Woods has major appreciation for Old Course

By Rex HoggardJuly 14, 2015, 11:38 am

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – This is for all practical purposes an old fashion love story, with a heavy focus on old.

From the first time Tiger Woods walked the ancient pitch at St. Andrews his affinity for the place was piqued and it’s only grown with time and titles.

“I’ve always loved the course from the first time I saw it in ’95,” he said on Tuesday at the Home of Golf.

The theme continued moments later when he was asked the basis for his affection. “I love the creativity,” he said. “You have to hit all kind of shots.”

For a player whose relationship status with the game of late could best be described as love/hate, those are strong words on the eve of the year’s third major.

It was here hard on the shores of the North Sea where Woods first etched his name into the claret jug in 2000 and he added his second Open Championship at the Old Course in 2005.

In five starts on the Old Course – four previous Opens at St. Andrews and the 1998 Alfred Dunhill Cup, which was a team event – his average finish is 21st place.

He was here in 1995 when Arnold Palmer took his last stroll across the iconic Swilcan Bridge. He was here when Jack Nicklaus made his Open current call in 2000 – and then again in ’05. He was here when the winds blew so strong in 2010 officials stopped play and in ’98 when the round was delayed because of frost.

For all the focus on Woods’ relationship with the Masters and Augusta National, where he has won four of his 14 Grand Slam tilts, it is St. Andrews where he has cemented his legacy.

It was a fondness that emerged immediately, when the then amateur ventured to his first Open in ’95. For most players, St. Andrews is an acquired taste – Bobby Jones tore up his scorecard after just 11 holes in his first start on the Old Course in 1921 but went on to earn the endearing nickname “Bonnie Bobby.” But for Woods it was love at first sight.

Not that he found the winding layout particularly easy considering his initial glimpse was very much a harsh introduction.

“I just happened to get the tide when it changed out there at the loop, so I played all 18 holes into the wind, and so I’ve always said it was the longest short golf course I’ve ever played in my life,” he recalled.

He quickly learned that the Cliff’s Notes take on the Old Course, which goes something like just hit it hard and left, was very much a misnomer. The nuances are much more subtle than that.

“You need to have the right angle,” said Woods, who arrived on Saturday in Scotland to begin his preparation for this week’s championship. “Over the years of learning how to play the golf course under all different types of wind conditions, it changes greatly, and it’s based on angles.”

The ninth hole, for example, is a microcosm of the Old Course’s ever-evolving complexities, with Woods explaining that the par 4 “is a driver all day.” Unless, of course, the wind shifts into, which requires a more measured layup short of the cross bunkers.

Even the seemingly simplest of elements is compounded at St. Andrews, as evidenced by Woods’ reaction when asked which is the hardest wind direction. “Depends on how hard it’s blowing,” he finally allowed after a long pause.

His affection for St. Andrews at least partially explained his confidence heading into just his eighth tournament of the season and after two of his worst starts on Tour as a professional.

Despite having almost as many rounds in the 80s (two) as he does in the 60s (three) in his last 10 competitive outings, Woods’ optimism was evident as he prepared for his 19th start at the game’s oldest championship.

Part of that improved outlook is born from his tie for 32nd in his last start at The Greenbrier Classic, where he led the field in proximity to the hole, and a swing that is much further along in the evolution of change than it was when he benched himself earlier this season.

“Being able to shape the golf ball not only both ways but also change my trajectories and being very comfortable changing my trajectories,” he said. “That’s something that I feel you have to do here on this golf course.”

But competitive baby steps aside, it’s less about improved versatility than it is this historic venue for Woods.

Woods, who turns 40 in December, has never been interested in sentimentality, opting instead to maintain his focus on the next shot, the next tournament, the next major. But on Tuesday he took a rare nostalgic turn when asked where his affinity for the Old Course is born?

“It’s brilliant how you can play it so many different ways,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play it one time before I die backwards. I want to play from (No.) 1 to 17, 2 to 16, so forth and so on. I’d love to be able to play it that way, just one time.”

For Woods, St. Andrews is a love story that endures.

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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.”