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10:43PM

No fun for most on a tough day at the Masters

By Art Spander

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tony Lema, a San Leandro kid whose brief life provided both success in and insight into golf, told us that the difference between the Masters and the U.S. Open is the difference between fun and fear.

Yes, the Open, with its narrow fairways and heavy rough, can be punishing. But the men who flailed around Augusta National on Friday in the second round of the 2018 Masters may have a definition of fun that is not quite the same as Lema’s.

Phil Mickelson, believing he had resurrected his game and his chances, had a triple bogey at nine, a double bogey at 12 and shot 79, seven over par. “Yeah,” said Mickelson, “it was a rough day.“

Tiger Woods had a double bogey and shot 75, three over. “I hit my irons awful today,” said Woods, who at least made the cut — as did Mickelson. “So many beautiful putts, but nothing went in today. Didn’t control distances, shapes or anything.”

Jordan Spieth, the overnight leader, started double bogey, bogey and then managed to shoot 74. “I just had two really bad tee shots the first two holes,” said Spieth, “and then the course was very difficult today.”

Not for Patrick Reed. He shot a 66 and is at 135, two shots in the lead. Or Marc Leishman, a 67 for 137. But for almost everyone else, Augusta, with a slight breeze and challenging pin positions, was a struggle.

Which, of course, is proper for a major championship. Otherwise it’s not a major. But there was that idea, endorsed by Lema, that with its wide fairways, the Masters was enjoyable. It has been for Reed. It hasn’t been for Matt Kuchar, who shot a 75 Friday and explained, “It was a very, very hard day.”

Mickelson and Woods have won multiple Masters. Spieth has a single victory. But all the course knowledge and fine play doesn’t mean much when a shot smacks a tree, as did Mickelson’s on nine, or flies into the bushes, as did Tiger’s on five.

Matt Kuchar, with a 38 on the back nine (forgive me, Masters Gods, for not calling it the “second nine”), was visibly frustrated after a three-putt at 18 and a 75 for 143. “It was a very hard day,” he agreed. “I thought I hit a bunch of real good shots and walked away with a bogey, which is part of how it works here.”

How it works here, there and everywhere, is if you hit a perfect tee shot, a perfect approach and then a perfect putt, you probably make birdie. Probably, because as every golfer, pro to hacker, knows full well, an erratic bounce or a gust of wind may spoil all the apparent perfection.

And while it’s hard to accept when you’re the one in the vise, it’s sometimes refreshing when you’re just watching. “It’s one of those days,” said Kuchar, who finished early on, “where I’m kind of anxious to kick my feet up in the house and watch the guys deal with it the rest of the afternoon.”

Please, Matt, didn’t you ever read that advice in the spectator guide from Bobby Jones, the Augusta founder, that we’re not supposed to cheer the mistakes and misfortunes of the competitor?

“It was tough from the get-go,” said Kuchar. “It was never comfortable. I think this place keeps you on edge because of the fact on almost every hole, the line between birdie and bogey is so fine.”

“You either have to be sharp,” he said, “or you really have to be clean. I felt I was doing a whole lot of scrambling, and for the most part I was getting away with scrambling pretty well.”

Mickelson didn’t get away with it.

“There’s a disappointment between wanting it so bad and then also letting it kind of happen,” said the 47-year-old Mickelson. “As you get older, you feel a little bit more pressure with each one. I thought this was a great year, a great opportunity.”

It was, but on a tough day, he couldn’t do much with that opportunity.

9:34PM

Masters: Tiger’s back, Sergio’s shocked

By Art Spander

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Just one of those things. A song title from Cole Porter about a flamed-out romance. An observation from Sergio Garcia about a round of golf so painfully flamed out — he is the defending champion, is he not? — it almost made us forget about the over-hyped return to the Masters of Tiger Woods.

Almost.

You were aware, certainly, that Mr. Woods, after an absence of three years, is once more in the Masters, literally if not exactly after an opening round 1-over-par 73 Thursday, back in contention — although as he resolutely reminded, “it’s a bunched leader board.”

Is it fair to say that seven shots behind this era’s Tiger, young Jordan Spieth, and in a tie for 29th Tiger is not exactly in the bunch?

No matter. With 54 holes remaining at a tournament he has won four times, and the first major of the year, we can say anything — and Woods can disprove anything and everything.

Except that he failed to take advantage of the par-fives, the holes that in his glory years were responsible for his success because of repetitive birdies. He had nothing but pars on those four holes Thursday.

Garcia could only wish that had been his situation. Alas, on the 15th, the 530-yard hole so many of those at or near the top did birdie — Spieth, Tony Finau, Matt Kuchar, Henrik Stenson, and Rory McIlroy — Garcia made 13.

That was eight over par. That matched the highest score ever on any single hole in any Masters, and this is the 82nd.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Sergio told us. He knocked five balls into the pond in front of the 15th green, the last four hitting the green and then trickling back down a very slippery slope.

“It was just one of those things,” he said. “It’s the first time in my career where I make a 13 without missing a shot.”

Tom Weiskopf made a 13 on the par-3 12th in 1980 (five balls into Rae’s Creek). Tommy Nakajima made a 13 on the par-5 13th (balls behind trees, into Rae’s Creek). When someone that day asked Nakajima if he lost confidence, he responded, “No, I lose count.”

What counted for many was Tiger’s presence.

Sure, he hadn’t played a Masters since 2015. Sure, he holds the Masters scoring record. Sure, there seemed to be more anticipation and excitement for this 2018 Masters than for others of late. But how much publicity is too much?

Tiger was mentioned in 130 pre-tournament interviews with players other than Tiger.

ESPN, televising the Thursday and Friday rounds, had a Masters preview Wednesday night that mentioned only Tiger’s chances.

It was as if he was the lone golfer entered.

But, we learned quickly enough, there was Sergio, who would shoot a 9-over 81 (which isn’t bad when you go 8-over on one hole) and there was Jordan, the 2015 winner, who shot a 6-under 66.

What we learned about Tiger, in his return, is that despite the scandal of ’09, he’s still wildly popular — “The people were incredible,” he said of the boisterous galleries — and he’s still wild with some of his shots.

“I hit it better than I scored,” was the Woods analysis, a frequent explanation. He had five bogies and four birdies, two of the birdies at 14 and 16, neither of which is an easy hole.

He saw a reason to be satisfied, even if over par.

“Seventy-three is fine,” said Woods. It is? While over the years Tiger has started slowly at Augusta, he’s now 42 years old and hasn’t won a Masters since 2005.

And yet, he was back.

“Yes, I played in a major championship again,’” Woods said, “but also the fact I was — I got my myself back in the tournament, and I could have easily let it slip away. And I fought hard to get back in there, and I’m back in this championship. There’s a lot of holes to be played.”

Indeed, but the issue is how will he play them?

One bad swing or bad break and, well, as Sergio knows too well, one of those things can happen all too quickly.

8:33AM

Serena, Venus and Tiger — sport can’t go wrong

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Murphy’s Law? The contrived one that says anything that can go wrong will go wrong? It’s been drop-kicked out of site. Or rolled into the cup for a birdie. Or maybe served into the back court for an ace. If you’re running a sporting event this weekend, everything is going right.

College basketball needs no help, certainly. March Madness has arrived with the conference championships and then Selection Sunday. But it’s the individual sports that get buried this time of year. Unless...

Unless out of nowhere Serena Williams, in her comeback, has to play sister Venus in a third-round match of the BNP Paribas tournament. Unless Tiger Woods, in his comeback, enters the final round of the Valspar Championship a shot out of the lead.

This is a TV producer’s dream. Who doesn’t care? Who won’t watch? It’s as if we stepped back into time, when all you knew about golf was Tiger or about tennis the Williams sisters. A distant replay brought into 2018.

Never mind the purists. The late team owner and promoter Bill Veeck said if he had to depend on baseball fans for his financial support he’d be out of business by Mother’s Day. It’s the fringe crowd that makes our games what they are, who drive up the Nielsen ratings.

Can Venus, who will be 38 in June, knock off younger sister Serena, who’s returned to the game after what amounted to a 14-month maternity leave? Can Tiger, who missed the better part of two years with back troubles, earn a PGA Tour victory for the first time in four and a half years?

One event, the golf, is at Palm Harbor, Florida; the other, the tennis, is next door to Palm Desert, California, where the action Saturday night was delayed when rain moved in from Los Angeles, 125 miles away.

Venus, who hasn’t won this year — she was eliminated in the first round of the Australian Open — was first on Stadium Court One, defeating Sorana Cirstea of Romania, 6-3, 6-4, and was very unemotional about the victory, especially when someone pointed out that she could meet Serena — which she will after Serena’s 7-6 (5), 7-5 victory over Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands.

Yes, the irony of a Williams-Williams match at Indian Wells was unavoidable. In 2001, when they were supposed to play each other in a semifinal here, Venus withdrew four minutes before the match was to begin. The next day, when Serena faced Kim Clijsters in the final, the crowd booed her. Father Richard Williams said the booing was racist. Neither Williams returned to Indian Wells until Serena ended the boycott in 2015.

“I literally didn't even think about it,” said Serena, who is 36, and of course, as the world knows, mother of a seven-month-old daughter. “That's, you know, totally gone out of my mind. First of all, 17 years ago seems like forever ago. Yikes.

“I wish it were a little bit later (in the tournament) but just happy to still be in the tournament at this point. I would prefer to play someone else, anybody else, literally anybody else, but it has to happen now. So it is what it is.”

Which happens to be a popular phrase of Tiger Woods.

Venus always has been the more structured, more protective of the Williams sisters. And, just like Tiger, her interviews are not particularly newsworthy. Asked her mindset if indeed she was to play Serena, Venus said, “She’s playing really well and just honing her game.”

Even though at the time Serena had played only one match, two days earlier, since winning the Australian Open in January 2017 — her 23rd Grand Slam victory.

“Obviously I have to play better than her,” said Venus, “and see how the match goes.” The way the other 28 official matches between them have gone is 17 wins for Serena, 11 for Venus. From the 2002 French through 2003 Australian, they met in four straight Grand Slam finals, Serena winning all four.

The way the Williamses dominated women’s tennis was the way Tiger Woods, 79 victories, 14 majors, dominated men’s golf. They were the ones who kept us paying attention. On the weekend the clocks move forward — but golf and tennis, in a sense, have gone backward.

 

8:24AM

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.

9:11PM

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.