What we learned about Tiger at Doral
With spring comes rebirth. Flowers bloom. Trees grow leaves. And as chance would have it, Tiger Woods' swing returned from any late-winter malaise (we can hardly call it a hibernation) as he claimed victory at the WGC-CA Championship.
Ah, all is right in the golf world once again.
Hard to believe that it was just one week ago that Woods suffered his worst nine-hole score since 1996, leaving us confused as we questioned the state of his game. So what changed from one Sunday to the next? The Weekly 18 examines Tiger's transition.
In this space last week, we analyzed and criticized Tiger Woods' final-round back-nine 8-over 43 that saw him drop from one stroke out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational lead to 11 shots down when the day was done. We wrote: "Will Woods' flaws continue to be exposed on the scorecard? Or will he revert to his previous pristine performance? Here's guessing we'll learn an awful lot this week."
We learned there is absolutely nothing wrong with Woods' swing right now. At Bay Hill, we saw Tiger rinse a pair of iron shots on the final holes, leaving each one well short of its intended target. "Yeah, you look back at the finish, and I hit bad shots," Woods said on Wednesday prior to the CA, the first time he publicly spoke since that back nine. "But all throughout the entire tournament, I kept making silly mistakes, mistakes I don't normally make." Of course, he preceded this admission by confiding, "I've definitely fixed it." Just in case you needed some visual proof, he went ahead and led the field in greens in regulation at Doral.
We learned Tiger will go as far as his putter will take him -- and maybe further. Woods needed a total of 119 putts over four rounds, an average of 29.75 per round that left him in a share of 64th in that category out of 72 total competitors. That's the exact same number he took at Bay Hill, at which he finished T-59 in total putts. Granted, Tiger took more putts because he reached more greens -- he was T-20 in putts per GIR -- but the end result is the same: When Woods is putting decently, he can win. When he's putting better than that, watch out.
But more than anything, we learned that Woods has the innate ability to assess flaws in his own game -- and correct them -- quicker than anyone on the face of the planet. For most players, a fault in swing mechanics means weeks of long days on the practice range and failure in competition until that "Voila!" moment when everything clicks and the swing is where it should be again. For Tiger, this entire process happens at warp speed. It's as if he's got a wireless connnection to his swing while the rest of his competition is using dial-up.
Of course, Woods is also making his adjustments on the fly, during the course of a round. "I have a better understanding of my golf swing and how to rectify it from shot to shot," he said. "It's not always easy to do, but I can figure out through ball flight and how I felt through the shot, and, you know, draw a conclusion."
There's no mistaking Tiger's tenacity for remaining great, for constantly evolving as a player. Which leads us to one more thing we learned this week: He takes as much from defeat as victory. As Woods said while sidled up next to the CA trophy on Sunday: "How are you going to win if you don't study your losses, and how are you going to win if you don't study your wins?"
How important is putting to a player's success? Consider these numbers from Tiger's week at Doral: On Thursday, he needed 32 putts and shot an opening-round 71. The next day, he took 26 putts ... and shot five strokes better. In the third round, his number of putts was two higher, as was the score. And in Sunday's final round, Tiger took 33 putts and shot 73.
One other difference in Woods' game from Bay Hill to Doral? His performance on the par-5 holes. Last week's venue played to a par-70, meaning there were only eight par-5 opportunities for four rounds, but Woods played the holes in a combined even-par throughout the tournament. This week, however, Woods and the others had twice as many chances, with four par-5s on Doral's Blue Monster course -- and Tiger made the most of 'em. All told, he made one eagle (on the first hole of the third round), eight birdies, seven pars and no bogeys or worse. That's a final tally of 10-under combined on the 16 par-5 chances. His final score for the week? Yep, 10-under.
Tiger Woods won again on Sunday, making it look easy all the way. Just another passageway on the road to legendary status, writes Bob Harig. Story
• Blog: Tiger "struggles" to win
Some sick numbers from Woods this week: He has now played in 24 career WGC events and won 13 of them. Uh, pretty good record, especially considering these tournaments are against the world's elite players and no one else has won more than two of 'em. (Darren Clarke is the only other guy with multiple WGC wins.) Meanwhile, Tiger has claimed six of eight editions of the CA (formerly AmEx) championship. What makes that total truly remarkable is the fact that unlike most events, these half-dozen wins have come on six different venues. Wow.
Sure, Woods made bogey on the final hole at Doral, but really it wasn't all that bad of a score. Since the PGA Tour started keeping track of such statistics in 1983, the Blue Monster's par-4 18th this week ranked as the third-toughest closing hole in 25 years, with an average score of 4.625, yielding only 13 birdies. Of course, it could have been worse; it could have been the third hole. The par-4 gave up only nine birdies in four rounds, including only one -- by K.J. Choi -- on Sunday.
Brett Wetterich had never played with Woods before, save for a Ryder Cup practice round last September. In the final pairing with the world's top-ranked player on Sunday, it looked like Wetterich was a little in over his head, as the big-hitter bogeyed the opening par-5 hole to begin his round. But Wetterich saved face -- and then some -- shooting a final-round 71, which bested his playing partner by two. As a result, Wetterich finished in solo second place ... and likely gained plenty of respect from his peers for the solid finish.
Woody Austin once left a putt well short of the hole and "celebrated" by bending his putter shaft on his forehead. Pat Perez once missed a putt and flipped a certain finger to the cup. So, by comparison, Sergio Garcia's reaction after three-putting the 13th green on Saturday was rather pedestrian. Following his only bogey of the day, Garcia hocked a loogie into the bottom of the cup in frustration. "I just missed that putt and wasn't too happy," Garcia told NBC Sports on Saturday. "But [the spit] did go in the middle [of the hole] and wasn't going to affect anyone else. If it did, I would have wiped it off." Asked to clarify his comments on Sunday, Sergio's mood turned sour. "I apologized to everybody on TV yesterday," he said. "I said it was a stupid thing, and, you know, there's no excuse. Obviously you weren't watching that, but anyway." There was some speculation that Garcia could be fined by the PGA Tour for his actions, though we'll never know unless he tells us; the tour keeps all fines disclosed. During NBC's final-round telecast, commissioner Tim Finchem said of Garcia, "His record is blemish-free and I'm quite confident that this is a one-off situation."
Retief Goosen has been featured in both TV and print advertisements for CA recently, in which the two-time U.S. Open champ is doing groundskeeper work on a course prior to the tagline, "This is not Retief Goosen's job." Then again, Goosen hasn't exactly been up to the task of his usual job -- that as an elite-level golfer -- on the PGA Tour so far this season, either. After finishing the CA Championship at 9-over and in a share of 58th place, he has now competed in four U.S. events in '07, with no finish better than T-17. But it's not all bad news. In his last four Euro Tour events (not including the WGCs, which are co-sanctioned), T-5 is Goosen's worst result. He owns a fourth place and a pair of T-5s during that stretch, plus a victory at January's Qatar Masters.
We were really rooting for Adam Scott to make a birdie on the par-3 13th hole in the first round. Had he done so, it would have meant Scott's quintuple-bogey 10 on the 10th hole would have been followed by just nine strokes on the following three holes. Scott made a birdie 3 on 11 and a birdie 4 on 12, but alas, he bogeyed No. 13 to end our dreams of a three-hole run that was better than one.
Regular readers of this column know we can't get enough of Prom Meesawat, a 22-year-old Asian Tour regular from Thailand who is nicknamed "The Dolphin." Well, Prom made his debut on U.S. soil this week and you can imagine how excited we were when the kid started flying up the leaderboard on Friday afternoon. He played the eighth through 12th holes in 5-under en route to a 1-under 71 that left him in a share of 36th place entering the weekend, but scores of 82-77 dropped him into T-68 when it was all said and done. Just a bump in the road for young Mr. Meesawat, we imagine -- the road to superstardom.
The tournament formerly known as the BellSouth Classic not only received a facelift by way of name change -- it'll now be called the AT&T Classic -- the Georgia-based event will no longer own status as the official Masters hand-holder, walking the year's first major down the aisle. By virtue of it's new position in the schedule -- May 17-20, one week after The Players Championship, one week before Colonial -- not only will the AT&T fail to capitalize on the natives' increased fervor in the professional game leading up to the Masters, rendering less interest in the event itself, it will likely feature a weaker field than in years past. Will defending champ Phil Mickelson, who always used the tournament as a final tune-up for Augusta National, show up? Will any other elite players? By sliding back more than a month in the revamped schedule, the AT&T will certainly see better weather and, likely, a more refined TPC-Sugarloaf course. But at what cost?
Meanwhile, the tournament that will fill this week's place in the schedule, the Houston Open, will find itself with a much less distinguished field than either the one that it held in its previous slot, or that of past AT&T events. Of the world's top 20 players, only four -- Adam Scott, Padraig Harrington, David Toms and David Howell -- will prepare for the Masters by competing in Houston. Mickelson, who almost always competes in pre-major tournaments, is among those skipping this week's event. "I didn't feel like the [Redstone Golf Club] course was going to best prepare me for the major," said Mickelson, adding that the difference in greens (Houston has Bermuda; Augusta National has bentgrass) was a factor, too.
Interesting note from the Nationwide Tour's Chitimacha Louisiana Open this week, as two former major champions were in the field. Larry Mize (1987 Masters) finished T-30 and Steve Jones (1996 U.S. Open) was T-75. Seems like multiple major winners wouldn't be a familiar site on the minor-league circuit, but it has happened before -- specifically, back in 2004 at the BMW Charity Pro-Am. Those major winners? Just a couple of guys named Nicklaus and Player.
Including the two major winners, this week's Nationwide event featured 17 former PGA Tour champions -- an abnormally large number for the minor-league circuit. That said, it was utterly ironic that the guy who wound up claiming the title, Skip Kendall, had been the big tour's all-time career money leader without a win, until he was surpassed by Brett Quigley earlier this year. Kendall defeated Paul Claxton on the third playoff hole for his third career Nationwide win, but first title on any PGA-sanctioned tour in 384 total starts.
There's something about a flawless, pristine scorecard that we find more beautiful than any sunset or supermodel. (OK, almost any supermodel.) That explains why we spent five minutes on Thursday just staring at Brenden Pappas' opening-round scorecard from the Chitimacha. Playing the back nine first, he carded five birdies, then made the turn and claimed six more -- all without a bogey. The end result: Eleven birdies, seven pars and a score of 11-under 60. It was a beautiful thing. (For the week, he finished T-12.)
We didn't believe it when we heard it, so we had look it up. And yes, it's true: Lorena Ochoa is only the third-ranked player on the Women's World Ranking. Scratch that. Make it: Lorena Ochoa was only the third-ranked player on the Women's World Ranking. With a victory at the Safeway International on Sunday, Ochoa should jump Karrie Webb as the second-ranked player in the world, just behind Annika Sorenstam. And it should set up a great stage for this week's Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first major on this year's schedule. Remember, for as talented and accomplished as Ochoa is, she is still searching for that initial major win. Don't be surprised if it comes this week.
If you're reading this, you're probably a golf fan. And if you're a golf fan, you're probably entering some sort of Masters office pool. And if you're entering a Masters pool, you'll probably want to win something pretty cool if you come in first place. All of that should be impetus enough to join the David Toms Foundation Masters Contest, which is offering a first prize of -- deep breath -- a signed 2007 Masters flag from the champion, a 2003 Presidents Cup hat signed by the entire team (includes Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Davis Love III, and captain Jack Nicklaus), two David Toms Foundation golf shirts and a David Toms Foundation golf hat. There are also some pretty solid giveaways for second through fifth places, too, but the best thing about the contest is that all proceeds will go toward the David Toms Foundation, which "creates hope for children" by providing assistance to those in need, according to its Web site. For more info on the contest, go to www.davidtoms.com.
"I have a feeling the 2007 Masters isn't the last one that's ever going to be played. I've already got a good headstart on 2008."
-- Mark Wilson, who narrowly missed qualifying for the year's first major.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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