulating a member of the most recent graduating class at Cromwell High School, which sits less than two miles from the first tee at TPC River Highlands.

Having made it through a harrowing time in the event’s history, the local residents now have plenty of reason to take pride.

The Tour’s best have found this little New England hamlet, where tournament officials roll out the red carpet in every direction. They embrace the opportunity to decompress after the mind-numbing gauntlet the USGA set out for them last week, and they relish a return to a course where well-struck shots, more often than not, lead to birdies.


Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos


Ten years ago, this tournament was also held the week after the U.S. Open. Stewart Cink won, and for his efforts he received a paltry 36 world ranking points. But thanks to a recent influx of star-power, this week’s winner will pocket 58 points – the same amount Rory McIlroy won at Bay Hill, and two more than Justin Rose got at Colonial. Now at the halfway point, the leaderboard backs up the hefty allocation.

While Brian Harman leads at 10 under, the chase pack is strong enough to strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned veteran: McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson, they of the combined eight major titles, all sit within three shots of the lead. Former world No. 1 Jason Day is one shot further back, and reigning Player of the Year Justin Thomas will start the third round inside the top 20.

Paul Casey and Bryson DeChambeau, both likely participants at the Ryder Cup this fall, are right there as well at 8 under. Casey lost a playoff here to Watson in 2015 and has come back every year since, witnessing first-hand the tournament’s growth in scope.

“It speaks volumes for what Travelers have done and how they treat everybody, and the work that Andy Bessette and his team put in to fly around the country and speak highly of this event,” Casey said. “And do things which matter, to continue to improve the event, not just for players but for spectators.”

Part of the increased field strength can be attributed to the Tour’s recent rule change, requiring players who play fewer than 25 events in a season to add a new event they haven’t played in the last four years. Another portion can be attributed to the short commute from Shinnecock Hills to TPC River Highlands, a three-hour drive and even shorter across the Long Island Sound – an added bonus the event will lose two of the next three years with West Coast U.S. Opens.

But there’s no denying the widespread appeal of an event named the Tour’s tournament of the year, players’ choice and most fan-friendly in 2017. While Spieth’s return to defend his title was assumed, both Day and McIlroy are back for another crack this year after liking what they saw.

“Anyone that I talked to could only say good things about the tournament about the golf course, how the guys are treated here, how the fans come out, and how the community always gets behind this event,” McIlroy said. “Obviously I witnessed that for the first time last year, and I really enjoyed it.”

After starting the week with all four reigning major champs and five of the top 10 players in the latest world rankings, only Masters champ Patrick Reed got sent packing following rounds of 72-67. The remaining top-flight contingent will all hit the ground running in search of more low scores Saturday, with Spieth (-4) still retaining a glimmer of hope to keep his title defense chances alive, perhaps with a 63 like he fired in the opening round.

The Tour’s schedule represents a zero-sum game. Outside of the majors and WGCs that essentially become must-play events for the game’s best, the rest of the legs of the weekly circus become victim of a 12-month version of tug-of-war. Some players like to play in the spring; others load up in the fall. Many play the week before majors, while a select group block off the week after for some R&R far away from a golf course.

But in an environment where one tournament’s ebbs can create flows for another, the Travelers has continued a steady climb up the Tour’s hierarchy. Once in jeopardy of relegation, it has found its footing and appears in the process of turning several of the Tour’s one-name stars into regular participants.

Rory. Jordan. Bubba. JT.

It’s been a long battle for tournament officials, but the proof is in the pudding. And this weekend, the reward for the people of Cromwell – population 14,000 – looks to be a star-studded show.

“All the events are incredible,” Thomas said. “But this is kind of one of those underrated ones that I think until people come and play, do they realize how great it is.”