Hawk's Nest: Masters wins in the end

By John HawkinsApril 15, 2013, 2:31 pm

Upon winning the 2004 Players Championship, where he knocked his approach into the water on the 18th, then holed a 10-footer to beat Padraig Harrington by a stroke, Adam Scott hurled his golf ball into a grandstand behind the green, as champions occasionally do. While standing at the foot of those bleachers, I saw Scott’s ball soar over my head, then heard the commotion you might expect when a bunch of people are fighting over a $3 Titleist.

For some reason, I turned and looked up. The ball bounced off a wooden plank, then another, before falling to me like a Snickers bar in a vending machine. I briefly thought about throwing it back into the crowd, but I stuck it in my pocket instead and approached Scott after he’d wrapped up his interview in the media center.

“Hey, you want this?” I asked.

“How did you get that?” he replied, looking a bit more annoyed than perplexed.

I should have told him I beat up a 6-year-old and pushed an old lady off the top row, or that I planned to sell the ball on eBay after he signed it for me, but Scott is way too nice a guy to mess with. A genuinely good-hearted person. Excellent manners. Clearly, he was raised properly, but there is a gentlemanly quality to him even beyond the positive effects of a good mother and father.

The parallels between Scott and Davis Love III have always been striking to me. Not just the ultra-similar personalities, but the textbook golf swing, the teaching-pro dad – and the notion that both were high-profile underachievers because they lacked a mean streak or a killer instinct. Neither was particularly sharp on and around the greens, leading to almost identical labels.

It may not have been the fairest way to appraise the two players, but nobody exactly disputed the notion, either.

Now Scott is an undeniably worthy Masters champion, holing clutch putts and striking the ball exceptionally well to outlast Angel Cabrera in a two-hole playoff. In a week that featured a Tiger Woods overdose even before the two-stroke penalty, at a tournament where the youngest kid ever to make the cut at a major was penalized a stroke for slow play, a Masters to remember had a happy ending.

When Scott fell apart down the stretch at last summer’s British Open and blew a four-stroke lead with four to play, I processed everything I knew about him and figured he’d have a difficult time overcoming the collapse. Not just in the short-term, but for the duration of his career. It was an epic meltdown – the kind that leaves a permanent mark on many.

For him to rebound two majors later and win the way he did speaks volumes about Scott’s competitive character. His PGA Tour career began over a decade ago amid considerable fanfare, although it quickly became clear Scott’s short game wasn’t nearly good enough to help him win tournaments on a regular basis. He’ll never be a Seve but, no question, he has gotten a lot better.

As was the case with Love, Scott consistently failed to factor at the majors throughout his first eight seasons – just three top-10s in his first 36 starts – which can be blamed on his inability to get up and down. At the 2008 Byron Nelson Championship, which Scott won on a brutally chilly May afternoon in Dallas, I remember him being in a particularly reflective mood. He had just climbed to third in the world ranking, meaning he’d be paired with No. 1 Tiger Woods and No 2 Phil Mickelson at the upcoming U.S. Open.

We talked for a while, most of the time with just a couple of other people around. As likeable as he was, as well-grounded as he sounded, Scott was about to become a 28-year-old in serious transition. He would buy a private jet, break up with Marie Kojzar, his live-in girlfriend, and part ways with longtime swing coach Butch Harmon.

To me, it didn’t add up. Had Scott made enough money to afford his own jet? Who was giving him advice? Sergio Garcia goes into the tank after a busted relationship with Greg Norman’s daughter. Now Greg Norman’s protégé appears to be flying blind. Golf’s two most capable post-Woods phenoms were getting nowhere fast. Had life for Adam and Sergio gotten too easy?

Scott would go two full years (2009-10) without doing much. Since finishing second at the 2011 Masters, then hiring former Woods caddie Steve Williams that summer, the Aussie has become a much tougher, more visible big-game competitor. He may never evolve into the five-major, 25-victory superstar many people envisioned a decade ago, but on a cloudy, rainy Sunday at Augusta National, Scott slayed the demons and seized the moment with a strength some didn’t know he had.

A more likeable Masters champion, you will not find. Oh, and by the way? Scott didn’t want that ball he’d thrown into the stands after winning The Players. I gave it to a kid who was waiting for his autograph outside the clubhouse that evening.

IT WAS A very interesting Masters before Scott’s dramatic triumph, shaped in large part by the two rules-related incidents that just happened to involve the tournament’s most newsworthy participants. A one-stroke penalty slapped on Tianlang Guan, two strokes issued to Woods. And approximately 60 million words of reaction, give or take a syllable, as any high-profile ruling (and subsequent sanction) is sure to generate.

Some thoughts:

We can talk forever about whether they were picking on the 14-year-old from China, but pro golf has a serious slow-play problem – and European Tour official John Paramour seems to be the only person willing to do something about it. Paramour has been around for a long time, and if there’s one thing you should know about him, it’s that he never looks the other way.

The PGA Tour is full of really nice officials who never call penalties, who reflexively give players the benefit of the doubt and do whatever they can not to affect the outcome of a tournament. Paramour is old-school – the tough cop who doesn’t care about the identity of the player committing a violation or why it was committed.

I seriously doubt the penalty assessed to Guan will lead to more stringent enforcement of the pace-of-play policy, but at least Paramour reminded us that somebody’s paying attention.

THERE’S SOMETHING RATHER humorous about Rule 33-7, which basically allows golf’s lawmen to fix something they screwed up or missed earlier. On that note, I think it was implemented to fine effect in regard to Tiger’s drop at the 15th Friday. Understandably, my weekend chats were dominated by voices of protest, which means absolutely nothing.

About half of golf’s universe despises Woods, period. The other half adores him, so public opinion on this matter is even more irrelevant than usual. To me, the two-stroke assessment felt like a backhanded compromise. Disqualification became a non-option after Woods was cleared of any wrongdoing before signing his scorecard. Yet, he unwittingly admitted to taking an illegal drop in a post-round interview, so the green jackets felt like something had to be done.

There’s no question in my mind: Tiger didn’t know the precise specifics of the drop rule. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have said what he said on TV. What’s funny is, he tried to be candid and honest about what happened – and it ultimately cost him. Did it ultimately affect his performance on the weekend? Come on. The guy’s a lot tougher than that.

Woods didn’t win the 2013 Masters because he didn’t play well enough. Once again, his putting at Augusta National was slipshod. I’ve never seen him leave a putt 15 short, as he did on the fifth green Sunday. He made 15 birdies for the week, seven of them on the par 5s, but his inability to score on Augusta National’s back nine has been a problem for several years, never more so than this past week.

When the world’s best players gather at Merion in two months for the U.S. Open, it will mark the five-year anniversary of Woods’ last major title. The only consistent trait he has displayed over that period is a penchant for putting himself in excellent position through 36 holes, then doing nothing with it. With each passing failure, Mount Nicklaus gets a little higher. Nineteen major victories? I’ve got an idea. How ’bout we get to 15?

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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Web.com Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.