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Tiger's comeback ready for major focus in 2019

By Jaime DiazOctober 11, 2018, 12:45 pm

And now, back to our regular programming, as we rejoin "The Tiger Woods Comeback," still in progress.

We apologize for the interruption, but Ryder Cups always provide a powerful first impression, a rush to judgment, and a lingering aftermath.

Woods was part of all that, going 0-4 in the American team’s 17 1/2 to 10 1/2 loss to Europe in France. To many people, the dull body language that accompanied his mediocre play may have spoiled all that he accomplished this year.

We heard the familiar refrain that Woods is too remote a personality to play effectively with partners. Some also wondered that after his victory the week before at the Tour Championship – so long in coming, so powerfully emotional – whether Woods, who will be 43 in December, is sated and ready to ease out of all this return-to-glory business.

That last part? Don’t think it for a moment. As a golfer, Woods has miles to go before he sleeps.

That’s because the hard part is over, and the best part is about to start. Woods’ long ordeal – nine years filled with dark days and injury that began with a personal scandal in 2009 – seems to have finally ended. A successful back fusion in 2017 has had a Lazarus-like effect on him physically, while the process of overcoming personal adversity has matured him as a person. After finally cresting what must have seemed an endless incline, the road before Woods may very well appear a flat straightaway, one that promises to be long and even downwind.

But first, let’s put that Ryder Cup performance in context. Woods arrived in Paris worn out, his tantalizing improvement colliding with an overcrowded late-season schedule. The best example was how his surprising T-6 at The Open got him the last spot in the field at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Rather than taking a full two-week break to rev up for the season’s home stretch, Woods couldn’t pass up playing at the venue where he had eight previous victories – including a seven-stroke romp in 2013 that was his last tournament win. 

But a drained Woods didn’t have it at Firestone, and he finished T-31. He was brilliant the next week at the PGA at Bellerive, where he was second to Brooks Koepka, but in his first full season since 2013, he was already on the verge of being over-golfed. He may have felt closer to his first victory in five years, but going on to play all four of the FedExCup Playoff events meant he would have to dig very deep.

In that regard, his triumph at the Tour Championship – at least in relation to the Ryder Cup – was Pyrrhic. The massive cheering throng that surrounded the 72nd green was a profound signal of what the victory must have meant to Woods personally. But four hours later he was on the team charter to Paris, his opening match five days away. It’s easy to say Woods just doesn’t care enough about the Ryder Cup – his 13-21-3 record is Exhibit A – but there’s more evidence that he simply didn’t have time to sufficiently recharge.

That empty look and dull body language that Woods carried at Le Golf National wasn’t from apathy or age. I had seen it before. While at Stanford, Woods – who took his college studies seriously and enjoyed being anonymous in the classroom among students he called brainiacs – would sometimes complain that he was tired and relatively unprepared because of trying to keep up in school. His demeanor during some college tournaments could be flat.

I saw the look again in a hotel room in Endicott, N.Y., in September 1996, a few hours after the 20-year-old Woods had finished T-3 in a rain-soaked and abbreviated BC Open. The week had been a constant whirlwind of not only competition, but fan frenzy already known as Tiger Mania. Woods had been on a runaway train of commitments since his epic victory the month before at the U.S. Amateur, leading to his decision to turn professional and debut at the Milwaukee Open, followed in consecutive weeks with the Canadian Open and a near-victory at the Quad Cities Open. His motivation for playing so much was to earn enough prize money to avoid having to earn his card at the Tour’s Q-School.

In Endicott, Woods packed his bags to make a plane that would take him to Callaway Gardens, Ga., for the Buick Challenge. His actions were brisk, but his face was an expressionless mask. He would go on to hold a news conference the next day, but Wednesday before the pro-am he withdrew, citing exhaustion. It meant he would miss a dinner Thursday where he was to receive the Haskins Award, a decision for which he was heavily criticized.

Two months later, Woods would return to Callaway Gardens to attend a makeup Haskins dinner. In his acceptance speech, he apologized, but by that time Woods' withdrawal was being looked at as a smart move. It had given him a few days’ rest, after which he went to Las Vegas and got his first victory on the PGA Tour.

Woods would be careful to never again get caught up in such a rushed and taxing playing schedule. Until this summer.

Woods is resting now, unlikely to play anywhere the rest of the year outside of his pay-per-view match with Phil Mickelson, and then the next week at the tournament he hosts, the Hero World Challenge. He’s gearing up for 2019.

His approach will be far different than this year, when Woods was in full search mode and needed reps. Even though his fused back never appeared to cause him a serious problem, he had to rediscover his game. It turned out to be a slower, more methodical return than he probably expected. He had much to learn about his body, his swing, his equipment, and his competitive mind.

Woods got himself in the heat at Valspar and Bay Hill, only his fourth and fifth tournaments of the year, but then stalled over the next five. But his T-4 at the Quicken Loans showed new progress that he carried through the PGA Championship. Then at the BMW Championship, he appeared to embark on a new commitment to sacrifice distance off the tee in the interest of hitting more fairways. Besides adding a degree of loft to his driver, he slowed his swing down about 5 mph, employing a smoother hitting action that two of his former teachers, Butch Harmon and Hank Haney, had both encouraged.

All season, Woods worked on his game without a swing coach. Close observers have remarked on an improved rhythm in his action, and less attention, at least in his public practice sessions, to body and club positions. By the second half of the year, there was a subtle but noticeable sense of flow to Woods’ rounds, especially with his iron game, which has featured breathtaking runs of sharp shooting. Indeed, when Woods is rolling as he did at Carnoustie, Bellerive and East Lake – hitting fairways, shaping approach shots, showing short-game mastery and sure putting – he looks like the most complete, and maybe still the best, player in golf.

Woods has said little about 2019, but I think there will be two main themes: Less is more. And, to a greater extent than ever, it’s all about the major championships.

No doubt Woods will play fewer than the 18 official events he entered this year, and likely between 12 and 15. It will be a schedule predicated on being fully ready for four weeks. Yes, passing Sam Snead’s record of 82 career PGA Tour victories will be on Woods’ mind (he needs three more), but majors count toward that total.

The plan would be a time-honored tradition that’s been vetted by the very best. Bobby Jones followed it all his career, including his Grand Slam season in 1930. Ben Hogan seldom played in non-majors after his car accident in 1949, and the rest of his career would win six majors against only five regular events. Jack Nicklaus, especially after age 30, established the model that Woods has generally followed. The pattern for all was “prepare, peak, play (wins), rest and repeat.”

Woods, of course, hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. And since losing the 54-hole lead to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA – the first time in 15 tries he had done so in a major – he’s showed more vulnerability on major weekends. For example, at the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Woods was tied for the lead after 36 but faded with 75-73 to finish T-21.

Coming into this year, Woods – through a combination of injuries and bad play – had last made a cut in a major at the 2015 Masters. Any hope of catching Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors seemed gone, but this year has restored a glimmer. Traces of a mental barrier were evident at Carnoustie, where Woods responded to holding the lead after 10 holes of the final round by making a double bogey on the 11th and a bogey at the 12th. But that championship was the deepest contention Woods achieved in a major since losing to Yang. And it led to the breakthrough at Bellerive, where he didn’t make a crucial mistake until pushing his tee shot into a hazard on the 71st hole.

Woods’ victory at the Tour Championship was most significant for his confidence in being achieved on a major championship style set up at East Lake. Indeed, since downshifting slightly with his driver, Woods’ overall game is more suited for winning majors than it has been since 2013, and he might be mentally stronger now.

Next year, the first three majors are at venues where he has won – Augusta, Bethpage, Pebble Beach. If he doesn’t get one, and especially if he doesn’t seriously contend in any of them, any dreams of his catching Nicklaus will be dealt a blow. But if he can win one, it will prove he can win another. And the most important record in golf will be back in play.

Of course, Woods’ greatest rival is the clock. Now that he is close to regaining an elite level of play, how long can his body, motor skills and motivation hold out? Woods beat very long odds to get from where he was in 2017 to where he is now. But even though he’s in a much better starting position, the odds against getting where he wants to go from here are just as long.

Whether he makes it, there’s a collective satisfaction that Woods’s final act as a player has dramatically morphed into something far more commensurate to the greatness that came before.

But what makes the future so intriguing is that we can strongly sense what Woods wants for himself. Because his gift has always been to somehow make that happen. What was most remarkable about 2018 was that he seemed on his way to doing it again.

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Goal for new world No. 1 Koepka: Stay healthy

By Will GrayOctober 21, 2018, 1:38 pm

Last season Brooks Koepka bagged a pair of majors en route to the PGA Tour's Player of the Year award. He started the new wraparound season with an emphatic win at the CJ Cup to reach world No. 1 for the first time.

But amid the best form of his career, Koepka has a simple goal in mind as he gets ready to turn his attention to the new year.

"Stay healthy," Koepka told reporters. "That's been the big thing. I need to be healthy to be able to play all these events, play all the majors."

Koepka's breakthrough year comes despite the fact that he missed four months in the spring, including the Masters, while recovering from a wrist injury. He hit the ground running once he returned, with strong finishes at TPC Sawgrass and Colonial preceding wins at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.

Now Koepka has added a third trophy after cruising to a four-shot win in South Korea on Sunday that allowed him to move past Dustin Johnson at world No. 1.

"I'm 1-for-1 this year, which is nice," Koepka joked about his undefeated record in the new wraparound season.

Koepka will be in the field next week in China for the WGC-HSBC Champions before putting the clubs on the shelf. With Justin Thomas paving the way by making the goal-setting process more public in recent years, Koepka explained that even after summiting the world rankings he plans to wait until 2019 to adjust his expectations for himself.

"I keep the same goals through the calendar year," Koepka said. "On Jan. 1 I go to the beach in the morning and go write down my goals and figure them out for the calendar year, but I just need to finish this year off. I've got next week and I would like to, coming out the first week as No. 1, I'd like to play well."

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Birdie binge for Woodland comes up short at CJ Cup

By Will GrayOctober 21, 2018, 12:52 pm

Gary Woodland mounted an impressive rally at the CJ Cup, but in the end even 11 birdies weren't enough to catch Brooks Koepka.

Woodland started the final round in South Korea five shots behind the new world No. 1, but he made the biggest move of the day amid chilly conditions on Jeju Island. With six birdies over his first nine holes, including four in a row on Nos. 6-9, he briefly caught Koepka at the top of the leaderboard.

But Woodland bogeyed No. 10, and even with five more birdies coming home to finish a 9-under 63 he still finished alone in second, four shots behind Koepka who closed with a bogey-free 29 to put the trophy out of reach.

"Yesterday I didn't get any putts to go in, and today I saw a lot of putts go in," Woodland told reporters. "Brooks with the lead, not much fazes him. So you knew you had to make a lot of birdies, and I made a lot today. But I was just too far behind."

It's the second straight strong performance from Woodland to start the new wraparound season, as he tied for fifth at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia after holding a share of the 54-hole lead. A closing 63 would have gone a long way last week, but he was still pleased to be able to make Koepka sweat a little on a day when even the bad holes resulted from good shots.

"I made two bogeys on the back and I said, 'Be right' on both shots," Woodland said. "I was just maybe a little too amped up, a little excited. I hit them both perfect. All in all, I would have liked for a couple more putts to go in yesterday and been a little closer going into today."

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Kang (69) wins Buick LPGA Shanghai by two

By Associated PressOctober 21, 2018, 9:11 am

SHANGHAI - Danielle Kang shot a 3-under 69 on Sunday to win the LPGA Shanghai by two strokes for her second career title.

Kang, who started the final round one stroke off the lead, offset a lone bogey on the par-5 fourth hole with four birdies after the turn to finish at 13-under 275 and hold off a late charge by Lydia Ko, who had the day's lowest score of 66.

''I hope I win more,'' Kang said. ''I did the best I can. I'm going to keep working hard and keep giving myself chances and keep putting myself in contention. I'll win more. I'll play better.''

Ko, who had seven birdies and a lone bogey, tied for second at 11 under with a group of seven players that included Brittany Altomare (71), Ariya Jutanugarn (71) and overnight co-leader Sei Young Kim (72).

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Carlota Ciganda, who also held a share of the lead after the third round, shot a 73 to fall into a tie for ninth with Bronte Law and local favorite Lu Liu.

Paula Creamer carded three birdies against a pair of bogeys for a 71 to finish in sole possession of 12th place.

The tournament is the second of five being played in South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan in the LPGA's annual Asian swing.

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New world No. 1 Koepka already wants more

By Nick MentaOctober 21, 2018, 8:48 am

If there is a knock on Brooks Koepka, it’s that he’s a little too cool.

Gary Woodland, who threw 11 birdies at Koepka on Sunday and still finished four shots back, inadvertently captured that exact sentiment after Saturday's third round.

“You know," he said, "Brooks doesn't seem like he cares too much."

In context, Woodland meant that there was little anyone in the field could do to rattle the 54-hole leader. (He proved himself right, by the way.)

And out of context, the comment speaks to the general narrative surrounding Koepka. That he’s just detached enough for fans to have trouble attaching themselves to him. That he’s just a jock here to cash checks and collect trophies, to kick ass and chew bubblegum.

But for a few moments Sunday in South Korea, it became clear that Brooks Koepka does care. Crouched on the 72nd green with some time to stop and think as Ian Poulter lagged a bit behind, Koepka finally let a moment get to him. Cameras caught the three-time major champion appearing unusually emotional.

Of course, less than a minute later, those same cameras caught him yawning. The contrast was almost too perfect. It was as if he knew he had just been found out and needed to snap back into character – which he did.

He promptly poured in an eagle putt to cap off a final-round 64, to win the CJ Cup by four, and to ascend to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time in his career.

Full-field scores from the CJ Cup

CJ Cup: Articles, photos and videos

“To be world No. 1 is something I dreamed of as a kid,” Koepka said on the 18th green, moments after closing out his fifth PGA Tour victory and third this year. “I don't think this one's going to sink in.”

What is beginning to sink in is that Koepka now unequivocally belongs in the conversation, the one golf fans and analysts have been having over and over since Tiger Woods fell from golf's greatest heights.

Who’s the best at their best?

In the two years between his first PGA Tour win and his first U.S. Open victory, Koepka was touted as having the kind of talent to compete with the game's elites. It took a little while for him to get here, but Koepka has taken over as the latest player to look like he’ll never lose again. Just as it was for Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas before him, this is Koepka's moment. This is his run of dominance.

It’s a run that will have to end at some point. Every one of the guys just mentioned did cool off eventually. Koepka will, too. Maybe it will be fatigue, maybe it will be injury, and maybe it’ll just be golf. This talent pool is simply too deep for anyone to remain on top for too long.

But what Koepka has done this year – in defending his U.S. Open title, in staring down Tiger at the PGA, in claiming the Player of the Year Award, in ascending to the top of the world rankings – is put his name at the forefront of the conversation. If he was unappreciated at times before, those days are behind him. He's already accomplished too much, proven himself too good to be overlooked any longer.

And he’s far from done.

“For me, I just need to keep winning,” the new world No. 1 said Sunday. “I feel like to win a few more regular Tour events and then keep adding majors. I feel like my game's set up for that. I've gotten so much confidence off winning those majors where, it's incredible, every time I tee it up, I feel like I really have a good chance to win whether I have my A-game or not. It's something I'm so excited [about] right now, you have no idea. I just can't wait to go play again.”