A Walk with The Master
'Yeah, I could finish in the top 10,' said Jack Nicklaus. He was not referring to this week's Toshiba Senior Classic. He thinks he can win here in Newport Beach. Jack was talking about the Masters.
It's important to understand the context of the statement. It was not made boastfully. In fact it was said somewhat reluctantly, after I had clumsily headed down a journalistic road that Jack simply hasn't visited in his lifetime. I recalled that six years ago at 58 Jack damn near won at Augusta National, and wondered at what age did he finally concede that winning was no longer realistic.
'I've never thought of it that way,' he told me. And I was instantly reminded exactly what's set him apart for all these years. Forget Trevino and Player and Watson and Miller and Floyd and all the hardened gunslingers whose bullets Jack dodged for all those years. Jack had the toughest foe of all two down on the back side. That's right, he was beating Father Time, who was quoted after the 1998 Masters as saying, 'Who the hell does this guy think he is?!'
Jack explained to me that because of the aches and pains it's been difficult to put in the work that it takes to shoot 65. And that's the frustrating part for Jack. He believes he can still go low, if only his body would allow him the chance.
'If 73's the best that I can do, I'm not interested,' he said.
At this point, Jack's reasonably healthy and therefore cautiously optimisitc, though he stated emphatically that he still hadn't committed to play in the Masters. While it's hard to imagine that he won't want to erase the memory of the 85 he shot there last year -- a score he called 'embarassing' -- he offered no timetable on this year's decision, only saying it would be based on his ability to compete. All indications are that he thinks he can.
In fact, he played Augusta last week.
'I can play it now with the ball,' he said. Among the strongest advocates of putting limits on the golf ball, Jack's no fool, either. As long as the rules are what they are, he's going to take advantage. He's using the new Callaway ball, and it's helped.
'I'm hitting the same clubs I always hit,' he explained. 'Two years ago I hit 3- or 4-wood into No. 1 and now I hit 6-iron.'
He hit the par-5 13th in two, found 13 greens in regulation but shot 76, mostly because the hole locations were on slopes.
By the way, our conversation took place as Jack allowed me to walk a couple of holes with him during the pro-am. For a reporter, golf's unique, because in baseball, for example, it's not possible to stand three feet from Pedro Martinez and talk baseball as he's unfurling 94-mile-per-hour gas. Or, better yet, it's not possible to stand three feet from a 60-something Sandy Koufax and talk baseball as he's going through his paces on the mound. It is in golf, and so Jack continued to play and talk. I watched and listened.
His touch still looks good. He crafted a nifty up and in from a downhill lie with the green running away from him at the par-3 17th.
The subject then turned to Tiger. Technology, Jack believes, has helped Tiger's pursuers narrow the gap. 'If everyone went back to the equipment we played,' Jack said, 'he'd be even better.'
As we strode up the 18th, Jack began to tally up the more important numbers these days. He related that his 17th grandchild is on the way, as Gary and his wife, Amy, are expecting in July.
'Boy or girl?' I asked.
'Oh, I don't know,' he said. 'But in this family, odds are it'll be a boy!' Of the five Nicklaus children, four are boys. Of the16 Nicklaus grandchildren, 13 are boys.
Just short of the par-5 last in two, Jack flipped a sand wedge over a bunker to about a foot. He looked back at me, smiled and winked. 'Just put that in the bag,' he said as he walked up to toward the hole.
His caddie, Scott Lubin, an assistant pro at The Bear's Club back in South Florida, laughed.
'This one has grooves,' Lubin quipped. Jack had worn out the grooves on the old 58 degree club after eight years. 'He shaved the new one and grounded it down himself.'
April's approaching. Jack's tinkering, getting ready.
Second-round tee times for the Tour Championship
Tiger Woods will go out last and Phil Mickelson will go out first in Rd. 2 of the Tour Championship.
Woods and Rickie Fowler share the 18-hole lead. The field is re-paired after each round, according to their scores. Here’s a look at second-round tee times at East Lake Golf Club.
(All times ET)
11:40AM: Phil Mickelson (+3), Keegan Bradley (+3)
11:50AM: Patrick Reed (+3), Marc Leishman (+2)
Noon: Hideki Matsuyama (+2), Kevin Na (+2)
12:10PM: Billy Horschel (+1), Bryson DeChambeau (+1)
12:20PM: Patton Kizzire (+1), Patrick Cantlay (+1)
12:30PM: Cameron Smith (Even), Bubba Watson (Even)
12:40PM: Aaron Wise (Even), Francesco Molinari (Even)
12:50PM: Brooks Koepka (-1), Dustin Johnson (-1)
1PM: Tommy Fleetwood (-1), Webb Simpson (-1)
1:10PM: Jason Day (-2), Kyle Stanley (-1)
1:20PM: Jon Rahm (-2), Xander Schauffele (-2)
1:30PM: Tony Finau (-3), Paul Casey (-2)
1:40PM: Rory McIlroy (-3), Justin Thomas (-3)
1:50PM: Gary Woodland (-4), Justin Rose (-4)
2PM: Rickie Fowler (-5), Tiger Woods (-5)
Woods makes plenty of noise with 65 at East Lake
ATLANTA – Midway through Rickie Fowler’s post-round media obligations he was interrupted by a thunderous roar that echoed across East Lake.
“I don't know who it was. I just heard the roar,” Fowler said. Pressed on who might have caused such a distinct reaction, he shrugged, “no.”
There was a time when only one player prompted that kind of raucous response from the masses, but in Fowler’s defense it’s been a while.
Tiger Woods always cast an easily recognizable shadow over the game. The signature red and black wardrobe combination on Sundays, the savage fist pumps and emotional outburst, even the steely glare. It was all so unmistakable.
But for PGA Tour players of a certain age those moments are from another era, folklore stuff that veterans talk about, which at least partially explains Fowler’s confusion.
The current generation has repeatedly said that they would cherish the chance to compete against Tiger at his best, to hear those roars and feel those moments. The 14-time major champion isn’t there yet, but as his 28-footer for eagle at the last hole on Thursday at the Tour Championship trundled to the hole and ignited the gallery it was something of an “aha moment.”
So that’s what greatness sounds like.
Woods finished his day at the finale with a closing nine of 31 after a slow start and was tied with Fowler atop the season-ending leaderboard at 5 under par. He’s been in this position before from Tampa to St. Louis and was equally impressive two weeks ago at the BMW Championship when he opened with a first-round 62 for a share of the lead.
But Thursday at East Lake felt different. It felt better.
“This was by far better than the 62 at [the BMW Championship],” said Woods, who is playing at East Lake for the first time since 2013. “Conditions were soft there. It's hard to get the ball close here. There's so much chase in it. If you drive the ball in the rough, you know you can't get the ball close.”
A better comparison might be his closing 64 at the PGA Championship, it was certainly louder, yet there was something complete and clinical about his 65 at East Lake.
On Wednesday Tiger talked of getting all of the parts of his game to fall into place at one time. When he’s driven the ball well, his putting has been off. When he putted well, his driving has let him down. You know, golf.
On Thursday he had the look of a complete golfer, a five-tool player whose only limitation was running out of holes. Statistically he finished inside the top 10 in strokes gained: off the tee (eighth), tee to green (third), fairways hit (fourth), driving distance (eighth), greens in regulation (fifth), proximity to the hole (sixth), scrambling (first) and strokes gained: putting (eighth).
“I felt in control today,” Woods said without even trying to hide the knowing smile that inched across his face. “I had a lot of control over my shots.”
Woods has said all season that as long as he’s healthy he was confident he’d figure out a way to be competitive. Although he said his plan starting the year was to put himself in contention and win, he also acknowledged that starting out the year he wasn’t sure how he was going to do that.
“The objective is to always win, but how am I going to do it when I had no game at the beginning of the year? Somehow I've got to find a way to piece it together and give myself a chance with what little game I had,” he said.
Woods’ march back to competitive relevance has seemed meteoric at times, particularly when you consider that at this juncture last year he still wasn’t sure if his surgically repaired back could withstand the rigors of Tour life.
He’s pieced together a game, swapping putters and drivers at regular clips this season in an attempt to match a new swing with a newly healthy body, and he’s put himself in contention. Getting that elusive victory would be the last piece of the puzzle, but he knows he’s on the clock with 54 holes remaining in his season.
There was a time when Tiger’s name atop the leaderboard was a reason for the field to take notice even on Day 1. That piece of his aura has also been elusive, but much like that 80th Tour victory that part of his mystique could also be within sight.
Fowler won’t have any problem deciphering roars on Friday when he’ll be paired with Woods in the day’s final group, it’s what he and the other members of the current generation have pined for and one of the final pieces of Tiger’s comeback.
“I've had the opportunity before, and I definitely am in a lot better position now than I was in the early part of my career,” said Fowler, who has been paired with Woods a dozen times in his Tour career. “There is a little bit of a comfort level that you have to get used to playing alongside him, especially in a big situation, in a final group. No, I look forward to it now.”
This is what everyone looked forward to, for those roars to be as distinctive as the man who has produced so many in his career.
FedExCup projected standings after Rd. 1 of Tour Championship
ATLANTA – Bryson DeChambeau started the week in the No. 1 spot in the FedExCup standings. But after the first round of the Tour Championship, he’s surrendered his lead.
Justin Rose, the current world No. 1, is the new projected winner of the $10 million bonus. Rose shot 4-under 66 in the first round and is tied for third in the tournament. He began the week in second place in the FEC standings.
DeChambeau struggled to a 1-over 71 and is currently tied for 21st in the field of 30.
Here’s a look at the projected standings after 18 holes at East Lake Golf Club, which includes Tiger Woods jumping from No. 20 to No. 2.
|FedExCup Rank||PLAYER NAME||FedExCup Points|
Woods, Fowler match 65s to lead Tour Championship
ATLANTA - Another tournament, another share of the first-round lead for Tiger Woods.
Woods made an eagle putt from just over 25 feet on the par-5 18th hole for a 5-under 65 and a share of the lead Thursday with Rickie Fowler in the Tour Championship.
It wasn't as low as the 62 he shot at Aronimink to share the 18-hole lead in the BMW Championship two weeks ago. For Woods, this one felt even better because of the dry, tougher conditions at East Lake.
Woods has said getting to the Tour Championship after recovering from a fourth back surgery makes this year successful even without a victory.
Justin Rose, in his debut at No. 1 in the world, and Gary Woodland were at 66.