Opinions of Woods fickle in the age of the hot take

By Jason SobelFebruary 6, 2015, 9:20 pm

Here in the Age of the Hot Take – which is sort of like the Age of Enlightenment, only the opposite – everyone has an opinion. Not always a well-researched, highly contemplative opinion, mind you, but at the very least, a knee-jerk, need-it-now theory that gets thumbed out on social media accounts with the immediacy of a 911 call.

By its very nature, golf isn’t much of a knee-jerk, need-it-now type of game. You can’t rush to judgment in an arena where some players don’t peak until their mid-30s – or, hell, where some don’t stop contending for major championships until they’re 59. And so in many respects, opinions on the world’s best golfers represent the peculiar intersection of old-world eventuality and new-world urgency, an intersection with green lights in every direction, prompting massive wrecks before anyone bothers to look both ways.

Enter Tiger Woods.

Even in today’s society, golf still has some of those old-world charms. Rookies aren’t as heavily scrutinized as their counterparts in other sports; those who fail to reach predicted lofty heights aren’t dealt such severe blows of criticism. Then there’s Tiger, whose every movement – from agile and clinical to stiff and dispirited – gets treated with the importance of such grave topics as global politics and SEC football recruiting.

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During the 11-and-a-half holes that he played at Torrey Pines’ North Course on Thursday afternoon, he was treated to the same reflex discourse that’s been following his performances for the past half-decade. He skulled a chip and the masses cried, “He’s done!” He holed a chip shot and they declared, “He’s back!” He left the course grimacing in pain and they about-faced, “He’s done!” Not that he knows – or even cares. Why should he? Leave the rhetoric to those who for years haven’t even tried to activate their glutes.

That’s not to impugn just the public, either. The media is just as at fault for the snap decisions regarding Tiger’s swing and his health and his mental state and just about every other aspect of his game that we think could be affecting him. Our guesses might be more educated, but they’re still merely guesses. And the law of supply and demand – the public keeps demanding more coverage, so we keep supplying it – requires the never-ending critical analysis of Tiger to be treated with not only importance but immediacy.

I’m as guilty as anyone. Last week, I watched Tiger compress a bunch of practice-round drives into the desert sky, saw a relaxed smile plastered across his face, watched him move easily and effortlessly, listened to him insist, “This is going to be a fun year,” and came to the conclusion that he was right. It was going to be a fun year. Instead of another 12 months spent dissecting his injuries and deconstructing his swing, this was going to be a year where we sat back and enjoyed the ride, watching one of the all-time masters perform his craft at a delightfully high rate. This was going to be a year where he was compelling for all the right reasons again, fascinating and captivating for his successes rather than his shortcomings.

Then he shot an opening-round 73 during which he looked completely lost around the greens and followed with a second-round 82 that made the 73 seem brilliant by comparison. He then followed that by withdrawing from Torrey after a cluster of cringe-inducing shots – both for him and for those watching – and it felt like last week’s glass half-full had not only tipped over and spilled, but smashed into a thousand tiny pieces on a linoleum floor.

Yeah, that’s right – scalding hot-take alert – after watching the attempted start to his year these last two weeks, I’ve now quietly tiptoed away from the “He’s back!” camp and set up shop in the “He’s done!” quarters, with the caveat that I can return to the original spot at a moment’s notice. There are those who steadfastly planted roots on one side of the fence long ago, never shifting hypotheses – and they are to be commended, if not for their persistence, then at least for their stubbornness. But not me. I’m a vacillator of epic proportions.

But isn’t that alright? Isn’t that why we watch? Isn’t that why we passionately yell at our television screens, only to keep coming back for more? If we knew the end results, that would take all the fun out of it. That would deprive us of the ceaseless debates that can envelop any 19th hole in a hurry. It would strip us of the edge-of-our-seat excitement of a Sunday afternoon heading down the back stretch. It would rob us of any reason to care.

And so we watch and, for some of us, we maintain an open mind – and we change our open mind based on the current temperature of the situation.

When it comes to Tiger – when he’s relaxed and smiling and hitting fairways and confident – it’s perfectly acceptable to remember the glory days and imagine he’s on the verge of returning to the dominant force who once roamed atop leaderboards. And then there are times like his first two starts – when he’s confused and injured and looks like an expeditiously aging version of his former self – when it’s impossible to envision any such return.

He’s 39 now, which is clearly the back-nine of any golfer’s career, but especially one who’s been diligently digging secrets out of the dirt since he could walk. Couple that with a body that can no longer withstand an hour-long fog delay, let alone the rigors of 72 holes, plus a metamorphic swing that is undergoing its fourth or fifth mutation, and it’s easy to foresee a future where he never regains status as one of the world’s best golfers. Forget about passing Jack Nicklaus on the all-time major championship list, he might not get the four PGA Tour wins needed to eclipse Sam Snead’s record.

At least, that’s how it looks today, right on the heels of that third withdrawal in his last eight starts. But at some point, perhaps at Augusta National, nestled amongst the loblolly pines and blooming azaleas, he’ll hit a towering approach shot into one of the course’s contoured greens that takes a slight 3-yard cut and softly lands just a few feet from the hole. And we’ll start to think, maybe this guy isn’t done after all. Maybe there’s still time to relive some of those old glory days.

That’s alright. We’re not supposed to know what the future holds. That’s what makes all of this – the debates, the conjecture, the never-ending critical analysis – such a passionate pursuit. That’s what makes us care.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”