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If Tiger couldn't win, Casey glad he did

By Rex HoggardMarch 12, 2018, 12:02 am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – On Friday as Tiger Woods was turning back the clock at the Valspar Championship, Paul Casey skillfully straddled the line between fan and competitor the way a player who has been a witness to greatness could.

“If I don't win this week I want Tiger to win. I'm afraid to say that,” he shrugged.

It was a common theme among Woods’ PGA Tour frat brothers. As competitive as the game can be at the highest level, there’s no better story in sports than a reclamation project, even among contemporaries.

For the better part of four days at Innisbrook Resort, Woods awoke the ghosts of past greatness with impressive flair. He opened with rounds of 70-68 to head into the weekend just two strokes off the lead, and on Day 3 he was nearly flawless on his way to a 67 to trim a shot off that advantage.

The anticipation was palpable and wide reaching. Historic crowds swarmed to the Copperhead Course to get a glimpse of the moment Woods completed the comeback and won his first Tour event in 1,680 days.

Unlike the 2015 Wyndham Championship, the last time Tiger began a Sunday with a legitimate chance, this promised no false hope. There were no qualifiers, no excuses and seemingly no doubts.

Healthy, happy and hungry, this was Woods’ event to win.

Maybe it was a sign of the changing times or the byproduct of an exceedingly small sample window, the Valspar Championship was Woods’ fourth official event since undergoing fusion surgery on his lower back in April, but the Sunday everyone anticipated was late to transpire and when it did it was too little, too late.

Woods played his first 16 holes in even par, taking the lead briefly with a birdie at the first only to drift back into the pack with a bogey at No. 4. That was followed by a parade of routine pars and iron shots that simply weren’t close enough to gain any kind of momentum and left a massive gallery that had little to cheer for for the first time all week.

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Through three rounds, it seemed for the first time on a course not named Augusta National you could track the action by the direction and intensity of the cheers.

When his tee shot sailed to 44 feet at the 17th hole, Woods was two strokes behind Casey and the outcome seemed just as preordained.

Casey, who’d teed off an hour and 20 minutes before the leaders, was awaiting his fate in the locker room, a few par 4s away from the action on the 17th hole, but when Woods’ birdie putt dropped into the hole the Englishman didn’t need an update.

Moments later, Casey was able to again read the room. This time it was a chorus of anguish as Tiger’s birdie attempt from 37 feet at the 72nd hole came up short. Like that the air was pulled from Innisbrook.

“I had a chance today,” lamented Woods, who clearly had no interest in moral victories.

Throughout this comeback, Woods has taken a long-view approach. Baby steps, not breakthroughs, have been the focus, but with the stars aligned perfectly and his game as complete as it’s been since 2013 it was difficult to keep things in perspective in the hurried moments following his round.

“I was close. I had a chance today,” said Woods, who closed with a 70 to tie for second place with Patrick Reed at 9 under par. “Unfortunately I just didn't quite feel as sharp as I needed to with my irons, played a little conservative because of it. I just needed to handle the par 5s a little better.”

Even Casey, who is nearly nine years removed from his last PGA Tour victory, was surprised by the outcome. He has, after all, spent his entire career watching Woods defy the odds and make the extraordinary seem standard.

Before Casey teed off on Sunday five strokes off the lead, he shared the view of the vast majority of fans that this would be Woods’ comeback exclamation point.

“I actually thought he was going to win today before the round started. I thought it was just teed up beautifully for him,” said Casey, who birdied three consecutive holes starting at the 11th and scrambled for pars at the three closing holes on his way to a 6-under 65 and a 10-under total.

Like most who have watched Woods make the impossible look easy for the better part of two decades, Casey figured that settling back into his winning ways was as easy as slipping into a red shirt and black pants. Maybe even Woods allowed himself such an indulgence.

Lost in the disappointment of Woods’ defeat, however, is the degree of difficulty involved with winning at the highest level after two years of competitive inactivity and four back surgeries.

Woods has repeatedly stressed that his climb back to relevance would take time, time to understand his rebuilt body and refine a swing that until a few months ago was completely foreign. But his 12th-place finish two weeks ago at the Honda Classic and now Sunday’s near miss at Innisbrook will make that difficult to digest.

In an odd way, Casey’s victory may ease those wild expectations, at least for Woods. Although comparisons between the two players are few, they do share an unmistakable desire to persevere. For Casey, it was the steady drumbeat of missed opportunities as his last Tour victory at the 2009 Houston Open became a distant memory.

“I’d be lying to you if I didn't say there weren’t [doubts he could win again],” he admitted. “The last couple of years I've been very much at peace with it, having great times on the golf course and bad times on the golf course. But I'm content with the life that I built.”

Woods was far from content with his finish at the Valspar Championship - his body language made that abundantly clear - but like Casey he seems truly at peace with his plight and quietly convinced he’s finally on the right path.

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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 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.