Getty Images

Despite the numbers, it's advantage, Woods

By Rex HoggardJanuary 28, 2018, 11:09 pm

SAN DIEGO – It was a magical day for one of the sporting world’s most accomplished, if injury-plagued, legends.

No, not Tiger Woods. The honor went to Roger Federer, the ageless champion who at 36 years, 173 days became the second-oldest man to win a tennis Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.

Through injury and collective doubt and against a growing collection of younger, more powerful opponents, Federer etched Grand Slam No. 20 into his portfolio. That’s six more Grand Slam titles than Woods, who has always been linked to Federer as a benchmark of greatness, but on the same day the Swiss magician turned back the clock at Melbourne Park, Tiger was chipping away at his own reclamation project at Torrey Pines.

There were no victory laps for Woods at the Farmers Insurance Open, the site of so many seminal moments in his career, no familiar brushes with greatness, just a gritty performance that may not look like much on paper but added up to something much greater than the sum of its parts.

For the week, Woods failed to break 70 and batted a dismal .303 from the tee – hitting just 17 of 56 fairways. His iron play was, at times, something we’d expect from a 14-handicap, not a 14-time major champion.

“I need to work on some things,” Woods reasoned after a closing 72 in increasingly difficult Santa Ana winds.

Indeed, he does.

This new version of Woods looks something like the old version of Phil Mickelson, a player who is prone to miss fairways by first downs, not paces, yet someone who seemed to relish the challenge of escaping from even the most precarious of situations.

Woods was an equal opportunity offender, missing fairways right (62 percent) and left (37 percent), and appeared utterly baffled by his driver, which seemed so promising the last time he played at the Hero World Challenge.

Full-field scores from the Farmers Insurance Open

Farmers Insurance Open: Articles, photos and videos

But this wasn’t Albany, site of December’s “friendly” in the Bahamas, and Woods quickly came to the conclusion that playtime was over.

For Woods, all of those concerns are part and parcel of this most recent comeback. Following a year of competitive isolation after fusion surgery on his lower back in April, he’s clearly content with the long view.

“I can feel some of the things I'm doing wrong in my swing, so we're going to go back to work,” he explained. “It's nice to have two weeks off, but it's more important that I got this tournament under my belt where I can feel some of the things I need to work on because hometown speed versus game speed is two totally different things.”

If wild misses off the tee and iron shots that too often came out short and spinny aren’t exactly what we’ve come to expect from arguably the game’s greatest player, Woods’ tone was downright conciliatory.

Contending would be nice and winning is always the ultimate end game, but on the grand check list of things he wanted to accomplish this week remaining off the disabled list and getting a feel for a game that after so much time – the last time he played the weekend in an official PGA Tour event was the 2015 Wyndham Championship – were the primary conclusions.

There were moments of clarity, particularly on Sunday when he set out some two hours and eight strokes off the lead. He played a strangely predictable game of bounce-back golf just before the turn, finishing the loop birdie-bogey-birdie-bogey-birdie.

In less time than it took Hideki Matsuyama, who was paired with Woods on Sunday, to complete his backswing, he was brilliant – like his 323-yard drive down the middle of the 14th hole – and the next moment just bad – such as when his drive sailed helplessly right on the next hole.

Throughout it all, his short game was vintage Tiger and his putting a savior, particularly on Friday when he birdied two of his final three holes to make the cut on the number.

“Obviously, he has to drive it better. The short game looked pretty tight, and that’s always a plus. And he looks comfortable putting. He just needs to get some reps,” his caddie, Joey LaCava, said. “He needs to get back to Florida to get more practice in, get more reps, and get tournaments under his belt. It’s like when I started with him in late 2011 and early 2012, he just needs some time and he just needs some competitive rounds.”

And he was healthy, healthier than he’s been in five years, healthy enough to hit balls after his round and endure cold, morning starts that had become his competitive kryptonite in recent years.

“It was nice,” Woods smiled when asked about his surgically repaired back. “Some of the shots I had to hit out of the rough, out of the trees, shaping them both ways, and a few times I had to jack up the speed and had no issues at all.”

There was a time when Woods and Federer had running text exchanges, giving each other the needle every time one would add to his Grand Slam total the way only legends who are rewriting the record books can.

Those exchanges have reportedly fallen off in recent years, a byproduct of Woods’ major drought, no doubt. The last time Tiger was on the right side of one of those bouts was a decade ago when he won the 2008 U.S. Open on this same course.

“He's young, he's 36. I guess it's all relative,” Woods joked when asked about Federer’s victory. “In that sport he's very old, but in our sport, I'm only 42, that's not that old.”

Nor did he feel as far off as his statistics would suggest. For the first time in some time Woods is healthy and happy enough to believe, truly believe, that the road ahead may hold some promise after all.

Getty Images

Woods needs top-10 at Open to qualify for WGC

By Will GrayJuly 16, 2018, 4:34 pm

If Tiger Woods is going to qualify for the final WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, he'll need to do something he hasn't done in five years this week at The Open.

Woods has won eight times at Firestone, including his most recent PGA Tour victory in 2013, and has openly stated that he would like to qualify for the no-cut event in Akron before it shifts to Memphis next year. But in order to do so, Woods will need to move into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking after this week's event at Carnoustie.

Woods is currently ranked No. 71 in the world, down two spots from last week, and based on projections it means that he'll need to finish no worse than a tie for eighth to have a chance of cracking the top 50. Woods' last top-10 finish at a major came at the 2013 Open at Muirfield, where he tied for sixth.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

There are actually two OWGR cutoffs for the Bridgestone, July 23 and July 30. That means that Woods could theoretically still add a start at next week's RBC Canadian Open to chase a spot in the top 50, but he has said on multiple occasions that this week will be his last start of the month. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational will be played Aug. 2-5.

There wasn't much movement in the world rankings last week, with the top 10 staying the same heading into the season's third major. Dustin Johnson remains world No. 1, followed by Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm. Defending Open champ Jordan Spieth is ranked sixth, with Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Tommy Fleetwood rounding out the top 10.

Despite taking the week off, Sweden's Alex Noren moved up three spots from No. 14 to No. 11, passing Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Paul Casey.

John Deere Classic champ Michael Kim went from No. 473 to No. 215 in the latest rankings, while South African Brandon Stone jumped from 371st to 110th with his win at the Scottish Open.

Getty Images

Spieth takes familiar break ahead of Open defense

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – As his title chances seemed to be slipping away during the final round of last year’s Open Championship, Jordan Spieth’s caddie took a moment to remind him who he was.

Following a bogey at No. 13, Michael Greller referenced a recent vacation he’d taken to Mexico where he’d spent time with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan and why he deserved to be among that group of singular athletes.

Spieth, who won last year’s Open, decided to continue the tradition, spending time in Cabo again before this week’s championship.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I kind of went through the same schedule,” Spieth said on Monday at Carnoustie. “It was nice to have a little vacation.”

Spieth hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship; instead he attended the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this month in Seattle with his sister. It was Spieth’s first time back to the Pacific Northwest since he won the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I went out to Chambers Bay with [Greller],” Spieth said. “We kind of walked down the 18th hole. It was cool reliving those memories.”

But most of all Spieth said he needed a break after a particularly tough season.

“I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working,” he said. “It was nice to kind of have that itch to get back.”

Getty Images

Harrington: Fiery Carnoustie evokes Hoylake in '06

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 3:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – One course came to mind when Padraig Harrington arrived on property and saw a firm, fast and yellow Carnoustie.

Hoylake in 2006.

That's when Tiger Woods avoided every bunker, bludgeoned the links with mid-irons and captured the last of his three Open titles.

So Harrington was asked: Given the similarity in firmness between Carnoustie and Hoylake, can Tiger stir the ghosts this week?

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I really don’t know,” Harrington said Monday. “He’s good enough to win this championship, no doubt about it. I don’t think he could play golf like the way he did in 2006. Nobody else could have tried to play the golf course the way he did, and nobody else could have played the way he did. I suspect he couldn’t play that way now, either. But I don’t know if that’s the strategy this week, to lay up that far back.”

With three days until the start of this championship, that’s the biggest question mark for Harrington, the 2007 winner here. He doesn’t know what his strategy will be – but his game plan will need to be “fluid.” Do you attack the course with driver and try to fly the fairway bunkers? Or do you attempt to lay back with an iron, even though it’s difficult to control the amount of run-out on the baked-out fairways and bring the bunkers into play?

“The fairways at Hoylake are quite flat, even though they were very fast,” Harrington said. “There’s a lot of undulations in the fairways here, so if you are trying to lay up, you can get hit the back of a slope and kick forward an extra 20 or 30 yards more than you think. So it’s not as easy to eliminate all the risk by laying up.”

Getty Images

How will players game-plan for Carnoustie?

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:31 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Thomas took a familiar slash with his driver on the 18th tee on Monday at Carnoustie and watched anxiously as his golf ball bounced and bounded down the fairway.

Unlike the two previous editions of The Open, at what is widely considered the rota’s most demanding test, a particularly warm and dry summer has left Carnoustie a parched shade of yellow and players like Thomas searching for answers.

Under the best circumstances, Carnoustie is every bit the unforgiving participant. But this week promises to be something altogether different, with players already dumbfounded by how far the ball is chasing down fairways and over greens.

Brown is beautiful here at Royal Dark & Dusty.

But then it’s also proving to be something of a unique test.

Where most practice rounds at The Open are spent trying to figure out what lines are best off tees, this is more a study of lesser evils.

Tee shots, like at the par-4 17th hole, ask multiple questions with few answers. On his first attempt, Thomas hit 2-iron off the tee at No. 17. It cleared the Barry Burn and bounded down the middle of the fairway. Perfect, right? Not this year at Carnoustie, as Thomas’ tee shot kept rolling until it reached the same burn, which twists and turns through both the 17th and 18th fairways, at a farther intersection.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“A hole like 17 in this wind, the trick is getting a club that will carry [the burn],” said Thomas, who played 18 holes on Monday with Tiger Woods. “If that hole gets downwind you can have a hard time carrying the burn and keeping it short of the other burn. It’s pretty bizarre.”

The sixth hole can offer a similar dilemma, with players needing to carry their tee shots 275 yards to avoid a pair of pot bunkers down the right side of the fairway. Yet just 26 yards past those pitfalls looms a second set of bunkers. Even for the game’s best, trying to weave a fairway wood or long-iron into a 26-yard window can be challenging.

“Six is a really hard hole, it really just depends on how you want to play it. If you want to take everything on and have a chance of hitting an iron into a par 5, or just kind of lay back and play it as a three-shot hole,” Thomas shrugged.

It’s difficult to quantify precisely how short the 7,400-yard layout is playing. It’s not so far players are flying the ball in the air, particularly with relatively little wind in the forecast the rest of the week, so much as it is a question of how a particular shot will run out after it’s made contact with the firm turf.

As the field began to get their first taste of the bouncy fun, one of the earliest indications something was askew came on Sunday when Padraig Harrington, who won The Open the last time it was played at Carnoustie in 2007, announced to the social world that he’d hit into the burn on the 18th hole.

“This time it was the one at the green, 457 yards away,” the Irishman tweeted. “The fairways are a tad fast.”

Most players have already resigned themselves to a steady diet of mid-irons off tees this week in an attempt to at least partially control the amount of run-out each shot will have.

Jordan Spieth, the defending champion, hadn’t played a practice round prior to his media session, but could tell what’s in store just from his abbreviated range session on Monday. “Extremely baked out,” he said.

The conditions have already led Spieth and his caddie, Micheal Greller, to conjure up a tentative game plan.

“You might wear out your 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you’re used to,” Greller told him.

But even that might not be the answer, as Tommy Fleetwood discovered on Sunday during a practice round. Fleetwood has a unique connection with Carnoustie having shot the course record (63) during last year’s Dunhill Links Championship.

The Englishman doesn’t expect his record to be in danger this week.

In fact, he explained the dramatically different conditions were evident on the third hole on Sunday.

“There’s holes that have been nothing tee shots, like the third. If you play that in the middle of September or October [when the Dunhill is played] and it’s green and soft, you could just hit a mid-iron down the fairway and knock it on with a wedge,” Fleetwood said. “Yesterday it was playing so firm, the fairways really undulate and you have bunkers on either side, it’s actually all of a sudden a tough tee shot.”

The alternative to the iron game plan off the tee would be to simply hit driver, an option at least one long-hitter is considering this week if his practice round was any indication.

On Sunday, Jon Rahm played aggressively off each tee, taking the ubiquitous fairway bunkers out of play but at the same time tempting fate with each fairway ringed by fescue rough, which is relatively tame given the dry conditions. But even that option has consequences.

“It’s kind of strange where there’s not really a number that you know you’re going to be short,” said Fleetwood, who played his Sunday practice round with Rahm. “[Rahm] hit a drive on 15 that was like 400 yards. You just can’t account for that kind of stuff.”

Whatever tactic players choose, this Open Championship promises to be a much different test than what players have become accustomed to at Carnoustie.