Fairytale Beginning

By Rex HoggardApril 9, 2010, 5:16 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Par, decorum and conventional wisdom seemed to be the only casualties on a Thursday dominated by flashback leaderboards, backhanded jabs and back-on-form headliners.

For everyone who has had their fill of sorted innuendo Fred Couples reminded us that Augusta National is where history is made for all the right reasons. For all that have tuned out the pre-tournament claptrap Tom Watson has proven, yet again, that pure ballstriking is timeless, be it on a windblown Scottish links or the Bobby Jones’ version of a windblown Scottish links.

Keeping time with the over-50 set was refreshed, and strangely accurate, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang for those who track those sort of things.

Phil Mickelson
Almost lost in the mix was two-time champion Phil Mickelson shooting 67. (Getty Images)
And then there was Tiger Woods. Back where he controls the action and doing just fine, thank you. Those within the plush confines of the National responded to Woods’ solid play in kind, rattling the pines like the last five months never existed.

The road to professional redemption for Woods is paved with quality golf, and on Thursday he gave the masses a reason to cheer instead of stare. But the day did have its uglier side.

Two small planes buzzed the grounds pulling less-than-endearing signs with comments pointed at Woods, but otherwise the world No. 1’s first-round 68, his first opening-round ever in the 60s in 16 trips down Magnolia Lane, left him two off the lead. It’s a reality that has drawn the ire of some. If Woods can go walk-about for five months and still make history, what does that say for the quality of competition on the Tour?

The more compelling question, of course, is how a pair of AARP members atop the field at the year’s first major looks.

In a collective defense of the circuit, however, few have been more prolific this year than Couples. After guiding the U.S. Presidents Cup team to glory last fall, Boom Boom has won three of his over-50 tour starts and finished runner-up, to Watson, no less, at the other.

“The Champions Tour has been a lot of fun but this is where I really want to play well,” said Couples, who narrowly missed an 8 footer for birdie at the last for a 66 and leads a large group by a stroke.

There are no shortage of rules at Augusta National: no running, no bare feet, no laying down. After Couples’ opening effort, the powers that be may want to work in a “no tennis shoe” addendum.

The sweet-swinging king of the Champions Tour leads Watson, Mickelson, Yang, Choi and Westwood after a windswept day that started, fittingly, with a ceremonial tee shot from another pair of living legends – Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Welcome to the Senior Masters, where the average age of the top six players was 43.6, and that’s with baby-faced Westwood, 36, dragging down the average.

Couples, who called his card “as good a round as I’ve ever played,” picked his way around familiar turf with no socks, no spikes, no golf cart, no problem save for a scrambling par from under an azalea at the 10th hole.

That he did so in relative serenity is a testament to the quality of those giving chase, and the intensity that descended on Woods who played to a pack house from sunny start to soggy finish.

“There’s 35,000 people on property and I reckon 32,000 of them will be with Tiger,” said Steve Bann, the swing coach for Woods’ playing companion Choi.

The other 3,000 must have been living under a tabloid-free rock the last five months, but if they did tear their way clear of the Tiger Show there was plenty to watch.

Mickelson looked nothing like the player who has been getting by this year on something short of a full tank, hitting almost as many fairways in his opening 18 (6) as he did for his closing 36 at the Shell Houston Open (7). Lefty has now posted book-end 67s, going all the way back to last year’s stirring final round.

While Westwood finally appears ready to give it his best try at Augusta National.

“He flew in early, played last Sunday and Monday before going to (the Shell Houston Open) and it’s the first time he’s ever done that,” said Chubby Chandler, Westwood’s manager. “He seems to have a familiarity and that has really made him feel comfortable.”

Yang, relaxed perhaps for the first time since his stunning victory over Woods at last year’s PGA, and Choi performed like they discovered a secret during all those practice rounds they played together this week.

And then there is Watson – making a cameo direct from his appearance in the Turnberry tragic comedy. There is something to be said for karma, which took a 2-up lead going into the Masters’ second loop.

That’s Watson, Tom not Bubba. That’s major, Augusta National not Turnberry. The same Watson that was asked less than two weeks ago by one innocently off-kilter reporter if he was playing the Masters.

The same Watson who, when asked during the same interview, for his Masters picks dismissed his own title chances outright saying, “No, not me. That golf course is too much for me.”

On Thursday he was reminded of his picks and his dismissive attitude regarding his own title chances, he smiled and pointed to the leaderboard, “My guy’s right there.” His guy? Couples.

Just no one remind him, or Couples, they play 72 holes at the Masters.

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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Web.com Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.