Palmer eager to move on without Tiger

By Rex HoggardMarch 25, 2010, 12:25 am
ORLANDO, Fla. – Since we last saw Arnold Palmer, the King has stripped away 18 inches of terra firma from beneath Bay Hill’s putting surfaces, even that hallowed ground on the 18th green where Tiger Woods has amazed the past two years with consecutive walk-off winners.

On Wednesday, as Palmer gave his annual “State of the Kingdom” address, one could not help but think something's missing, dug up and hauled away like that 1½ feet of bad soil that had been tormenting Bay Hill’s putting surfaces – to say nothing of its grounds crew – for so many years.

tiger woods arnold palmerThe roars from Woods’ heroics, which blended into a single raucous cacophony after back-to-back highlight-reel finishes in the Florida dusk the past two years, have faded, like the luster from the world No. 1’s pre-Nov. 27 image, and with it some of the shine from one of the circuit’s most venerable tournaments.

There was a time, not long ago, that Bay Hill Wednesday ranked high on the calendar of Tour “hump days,” right up there with Masters Wednesday and the first round of the WGC-Match Play – at least for those who carry notebooks for a living.

Palmer’s annual meet-and-greet with the press was never scripted and always special as the legend thoughtfully and thoroughly covered a potpourri of topics. From golf course changes at Augusta National to America’s Ryder Cup woes, the King delivered with the kind of insight that comes only from a Hall of Fame career and unconditional respect from golf’s body politic.

But on Wednesday there was just a single subject any of the assembled scribes cared to talk about. A subject Palmer didn’t seem to have the heart or head to address. At least not right now.

“We are disappointed Tiger isn’t here to play,” Palmer said politely when asked about his embattled defending champion. “I have an opinion; I will keep it until a later date to give it. It's not worth talking about right now, and I think that that's the best thing to do, move on.”

It was a valiant effort, but in the vortex that has become the golf universe since Woods ran roughshod through his quiet Isleworth neighborhood, there is only so much room to duck and cover.

Similarly, less than 20 minutes before Palmer took the stand, eh . . . podium, Colin Montgomerie offered a curious, “I was semi-expecting (questions about Woods).”

Semi-expecting? Either the Scot was joking, which he is prone to do on a good day, or his Woods math didn’t convert correcting from the metric system.

Palmer, however, didn’t have the luxury to move on, and, at 80, he didn’t seem to have an overwhelming interest in political correctness.

Throughout the course of his record-book career Palmer enjoyed the categorical support of Arnie’s Army, and even the thought of a crowd that wasn’t 100 percent behind him made him cringe.

“It would bother me,” Palmer sighed. “I’m a sensitive person by nature and it’s not something I would look forward to.”

Nor would a litany of uncomfortable questions from an increasing hostile media, but on this front Palmer was quick to offer a piece of unsolicited advice.

“The best thing he can do is to open up and let (the media) shoot at him,” Palmer said.

We can only assume Palmer was referring to a metaphorical shooting byway of questions, but for Woods the ordeal will likely have the feel of a firing squad when, or if, that time comes.

When asked about Woods’ chances at Augusta National, where Palmer will team with Jack Nicklaus on the first tee as a ceremonial starter, the man, who like Woods, counts four green jackets in his extensive wardrobe had no doubt the world No. 1 will be a factor come Sunday.

“It is the absolute nature of the beast, he is a competitor,” Palmer said.

As for any other advice he would offer Woods, Palmer said the six-time Bay Hill champion has neither asked nor has he offered any solace. The two talked twice last week when Woods informed Palmer he would be skipping Bay Hill to prepare for the Masters, yet even one of the game’s most valued voices was left largely silent by the moment.

When pressed for what he might say to Woods if he had the chance, Palmer paused for a long moment, “That’s the best thing to do . . . move on,” he offered with his signature glint in his eyes.

It may have been unrealistic expectations, or perhaps just a craving for simpler times. Simple advice for a not-so-simple dilemma, much like the counsel Palmer’s father, Deke, offered him many years ago when he first turned pro.

“I remember my father saying, ‘When you go out on the Tour, you just listen to everyone that you talk to out there, and they will help you. They will help you get back here to Latrobe (Pa.) and drive tractors,’” Palmer recalled.

No chance Woods ends up on a tractor back home in Cypress, Calif., but he would do well to listen closely to Palmer and, simply, “move on.”
Getty Images

Match Play Final Four set to bring the excitement

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 11:55 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Sunday’s Final Four at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play will include a pair of Georgia Bulldogs, a two-and-done phenom from Alabama and a Swede from Stockholm via Stillwater, that would be Oklahoma.

Just like that other tournament, right?

Actually, for all the volatility in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it’s not even in the same league as this year’s Match Play, where just a single player who began the week seeded inside the top 10 is still playing.

But what the event may lack in star power it’s certainly made up for with stellar performances, starting with Justin Thomas who is the PGA Tour’s most avid Alabama fan and the tournament’s second-seeded player.

After not losing a match in three days of pool play, Thomas again cruised through his morning Round-of-16 bout with Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5; but found himself in an unfamiliar position early in his quarterfinal match against Kyle Stanley.

Having not trailed during any point in his matches this week, Thomas bogeyed the second hole to fall behind.

“I was hoping to never trail this whole week. I thought that was unbelievable that [2017 champion Dustin Johnson] did it last year,” Thomas said. “I'm going out there this afternoon, and I was like, ‘Man, I have got a chance of doing this, too.’ Then I missed a 3-footer on 2 and shot that out the window.”

The world’s second-ranked player was nearly perfect the rest of the way, regaining the lead with three birdies in four holes starting at No. 5 and closing Stanley out with a bogey-free finish.

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

It’s all part of an impressive turnaround for Thomas, who had been slowed in recent weeks by dental surgery followed by a bout with the flu, which nearly prompted him to miss the Match Play.

“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” said Thomas, who can unseat Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking if he advances to the championship match. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”

His improved health has dovetailed with his increasingly better play at Austin Country Club and he’s now two matches away from winning his first World Golf Championship.

Like the NCAA tournament, however, being one of the last four standing only means more work, and Thomas will have plenty to keep him busy when he sets out early Sunday in a semifinal match against Bubba Watson.

Although Watson hasn’t been as dominant as Thomas, his ability to overpower any course, any time, has been evident this week following victories over Brian Harman, 2 and 1, and Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 5 and 3, on his way to the Final Four.

“When you're hitting an 8-iron and another guy is hitting a 7- or another guy is hitting a 6-iron, obviously that's going to change everything,” said Watson, who played his college golf at Georgia. “It's like LeBron James, when he jumps, he jumps higher than I do, so it's an advantage. When you're hitting the driver good and those guys you're naming, they're known for hitting the driver pretty well, just like Thomas is doing right now, he's been hammering it. Anytime that you're hitting the driver somewhat straight, it's an advantage.”

But if Bubba is a familiar foe for Thomas, he may want to do a quick Google search to fill in the blanks on one of his potential final opponents.

While Alex Noren is still a relatively unknown player to many American fans (and that’s certain to change in September at the Ryder Cup), it’s only because they haven’t been paying attention. The Swede, who attended Oklahoma State, has been dominant this week, sweeping the group stage followed by a 5-and-3 victory over Patrick Reed in the Sweet 16 and a 4-and-2 triumph over Cameron Smith in the quarterfinals.

“I've always liked match play because the outcome is quite direct,” said Noren, who will face Kevin Kisner in the semifinals. “In match play, you've just got to be really focused all the time and anything can happen. And then you have to play good each round. You can't just give up a round and then think you've got three more.”

But if a JT vs. Noren final would be the perfect Ryder Cup primer, the dream match up for Thomas in the championship tilt might be Kisner.

Kisner lost a friendly wager to Thomas earlier this year at the Sony Open when Alabama defeated Georgia in the NCAA National Championship football game and he had to wear an Alabama jersey while he played the 17th hole on Thursday.

Kisner would certainly appreciate the chance at a mulligan. And the way the duo have been rolling in birdie putts this week, it has the potential to be just as entertaining as that other tournament.

Getty Images

Up one, Stricker hunting second Champions title

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 11:48 pm

BILOXI, Miss. - Steve Stricker moved into position for his second straight PGA Tour Champions victory, shooting a 3-under 69 on Saturday to take a one-stroke lead in the Rapiscan Systems Classic.

Stricker won the Cologuard Classic three weeks ago in Tucson, Arizona, for his first victory on the 50-and-over tour. He tied for 12th the following week in the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship.

Full-field scores from the Rapiscan Systems Classic

Stricker had a 7-under 137 total at Fallen Oak, the Tom Fazio-designed layout with big, speedy greens.

The 51-year-old Wisconsin player bogeyed Nos. 2-3, rebounded with birdies on Nos. 6-7, birdied the par-4 12th and eagled the par-5 13th. He has six top-three finishes in eight career senior starts.

First-round leader Joe Durant followed his opening 66 with a 72 to drop into a tie for second with Jeff Sluman (67).

Getty Images

Thomas can take world No. 1 with win over Watson

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 11:29 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – On March 7, Justin Thomas had his wisdom teeth removed, and just when he was recovering from that, he was slowed by a bout with the flu.

In total, he estimates he lost about seven pounds, and he admitted on Saturday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to play the event.

“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” Thomas said. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off, if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Thomas went on to explain he was “50/50” whether he’d play the World Golf Championship, but decided to make the start and it’s turned out well for the world’s second-ranked player.

After going undefeated in pool play, Thomas cruised past Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5, in the round of 16 and secured himself a spot in the semifinals with a 2-and-1 victory over Kyle Stanley in the quarterfinals. If Thomas wins his semifinal match against Bubba Watson on Sunday, he’s assured enough points to overtake Dustin Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking.

“I don't care when it happens; I just hope it happens and it happens for a while,” Thomas said when asked about the possibility of becoming world No. 1. “I don't know what to say because I've never experienced it. I don't know what's going to come with it. But I just hope it happens tomorrow.”

Getty Images

Garnett's six-shot lead dwindles to two in Punta Cana

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 10:57 pm

PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic - Brice Garnett took a six-stroke lead into the wind Saturday in the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship. He came out with a two-stroke advantage.

Garnett bogeyed three of the final six holes in the wind and rain for a 3-under 69 and a 16-under 200 total.

''Once we made the turn coming back, all those holes coming in toward the north, it was all we wanted and then some,'' Garnett said. ''I kind of took advantage of some holes going out, some holes downwind, some par 5s, and then we were just trying to leave it in the right spot those last four or five holes. Pars are pretty good scores on those holes.''

Canadian Corey Conners was second after a 67, and Tyler McCumber also had a 67 to get to 12 under. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo dropped out Friday, finishing last in the 132-man field in his PGA Tour debut. He shot 77-82 playing as an amateur on a sponsor exemption.

A stroke ahead after each of the first two rounds, Garnett opened with a bogey, birdied Nos. 2, 4 and 6, eagled the par-5 seventh, and made two more birdies on the par-3 ninth and par-5 12th. He bogeyed the par-4 13th, par-5 15th and par-3 17th.

Full-field scores from the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship

''I looked once and the lead was a little bigger than what it is now,'' Garnett said. ''The eagle was huge, kind of gave me that confidence that I can push it on out and stretch it a little bit more. That wind was tough and I'll take a two-shot lead into tomorrow.''

The 34-year-old Garnett is winless on the PGA Tour. He won twice last year on the Tour.

''You've got another 18 holes. So much can happen,'' Garnett said. ''Just going to try to keep the golf ball in front of me. I have that self-belief this week and that's what I had last year when I won, so I'll just keep my head down and just keep going.''

Conners had five birdies and a bogey on the front nine and added a birdie on No. 12.

''Really happy with the round,'' Conners said. ''I got off to a nice start, made a bunch of birdies on the front nine and kind of held it together on the back nine. It was playing really difficult. The wind was really blowing out there, made things challenging.''

McCumber, the son of 10-time PGA Tour winner Mark McCumber, has played his last 39 holes with a bogey.

''Second shots have been pretty solid,'' McCumber said. ''Putting pretty well, short game is pretty good. Just really being in the right areas and staying below the hole.''

Tom Lovelady was fourth at 11 under after a 68. Seamus Power (71), Denny McCarthy (71) and Seungsu Han (72) were 10 under.