Embattling the Ultimate Mystery

By Rex HoggardApril 27, 2011, 6:24 pm

Because of the vagaries of your generic freefall, there is normally no way to know when one has reached the apex of a tumble. But on Wednesday Tiger Woods arrived, at least by proxy, at rock bottom.

In an interview on Sport Radio 790 The Zone in Atlanta, John Daly revealed he and the game’s embattled superstar had a heart-to-heart at last year’s PGA Championship covering everything from Woods’ broken marriage to his tattered public image.

“It made me relieved what Tiger was going through. Do I blame Tiger for what he did? Yes. Did he have a reason? Yes,” Daly told the “Mayhem in the A.M.” show. “He said, ‘I thought about talking to the media right after it all happened. Telling the truth and what was going on. I really did. But I was told not to.’ I don’t blame him for listening to bad advice that he totally got over this whole situation.”

When JD is spinning apologies and offering marital advice you know life has thrown you a three-club wind and a 400-yard forced carry.

That Daly’s revelations came a day after Woods announced he would miss next week’s Wells Fargo Championship to nurse a left knee and Achilles injury only adds to the strange days that have befallen the one-time Teflon kid.

Tiger Woods
Woods has two top-10s this year, including his T-4 at the Masters. (Getty Images)
Flash back 35 months, to a picture perfect San Diego Monday and Woods’ signature one-legged victory at the U.S. Open. Schlepping onto a red-eye bound for the East Coast that night the worry was how quickly Woods would cover the Grand Slam ground between he and Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major victories.

Two and half years removed from that moment and it’s impossible not to contemplate the simple reality that Woods may now never reach the Golden Bear’s gold-standard benchmark. Woods has gone from aspiring to match Nicklaus’ Grand Slam feat to aspiring to catch “Luke Donald disease.”

Tuesday’s move to the 15-day DL, which by most accounts is not retroactive, only serves to further cloud the waters made murky by the events of the last 17 months. Woods’ medical history is starting to feel like an episode of “House.” This is the fifth time he has had his left knee medically poked and prodded, dating back to 1994 when he had a benign tumor removed to the June 2008 surgery to repair his torn ACL in the days following Torrey Pines.

Woods’ left knee is, by any measure, damaged goods. And the Achilles sprain, although not new to the conversation, is even more concerning.

“The Achilles is a severe injury because your entire body is now out of alignment,” said Randy Myers, the director of fitness at Sea Island (Ga.) Resort who works with numerous Tour players. “With the knee injury he knows what to do, he knows what it takes. But the Achilles can very easily be re-injured.”

Tour trainers refer to them as “chain” injuries that migrate from joint to joint to compensate for other ailments. In Woods’ case the left-knee ailment that he says has dogged him almost his entire career may have caused the Achilles ailment.

Woods was hampered by an ailing Achilles for much of 2009, an injury that severely limited his ability to prepare which, after a clutch short game and all-world intensity, may have been his greatest asset.

“Last year I didn't practice as much because I couldn't. The Achilles wouldn't allow me to,” Woods said during last year’s Players Championship.

The only up side to Woods’ current predicament is that he officially has a doctor’s note to miss The Players Championship, where he has not won in a decade and his recent history reads like a doctor’s eye chart (WD, eighth, T-37, T-22, T-53).

Of course that also means fewer “reps” before the U.S. Open. If history holds, he would only play the Memorial before arriving at Congressional in June, and if that’s the case he may not be letting on to how serious his current injuries are.

According to Myers and other trainers, Woods’ reported ailments would require a two- to three-week rehabilitation. If he does skip The Players, that would be a seven-week window between the Masters, where he injured himself during the third round, and what many anticipate will be his next start at Muirfield Village.

“Have you ever considered that (Woods) is not entirely honest with you?” one veteran player asked your scribe earlier this year. Given the current explanations it’s an impossible question to ignore.

On Friday during last year’s Players Championship a writer asked Woods how his knee was feeling. “Knee’s good,” he responded. The scribe pressed asking, “Any issues at all?” Woods’ answered: “No, zero. Absolutely 100 percent (healthy).”

Two days later he withdrew from the final round of the “fifth major” after just seven holes with a previously undisclosed neck ailment saying, “I've been playing with a bad neck for quite a while.”

For Woods privacy is much more than a clever name for a yacht, it’s a way of life. And regardless of his status as the game’s alpha male for more than a decade there are questions he is certainly entitled to sidestep. His health, however, should not be a national secret if, for no other reason, as a tool to temper expectations.

If he has been unable to practice and prepare as he normally would because his 35-year-old body is starting to show its age, it would be an explanation – not an excuse – for his relatively substandard play of late.

“(Wells Fargo Championship) is an outstanding event, but I must follow doctors’ orders to get better,” Woods said in his statement on Tuesday.

Simple and straightforward, no matter how concerning.

In the end, it may not be scandal or a field that seems to have rapidly closed the gap that keeps Woods from Nicklaus’ benchmark. It could be a body that simply won’t cooperate.

On Wednesday Daly stepped to Woods’ defense, a personal low by any measure for the former world No. 1. Whether Woods has hit rock bottom physically remains a mystery. A mystery that will ultimately decide whether he continues his assault on Nicklaus’ Grand Slam record.

Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard  
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Arizona grabs last spot with eagle putt, playoff win

By Ryan LavnerMay 22, 2018, 3:18 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – With her team freefalling in the standings, Arizona coach Laura Ianello was down to her last stroke.

The Wildcats began the final round of the NCAA Championship in third place, but they were 19 over par for the day, and outside the top-8 cut line, with only one player left on the course.

Bianca Pagdaganan had transferred from Gonzaga to compete for NCAA titles, and on the 17th hole Ianello told her that she needed to play “the best two holes of your life” to keep the dream alive.

She made par on 17, then hit a 185-yard 6-iron out of a divot to 30 feet. Not knowing where she stood on the final green, Pagdaganan felt an eerie calm over the ball. Sure enough, she buried the eagle putt, setting off a raucous celebration and sending the Wildcats into a play-five, count-four team playoff with Baylor at 33 over par.

Their match-play spot wasn’t yet secure, but Ianello still broke down in tears.

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Team scoring

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Individual scoring

“Bianca is such an inspiration for all of us,” she said. “She’s the kind of kid that you want to root for, to have good things happen to.”

Arizona prevailed on the second playoff hole. As the 8 seed, the Wildcats will play top-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals Tuesday at Karsten Creek.

Though the finish had plenty of drama, no teams played their way into the coveted top 8 on the final day of stroke-play qualifying.

Baylor came closest. The Bears barely advanced past regionals after a mysterious stomach virus affected several players and coaches. They competed in the final round with just four healthy players.

On Monday, Gurleen Kaur put Baylor in position to advance, shooting 68, but the Bears lost by three strokes on the second extra hole.

Arkansas finished one shot shy of the team playoff. The second-ranked Razorbacks, who entered NCAAs as one of the pre-tournament favorites, having won seven times, including their first SEC title, couldn’t overcome a 308-300 start and finished 10th. Player of the Year favorite Maria Fassi finished her week at 19 over par and counted only two rounds toward the team total.

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Kupcho gets redemption with NCAA title

By Ryan LavnerMay 22, 2018, 2:54 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – Driving from Chicago to Denver the night of the 2017 NCAA Women’s Championship, Mike Kupcho was worried about what the next two days might bring.

A few hours earlier, he’d watched his 20-year-old daughter, Jennifer, take a two-shot lead into the 71st hole at Rich Harvest Farms. With just 127 yards left for her approach, she hit her pitching wedge the one place she couldn’t afford to miss – short, in the pond – and then compounded the error with a three-putt. The triple bogey dropped her one shot behind Arizona State’s Monica Vaughn.

Kupcho conducted a series of teary interviews afterward, but she had no time to dwell on the heartbreaking finish. She hopped on a plane back home and competed in a 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier two days later.

“We were worried about how she’d react – I didn’t know what to expect,” Mike said. “I would have been a wreck.”

But Jennifer fired a 66 in the opening round, then a 72 in the afternoon to earn medalist honors.

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Team scoring

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Individual scoring

“Well,” Mike said, “I guess she’s over it.”

Kupcho made it official Monday at Karsten Creek, claiming the NCAA title that should have been hers last May.

The Wake Forest junior won by two shots – the same margin she blew a year ago – for her fourth victory of the season, vaulting her into contention for the Annika Award.

“It’s just exciting to get here after everything I’ve been through,” she said.

Entering the final round in a share of the lead, Kupcho birdied the first but played Nos. 5-7 in 4 over par. It seemed like another collapse was brewing.

“I told her she’s going to have to face some adversity at some point,” said Wake Forest assistant Ryan Potter, who walked alongside her Monday. “There was a lot of golf to play, especially on a course like this.”

A birdie on 11 sent her on her way. She added a birdie on the drivable 12th, dropped another one on the par-5 14th and then canned a 60-footer for birdie on 16.

And so there she was again, two shots clear with two holes to go, when she stepped to the tee on the 17th. She piped a drive down the center, then flushed her approach directly over the flag, leading to a stress-free par. On 18, with water all the way down the left side, she nuked her second shot into the middle of the green for a two-putt birdie.

If there were any lingering questions about whether Kupcho could close, she answered them emphatically Monday. She carded five back-nine birdies for a two-shot victory over Stanford’s Andrea Lee (66) and Arizona’s Bianca Pagdaganan (72).

“Redemption,” Potter said. “She knew she could do it. It was just a matter of holding the trophy.”

After last year’s devastating finish, Potter tacked a photo on his closet wall of a victorious Arizona State team posing with the NCAA trophy. Each day was a reminder of how close they’d come.

“That sticks with you,” he said.

There were areas of Kupcho's game to shore up – namely chipping and bunker play – and she worked tirelessly to turn them into strengths. She built momentum throughout the season, culminating with a dominant regional performance in which she tied a school record by shooting 15 under, holed the winning putt to send her teammates to the NCAA Championship and became just the second player in history to win a regional in consecutive years.

“She’s interesting,” Potter said, “because the bigger the tournament, the bigger the stage, the better she plays.”

Indeed, Kupcho became the first player in a decade to finish in the top 6 in three consecutive NCAAs.

Here at Karsten Creek, she tied a women’s course record with a 7-under 65 in the opening round. And even though she backed up on Day 2, she played the last two rounds in 3 under to claim the title.

The one she kicked away a year ago.

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Kupcho wins NCAA title; final eight teams set

By Jay CoffinMay 22, 2018, 1:55 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – On one of the more nerve-racking days of the college golf season two important honors were up for grabs at Karsten Creek – the individual title, and the top eight teams attempting to qualify for match play.

Here’s the lowdown of what happened Monday at the women’s NCAA Championship:

Individual leaderboard (total scores): Jennifer Kupcho, Wake Forest (-8); Andrea Lee, Stanford (-6); Bianca Pagdanganan, Arizona (-6); Cheyenne Knight, Alabama (-5); Morgane Metraux, Florida State (-4); Jaclyn Lee, Ohio State (-3).

Team leaderboard: UCLA (+9), Alabama (+9), USC (+16), Northwestern (+21), Stanford (+28), Duke (+30), Kent State (+32), Arizona (+33).

What it means: Let’s start with the individual race. Wake Forest junior Jennifer Kupcho was absolutely devastated a year ago when she made triple bogey on the 17th hole of the final round and lost the individual title by a shot. She was bound not to let that happen again and this year she made five birdies on the last eight holes to shoot 71 and win by two shots. Kupcho is the first player with three consecutive top-six finishes at the NCAA Championship since Duke’s Amanda Blumenherst (2007-09).

The team race took an unexpected turn at the end of the day when Arizona junior Bianca Pangdaganan made eagle on the last hole to vault the Wildcats into an eighth-place tie, meaning they would enter a playoff with Baylor for the final spot in the match play portion of the championship.

The Wildcats got a reprieve because they played terribly for most of the day and dropped from third place to 10th at one point. In the playoff, Arizona ultimately defeated Baylor in an anticlimactic finish.

Best of the rest: Stanford played horribly the first round. So bad that it almost seemed like the Cardinal shot itself out of the championship. But they played steady over the next three days and ended with the fifth seed. This is the fourth year in a row that Stanford has advanced to match play.

Round of the day: USC shot a 5-under total on Monday, the best round of the day by six shots. They landed as the third seed and will play Duke in the quarterfinals.

Stanford sophomore Andrea Lee shot a 7-under 65, the best score of the day by three shots. Lee made seven birdies and no bogeys and vaulted up the leaderboard 11 spots to end in a tie for sixth place.

Biggest disappointment: Arkansas, the second-ranked team in the country, missed qualifying for match play by one shot. The Razorbacks shot a 20-over 308 in Round 1 and played only slightly better with a 300 in the second round. Consecutive 1-over-par 289 scores were a good try, but results in a huge miss for a team expected to contend for the team title.

Here are Tuesday morning's quarterfinal matchups:

Cut and not so dry: Shinnecock back with a new look

By Bradley S. KleinMay 21, 2018, 9:22 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – The last time the USGA was here at Shinnecock Hills, it nearly had a train wreck on its hands. The last day of the 2004 U.S. Open was so dry and the turf so firm that play was stopped in the morning just to get some water on the greens.

The lessons learned from that debacle are now on display three weeks before Shinnecock gets another U.S. Open. And this time, the USGA is prepared with all sorts of high-tech devices – firmness meters, moisture monitors, drone technology to measure turf temperatures - to make sure the playing surfaces remain healthy.

Players, meanwhile, will face a golf course that is 548 yards longer than a dozen years ago, topping out now at 7,445 yards for the par-70 layout. Ten new tees have assured that the course will keep up with technology and distance. They’ll also require players to contend with the bunkering and fairway contours that designer William Flynn built when he renovated Shinnecock Hills in 1930.

And those greens will not only have more consistent turf cover, they’ll also be a lot larger – like 30 percent bigger. What were mere circles averaging 5,500 square feet are now about 7,200 square feet. That will mean more hole locations, more variety to the setup, and more rollouts into surrounding low-mow areas. Slight misses that ended up in nearby rough will now be down in hollows many more yards away.

The course now has an open, windswept look to it – what longtime green chairman Charles Stevenson calls “a maritime grassland.” You don’t get to be green chairman of a prominent club for 37 years without learning how to deal with politics, and he’s been a master while implementing a long-term plan to bring the course back to its original scale and angles. In some cases that required moving tees back to recapture the threat posed by cross-bunkers and steep falloffs. Two of the bigger extensions come on the layout’s two par-5s, which got longer by an average of 60 yards. The downwind, downhill par-4 14th hole got stretched 73 yards and now plays 519.

“We want players to hit driver,” says USGA executive director Mike Davis.

The also want to place an emphasis upon strategy and position, which is why, after the club had expanded its fairways the last few years, the USGA decided last September to bring them back in somewhat.

The decision followed analysis of the driving statistics from the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, where wide fairways proved very hospitable to play. Players who made the cut averaged hitting 77 percent of fairways and driving it 308 yards off the tee. There was little fear of the rough there. “We didn’t get the wind and the dry conditions we anticipated,” says Davis.

Moving ahead to Shinnecock Hills, he and the setup staff wanted to balance the need for architectural variety with a traditional emphasis upon accuracy. So they narrowed the fairways at Shinnecock Hills last September by seven acres. They are still much wider than in the U.S. Opens played here in 1986, 1995 and 2004, when the average width of the landing areas was 26.6 yards. “Now they are 41.6 yards across on average,” said Davis. So they are much wider than in previous U.S. Opens and make better use of the existing contours and bring lateral bunkers into play.

This time around, with more consistent, healthier turf cover and greens that have plenty of nutrients and moisture, the USGA should be able to avoid the disastrous drying out of the putting surfaces that threatened that final day in 2004. The players will also face a golf course that is more consistent than ever with its intended width, design, variety and challenge. That should make for a more interesting golf course and, by turn, more interesting viewing.