Woods avoiding embarrassment with latest break

By Jason SobelFebruary 12, 2015, 8:15 pm

For nearly two decades, Tiger Woods was the closest thing golf ever had to a superhero.

He looked like one, single-handedly ushering out the era of bloated guts hanging over pleated khakis by molding himself into the form of a linebacker on the links. He acted like one, rescuing the game from the vise grip of the elite and bringing it to the masses – as much of a “steal from the rich, give to the poor” scenario as golf has experienced. And he was exalted like one, hailed as a savior in a pursuit too steeped in tradition, his mere presence intimidating fellow competitors.

Like any superhero, though, he’s also had his kryptonite. Injuries? Everyone’s dealt with ‘em. Swing changes? Those, too.

No, Tiger’s kryptonite isn’t anything physical or technical.

His kryptonite is embarrassment.

Think about it: This is a player who for so long thrived on invincibility. He relished being The Man, the game’s ultimate alpha male. He reveled in pre-tournament debates centered around picking him or the rest of the field. Call it an ego or just an advanced stage of confidence, but his comfort level always existed within an atmosphere of awe.

Through his first 47 1/2 holes of this season, however, Woods hasn’t just failed to look invincible. He’s been embarrassed. Humiliated. He’s left the masses – the same masses to whom he once brought this purported elitist pursuit – snickering and pointing at his inability to find a fairway and incompetence around the greens.

All of which might help to explain his quizzical Wednesday announcement that he’s temporarily leaving competition to work on his game away from the spotlight.

Maybe he’ll be gone for two weeks, maybe much longer, but Woods insisted that he won’t return until his game is “tournament ready.” It was a message both cryptic and curious, as if he wanted to make some major declaration regarding a leave of absence, only to throw in a last-minute caveat that he might soon return.

If there was inherent doubt in his statement – and there certainly was – it's only because Woods himself put it there. It’s another layer of uncertainty to already rampant speculation about his impending future.

Woods taking break, will return when 'ready'

All of which leads to this question: How will he know his game is tournament ready prior to playing in another tournament?

One easy answer, of course, was conceived during those two decades of dominance: He just will.

Consider this sort of logic a not-so-subtle insinuation that Tiger understands his game better than the rest of us and he'll understand when he's ready to get back to the grind of competition and he deserves to be given the benefit of our numerous doubts.

Or does he?

Let's present Exhibit A as evidence for the prosecution: His Q&A session prior to his first start of the year at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Eight weeks removed from chunking and stubbing a cringe-worthy nine chip or pitch shots during four rounds at Isleworth, he insisted that he'd practiced to the tune of "thousands" of these attempts during his winter break.

There may have been varying layers of truth in that statement, but there's no denying this: When his approach shot on the very first hole Thursday morning landed 11 yards short of the green, he used a 4-iron – not a wedge – to try and bump his ball close to the hole. It didn't work. Nor did, apparently, his prolonged chipping sessions, based on his subsequent efforts.

We'd like to think a guy with 79 career PGA Tour wins should be taken at his word when making a decision on when to return, but those decisions have proven ill-fated in the past.

So now we're left with this: When Tiger comes back – whether it's in two weeks, two months or (gulp) much longer – and once again insists that he's tournament ready, his glutes activated, his short game fixed, what happens if he posts another unbecoming 82? Or injures himself again? Then what?

Maybe this is the beginning of an unending cycle during which he preps to become tournament ready, plays a few tournaments, finds he isn't tournament ready, steps away from tournaments and preps to become tournament ready again. Maybe it’s the beginning of the end for a player who’s spent so much of his career appearing invincible. Or maybe it’s exactly as he stated – just a temporary interlude to get his game and mind right, eventually culminating in a return to form.

What we do know is that the man, who for years was golf’s closest thing to a superhero, won’t reappear until he knows he can avoid the embarrassment. He won’t come back until he can avoid the kryptonite.

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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.”