An Uneasy Return

By Randall MellJune 16, 2009, 4:00 pm
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2009 U.S. OpenFARMINGDALE, N.Y. ' Sergio Garcia can make you shake your head nearly every time you watch him play.
Sometimes, its because his arsenal of shots is equaled only by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Other times, its because you want to take him over your knee and spank him.
Garcia, 29, returns this week to the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, a site that reminds us what golf fans adore and loathe about the Spaniard.
Major championship pressure has a way of drawing out his best and worst qualities.
In Garcias 39 major championship starts as a pro, nine times he has finished among the top five, including three second-places finishes and two thirds.
Its in those closest flirtations with victory that he has revealed the most about his extraordinary gifts and his maddening temperament and the way they are inextricably linked.
Thats the thing. As much as we may admire Garcias ability and tolerate his moods, its possible one is lost without the other.
If you could surgically separate the feisty, callow elements of his nature, would he be the same player?
The very defiance that can turn us off may be what turns his game on, what drives him to be his best.
Granted, spitting in the cup as Garcia did at the 13th green at the CA Championship at Doral two years ago wont make him play better, nor will throwing a shoe toward the gallery after a bad shot, the way he did in the World Match Play Championship one year.
Blaming his failure on a cosmic conspiracy of bad breaks the way he did at the British Open in 2007 wont help him win, neither will blaming Augusta Nationals setup the way he did this year, but the internal wiring that causes all this dysfunction may be integral to what drives him to be one of the top four players in the world.
Yeah, its no excuse for indulging immature impulses, because the best sportsman know how to turn the combustion off, but theres an undeniable link between Garcias temperament and his confidence.
When he fully controls it, we will no longer wonder if Tour officials are tempted to send him to bed without dinner after he signs his scorecard.
Ive always said it, I am the way I am, Garcia said Tuesday morning before heading out to play a practice round at Bethpage Black. But I think thats what people love about me, because what you see is what you get, unfortunately, both in a good way and a bad way.
I think as you get older, you learn from things youve done in the past, and you try to mature from those things. But like I said before, I am the way I am, and I can change a little bit, but not too much, because then I wouldnt be myself.
New Yorkers saw Garcia at his most defiant in the second round at Bethpage seven years ago, when he barely caught himself before fully extending a single finger in a salute to the gallery. The stunted gesture, an answer to hecklers counting his re-grips and waggles, was made worse by his post-round complaints about the stupid comments fans were making. He further compounded his problems complaining that the U.S. Golf Association favored Woods in its setup.
In that one dark Friday at Bethpage, Garcia instantly vaulted into an elite class of sports figures New Yorkers love to loathe.
Overnight, Garcia elevated himself to the ranks of former New York Knicks coach Pat Riley, former Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller and former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
Rileys act of defiance came in his return to Madison Square Garden as coach of the Miami Heat, when he thrust his jaw out and gestured for Knicks fans to boo him some more in the pre-game introductions.
Miller loved to taunt Knicks fans at Madison Square Garden, where he thrived.
Schilling, a thorn in the side of Yankees fans, will always be remembered for his answer when asked what he thought of the mystique and aura of Yankee Stadium. Mystique and Aura? Those are dancers at a nightclub, he said.
Heres the thing about Garcias last appearance at Bethpage Black. He played himself into contention with New Yorkers practically willing his defeat. He played through the heckling while playing himself into the final pairing with Woods. Yes, he faded to fourth with Woods winning, but it was a spirited effort given the forces working against him.
Garcia winning at Bethpage Black seems like too much to ask, given what Garcias up against here with the fans, given the heartbreak he says he endured in the breakup with his former girlfriend, Greg Normans daughter, Morgan Leigh, and particularly given the sluggish state of his game and putter, but would there be a better site to prove what his defiant spirit means to his game?
To win, Garcia will probably have to beat Woods in top form.
A Garcia victory at Bethpage might remind us all of a time we saw so much charm in Garcias defiance.
Ten years ago, he burst into major championship golf so differently.
Garcia first won us over on a major championship stage at the PGA Championship at Medinah.
Just 19 then, he made us shake our heads in that Sunday final round when he holed a birdie putt on the 13th green, then looked back at the tee box and thrust a fist at Woods, as if to issue a challenge. Garcia got our heads moving again when he was along the 16th fairway, where he was carving a shot around the base of a tree, then chasing it up the fairway, making a scissor-kick jump to see where it came to rest.
When Garcia hits shot like that, you want to call your golf buddies to see if they were watching.
He can make pros want to do the same.
After playing with Garcia in the first two rounds of the Honda Classic last year, Paul Goydos left shaking his head.
Sergios shot making amazed me, Goydos said. His go-to shot is the one he needs to hit now. Tiger Woods is the only other player like that.
Garcia will need all his shots this week, and hell need his feisty temperament, too. He doesnt have a chance without his defiant nature, a quality you would think New Yorkers, more than anyone, would appreciate.
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    Rose tries to ignore scenarios, focus on winning

    By Rex HoggardSeptember 23, 2018, 12:59 am

    ATLANTA – No one has more to play for than Justin Rose on Sunday at the Tour Championship.

    The Englishman will begin the day three strokes behind front-runner Tiger Woods after a third-round 68 that could have been much worse after he began his day with back-to-back bogeys.

    Winning the tournament will be Rose’s top priority, but there’s also the lingering question of the FedExCup and the $10 million bonus, which he is currently projected to claim.

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    “The way I look at tomorrow is that I have many scenarios in play. I have the FedExCup in play. I have all of that to distract me,” Rose said. “But yet, I'm three back. I think that's my objective tomorrow is to come out and play good, positive golf and try and chase down the leader and win this golf tournament. I think in some ways that'll help my other task of trying to win the FedExCup. It'll keep me on the front foot and playing positive golf.”

    Although there are many scenarios for Rose to win the season-long title, if Woods wins the Tour Championship, Rose would need to finish fifth or better to claim the cup.

    There’s also the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking to consider. Rose overtook Dustin Johnson for No. 1 in the world with his runner-up finish at the BMW Championship two weeks ago. He will retain the top spot unless Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka or Johnson win the finale and he falls down the leaderboard on Sunday.

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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.”

    Projected FedExCup standings

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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.