Tiger Woods at the 2018 Valspar Championship. Getty Images

Tiger in the mix: Seems like old times

By Rex HoggardMarch 11, 2018, 12:35 am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – For months, every millennial with a PGA Tour card has pined for the days when Tiger Woods’ name atop a leaderboard was akin to a national holiday.

On Sunday at the Valspar Championship, they’ll get their fill.

On Saturday, in a scene that could have been ripped from any number of mid-2000s highlight reels, Tiger did what Tiger does best, answering ever challenge and sending an unmistakable jolt across the Copperhead Course.

For players of a certain age, Day 3 had a time-capsule feel to it, with Woods' every move tracked by thousands and the 14-time major champion giving the masses plenty of reasons to shake the pine trees on his way to a third-round 67.

“You could tell some of the roars were for him, for sure,” said Steve Stricker, who joined the Tour a year before Woods. “It’s fun to see again. Everybody is excited and he brings so much attention to our game.”

Woods rolled in a 21-footer for birdie at the third hole, added another at the par-5 fifth and threatened to break the internet when he chipped in from behind the green at the ninth. That gave him a share of the lead with Brandt Snedeker and the most unlikely of opponents, Corey Conners, who has fewer rounds on Tour (64) than Tiger has Tour victories (79).

Attendance records have already been shattered this week, ratings have been through the roof and anticipation, both real and manufactured, has no boundaries.

On Friday when he moved to within two strokes of the lead, Las Vegas installed Woods as the third favorite to win this year’s Masters. At this rate officials may simply cancel the game’s most exclusive member-member at Augusta National in April and simply give Tiger his fifth green jacket.

Under the best of circumstances in recent years Woods has been little more than a curiosity who more often generated headlines for all the wrong reasons. Fans flocked to the occasional tournament to catch a glimpse, social media continued to declare him the game’s G.O.A.T. and a generation of young players familiarized themselves with his accomplishments via YouTube videos, but there were precious few reasons to cheer.

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Before this season, the last time Woods had any chance anywhere on a Sunday was at the 2015 Wyndham Championship, but on that day he succumbed to a 50-year-old Davis Love III. He managed just a single start on Tour last season before being sidelined by fusion surgery on his lower back and the closest he’d come to greatness in recent years was as an assistant captain at the 2016 Ryder Cup and ’17 Presidents Cup.

But on Saturday at a Copperhead Course that was filled to capacity, hopeful optimism gave way to bona fide fervor. If he can maintain this pace and win on Sunday, imagine how much confidence he would take to next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, which he’s won eight times?

And what would this mean for the Masters, where he would have arrived amid a wave of expectations regardless of his recent form?

“He's a huge draw and he plays good this week and the excitement going into the Masters is going to be massive because I don't know if any of us were really thinking he was a true favorite there and he might be after one more round of golf,” Adam Scott said.

Predictably, Woods took a slightly more measured approach to the hyperbole that swirled through the cool air on Saturday. This comeback has been too long in the making for Tiger to jump the shark, even if the subject is Augusta National.

“There are so many guys who played their way back up into this tournament. [Scott] played well, he got it up there. [Justin Rose] has been playing well,” reasoned Woods, who was tied for second place and a shot off the lead held by Conners. “There's a lot of guys up there, myself included. I have to go out there and really play well again.”

Yes, yes. Stay in the process. Ignore the distractions. Focus on the next shot, not the next tournament or next major. Nobody maintains his distance behind a mental firewall better than Tiger. But as the crowds grew in size and spirit on Saturday it was impossible to ignore the possibility.

Imagine the pre-Masters buzz as Woods and Phil Mickelson, who won last week’s WGC-Mexico Championship for his first victory in over four years, motor down Magnolia Lane with true momentum.

For all the 20-somethings who’ve spent their careers wondering what it would be like to play against Tiger at something approaching his best, the passing answer could be heard, and felt, with every cheer.

“I was walking down the sixth and looked over to the fourth green. I said to my caddie, ‘Have you ever seen those crowds?’ eight deep back there,” Rose said. “It was a view that certainly wouldn't have been the same had he not been playing. He's on the leaderboard and challenging for the lead. Now that makes it really exciting.”

Now it all seems so real.

When Woods returned to the competitive fray in December at the Hero World Challenge, which could best be described as a rehab start, he spoke of his dramatically improved health and a genuine desire to be back on Tour.

Even as he made his way through the West Coast swing with mixed results, he remained optimistic; and when he moved to within a field goal of the lead on Sunday at the Honda Classic the buzz was palpable.

But this week along the Gulf Coast of Florida he’s irrevocably turned back the clock. All of the millennials who wanted to know what it was like when a red shirt on a Sunday was more than just a fashion statement are about to find out.

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

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.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Tee times

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

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 Web.com 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.