Hawks Nest: The Players needs a dose of drama

By John HawkinsMay 6, 2013, 2:39 pm

The list of things that scare me is rather short: driving over a bridge on a windy day, the unruly presence of nose hair as my life approaches the 13th tee – and stroke play. Back when I hit a 6-iron 155 yards and missed one 4-footer a month, counting every swing in a tournament didn’t bother me. I even won a couple of rattle-bottom championships at the Little Brown Dog, mainly because my ball was easier to find than those of other competent players.

For some perverse reason, our golf chairman added an 18-hole stroke-play event to the spring calendar, and this past weekend we cranked out more doubles and triples than a Wendy’s franchise – our fearless medalist piled up six birdies, shot 2 over par and still won by five.

The key to coping with those inexcusable 7s? Relax, someone else will make an 8 in a matter of minutes. It’s not every day that I shoot 84 without losing a ball, or that such a bloated score earns me a tie for fourth overall. Hey, it’s early. When it comes to knowing where it’s going, my GPS doesn’t show up until June 1 at the earliest.

“That’s 84 gross, right?” my assistant pro asked.

“You’re not kidding,” I told him.

IT IS WHAT it is. Before those five words became America’s answer to everything, the default explanation promoted to contemporary cliché, the phrase had relevance as a description of The Players Championship. And what is The Players? A very good golf tournament marketed ceaselessly by an organization that boasts a majority of the world’s best golfers – but holds no jurisdiction over the game’s four major championships.

This will be the seventh Players held in May since it was moved from late March in 2007. Is it bigger and better now? I would say not. The event’s competitive disposition and scoring trends haven’t changed much, if at all. Other than in 2005 and ’08, when high winds made TPC Sawgrass much tougher, the winning total has landed between 272 and 276 every year since 2004.

Over that stretch, only Phil Mickelson had won a major title before claiming a Players. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the list of guys who hoisted Tim Finchem’s crystal was full of top-tier players, which isn’t to demean the guys who have won it since. Simply put, the golf course was designed to punish bad shots far more than reward good ones, and in recent years, the emphasis on playing safe, position-oriented golf has almost become mandatory.

That has led to some mundane finishes. Or someone losing the tournament instead of a player catching fire down the stretch to win it. The Players is about treading gently around the landmines, as Matt Kuchar did last year, because nobody’s going to chase down a leader with birdies on the 17th and 18th.

Drama can come in many forms, however, and there have been some thrilling Players finishes: Fred Couples over Colin Montgomerie and Tommy Tolles in 1996; Hal Sutton over Tiger Woods in 2000; Craig Perks in 2002. I guess you could throw in Sergio Garcia over Paul Goydos in 2008, but like many editions of this tournament, that one was decided on a Goydos mistake.

We’re due for a slam-bang conclusion this week. Sooner or later, the law of averages has to prevail, doesn’t it?

SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS on the old fifth major – pro golf’s version of what Stu Sutcliffe was in the Beatles:

• The par-5 16th at Sawgrass is a great hole – a terrific risk-reward opportunity and not marred by an over-cluttered design, as are so many holes on the course. Sort of like a poor man’s 13th at Augusta, at least in terms of scoring swings; although, the two holes couldn’t look more different. (Click here for Frank Nobilo's tee-to-green look at TPC Sawgrass)

• I’ve never understood why they haven’t added some tee boxes at the par-3 17th. There is plenty of room on both sides of the current teeing ground to change the angle of the shot (often a 9-iron or wedge) and make things more interesting. I totally agree with Woods’ assessment that it’s silly to have an island green on the second-to-last hole on the course but hey, it’s not like they’re going to change that anytime over the next couple of centuries.

• Speaking of Woods, why hasn’t Eldrick Almighty played well at Sawgrass in recent years? There are a lot of restrictive driving holes, which not only compromises his power, but his ability to get comfortable visualizing certain tee shots. Back when he lost to Sutton, then picked up his only Players victory a year later, there wasn’t a golf course Woods couldn’t play.

He had a 43-inch driver with a steel shaft, which allowed him to shape the ball more efficiently and position himself for scoring chances. At this point, I’m not totally convinced he cares whether he wins another Players.

ON AUG. 1, 1999, I spent four hours on the back of the Sawgrass practice range with Vijay Singh, my tape recorder running until I ran out of cassettes. As one might expect at that time of the year in northern Florida, it was a brutally hot day, but I don’t recall Singh not hitting balls for any extended length of time during the interview.

I’d ask a question and Singh would answer it, sometimes while hitting a shot in mid-sentence. The man came across as fiercely proud, speaking of his struggles as a young pro in the early 1980s with a cool defiance. Make no mistake: the guy could be very engaging, his playful sense of humor punctuated by a high-pitched laugh. He also made it clear that you didn’t want to cross him, either.

We spoke at length about the cheating incident that led to an indefinite suspension on the Asian Tour in 1985. Singh was candid, perhaps a little defensive, but things went fine until we reached the Sawgrass parking lot that afternoon and I asked for permission to speak to his wife.

He told me that wasn’t going to happen. I told him I couldn’t produce a responsible piece of journalism without talking to the one person who had gone through all the tough times with him, but it didn’t matter. Singh wasn’t giving in, and I wasn’t going to push the issue to the point where things got confrontational.

That said, the story was dead. When Singh won the Masters the following spring, I used stuff from the Sawgrass interview for my article in Golf World magazine, driving home the point that Singh’s career immediately began to take flight after the suspension. He’d spent the year beating balls and getting motivated. When he moved on to the European Tour in the mid-1980s, nothing was going to stop him from making it big.

The piece was highly complementary – I mean, the guy had just won the Masters – but when I ran into him at Hilton Head the following week and asked him if he’d seen the story, Singh responded, “I’m never talking to you again.” I was blown away by his reaction. And to this day, other than when I tried to reconcile the situation eight or nine years later, that has indeed been the case.

Fast forward to last week, when Tour commissioner Tim Finchem decided not to penalize Singh for his admitted use of deer-antler spray. Having previously written here that I thought a suspension was in order, I underestimated Finchem’s ability to think his way through a tough issue, and ultimately, find legal justification for letting Singh off the hook.

In this case, it came in the form of a recent conclusion by scientists that deer-antler spray provided little or no advantage to athletes – and that testing for the substance was hit or miss. This doesn’t change the fact that Singh used a banned substance when it was on the banned-substance list, but what’s done is done. I don’t agree with the commissioner’s action but respect and understand his position.

A number of Tour pros expressed mixed feelings on the ruling, which probably says more about the verdict than anything. During six hours of chat last Thursday and Friday, however, I received a grand total of one question on the Singh pardon. This in stark contrast to the dozens of replies regarding my belief that Woods won’t break Jack Nicklaus’ career-majors record.

Maybe even serious golf fans don’t really care about Singh anymore. Or maybe his legacy has been further tainted by this whole affair, and at this point, there’s nothing left for anyone to say.

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Woods' final round is highest-rated FEC telecast ever

By Golf Channel DigitalSeptember 24, 2018, 9:05 pm

We've heard it a million times: Tiger Woods doesn't just move the needle, he IS the needle.

Here's more proof.

NBC Sports Group's final-round coverage of Woods claiming his 80th career victory in the Tour Championship earned a 5.21 overnight rating, making it the highest-rated telecast in the history of the FedExCup Playoffs and the highest-rated PGA Tour telecast in 2018 (excluding majors).

The rating was up 206 percent over 2017's Tour Championship.

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Coverage peaked from 5:30-6PM ET (7.19) as Woods finished his round and as Justin Rose was being crowned the FedExCup champion. That number trailed only the 2018 peaks for the Masters (11.03) and PGA Championship (8.28). The extended coverage window (1:30-6:15 PM ET) posted a 4.35 overnight rating, which is the highest-rated Tour Championship telecast on record.

Sunday’s final round also saw 18.4 million minutes streamed across NBC Sports Digital platforms (up 561 percent year-over-year), and becomes the most-streamed NBC Sports Sunday round (excluding majors) on record.

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Randall's Rant: Woods' comeback story ranks No. 1

By Randall MellSeptember 24, 2018, 8:40 pm

We’re marveling again.

This time over the essence of the man as much as the athlete, over what Tiger Woods summoned to repair, rebuild and redeem himself, after scandal and injury so ruinously rocked his career.

We watched in wonder Sunday as Woods completed the greatest comeback in the history of sport.

That’s how we’re ranking this reconstruction of a champion. (See the rankings below.)

We marveled over the admiration that flooded into the final scene of his victory at the Tour Championship, over the wave of adoring fans who enveloped him as he marched up the 18th fairway.

This celebration was different from his coronation, when he won the Masters by 12 shots in 1997, or his masterpiece, when he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots in 2000, or his epic sweep, when he won at Augusta National in ’01 to claim his fourth consecutive major championship title.

The awe back then was over how invincible Woods could seem in a sport where losing is the week-to-week norm, over how he could decimate the competition as no other player ever has.

The awe today is as much over the transformed nature of the rebuilt man.

It’s about what he has overcome since his aura of invincibility was decimated in the disgrace of a sex scandal, in the humiliation of a videotape of a DUI arrest, in the pain of four back surgeries and four knee surgeries and in the maddening affliction of chipping yips and driving and putting woes.

The wonder is also in imagining the fierce inventory of self-examination that must have been grueling, and in the mustering of inner strength required to overcome foes more formidable than Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and today’s other stars.

It’s in Woods overcoming shame, ridicule, doubt and probably some despair to rebuild his life outside the game before he could rebuild his life in the game.

Woods may never let us know the detail or depth of those inner challenges, of what helped him prevail in his more spiritual battles, because he’s still fiercely private. He may never share the keys to rebuilding his sense of himself, but he’s more open than he has ever been. He shares more than he ever has.

As a father of two children, as a mentor to so many of today’s young players, there’s more depth to the picture of this champion today. There also is more for fans to relate to in his struggles than his success. There’s more of the larger man to marvel over.

The greatest comebacks in the history of sports:

1. Tiger Woods

Four back surgeries and four knee surgeries are just part of the story. It’s why Woods ranks ahead of Ben Hogan. Woods’ comeback was complicated by so many psychological challenges, by the demon doubts created in his sex scandal and DUI arrest. There was shame and ridicule to overcome on a public stage. And then there were the chipping yips, and the driving and putting woes.

2. Ben Hogan

On Feb. 2, 1949, a Greyhound bus attempting to pass a truck slammed head on into Hogan’s Cadillac on a Texas highway. Hogan probably saved his life throwing himself over the passenger side to protect his wife, Valerie. He suffered a double fracture of the pelvis, a cracked rib, a fractured collarbone and a broken ankle, but it was a blood clot that nearly killed him a few weeks later. Hogan needed 16 months to recover but would return triumphantly to win the 1950 U.S. Open and five more majors after that.

3. Niki Lauda

In the bravest sporting comeback ever, Lauda returned to grand prix racing 38 days after his Ferrari burst into flames in a crash in a race in Germany in 1976. Disfigured from severe burns, the reigning Formula One world champion was back behind the wheel at the Italian Grand Prix, finishing fourth. He won the world championship again in ’77 and ’84.

4. Greg LeMond

In 1987, LeMond was shot and nearly killed in a hunting accident. Two years later, he won his second Tour de France title. A year after that, he won it again.

5. Babe Zaharias

In 1953, Babe Zaharias underwent surgery for colon cancer. A year later, she won the U.S. Women’s Open wearing a colostomy bag. She also went on to win the Vare Trophy for low scoring average that year.

6. Monica Seles

Away from tennis for two years after being stabbed with a knife between the shoulder blades during a match in Germany, Seles won in her return to competition at the 1995 Canadian Open. She was the highest ranked women’s tennis player in the world at the time of the attack.

7. Lance Armstrong

After undergoing chemotherapy treatment in a battle with potentially fatal metastatic testicular cancer in 1996, Armstrong recovered and went on to win seven Tour de France titles. Of course, the comeback wasn’t viewed in the same light after he was stripped of all those titles after being implicated in a doping conspiracy.

8. Mario Lemieux

In the middle of the 1992-93 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins star underwent radiation treatment for Hodgkin disease and missed 20 games. Making a start the same day as his last treatment, Lemieux scored a goal and assist. The Penguins would go on a 17-game winning streak after his return and Lemieux would lead the league in scoring and win the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

9. Peyton Manning

Multiple neck surgeries and a spinal fusion kept Manning from playing with the Indianapolis Colts for the entire 2011 season. He was released before the 2012 season and signed with the Denver Broncos. He won his fifth NFL MVP Award in ’13 and helped the Broncos win the Super Bowl in the ’15 season.

10. Bethany Hamilton

A competitive surfer at 13, Hamilton lost her left arm in a shark attack in Hawaii. A month later, she was surfing again. Less than two years later, she was a national champion.

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Woods' win makes us wonder, what's next?

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 24, 2018, 6:35 pm

The red shirt and ground-shaking roars.

The steely glare and sweet swings.

The tactical precision and ruthless efficiency.

If not for the iPhone-wielding mob following his every move, you’d swear that golf had been transported to the halcyon days of the early 2000s.

The Tiger Time Machine kicked into overdrive at East Lake, where Woods won for the first time in 1,876 days and suddenly put two of the sport’s most hallowed numbers – 82 and 18 – back in play.

“I didn’t understand how people could say he lost this and lost that,” said Hank Haney, Woods’ former swing coach. “He is so good. He’s Tiger Woods. He’s won 79 times. If he can swing, he can win again.”

The only disappointing part of win No. 80 is that Woods will have to wait four months for another meaningful chance to build upon it. That’s a shame, because all of the pieces are in place for him to make a sustained run, and the Tour Championship might just be the start of an unimaginable final act.

A season that began with questions about whether a 42-year-old Woods could survive a full schedule with no setbacks ended with him saving his best for last, when his younger, healthier peers seemed to be gassed. Taking his recovery week by week, Woods ended up making 18 starts – his second-heaviest workload since 2005 – and never publicly complained of any discomfort, only the occasional stiffness that comes with having a fused lower spine.

Remember when Woods’ tanking world ranking was punch-line material? Now he’s all the way up to No. 13 – not bad for a guy who was 1,199th when he returned to competition last December at the Hero World Challenge. Nowhere close to reaching his 40-event minimum divisor, he’ll continue to accrue points and charge up the rankings, putting the game’s top players on notice.

Final FedExCup standings

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The victory at East Lake moves Woods only two shy of Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour wins record (82), a goal that seemed unthinkable a year and a half ago, when he was bedridden following the Hail Mary fusion surgery. And for those wondering whether he’s capable of chasing down Big Jack, remember that Woods almost picked off two majors this summer, at Carnoustie and Bellerive, with a body and swing that was constantly evolving. 

Indeed, in an era of TrackMans and coaching stables designed to maximize a player’s performance, Woods has refreshingly gone back to his roots. It always seemed incongruous, watching the game’s most brilliant golf mind scrutinize down-the-line swing video, and so this year he has been a solo act, relying on old feels to guide his new move. The credit for this resurgence is his alone. 

Sure, there were growing pains, lots of them, and for months each tournament turned into golf’s version of Whack-a-Mole, as yet another issue arose. The two clubs that most consistently held Woods back were his driver and putter, but recent improvements portend well for the future.

After wayward tee shots cost him the PGA, Woods changed the loft and shaft on his TaylorMade driver. For years, even while injured, he violently attacked the ball in a vain attempt to hang with the big hitters. But these tweaks to his gamer (resulting in lower swing speed and carry distance) were a concession that accuracy was more vital to his success than power. His newfound discipline was rewarded: He ended the season with four consecutive weeks of positive strokes gained: off the tee statistics, and on Sunday he put on a clinic while Rory McIlroy, one of the game’s preeminent drivers, thrashed around in the trees. Woods is still plenty long, closing out his victory with a 348-yard rocket on 18, and from the middle of the fairway he can rely on his vintage iron play. 

His troubles with the putter weren’t as quick of a fix. Frustrated with his inconsistent performance on the greens, Woods briefly flirted with other models before rekindling his love affair with his old Scotty Cameron, the trusty putter with which he’s won 13 of his 14 majors. It’s exceedingly rare for a player to overcome the frayed nerve endings and putt better in his 40s than his 30s, but Woods was downright masterful on East Lake’s greens.

“It’s more satisfaction than anything,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “People have no idea how much work he put into this.”

By almost any statistical measure, Woods’ season-long numbers suggest that he’s already back among the game’s elite – even after struggling to walk and swing for the past four years. He’s the best iron player in the game. He finished the season ranked seventh in strokes gained: tee to green. And after his normally stellar short game went MIA for a few years, his play around the greens appeared as sharp as ever.

And so on Sunday, while watching Woods school the top 30 players on Tour, even Johnny Miller got caught up in the latest edition of Tigermania.

“He’s not looking like he could win a couple more,” Miller said. “He’s looking like he could win A LOT more.”

Where Woods’ story is headed – to No. 1 in the world, to the top of Mt. Nicklaus, to the operating table – is anyone’s guess, because this comeback has already defied any reasonable logic or expectation.

He’s come back from confidence-shattering performances at Phoenix (chip yips) and Memorial (85) and even his own media-day event where he humiliatingly rinsed a series of wedge shots.

He’s come back from four back surgeries and pain so debilitating that his kids once found him face down in the backyard; pain so unbearable that he used to keep a urine bucket next to his bed, because he couldn’t schlep his battered body to the bathroom.

He’s come back from an addiction so deep that in May 2017 police found him slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes, five drugs coursing through his system, a shocking and sad DUI arrest that was the catalyst for this clear-eyed comeback.

All of the months of unhappiness and uncertainty nearly came pouring out afterward – the culmination of a remarkable journey from turmoil to redemption that ranks among the most unlikely in sports history. Woods fought back tears as thousands formed a big green mosh pit and chanted his name, a surreal scene even for this larger-than-life legend. Hugging LaCava, Woods said into his caddie’s ear, over and over: “We did it! We did it! We did it!” 

“He’s pumped up,” LaCava said later. “I’ve never seen him this excited.”

And not just for this moment, but for the future.

The prospects are as tantalizing as ever. 

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DJ may keep cross-handed grip for Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardSeptember 24, 2018, 4:29 pm

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – As he’s proven in the past Dustin Johnson isn’t averse to switching things up when it comes to his putting, but this was extreme even for him.

Johnson switched to a cross-handed grip on the sixth hole during Saturday’s third round at the Tour Championship and continued to use the same grip through the final round.

It was the first time he’d putted cross-handed in competition and the first time he switched his grip mid-round.

Ryder Cup: Articles, photos and videos

“I did it a few times on the putting green. Sometimes I do it on the putting green just to get my setup a little bit better because it just levels out my shoulders,” said Johnson, who closed his week at East Lake with a 67 and finished alone in third place. “I was putting well. I hit some bad putts for the first five holes, so after I hit a really bad putt for eagle on 6, the next one I tried it, I made it, so I kept it going.”

Johnson, who moved back into the top spot in the World Golf Ranking thanks to his third-place finish, was encouraged by his putting on the weekend but he was vague when asked if he planned to putt cross-handed this week at the Ryder Cup.

“We're going to stick with it for now. We'll try it,” he said.