Players leery of being paired with Woods

By Randall MellMarch 14, 2010, 6:57 am

2010 WGC-CA Championship

DORAL, Fla. – Tiger Woods’ presence is inescapable.

They’re playing through it yet again at the WGC-CA Championship with a mushroom cloud of speculation erupting over high-profile reports of the possibility of Woods’ imminent return.

Two weeks ago, Woods was reported to be working hard on his game with swing coach Hank Haney at his Isleworth home outside Orlando. Last week, Jack Nicklaus said he couldn’t “in a hundred years” imagine that Woods will not play the Masters. Thursday, the New York Post reported that Woods had hired former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to prepare a return at the Arnold Palmer Invitational with The Associated Press citing sources later that same day saying the Masters is more likely the target for his return.

While nobody outside Woods’ camp seems sure when Woods will end his self-imposed exile, players are beginning to prepare for a jolt unlike anything tournament golf’s ever seen.

“I anticipate a zoo,” 13-time PGA Tour winner Jim Furyk said of the atmosphere that will accompany Woods’ return.

While Furyk said he welcomes Woods rejoining the PGA Tour, he’s wary of the insanity that’s likely to come with his initial appearance. Furyk isn’t alone.

“It’s going to be an absolute circus,” four-time European Tour winner Graeme McDowell said.

While PGA Tour pros are eager for the boost Woods is expected to bring their sport in his return, there’s some trepidation, too. Who wants a spot in the center ring when the circus first hits town? Who wants to be paired with Woods in his first start back? Privately, a lot of players are dreading the possibility.

“Most players won’t mind if they’re left out of that,” two-time PGA Tour winner Henrik Stenson said.

Woods’ return promises to be more trumpeted than any sport’s ever seen.

It promises to surpass the frenzy that accompanied Muhammad Ali’s comeback in 1970 after he was suspended and stripped of his boxing title following his arrest for draft evasion.

Or Michael Jordan’s return to basketball in 1995 after his first retirement.

Or Ben Hogan’s comeback in 1950 just 11 months after he was nearly killed when his car crashed into a bus.

“When Tiger Woods returns, it will be the focus of intergalactic attention,” said Rick Horrow, CNN’s sports business analyst.

PGA Tour pros are as curious as media and players about what Woods will be like when he re-emerges, but the players are even more invested in the answer. How Woods returns, where he returns, impacts them in practical ways as his “co-workers.”

They’ll be watching with the deadline to commit to the Arnold Palmer Invitational approaching Friday.

Whenever Woods comes back, there are serious questions for his Tour brethren to consider.

How will galleries welcome back their best player? Is the ugly and unruly kind of fan that so many other sports know poised to invade the genteel world of tournament golf? In that regard, will all Woods’ colleagues pay a price for his indiscretions?

The most pressing question within the player ranks, though, focuses on how the scandal has impacted Woods’ game.

Did the public disgrace crack his protective armor?

Has shame damaged the confidence that’s made him such a formidable champion?

Will Woods return without his aura of invincibility?

“There’s no doubt we’re wondering about that,” McDowell said. “If he doesn’t come back and win quick, there’s no doubt his force field’s gone a little bit. All of a sudden, he’s more human. I think guys will view him more that way. His golf life had been perfection personified for 15 years, or whatever it’s been. His off-course life seemed squeaky clean as well.

“This guy’s been God-like. I think other players looked at him and said, `This guy’s unbelievable.’ All of a sudden, there’s a chink in the armor. Whether that equates to less invincibility on the golf course, I don’t know. Let’s hope, for our sake, he is less invincible, because let’s be honest, he’s pretty hard to beat when he’s on his game.”

Woods’ return will have the most jarring effect on players paired with him.

If he makes his return at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he’ll fall into his traditional PGA Tour pairing category with other tournament winners. A computer will spit out his partners from among players who fall into that same category.

If he makes his return at Augusta National, Masters’ officials will choose who plays with him.

“I’m eager for him to get back out here, hopefully sooner rather than later,” said Steve Stricker, an eight-time PGA Tour winner who calls Woods his friend. “I don’t know if being in his group the first time he comes back is going to be easy. It will definitely be a challenge. I’ve thought about it. In some regard, you would like to be out there, to be with him the first time. Hopefully, that would make it easier for him, but it’s going to be hard for him and everyone in that group.”

Though security promises to be strong around Woods, with uniformed law enforcement officers expected inside the ropes and undercover security outside the ropes, players aren’t sure what to expect from the fans who won’t necessarily be coming to watch golf.

“If you get in a situation where people are heckling and trying to irritate him, they’re going to irritate other players,” Furyk said. “It definitely has a trickle-down effect.”

Woods’ situation has been mercilessly mocked since reports of his marital infidelity became public following the early morning incident of Nov. 27, when he crashed his SUV into a neighbor’s fire hydrant and tree. When Woods made his televised apology at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse in Ponte Vedra Beach last month, three women dressed like strippers stood on the highway near the club’s entrance holding signs that read: “Pick me!” During the Farmers Insurance Open, a plane circled around the course carrying a banner that read: “We miss you Tiger! Déjà vu Showgirls.” Earlier this week, shock jock Howard Stern staged the Tiger Woods Mistress Beauty Pageant with three of Woods’ alleged mistresses competing.

The prospect of E! Online, People Magazine and supermarket tabloids entering the realm of tournament coverage gives players pause.

“Talking to the golf media [about Woods] isn’t a problem,” Furyk said. “It’s talking to outlets that don’t normally cover golf and ask the craziest questions, questions that are irrelevant.”

 These are the elements of Woods’ return players dread, but they also see a great upside.

“I’m excited about when he comes back,” three-time PGA Tour winner Ryan Palmer said. “When he first came out on Tour, there was a curiosity about him that brought people to the game. The curiosity is back, and it’s even greater.

“I think we’re going to have more people watching than ever before, and I expect he’ll come out stronger than ever. I won’t be surprised if he wins by a bunch right away.”

Palmer said he would relish being paired with Woods upon his return.

“I think we’re all excited about getting this over with and getting him back out here doing what he does best,” McDowell said. “To say we’re sick of all this is a little strong, but we’re ready to get him back. It’s going to be an unbelievable boost for golf.

“In my opinion, we’re going to see him back soon. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t play Bay Hill.”

Furyk looks forward to Woods re-establishing his place in the game.

“I think we’re all looking forward to having him back,” Furyk said. “He’s our best player, and we need him back. We’re just looking forward to when it’s business as usual, not the circus.”

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McIlroy needs putter to heat up to catch Woods

By Rex HoggardSeptember 23, 2018, 12:29 am

ATLANTA – Although Rory McIlroy is three strokes behind Tiger Woods at the Tour Championship and tied for second place he had the look of a man with a secret when he left East Lake on Saturday.

Trying to play catch up against Woods is never ideal, but McIlroy’s confidence stemmed from a tee-to-green game that has been unrivaled for three days.

“I definitely think today and the first day were similar,” said McIlroy, whose 66 included birdies at two of his final three holes. “I gave myself plenty of chances, and I think the biggest thing today was only just that one bogey. Got to put your ball in the fairway, put yourself in position, and for the most part, I did that today.”

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For the week McIlroy ranks first in strokes gained: off the tee, third in strokes gained: approach to the green and second in greens in regulation. But to catch Woods, who he will be paired with, he’ll need a much better day on the greens.

The Northern Irishman needed 30 putts on Day 2 and ranks 23rd, out of 30 players, in strokes gained: putting.

McIlroy skipped the first playoff event, opting instead for an extra week at home to work on his swing and the move has paid off.

“I hit the ball well. My wedge play has been really good,” he said. “I've done a lot of work on it the last few weeks, and it seems to have paid off.”

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Glover trails Straka at Tour Championship

By Associated PressSeptember 23, 2018, 12:19 am

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Sepp Straka moved into position Saturday to earn a PGA Tour card in the Tour Championship, shooting a 7-under 64 to take the third-round lead.

With the top 25 earners in the four-event Tour Finals getting PGA Tour cards Sunday, Straka birdied the final three holes to reach 18-under 195 - a stroke ahead of Curtis Luck, Lucas Glover and Denny McCarthy at Atlantic Beach Country Club.

''It's always good to get an extra birdie in late. I got three of them to finish, which was nice,'' Straka said. ''It's very bunched up there, so you can't really take off, you've got to keep the pedal down and see where you end up at the end.''

Straka entered the week tied for 80th in the card race with $2,744. The 25-year-old former Georgia player from Austria won the KC Golf Classic in August for his first Tour title. He finished 31st on the money list to advance to the four-tournament series.

''My ball-striking is really good,'' Straka said. ''It's been good all week. It's been really solid. I really haven't gotten in a whole lot of trouble and have been able to capitalize on a good number of chances with the putter. Hit a couple of bad putts today, but some really good ones to make up for it.''

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Luck also shot 64. The 22-year-old Australian went into the week 16th with $41,587.

''Obviously, it just comes down to keeping that momentum going and trying not to change anything,'' Luck said. ''That's the really important thing and I felt like I did that really well. I played really aggressive on the back nine, still went after a lot of shots and I hit it close a lot out there.''

Glover had a 68. The 2009 U.S. Open champion entered the week 40th with $17,212.

McCarthy shot 67. He already has wrapped up a card, earning $75,793 in the first three events to get to 11th in the standings.

The series features 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. The top-25 finishers on the regular-season money list are competing against each other for tour priority, with regular-season earnings counting in their totals. The other players are fighting for the 25 cards based on series earnings.

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Woods' dominance evokes an old, familiar feeling

By Rex HoggardSeptember 23, 2018, 12:14 am

ATLANTA – It felt so familiar – the roars, the fist pumps, the frenzied scramble to keep up with a leaderboard that was quickly tilting in Tiger Woods’ direction.

For the handful of players who were around when Woods made a mysterious and maddening game seem simple, it was like old times, times that weren’t necessarily good for anyone not named Tiger.

“I’m kind of nostalgic,” admitted Paul Casey, who turned pro in 2000, when Woods won the U.S. Open by 15 strokes, one of his nine PGA Tour victories that year.

Casey’s 66 on Day 3 at the Tour Championship vaulted him into a tie for sixth place, but as the Englishman quickly vetted the math he knew those numbers were nothing more than window dressing.

“Sixty-four is my best on a Sunday which puts me at 11 [under], so if he’s 12 I need to shoot my career best in the final round and he needs to do something very un-Tiger-like,” Casey laughed. “I think I’m just posturing for position.”

Casey wasn’t giving up. In fact, given that he outdueled Woods earlier this year to win the Valspar Championship he could have hedged his comments and left the door cracked however slightly. But he’s seen, and heard, this too many times to allow competitive necessity to cloud reality.

On Saturday at East Lake, Tiger Woods was his best version. Throughout this most recent comeback he’s offered glimpses of the old guy, the guy whose name atop a leaderboard echoed through locker rooms for the better part of two decades. After starting the day tied for the lead with Justin Rose, Tiger quickly separated himself from the pack with a birdie at the first.

He added another at the third and by the time he birdied the seventh hole, his sixth birdie of the day, he’d extended that lead to five shots and was sending an unmistakable message that reached well beyond the steamy confines of East Lake.

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This was what so many had waited for. This was the Tiger that Casey and others grew up dreading, a machine that never misses iron shots and makes clutch putts look like tap-ins.

“The crowds were electric,” said Rose, who was paired with Woods. “He was running the tables there. He was hitting good shots and making the conversion putts.”

Woods did come back to earth after his blistering start, playing his final 10 holes in 1 over par, but that did little to change the mood as the season moved to within 18 holes of the finish line.

He would finish with a round-of-the-day 65 for a three-stroke lead over Rose and Rory McIlroy. The next closest players were a dozen strokes back, including Casey at 5 under par who didn’t need to be reminded of Woods’ 54-hole conversion rate.

There are no guarantees in sports but Tiger with a 54-hole lead has been about as close to a lock as one will find this side of Las Vegas. He’s 42-for-44 when going into the final round with the outright lead and the last time he blew a 54-hole lead was at the 2009 PGA Championship.

Of course, he hasn’t had a 54-hole lead since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Truth is, he hasn’t had much of anything since ’13 when his dominance was sidetracked by an ailing back. As intimidating as Woods’ play has been this week there was an unmistakable sense of, let’s call it curiosity.

Asked if Woods’ lead felt different than it may have a decade ago, Rose’s response was telling. “Maybe,” he allowed after a pause. “It's a little more unknown now. Obviously his history, his statistics from this point are impeccable. They're incredible. But he's human, and there's a lot on it for him tomorrow, as well as the rest of us.”

Rose wasn’t trying to trick himself into thinking the impossible was possible, although many have when they’ve found themselves in similar positions, it was simply the truth. Woods has had multiple chances this season to complete the comeback and he’s come up short each time.

It was a poor iron shot off the 72nd tee at the Valspar Championship and an even worse drive a week later at Bay Hill’s 16th hole. It was a misplayed chip late on the back nine at The Open and a collection of missed putts at the PGA Championship, although in his defense it’s unlikely anyone could have caught Brooks Koepka at Bellerive.

Nor was Rose being disrespectful. It’s simple math, really, and Woods’ body of work to this point, although wildly impressive considering how far he’s come in 12 months both physically and competitively, paints a clear picture. Given multiple chances to break through the victory ceiling he’s failed to deliver the way he did before injury and multiple back procedures.

“I've felt very comfortable when I got into the mix there at Tampa even though it was very early in my start to this year. And because of that, I felt comfortable when I got to Bay Hill, (and) when I grabbed the lead at The Open Championship,” Woods said. “Things that didn't really feel abnormal, even though it's been years, literally years, since I've been in those spots, but I think I've been in those spots enough times that muscle memory, I guess I remembered it, and I felt comfortable in those spots.”

In many ways the script couldn’t have been written any better for Woods. It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs and the bases are loaded for the 14-time major champion. Hero time, his time.

He’s been here so many times in his career and succeeded more times than not, and this new, reimagined version has the ultimate chance to complete what would arguably be the greatest comeback in sports history.

The ultimate test still remains, but for 18 holes on Saturday it felt so familiar.

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Woods, McIlroy in Sunday super group in finale

By Mercer BaggsSeptember 23, 2018, 12:12 am

ATLANTA – Rory McIlroy has made known his disdain for “super groups” in early tournament rounds.

Well, he’s now got one on Sunday at the Tour Championship. And it doesn’t get more super than this.

McIlroy will play alongside Tiger Woods in the final pairing, in the final round at East Lake Golf Club. Woods leads McIlroy – and Justin Rose – by three shots.

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“All I can do is worry about myself,” McIlroy said. “It doesn't matter who it is I'm playing with. It's obviously exciting for the golf tournament. It's exciting for golf, in general, that he's up there. But for me, all I can do is concentrate on myself. The game is hard enough without having to – without looking at other people. Go out there, take care of my business, and hopefully that's good enough.”

This is the fifth time that McIlroy and Woods have been grouped this year. They were alongside one another in the first two rounds of the Genesis Open and the first two rounds of the PGA Championship.

In the four previous rounds, McIlroy finished better twice, Woods once, and they tied once.

“It's going to be fun. We haven't done that much of late, because I've not been there,” Woods said of going head-to-head with McIlroy for a title. “He has been there, and he's won a bunch of tournaments. So it's nice for us to go back out and play against one another, be in the mix.”

We know Woods will be wearing his traditional red in the final round. As for McIlroy?

"I think I'll wear red," McIlroy joked. "No, geez, I've regretted wearing black out here today. It was hot."

They go out at 2:05 p.m. ET.