Golf doing just fine in the post-Tiger era

By Rex HoggardApril 6, 2016, 6:01 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The pall was as real as the water trickling through Rae’s Creek and the traffic inching its way down Washington Road.

Two years ago, just 10 days before the first round, Tiger Woods announced he would not play the Masters, marking the first time since 1994 the four-time winner would not play the year’s first major.

The news that the then-world No. 1 wouldn’t play created a chorus of concern, some even going so far as to question the event’s relevance without him.

Last Friday the now-world No. 476 posted a similar message on his website.

“I've been hitting balls and training daily, but I'm not physically ready,” Woods wrote. “I've said all along that this time I need to be cautious and do what's best for my long-term health and career. Unfortunately, playing Augusta next week wouldn't be the right decision.”

Although it’s a similar injury, multiple back procedures performed late last year, and Woods’ relevance at Augusta National is far from diminished, this time is different.

This time there are no headlines lamenting Woods’ absence, no handwringing about the future of the game without its biggest star, no foreboding predictions that the event will be an afterthought without a red shirt leading the way on Sunday.

Much of that tempered reaction is the byproduct of a lineup of young stars who are as compelling as they are competitive.

Jordan Spieth’s victory last year at the Masters began to change the narrative and his run through the major championship season is still being digested. Jason Day’s breakthrough last year at the PGA Championship, followed by impressively consistent play ever since – including back-to-back victories in his last two PGA Tour starts – solidified his status as a bona fide star.

Masters Tournament: Articles, photos and videos

Although he’s yet to win this year, Rory McIlroy – who would complete the career Grand Slam with a victory this week – has more finishes inside the top 6 (four) this season than outside (three); and Rickie Fowler continues to inch closer to his first major as evidenced by his impressive victory over a deep field earlier this year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

It’s taken a village, but golf without Tiger Woods has not been as bleak as originally predicted.

Woods’ sabbatical has also been dulled by the reality that he has played a full Tour schedule just twice since 2012 because of an assortment of injuries.

Whatever the reasons, the result is a list of varying degrees of favorites that stretches 10 to 15 players deep depending on who you ask.

This isn’t to say Woods is a complete afterthought this week, it’s just a question of embracing the new norm, as evidenced by Phil Mickelson’s answer when asked about the missing star.

“Well, it's not like we shared a house together, so I don't notice it that way,” Lefty joked. “But the Tour misses him. The game misses him. Hopefully he'll get back to his winning ways. It was only a few years ago he won five times in a year, so it's not like he's that far off.”

But then missing him as a fan and as a fellow competitor is two different things.

“As a player, no, I don't like getting beat by Tiger all the time.  I mean, it sucked,” Day said. “But as a fan, it was fantastic golf to watch.”

On Tuesday, the man Woods is most often compared to was asked about the missing major champion. Jack Nicklaus didn’t miss a Masters from 1959 to ’98 and he explained that, unlike Tiger, he never dealt with the kind of injuries that Woods has.

As he’s quick to point out, however, Nicklaus – who won his final major at age 46 at Augusta National in 1986 – doesn’t subscribe to the theory that Woods’ best days are behind him.

“He's got to show up for his 1980 [when Nicklaus won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship at 40 years old] and his 1986. I think he'll show up for that a little bit,” Nicklaus said.

Woods’ shadow continues to loom large over Augusta National. Asked a random question about playing certain holes, Paul Casey quickly lapsed into a Tiger anecdote.

“I played with Tiger the first or second year I was in and we’re walking down [No.] 11 and I said, ‘Good thing I watched the Masters as a kid and saw those shots. Thanks to you I will never get to hit them,’” the Englishman laughed, referring to the changes made to Augusta National following Woods’ historic 1997 victory.

Woods also made a cameo at Tuesday’s Champions Dinner, tweeting, “Pretty cool that at dinner tonight three of us sitting next to each other have won a combined 14 green jackets,” and reports from the event suggest he’s closer to a return to competition than some may think.

“Last night, he looked good. He looked better than me,” said Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, who recently underwent his own back surgery. “I could tell the fire is building back up in his belly, and I suspect Tiger's going to be back fairly quickly.”

The difference this time, unlike two years ago there is an unstated understanding that the Masters, that golf marches forward with or without Tiger.

Getty Images

Tiger Tracker: 147th Open Championship

By Tiger TrackerJuly 20, 2018, 2:30 pm

Tiger Woods shot his second consecutive 70 on Friday at Carnoustie and enters weekend play at even par for the championship, still in contention for major No. 15.

Getty Images

Scott and Sunesson a one-week partnership

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 2:13 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Adam Scott has been in between caddies for the last month and went with a bold stand-in for this week’s Open Championship, coaxing veteran looper Fanny Sunesson out of retirement to work for him at Carnoustie.

Sunesson caddied for Nick Faldo in his prime, as the duo won four major titles together. She also worked for Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia before a back injury forced her to retire.

But for this week’s championship, Scott convinced the Swede to return to the caddie corps. The results have been impressive, with the Australian following an opening 71 with a second-round 70 for a tie for 16th place.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It's been going great. Fanny is, obviously, a fantastic caddie, and to be able to have that experience out there with me is certainly comforting,” Scott said. “We've gotten along really well. She's picked up on my game quickly, and I think we think about things in a very similar way.”

Scott was also asked about a potential long-term partnership between the duo, but he didn’t sound hopeful.

“It's just for this week,” he said. “It would be up to her, but I don't think she's making plans of a comeback. I was being a bit opportunistic in contacting her and coaxing her out of retirement, I guess. But I think she's having a good week. We'll just take it one week at the moment.”

Getty Images

After tense Augusta Sunday, Rory ready to be aggressive

By Ryan LavnerJuly 20, 2018, 1:51 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy temporarily lost his superpowers during the Masters.  

In one of the most surprising rounds of the year, he played tentatively and carefully during the final day. Squaring off against the major-less Patrick Reed, on the brink of history, with the backing of nearly the entire crowd, it was McIlroy who shrank in the moment, who looked like the one searching for validation. He shot a joyless 74 and wound up six shots behind Reed.

No, the final round was nowhere near as dispiriting as the finale in 2011, but McIlroy still sulked the following week. He binge-watched TV shows. Devoured a few books. Guzzled a couple of bottles of wine. His pity party lasted a few days, until his wife, Erica, finally dragged him out of the house for a walk.

Some deeper introspection was required, and McIlroy revealed a healthier self-analysis Friday at Carnoustie. He diagnosed what went wrong at Augusta, and then again two months later at the U.S. Open, where he blew himself out of the tournament with an opening 80.

“I was worrying too much about the result, not focusing on the process,” he said. “Sunday at Augusta was a big learning curve for me because, even if I hadn’t won that tournament, but I went down swinging and aggressive and committing to every shot, I would have walked away a lot happier.”

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

And so McIlroy has a new mantra this week at The Open.

Let it go.

Don’t hold back. Don’t worry about the repercussions. Don’t play scared.

“I’m committed to making sure, even if I don’t play my best golf and don’t shoot the scores I want, I’m going to go down swinging, and I’m going to go down giving my best,” he said. “The result is the byproduct of all the little things you do to lead up to that. Sometimes I’ve forgotten that, and I just need to get back in that mindset.”

It’s worked through two rounds, even after the cool, damp conditions led McIlroy to abandon his ultra-aggressive strategy. He offset a few mistakes with four birdies, shooting a second consecutive 69 to sit just a couple of shots off the lead.

During a sun-splashed first round, McIlroy gleefully banged driver on almost every hole, flying or skirting the bunkers that dot these baked-out, undulating fairways. He wasn’t particularly accurate, but he also didn’t need to be, as the thin, wispy rough enabled every player to at least advance their approach shots near the green.

Friday’s weather presented a different challenge. A steady morning rain took some of the fire out of parched fairways, but the cooler temperatures also reduced much of the bombers’ hang time. Suddenly, all of the bunkers were in play, and McIlroy needed to adjust his driver-heavy approach (he hit only six) on the fly.

“It just wasn’t worth it,” he said.

McIlroy hit a few “skanky” shots, in his words, but even his bigger misses – on the sixth and 17th holes – were on the proper side, allowing him to scramble for par and keep the round going.

It’s the fifth time in his career that he’s opened a major with back-to-back rounds in the 60s. He’s gone on to win three of the previous four – the lone exception that disastrous final round (80) at Augusta in 2011.

“I don’t want to say easy,” he said, “but it’s felt comfortable.”

The weekend gets uncomfortable for everyone, apparently even four-time major winners who, when in form, ooze confidence and swagger.

Once again McIlroy has that look at a major.

The only thing left to do?

Let it go.

Getty Images

Z. Johnson may have to pay for the jet home

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 1:23 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Zach Johnson will have some bragging rights when he gets back to the ultimate golf frat house on Friday after a second-round 67 moved him into the lead at The Open.

Johnson is rooming with Jordan Spieth, Jason Dufner, Kevin Kisner, Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler this week at Carnoustie. It’s a tradition that began two years ago at Royal Troon.

Kisner joked on Thursday after he took the first-round lead that the perks for the house/tournament front-runner were limited: “I probably get to eat first,” he said.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

There is, however, one running wager.

“Two years ago we, I don't know if you call it bet, but agreement that, if you win, you get the jet and you buy it, so we go home,” said Johnson, who added that because of varying travel arrangements, the wager might not be needed this year. “I didn't pay last year. Somebody else did.”

Spieth won last year’s championship at Royal Birkdale.

Despite the expense, Johnson said he didn’t know how much it costs to charter a private flight back to the United States, but it’s a good problem to have.

“I’d be happy to fork it over,” he smiled.