Stat attack!: WGC-Cadillac Championship preview

By John AntoniniMarch 4, 2014, 9:15 pm

The old adage that the golf season doesn’t really begin until the PGA Tour comes to Doral was disproven years ago. With the European Tour building a strong Middle East swing, and the PGA Tour concluding its West Coast swing with the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, the world’s top stars have many places to shake out the winter rust before the Tour comes to Florida. This year, with the wraparound season beginning in October, 15 PGA Tour events were in the books before Doral appeared on the schedule. But for some players the venerable adage does hold some truth. Eight qualifiers for the Tour Championship a year ago are currently outside the top 100 on the 2013-14 FedEx Cup standings and the top three players on last year’s list – Henrik Stenson, Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker (pictured) – would not qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today. The Tour still has 26 events to go, so time isn’t quite running short, but this week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral would be a good place for the players listed below to “start” their seasons.

2013 Tour Championship qualifiers outside the top 125 in FedEx Cup points in 2014

 Player 2013 rank 2014 rank
 Henrik Stenson 1 151
 Tiger Woods 2 T-226
 Steve Stricker 3 195
 Brandt Snedeker 12 116
 Brendon de Jonge 26 108
 Charl Schwartzel 27 109
 Luke Donald 28 117
 D.A. Points 30 158

The good news for Woods and Stricker is that they finished first and second at the WGC-Cadillac Championship a year ago. The bad news is that they are not returning to a course they are familiar with. As part of an overall $250 million renovation of the newly named Trump National Doral, the Blue Monster course underwent a redesign after last year’s championship led by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner. This was more than a tweak. Hanse and Wagner rebuilt every green, moved every bunker and made extensive alterations to just about every hole. Water now comes into play on 14 holes, up from six a year ago. Speaking on Morning Drive in December, Hanse said the Blue Monster was “basically a brand new golf course.”

Woods set a personal best (after an alignment tip from Stricker) when he needed just 100 putts a year ago. But any notes he has about the putting surfaces are obsolete, as it has been reported that the green complexes are larger and trickier than before with more undulations. There are more opportunities to tuck pin positions, and avoiding three-putts will be a tournament key for the seven players in the field are in to top 20 on Tour in three-putt avoidance.

Tour leaders in three-putt avoidance in the WGC-Cadillac field

 Player  Rank Three-putt percentage
 Matt Kuchar 2 1.19%
 Jonas Blixt 10 1.56
 Zach Johnson T-12 1.62
 Webb Simpson T-12 1.62
 Brendon de Jonge T-16 1.67
 Dustin Johnson T-19 1.74
 Hunter Mahan T-19 1.74

Of just as much importance to Simpson and the two Johnson’s is the fact it has been critical at this tournament to get off to a strong start – regardless of where the event is held. The eventual winner has been under par in the first round 13 times and only two champions were in the 70s after the first day. In addition, 12 of the 14 champions were in the top 10 after day one. Ernie Els, 16th after one round in 2004, was the only player outside the top 15 on Thursday to go on to win. Simpson, Zach Johnson and Dustin Johnson are all in the top 10 on the PGA Tour in first-round scoring average in 2013-14.

Tour leaders in first-round scoring average in the WGC-Cadillac field

 Player Rank First-round scoring average
 Chris Kirk T-1 67.00
 Webb Simpson T-1 67.00
 Ryan Moore 3 67.29
 Zach Johnson 4 67.67
 Kiradech Aphibarnrat 5 67.75
 Keegan Bradley T-6 68.10
 Harris English 8 68.22
 Kevin Stadler T-9 68.25
 Dustin Johnson T-9 68.25

Unlike the Match Play, the WGC-Cadillac Championship has a history of identifying a world-class winner. The Cadillac champ was also a major champion in all but three years – and two of those three players, Mike Weir and Justin Rose, would eventually win major titles. (The Match Play champion had not won a major 11 times, and only two of those – Darren Clarke in 2000 and Geoff Ogilvy in 2006 – would eventually win one.) In the seven years the Cadillac has been held at Doral, five champions were in the top 20 on the World Ranking and only one runner-up was ranked outside the top 50.

World rank of WGC-Cadillac winner and runner-up: 2007-2013

 Year Winner (rank) Runner-up (rank)
 2013 Tiger Woods (2) Steve Stricker (13)
 2012 Justin Rose (22) Bubba Watson (23)
 2011 Nick Watney (31 Dustin Johnson (14)
 2010 Ernie Els (20) Charl Schwartzel (35)
 2009 Phil Mickelson (3) Nick Watney (78)
 2008 Geoff Ogilvy (17) Jim Furyk (8), Vijay Singh (11), Retief Goosen (36)
 2007 Tiger Woods (1) Brett Wetterich (44)

One final note: Hanse gave PGA Tour players the opportunity to comment on the course before the redesign and to visit the course once much of the work was complete. Phil Mickelson was one of the few to take him up on the offer. Mickelson had success at the old Blue Monster, winning the WGC-Cadillac Championship in 2009 and finishing second to Woods in the 2005 Ford Championship.

If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter at @johnantoninigc.

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Airlines lose two sets of Olesen's clubs in 10 days

By Grill Room TeamAugust 15, 2018, 7:50 pm

Commercial airlines losing the golf clubs of a professional golfer is not exactly a groundbreaking story. It happens.

But European Tour pro Thorbjorn Olesen is on quite the roll, losing two sets of clubs and five suitcases in the span of 10 days.

Olesen, the reigning Italian Open champ, claimed his primary set of golf clubs were lost last week. Having little faith they'd be found before this week's Nordea Masters, he decided to bring his backup set for the event in Sweden.

A veteran move by the 28-year-old, unless, of course, those clubs were lost too. And wouldn't you know it:

After pestering the airlines with some A+ GIFs, Olesen was reunited with at least one of his sets and was back in action on Wednesday.

He also still plans on giving his golf bag away to some lucky follower, provided it's not lost again in transit. Something he's no longer taking for granted.

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Podcast: Brandel compares Tiger and Hogan's comebacks

By Golf Channel DigitalAugust 15, 2018, 6:48 pm

Tiger Woods on Sunday at Bellerive recorded his seventh runner-up finish in a major and his first in nine years.

A favorite guest of the Golf Channel Podcast, Brandel Chamblee joins host Will Gray to compare and contrast Tiger's return to competitive golf with that of Ben Hogan and Babe Didrikson Zaharias in the 1950s.

Chamblee also discusses Brooks Koepka's major dominance, Bellerive as a major venue, Tiger and Phil as Ryder Cup locks, and who else might be in line to receive Jim Furyk and Thomas Bjorn's remaining captain's picks.

Finally, Brandel shares what it was it was like to qualify for the Senior Open Championship and compete for a major title on the Old Course at St. Andrews. Listen here:

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Lexi: I need to figure out who I am away from golf

By Randall MellAugust 15, 2018, 5:56 pm

Lexi Thompson says her month-long “mental break” from golf was not triggered by any new event, but it was a respite she needed to deal with the cumulative struggle that came from trying to show strength and “hide” the emotional pain she felt in the challenges she faced last year.

Thompson opened up in a heartfelt fashion Wednesday in her return to the game at the Indy Women in Tech Championship, where she is the defending champion.

“It was honestly just a buildup,” Thompson said. “The last year and a half, I have honestly been struggling a lot, emotionally, and it's hard because I can't really show it.

“It was just so much to deal with, and I had to show that I was still OK and still play golf. And I don't even know how I played that well, honestly. And I think it just kind of all hit me coming into this year.”

Thompson, 23, was candid about the challenges she has faced as a golf prodigy, telling reporters she spent some of her break from the game speaking to therapists about building a life that isn’t all about her golf.

“I would say it's just figuring out what really makes me happy off the golf course, as well, figuring myself out,” Thompson said. “I have transformed myself around this game for such a long time, ever since I was 5 years old.”

Thompson said she has always poured herself into the game, into practice and training.

“That's what I grew up knowing,” she said. “Didn't know much different.

“I was always a very determined person, and coming to this age, a little older, I realize I do need to make time for myself and enjoy life, because not a lot of 23-year-old girls are doing what I am. People need to realize that. I'm not just a robot out here. I need to have a life.”

Thompson qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open when she was 12, the youngest player at the time to do so. She won the U.S. Girls’ Junior at 13, won her first LPGA title at 16 and her first major at 19.

Full-field scores from Indy Women in Tech Championship

Last year might have been the best and worst of Thompson’s career. She endured a wave of emotional highs and lows.

At the start of 2017, she lost the ANA Inspiration in a playoff after being controversially hit with a four-shot penalty in the final round. She watched her mother wage a second battle with cancer, and she dealt with the death of a grandmother.

At year’s end, Thompson missed a short putt that could have led to her ascending to world No. 1 for the first time and being named player of the year. Amid all of that, she won twice and finished second six times, prompting the Golf Writers Association of America to give her its female player of the year award.

“You can only stay strong for so long and hide it,” Thompson said. “I am a very strong person, but at times you just need a break.”

Thompson was asked what she has figured out about the life she wants outside golf.

“It's still a work in progress,” she said. “I truly love being home and around my family and friends. I really enjoy that time. Even if it's two days, I get the most of it. Just being home and being a regular person, it's nice.”

Thompson announced after the Marathon Classic in mid-July that she was skipping the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in England. It is the first major she has missed since joining the LPGA.

“It was definitely a hard decision for me,” Thompson said. “The British Open, I never want to skip that event. It's just a very prestigious event. But with how I was, just mentally and emotionally, I wasn't ready to compete there. I was struggling with my game. Besides that, I was just struggling with myself.”

Thompson said she has been dealing with a hand injury, and it flared up during the Marathon Classic, but it wasn’t a factor in her decision to take a break. She said she is feeling fine now. She begins defense of her Indy title this week ranked No. 5 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She is winless in 13 starts this year, but she has given herself chances, with five top-10 finishes.

“I think overall I have had a little bit of an up-and-down year,” Thompson said. “I have had some great tournaments, but obviously haven't won yet. But you just have to take the positive out of everything, realize that I have had a great year. I haven't won, but I'm trying my best in every tournament, that's all I can do.”

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Tiger's major goal: Tame the driver

By Jaime DiazAugust 15, 2018, 5:26 pm

We’ve seen it before. Especially in the late summer, at PGA Championships in humid Middle American locales like Chicago, Louisville and Tulsa. Last Sunday in St. Louis, there was Tiger Woods glistening with sweat, his mental gears meshing, the body flowing. In the hunt, and in the zone.

Amid the steam rising from Bellerive’s zoysia fairways, it seemed something that had been stuck within Woods loosened and fell back into place. Through some mix of remembering and discovering, he made a breakthrough toward the goal of solving the most prolonged and perplexing puzzle of his career – the way back to being a major championship closer.

Woods reached a longed for and special mindset in the final round of the 100th PGA. He hadn’t had it at Bay Hill in March, where after climbing to within one stroke, a drive pulled out of bounds on the 70th hole ended his challenge. He came closer at Carnoustie last month, putting together a near flawless front nine that got him tied for the lead, only to almost immediately make the kind of killing mistakes he never made in his prime.

Many began to wonder whether what Nick Faldo calls the 15th club – nerve – had left Woods forever. But on Sunday at Bellerive, he proved that his mastery under pressure is still accessible.

First, a scrambling, lemonade-out-of-lemons front-nine 32 got him within a stroke of a temporarily faltering Brooks Koepka, who Woods began the day trailing by four. “I was hanging in there with my mind, basically,” he later said. “And it got me through.”

Then on the back nine, Woods figured out his swing and homed in on the flags, immersed in a fierce focus that amid the thick humidity revived memories of his four previous PGA victories.

Revived, but reprised. For all of the brilliance Woods exhibited down the stretch, he made two crucial errors. On the par-4 14th, a pushed iron off the tee and an indifferent chip led to a bogey. And, most fatally, the pushed drive into the hazard on the reachable par-5 17th, when he had to have birdie to answer a resurgent Koepka.

Woods, whose sheer fight in his 42nd year might even exceed what it was in his 21st, bounced back from both holes with birdies. When he holed a 20-footer on the 18th for 64, his celebratory uppercut was partly about getting within two of Koepka. But mostly it was the deep satisfaction of confirming that his golfing head – the biggest key to all his success and most of his struggles – is healthy again.

Of course, Woods won’t truly be back until he wins. Which means his latest breakthrough at Bellerive will have to be followed by one more. Which will have to come in the part of the game where Woods has most declined – the tee shot, especially with the driver.

Woods and the big stick have had a volatile relationship. In his early years on the PGA Tour, much of his domination was built on distance. He wasn’t the straightest, but he wasn’t wild. And he had a knack for piping important drives down the middle.

Woods knew as a teenager that being long and straight has always been the most efficient way for a gifted player to separate from the pack. It was Jack Nicklaus’ advantage for much of his reign, why Greg Norman stayed at No. 1 in the world for so long, why Dustin Johnson is No. 1 now, and how Koepka won at Bellerive. Woods in his mid-20s, when he played the most explosive golf of his career, was a devastating driver. In 2000, he led the PGA Tour in total driving, achieving a career best rank of 54th in driving accuracy.

But those numbers started to decline, in part because Woods never really quite felt as comfortable with oversized titanium heads and lightweight shafts as he had with a smaller metal head and heavier steel shaft.

Butch Harmon, as well as the instructor who followed him, Hank Haney, have said that Woods was always preoccupied with distance, ultimately to the detriment of his technique. The goal of producing more speed and having more power from the rough (along with ostensibly preventing injury) is why Woods began intensifying his work in the weight room. Tellingly, both Harmon and Haney both wanted Woods to swing with less force and more control, sacrificing a bit of distance for increased accuracy. But they couldn’t convince Woods.

With age and injury, Tiger gradually lost some distance in his 30s. But while he became a better iron player, he did not get straighter with the driver. Still, even through his embattled last 10 years, he continued to play a power game. At the moment, he ranks 34th in distance on the PGA Tour with an average of 304.7 yards, and an impressive 16th in clubhead speed with an average of 120.46 mph. But he’s 176th in driving accuracy, 120th in total driving, and 127th in strokes gained: off the tee. In the obscure but telling category of consecutive fairways hit, Woods ranks 305th with a best of only nine fairways in a row.

But at Bellerive there was an indication that Woods may be changing his approach. In his post-round interview on Sunday, he twice – unprompted – pointed out that there is a level of drivers above him – not only longer, but straighter.

“He’s a tough guy to beat when he’s hitting it 340 in the air,” Woods said of Koepka. “Three-twenty in the air is like a chip shot. And so that’s the new game … Dustin’s done it now, Rory’s doing it … Those guys, if they’re driving it well, they have such a huge advantage because of the carry.”

It was a rare concession from Woods. In former days, if another player was better than he was at some part of the game – be it distance control with short irons, bunker play, lag putting – he would quietly make that strength a target to match or exceed. After the 2000 season, he only half-kiddingly told driving accuracy leader Fred Funk that he was coming for him. 

The younger Woods may have invested his pride in being one of the longest hitters, but I suspect the 42-year-old version is wise enough to be open to any adjustment that will help him beat people in the time he has left. And he’s too smart to try to beat them at their own game.

The evidence from Carnoustie and Bellerive is too stark (along with his rank of fourth on Tour in strokes gained: approach the green). Woods is now at his best when he plays to his greatest strength – iron play. And though he is still strong enough to make things happen from the rough, there’s a good argument that he is the best in the game with an iron from the fairway. The only thing holding him back are untimely drives like the one on 17 at Bellerive.

Ergo, to use a term Woods favored when he was fresh out of Stanford, put the driver in the fairway. Not the 3-wood or driving iron, which will cost Woods even more distance against the Johnsons and Koepkas of the world. But a slightly dialed down driver. One that he can hit with less psychic “all or nothing” stress that comes from the small margin of error he leaves himself with a hard driver swing. Accepting that he can no longer be among the biggest hitters and adjusting accordingly gives him his greatest chance of still being the best player. In short, take the advice offered by Harmon and Haney.

Now that the major season is over, developing a new, more controlled game for himself in 2019 would be my hope for Tiger Woods. He’s figured out a lot lately, in particular at Bellerive clearing the mental hurdle that was blocking him from performing down the stretch on Sundays. That was a big one, and now it seems like the wind is at his back. Yes, the clock is ticking, but it feels like there’s plenty of time.