Stepping in the Right Direction

By Rex HoggardAugust 13, 2010, 4:21 am
2010 PGA Championship

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – At this juncture in the proceedings it is about baby steps, more so than breakthroughs.

The 1-under 71 will not have many in the field of 156 looking over their shoulders, but when your last competitive round was a 77, the worst final-card of your career, and the calendar is sneaking up on a year since your last “W,” close is always better than clutching.

It is a reality that would explain Tiger Woods’ borderline buoyant demeanor following his opening round at the 92nd PGA Championship. Or maybe it was a pairing with Y.E. Yang and Vijay Singh that featured little chit-chat. Either way Woods seemed more at ease on the course than he has been in some time.

“Everything is better,” Woods said of his game which just four days earlier seemed in need of an overhaul on a Firestone Country Club course that has been every bit the friendly confines for Woods.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods had four birdies and three bogeys in Round 1. (Getty Images)
On paper Woods’ optimism was far from misplaced.

For the day he hit eight of 12 fairways, 12 of 18 greens in regulation and needed just 28 putts. Not bad for a guy who spent most of last Sunday looking like he needed a mulligan, or a handicap index.

Compared with his 33-putt 77 at Firestone, Thursday’s effort at Whistling Straits was a clinic, particularly for a player who said his “speed” this year had been “awful.”

For all the focus on Sean Foley, the Orlando, Fla.-based swing coach who appears poised to assume the duties vacated by Hank Haney earlier this year, it was the world No. 1’s putting that seemed to fuel a quiet confidence on a slow-starting breezy day along the Firth of Michigan.

Woods opened his delayed first round with four consecutive one-putts, equaling the number of one-putts he had for all 18 holes last Sunday, made the turn at 2 under and weathered a wayward phase late in the round to finish just three shots off the lead held by Bubba Watson and Francesco Molinari.

If last week’s opening 74 at Firestone was Venus, his 71 on Thursday at the PGA was Mars minus the mental miscues.

“I felt like I had pretty good control of my trajectory, which was good, especially with the wind,” said Woods before heading to the range to work with Foley on a swing that has been on a crash course correction this week.

Not that Woods’ ballstriking was textbook, but then the old Tiger Woods never really was.

At the 12th hole, his third of the day, Woods’ tee shot airmailed the green to an impossible lie in the faux fescue. He hacked out and calmly rolled in his 8-footer for par. At the fifth hole he smothered his tee shot left, took a drop and got up-and-down from 100 yards. The year 2000 called; they want their Eldrick back.

Woods has won a healthy number of those Hall of Fame titles with something less than his “A” game, but he was always in the game because there was no better clutch putter and on Thursday Woods’ putter, which was benched temporarily at the Open Championship, showed real signs of life.

Foley can fix the swing. Maybe he already has, but only Woods can right whatever is wrong with his putter, be it mental, mechanical or a combination of the two.

On Tuesday Woods talked about struggling mightily with the speed of his putts this year, but ShotLink doesn’t measure such esoteric concepts. The best it can do is something called approach putt performance, which has Woods’ average lag putt coming to within 2 feet, 4 inches, or 115th on Tour.

In practice on Thursday Woods was able to roll in birdie putts of 8 feet (Nos. 10, 11 and 13) and 9 feet (No. 9), and a host of other attempts that scared the hole but never dropped.

“I felt so much more comfortable over (my putts),” Woods said. “I got my lines back. I got everything lined up where I could release the blade, toe is moving again, which is great. It felt good.”

Whether Woods’ improved ballstriking begot a suddenly calm putter or vice versa doesn’t really matter. Not at this point and not to the man who has gone seven majors without a victory, the third-longest Grand Slam drought of his career.

From the outset, Glory’s Last Shot had a last gasp feel to it for Woods. One final go to get off the Grand Slam schnied and avoid going two years without winning a major for just the second time of his career.

On Thursday, Torrey Pines didn’t seem so far away. There is a spring that has suddenly inched its way back into his step, if not his swing. If Foley really can work this fast we should get his opinion on deflation. And if Woods can keep making progress with his putter one has to believe anything is possible.

For now, however, it’s all about baby steps.
Getty Images

Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."

Getty Images

Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.

Getty Images

Pavin's season nearly ends after slow-play penalty

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 1:50 pm

Corey Pavin's season on the PGA Tour Champions nearly came to an end because of a slow-play penalty.

Penalties for pace are often discussed or threatened, but rarely doled out on either the PGA Tour or the over-50 circuit. But that changed Sunday during the final round of the Dominion Energy Charity Classic, where Pavin was told by a rules official after completing his round that he would receive a 1-stroke penalty for slow play.

The penalty was on the surface rather harmless, turning an even-par 72 into a 1-over 73 and dropping Pavin into a tie for 15th. But this was the first event of a three-tournament postseason for PGA Tour Champions players, and only the top 54 in points advanced to this week's Invesco QQQ Championship.

Full-field scores from the Dominion Energy Charity Classic

Pavin, who has two top-10 finishes in 20 starts this season, barely held on at 53rd place after the penalty was enforced.

Slow-play discussions came up earlier this season surrounding Bernhard Langer at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, but Golf Channel analyst Lanny Wadkins expressed his surprise on the telecast that it was Pavin who got a shot added to his score.

"Of all the things to happen with all the times I have played - I can't even count the number of rounds - I never thought Corey Pavin was a slow player," Wadkins said. "All the guys we know are slow players have never been penalized out here. Where has this been for the last 15 years?"

The subject of the penalty also raised an eyebrow from Stephen Ames, who finished alongside Pavin in 15th place while Langer finished second behind Woody Austin:

Getty Images

Azinger 'lobbied' to captain Ryder Cup team a second time

By Rex HoggardOctober 22, 2018, 1:47 pm

In 2008, Paul Azinger became the first U.S. Ryder Cup captain in nearly a decade to lead a team to victory, doing so at Valhalla with his innovative “pod” system and a player-driven approach to leadership.

In the wake of that victory there were many, including the vast majority of his players, who said Azinger deserved a second chance to captain, but at the time the 12-time PGA Tour winner appeared to be undecided and the PGA of America named Corey Pavin the 2010 captain.

On Monday, Azinger was named NBC Sports/Golf Channel’s lead analyst starting next year and among many revelations during an extended interview on “Morning Drive” he explained how much he wanted a second chance to captain.

“I wanted to do it again, I lobbied to do it again after we won in ’08, but I think I waited a little too long and they had already made a decision,” Azinger said. “The excuse I got was that there are more captains than there are Ryder Cups and I thought that was fair, but then they asked [Tom] Watson to do it again shortly afterward and I was like, ‘What, huh?’”

Watson was named captain of the 2014 U.S. team, which lost by five points and led to the creation of the Ryder Cup task force, which adopted many of Azinger’s ideas including his use of four-player pods.

It’s even more curious that Azinger was never given a second chance considering that Davis Love III was also named a captain twice, first in 2012 and again in ’16.

“I didn’t do it again, I didn’t carry the flag to Europe in 2010, which is fine, and now I’m never going to get to do it again,” he said.

As for who may be named the next U.S. captain after another loss to the Europeans last month in France Azinger could only speculate. “Looks like Wisconsin [site of the 2020 matches at Whistling Straits] and Steve Stricker are going to be a perfect match,” he said.