Hawk's Nest: Paging Paul Azinger ...

By John HawkinsSeptember 29, 2014, 1:42 pm

Three consecutive losses, each distinct in its own demoralizing fashion. A comeback without completion at Celtic Manor, then a Sunday meltdown at Medinah, then another epic blowout that ended with the team’s most decorated player taking a swipe at his captain.

Not that Phil Mickelson and Tom Watson were BFF’s to begin with, but when you’ve played in 10 Ryder Cups and won two of them, you eventually look for a head on which to hang the goat horns. The pointed truth? Despite Watson’s supposedly inspirational presence as U.S. skipper, this group of Yanks proved to be as inferior as many cynics suspected.

He lost Dustin Johnson. He lost Jason Dufner. He never really had Tiger Woods. It was a squad doomed by timing and consequence, which isn’t to say a full fleet of Americans would have beaten the Europeans at Gleneagles. The home team was stacked, focused and appropriately motivated. Certainly not Europe’s strongest roster ever, but deeper and more talented than the opponent.

So throw this at the wall and see if it sticks: Mickelson’s post-rout callout of Watson might not be such a terrible thing. Lefty’s willingness to compare this latest ill-fated captaincy with that of victorious U.S. skipper Paul Azinger (2008) came with an underlying message: Let’s get serious, let’s get organized. May we all get sick and tired of getting beaten.

“He’s just frustrated by not winning,” Azinger told me Sunday evening. “It came to a head.”

A diplomatic, high-road response, for sure, but eight losses in the last 10 Ryder Cups? Inexcusable. A 1-7 record in foursomes matches this time around? Impossible to overcome, even tougher to explain. Playing another guy’s ball for several hours requires optimal preparation and strategic prudence. This U.S. squad clearly possessed neither quality.

Nothing does a finer job of measuring a team’s compatibility level than the game better known as alternate shot. The other two formats are basically normal golf – you hit it, find it, hit it again. Azinger’s bunch was hardly perfect in alternate shot at Valhalla, claiming four of eight points. After the Euro-thrashings in 2004 and ’06, however, breaking even felt like ground gained.

Too much credit, too much blame. Every Ryder Cup captain must cope with the notion that his legacy is rooted solely in the result, and maybe that’s not such a terrible thing, either. Dufner and Billy Horschel were among those who immediately began campaigning for Azinger’s return (via Twitter) in 2016.

Is Zinger interested?

“Can’t rule it out,” he replied Sunday night.

REALISTICALLY, THERE SHOULD be just two candidates for the United States captaincy in ’16: Azinger and Fred Couples. Anyone who thinks Couples’ laid-back nature might backfire against the Europeans probably has a point, but at this juncture, it’s all about W’s and L’s. Not only did Freddie go 3-0 as Presidents Cup skipper, his squads outscored the Internationals by a whopping 57-45.

If the PGA of America is serious about reversing its Ryder Cup identity, it needs to swallow its collective pride and approach Couples, who doesn’t fit the so-called mold any more or less than did Watson. It’s worth noting that Couples has already accepted a position as one of Jay Haas’ 2015 Presidents Cup assistants, which leads nicely into an idea hatched by GolfChannel.com editorial director Jay Coffin.

Hire one guy to captain the U.S. in both events for two years, perhaps even four. Mimic the template of USA Basketball, which has installed coach Mike Krzyzewski as a fixture and generated a sense of continuity within the program. If we’re going to have two team-match gatherings, there is no good reason why they can’t draw on their common characteristics and make both operations better in the long run.

Forget the politics. Never mind the tangle of egos and other governing-body B.S. Couples would be perfect in the inaugural role of dual skipper, which Coffin describes as such: “go out there and hang with the guys, work on partnerships, have drinks, play Tuesday money games with them, get to know their families, etc.”

Honestly? It probably makes way too much sense for either the PGA of America or the PGA Tour to seriously consider.

IT IS SECOND nature for golf fans to question a Ryder Cup skipper’s personnel decisions. Lanny Wadkins’ risky selection of Curtis Strange as a captain’s pick in 1995, Hal Sutton’s all-or-nothing decision to pair Tiger Woods with Phil Mickelson in 2004 (he got double nothing), Davis Love III’s rally-killer benching of Mickelson/Keegan Bradley in 2012 …

There was plenty to choose from at Gleneagles. Why sit a pair of young bucks (Jordan Spieth/Patrick Reed) immediately after they’d trampled Europe’s most dangerous player (Ian Poulter) Friday morning? Don’t you ride the two rookies for as long as you can, squeezing every drop from them while knowing youth is often impervious to fatigue?

Watson’s biggest and most obvious mistake, however, came the following day. Having proven themselves untouchable at Medinah two years earlier, Mickelson and Bradley teamed up to beat Rory McIlroy/Sergio Garcia in Friday fourballs at Gleneagles. They lost that afternoon, however, and Watson benched both for both sessions Saturday.

It was a move with far-reaching implications, given Philly Mick’s aforementioned post-mortem. “I expected what Phil said to me,” Watson recalled. “He said, ‘We can get it done, Captain. We want the chance.’ I told him the way this golf course sets up, the four teams I put out there gives us the best chance.

“He lobbied again. He texted me, ‘Give us a chance.’ I had to tell him no.”

Regardless of how you feel about Mickelson, he deserved a valid explanation – and he deserved to be told well before he’d warmed up and prepared himself for an afternoon battle. Pragmatically, the move made no sense. Mickelson took a respectable 4-5-4 foursomes record into Gleneagles. His successful partnership with Bradley had emerged as one of America’s most formidable weapons. And with the U.S. trailing by just a point through three sessions, Watson should have leaned on his most proven commodities Saturday afternoon.

Furthermore, a partnership that produces four consecutive big-time victories, then loses once, is not left to rot in a golf cart for an entire day. Not only was Watson’s decision an error, it was a mistake that suggests a personal vendetta – a lousy message issued to a young team on the brink.

As a footnote, there were 27 interview transcripts published Saturday from Gleneagles, not one of which quoted Mickelson or Bradley on the benching. No question in my mind, Lefty knew exactly what he was doing when he took out Watson in full public view the next day. And no wonder the Yanks got thumped.

TOO MUCH CREDIT, too much blame. Not only does this apply to Watson, whose shortcomings as both a captain and communicator turned PGA of America president Ted Bishop’s outside-the-box experiment into a bust, but Mickelson himself. In offering such a candid and visible assessment of the 2014 captain, Philly Mick was roasted by several prominent voices for violating the very essence of appropriate team conduct.

What happens in the team room stays in the team room, or so we’re led to believe. The funny thing about media – some of us chastise guys like Mickelson for talking out of school, then lick up every last crumb, no matter how dirty.

Some of my favorite golf journalists, including Golf Channel teammates Rex Hoggard and Tim Rosaforte, have referred to the U.S. news conference as one of the most awkward moments in Ryder Cup history, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree. It was hard to watch and impossible not to, if you know what I mean.

Perhaps it was also necessary, or at the very least, a much-needed attempt to shake up a system that has produced lousy results for far too long. Bishop chose Watson himself. Why is there no committee for such an important appointment? As I wondered here a couple of weeks ago, why are the U.S. captains’ picks made almost a month before the actual matches – before the final two FedEx Cup playoff events?

In 1999, four U.S. players (Mickelson, Woods, David Duval and Mark O’Meara) became villains for criticizing the PGA of America’s pocketing the immense revenue generated by the Ryder Cup. Their message was poorly represented – and thus, widely misinterpreted – but from that fracas, a reasonable solution was soon reached.

In the 15 years since, the PGA has donated portions of the income to charities as designated by the U.S. team members themselves – $100,000 per player in 2012. So what began as a case of potential squad-rotting dissension turned out to have a productive and happy ending.

Maybe that will happen again. Maybe it won’t, but as anyone can plainly see, the U.S. Ryder Cup program has a whole lot of work ahead of it.

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McCarthy wins Web.com Tour Championship by 4

By Associated PressSeptember 24, 2018, 2:14 am

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Denny McCarthy won the season-ending Web.com 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 Web.com 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 Web.com 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 Web.com 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 Web.com 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.