Woods' Players strategy tailor-made for Open, too

By Ryan LavnerMay 13, 2013, 2:31 am

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – With spectacular flame-outs all around him – Jeff Maggert rinsing his 71st tee shot, Ryan Palmer thrashing about in the pine straw, Sergio Garcia self-immolating on the final two holes – Tiger Woods did not deviate from his game plan at The Players.

Put away the driver. Find the fairway. Hit the center of the green.

In grueling, U.S. Open-like conditions, boring golf is beautiful golf.

Late Sunday, when a few “well-influenced” fans alerted Woods on 18 tee of the carnage behind him, he responded with a nod. Then he ripped a 5-wood shot 286 yards down the left side of the fairway, apparently oblivious to the watery stuff waiting to swallow an off-line tee ball.

In the end, his prize – far more significant, of course, than getting in the last word against a petulant Sergio Garcia – was a fourth title this season, another unmistakable salvo, a wheelbarrow full of cash ($1.71 million) and a very impressed girlfriend. (Lindsey Vonn’s tweet: “Woooo hoooo!!!! He did it!!!!!”)

The last time Woods sat in this media center with the winner’s crystal was 2001. The Players that year was in March. In his next start, the then-25-year-old slipped into his second green jacket, the third victory in a five-win season.

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Those two players – Tiger 2001 and Tiger 2013 – are incomparable. The injuries, the frailties, the scandal, the resurgence. We can’t go back. We know too much now.  

But this much is unchanged through the years: Woods knows how to win, emphatically, and how to do so at an unprecedented clip.

“I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done,” the 37-year-old said. “But I’m not.”

Woods now has four wins, and it’s only mid-May. The last time he did that was 2000. Of course, that year he went on to win nine times, including three majors. He tacked on the fourth, the completion of the Tiger Slam, in spring 2001.

His victory Sunday was his seventh in his last 22 PGA Tour starts, a ridiculous winning percentage of 31.8. His career winning percentage, if you were curious, is now 27.2 (78 wins in 286 starts). This new Tiger is pretty good, too.

Woods was in a three-way tie for the lead when he began the fourth round, and his closing 70 was enough for a two-shot victory over three players. His conversion rate when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead now sits at 52 for 56. Even New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is envious.

In the afterglow of his stirring victory, it’s easy to forget that Woods has struggled mightily at Sawgrass since his last victory here, in ’01. One top 10 and two withdrawals. As many finishes outside the top 20 (four) as inside.

“This golf course has been a little bit tricky over the years,” he said, “and I’m not the only one who has struggled with it.”

So what changed?

The two keys, Woods said, were controlling his trajectory in the swirling winds and working the ball both ways. When he missed the greens – he was T-3 for the week in GIRs, hitting more than 76 percent – he left himself in easier spots from which to get up and down. One of the few times he short-sided himself (No. 15 Sunday), he played a delicate pitch and sank an 8-footer for par. Don’t forget, he’s also No. 1 on Tour in putting.

“He’s always hit it really good, and now he’s starting to get that putter back to the way it was in 2000,” Brandt Snedeker said. “It didn’t seem like he missed a putt for two years, and he’s kind of getting that feeling back again.”

OK, so his putter is behaving once again. But for years, the main criticism Woods has endured is his wildness off the tee. You never could tell when Woods was about to hit a vicious snap-hook, or a wild block slice. That point is rendered moot, however, when he employs a conservative game plan, as he did at Sawgrass.

Only once in the final round here did he unsheath his driver, and that came on the par-5 11th, which features one of the widest fairways on the course. Other than that, it was a steady diet of 3-irons and 15- and 19-degree fairway woods that traveled anywhere between 250 and 315 yards.

Clearly, the strategy worked – it was the first time since 2003 that he carded four under-par rounds at TPC. He finished at 13-under 275.

“We’re all playing from the same spots,” Woods said. “It’s just how you get there.”

Approaching his second full year with instructor Sean Foley, Woods has a better, firmer, tighter grasp on his game, his pop-up, chunk-hook into the pond on 14 notwithstanding. His scaled-back strategy at Sawgrass was reminiscent of his victory at Hoylake in the 2006 British Open. Back then, he hit only one driver all week (in the first round) and bludgeoned the fast, fiery links with impeccable iron play.

Well, that toned-down approach also figures to suit Woods at Merion, host of this year’s U.S. Open. With a blend of long and short holes, the classic layout boasts only two par 5s, and through the first 13 holes, there are nine potential wedge opportunities.

“Merion is looking pretty good for Tiger,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said on the telecast. “I almost feel like he is playing Merion right now with all of the layups and the conservative shots and positioning. It looks like he’s getting ready for it right now.”

Woods, it should be noted, has never played Merion. He doesn’t know what to expect in four weeks. But there’s no reason to suggest why he can’t turn the 6,996-yard track into target practice, wearing a new sweet spot into his long irons and fairway woods.

“It sounds good in theory,” Woods said, when asked about employing a similar strategy at the upcoming Open, “but I don’t know. You’ve got to play the golf course for what it gives you.”

In Tigerspeak, that means letting his opponents self-destruct, like they did Sunday. It means playing more boring, beautiful golf, like Woods did Sunday.

After all, that’s the kind that he prefers, that he has nearly perfected.

Good thing, because it’s the kind of golf that Merion will demand.

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Hammer in position (again) to co-medal at U.S. Am

By Ryan LavnerAugust 14, 2018, 10:37 pm

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Cole Hammer is in position to go for a rare sweep in this summer’s biggest events.

Two weeks ago, Hammer, an incoming freshman at Texas, was the co-medalist at the Western Amateur and went on to take the match-play portion, as well.

Here at the U.S. Amateur, Hammer shot rounds of 69-68 and was once again in position to earn co-medalist honors. At 6-under 137, he was tied with 19-year-old Daniel Hillier of New Zealand.

“It would mean a lot, especially after being medalist at the Western Am,” Hammer said afterward. “It’s pretty special.”

No stroke-play medalist has prevailed in the 64-man match-play bracket since Ryan Moore in 2004. Before that, Tiger Woods (1996) was the most recent medalist champion.  

Match scoring from U.S. Amateur

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On the strength of his Western Am title, Hammer, 18, has soared to No. 18 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He credited his work with swing coach Cameron McCormick and mental coach Bob Rotella.

“Just really started controlling my iron shots really well,” said Hammer, who has worked with McCormick since 2015, when he qualified for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay as a 15-year-old.

“Distance control with my wedges and all my iron shots, playing different shots, has become really a strength in my game. I’ve really turned the putter on this year, and I’m seeing the lines and matching the line with the speed really well. I think that’s been the key to my summer.”

A two-time New Zealand Amateur champion, Hillier is ranked 27th in the world. He said that, entering the tournament, he would have been pleased just to make it to match play.

“But to come out on top, it’s amazing,” Hillier said. “Cole is a really good golfer and has been playing well lately. So, yeah, I’m in good company.”

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Tee times, TV schedule, stats for Wyndham Championship

By Golf Channel DigitalAugust 14, 2018, 9:55 pm

It's the last tournament of the PGA Tour's regular season as the top 125 in the FedExCup points list advance to next week's playoff event. Here's the key info for the Wyndham Championship. (Click here for tee times)

How to watch:

Thursday, Rd. 1: Golf Channel, 3-6PM ET; live stream: https://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Friday, Rd. 2: Golf Channel, 3-6PM ET; live stream: https://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Saturday, Rd. 3: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream: https://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream; CBS, 3-6 p.m.

Sunday, Rd. 4: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream: https://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream; CBS, 3-6 p.m.

Purse: $6 million

Course: Sedgefield Country Club (par 70, 7,127 yards)

Defending champion: Henrik Stenson. Last year he defeated Ollie Schniederjans by one stroke to earn his sixth career PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Henrik Stenson at the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Henrik Stenson

• Missed the cut last week at the PGA Championship

• Six top-10 finishes this year, including T-5 at the Masters and T-6 at the U.S. Open

Sergio Garcia

• Eight missed cuts in last 10 PGA Tour starts

• Currently 131 in FedExCup standings (33 points back of 125th)

Webb Simpson

• Five top-10 finishes in this event since 2010 (won in 2011)

• 56 under par in last five years in this event (best of any player in that span)

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Faldo: Woods told fellow Masters champ 'I'm done' in '17

By Will GrayAugust 14, 2018, 7:42 pm

Fresh off his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship, it's easy to get caught up in the recent success and ebullient optimism surrounding Tiger Woods. But it was not that long ago that Woods even hitting another competitive shot was very much in doubt.

Six-time major champ Sir Nick Faldo shed light on those darker times during a recent appearance on the Dan Patrick Show when he relayed a story from the 2017 Masters champions' dinner. The annual meal is one of golf's most exclusive fraternities, as only the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club is allowed to dine with the men who have each donned a green jacket.

Last spring Woods had not yet undergone spinal fusion surgery, and Faldo explained that Woods at one point turned to an unnamed Masters champ and grimly assessed his future playing chances.

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"I know he whispered to another Masters champion, two Masters dinners ago, 'I'm done. I won't play golf again,'" Faldo said. "He said, 'I'm done. I'm done, my back is done.' He was in agony. He was in pain. His leg, the pain down his legs, there was nothing enjoyable. He couldn't move. If you watched footage of him, he couldn't even get in and out of the golf cart at the (2016) Ryder Cup when he was a vice captain."

But Woods opted for fusion surgery a few weeks later, and after a lengthy rehab process he returned to competition in December. His 2018 campaign has been nothing short of remarkable, with a pair of runner-up finishes to go along with a T-6 result at The Open when he held the outright lead on the back nine on Sunday.

After apparently even counting himself out, Woods is back up to 26th in the latest world rankings and appears in line to be added as a captain's pick for the Ryder Cup next month.

"What he's been able to do is unbelievable," Faldo said. "To turn this aruond, to get this spine fusion, it's completely taken away the pain. To have this mobility is absolutely amazing. Great on him, and great for golf."

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McDowell needs Wyndham result to maintain status

By Will GrayAugust 14, 2018, 5:56 pm

For the first time in nearly three years, Graeme McDowell heads into an event with his PGA Tour status hanging in the balance.

The Ulsterman joined the Tour in 2006, and he has had nearly uninterrupted status since winning the 2010 U.S. Open. But McDowell's two-season exemption for winning the 2015 OHL Classic at Mayakoba only extends through this week, where he will start the Wyndham Championship at No. 143 in the season-long points race.

McDowell tied for fifth at Sedgefield Country Club in 2016, and he will likely need a similar result to crack the top 125 in the standings and retain his fully exempt status for the 2019 season. While he finished T-10 in Las Vegas in November, that remains his lone top-10 finish of the Tour season. The veteran's best results this year have come in Europe, where he tied for fifth at the Italian Open and finished T-12 at the BMW PGA Championship.

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"I'm trying not to put too much pressure on myself. I feel like it's not a do-or-die scenario for me," McDowell told reporters earlier this month at the Barracuda Championship. "I feel if I was 25 years old without a European Tour card to fall back on, it would be a do-or-die scenario. Certainly trying to put the pressure off, if I don't get myself into the top 125 it's not the end of the world for me. I still feel like I can play a great schedule next season."

By finishing Nos. 126-150 in points after this week, McDowell would retain conditional status that would likely ensure him at least 12-15 starts next season. He would also still have privileges as a past tournament champion.

But he's not the only winner from the 2015-16 season whose two-year exemption is on the verge of running out. Fabian Gomez (160th), Peter Malnati (164th) and Billy Hurley III (202nd) all need big results in Greensboro to keep their cards, while Shane Lowry, David Lingmerth and Matt Every all earned three-year exemptions for victories in 2015 but currently sit Nos. 139, 140 and 184 in points, respectively.

Last year four players moved into the top 125 thanks to strong play at Wyndham, with the biggest jump coming from Rory Sabbatini, who went from No. 148 to No. 122 after tying for fourth place.