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Punch Shot: Where are we headed with Tiger?

By Golf Channel DigitalOctober 31, 2017, 3:15 pm

Tiger Woods announced on Monday that he plans to play the Hero World Challenge. Writers Ryan Lavner and Will Gray discuss what they'll key on while watching his first start since a fourth back surgery and if they think Woods can go a season uninjured.

Gray: OK, Lav, it's official. Tiger's coming back a month from now at the Hero World Challenge. Initial reaction?

Lavner: Stunned, but in hindsight the flurry of social-media posts – at least a flurry for Tiger – hinted that another comeback was imminent.

Gray: If nothing else, the last month vaulted him into contention for most improved Twitter account.

I agree that it's a bit jarring, especially when squared with his shudder-inducing comments at the Presidents Cup about his future. But we can't discount just how soft of a landing spot the Hero is: small field, low-key vibe, sparse crowds. Essentially as close to a controlled environment as he can get. Plus it's a course he knows well with, ahem, generous landing areas off the tee and no real rough. Perhaps we should have seen this coming.

Lavner: Agree. It was a similar situation last year, and he showed just enough glimpses of good play to really ratchet up the excitement for 2017. (Sigh.) Still, I can't shake the feeling that it's too much, too soon. He was only cleared for full golf activity a few weeks ago. A month later, he's ready to play four tournament rounds under the national spotlight?

Gray: It does seem a bit quick, but the calendar could also be a factor. If he skips Hero, where is his next likely option? Torrey Pines, eight weeks later? Last year showed there are no guarantees regardless of how slowly he ramps things up, so perhaps there's something to be said for giving it a crack now while the body is (theoretically) responding well.

I think we can both agree that expectations are at an all-time low. Will simply completing 72 holes upright be considered a win?

Lavner: Yep, 72 holes injury free is a win, just like last year. Unfortunately, his surprisingly good play a year ago led him to push himself during that break between the Hero and Torrey – and something clearly went awry, because he showed up at Torrey in terrible shape.

Gray: It's still hard to mesh the optimism I saw down at Albany last year with the despondent tone you encountered at Torrey the following month. Given the barrage of recent swing videos Tiger has sent out on social media, what's one aspect of his game that you'll be watching the most intently?

Lavner: Obviously in today's era the long game is the most important, and so we'll watch to see whether he's able to piece together a repeatable swing without pain. But I'm most interested in his short game. He's only a few years removed from the chip yips, and he's going to need to be sharp on and around the greens if he has any chance of contending in the future.

Gray: Right there on the same page with you. It was only three years ago, when this event was at Isleworth, that his short game first showed signs of collapse. His comeback won't be tied to any single variable, but to have even a prayer of working back into contention he has to at least be functional around the greens.

Tiger Timeline: A look at Woods' history of injuries and comebacks

Gray: Let the extrapolation begin. Augusta National, Shinnecock, Carnoustie, Bellerive – over/under: 1.5 major starts for Tiger in 2018?

Lavner: Not sure he'll play well in any of them, but I think he'll peg it in all four majors. For that to happen, Tiger must listen to his body and reduce his regular-season schedule. That's the only way this (final) comeback can work.

Gray: A full year of Tiger! There are kids in grade school who have never witnessed such a feat. I'll believe it when I see it, but I agree with you that less will be more. The ambitious early-season schedule that followed last year's Hero, including the ill-fated flight to Dubai, needs to be trimmed considerably.

Lavner: Talked to Trusted Tiger Friend Notah Begay III on Monday night, and even he admitted that he's anxious about this latest comeback attempt. He just hopes, like I think we all do, that Tiger can go out on his terms – whenever that is – with some respectable golf.

Gray: There are still some philosophical questions about what that last bit would even mean to Tiger. Will he be willing to lower his own lofty expectations for himself? Time will tell. In the interim, let's keep prognosticating. Are we talking about a fully healthy Tiger heading into the 2018 Hero?

Lavner: A fully healthy Tiger probably doesn't exist anymore, not after what he's put his body and mind through. But at this time next year it's not hard to imagine that Woods will still believe he can compete with the game's best, even if the results suggest otherwise.

Gray: Deep Thoughts with Lavner. Let's close this out with a couple more. Back to scheduling, what's one "typical" Tiger event you hope he cuts, and maybe one new event you hope he considers adding?

Lavner: Hope he cuts Torrey – it's one of the toughest non-major tracks of the year, and even two decades of good vibes there won't help him stay out of the thick, gnarly rough. And hope he adds Houston, an ideal warmup for Augusta.

Gray: Agreed on Torrey, as the South Course can take down top players any day of the week. Not sure he'd break with tradition and try playing the week before Augusta, but I wouldn't mind seeing him head back to the Wyndham, site of his most recent brush with contention. Stenson won this year without even putting driver in the bag!

Last one: Are you more or less optimistic about this comeback attempt than you were a year ago?

Lavner: More optimistic, because there have been plenty of examples of players who continued to perform at a high level, pain free, after fusion surgery. If he can clear his mind and put in the work – that's been the biggest unknown over the past few years – then there's a chance this can work.

Gray: There's a chance, sure. But I'm a little skittish after last year's debacle. That was the return where he had finally taken his time and hadn't rushed back, and it was supposed to be the one that stuck. Instead, it just showed us how quickly it can all fall apart. He's another year older, another year removed from both the grind and his last good season of 2013. Let's put it this way: I'd love to be proven wrong.

Lavner: Nice. That's a good spot to end it on.

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Johnson begins Open week as 12/1 betting favorite

By Will GrayJuly 16, 2018, 5:15 pm

Dustin Johnson heads into The Open as the top-ranked player in the world, and he's also an understandable betting favorite as he looks to win a second career major.

Johnson has not played since the U.S. Open, where he led by four shots at the halfway point and eventually finished third. He has three top-10 finishes in nine Open appearances, notably a T-2 finish at Royal St. George's in 2011.

Johnson opened as a 12/1 favorite when the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook first published odds for Carnoustie after the U.S. Open, and he remains at that number with the first round just three days away.

Here's a look at the latest odds on some of the other top contenders, according to the Westgate:

12/1: Dustin Johnson

16/1: Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose

20/1: Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm

25/1: Jason Day, Henrik Stenson, Tiger Woods

30/1: Sergio Garcia, Francesco Molinari, Paul Casey, Alex Noren, Patrick Reed

40/1: Hideki Matsuyama, Marc Leishman, Branden Grace, Tyrrell Hatton

50/1: Phil Mickelson, Ian Poulter, Matthew Fitzpatrick

60/1: Russell Knox, Louis Oosthuizen, Matt Kuchar, Bryson DeChambeau, Zach Johnson, Tony Finau, Bubba Watson

80/1: Lee Westwood, Adam Scott, Patrick Cantlay, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Thomas Pieters, Xander Schauffele

100/1: Shane Lowry, Webb Simpson, Brandt Snedeker, Ryan Fox, Thorbjorn Olesen

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Woods needs top-10 at Open to qualify for WGC

By Will GrayJuly 16, 2018, 4:34 pm

If Tiger Woods is going to qualify for the final WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, he'll need to do something he hasn't done in five years this week at The Open.

Woods has won eight times at Firestone, including his most recent PGA Tour victory in 2013, and has openly stated that he would like to qualify for the no-cut event in Akron before it shifts to Memphis next year. But in order to do so, Woods will need to move into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking after this week's event at Carnoustie.

Woods is currently ranked No. 71 in the world, down two spots from last week, and based on projections it means that he'll need to finish no worse than a tie for eighth to have a chance of cracking the top 50. Woods' last top-10 finish at a major came at the 2013 Open at Muirfield, where he tied for sixth.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

There are actually two OWGR cutoffs for the Bridgestone, July 23 and July 30. That means that Woods could theoretically still add a start at next week's RBC Canadian Open to chase a spot in the top 50, but he has said on multiple occasions that this week will be his last start of the month. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational will be played Aug. 2-5.

There wasn't much movement in the world rankings last week, with the top 10 staying the same heading into the season's third major. Dustin Johnson remains world No. 1, followed by Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm. Defending Open champ Jordan Spieth is ranked sixth, with Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Tommy Fleetwood rounding out the top 10.

Despite taking the week off, Sweden's Alex Noren moved up three spots from No. 14 to No. 11, passing Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Paul Casey.

John Deere Classic champ Michael Kim went from No. 473 to No. 215 in the latest rankings, while South African Brandon Stone jumped from 371st to 110th with his win at the Scottish Open.

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Spieth takes familiar break ahead of Open defense

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – As his title chances seemed to be slipping away during the final round of last year’s Open Championship, Jordan Spieth’s caddie took a moment to remind him who he was.

Following a bogey at No. 13, Michael Greller referenced a recent vacation he’d taken to Mexico where he’d spent time with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan and why he deserved to be among that group of singular athletes.

Spieth, who won last year’s Open, decided to continue the tradition, spending time in Cabo again before this week’s championship.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I kind of went through the same schedule,” Spieth said on Monday at Carnoustie. “It was nice to have a little vacation.”

Spieth hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship; instead he attended the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this month in Seattle with his sister. It was Spieth’s first time back to the Pacific Northwest since he won the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I went out to Chambers Bay with [Greller],” Spieth said. “We kind of walked down the 18th hole. It was cool reliving those memories.”

But most of all Spieth said he needed a break after a particularly tough season.

“I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working,” he said. “It was nice to kind of have that itch to get back.”

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Harrington: Fiery Carnoustie evokes Hoylake in '06

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 3:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – One course came to mind when Padraig Harrington arrived on property and saw a firm, fast and yellow Carnoustie.

Hoylake in 2006.

That's when Tiger Woods avoided every bunker, bludgeoned the links with mid-irons and captured the last of his three Open titles.

So Harrington was asked: Given the similarity in firmness between Carnoustie and Hoylake, can Tiger stir the ghosts this week?

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I really don’t know,” Harrington said Monday. “He’s good enough to win this championship, no doubt about it. I don’t think he could play golf like the way he did in 2006. Nobody else could have tried to play the golf course the way he did, and nobody else could have played the way he did. I suspect he couldn’t play that way now, either. But I don’t know if that’s the strategy this week, to lay up that far back.”

With three days until the start of this championship, that’s the biggest question mark for Harrington, the 2007 winner here. He doesn’t know what his strategy will be – but his game plan will need to be “fluid.” Do you attack the course with driver and try to fly the fairway bunkers? Or do you attempt to lay back with an iron, even though it’s difficult to control the amount of run-out on the baked-out fairways and bring the bunkers into play?

“The fairways at Hoylake are quite flat, even though they were very fast,” Harrington said. “There’s a lot of undulations in the fairways here, so if you are trying to lay up, you can get hit the back of a slope and kick forward an extra 20 or 30 yards more than you think. So it’s not as easy to eliminate all the risk by laying up.”