Certainties and unknowns in Tiger's return

By Jason SobelOctober 4, 2011, 12:12 pm

In the column you’re about to read, I’ve been asked to assess Tiger Woods’ chances at this week’s Frys.com Open. Nice assignment, huh? I’ve got a better chance of predicting the ’12 presidential election – 3012.

Anyone who hasn’t been in a tryptophan-induced nap since Thanksgiving night two years ago has witnessed his plight. The erstwhile GOAT (Greatest Of All-Time) is now considered a goat (an inferior member of any group), the model superstar transformed into a model of inconsistency.

All of which means absolutely nothing entering his first career Fall Series appearance. Woods is capable of winning by double-digits or missing the cut – and I don’t know which scenario is more likely. I don’t know if his new “straighter” drives will finally start finding the fairways. I don’t know if his putting stroke – last seen on the back of a milk carton – will return to form. I don’t know if he’ll be motivated against a field of less accomplished players.

So, what do I know about Tiger in advance of his next start? Well, just a few things…

I know that he recently shot a course-record 62 at his new home course, the ultra-difficult Medalist Golf Club. I know this because the news was splashed across the headlines, despite the fact that elite professional golfers collect course records the way most grandmothers collect coupons.

Does it mean anything going into a competitive appearance? Maybe, maybe not. It certainly can’t hurt that Woods at least boasted one fortuitous round prior to teeing it up again, but it should hardly serve as a determining factor of success 3,000 miles away.

I know Woods is working hard and has looked proficient in practice, because his swing instructor told me so. The last time I spoke with Sean Foley, he talked about how his most popular pupil was striping it at the range and gearing up to get back into action.

Of course, not to take Foley’s words lightly, but I’ve never actually heard from a coach who said of his guy, “He’s a work in progress and he isn’t close right now. Don’t expect much. In fact, don’t expect anything. Except maybe an upcoming trip to Q-School.”

The power of positivity may be as important for an instructor as breaking down the mechanics of the swing, but there’s a certain quiet confidence from Foley that tells me Tiger’s return to glory is less a matter of “if” than “when.”

He brings up some terrific points in defense of their work together. They’ve now spent 11 competitive tournaments trying to rebuild and tweak his swing, dating back to last year’s PGA Championship. As a comparative example, Foley invokes the progress of another star student, Justin Rose, maintaining that through 11 events together, his swing wasn’t close to where they both wanted it. The Brit now owns three PGA Tour victories in the past two seasons, including at the BMW Championship two weeks ago.

That would suggest patience is recommended when debating the long-term effects of these changes on Woods, though patience is often forgotten when it comes to his prospects.

I know this feels like déjà vu. Two months ago, Woods returned after a three-month hiatus and the masses were ready to declare him “back” at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. The result reminded me of something I once wrote after spending 30 minutes seated next to Woods on a bus ride through Manhattan. He was “remarkably unremarkable.”

In the case of the bus ride, the context purported that he was just a regular guy – someone who, away from the course, is more apt to speak about small talk such as last night’s ballgame or the weather rather than chasing down Jack Nicklaus’ all-time major championship record. At Firestone, it was a reference to his final result, as he finished T-37 in the 76-man field. Doesn’t get much more remarkably unremarkable than that.

One week later, he played nacho golf at the PGA. You know how nachos always start out hot and delicious, dripping with tasty toppings, only to turn into a weighty pile of stale chips and congealed cheese 10 minutes later? That was Woods at Atlanta Athletic Club, as he posted three early birdies, only to see his chances soon congeal, cleared away from the table before the weekend in the form of a missed cut.

I know that his buddy Bryon Bell was overmatched on the bag those two weeks – and I know Joe LaCava will be a huge upgrade. The former caddie for Fred Couples and, more recently, Dustin Johnson, LaCava is a pro’s pro, one of the top loopers in the game for the past two decades.

It may take the new tandem a few tournaments to learn each other’s idiosyncrasies, but some improvements will be instantaneous. At the PGA, Bell couldn’t have helped stop the bleeding if he was spotted the tourniquet. In the same scenario, LaCava may not know the right thing to say to his boss right away, but he’ll say something, which is better than what was offered from the most recent alternative.

And lastly, I know criticisms of Woods’ game will continue, no matter the end result this week. The tournament may not be a literal no-win situation for him, but it is a figurative one. Think about it: If Tiger fails to contend or even make the cut, the Bronx cheers will ring even louder. Some will mindlessly draw the conclusion that such an outcome means he’ll never again be the player he once was.

It will permeate to those closest to him, too. Foley will be ripped for “ruining” his swing. Couples will be jeered for prematurely naming him to the Presidents Cup team. LaCava will chided for leaving a birdie machine in Johnson for a player whose future may be in doubt.

If he wins, if Woods goes out and blitzes the field by double-digits this week, well, in the eyes of many, he still can’t win. Such a triumph will be written off as the schoolyard bully beating up the younger kids for their lunch money. Against a field of aging vets and wide-eyed rookies, soon-to-be Nationwide Tour regulars and Q-School entrants, even a convincing victory won’t convince people that Tiger is once again capable of being one of the world’s best players, if not the absolute best.

This much I know. As for how Woods will actually fare at the Frys.com Open this week, I still have no idea – but I do know we’ll find out soon.

Getty Images

Miller's biggest on-air regret: Leonard at Ryder Cup

By Jason CrookOctober 17, 2018, 12:00 am

Johnny Miller made a broadcasting career out of being brutally honest, calling golf tournaments exactly like he saw them.

His unfiltered style is what kept him on the air for nearly 30 years, but it wasn't always the most popular with players.

After announcing his upcoming retirement, Miller was asked Tuesday if there were any on-air comments he regretted over the last three decades. One immediately came to mind.

"I think that I didn't say the right words about Justin Leonard at Miracle at Brookline about he should be home watching it on TV. I meant really - I did say he should be home, but I meant the motel room. Even then I probably shouldn't have said that," Miller recalled. "I want so much for the outcome that I'm hoping for that I actually get overwhelmed with what I want to see. Almost the kind of things you would say to your buddies if you were watching it on TV, you know? He just couldn't win a match."

After struggling on Friday and Saturday in team play, Leonard ended up the U.S. hero after halving his Sunday singles match with José María Olazábal by holing a 40-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole - one of the most famous shots in Ryder Cup history.

"Of course he ended up - after the crappy comment I made that motivated maybe the team supposedly in the locker room, and he ends up making that 45-, 50- foot putt to seal the deal," Miller said. "Almost like a Hollywood movie or something."

Not only did the putt seal the comeback for the U.S., but it also earned Leonard an apology from Miller. 

"I apologized to him literally the next day; I happened to see him. I tried to make a policy when I go over the line that I get ahold of the guy within 24 hours and tell him I made a double bogey, you know. That's just the way I have done it through the years."

Getty Images

Love him or not, Miller's authentic style stood out

By Doug FergusonOctober 16, 2018, 10:11 pm

The comment was vintage Johnny Miller, raw enough to cause most television producers to wince.

Miller was in the NBC Sports booth at Doral in 2004 when he watched Craig Parry hit another beautiful shot to the green. Miller said what he saw. That was his job.

He just didn't say it like other golf analysts.

''The last time you see that swing is in a pro-am with a guy who's about a 15-handicap,'' Miller said. ''It's just over the top, cups it at the bottom and hits it unbelievably good. It doesn't look ... if Ben Hogan saw that, he'd puke.''

Parry got the last word, of course, holing out a 6-iron from 176 yards in a playoff to win.

Except that wasn't the last word.

''I was in Ponte Vedra going back to the Honda Classic, and my phone is blowing up,'' said Tommy Roy, the longtime golf producer at NBC. ''It started percolating down in Australia, and you had radio stations demanding Johnny Miller be fired.''

Miller could make golf more fun to hear than to watch.

''He doesn't have a filter. That's why he's so good,'' Roy said. ''What he's thinking comes out. And 99.5 percent of the time, that was a great thing for viewers, and for me. And 0.5 percent of the time, it was a problem for our PR department and for me.

''And it was worth it.''

Roy was in Wisconsin on Monday night for his first look at Whistling Straits for the 2020 Ryder Cup. It will be the first Ryder Cup since 1989 that doesn't have Miller in the booth weighing in on good shots and bad with thoughts that immediately become words.

He often entertained. He occasionally irritated. He was rarely dull.

Miller is retiring after three decades calling the shots for NBC. His last tournament will be the Phoenix Open, the perfect exit for a Hall of Fame player once known as the ''Desert Fox'' for winning six times in Arizona. Miller was so good for so long that it was easy for younger generations to forget about that other career he had.

Miller to retire from broadcast booth in 2019

Best of: Photos of Miller through the years

And to think that was nearly his only career in golf.

Miller said he wasn't interested when NBC first approached him, but then his wife stepped in and told him it would be nice to have a steady paycheck. Even then, it took time for him to realize his audience was in the living room, not the locker room.

He made his debut at the Bob Hope Classic in 1990 and it didn't take long for him to leave his mark. Peter Jacobsen faced an awkward lie to the 18th green with water to the left.

''The easiest shot to choke on,'' Miller said.

People thought about choking. Miller said it because that's what he was thinking.

''What came into his brain came out of his mouth,'' said Mike McCarley, president of golf for NBC Sports. ''He was the first to really talk about the pressure. It's the most important element of the game, especially in those really big moments. He was doing it at a time when others weren't.''

It wasn't just the word ''choke.''

Phil Mickelson was getting up-and-down from everywhere at the 2010 Ryder Cup when Miller suggested that if Lefty weren't such a good putter he'd be selling cars in San Diego. Justin Leonard and Hal Sutton were losing a fourballs match at the 1999 Ryder Cup when Miller blurted out, ''My hunch is that Justin needs to go home and watch it on television.''

During the 2008 U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines that Tiger Woods won in 19 holes over Rocco Mediate, Miller suggested that guys named ''Rocco'' don't get their name on the trophy, and that Mediate looked like ''the guy who cleans Tiger's swimming pool.''

It wasn't all bad.

Roy, who also has produced NBA Finals and Olympics, said he wants analysts who first-guess, not second-guess. The latter is for talk radio. First-guessing means sharing instincts, and Miller had plenty of them.

Woods was playing the final hole at Newport in the 1995 U.S. Amateur when Miller said, ''It wouldn't surprise me if he knocked this thing a foot from the hole.''

And that's just what Woods did.

McCarley remembers how retired NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol used to worry whenever Miller called because he thought it was about retirement. McCarley soon inherited that feeling.

''Every time I'd see Johnny's number pop up on my cellphone, my heart would skip a beat,'' McCarley said. ''Two years ago, he made that call I had been dreading.''

McCarley kept him working a slightly reduced schedule, but no longer. Miller is 71 and has been on the road for 50 years. His 24th grandchild was born on Sunday. He wants to teach them fly fishing in Utah, perhaps even a little golf.

Miller wasn't sure he would last a week when he started. He never imagined going nearly 30 years.

He leaves behind a style all his own.

Most loved it. Some didn't. But everyone listened, and that might be his legacy in the broadcast booth. Roy said what he has heard from viewers he knows is that 70 percent really like Miller, and 30 percent really don't.

''But they all have an opinion,'' he said.

Getty Images

CJ Cup: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalOctober 16, 2018, 9:20 pm

The PGA Tour returns to South Korea this week for the second edition of the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges. Here is the key information for the no-cut event, where Justin Thomas is defending champion.

Golf course: Located on Jeju Island, the largest island off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, The Club at Nine Bridges opened in 2001 and was designed by Ronald Fream and David Dale. The par-72 layout (36-36) will measure 7,184 yards for this week's event, 12 yards shorter than last year.

Purse: The total purse is $9.5 million with the winner receiving $1.71 million. In addition, the winner will receive 500 FedExCup points, a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour, and invitations to the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions, Players, Masters, and PGA Championship.

Last year: Thomas defeated Marc Leishman with a birdie on the second playoff hole to earn his seventh career PGA Tour win.

TV schedule (all times Eastern): Golf Channel, Wednesday-Saturday, 10 p.m.-2 a.m.

Live streamingWednesday-Saturday, 10 p.m.-2 a.m. 

Notable tee times (all times Eastern): 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Thursday: Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Sungjae Im; 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, 7:05 p.m. Thursday: Marc Leishman, Si Woo Kim, Ernie Els; 8:25 p.m. Wednesday, 7:15 p.m. Thursday: Jason Day, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama

Notables in the field: Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Ernie Els, Jason Day, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and last week's winner Marc Leishman.

Key stats:

 This is the third of 46 official events of the season and the second of three consecutive weeks of events in Asia

• 78-player field including the top 60 available from the final 2017-2018 FedExCup points list

The field also includes 12 major champions and two of the top five in the Official World Golf Ranking (highest ranked are No. 3 Koepka and No. 4 Thomas)

Thomas and Koepka both have a shot to ascend to No. 1 in the OWGR this week - they will play their first two rounds grouped together

Stats and information provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit

Getty Images

Els eyeing potential Prez Cup players at CJ Cup

By Will GrayOctober 16, 2018, 6:55 pm

Ernie Els is teeing it up this week in South Korea as a player, but he's also retaining the perspective of a captain.

While the 2019 Presidents Cup in Australia is still more than a year away, Els has already begun the process of keeping tabs on potential players who could factor on his International squad that will face an American contingent captained by Tiger Woods. Els played in last week's CIMB Classic in Malaysia, and this week received one of eight sponsor exemptions into the limited-field CJ Cup on Jeju Island.

Els played a Tuesday practice round with Presidents Cup veteran and Branden Grace and India's Shubankhar Sharma, who held a share of the 54-hole lead last week in Malaysia.

"It's going to be a very diverse team the way things are shaping up already," Els told reporters. "We've got another year to go, so we're going to have an interesting new group of players that's going to probably make the team."

In addition to keeping tabs on Grace and Sharma, Els will play the first two rounds with Australia's Marc Leishman and South Korea's Si Woo Kim. Then there's Sungjae Im, a native of Jeju Island who led the Web.com Tour money list wire-to-wire last season.

"There's so many Korean youngsters here this week, so I'm going to really see how they perform," Els said. "Still a long way to go, but these guys, the young guys are going to be really the core of our team."

Els, who will turn 49 on Wednesday, made only five cuts in 15 PGA Tour starts last season, with his best result a T-30 finish at the Valero Texas Open. While it's increasingly likely that his unexpected triumph at the 2012 Open will end up being his final worldwide victory, he's eager to tackle a new challenge in the coming months by putting together the squad that he hopes can end the International losing skid in the biennial matches.

"The U.S. team is a well-oiled team. They play Ryder Cups together, they obviously play very well in the Presidents Cups against us, so they're a very mature team," Els said. "We are going to be a young team, inexperienced. But that doesn't scare me because I know the course very well down in Melbourne, I've played it many, many times. I feel I have a very good game plan to play the golf course strategy-wise and I'm going to share that with my players."