Despite Phil's struggles, one event can change everything

By John FeinsteinMay 10, 2014, 1:23 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – From the moment Phil Mickelson hoisted the claret jug on the 18th green at Muirfield last July, the entire golf world has known the next event that would truly matter to him was going to be the U.S. Open at Pinehurst this June.

It wasn’t as if Mickelson didn’t want to win every time he teed it up in the 11 months between last year’s British Open and this year’s U.S. Open, it was just a fact that everyone  including Mickelson  knew that a win at Pinehurst would put an exclamation point on his hall-of-fame career.

The Open begins in less than five weeks. Mickelson has played 19 times since his stunning win at Muirfield and has one top 10  a T-6 at the Barclays last August. Since the PGA Tour’s new wraparound season began in October, he has played 12 times, failed to play the weekend five times (three missed cuts, two WDs) and doesn’t have a top-10 finish.

His frustration may have peaked on Friday when he missed a 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th green at TPC Sawgrass, meaning he wouldn’t play the weekend at The Players for a second straight year.

“I don’t feel bad about the game,” he insisted afterward. “But mentally, I’m just soft right now.”

It’s hard to know exactly what that means. Players who have won 42 times on Tour, five of them majors, aren’t soft. They rarely admit that they don’t know exactly what to do next when they aren’t playing well. There’s always an upbeat lament of some kind: I’m hitting it well, I’m just not making any putts; I’m really close, it was just a couple of loose shots today; the swing-change I’m working on is just now starting to feel comfortable.

Mickelson talked like that in his pre-Players news conference. He had finally shown signs that the light at the end of this tunnel wasn’t a train last week in Charlotte, especially on Saturday when he lit up Quail Hollow with a 63 that put him into contention.

That’s the kind of number a great player shoots when he’s ready to go on a binge.

Except Mickelson went in the other direction, shooting 76 on Sunday  missing four putts inside 5 feet  and then following that up with 75-70 this week. On the bright side, he will get to spend Mother’s Day weekend with his family.

That was about the only good news for Team Mickelson on Friday. Mickelson spent most of Thursday and Friday on the golf course with that confused look he gets when he absolutely knows he doesn’t have it and can’t figure out exactly where to look for it.

Nevertheless, the story line hasn’t changed. Mickelson still has five weeks to get his act together. He has never been a model of consistency during his career. He doesn’t rack up top 10s so much as he racks up wins. His win at the British last summer overshadowed everything else he did throughout the rest of the year. In fact, it was generally regarded as THE performance of the year.

If Mickelson can win at Pinehurst, none of the ugly numbers he has put up since last August’s PGA will matter even a little bit. One of Mickelson’s strengths has been his ability to find his game when people are questioning him. He was 33 when he won his first major in 2004 at just about the time when people were starting to think he was one of those guys destined to make a lot of money playing golf but not make any history.

He came back after his wife Amy’s bout with breast cancer to dramatically win the Masters in 2010 and his British Open win  not to mention his near miss at Merion the month before  came when the whispers that he was done winning majors  especially while dealing with psoriatic arthritis, which is both chronic and incurable  were getting very loud.

That’s why looking at the Mickelson who has limped through this year, missing the cut at the Masters for the first time since 1999, and making a judgment on his chances at Pinehurst is probably a mistake.

He knows what that week means to his career. Even though he jokes that his six runner-up finishes in the Open should count for one win, he knows that winning there will put him in that very elite group of players who have won the career grand slam.

One thing that often gets missed about Mickelson because of the boyish smile he flashes even when he isn’t playing well, is how much he burns inside to win. No one can win as often as Mickelson has without having that burn.

There’s no doubt he left TPC Sawgrass angry and frustrated and knowing he has considerable work to do in the next 33 days. All the happy talk about driving the ball better than he ever has and about feeling good about his game is just that  talk.

Mickelson will do a lot of grinding the next few weeks. He will play at the Memorial and at Memphis, and he will take a couple of days once the golf course is closed to the public to go play Pinehurst.

He will practice 4-footers until he sees them in his sleep, and he will think and think  perhaps over-think  about how he needs to attack the redesigned Pinehurst. He knows he’s going to be asked a million times about the career slam and winning an Open and his memories of Payne Stewart and 1999.

Mickelson is ready for all that. His last three rounds of golf  the last one in Charlotte and the two here at Sawgrass  were aggravating because he thought he had found his game when he walked off the golf course last Saturday.

Whatever he found that day, he lost the next. That’s golf. When he walked away from the scoring trailer Friday evening he was still searching.

Fortunately, there’s still time to find what he’s looking for. The clock, though, is definitely ticking.

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McCarthy wins Tour Championship by 4

By Associated PressSeptember 24, 2018, 2:14 am

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Denny McCarthy won the season-ending Tour Championship on Sunday to earn fully exempt PGA Tour status and a spot in the Players Championship.

McCarthy closed with a 6-under 65 for a four-stroke victory over Lucas Glover at Atlantic Beach Country Club. The 25-year-old former Virginia player earned $180,000 to top the 25 PGA Tour card-earners with $255,793 in the four-event Tour Finals.

''It's been quite a journey this year,'' McCarthy said. ''The PGA Tour was tough to start out the year. I stuck through it and got my game. I raised my level and have been playing some really good golf. Just feels incredible to finish off these Finals. So much work behind the scenes that nobody really sees.''

McCarthy finished at 23-under 261.

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, closed with a 69. He made $108,000 to finish seventh with $125,212 in the series for the top 75 players from the regular-season money list, Nos. 126-200 in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings, and non-members with enough money to have placed in the top 200.

Jim Knous earned the 25th and final card from the four-event money list with $41,931, edging Justin Lower by $500. Knous made a 5-foot par save on the final hole for a 71 that left him tied for 57th. Lower missed an 8-footer for birdie, settling for a 69 and a tie for 21st.

''It was a brutal day emotionally,'' Knous said. ''I wasn't quite sure how much my performance would affect the overall outcome. It kind of just depended on what everybody else did. That's pretty terrifying. So I really just kind of did my best to stay calm and inside I was really freaking out and just super psyched that at the end of the day finished right there on No. 25.''

The top-25 finishers on the regular-season money list competed against each other for tour priority, with regular-season earnings counting in their totals. Sungjae Im topped the list to earn the No. 1 priority spot of the 50 total cards.

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LaCava pushed Woods to work on bunker game

By Rex HoggardSeptember 24, 2018, 1:52 am

ATLANTA – Last week as Tiger Woods prepared to play the season finale at East Lake he sent a text message to his caddie Joey LaCava that simply asked, what do I need to do to get better?

Although when it comes to Woods his proficiency is always relative, but LaCava didn’t pull any punches, and as the duo completed the final round on Sunday at the Tour Championship with a bunker shot to 7 feet at the last the two traded knowing smiles.

“We had a talk last week about his bunker game and I said, ‘I’m glad you kept that bunker game stuff in mind,’” LaCava said. “I told him he was an average bunker player and he worked at it last week. There were only two bunker shots he didn’t get up-and-down, I don’t count the last one on 18. He recognized that after two days. He was like, ‘What do you know, I’m 100 percent from the bunkers and I’m in the lead after two days.”

Final FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

For the week, Woods got up-and-down from East Lake’s bunkers seven out of nine times and cruised to a two-stroke victory for his first PGA Tour title since 2013. That’s a dramatic improvement over his season average of 49 percent (100th on Tour).

“His bunker game was very average coming into this week,” LaCava said. “I said you’ve got to work on your bunker game. If you had a decent bunker game like the Tiger of old you would have won [the BMW Championship].”

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For Woods, is this only the beginning?

By Damon HackSeptember 24, 2018, 1:42 am

If this is Tiger Woods nine months into a comeback, wait until he actually shakes the rust off.

This was supposed to be the year he kicked the tires, to see how his body held up after all those knives digging into his back.

To see if a short game could truly be rescued from chunks and skulls.

To see if a 42-year-old living legend could outfox the kids.

On the final breath of the PGA Tour season, it was Tiger Woods who took ours away.

Playing alongside Rory McIlroy on Sunday at the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club – and one group behind the current World No. 1 and eventual FedEx Cup champion Justin Rose – Woods bludgeoned the field and kneecapped Father Time. 

It was Dean Smith and the Four Corners offense.  Emmitt Smith moving the chains. Nolan Ryan mowing them down.

And all of a sudden you wonder if Phil Mickelson wishes he’d made alternate Thanksgiving plans.

Even if everybody saw a win coming, it was something else to actually see it happen, to see the man in the red shirt reach another gear just one more time.

Win No. 80 reminded us, as Roger Maltbie once said of Woods when he came back from knee surgery in 2009: “A lot of people can play the fiddle. Only one guy is Itzhak Perlman.”

It wasn’t long ago that Tiger Woods seemed headed toward a disheartening final chapter as a broken man with a broken body.

Final FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

He would host a couple of tournaments, do some great charity work, shout instructions into a walkie talkie at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and call it a career.

There would be no Nicklaus 1986 Masters moment, no Hogan Mystique at Merion.

He would leave competitive golf as perhaps both the greatest to ever play the game and its greatest cautionary tale.

Willie Mays with the New York Mets. Muhammad Ali taking punishment from Larry Holmes.

But then Brad Faxon and Rickie Fowler started whispering at the end of 2017 that Tiger was healthy and hitting the ball hard. 

There was that hold-your-breath opening tee shot at the Hero World Challenge, a bullet that flew the left bunker and bounded into the fairway.

Rollercoaster rides at Tampa and Bay Hill, backward steps at Augusta and Shinnecock, forward leaps at The Open and the PGA.

He switched putters and driver shafts (and shirts, oh my!) and seemed at times tantalizingly close and maddeningly far.

That he even decided to try to put his body and game back together was one of the all-time Hail Marys in golf.

Why go through all of that rehab again?

Why go through the scrutiny of having your current game measured against your untouchable prime?

Because you’re Tiger Woods, is why, because you’ve had way more wonderful days on the golf course than poor ones, despite five winless years on the PGA Tour.

Suddenly, Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour wins is in jeopardy and Jack Nicklaus, holder of a record of 18 major championships, is at the very least paying attention.

Woods has put the golf world on notice.

It won’t be long until everyone starts thinking about the 2019 major schedule (and you’d better believe that Tiger already is).

The Masters, where he has four green jackets and seven other Top 5 finishes. The PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, where he won in 2002 by 3. The United States Open at Pebble Beach, where he won in 2000 by 15.

The Open at Royal Portrush, where his savvy and guile will be a strong 15th club.

But that’s a talk for a later date.

Tiger is clearly still getting his sea legs back.

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Nonfactor McIlroy mum after lackluster 74

By Mercer BaggsSeptember 24, 2018, 1:04 am

ATLANTA – Rory McIlroy didn’t have anything to say to the media after the final round of the Tour Championship, and that’s understandable.

McIlroy began the final round at East Lake three shots behind Tiger Woods. He finished six back.

McIlroy closed in 4-over 74 to tie for seventh place.

In their matchup, Woods birdied the first hole to go four in front, and when McIlroy bogeyed the par-4 fourth, he was five in arrears. McIlroy went on to make three more bogeys, one double bogey and just two birdies.

Final FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

McIlroy was never a factor on Sunday and ultimately finished tied for 13th in the FedExCup standings.

The two rivals, Woods and McIlroy, shared plenty of conversations while walking down the fairways. On the 18th hole, Woods said McIlroy told him the scene was like the 1980 U.S. Open when people were shouting, “Jack’s back!”

“I said, ‘Yeah, I just don’t have the tight pants and the hair,’” Woods joked. “But it was all good.”

It’s now off to Paris for the upcoming Ryder Cup, where Woods and McIlroy will again be foes. It will be McIlroy’s fifth consecutive appearance in the biennial matches, while Woods is making his first since 2012.