Changing of the Guard

By Randall MellOctober 3, 2010, 1:01 am

Ryder Cup

NEWPORT, Wales – Tiger Woods isn’t the best player in the world anymore, but he got to see his future successor close up Saturday at the Ryder Cup.

Lee Westwood looked Woods in the eye in the afternoon matches and showed him why he’s going to seize that unofficial title and Woods’ No. 1 world ranking before this year is out, maybe before this month is out.

Despite eight weeks on the bench recovering from a torn calf muscle, Westwood is in razor sharp form at Celtic Manor.

Westwood and Luke Donald are thrashing the American juggernaut in foursomes.

The European combo was leading Woods and Steve Stricker 4 up through nine holes when darkness fell and suspended the match. Woods and Stricker’s first loss as a team in international competition is imminent, and it threatens to tilt this Ryder Cup hard. 

Lee Westwood
Lee Westwood is poised to overtake the world No. 1 ranking. (Getty Images)

Europe’s victory in this match promises to feel like more than a point. Stricker and Woods are unbeaten in international team events, 6-0 overall and 2-0 in this event. American captain Corey Pavin sent them out first to try to keep American momentum going after a strong morning foursomes showing, but Europe struck fast.

Westwood holed birdie putts at the first and second holes to put the Euros 2 up in advancing a charge that would see the Europeans ahead in all six matches when play was suspended.

“Lee Westwood is my top-ranked player, and has proved it, simple as that,” European captain Colin Montgomerie said. “He’s been unbelievable in the team room, in the locker room, on the range, on the course, some of the shots he hits.”

Westwood threatens to extend his Ryder Cup mastery over Woods. He’s 5-1 against Woods in the biennial matches, though they’ve never played in singles. A Sunday singles matchup would be perfect, but that will depend on fate with the captains filing their lineups without the benefit of seeing each other’s plan.

A head-to-head matchup might set up the changing of the guard this fall. Westwood, 37, a 20-time European Tour winner, is a man who appears on the rise. Woods is a man trying to regain confidence.

Despite eight weeks away recuperating, Westwood will make a major move in Monday’s new world ranking. European Tour officials who administer the rankings confirmed that Westwood will move to No. 2, bumping Phil Mickelson down to No. 3.

With Woods off his best form, and with no plans to play again until the HSBC Champions the first week of November, Westwood is positioned to overtake Woods. Westwood is scheduled to play the Alfred Dunhill Links next week and is likely to play the Portugal Masters the week after. Westwood can overtake Woods by finishing among the top 20 or better in both those events.

Westwood’s rise to No. 1 would generate some debate about whether he’s actually the world’s best player. Though he’s finished tied for third or better in four of the last five major championships he’s played, Westwood’s never won a major. He said not being able to play the PGA Championship in August and not being able to mount a run at the No. 1 ranking was difficult.

“Very very frustrating,” Westwood said at week’s start. “But at the same time, nobody's stepped up to the plate and grasped the bat and run with it really and gone away from me. I'm quite fortunate in that regard. I expected people around me to, especially with the tournaments that we have been playing, and with so many world ranking points available in the FedEx Cup, I expected to be further behind than I am. So I'm quite pleased with the position I'm still in.”

Despite his 2-0 mark with Stricker this week, Woods has struggled, especially in the Westwood-Donald match. While he’s improving in making over his swing with Sean Foley, he needs more time. Stricker’s hot putter has helped hide some of Woods’ shortcomings.

Westwood, on the other hand, has been rising to the occasion since the moment he took the first tee to hit the opening shot for the Europeans in this Ryder Cup. Westwood wanted the honor. He told Montgomerie so, and he striped that first shot down the middle. He wants the No. 1 world ranking, too. He’s telling Woods that with his play so far this week.

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Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."

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Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.

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Pavin's season nearly ends after slow-play penalty

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 1:50 pm

Corey Pavin's season on the PGA Tour Champions nearly came to an end because of a slow-play penalty.

Penalties for pace are often discussed or threatened, but rarely doled out on either the PGA Tour or the over-50 circuit. But that changed Sunday during the final round of the Dominion Energy Charity Classic, where Pavin was told by a rules official after completing his round that he would receive a 1-stroke penalty for slow play.

The penalty was on the surface rather harmless, turning an even-par 72 into a 1-over 73 and dropping Pavin into a tie for 15th. But this was the first event of a three-tournament postseason for PGA Tour Champions players, and only the top 54 in points advanced to this week's Invesco QQQ Championship.

Full-field scores from the Dominion Energy Charity Classic

Pavin, who has two top-10 finishes in 20 starts this season, barely held on at 53rd place after the penalty was enforced.

Slow-play discussions came up earlier this season surrounding Bernhard Langer at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, but Golf Channel analyst Lanny Wadkins expressed his surprise on the telecast that it was Pavin who got a shot added to his score.

"Of all the things to happen with all the times I have played - I can't even count the number of rounds - I never thought Corey Pavin was a slow player," Wadkins said. "All the guys we know are slow players have never been penalized out here. Where has this been for the last 15 years?"

The subject of the penalty also raised an eyebrow from Stephen Ames, who finished alongside Pavin in 15th place while Langer finished second behind Woody Austin:

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Azinger 'lobbied' to captain Ryder Cup team a second time

By Rex HoggardOctober 22, 2018, 1:47 pm

In 2008, Paul Azinger became the first U.S. Ryder Cup captain in nearly a decade to lead a team to victory, doing so at Valhalla with his innovative “pod” system and a player-driven approach to leadership.

In the wake of that victory there were many, including the vast majority of his players, who said Azinger deserved a second chance to captain, but at the time the 12-time PGA Tour winner appeared to be undecided and the PGA of America named Corey Pavin the 2010 captain.

On Monday, Azinger was named NBC Sports/Golf Channel’s lead analyst starting next year and among many revelations during an extended interview on “Morning Drive” he explained how much he wanted a second chance to captain.

“I wanted to do it again, I lobbied to do it again after we won in ’08, but I think I waited a little too long and they had already made a decision,” Azinger said. “The excuse I got was that there are more captains than there are Ryder Cups and I thought that was fair, but then they asked [Tom] Watson to do it again shortly afterward and I was like, ‘What, huh?’”

Watson was named captain of the 2014 U.S. team, which lost by five points and led to the creation of the Ryder Cup task force, which adopted many of Azinger’s ideas including his use of four-player pods.

It’s even more curious that Azinger was never given a second chance considering that Davis Love III was also named a captain twice, first in 2012 and again in ’16.

“I didn’t do it again, I didn’t carry the flag to Europe in 2010, which is fine, and now I’m never going to get to do it again,” he said.

As for who may be named the next U.S. captain after another loss to the Europeans last month in France Azinger could only speculate. “Looks like Wisconsin [site of the 2020 matches at Whistling Straits] and Steve Stricker are going to be a perfect match,” he said.