Woods' dominance is quickly rebuilding

By Rex HoggardJuly 2, 2012, 1:28 am

BETHESDA, Md. – In meteorological terms a derecho storm is a tempest that travels at least 250 miles with winds in excess of 58 mph, building on itself as it travels as if blowing downhill.

It’s a storm like the one that started brewing near Chicago last Friday as a simple squall but began expanding as it raced toward the Eastern Seaboard. By the time the derecho storm slammed into the Washington D.C. area just before midnight its winds were gusting to 70 mph.

As crews continued the cleanup effort at Congressional on Sunday the thought occurred that a derecho is the competitive equivalent of a player who after a prolonged dormant spell awakens with a run that includes three victories in his last seven starts.  

But where the derecho storm left at least 13 people dead, a million homes without power and more than 40 felled trees littered across Congressional, Tiger Woods left only bruised egos and a familiar reality in his wake at the AT&T National.

For Woods his two-stroke victory over Bo Van Pelt on a sweltering Sunday was more than the sum of its parts.

When Woods lurched into the most prolonged slump of his career in late 2009 the notion grew that he’d lost his intimidating edge. No longer, the theory went, would players peek at Sunday leaderboards half hoping not to see the letters “W-O-O-D-S.”

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On Sunday at Congressional Woods put that theory to the test, dueling with a half-dozen hopefuls throughout the day on his way to a closing 69 and an 8-under 276 total.

If the result looked familiar, the process was downright nostalgic.

After closing the gap on 54-hole leader Brendon de Jonge with a Saturday 67, Woods began the final round a stroke out of the lead, joined a group of five players tied for the lead at 6 under by the fourth hole and waited patiently for the field to narrow.

By the time he reached the back nine all but one of the challengers had drifted away; first de Jonge with a 3-over outward loop, followed in order by Adam Scott with back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 14 and 15, Hunter Mahan who drenched his second shot at the par-5 sixth and finally Van Pelt.

When Woods and Van Pelt reached the 14th tee no one was within a field goal and the two traded birdies and bogeys through the finish line.

On “silent Saturday,” when fans were kept from the golf course because of the debris left behind by Friday’s storm, Van Pelt mused that he felt a little cheated without the normal masses trailing Woods’ every move. On Sunday he was treated to the complete circus.

At the 15th hole the two traded birdies, on No. 16 they both signed for bogeys – Woods’ first miscue in 41 holes – and it was ultimately a flyer from the left rough that cost Van Pelt the title on the penultimate hole.

Woods was flawless on the 72nd hole, a cut driver that sailed 40 yards past Van Pelt’s effort and a drawn 9-iron held against the wind to 12 feet for a two-putt coronation.

“It's a lot of fun. He's an amazing player,” said Van Pelt, who closed with a 71 to finish alone in second place. “That's why you travel 30 weeks a year, why you get up in the morning and you make the sacrifices that you do to have the opportunity to play the best player in the world in the final round with a chance to win a tournament.”

Of the litany of statistics that bear mentioning for Woods – he tied for ninth in putting, tied for 17th in greens in regulation and ninth in strokes-gained putting – it was Woods’ average approach shot distance that stands out. He ranked sixth in that category at Congressional, an improvement of 10 spots over his season average.

“Proximity to the hole means two things,” Woods’ swing coach Sean Foley said. “First a player’s swing is becoming more grooved and second the player is confident in their putting from 12 feet and in.”

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In practical terms, however, the impact of Woods’ victory – the 74th Tour tilt of his career that moved him past Jack Nicklaus and into solo second place on the all-time list behind Sam Snead – goes well beyond ShotLink statistics and world rankings math.

There were those who contended that the cachet Woods enjoyed on Sundays had faded over his two lean years, that his name alone was no longer worth a half-stroke coming down the stretch.

Moments after Scott signed for his closing 67 to finish alone in third place he was asked if there was a time when the weight of Woods on a marquee was not as overwhelming as it once was.

“Yes, a little bit at a time there. But it’s all relative,” Scott said. “I don’t think he lost it completely. He’s potentially the greatest player that’s ever played and he’s a dangerous player in that position; his record speaks for itself. (But) there’s no doubt today that you look up there (on the leaderboard) and it’s a little bit more difficult.”

There were questions, however legitimate, that Woods had heard and harbored. One man’s criticism is another’s critical analysis, but throughout it all he never doubted his path or his ability to reclaim that aura of invincibility that defined the first decade of his career.

“I remember there was a time when people were saying I could never win again.  That was, I think, what, six months ago?” Woods said. “A lot of media people didn't think I could win again, and I had to deal with those questions for quite a bit. It was just a matter of time. I could see the pieces coming together. Sean (Foley) and I were working, and we see what's coming, and we can see the consistency, and it's just a matter of time.”

Where the metaphor unravels slightly is how quickly a derecho storm speeds across the landscape. Friday’s gale lasted just 45 mintues, while Woods’ current tempest seems building toward something much more prolonged, something much more profound.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”