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10:54PM

Only one Tiger Woods

By Art Spander

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — It’s always been this way, hasn’t it, a world of stardom — in sports, the theater, even academics. Pavarotti was bigger than any opera in which he appeared.

In golf, it was Tiger Woods. In golf, it still is Tiger Woods.

He earned the recognition, certainly, as did Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. And yet, one could argue, the sport these days belongs to Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy.

What’s Tiger done lately, other than being Tiger?

You mean that isn’t enough? Then you don’t understand television. Or newspapers. Or tournament golf. Or celebrity.

Is it fair that ESPN spends so much time on Tiger when, say, he’s in 14th place going into the final round?

Short answer: No. Next question.

So far, heading into this 118th U.S. Open, which starts Thursday at Shinnecock Hills, the stories that haven’t been about Phil Mickelson, runner-up six times but no wins, or about Jordan Spieth, in a putting slump, have been about Woods.

About his return to the Open after missing the last three with his back problems; about the fact it’s been a decade since his last Open (and major) victory, 2008 at Torrey Pines; about his wonderful iron play and erratic putting.

In the NBA, it’s LeBron James, even though Steph Curry and Kevin Durant win titles. In the NFL, it’s Tom Brady, who does win titles. And in tennis it’s Serena Williams, who wins everything and even consents to having a documentary, “Being Serena,” made of her life and game.

Tiger is 42 and hasn’t won a PGA-sanctioned event for five years. And that makes him even more interesting. Can he still do it? Probably; you don’t lose greatness — and if so, when?

This is the last year of Woods’ U.S. Open exemption, an item that’s irrelevant. Somehow, knowing sponsors want a bang for their bucks, meaning good TV ratings, Tiger will be in the field for 2019 — at Pebble Beach, where Woods won in 2000.

For the first years of his career, after he left Stanford, turned pro and turned the game upside down and inside out, winning four majors in succession, breaking records, it was about Tiger’s golf. Then, beginning with the disclosures of infidelity, it became about Tiger’s life, the kids, the back surgeries, the recovery periods, the arrest for a DUI when he was on pain killers.

For nearly a quarter century he’s been on the course and in the headlines, captivating the purists, fascinating the curious, someone whose blend of ethnic background in an almost entirely Caucasian sport and virtually unmatched record of achievement made him unique.

And the manner in which he gained his last major, on a painfully injured knee that had him grimacing as he walked toward that ’08 Open, needing 91 holes to edge Rocco Mediate, was heroic stuff.

There’s been no one like Tiger, and while it’s dangerous to make such a prediction, surely there will never be anyone like Tiger.

So what he accomplishes from now on or fails to accomplish cannot be minimized. He’s not the best golfer these days; he remains the best story any day.

Change is inevitable in sports. Athletes grow older and decline, and while there always will be replacements, people who can hit as far, run as fast, the dynamic may be different.

Not too long ago, when Tiger was struggling, the thought — guilty, your honor — was that Rory McIlroy would be the new Tiger. Didn’t they make commercials together? Didn’t Rory win a few majors?

McIlroy is a fine golfer. So is Spieth. So are Patrick Reed, Jason Day and the others who are champions. What we have come to realize is they are not Tiger Woods. They don’t, as the cliché goes, move the needle.

The guess is that more people are wondering what Woods will do in this U.S. Open than anyone else in the field, wondering if he can find the touch with the putter that helped him to 14 major victories, four behind Nicklaus. 

“In a major,” said Woods about the Open, “the mistakes are magnified, as they should be. I’m looking forward to having the opportunity and having the challenge. Whether there’s any extra pressure, I think that’s just natural there would be.

“I mean, it’s a major championship. There’s only four of these a year.”

And in golf, only one Tiger Woods.

9:17AM

Newsday (N.Y.): Tiger Woods disappointed he’s not getting the job done at Masters

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was an exciting few weeks leading to this Masters, calling down echoes, believing — maybe the proper word is hoping — that Tiger Woods at 42 would contend again in a tournament like he did when he was younger.

Out of nowhere he was the betting favorite — memory sometimes overwhelms reality — and mainly because of Woods’ presence in the field for the first time since 2015.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2018 Newsday. All rights reserved. 

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.