Too Close to Call

By Rex HoggardJuly 29, 2010, 1:20 am

For the better part of four months we’ve heard variations on a theme. The “how” and the “why” have changed with the landscape, but Tiger Woods has held firm to the notion that his game is close to where he wants it to be.

– On April 11 after rounds of 68-70-70-69 suggested that not even one of the nastiest scandals known to golf nor four months of competitive inactivity could keep Woods from doing what he does best: “I gave myself a chance. I didn't hit the ball very good this weekend, didn't putt well (on Saturday). I putted a little bit better today, which is good. But overall I gave myself a shot at it.”

– On April 30 at Quail Hollow reality hit like a 7-iron buried angrily in the turf when Woods missed his first cut since the 2009 Open Championship: “I didn't play well, and more importantly my short game wasn't very good. I chipped poorly, putted poorly, but for the most part I didn't really hit the ball that poorly until the end when it was already pretty much out of reach.”

– On Sunday at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial, following Woods’ injury-induced withdrawal from The Players and high-profile split with swing coach Hank Haney, he tied for 19th and gave this assessment: “Short game, chipping was streaky, I'd have to say. I hit some really sweet shots and hit some really bad ones. Just needs a little bit of work. But I really putted well this week, which is good. I had good speed.”

– Following an electrifying third-round at Pebble Beach, Woods couldn’t break par the rest of the week and finished off the front end of his “T-4 Slam:” “I feel like I can play now. I got a feel for my game, my shape of my shots, what I'm working on, and the two major championships I finished I had a chance to win both of them. So it's not too bad.”

– On the Fourth of July when he matched his quasi-host duties with a quasi-competitive tie for 46th: “I'm really excited. I've driven the ball better this week than I have in a very long time. It's fun to hit the driver that way. So it was nice to get back dialed in and obviously need to get my putter working a little bit better.”

– And most recently at the Open Championship, where he posted his worst finish (T-23) as a pro at St. Andrews: “Driving-wise, better than it's been in years. Iron play, not quite as sharp as I need to have it, and my putting is way off.”

Individually, each statement is a study in the power of positive thinking, if not profound optimism. Collectively the sound-bite potpourri paints a picture of a player looking for answers on the fly with perhaps a dollop of denial.

If Woods says he’s close, that’s good enough for us. He is, after all, the final arbiter of his game and his place in golf. The box score, however, describes a player who is closer to an early Playoff exit than he is to another Player of the Year trophy.

Competitively speaking, Woods’ 2010 has been historic for all the wrong reasons. He’s 107th in FedEx Cup points, whatever that might mean to him, 72nd in earnings, eighth on the Ryder Cup points list, tucked neatly between the likes of Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan, and is not among the top 10 in any major statistical category, that’s if he had enough reps to qualify for the Tour’s weekly ShotLink report.

By comparison, since his first full season on Tour in 1997 he’s never finished worst than fourth in earnings and never outside the top 3 in scoring average, the only statistic that really matters for a player who plays the circuit’s hardest venues almost exclusively.

Not to mention that for the man who has finely crafted a Hall of Fame career out of the simple mantra “second sucks,” Woods’ eclectic 2010 card has a Mendoza Line feel to it. Seven events into the “comeback II,” Woods has a pair of T-4s wrapped around an assortment of missed cuts, withdrawals and largely pedestrian showings.

This is as deep as Woods has been into a season without a victory since 1998 when he won in his ninth start and the second-longest drought to start a season in his career.

Woods’ putter has gotten most of the public blame. The famed Scotty Cameron was even benched, briefly, at the Open Championship, and his 1.78 average certainly fits the bill as public enemy No. 1.

But then Woods has finished T-26 (Open Championship), T-28 (AT&T National), T-47 (U.S. Open) and T-3 (Memorial) in putting average in his last four starts, not exactly “Boss of the Modern-Day Moss” stuff but he’s not Sergio Garcia, either, particularly for a guy who has won major championships on one leg, one cylinder and with one dimension.

Many of the frat brothers, those players and swing coaches who watch Woods the closest, agree with the world No. 1’s assessment that he’s close. One major champion told us at St. Andrews that he’s “this close (holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart) to 2000.” And one swing coach said, simply, that the swing looks “better.”

But then the end of a rocky 2010 road is fast approaching.

At most Woods likely has six mainland Tour starts remaining, assuming he cracks the top 30 in FedEx Cup points and earns a spot at East Lake for the Tour Championship, and with seven “Ws” in a decade of starts at Firestone and four PGA Championship titles Woods’ year could go from forlorn to unforgettable in the blur of an August fortnight.

But that depends on how “close” he really is to finding his game. And only Woods is qualified to answer that question.

Getty Images

Spieth admits '16 Masters 'kind of haunted me'

By Will GrayMay 23, 2018, 6:38 pm

Two years ago, Jordan Spieth arrived at Colonial Country Club and promptly exorcised some demons.

He was only a month removed from blowing the 2016 Masters, turning a five-shot lead with nine holes to play into a shocking runner-up finish behind Danny Willett. Still with lingering questions buzzing about his ability to close, he finished with a back-nine 30 on Sunday, including birdies on Nos. 16-18, to seal his first win since his Augusta National debacle.

Returning this week to the Fort Worth Invitational, Spieth was asked about the highs and lows he's already experienced in his five-year pro career and candidly pointed to the 2016 Masters as a "low point" that had a lingering effect.

"Even though it was still a tremendous week and still was a really good year in 2016, that kind of haunted me and all the questioning and everything," Spieth told reporters. "I let it tear me down a little bit. I kind of lost a little bit of my own freedom, thoughts on who I am as a person and as a golfer."


Fort Worth Invitational: Articles, photos and videos


Spieth went on to win the Australian Open in the fall of 2016, and last year he added three more victories including a third major title at Royal Birkdale. Given more than two years to reflect - and after nearly nabbing a second green jacket last month - he admitted that the trials and tribulations of 2016 had a lasting impact on how he perceives the daily grind on Tour.

"I guess to sum it up, I've just tried to really be selfish in the way that I think and focus on being as happy as I possibly can playing the game I love. Not getting caught up in the noise, good or bad," Spieth said. "Because what I hear from the outside, the highs are too high from the outside and the lows are too low from the outside from my real experience of them. So trying to stay pretty neutral and just look at the big picture things, and try and wake up every single day loving what I do."

Getty Images

Spieth offers Owen advice ahead of Web.com debut

By Will GrayMay 23, 2018, 6:22 pm

As country music sensation Jake Owen gets set to make his Web.com Tour debut, Jordan Spieth had a few pieces of advice for his former pro-am partner.

Owen played as a 1-handicap alongside Spieth at this year's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and this week he is playing his own ball on a sponsor invite at the Nashville Open. Owen joked with a Web.com Tour reporter that Spieth "shined" him by not answering his text earlier in the week, but Spieth explained to reporters at the Fort Worth Invitational that the two have since connected.

"We texted a bit yesterday. I was just asking how things were going," Spieth said. "I kind of asked him the state of his game. He said he's been practicing a lot. He said the course is really hard. I mean, going into it with that mindset, maybe he'll kind of play more conservative."

Owen is in the field this week on the same type of unrestricted sponsor exemption that NBA superstar Steph Curry used at the Web.com's Ellie Mae Classic in August. As Owen gets set to make his debut against a field full of professionals, Spieth noted that it might be for the best that he's focused on a tournament a few hundred miles away instead of walking alongside the singer as he does each year on the Monterey Peninsula.

"Fortunately I'm not there with him, because whenever I'm his partner I'm telling him to hit driver everywhere, even though he's talented enough to play the golf course the way it needs to be played," Spieth said. "So I think he'll get some knowledge on the golf course and play it a little better than he plays Pebble Beach. He's certainly got the talent to be able to shoot a good round."

Getty Images

Presidents Cup changes aim to help Int'l. side

By Rex HoggardMay 23, 2018, 6:20 pm

In March when the PGA Tour announced the captains for next year’s Presidents Cup there was an understandable monsoon of attention for one element of that press conference.

Tiger Woods being named the captain for the U.S. team that will travel to Australia late next year was just not news, it was a monumental shift in how many view the 14-time major champion.

Although he’s slowly played his way back to competitive relevance, his decision to lead the red, white and blue side was the most glaring example to date that Woods is beginning to embrace a new role as a leader and a veteran.

Newsy stuff.

In that blur of possibility, however, were a few other nuggets that largely went overlooked but may end up impacting the biennial team event much more than the two high-profile captains (Ernie Els was named the International side’s front man for 2019).

Among these subtle changes is a new rule that requires every team member to play at least one match prior to Sunday’s singles session, instead of the two-match minimum in previous years. In theory, this would allow a captain to “hide” a player who might not be at the top of his form.

The Tour also announced each captain will have four, up from two, captain’s picks and they will make those selections much later than in previous years.



Officials would understandably be reluctant to admit it, but these changes are designed to give Els and Co. a chance, any chance, to make the ’19 matches competitive.

Following last year’s boat race of the International team at Liberty National in New Jersey – a lopsided rout that nearly ended late Saturday when the U.S. team came up just a single point short of clinching the cup before the 12 singles matches – most observers agreed that something had to change.

The International team has won just one of the dozen Presidents Cups that have been played, and that was way back in 1998, and has lost the last five matches by a combined 20 points.

Giving Els and Woods more time to make their captain’s picks is a byproduct of the timing of next year’s event, which will be played in Australia in December; but giving both captains a little more flexibility with the addition of two picks should, in theory, help the International side.

The Tour also altered how the points list is compiled for the International team, with a move to a 12-month cycle that’s based on the amount of World Ranking points that are earned. The previous selection criteria used a two-year cycle.

“That was a change that was important to Ernie Els to make sure that he feels like he has his most competitive team possible,” said Andy Pazder, the Tour’s executive vice president and chief of operations. “That in conjunction with having four captain’s picks instead of two, which had been the case prior to 2019, he feels that’s going to give him his best chance to bring his strongest, most competitive team to Australia.”

The 12-month cycle will start this August at the Dell Technologies Championship and end at the 2019 Tour Championship, and puts more importance on recent form although had the new selection criteria been used for the 2017 team, there would have been just one player who wouldn’t have automatically qualified for the team. That’s not exactly a wholesale makeover.

“It didn’t seem to be a dramatic change in the makeup of the team,” Pazder conceded.

Still, a change, any change, is refreshing considering the one-sided nature of the Presidents Cup the last two decades. Of course, if the circuit really wanted to shake things up they would have reduced the total number of points available from 30 to 28, which is the format used at the Ryder Cup and as a general rule that event seems to avoid prolonged bouts of competitive irrelevance.

Perhaps these most recent nip/tucks will be enough to break the International team out of a losing cycle that doesn’t help bring attention to the event or motivate players.

There’s no mystery to what makes for a compelling competition, look no further than the Ryder Cup for the secret sauce. History makes fans, and players, care about the outcome and parity makes it compelling. What history the Presidents Cup has is largely one-sided and if last year’s loss is any indication the event is no closer to parity now than it was when it was started in 1994.

Els has been a part of every International team since 1996 and if anyone can pull the side from its current funk it would be the South African, but history suggests he might need a little more help from the Tour to shift the competitive winds.

Getty Images

Rahm ready to bomb and gouge around Colonial

By Will GrayMay 23, 2018, 3:40 pm

Faced with one of the PGA Tour's most traditional layouts, Jon Rahm has no plans to take his foot off the gas pedal.

Rahm is one of four players ranked inside the top six headlining the field at this week's Fort Worth Invitational, where the Spaniard dazzled with bookend rounds of 66 to share runner-up honors in his tournament debut a year ago. Set to make his return, Rahm explained that Colonial Country Club is similar to the narrow, tree-lined course in Spain where he first learned the game with driver in hand.


Fort Worth Invitational: Articles, photos and videos


So while many other players in the field will play for position, Rahm plans to employ the same strategy he did on his boyhood course by letting it rip off the tee and taking his chances.

"I felt like if I am going to miss the fairway, I would rather be 60 or 70 yards away than laying up and having 130, especially with this rough being unpredictable and these small greens," Rahm told reporters Wednesday. "The closer you are to the green, the easier it will be to hit the green. That's kind of the idea I have."

Rahm struggled in his most recent start at The Players, but otherwise has had a strong spring highlighted by a win in Spain and a fourth-place showing at the Masters. The 23-year-old added that he feels "a lot more comfortable" off the tee with driver in hand than a fairway wood or long iron, so expect more counterintuitive strategy this week from a player who had no trouble solving one of the Tour's oldest riddles a year ago.

"I like traditional golf courses," he said. "You know, everything that says it shouldn't be good for me, in my mind, is good for me."