#AskLav: Health trumps results this week for Tiger

By Ryan LavnerJune 26, 2014, 1:00 pm

A few years ago, I served as a backup beat writer for MLB.com. During that stint I covered many of the secondary stories for the Atlanta Braves – the unsung heroes, the prospects, the terrible opponents. The most common assignments, however, were the injury updates, and that year the Braves had no shortage of them. Blisters and obliques. Ankles and shoulders. Exploding hamstrings and elbows.

In May 2008, my editor sent me to north Georgia to watch future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz make his final rehab start for the Class-A Rome Braves. A few days earlier the then-41-year-old had been rocked in just one inning of work, but he’d reported no signs of shoulder discomfort. 

That, of course, was the most significant takeaway: In rehab assignments, health always trumped results. Though players admittedly were rusty, if they could get through a DL stint without incident, without a setback, then the box score mattered little.    

Anyway, on this night, Smoltz entered in the eighth inning, threw 13 pitches, exited to a standing ovation from the 5,105 fans in attendance, signed a few autographs for the teammates half his age in the dugout and declared himself fit to return, despite lingering soreness and a fastball that hovered in the mid-80s. 

I’ve thought about that night a lot this week, because Tiger Woods is making his own minor-league rehab start outside D.C., albeit in front of a decidedly larger audience and with a $6.5 million purse up for grabs. 

Like Smoltz, Woods has been medically cleared to return, but, post-surgery, he’s dealing with his new normal. He’s 38, with a banged-up body that surely feels older than that. In baseball parlance, his fastball might not have the same zip on it, but he knows he can still be effective. Athletes evolve.

Tiger won’t win this week’s Quicken Loans National, but that is not cause for alarm. Aces and sluggers don’t come off the DL and immediately resume throwing one-hit shutouts or stringing together multi-homer games. Returning to an All-Star-caliber level takes time, even for the world’s best. 

In Smoltz’s case, his comeback proved short-lived. Hours after he was activated off the disabled list, he faced a save situation in the Braves’ game against the Marlins. He gave up three hits and two runs, blew the 4-3 lead and complained afterward of discomfort. Two days later, at a hastily called news conference, he announced that he was undergoing season-ending surgery. Smoltz was never the same player again.

For his sake (and the sport in general), let’s hope Tiger enjoys a different outcome. More important than how he scores this week is how he feels. In rehab assignments, health always trumps results.

Your mailbag questions for the week:

 

 

Instagram#AskLav: Do you think Tiger’s recent back surgery will affect his style of play? – Randall Daigle, via Instagram

Popular question, apparently. Earlier this week Tiger conceded that he wouldn’t go full bore on shots at Congressional, that his explosiveness hadn’t yet returned. You’ll know when it does – it’s a more violent game. Woods will still be able to score, but he’ll have to do so differently, relying on course management and strategy. His short game should be plenty sharp too, after a few months of only chipping and putting.


 

 

At first, mental – he’ll have to learn to trust his body again. That’s why it’s so important for him to play four rounds this week, to get some reps. Once that hurdle is cleared, his focus will return to the physical – to swinging and scoring and competing. 


 

 

Hmm, how do I put this … not good? He may have a new love and appreciation for links golf, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that Phil has been out of sorts all season long. He struck the ball well enough to put himself in contention at Pinehurst, but once again he fell apart on the greens. This season he’s ranked 107th in strokes gained-putting, and if that doesn’t improve he won’t win a tournament in the States, overseas or even in his backyard. 


Instagram#AskLav: Is Tiger a realistic contender for the Open Championship now that he has returned from injury? – Gareth Judge, via Instagram

Obviously we’ll have a better idea after this week, but right now, on the spot, I’d say no. Yes, his game plan in ’06 was predicated on the burned-out conditions, but when Tiger won at Hoylake he put on an absolute ball-striking clinic. He’s likely too rusty to replicate that performance this year. There are a few things working in his favor, however: The Open is the flukiest of the majors, in terms of bounces and draws and weather, and it’s the only major that doesn’t demand perfection on the greens. Barring any setbacks, I’d expect Tiger to have a better chance to be a factor at Valhalla, where he won in 1999. Even if he is not at 100 percent, Woods will have been practicing regularly for two full months, which is plenty for the best player in the world. 


 

 

We ask this question all the time on the men’s side after another major champion is crowned. The reality is, it hardly ever happens: Only once in the past seven years has a male player won multiple majors in a season. Sure, the competition isn’t quite as deep on the LPGA, but the caliber of winners this season – from Inbee Park to Stacy Lewis to Lexi Thompson to Lydia Ko – shows that it’s harder than ever to win on the women’s tour. As great as Michelle Wie is playing this season – second in scoring average, third in greens hit, third in putts per GIR – and with three, not two, more majors to play, the fact remains that it’s hard to win the Big Ones and she’s battling a lot of worthy competitors. She’ll contend in one or two but nonetheless go 0-for-3 at the season’s remaining majors.


Instagram#AskLav: How many tournaments will TW play in this year? His presence is undeniable. – @Addiq001, via Instagram

This year? Well, he could play in several more, which would allow him to salvage a year that only a few weeks ago seemed lost. This season? Well, the season ends in September, and assuming he stays healthy, he’ll probably make four starts between now and the end of the regular season: Quicken Loans, Open, Bridgestone, PGA. Currently, he’s No. 209 on the FedEx Cup points list, just ahead of Alex Prugh. If he performs well enough in his next four tournaments, Tiger will reach the playoffs. If he doesn’t, he’ll be on the sidelines for a month and a half by the time the Ryder Cup rolls around, which would only put his spot on the team in further jeopardy. It’s not yet clear if he will join Rory at the season-opening Frys.com Open, but one start is certain: The Oct. 21-26 Americas Golf Cup in Argentina. He could make another appearance or two overseas and then close out the year, like usual, at his own tournament. In other words, we could see plenty of Tiger, health permitting. 

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Wise: 'No hard feelings' over Nelson missed kiss

By Will GrayMay 23, 2018, 10:18 pm

Aaron Wise left the AT&T Byron Nelson with his first PGA Tour trophy and a seven-figure paycheck. But lost in the shuffle of closing out his breakthrough victory in near-darkness was his failed attempt for a celebratory kiss with his girlfriend on the 18th green.

Wise appeared to go in for a peck after his family joined him on the putting surface, but instead he and his girlfriend simply laughed and hugged. After the moment gained a bit of online notoriety, Wise told reporters at the Fort Worth Invitational that the young couple simply laughed it off.

"Yeah, I have been giving her some s--- about that," Wise said. "A lot has been made about it. It's really nothing. Like I was saying, she was just so excited to surprise me. I was kind of ruining the surprise a little bit that she was shocked, and she didn't even see me going in for the kiss."

At age 21, Wise is now one of the youngest winners on Tour. He explained that while both his girlfriend and mother flew in to watch the final round at Trinity Forest Golf Club, where he shared the 54-hole lead and eventually won by three shots, he took some of the surprise out of their arrival in true millennial fashion - by looking up his girlfriend's location earlier in the day.

Still getting used to his newfound status on Tour, Wise downplayed any controversy surrounding the kiss that wasn't.

"No hard feelings at all," Wise said. "We love each other a ton and we're great. It was a funny moment that I think we'll always be able to look back at, but that's all it really was."

Mmm Visuals / Lancaster Country Club

Giving back: Chun creates education fund at site of Open win

By Randall MellMay 23, 2018, 8:04 pm

South Korea’s In Gee Chun is investing in American youth.

Chun broke through on the largest stage in women’s golf, winning the U.S. Women’s Open three years ago, and she’s making sure Lancaster, Pa., continues to share in what that brought her.

Chun is preparing for next week’s U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek outside Birmingham, Ala., but she made a special stop this week. She returned to the site of her breakthrough in Pennsylvania on Tuesday and Wednesday, launching the In Gee Chun Lancaster Country Club Education Fund. She announced Tuesday that she’s donating $10,000 to seed the fund. She’s expected to raise more than $20,000 for the cause in a fundraising dinner at the club Wednesday evening. The fund will annually award scholarships to Lancaster youth applicants, including Lancaster Country Club caddies and children of club employees.

“I’m excited to be back here,” said Chun, who put on a junior clinic during her stay and also played an outing with club members. “Winning the U.S. Women’s Open here in Lancaster gave me the opportunity to play on the LPGA and make one of my dreams come true.”

Chun also supports a fund in her name at Korea University, where she graduated, a fund for various “social responsibility” projects and for the educational needs of the youth who create them.

“Education is very important to me,” Chun said. “I would like to help others reach their goals.”

Chun made donations to the Lancaster General Health Foundation in 2015 and ’16 and to Pennsylvania’s J. Wood Platt Caddie Scholarship Trust last year. Lancaster Country Club officials estimate she has now made donations in excess of $40,000 to the community.

“We are grateful In Gee’s made such a wonderful connection to our community and club,” said Rory Connaughton, a member of Lancaster Country Club’s board of governors. “She’s a special person.”

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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."


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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."

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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."