Getty Images

This Woods, nothing like we've seen in several years

By Ryan LavnerMarch 12, 2018, 12:15 am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Over four days, Tiger Woods blew into a new city, shattered attendance records, boosted TV ratings, ignited social media and surged into contention – serious contention – for the first time in ages, teeing it up in Sunday’s penultimate pairing.

Afterward, he stood in front of a pack of reporters and sounded pleased that he’d given himself an opportunity, sure, but disappointed that he’d come up short.

“I gave myself a chance,” he said, “and I had all the opportunity in the world today to do it. I didn’t get it done.”

That exact scenario unfolded Aug. 23, 2015 – 932 days ago – at the Wyndham Championship, when Woods last gave himself a realistic chance to win for the 80th time on the PGA Tour. The circumstances surrounding Sunday’s final round here at the Valspar Championship were almost identical, but with one key difference.

“He’s a completely different person,” said Notah Begay III, a longtime Woods confidant. “He’s gone through public humiliation. He’s gone through personal challenges. He’s gone through physical injury. He’s gone through technical problems in all parts of his game.

“He’s risen above it all, and the end result is a guy who is out here really appreciative of his ability to go out and play the type of golf that he’s capable of.”

Full-field scores from the Valspar Championship

Valspar Championship: Articles, photos and videos

And that type of golf, Woods proved yet again Sunday, will be good enough to win tournaments. 

He wasn’t as sharp with his irons in the final round, and he struggled with the speed of the greens while taking 32 putts, and yet he arrived on Innisbrook’s 18th tee needing a birdie to force a playoff with Paul Casey.

Woods had just canned a 44-foot birdie on 17, offering a sarcastic smirk when the putt found the bottom of the cup, and then he tried to settle himself on the final tee, taking a deep breath and wiping his palms.

“All you want is a shot coming up 18,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “We knew what we had to do.”

Woods blistered a 258-yard 2-iron off the tee, then strode purposefully up the last, the adrenaline flowing, fans young and old lining the fairway and hollering, “Let’s go Tiger!”, trying to will the game’s most popular figure to a victory that seemed improbable even five months ago. His 35-footer to match Casey came up two feet shy.

Woods should win again, and maybe soon, but he settled for a tie for second, his best finish since August 2013, when his back betrayed him for the first time in public. It was at that Barclays event that, in the midst of a Player of the Year season, he fell to his knees after playing a shot in the final round. Later, he blamed his sore neck and back on a soft hotel bed, but less than a year later he went under the knife for his first of four back surgeries.

Woods made only 17 starts over the next two seasons before summoning that out-of-nowhere performance at the Wyndham, where he shared the 36-hole lead and sat just two shots back heading into the final round. He wound up in a tie for 10th, but it was a fluke – he didn’t play another Tour event for 17 months.

The player four starts into this latest comeback bears little resemblance to that aging warrior.

Start with his speed. In 2015, his clubhead speed was 118 mph. Here on Saturday, he uncorked a 129-mph rocket – the fastest recorded on Tour this season.

And then check out his short game. In 2015, it was in utter disarray, a collection of thinned and flubbed chips and pitches that Woods chalked up to conflicting “release patterns” but in reality looked an awful lot like the yips. Only three years later it is apparent that Woods’ body was broken, and that it was uncomfortable for him to assume that setup position. At the Valspar, Woods played a series of deft pitch shots, somehow only holing out once and finishing the week fifth in strokes gained-around the green.

And then, well, just look at him: “I think he’s for real healthy this time,” LaCava said. For how long, no one knows, but in 2015 Woods was trying to scale back his schedule to preserve his body. Now, he’s trying to redline it, adding new and intriguing events during this run-up to the Masters.

What hasn’t changed is Woods’ post-round assessment, both then at the Wyndham and here at the Valspar.

“I felt very comfortable,” he said Sunday.

And: “I was close.”

And: “I had a chance today.”

That Woods contended at the Wyndham was a testament to his otherworldly talent and his grit and his course-management skills.

This is something different entirely. In just 14 rounds Woods has checked every box in his comeback: Staying upright for two rounds. Battling for a score. Making the cut. Playing consecutive weeks. Moving into the fringes of contention. Hovering around the lead.

Then on Sunday, he assumed a position that used to be so familiar: Chasing down the leader.

“The trend is going the right way,” LaCava said.

And unlike three years ago, it’s no aberration.

Getty Images

Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Tee times

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

Getty Images

Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Tee times

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

Getty Images

This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Tee times

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

Getty Images

Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.