Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 5, 2015

On The Links, A Season Of Change Is Under Way

The thrilling triumph by the New England Patriots last Sunday naturally dominated the sports pages this week. But the Super Bowl, better known in some quarters as the game in which the Seattle Seahawks snatched defeat from the jaws of certain victory, was not the only sports story of note. For golf fans in particular, there emerged from both coasts twin reminders that their game is in a period of profound change.

The PGA Tour’s season, no longer tied to the calendar, actually began last October and was already nine tournaments old going into last weekend. But only the most diehard fans pay close attention to the late fall tournaments, events that typically feature less than imposing fields. The Tour then heads to Hawaii for two weeks right after New Year’s; and it’s only when the West Coast Swing starts in late January that a lot of the pros whose names are familiar to casual fans come out of hibernation to once again tee it up. That was the case last weekend at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where Tiger Woods made his season debut and Phil Mickelson played for just the second time this season.

One can only hope that both stars had tickets to watch the NFL teams do battle on the other side of town, because otherwise there wasn’t much point to their visits to Arizona. Woods was playing for the first time since missing the cut at last year’s PGA Championship, and he fared no better in two turns around the TPC Scottsdale layout. An opening 73 was followed by a second round 82, Woods’s worst score as a professional. At 11-over par for two rounds he missed the cut by ten strokes and wound up tied for last in the full-field event.

What was most stunning about Tiger’s second round meltdown was his atrocious play around the greens. Pitch shots sailed past the flag and rolled off the far side of the putting surface. Chunked chip shots traveled no more than three feet. It was a performance to which any weekend hacker could relate, coming from a golfer who has dominated the game for a decade and a half. Come April when all eyes turn to Augusta and the Masters, at some point CBS is sure to run the video of the chip-in from behind the green on the par-3 16th hole in 2005. Woods had to pitch the ball away from the hole, and watch it curve down the steep slope, breaking some 20 feet or more before hanging on the edge of the cup for a moment before gravity took over. The contrast between that example of Woods in his prime and the seemingly lost golfer, playing his first tournament since turning 39 in December, could not have been more jarring.

For his part Mickelson played well only in comparison to Woods. Playing in an event that he’s won twice, most recently just two years ago, Lefty opened well enough with a 2-under par 69. But on Saturday he skied to a 76 in a round that featured six bogeys offset by but a single birdie.

Both of golf’s biggest names traveled to San Diego for this week’s Farmers Insurance Open, where Thursday’s opening round gave no indication that last week was a fluke. Woods was 2-over par through 11 holes when he withdrew from the tournament, citing a back injury. It was the third time Woods has been forced to withdraw due to injury in his last eight starts. With first round play continuing late Friday afternoon on the west coast, Mickelson was far down the leaderboard, likely needing a vastly better second 18 to avoid back-to-back missed cuts.

Woods is now ranked 56th in the world, a position that will almost certainly deteriorate when the weekly rankings are updated after the Farmers. Barring rapid improvement he won’t qualify for the World Golf Championship event next month at Doral; not that it will matter much if he’s injured. Mickelson hasn’t won since his stirring victory at the 2013 Open Championship, a drought of more than 18 months.

Yet even as the familiar stars fade there are plenty of American golfers whose games are on the rise. Billy Horschel rebounded from a horrible final hole at last year’s Deutsche Bank Championship to win the BMW Championship one week later, then the Tour Championship right after that. Along with the consecutive titles Horschel, who just turned 28, took home the 2014 FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus. Jordan Spieth, still just 21 years old, won the Australian Open last November and then lapped the field at the unofficial Hero World Challenge, the invitation-only event hosted by Woods every December. Patrick Reed won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii last month. The 24-year old has a big ego and a mouth to match, but it was also his fourth victory in less than 17 months. In that same period of time Woods and Mickelson have combined for zero wins.

With Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy firmly ensconced atop the World Rankings, the standard media spin has been to forecast a rivalry between Rors and Tiger. The reality is that any challenge to McIlroy’s dominance is likely to come from someone other than Woods.

On this side of the country the LPGA got its new season underway last weekend, with the Coates Golf Championship in Ocala, Florida. In an exciting duel with plenty of twists and turns over the tournament’s final holes, Na Yeon Choi outlasted a trio of competitors for her first victory in more than two years. Choi, who won seven LPGA events between 2009 and 2012 including the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open, was overcome with emotion after two-putting the final green for the one-stroke victory.

Every bit as newsworthy as Choi’s victory was Lydia Ko’s finish in a tie for second place. That result pushed Ko to the top of the world rankings for women golfers. The stunning subtext of that story is that Ko won’t celebrate her 18th birthday until April. The teenager from New Zealand thus smashed by more than four years the record for youngest golfer of either gender to be ranked number one. The mark she obliterated was of course set by Woods, who first topped the men’s rankings at the age of 21.

While not yet old enough to buy a beer at the 19th hole, Ko has won five LPGA events, including two while still an amateur. The most recent of those wins was last November at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship. There Ko pocketed both the $500,000 first-place check and the $1 million bonus for winning the season-long Race to the CME Globe, the LPGA’s equivalent of the FedEx Cup.

The women’s rankings are more closely bunched than the men’s, and Ko is likely to face stiff competition for the top spot from both Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis as the LPGA season continues. But whether it’s a teenager on top or new names replacing the old, it’s clear that on both major golf tours this is a season of change. That may be hard for the casual fan who thinks golf is about Tiger and, well, Tiger; but for the game itself it is a reminder that as in all of our sports, renewal is constant and change is inevitable.

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Responses

  1. Nice Piece.

    Don

    • Thanks Don.

      M-


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