Bubba‘s World: NBA celebrity games, great golf at Riviera

By Art Spander

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — One day he’s getting a jump shot slammed back into his face. The next day he’s slamming putts into the cup for birdies, even an eagle. This is the world of Bubba Watson, philosopher, celebrity and, most of all, golfer.

So a few hours after, wham, Bubba found out how good the NBA players are, not that he wasn’t aware — Tracy McGrady stuffed Watson’s attempt Friday night in the Celeb All-Star game at Staples Center — we found out how good Watson was in his chosen profession. Not that we weren’t aware.

Bubba has won the Masters, not once but twice. Bubba has won what we knew as the Los Angeles Open but is now the Genesis Open, not once but twice. And with a one-shot lead after Saturday’s third round, he’s in excellent position to win it yet again.

“I love Los Angeles,” he could be heard telling a TV reporter. “Movie stars, basketball games, everything’s here.” Including Riviera Country Club, the home of stars, where Watson shot a six-under-par 65 on Day Three of the Genesis for a 10-under total of 68-70-65—205.

That gave him a one-shot lead over Patrick Cantlay, who had a 69 for 204. Tied for third at 205 are Cameron Smith, who shot a 65; Kevin Na, who shot 67; Tony Finau, 68; and Graeme McDowell, 70. The big guy who won last year, who’s No. 1 in the world rankings, who supposedly had no chance after 36 holes, Dustin Johnson, shot 64 and is at 207.

Bubba, unlike Phil Mickelson (who’s at 208 after a 67) or Ted Potter (who won last week at Pebble but missed the cut this week) is a lefthander who plays lefthanded. He’s also a self-taught golfer — not a lot of golf academies in Bagdad, Fla., and probably not in Baghdad, Iraq, either — who obviously is an excellent athlete. And fine observer.

When someone wondered about the ebbs and flows of the game, Watson, 39, whose last PGA Tour victory was right here in 2016 (the event then was known as the Northern Trust), had a ready answer.

“When you’re talking about this level, these great players, the PGA Tour’s the best in the world," he said. "Look at the guy who won last week (Potter). He can hang with anybody on a given day.

“Did he make the cut here? No? OK. There you go. So he missed the cut. I don’t check leaderboards unless I’m on top. So I’ll check it tonight. Snapchat that!”

Tour players travel, physically (on to another tournament) and mentally.

“Y’all move on quickly,” said Watson, “and we’re still trying to hang onto our trophy. Every week is a new golf tournament. We don’t ever have a break on the PGA Tour anymore. So you don’t have time to keep living the dream and have that three-month break where you can celebrate your victory.”

What Watson celebrated in the sunshine at Riviera — “This golf course stood the test of time,” he reminded about a place unchanged in some 90 years — was his start Saturday. He powered his second shot to within inches of the hole on the 503-yard par-five first.

“It calms you down real fast when you tap in for an eagle.”

A tap-in Saturday but Friday night, among singers (Justin Bieber) and retired NBA players (McGrady was one) in one of the additions to the NBA's All-Star weekend, no tip-ins. And a rude bit of reality.

“We just ran up and down the court,” said Watson of his basketball action. He had played in the game previously. “Some guys wanted to be MVP, so I was trying to pass it and let them have their fun and their moment. I was trying not to get hurt.”

Watson made two free throws, so he didn’t go scoreless.

“I’ll go ahead and say it,” he advised. “When I saw Tracy McGrady come at me, all I thought about was — when bad golfers stand on the tee and they see water to the right, where does the ball go? Way to the left.

“So when I saw him, all I saw was this is my moment to get hurt; this big tank was about to hit me. And I was like, just knock it into the stands. He didn’t touch me, so it was good.”

As was Saturday’s round at Riviera. Swish!


Tiger does nothing right and too much wrong

By Art Spander

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — This wasn’t progress. This was regress. This was agony. This was Tiger Woods making bogies with the consistency he once made birdies and making us wonder, really, if he’ll ever be a shadow of the man who once owned golf.

Here at Riviera Country Club, where legends played, where Ben Hogan and Tom Watson won, where Humphrey Bogart and Dean Martin belonged. Where at 17 Tiger made his debut in a pro tournament.

Where Friday, in the second round of the Genesis Open, neé the Los Angeles Open, Woods figuratively couldn’t do a thing right and did far too much wrong.

A beautiful day in southern California, sunshine, blue skies. A beautiful day unless you were Tiger Woods — who grew up nearby — or his faithful fans, who hadn’t given up hope but, after his second round in the Genesis, may change their minds.

Woods shot a five-over par 76. He had eight bogies — six in a stretch of eight holes, the sixth through the 13th— and only three bogies. He finished with a 36-hole total of 148, six over par and four above the cut line.

The final two rounds of the Genesis will be played without Tiger, who in his post-round comments only emphasized the obvious, saying, “I didn’t really play that well today.” No, he didn’t.

Yes, it was only 18 holes out of a wonderful career, and he missed weeks because of his back injury before coming back at the end of 2016. But it was a sad exhibition, one reminiscent of the performances of Willie Mays and Joe Namath, Hall of Famers, near the end of their playing days.

Golf isn’t baseball or football. You can play seemingly forever. But rare is the person who can continue to play well. Woods is 42, a critical age, especially for someone attempting a comeback. He said his body at least is healthy, pain-free. But the years might prove insurmountable.

Woods was 13 shots behind the tri-leaders, Patrick Cantlay, the one-time UCLA star; Graeme McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach; and Sam Saunders, who is Arnold Palmer’s grandson. They’ll have to be the attractions for the final two rounds.

Tiger? He announced Thursday he would enter next week’s Honda Classic, when the PGA Tour shifts from the West Coast to Florida and maybe Woods will advance. Or maybe he won’t.

“I missed every tee shot, and I did not putt well,” Woods said about Friday. “Didn’t feel very good on the greens and consequently never made a run. I knew I had to make a run on the back side, and I went the other way.”

He’s not tournament-ready. Practicing at home in Florida is different than competing in an event in California. Two weeks ago, to his credit, Woods finished 23rd at the Farmers Open in San Diego. But he had won there eight times over years. Riviera is one of the few courses he’s played frequently where he’s never won.

“The game speed amped up is so different from playing at home," he said. "I’ve got to play more tournaments.”

And spend more time playing them. The Genesis was only the 17th tournament in which he failed to make the cut in a pro career that started in 1997, but for a while he went months without missing a cut.

“One of the hallmarks of my whole career is I’ve always hit the ball high with my iron shots, and I have not done that" Woods said. "I think the whole week has been very successful for (the Tiger Woods) foundation, as a tournament.

“Unfortunately I’m just not able to play on the weekend.”

Unfortunate for him. Unfortunate for the Genesis. Unfortunate for CBS-TV, which would have had big ratings with Tiger on the tube. People are curious anytime he plays.

“I haven’t played golf in years,” said Woods. “I’m starting to come back, and it’s going to take a little time.”

Or perhaps more time than he has.


Tiger needs something impressive to make cut

By Art Spander

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — The old Tiger, meaning when he was the young Tiger, had his bad shots, the ones that clattered in the trees — like his ball Thursday at the 11th hole at Riviera — or buried in the rough. But more often than not, he also had his miracle shots.

Hey, you don’t win 14 majors and 79 tournaments overall if you can’t pull rabbits out of hats, or more specifically turn bogies into birdies.

But this Tiger no longer is young. Or as agile. Or, so far, as competitive. This Tiger keeps trying to wake up the echoes, then leaves us — and himself — with explanations instead of positive results.

He wasn’t terrible in the opening round of the 2018 Genesis Open (yes, it once was the L.A. Open). Except on the 11th, his second hole of the day, when (you’ve read this before) he hit one dead right off the tee, then (you haven’t read this before) lost the ball among the eucalyptus and, whap, had a double-bogey seven.

After starting with a birdie three on the risk-reward 10th hole, which is short (315 yards) and perplexing (do you try to drive it or lay up?).

All three members of their elite threesome, Woods, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, had birdies. But 17 holes later, Thomas had a two-under 69, McIlroy an even par 71 and Woods a one-over 72.

That left him six shots back of Patrick Cantlay and Tony Finau, which after 18 holes is not that important. But Tiger also is one above the early cut line, which is that important. He needs something impressive Friday, say a 68 or 69, to play the last two rounds.

There’s an understanding. This Tiger is 42 (or 19 years older than Thomas, who in 2017 was Player of the Year). This Tiger is returning after years of back pain and several surgeries. This Tiger finds success as much in progress as he does in his standing on the scoreboard.

Maybe Woods will win again — although probably not this week, thus remaining without a victory at Riviera, the wonderful course in a coastal canyon a mile or so from Santa Monica. Maybe Woods never will win again.

Someone post-round asked Thomas how he compared this Tiger with the earlier Tiger, the one who crushed everybody within putting distance.

“I’ve never seen (the other Tiger), so it’s hard for me to say,” Thomas explained. “I would say he’s pretty good. He’s obviously not driving it well. He’s not hitting the shots that he wants. He got it around one-over.

“So I think when he was playing (a lot) and not on all the time off, (Thursday’s round) could have been one or two under.”

Could have. But wasn’t. And we have to wonder whether it ever will be. Now he’s the old champion, facing the new champs. They have their rotten days now and then — last year’s winner, Dustin Johnson, the world's No. 1, triple-bogeyed the fifth hole — but more often than not, they have their brilliant days.

Days that Woods had for more than a decade. Days gone by.

Woods’ card on Thursday was a portrait of erratic golf, five birdies, four bogies and that triple bogey.

“I made really silly bogies out there,” was the Woods assessment of his round. “But overall I thought I hung in there well and grinded.” (That’s golfing vernacular for finding a ball and hitting it again. And again).

And trying to persuade yourself there’s a reason to smile.

“No one’s low out there,” he said, which is accurate only if you don’t consider four-under a low score. ”It’s too hard. The greens are getting a little bouncy (because of the poa annua grass on coastal courses). Those short ones are not easy.”

Naturally, as all golfers are, Woods is optimistic.

“I’m not that far off to really putting some good numbers out there,” he said. “If I can just clean up my card, I can start making my way up the board.”

If he can clean up his card.


The Athletic: Tiger Woods still believes, but can he rediscover 'winning time'?

By Art Spander
The Athletic

PACIFIC PALISADES — He continues to believe, which is understandable, because if Tiger Woods deep down didn’t think he could roll back the years and come back from those months of back pain and inactivity, then how could we believe in Tiger Woods?

Which some do. And a great many don’t.

Woods has returned to Riviera Country Club, classic, historic Riviera, where Humphrey Bogart belonged, where Ben Hogan won, where a teenage Tiger in 1992 played in a pro tournament for the first time. And where Woods never had much success, even in his dominant years.

The Hollywood fantasy lives large at Riviera, with photos on the walls inside the huge Spanish-style clubhouse of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Dean Martin — a longtime member — and Jerry Lewis, Clark Gable and Bing Crosby. Myth and reality and tales of Howard Hughes leaving the club because the pro told him he never would be the best golfer in the land.

That’s what Woods used to be. Not just the country, the world. Now, preparing for the Genesis Open, long ago called simply the Los Angeles Open, which begins Thursday at Riviera, Tiger is a man trying to regain the brilliance.

Is he fooling himself? They say you don’t lose greatness, but as months and years creep by, you lose flexibility, lose concentration. Woods says his two children are what’s important in his life. “Priorities change,” was a reminder nobody really needed.

That saying, “You can’t go home again,” is so full of meaning for Woods, who, having grown up maybe 25 miles away, is allowed to think of Riviera and the tournament, L.A. Open or Genesis, as sort of a home — one in which he never got quite comfortable. A second place was his best finish before he stopped entering 12 years ago.

“I love the course,” Woods said Tuesday. “For some reason I didn’t play it well.”

Two weeks ago, down the coast in San Diego, Woods tied for 23rd at the Farmers Insurance Open while playing in a PGA Tour event for the first time in a year. The back that required one surgical technique after another passed a test. And yet?

Golfers last longer in their sport than most athletes do in other sports, an advantage and a disadvantage because suddenly you’re facing the young golfer you used to be.

For the first rounds of the Genesis, Woods is grouped with Rory McIlroy, who is 28, and with Justin Thomas, who is 23.

“I made my debut here in ’92,” Woods said. “I flew out with Justin. He said that was a year before he was born. I’m sorry, but that really put things into perspective fast.”

To McIlroy, winner of four majors, and Thomas, winner of one, last year’s PGA Championship, Woods has been an example, an idol, even an advisor.

“I think now they’re starting to see me as a competitor,” Woods said.

But how much of one?

Surely one of the reasons Woods chose to return to Riviera and the Genesis is the involvement in his foundation, emphasizing education. One scholarship winner asked, “Who’s Tiger Woods?”

“That doesn’t bother me at all,” Woods said.

What does bother him is not winning a Tour event in five years. There’s impatience, although he said it’s tempered by the unavoidable fact his body wouldn’t allow him to take a cut at a golf ball for weeks.

“I’ve been away from the game for a very long time,” he said when asked about expectations, ours as much as his. “I’ve got a lot of room for improvement and a long way to go.”

At San Diego, some of his drives were crooked. He said he spent a week making corrections. Champions do not concede, and as the winner of 79 tournaments, 14 of them majors, Woods unquestionably has been a champion.

“I’d like to win some tournaments,” Woods said. “Jjust like not to feel sore, to play all-out again with …  three days off.”

He's not yet ready to commit to playing in back-to-back tournaments, even with next week's Honda Classic near his home in Florida.

“It would be a great sign if I do play,” Woods said. “It would be a smart sign if I didn’t play. How about that? Does that dance pretty good?’

It dances elusively, even if his thought is direct.

“It’s winning time,” he said.

When hasn’t it been? For Woods or any other pro?

©2018 The Athletic Media Company. All rights reserved.




Ted Potter beats Dustin — and everyone else at the AT&T

By Art Spander

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Ted Potter is what happens to golf. Which is the great thing about the game. Or, if you’re hoping for a winner who is famous, even familiar, conversely one of the problems.

It doesn’t matter if Potter isn’t one of those handsome young guys like Jordan Spieth or Dustin Johnson. Or one of those famous older guys like Phil Mickelson. He beat everyone, including Spieth, Johnson and Mickelson, to take the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

Well, in a way it does matter, because golf, a sport without team loyalty as is tennis, needs instantly recognizable champions, so that those peripherally interested in the game won’t look up and ask, “Who’s he?”

Potter is a portly 34-year-old with thinning hair. You won’t be seeing him in any commercials. But after his three-shot victory Sunday, worth virtually $1.3 million, you will be seeing him high on the money list and, no less significantly, in the field of the Masters in three months.

You’d have thought Johnson, the world's No. 1, a two-time AT&T winner, would be the champion. He began the last round at Pebble Beach tied with Potter at 14 under par, and after two holes he had a one-shot lead.

But Dustin was the one who was stagnant, with a total of four bogies and four birdies, for a 72, while Potter, after a bogey on the first hole, made four birdies and no bogies over the next 17 holes for a 69.

That gave him a 72-hole total of 17-under 270. (Pebble and Spyglass Hill are par 72; the third course in the rotation, where Potter shot 62 Saturday, is Monterey Peninsula, par 71).

Tied for second at 273 were the 47-year-old Mickelson, who shot 67; Chez Reavie, 68; Day, 70, and Johnson. 

Potter, who turned pro out of high school in Florida, probably needed the victory more than Dustin and Phil, or Spieth and Day, major winners all. Nearly four years ago, in July 2014, after missing the cut in the Canadian Open, Potter, flip-flops on his feet, slipped off a curb near his Montreal hotel and broke his right ankle.

He was off the Tour for three years. Even at the AT&T, he entered as a Tour member and was unsure of getting into the coming week’s Genesis Open at Riviera in Southern California. But now he’s fully exempt, if still not fully known — by the public or some of his fellow competitors.

“There’s a lot of new guys I haven’t met in the last couple of years,” he conceded. ”It’s still an individual game.”

A game in which Potter, who six years ago won his only other Tour event, the 2012 Greenbrier Classic, struggled after his injury, at one point missing 24 cuts in a row. But fellow pro Russell Knox has said Potter is the most talented player he’s ever battled.

Talented, yes, but as Potter admits, a trifle lackadaisical. “I’ve never been a hard worker, I guess,” he said. “I mean, I’m probably better than I think I am.”

He and Johnson were in the final group Sunday, and even if it wasn’t match play there was a feeling of head-to-head. “I had a great day today,” Potter agreed. “Dustin wasn’t, I guess, on his game.”

Johnson said as much. He thought he was prepared, but shots just flew over Pebble’s small greens. They also did for Potter, but on the short par-3 7th, the signature hole, he chipped in for a birdie. “That was one of those moments,” said Potter, who hadn’t had many of late.

Mickelson, a four-time AT&T winner, made a strong run, an indication that although he doesn’t have a victory since the 2015 British Open, Phil might break through again.

“I’ve played similarly all four weeks,” Mickelson said of his rounds this year. “I’ve had much better results the last two weeks (he tied for fifth at the Waste Management Phoenix Open). I’m going to try and take the momentum and carry it to Riviera.”

As is Ted Potter, a Mr. Nobody who now very much is somebody.