Tiger Woods grinded out a 6-under 64 on Sunday and nearly rallied to win his 15th major championship at the 100th PGA.
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Tiger Woods grinded out a 6-under 64 on Sunday and nearly rallied to win his 15th major championship at the 100th PGA.
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.
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.”
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.
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It wasn’t just that Jacob Bergeron prevailed in an unprecedented 24-for-1 playoff Wednesday at the U.S. Amateur.
It was how he did it – with a bogey-6, on Pebble Beach’s famous 18th hole.
“Fortunate is the first word that comes to mind,” Bergeron said afterward.
There have been larger playoffs to advance to match play at the U.S. Amateur. In 1988, 31 players competed for four spots. Two decades later, 26 players battled in a two-spotter. But Wednesday was believed to be the first time that so many players duked it out for just a single spot in match play.
It was as absurd as you might imagine.
More than a dozen players were at dinner Tuesday night, at about 8 p.m., when they noticed that the cut line drifted from 3 over to 4 over.
That forced the USGA to scramble. With so many players back in the fold, they set up a playoff format for the 24 guys to compete in six foursomes in a sudden-death format, beginning on the 220-yard 17th at 7:30 a.m. The two dozen players whacked a full bucket of 4- and 5-irons on the range, then shuttled to the adjacent third green, which was used as a practice putting green for the playoff.
Fred Lacroix of France was the first to play on a 55-degree morning. He hit a towering draw with a 4-iron inside 10 feet and sauntered back to his bag.
“At least one guy is going to make birdie,” Lacroix said later, “and I wanted it to be me.”
Instead, his birdie putt raced 6 feet past, and he missed the comebacker, too. The other three players in his group made par. Lacroix went from a potentially tone-setting birdie to a bogey that dropped him out of contention.
“Very disappointing,” he said.
With nearly 36 hours to kill before his flight home to Paris, a bummed Lacroix was asked whether he’d play one of the other stellar courses in the area.
“I don’t want to play golf right now,” he sighed.
Two groups later, Lacroix watched as Bergeron hit a 4-iron to 5 feet, below the hole.
“See,” he said, “you have to make birdie.”
And Bergeron converted, sneaking his putt in the left side.
“You just have to ball first thing in the morning,” Bergeron said. “It’s the most extreme playoff I’ve ever been in.”
Standing behind the green, he watched as player after player failed to match him. They tried to hole 50-footers. They tried to chip in. They tried to hole bunker shots.
None of them could.
Their chances dashed, they scooped up their ball and dejectedly walked off the green. Zach Bauchou even checked a USGA official’s clipboard and shook his head.
“Somebody’s gotta go get it,” Patrick Martin said after making par when he couldn’t chip in from the right fringe. “The worst thing you can do is put yourself out of position to make birdie. It sucks to not have a realistic look at it.”
For a while, it appeared as though Bergeron’s lone birdie would stand up. Then in the last foursome, Chase Johnson stuffed his tee shot to 10 feet and Peter Kuest, the last of the 24 players to tee off, matched him.
Kuest, a junior a BYU, rammed in his birdie try, while Johnson’s putt caught the left edge and stayed out.
“Good birdie, dude,” Bergeron said, extending his hand to Kuest. They were the only two players to move on to Pebble’s 18th, one of the most iconic finishing holes in golf.
After both players hammered drives down the left side, Bergeron flared his 4-iron – the same club he’d nuked about a half hour earlier – into the first cut on the right side, stymied behind the large cypress tree protecting the green.
“A love-hate relationship with that club,” he said, smiling.
With an opening, Kuest tried to play his 195-yard approach into the center of the green, but he pulled it and hit it thin.
“Just not a good shot,” he said.
His ball hit the retaining wall and ricocheted into the Pacific Ocean. A brief search ensued, as Kuest would have at least considered playing it from the rocks, but his ball wasn’t recovered until after he finished.
He headed back to the drop zone, where his wedge shot hit the front edge and spun off the green.
No longer needing to play as aggressively, Bergeron chipped out sideways and then pitched to 10 feet. He missed his par putt, but Kuest lipped out his 5-footer, and then missed the 8-footer for double bogey, too.
To some surprise, the marathon playoff took only 90 minutes.
“It’s OK,” Kuest said afterward. “It’s Pebble Beach, so you can’t go wrong.”
Asked if he was surprised that his bogey-6 was enough to advance, Bergeron said: “A little. But little things like this might point to this being my week.”
The 20-year-old has already informed LSU coach Chuck Winstead that he won’t return to school for his sophomore season. After qualifying for this year’s U.S. Open, he chatted with Jason Day and Jordan Spieth about their career progressions, and they advised him to choose whatever route would make him the best player in four years. Bergeron decided that was to turn pro, and so he’s attempting Web.com Tour Q-School next month.
Of course, the rest of this week could change those plans. The U.S. Amateur finalists both receive an invitation to the 2019 Masters, and Bergeron wouldn’t miss that opportunity.
“Long way to go before that, though,” he said.
But at least his path can only get easier. He beat 23 other players on Wednesday morning. To reach the final, he needs to win just five matches, beginning this afternoon against co-medalist Daniel Hillier of New Zealand.
“The seeding just means you have a match,” Bergeron said. “And once you get in, it’s anyone’s game.”
It was New Jersey and then-Gov. Chris Christie who began the crusade to make sports betting legal beyond the confines of Las Vegas, so it’s no surprise that the Garden State would be the pointy end of the gaming spear.
In May, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which had made sports wagering unlawful for the last 25 years, there was no small amount of interest among states to pave the way for a market that could be worth billions in revenue. Less than a month after the court’s ruling, New Jersey approved a bill legalizing sports gambling.
About an hour’s drive south from Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., site of next week’s Northern Trust event, Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., was one of the first to open a sports book – generating an eye-catching $8.1 million handle in just 17 days after opening in mid-June – and the PGA Tour’s return to New Jersey for the first playoff tournament is sure to generate interest at the newly-minted book.
But as sports, and particularly golf, wade into the betting pool, don’t expect a wholesale change just yet. Although New Jersey was among the first states to embrace sports betting, wagers are currently limited to a few casinos and racetracks.
“I wouldn’t say the gaming would be any different than what’s currently being offered in Las Vegas or elsewhere, win bets and that type of thing,” said Andy Levinson, the Tour’s senior vice president of tournament administration.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, most professional leagues, including the Tour, came out in support of sports betting, but they did so with a few important conditions. Many professional leagues, which have been speaking to state legislators across the country for months about any potential betting legislation, wanted to safeguard the integrity of the competition.
The leagues also wanted to have a say in the types of bets that will be allowed – with the Tour looking to avoid what are called negative outcome bets, like a player missing a fairway or a green or making a specific score on a hole – and assure that sports books use official data generated by the leagues (in golf that would be ShotLink data).
And the leagues also have proposed “integrity fees,” which would likely be 1 percent of the handle from betting operators.
Last month, the NBA announced a partnership that made MGM Resorts the league’s official non-exclusive gaming partner, a move that could become the template for the Tour as the sports betting market matures.
“With the NBA deal it’s nice to see an organization like MGM is committed to integrity and sharing specific betting information with the NBA. To see a gaming operator make that commitment is very positive,” Levinson said. “If it included those protections and had that balance between fan engagement while protecting the integrity of our competition, that’s a positive deal for the NBA.”
For the sports leagues, the NBA deal is less about what kind of betting MGM will allow at its various casinos than it is a snapshot into what many see as the ultimate endgame. Part of every league’s plan is a robust online gaming element, which is seen as the only way to end illegal or off-shore betting.
“When we are speaking with legislators across the country one of the important elements includes mobile betting in legislation. The vast majority of sports betting takes place online. The current black market in the U.S. is almost exclusively online,” Levinson said. “One of the goals in creating a legal sports betting market is to eliminate that black market. If it’s not easily accessible, people will continue to use that online service.”
Other than New Jersey and Delaware, which are already developing guidelines for online sports betting, most states are taking a more measured approach. In fact, Levinson explained that since most state legislative sessions have already ended for the year it’s likely that they won’t begin to develop guidelines for sports betting until mid-2019.
The Tour also has a few hurdles to clear. Under the circuit’s current regulations, players, partners and the Tour itself are prohibited from partnering with casinos or betting institutions. Before the circuit could move forward with any type of deal like the NBA and MGM agreement that regulation would have to be changed.
“We are in the process of evaluating that category,” Levinson said. “We are looking at a wholesale evaluation of our endorsement policy. That’s for the Tour, players, networks, other constituents.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling may have potentially opened vast new markets for the Tour and created an entirely new way to engage with fans, just don’t expect things to change yet, even as the circuit arrives on the front lines of the sports betting transformation next week in New Jersey.