Mickelsons Masters to Remember

By Rex HoggardApril 12, 2010, 5:57 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – For five months Tiger Woods begrudgingly dominated the spotlight. On Sunday Phil Mickelson and Augusta National took it back.

Good golf, the pundits claimed, would change a conversation that had lingered on unsavory items for far too long. They were right, but who knew the quality crafting would come byway an off-form lefty with wavering focus between a game that had come so easy to him at the end of 2009 and a wife who needed him.

For five months Woods has been reclusive and reticent. For five months Mickelson has been rusty and routinely, and rightly, distracted.

Turns out all Mickelson needed to get things back on track was Woods and a golf course that feels likes a comfortable sweeter. Alpha, it seems, needs omega to complete the championship cocktail.

The Masters Mickelson staked his claim to with his eagle-eagle-birdie blitz late Saturday afternoon was his long before he began the walk up the steep 18th fairway. By the 16th hole he was three clear of the field, the byproduct of the type of back-nine charge people remember, and he could have played to the crowd and skipped his tee shot across the pond like they do in practice rounds.

He played it straight, played the last three on a warm Sunday afternoon without flaw and had two coveted prizes waiting for him after holing his 8 footer for birdie at the last – a green jacket and a glowing wife, Amy, who has been absent from Tour life since being diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

“My wife has been through a lot this year and it means a lot to share some joy together,” Mickelson said in a broken voice. “She’s been an inspiration to me the last year.”

This week Mickelson gave his better-half plenty to cheer, to say nothing of the Augusta National faithful.

What started with Saturday’s back-nine fireworks came to a head when Mickelson reached the devilish 12th hole. He figured he needed to play famed Amen Corner in even par to keep pace with a leaderboard that turned over with each roar. He did one better, covering the hallowed ground in 2 under on his way to a closing 67, a 16-under 272 total and a three-shot victory.

There has been much made of Mickelson’s on-course evolution, some opining that he’d toned down his high-wire act in recent years, but at Augusta National he was every bit the “Thrill” of old.

At the 18th on Saturday and on the fifth on Sunday, Mickelson flopped and won, beating the odds and gravity and every ounce of reason in caddie Jim Mackay’s body for improbable pars via shots that looked like they may never fall from the sky.

On Sunday at the 13th, he beat the field the old fashion way, with bravado bordering on recklessness. From 207 yards through a 2-foot gap, and against Mackay’s subtle advice, Mickelson rifled a 6-iron from the pine straw to 4 feet. He missed the eagle putt, but his birdie dropped him to 12 under and two clear of a field that was running out of time.

“I tried to talk him out of it, he said no. I went at him again, he said definitely no,” Mackay laughed. “That’s Phil, he simplifies things. Give me the club and get out of the way.”

The powers that be wanted the pines to rattle, Mickelson rattled the pine straw at the 13th and put one arm in his third green jacket. He now owns more Augusta National green than all but three players named Jack, Arnie and Tiger.

As for the latter, the “return” ended with a mixed card. To wrap up Woods’ week, his best moments may have come on Monday when he held his mass Q&A with a curious media and didn’t break any china. But after four days of tournament golf maybe the biggest questions that remain are about his golf. And that’s progress by any measure.

He was solid Thursday and Friday, dodgy on Saturday and simply not sharp enough to get the job done on Sunday. For the record, Choi matched Woods shot-for-shot and side-by-side over 72 holes. It was Y.E. Yang all over again. Who knew Woods’ real Achilles ailment was Korean Kryptonite?

From the start Woods’ swing seemed out of sync and on Sunday he battled the dreaded two-way miss. He hit the ninth fairway, from the first tee, played an eventful outward loop of 35 that included three bogeys, two birdies and an eagle and was largely a non-story for the second-consecutive year on the back nine.

There were those who said a Woods victory straight out of his hiatus would not look good for the game. So, in that case, Karma wins.

Lost in that hyperbole, however, was Woods’ tie for fourth, his seventh consecutive year in the top six, a victory of form if not function given the circumstances.

“I had another terrible warm-up,” said Woods, who closed with 69 and tied with Choi in fourth place. “Big hook off of (No. 1), popped up my drive at (No. 2), bladed a chip at (No. 3).”

Sounds a lot like a man who missed five months on the job and his play suggests the only fix Woods needs is reps, which prompted one scribe to ask when he will play again?

“Think we’re playing the Monday qualifier for Hilton Head (Verizon Heritage) tomorrow,” Woods cracked.

He lost the tournament, but not his sense of humor. The same might not be said for Lee Westwood, the 54-hole leader who appeared poised to end all that Grand Slam heartache.

To be honest, Augusta National is not a place the Englishman had fallen for. Westwood’s miss is a quick left, which is an easy way to work one’s way off a leaderboard. But he’d put the time in to learn the Georgia gem’s secrets, floating in the week before the event to cram for the ultimate exam.

“That did him a world of good. All week it just made him feel comfortable and he’s starting to understand it,” said Chubby Chandler, Westwood’s manager.

The major enigma, however, continues to baffle Westwood, who completed the “Near-miss Slam” on Sunday with his runner-up showing. In the last two years he’s finished no worse than third at the U.S. Open (2008), British Open (2009), PGA Championship (2009) and now the Masters.

Fred Couples can relate. At 50 years old he was looking to top Jack Nicklaus, who won his last Masters at 46 in 1986. Instead, “Boom Boom” signed for a closing 70 and took the senior division, which comes with no jacket just a pair of Ecco shoes and no socks.

Couples’ title chances slipped away with a missed short putt at the 11th, a familiar theme, and were rinsed for good when his tee shot at the 12th hit the bank and rolled back into Rae’s Creek. Augusta National’s “second cut” must not have the grab that it did in 1992, when Couples beat the field and gravity with one of the all-time breaks to lift his green jacket.

“It was a great four days for me,” said Couples before boarding a golf cart bound for the greener pastures of the Champions Tour after his final-round 70 left him alone in sixth.

In order Choi and Anthony Kim, fresh from his Shell Houston Open victory, made spirited runs. The American born of Korean parents clawed into the game with a birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie run that began on the 13th hole. The Korean proper took a share of the lead with a 7 footer for birdie at the 10th hole, but neither could keep pace with Mickelson.

No one could. Not at a golf course that means so much. Not with fate smiling down from crystal clear skies and a wife and two children, the oldest of whom had to be rushed to an area emergency room with a fractured arm following a roller-skating mishap Saturday night, waiting happily.

“We refer to (Augusta National) as Phil’s playground,” Mackay said.

He’s finished outside the top 10 at Augusta National once in the last decade and he plays the venerable club’s closing nine the way Bobby Jones envisioned, with zeal. For the week Lefty was 13 under on the inward loop, including his no-bogey, four-birdie finish on Sunday.

To put it simply, “I love this place,” Mickelson said.

On Sunday – with Amy waiting behind the 18th green, 11 months removed from Tour life but beaming as if she’d never left – both Mickelson’s made a return at a place where it matters the most. Moments later they entered Butler Cabin together, holding hands, and it seemed like home.

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Woods' final round is highest-rated FEC telecast ever

By Golf Channel DigitalSeptember 24, 2018, 9:05 pm

We've heard it a million times: Tiger Woods doesn't just move the needle, he IS the needle.

Here's more proof.

NBC Sports Group's final-round coverage of Woods claiming his 80th career victory in the Tour Championship earned a 5.21 overnight rating, making it the highest-rated telecast in the history of the FedExCup Playoffs and the highest-rated PGA Tour telecast in 2018 (excluding majors).

The rating was up 206 percent over 2017's Tour Championship.

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Coverage peaked from 5:30-6PM ET (7.19) as Woods finished his round and as Justin Rose was being crowned the FedExCup champion. That number trailed only the 2018 peaks for the Masters (11.03) and PGA Championship (8.28). The extended coverage window (1:30-6:15 PM ET) posted a 4.35 overnight rating, which is the highest-rated Tour Championship telecast on record.

Sunday’s final round also saw 18.4 million minutes streamed across NBC Sports Digital platforms (up 561 percent year-over-year), and becomes the most-streamed NBC Sports Sunday round (excluding majors) on record.

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Randall's Rant: Woods' comeback story ranks No. 1

By Randall MellSeptember 24, 2018, 8:40 pm

We’re marveling again.

This time over the essence of the man as much as the athlete, over what Tiger Woods summoned to repair, rebuild and redeem himself, after scandal and injury so ruinously rocked his career.

We watched in wonder Sunday as Woods completed the greatest comeback in the history of sport.

That’s how we’re ranking this reconstruction of a champion. (See the rankings below.)

We marveled over the admiration that flooded into the final scene of his victory at the Tour Championship, over the wave of adoring fans who enveloped him as he marched up the 18th fairway.

This celebration was different from his coronation, when he won the Masters by 12 shots in 1997, or his masterpiece, when he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots in 2000, or his epic sweep, when he won at Augusta National in ’01 to claim his fourth consecutive major championship title.

The awe back then was over how invincible Woods could seem in a sport where losing is the week-to-week norm, over how he could decimate the competition as no other player ever has.

The awe today is as much over the transformed nature of the rebuilt man.

It’s about what he has overcome since his aura of invincibility was decimated in the disgrace of a sex scandal, in the humiliation of a videotape of a DUI arrest, in the pain of four back surgeries and four knee surgeries and in the maddening affliction of chipping yips and driving and putting woes.

The wonder is also in imagining the fierce inventory of self-examination that must have been grueling, and in the mustering of inner strength required to overcome foes more formidable than Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and today’s other stars.

It’s in Woods overcoming shame, ridicule, doubt and probably some despair to rebuild his life outside the game before he could rebuild his life in the game.

Woods may never let us know the detail or depth of those inner challenges, of what helped him prevail in his more spiritual battles, because he’s still fiercely private. He may never share the keys to rebuilding his sense of himself, but he’s more open than he has ever been. He shares more than he ever has.

As a father of two children, as a mentor to so many of today’s young players, there’s more depth to the picture of this champion today. There also is more for fans to relate to in his struggles than his success. There’s more of the larger man to marvel over.

The greatest comebacks in the history of sports:

1. Tiger Woods

Four back surgeries and four knee surgeries are just part of the story. It’s why Woods ranks ahead of Ben Hogan. Woods’ comeback was complicated by so many psychological challenges, by the demon doubts created in his sex scandal and DUI arrest. There was shame and ridicule to overcome on a public stage. And then there were the chipping yips, and the driving and putting woes.

2. Ben Hogan

On Feb. 2, 1949, a Greyhound bus attempting to pass a truck slammed head on into Hogan’s Cadillac on a Texas highway. Hogan probably saved his life throwing himself over the passenger side to protect his wife, Valerie. He suffered a double fracture of the pelvis, a cracked rib, a fractured collarbone and a broken ankle, but it was a blood clot that nearly killed him a few weeks later. Hogan needed 16 months to recover but would return triumphantly to win the 1950 U.S. Open and five more majors after that.

3. Niki Lauda

In the bravest sporting comeback ever, Lauda returned to grand prix racing 38 days after his Ferrari burst into flames in a crash in a race in Germany in 1976. Disfigured from severe burns, the reigning Formula One world champion was back behind the wheel at the Italian Grand Prix, finishing fourth. He won the world championship again in ’77 and ’84.

4. Greg LeMond

In 1987, LeMond was shot and nearly killed in a hunting accident. Two years later, he won his second Tour de France title. A year after that, he won it again.

5. Babe Zaharias

In 1953, Babe Zaharias underwent surgery for colon cancer. A year later, she won the U.S. Women’s Open wearing a colostomy bag. She also went on to win the Vare Trophy for low scoring average that year.

6. Monica Seles

Away from tennis for two years after being stabbed with a knife between the shoulder blades during a match in Germany, Seles won in her return to competition at the 1995 Canadian Open. She was the highest ranked women’s tennis player in the world at the time of the attack.

7. Lance Armstrong

After undergoing chemotherapy treatment in a battle with potentially fatal metastatic testicular cancer in 1996, Armstrong recovered and went on to win seven Tour de France titles. Of course, the comeback wasn’t viewed in the same light after he was stripped of all those titles after being implicated in a doping conspiracy.

8. Mario Lemieux

In the middle of the 1992-93 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins star underwent radiation treatment for Hodgkin disease and missed 20 games. Making a start the same day as his last treatment, Lemieux scored a goal and assist. The Penguins would go on a 17-game winning streak after his return and Lemieux would lead the league in scoring and win the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

9. Peyton Manning

Multiple neck surgeries and a spinal fusion kept Manning from playing with the Indianapolis Colts for the entire 2011 season. He was released before the 2012 season and signed with the Denver Broncos. He won his fifth NFL MVP Award in ’13 and helped the Broncos win the Super Bowl in the ’15 season.

10. Bethany Hamilton

A competitive surfer at 13, Hamilton lost her left arm in a shark attack in Hawaii. A month later, she was surfing again. Less than two years later, she was a national champion.

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Woods' win makes us wonder, what's next?

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 24, 2018, 6:35 pm

The red shirt and ground-shaking roars.

The steely glare and sweet swings.

The tactical precision and ruthless efficiency.

If not for the iPhone-wielding mob following his every move, you’d swear that golf had been transported to the halcyon days of the early 2000s.

The Tiger Time Machine kicked into overdrive at East Lake, where Woods won for the first time in 1,876 days and suddenly put two of the sport’s most hallowed numbers – 82 and 18 – back in play.

“I didn’t understand how people could say he lost this and lost that,” said Hank Haney, Woods’ former swing coach. “He is so good. He’s Tiger Woods. He’s won 79 times. If he can swing, he can win again.”

The only disappointing part of win No. 80 is that Woods will have to wait four months for another meaningful chance to build upon it. That’s a shame, because all of the pieces are in place for him to make a sustained run, and the Tour Championship might just be the start of an unimaginable final act.

A season that began with questions about whether a 42-year-old Woods could survive a full schedule with no setbacks ended with him saving his best for last, when his younger, healthier peers seemed to be gassed. Taking his recovery week by week, Woods ended up making 18 starts – his second-heaviest workload since 2005 – and never publicly complained of any discomfort, only the occasional stiffness that comes with having a fused lower spine.

Remember when Woods’ tanking world ranking was punch-line material? Now he’s all the way up to No. 13 – not bad for a guy who was 1,199th when he returned to competition last December at the Hero World Challenge. Nowhere close to reaching his 40-event minimum divisor, he’ll continue to accrue points and charge up the rankings, putting the game’s top players on notice.

Final FedExCup standings

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The victory at East Lake moves Woods only two shy of Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour wins record (82), a goal that seemed unthinkable a year and a half ago, when he was bedridden following the Hail Mary fusion surgery. And for those wondering whether he’s capable of chasing down Big Jack, remember that Woods almost picked off two majors this summer, at Carnoustie and Bellerive, with a body and swing that was constantly evolving. 

Indeed, in an era of TrackMans and coaching stables designed to maximize a player’s performance, Woods has refreshingly gone back to his roots. It always seemed incongruous, watching the game’s most brilliant golf mind scrutinize down-the-line swing video, and so this year he has been a solo act, relying on old feels to guide his new move. The credit for this resurgence is his alone. 

Sure, there were growing pains, lots of them, and for months each tournament turned into golf’s version of Whack-a-Mole, as yet another issue arose. The two clubs that most consistently held Woods back were his driver and putter, but recent improvements portend well for the future.

After wayward tee shots cost him the PGA, Woods changed the loft and shaft on his TaylorMade driver. For years, even while injured, he violently attacked the ball in a vain attempt to hang with the big hitters. But these tweaks to his gamer (resulting in lower swing speed and carry distance) were a concession that accuracy was more vital to his success than power. His newfound discipline was rewarded: He ended the season with four consecutive weeks of positive strokes gained: off the tee statistics, and on Sunday he put on a clinic while Rory McIlroy, one of the game’s preeminent drivers, thrashed around in the trees. Woods is still plenty long, closing out his victory with a 348-yard rocket on 18, and from the middle of the fairway he can rely on his vintage iron play. 

His troubles with the putter weren’t as quick of a fix. Frustrated with his inconsistent performance on the greens, Woods briefly flirted with other models before rekindling his love affair with his old Scotty Cameron, the trusty putter with which he’s won 13 of his 14 majors. It’s exceedingly rare for a player to overcome the frayed nerve endings and putt better in his 40s than his 30s, but Woods was downright masterful on East Lake’s greens.

“It’s more satisfaction than anything,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “People have no idea how much work he put into this.”

By almost any statistical measure, Woods’ season-long numbers suggest that he’s already back among the game’s elite – even after struggling to walk and swing for the past four years. He’s the best iron player in the game. He finished the season ranked seventh in strokes gained: tee to green. And after his normally stellar short game went MIA for a few years, his play around the greens appeared as sharp as ever.

And so on Sunday, while watching Woods school the top 30 players on Tour, even Johnny Miller got caught up in the latest edition of Tigermania.

“He’s not looking like he could win a couple more,” Miller said. “He’s looking like he could win A LOT more.”

Where Woods’ story is headed – to No. 1 in the world, to the top of Mt. Nicklaus, to the operating table – is anyone’s guess, because this comeback has already defied any reasonable logic or expectation.

He’s come back from confidence-shattering performances at Phoenix (chip yips) and Memorial (85) and even his own media-day event where he humiliatingly rinsed a series of wedge shots.

He’s come back from four back surgeries and pain so debilitating that his kids once found him face down in the backyard; pain so unbearable that he used to keep a urine bucket next to his bed, because he couldn’t schlep his battered body to the bathroom.

He’s come back from an addiction so deep that in May 2017 police found him slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes, five drugs coursing through his system, a shocking and sad DUI arrest that was the catalyst for this clear-eyed comeback.

All of the months of unhappiness and uncertainty nearly came pouring out afterward – the culmination of a remarkable journey from turmoil to redemption that ranks among the most unlikely in sports history. Woods fought back tears as thousands formed a big green mosh pit and chanted his name, a surreal scene even for this larger-than-life legend. Hugging LaCava, Woods said into his caddie’s ear, over and over: “We did it! We did it! We did it!” 

“He’s pumped up,” LaCava said later. “I’ve never seen him this excited.”

And not just for this moment, but for the future.

The prospects are as tantalizing as ever. 

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DJ may keep cross-handed grip for Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardSeptember 24, 2018, 4:29 pm

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – As he’s proven in the past Dustin Johnson isn’t averse to switching things up when it comes to his putting, but this was extreme even for him.

Johnson switched to a cross-handed grip on the sixth hole during Saturday’s third round at the Tour Championship and continued to use the same grip through the final round.

It was the first time he’d putted cross-handed in competition and the first time he switched his grip mid-round.

Ryder Cup: Articles, photos and videos

“I did it a few times on the putting green. Sometimes I do it on the putting green just to get my setup a little bit better because it just levels out my shoulders,” said Johnson, who closed his week at East Lake with a 67 and finished alone in third place. “I was putting well. I hit some bad putts for the first five holes, so after I hit a really bad putt for eagle on 6, the next one I tried it, I made it, so I kept it going.”

Johnson, who moved back into the top spot in the World Golf Ranking thanks to his third-place finish, was encouraged by his putting on the weekend but he was vague when asked if he planned to putt cross-handed this week at the Ryder Cup.

“We're going to stick with it for now. We'll try it,” he said.