Notes: Don't think Tiger without thinking Rory, too

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy during the second round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy during the second round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

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2:49:01 AM ET. 04/19/2014




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Lasting image of the weekend's golf? With all due respect, it had nothing to do with yet another Tiger Woods victory march, nor was it the Arnold Palmer-meets-Kate Upton photo opportunity.

No, what resonated was an Associated Press photo of Rory McIlroy hitting golf balls at a driving range in Miami. He was taking a break from a big part of his life – girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki was involved in a tennis tournament in Key Biscayne – to put some focus into that part of his life for which he is known.

Now it’s comforting to see McIlroy in golf mode – even at a scruffy driving range. It’s just that it will be even better this week when he’s going to play some real golf, the Shell Houston Open, because it has been far too easy to forget where we were just four months ago. Late November, McIlroy was being saluted for his money titles in the U.S. and Europe, the shine of his second major triumph was still bright, and the consensus was, even if Tiger Woods had his A game, that it fell short of what the kid from Northern Ireland could deliver.

Ah, the anticipation of an improving Woods and an in-prime McIlroy was delectable stuff as we left 2012.

But three months into the 2013 season and the Woods vs. McIlroy rivalry, at least on paper, looks like a mismatch of Globetrotters vs. Generals proportions. In four PGA Tour stroke-play tournaments, Woods has turned back the clock, steamrolling the opposition three times in laughable fashion, re-taking his spot atop the Official World Golf Ranking and igniting a touch of fear among colleagues that their job has crept that much closer to impossible.

McIlroy? We’ll soon see, but let’s be real: What he did in 2011-12 was no fluke, and the game would be best served if he found the “on” button and regained his swagger. Impressive as Woods has been at Torrey, Doral and Bay Hill, none of those performances matches what McIlroy did at Kiawah. You can hit it anywhere at Torrey, Doral and Bay Hill – as Woods proved – and still score, especially with soft par 5s that he devoured. (He was a combined 46 under in those tournaments, 35 under on the par 5s.)

Augusta will be a different story, and it would be an even more intriguing one if McIlroy were to arrive in great form, because his talent, when re-discovered, is the equal of Woods’, perhaps better.

Alas, hopes of that are not high. Lovable that he might be, it’s tough to embrace the preparation McIlroy has employed for this year’s Masters. Should he make the cut at Houston and play all 72 holes, it would give him 12 1/2 competitive rounds under his belt before Augusta.

That’s right, 12 1/2.

Hey, nice work if you can get it, but for McIlroy’s sake, let’s hope he knows what he’s doing, because few have done it this way.

Even the great Jack Nicklaus, who was heralded for taking plenty of time off and always being rested, made sure his game was competitively tested going into the Masters. In the six years he won the Masters, Nicklaus played an average of 23.8 competitive rounds before the April classic. In arguably his greatest season, 1972 (Nicklaus won seven of his 20 starts, including two majors, was second four times, top 10 15 times), he had 33 rounds on the ledger before Augusta.

Arnold Palmer? Seems to me he knew how to be ready for Augusta. There were 40 rounds played before he won in 1958, a whopping 49 before his 1960 victory, a mere 37 in 1962 (his third green jacket) and 40 in 1964 when he captured his fourth Masters.

OK, so it was a different era and things have changed. But how about Woods, who has never been accused of being an ironman when it comes to his schedule? In the years when he has won the green jacket, Woods played a fair amount before Augusta: 23 rounds in 1997, 28 in 2001, 25 in 2002 and 24 in 2005.

This year, Woods will have 19 competitive rounds filed away. It’s not Dana Quigley-like, but it’s appreciably more than 12 1/2.

All of it magnifies the curious way in which McIlroy has prepared, but the jury remains out on the 23-year-old. Maybe he needed the range, not the course. Maybe his solid play late at Doral indicates optimism is warranted. Maybe he’ll sparkle in Houston. Here’s hoping all of that is true, because my mind hasn’t lost sight of what the kid is capable of.

• • •

Hot and cold

Just how little have McIlroy and Adam Scott played thus far in 2013? Even confirmed part-timer Steve Stricker has put in more pre-Masters work than the younger stars.

Presuming that Stricker plays all four days in Houston, the 46-year-old will have 15 rounds of competition before Augusta. The most McIlroy will have is 12 1/2 and Scott is set at 13. (Spare us the Tavistock Cup.)

Head-shaking stuff, but McIlroy and Scott captain their own ships, and if things go beautifully at Augusta National, critics and skeptics will have little to say.

As for those who have teed it up in at least four PGA Tour stroke-play events thus far, no surprise to see Woods among those who are scoring best. Here’s a sample of Augusta hopefuls who seem to be in good form, with numbers from their most four most recent stroke-play starts:

  • Bill Haas, 33 under (16 rounds, 9 of them below par)
  • Tiger Woods, 32 under (16, 11)
  • Keegan Bradley, 27 under (16,12)
  • Sergio Garcia, 26 under (15, 8)
  • Hunter Mahan, 23 under (16, 12)
  • Bubba Watson, 20 under (14, 8)
  • Rickie Fowler, 13 under (14, 8)
  • Graeme McDowell, 11 under (14, 6

But there is a flip side, too; in this case, players who have not exactly been lighting it up of late. Here are the guys who’ve been struggling to score in their last four stroke-play events:

  • Ryan Moore, 18 over (12 rounds, 3 of them below par)
  • Zach Johnson, 17 over (12, 4)
  • Nick Watney, 12 over (15, 6)
  • Ernie Els, 4 over (14, 6)
  • Dustin Johnson, 2 over (13, 5)
  • Bo Van Pelt, 1 over (12, 6)
  • Jason Dufner, even (14, 6)

• • •

He's No. 1 (again)

This is the 11th time that Woods has ascended into the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking and the seventh time he has done so on the strength of a win.

Modestly, Woods first became No. 1 the day after finishing T-19 at the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional, though that was just a one-week stint. He traded the top spot off and on with Greg Norman until January 1998, when Woods finished second at the Mercedes-Benz Championship and wrested supremacy from Norman. Impressively, the Shark almost 43 at the time, but after 331 weeks on 11 different occasions, he would never again be No. 1.

You could say that Woods also effectively silenced Ernie Els’ aspirations, too. The Big Easy was Woods’ next conquest, because they traded it off for parts of 1997 and 1998. But Els never could keep Woods down, maintaining No. 1 for just nine weeks on three different runs.

Next up were challenges by David Duval (two stints as No. 1, but for just 15 weeks in 1999) and the most effective one, by Vijay Singh. The Big Fijian may someday mellow and open up with the media (yes, we are laughing heartily right now) and more credit will go his way, because he surely deserves it for what he did.

Back when Woods was still a force (2004-05) and not kicked to the curb by car hitting hydrant, Singh took down the world’s greatest golfer with incredible durability and remarkable productivity. Woods won seven times those two seasons, two of them majors, but Singh lapped him, winning 13 times, one of them a major.

Singh's reward: three different trips to No. 1, lasting a total of 32 weeks.

Woods twice supplanted Singh with victory, 2005 at Doral and then at the Masters. The third and final time he knocked the Fijian from the top slot came after a week off before the U.S. Open in 2005. It kicked off what would be an incomparable 281-week run for Woods, which wouldn’t end until Lee Westwood became No. 1 on Oct. 31, 2010.

This hiatus from the top spot – it has been 122 weeks split between Westwood (22 total), Martin Kaymer (eight), Luke Donald (54) and McIlroy (38) – has been Woods’ longest by far. Previously, it was the first Singh reign (26 weeks, from Sept. 6, 2004, to Feb. 27, 2005).

Crazy as it might sound, given how Woods has made No. 1 his personal domain, but only four of the 16 official No. 1s have been American, and they’ve been rather brief visits (Fred Couples, Tom Lehman and David Duval combine for just 32 weeks in the top spot).

Bottom line: Woods has 623 weeks to his credit as No. 1, while the other 15 combine for 781.

• • •

Thinking aloud

Still agonizing over how Rickie Fowler came oh-so-close to delivering the substance we know is just ready to blossom, before deflating our hopes, we’ll temper our disappointment with a par 4 of thoughts, observations, and reflections:

• Come on, Paula Creamer. Toughen up on those closing rounds. Maybe you need to ditch the pink. Her victory drought goes back to 2010 and is now at 57 tournaments, the latest disappointment being the Kia, which featured a Sunday 77. Not even pink made that pleasant to watch. Of her 46 final-round scores in stroke-play events since 2011, Creamer has shot 74 or higher more times (12) than she’s gone for a sub-70 score (11).

• Don’t take this the wrong way, Notah Begay, but you’re no Dottie Pepper.

• Give the LPGA credit for playing hardball on issues that matter. Penalizing Morgan Pressel for slow play last year in a match-play event and scratching Yani Tseng from last week’s Kia Classic because she missed her pro-am tee time showed backbone. Wonder if anyone at Camp Ponte Vedra was watching and taking notes?

• Yeah, the folks in the Midwest and Northeast are really having fun with this global-warming stuff. We should have the clubs in use by Flag Day.

• • •

Calling in their regrets

It was just an added headache that the folks at the Shell Houston Open didn’t need, but when the Arnold Palmer Invitational spilled over into an extra day, it meant that four players were not going to be able to keep their spots in the Monday pro-am.

The heartening news: Ken Duke, Bob Fritsch, Richard H. Lee and Thorbjorn Olesen all took the time to call and apologize, not that it was their fault. Still, it’s the thought that counts. Good for them.

• • •

Stymied at Bay Hill

For two days anyway, it appeared as if Bill Haas finally was going to figure out the magic formula at a place that has created havoc for his family. With a 69-66 start, Haas was in contention – something that never has been easy for him at Bay Hill, just as it never seemed to come his dad’s way.

In 23 starts at Bay Hill, Jay Haas had just three top 10s and never really figured the place out. Bill Haas has now played six times and though he faded on the weekend (73-74) he was T-8, his first top 10 there.

In a combined 103 rounds, the Haas boys have shot in the 60s just 12 times at Palmer’s home club.

• • •

Strange decision

Whether the military-influenced “pod” system was instrumental to the U.S. Ryder Cup victory in 2008 is forever worth debating. But the selection process that captain Paul Azinger devised that year and was used again in 2010 and 2012? Its effectiveness seemed to prove itself convincingly, what with a dominating victory against the Europeans in ’08 and crushing 1-point defeats in ’10 and ’12, by a point each time.

Considering that under their former selection process, the Americans had been outscored by the embarrassing sum of 37-19 in 2004 and 2006, Azinger deserved great credit.

So why is 2014 captain Tom Watson altering things?

Maybe it’s the “I’m in charge, so let me change something to prove it” mentality.

But the guess is, Watson is showing his old-school side. He cut his teeth in this Ryder Cup business when captains didn’t have free picks; they led whoever were the 12 qualifiers. When he last put his fingerprints on the Ryder Cup, in 1993, Watson was told who his 10 qualifiers were, and he got to add two names to his team. So he’s seemingly trying to reward players who meet a qualifying standard. Though that’s admirable, it appears that Watson got cold feet and was only half true to his belief.

He talked to recent captains such as Azinger, Corey Pavin and Davis Love III. It’s pure speculation, but the guess is Watson told them he wanted to go back to two picks. Knowing Watson, he was determined to do so, but it appears that the former captains argued that four free picks made the team stronger. (Hard to argue, given how competitive the U.S. has been with four picks.) So what did Watson do? He went halfway; he cut the captain’s picks from four to three.

Curious. Very curious.

On the surface, some are trying to suggest it’s Watson’s way of saying Hunter Mahan should have made the team in 2012. Now Mahan is a great player, but harken back to late summer 2012. Mahan was ninth in the Ryder Cup standings but playing like someone in 29th place. Azinger’s revamped system had at its core this philosophy: Hot players will make the team automatically, and you want hot players.

Mahan in August 2012 was anything but hot. Love realized this, and though Mahan might have been ninth in the standings, he was not one of the captain’s four picks. Use that hindsight and question Love’s thought process, but veterans Stricker and Jim Furyk were easy to pick, and so were Brandt Snedeker and Dustin Johnson.

Let’s say Watson’s plan for 2014 was in play for 2012. Mahan, struggling with his game and confidence, would have made the team and the guess is, Stricker and Furyk would have been the first two captain’s picks and that it would have come down to Snedeker or Dustin Johnson to be the 12th man.

Here’s thinking that Love would have gone with Snedeker, but guess what? Dustin Johnson went 3-0.

One man’s opinion? Watson should have left the system in place, giving himself four picks. Heck, you think No. 9 deserves it, then pick him. Not that difficult.

• • •

Tiger tales

If what Woods has done of late could be compared with anything, it could be 2001 when he was truly at the zenith of his phenomenon. That year he won the last two stops on the Florida swing – Bay Hill and The Players Championship (thus far his only pro win at TPC Sawgrass) and followed up with a third straight victory, at Augusta.

But for all you bandwagoners, take note that on two occasions since, Woods has won his last start before the Masters, only to go to Augusta and come up empty.

In 2007, he won at Doral, but finished T-2 behind Zach Johnson.

In 2012, his romp at Bay Hill loaded all his loyalists with great joy, but he followed with his most miserable pro effort at Augusta, a T-40.

It’s the fourth time in his illustrious career that Woods has piled up three wins before the Masters. In those previous years – 2000, '03 and '08 – he failed to win the Masters.

Nicklaus never did win three times before the Masters, but two of his green jackets – 1972 and 1975 – came with his third win of the season.

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