Missing Tiger dominating buildup to Masters

By Rex HoggardApril 9, 2014, 4:15 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Welcome to the missing Masters.

Perhaps Thursday’s ceremonial send off by Jack, Arnie and Gary will wrest things back onto script - action between the ropes has a tendency of dominating the conversation when the whistle sounds - but the buzz surrounding this year’s event on the eve of opening day has been akin to a bizarre version of “Where’s Waldo?”

Forget the favorites, the first-timers, the flawless golf course. The headline this week has been about what is missing from the manicured grounds – a pair of iconic giants felled by time and pressure.

Gone from this year’s proceedings are Tiger Woods and the Eisenhower Tree, one was “irreparably” damaged by an ice storm in February while the jury is still out on the former.

“I half expected to show up this week and see a bigger tree,” smiled Steve Stricker when asked about the missing loblolly pine that had guarded the left side of the 17th fairway.

Whether Woods returns a better player remains to be seen, but his empty locker in the Champions Locker Room was a stark reminder of the significance of his absence.

The last time Woods missed a Masters, Jordan Spieth, among this week’s lengthy list of possible contenders, was 8 months old. Rory McIlroy, the betting favorite, was 5 and the golf course played to just 6,925 yards.

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The Masters was the one major Woods had never missed in his career, the one place that defied injury and ignominy.

In 2009 he tied for sixth fresh off the DL for a broken leg and ailing knee. In 2010 he finished fourth in his first tournament following a scandal that led to a divorce and a five-month hiatus from professional golf.

Through it all, Woods was as much a part of the Masters as blooming azaleas and rules. His first victory in 1997 was historic, a 12-stroke romp that changed the game, while his 2001 triumph was equally tectonic because of how it prompted officials to change the golf course, an overhaul widely dubbed “Tiger proofing.”

All total, Woods has won the Masters four times, the same number of times he’s finished outside the top 10 as a professional. Augusta National, more so than any of the four Grand Slam gatherings, has always been central to the theme of Tiger’s pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories.

It’s why this week is historically hollow. And why conversations from the towering oak tree behind the clubhouse to Amen Corner have fixated on the missing major winner.

Nearly every player who marched into the press center this week was asked about Woods. Some, like Phil Mickelson, didn’t need to be asked about the empty spot on the tee sheet.

“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” Mickelson asked unprovoked. “He’s been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. It’s awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon. I hope he’s back for the other majors. As much as I want to win – and I know how great he is and tough to beat – it makes it special when he’s in the field and you’re able to win.”

It only adds to the intrigue - or emptiness depending on one’s point of view - that Mickelson could match Woods with four green jackets with a victory this week, that Woods could be dethroned atop the Official World Golf Ranking by not one but three players depending on the math and Sunday’s outcome, that McIlroy could come within one leg of a career Grand Slam with a victory.

Even in his absence, Woods’ shadow looms large over the manicured grounds for competitors, patrons and officials.

“We miss Tiger, as does the entire golf world. What I like best about Tiger no matter where he is on a specific day he is such a competitor. He is always a threat to do well and win. He could putt the greens blindfolded, so we miss him very much,” club chairman Billy Payne said.

Even on Woods’ worst day at Augusta National he has found a way to compete as evidenced by his tie for fourth in 2010 when he began his season at the Masters amid plenty of distractions and little preparation.

Regardless of form, Woods’ Augusta aura always remained unchanged by time or circumstance.

“We all know his record around here. When he’s playing well, he wouldn’t be your No. 1 pick to have breathing down your neck on the back nine at Augusta would he?” Henrik Stenson said.

“Of course he’s going to be missed at this event and he would’ve been one of the challengers whether he’s playing his absolute best or playing average. You would still not count him out around this golf course.”

The conversation will change - it always does - the golf course will see to that. But for three days this Masters has been about what’s missing, what’s different.

It’s not better or worse, just different.

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Minjee Lee co-leads Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

By Associated PressJune 24, 2018, 12:25 am

ROGERS, Ark. - Minjee Lee wasn't all that concerned when she missed her first cut of the year this month at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

The ninth-ranked Australian has certainly looked at ease and back in form at Pinnacle Country Club in her first event since then.

Lee and Japan's Nasa Hataoka each shot 6-under 65 on Saturday to share the second-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship 13-under 129. Lee is chasing her fifth victory since turning pro three years ago. It's also an opportunity to put any lingering frustration over that missed cut two weeks ago behind her for good.

''I didn't particularly hit it bad, even though I missed the cut at ShopRite, I just didn't really hole any putts,'' Lee said. ''I'd been hitting it pretty solid going into that tournament and even into this tournament, too. Just to see a couple putts roll in has been nice.''

The 22-year-old Lee needed only 24 putts during her opening 64 on Friday, helping her to match the low round of her career. Despite needing 28 putts Saturday, she still briefly took the outright lead after reaching as low as 14 under after a birdie on the par-5 seventh.

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Lee missed the green on the par-4 ninth soon thereafter to lead to her only bogey of the day and a tie with the 19-year-old Hataoka, who is in pursuit of her first career win.

Hataoka birdied six of eight holes midway through her bogey-free round on Saturday. It was yet another stellar performance from the Japanese teenager, who has finished in the top 10 in four of her last five tournaments and will be a part of Sunday's final pairing.

''I try to make birdies and try to be under par, that's really the key for me to get a top ten,'' Hataoka said. ''Golf is just trying to be in the top 10 every single week, so that's the key.''

Third-ranked Lexi Thompson matched the low round of the day with a 64 to get to 11 under. She hit 17 of 18 fairways and shot a 5-under 30 on her opening nine, The American is in search of her first win since September in the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

Ariya Jutanugarn and Celine Boutier were 10 under.

First-round leader Gaby Lopez followed her opening 63 with a 75 to drop to 4 under. Fellow former Arkansas star Stacy Lewis also was 4 under after a 72.

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Henley will try to put heat on Casey in final round

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:55 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While it will be a tall task for anyone to catch Paul Casey at the Travelers Championship, the man who will start the round most within reach of the Englishman is Russell Henley.

Henley was in the penultimate group at TPC River Highlands on Saturday, but he’ll now anchor things during the final round as he looks to overcome a four-shot deficit behind Casey. After a 3-under 67, Henley sits at 12 under through 54 holes and one shot clear of the three players tied for third.

Henley closed his third round with a run of five straight pars, then became the beneficiary of a pair of late bogeys from Brian Harman that left Henley alone in second place.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

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“Could have made a couple more putts, but to end with two up-and-downs like that was nice,” Henley said. “I felt a little bit weird over the shots coming in, put me in some bad spots. But it was nice to have the short game to back me up.”

Henley has won three times on Tour, most recently at the 2017 Houston Open, and he cracked the top 25 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. But with Casey riding a wave of confidence and coming off an 8-under 62 that marked the best round of the week, he knows he’ll have his work cut out for him in order to nab trophy No. 4.

“I think I can shoot a low number on this course. You’ve got to make the putts,” Henley said. “I’m definitely hitting it well enough, and if I can get a couple putts to fall, that would be good. But I can’t control what he’s doing. I can just try to keep playing solid.”

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Back from back injury, Casey eyeing another win

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:36 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Given his four-shot cushion at the Travelers Championship and his recent victory at the Valspar Championship, it’s easy to forget that Paul Casey hit the disabled list in between.

Casey had to withdraw from The Players Championship because of a bad back, becoming the only player in the top 50 in the world rankings to miss the PGA Tour’s flagship event. He flew back to England to get treatment, and Casey admitted that his T-20 finish at last month’s BMW PGA Championship came while he was still on the mend.

“I wasn’t 100 percent fit with the back injury, which was L-4, L-5, S-1 (vertebrae) all out of place,” Casey said. “Big inflammation, nerve pain down the leg and up the back. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Thanks in large part to a combination of MRIs, back adjustments and anti-inflammatories, Casey finally turned the corner. His T-16 finish at last week’s U.S. Open was the first event for which he felt fully healthy since before the Players, and he’s on the cusp of a second title since March after successfully battling through the injury.

“We thought we were fixing it, but we weren’t. We were kind of hitting the effects rather than the cause,” Casey said. “Eventually we figured out the cause, which was structural.”

Casey started the third round at TPC River Highlands two shots off the lead, but he’s now four clear of Russell Henley after firing an 8-under 62 that marked the low round of the week.

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Bubba thinks he'll need a Sunday 60 to scare Casey

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:15 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Perhaps moreso than at most PGA Tour venues, a low score is never really out of reach at TPC River Highlands. Positioned as a welcome change of pace after the U.S. Open, the Travelers Championship offers a lush layout that often pushes the balance much closer to reward than risk.

This is where Jim Furyk shot a 58 on the par-70 layout two years ago – and he didn’t even win that week. So even though Paul Casey enters the final round with a commanding four-shot lead, there’s still plenty of hope for the chase pack that something special could be in store.

Count Bubba Watson among the group who still believe the title is up for grabs – even if it might require a Herculean effort, even by his standards.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Watson has won the Travelers twice, including in a 2015 playoff over Casey. But starting the final round in a large tie for sixth at 10 under, six shots behind Casey, he estimates that he’ll need to flirt with golf’s magic number to give the Englishman something to worry about.

“My 7 under yesterday, I need to do better than that. I’m going to have to get to like 10 [under],” Watson said. “The only beauty is, getting out in front, you have a chance to put a number up and maybe scare them. But to scare them, you’re going to have to shoot 10 under at worst, where I’m at anyway.”

Watson started the third round three shots off the lead, and he made an early move with birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 en route to an outward 32. The southpaw couldn’t sustain that momentum, as bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 turned a potential 65 into a relatively disappointing 67.

“Bad decision on the par-3, and then a very tough tee shot for me on 17, and it just creeped into the bunker,” Watson said. “Just, that’s golf. You have mistakes every once in a while.”