Tour and News

PGA Tour Confidential: The Bridgestone Invitational

Tiger Woods
Carlos M. Saavedra/SI
Tiger Woods tied for 78th place at Firestone, the highest finish of his PGA Tour career.

Every week of the 2010 PGA Tour season, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group will conduct an e-mail roundtable. Check in on Mondays for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

IS THIS THE END OF TIGER FOR 2010?
Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: What is there to say about Tiger Woods? There were at least some positive signs in his last two appearances, but this was a disaster from start to finish. Even though it seems obvious he'll continue to play, is Tiger basically done for 2010?

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: Tiger will play the PGA and the Barclays and call it a year. His confidence has to be completely and totally shot after this week, and Whistling Straits and leafy Ridgewood Country Club are not the best places to suddenly find your game. He'll be back some day, but it'll be 2011 at the earliest.

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: I predicted Tiger would win at Firestone, so what do I know, but it looks as if Woods is heading south, and he may not have bottomed out yet. I look for a struggle the rest of the way this season.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I believe Tiger just dropped to No. 119 on the FedEx list. He might not get into the Barclays. Tiger looked as if he's mentally checked out, maybe for the year. Sergio Garcia said he's taking two months off after the PGA Championship. I won't be surprised if Tiger does something similar. In his case, though, I'm predicting that he'll claim a mysterious and previously unmentioned injury that will preclude him playing in the Ryder Cup and, if he qualifies, maybe even the FedEx Cup. It's about saving face and re-grouping out of the spotlight. Which he can totally do.

Rick Lipsey, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Rare is the golfer who gets to the top, totally loses his game and gets it back. There's A LOT more roadkill than there are players who've rebounded back to the top.

Gorant: True, but Tiger's been through other droughts, notably when he changed teachers (which he just did), and he's come back to dominate again. Plus, he certainly has some things going on in his life right now that are not conducive to playing good golf. This is not like Ian Baker Finch losing his swing.

Herre: A swing change is one thing, a life change is another. Plus, Woods never looked this bad when he was tweaking his swing. He looks like a different player, especially on the greens.

Van Sickle: For Tiger to play this bad, it can't be just physical. It's mental. Chipping and putting require focus and concentration. He didn't have either this week.

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: Tiger can't putt or chip, and worst of all he can't hit it close with his scoring clubs. Yesterday I saw him fan an 8-iron from the middle of the fairway. You can only get progressively worse as he did this week when you don't know how to improve. He's got to get some help from a swing instructor.

HANK IS GONE. IS STEVIE NEXT?
Gorant: Someone pointed out to me this week that Tiger and his caddie Stevie Williams hardly seem to speak on the course, and at times Stevie would simply tilt the bag toward Tiger and stand back, indicating that Tiger was doing his own distances and club selections. Is this part of the problem?

Morfit: No, I don't think that's part of the problem. I think that's an unspoken realization that the way Tiger's playing the game, they're not going to stand around parsing the difference between a 180-yard, hard 8-iron and a 180-yard, baby 7-iron. When you're playing this bad, and this far behind, the goal is just to hit the ball on the club face and keep it between the trees.

Evans: Tiger has always pulled his own clubs. He knows what he wants to hit. He and Steve have never had the kind of chemistry that Phil and Bones display on the course. It's not in his nature to talk stuff to death with people. That was the special thing that he had with his dad. Steve is more protector than anything so I wouldn't put much stock into what you see from them on the course.

Lipsey: Wouldn't be surprised if Stevie gets axed soon. You can't fire yourself, so golfers usually fire those around them, notably teachers, agents and caddies, to look for a fresh start.

Van Sickle: You know how it is when things go bad — blame the caddie, the coach (he's already gone) and anyone else.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I think Stevie was just trying to avoid getting whacked by an 8-iron after another slice or pull hook.

WILL TIGER PLAY IN RYDER CUP?
Gorant: You're Team USA captain Corey Pavin. Tiger doesn't snap out of it over the next few weeks. Do you take him as a Ryder Cup captain's pick anyway?

Herre: No.

David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: I wouldn't take him.

Lipsey: I'd leave that decision up to Tiger. I'd ask him point blank if he thinks he'll help the team. If he says yes, I'd take him. Tiger would give Pavin the right answer and live up to his word.

Hack: Nope. I tell Tiger to root for the team from home. He's not playing well enough. Can't see Tiger enjoying all those player/wife functions, either.

Morfit: It takes a lot more bravery now to pick Tiger than to leave him off the team. That's never been the case before. I wouldn't pick him.

Gorant: Tiger said Sunday that if he doesn't get better he shouldn't be part of it. He seemed to be setting the stage to bail for exactly that reason, no excuses or explanations given.

Evans: Azinger won the cup without Tiger, and Pavin can do the same, but the fallout from a healthy Tiger sitting back home in the U.S. could overshadow the whole event.

Van Sickle: That's why Tiger can't take a pass on the Ryder Cup by simply saying he's playing poorly. There will be too much fallout and people will read other things into his absence. Hence my previous prediction of a mysterious "injury." Of course, Tiger may magically scrape together a third fourth-place finish in a major next week and become a logical candidate for a pick. Don't expect it, but it could happen.

Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: I would love to listen in on the call where the PGA of America explains to NBC why they left a healthy Tiger off the team.

WILL THE AMERICANS BE OVERMATCHED IN THE RYDER CUP?
Gorant: Despite the flailing American superstars, it was not a bad week for Captain Pavin. Six Americans finished in the top seven, including Hunter Mahan and Sean O'Hair. Ryan Palmer is an interesting guy who tends to go very low when he's on and would be great for match play. Is there hope for the U.S. after all, especially considering Lee Westwood's injury?

Evans: The U.S. has a great chance of winning the Ryder Cup with a team full of rookies. I worry more about the team that's expected to win, and the Europeans will carry that weight.

Morfit: The best things that could happen for the U.S. team are as follows: Phil wins the PGA, Boo Weekley finishes tied for second with Scott Verplank and, for the second time in two PGAs at Whistling Straits, Justin Leonard. Then Steve Stricker wins his second Barclays.

Lipsey: Tiger's absence could motivate the heck out of the U.S. players and make them want to prove there's golf beyond Tiger. I'd give the U.S. a good chance without Tiger.

Herre: There's always hope, but I don't see it. The Euros will be motivated, and the Americans have been in and out all year. Plus it's a road game.

Van Sickle: Agree with Jim. Americans don't have a great chance. They have a chance, of course, but every team always does. It's too early to make a call because we still don't know who's on the team and who's hot and who's not come late September. But if I was going to wager — and I'm not — I would not plan to bet on the Americans this time around. Unlike last time, when I thought they were a lock.

Hack: Wales is to Europe what Kentucky is to the United States: passionate, rugged soil. This one could get ugly.

HAS HUNTER MAHAN MADE THE LEAP TO ELITE PLAYER?
Gorant: One guy who doesn't have to worry about a Ryder Cup captain's pick is Hunter Mahan, who assured himself a spot on the team with his win at Firestone. Once or twice a year this guy looks like he's ready to step up and become an elite level player — before fading back into the pack. What gives? Is it psychology, consistency, complacency, or that some courses suit him better than others? What do we think of Hunter this week and overall?

Hack: Love the swing, lose the shades.

Van Sickle: Mahan was one of the few contenders on the board going into Sunday who really didn't have a lot of pressure or expectations on him. He played great, they all struggled. Not unusual for top players to back up on Sunday, it happens all the time. At least one guy stepped up.

Morfit: Mahan seems pretty streaky, which I think is a result of the putter. But it's pretty big time to win at Firestone. In theory, anyway, if your game can shine around that place you can pretty much win anywhere.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: He's been a different player since hooking up with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader at the start of the year. Clearly he's discovered Hogan's secret.

Hack: Hunter's right where he's supposed to be. Three wins and a WGC at 28 in the Tiger era is about right. He's got two wins this year. Everybody isn't going to win five or six events each year like Tiger used to.

Lipsey: Mahan is an elite-level player. Golf is hard and nobody, save Tiger, plays (used to play?) great every week.

Gorant: Elite is a guy who's won a number of big events and is a consideration to win every time he tees it up (i.e. Mickelson, Harrington, etc.). No doubt everyone goes through ebbs and flows with their game, but there's a group of guys who have established themselves at the top of the Tour. Mahan is not yet one of them.

Evans: Before this week, Hunter hadn't done anything since the Masters. He's already an elite player, but not yet an every-week elite player.

Van Sickle: Give the man some credit. He made sure to get his Monster energy drink water bottle on camera when he won in Phoenix, and he did it again here while watching the finish on a monitor. Did you think he was really that thirsty? Guy got it done for his sponsor. Well bowled, sir.

Lipsey: Elite-level move there.

DOES MICKELSON WANT NO. 1 RANKING TOO MUCH?
Gorant: Let's move on to Phil Mickelson. For about two months now, it's been win and you're No. 1. Today he only needed a fourth, and after three solid rounds, he blew up. Does Phil have a mental block?

Morfit: Mickelson says he doesn't think that much about the No. 1 ranking, but of course he does. It'll be a huge relief if and when he does attain it, just to be able to say he did it, and to get people like us to stop asking him about it.

Evans: Historically, when Phil shoots himself out of a tournament he checks out mentally. I don't think it's getting to No. 1 as much as he just didn't have it on the first tee after starting the day with hopes of pushing the leaders.

Herre: Phil admitted the problem — he's rusty. Still, he played pretty well for three days. Maybe he puts four together at the Straits.

Van Sickle: Incredible to me that Phil was using the excuse that he was rusty coming in here. Well, it's the week before a major championship. Whose fault is it that you're rusty? And why would you let your game get into that position before the year's final major? I'm not buying the spin.

Morfit: Good point, Gary. I'm not, either. A guy who's making a major equipment change like the shorter, 44-inch driver has been playing and tinkering, not sitting on the couch or vacationing in Aruba.

Gorant: I agree. He hit 78 percent and 72 percent of the greens on Thursday and Friday. Doesn't sound too rusty. Those numbers plummeted as Tiger faded and he had a shot at the top spot.

Hack: It wasn't rust. It was the moment. Phil wasn't ready. Eventually, the math will push him over the top even if his golf doesn't.

Morfit: The math would probably have put Westwood over the top before Phil, since Westwood was playing better, but it'll work to Phil's advantage that Westy WD'd from the Bridgestone and will miss the PGA Championship.

Herre: Loved Phil's post-round interview with Kostis. Guy shoots a 78 and he's still gracious. Classy.

Evans: Tiger also gave a very gracious interview on Sunday.

PGA CHAMPIONSHIP PICKS
Gorant: We know Cameron's got Loius Oosthuizen, and we'll assume John Garrity wants Robert Karlsson. Who's everyone else picking for Whistling Straits this week? I'll go with Steve Stricker.

Morfit: I'm voting for Katsumasa Miyamoto, the Japanese guy who shot 62 with an orange ball on Saturday. I'd never even heard of him. Of course he backed it up with a 75. We may never hear from him again.

Van Sickle: I like King Louie, as Cameron does, because he's good in the wind and it'll probably be breezy (not necessarily windy). Have a hunch about Rickie Fowler, who didn't finish strong in Akron. Maybe Dustin Johnson.

Herre: I'm going with Padraig Harrington, who seems to be rounding into form — second at recent Irish Open, quiet top 10 at Firestone.

Hack: Stricker to win. Justin Leonard is my dark horse. After the WGC, I feel good about both.

Dusek: Paul Casey. He didn't get it done at St. Andrews on Sunday, but he's back to playing the way he did before injuring his ribs last season at Turnberry.

Walker: Rory McIlroy. After King Louie, the best story at St. Andrews was McIlroy finishing T3 after his 80 on Friday.

Lipsey: Edoardo Molinari.

Evans: As I correctly predicted for the British Open, the winner of the PGA will be a guy that nobody knows much about.

Van Sickle: Well, that's pretty specific.

Gorant: I'm glad you feel vindicated, Farrell, but you're basically taking the field, which is not exactly going out on a limb. Step up and pick a name.

Hack: As my eighth grade science teacher, Ms. Lazio, used to say, "Commit, people!"

Evans: Bo Van Pelt is the winner of the PGA Championship if he can putt better than he did today inside of 10 feet.

Tiger's game hits rock bottom with shockingly awful week at Firestone

Tiger Woods
Carlos M. Saavedra/SI
Tiger Woods finished the Bridgestone at 18 over par, the highest 72-hole score he's ever recorded as a professional.

It's impossible to chart the exact low point in the life of Tiger Woods over the last eight months. As Woods said, there were so many of them, and just when he thought it couldn't get worse, it did.

But with his shockingly awful four-day performance at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, where he'd won an unprecedented seven times, Woods practically shouted it from the trees: His game has hit bottom.

Woods shot a final-round 77 to finish 18 over and second from last among the 80 players who completed 72 holes. His new best friend? Henrik Stenson, who was 20 over and dead last.

The bright spots for Woods are these:

He didn't break any clubs (that we know of). He didn't curse on network TV, because he was done playing before CBS had a chance to come on the air. And he didn't wrap his driver around the neck of the guy who said after his 74 Thursday, "You're washed up, Tiger. Give it up."

(Smart non-move by Woods: A man's lawyers can handle only so much.)

Oh, and there was this: Phil Mickelson again failed to take Tiger's No. 1 ranking.

Needing to finish fourth at worst, Phil, who began Sunday tied for 10th place, was nine over through 14 holes and shot 78.

So Woods remains No. 1 as he heads to the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, starting Thursday, although it's debatable whether he could make the match play portion of the U.S. Amateur.

"I need to hit the ball better," he said. "I need to chip better, I need to putt better, and I need to score better."

Bridgestone does not have a cut, but in hindsight Woods probably wishes it did. If he had left town after his 74-72, he could have avoided the 75-77.

"Shooting 18 over par is not fun," he said, although he did share some lighter moments in a final-round pairing with pal and Nike stable-mate Anthony Kim, who shot 76 to finish 16 over.

"There was a lot of chatter," said Kim, who hadn't played since an operation on his thumb in early May. "We hit so many golf shots and they were all in the trees, so while we were walking in the trees together we had a lot of talking going on."

How did it come to this?

Even after his self-imposed, four-plus-month exile from the game in the wake of his Thanksgiving-night car crash, Woods showed flashes of form, finishing T4 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. He was never in contention at the British Open at St. Andrews, where he struggled with his putting, but he was encouraged by his newfound accuracy off the tee.

At Firestone he had nothing.

Was he awful? Or would it be better to say he was scattershot? How about dangerous? He was all of the above. Woods lost his tee ball so far right on 15 on Sunday that he nailed a spectator, who got a glove and a ball for his troubles.

Tiger caught it fat, hit into the water and slashed through the trees, but all too rarely did he find the cup.

"Get in the hole," he said sarcastically under his breath after one particularly risible shot earlier in the week.

The numbers painted a grim picture. Since turning pro, Woods hadn't finished worse than tied for 60th in an event in which he completed four rounds, and that was in his first start, the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open.

At Firestone, his 10 total birdies were obliterated by 22 bogeys and three doubles as he tied for 78th place with Swede Michael Jonzon.

Dead last in the field in fairways hit (22 of 56), Woods rattled around the prodigious trees at Firestone to set a new personal mark for highest score in relation to par (18 over), and his 298 total was 39 strokes worse than his tournament-record score at the 2000 Bridgestone.

He hit fewer than half the greens in regulation (35 of 72), failed to break par in any round, and his closing 77 matched his highest final-round score as a pro.

This was the kind of golf we expected from Woods at 54, not 34.

Woods needs five majors to eclipse the record 18 major championship titles held by Jack Nicklaus, but the way he's playing now, you wonder if Woods has got five more victories of any kind in him.

As Kim put it, "He's just not the regular Tiger we're used to seeing."

Sure to drop from ninth in Ryder Cup points, Woods will not make the U.S. team purely on merit barring a big week at Whistling Straits, where on Thursday and Friday he will play with Vijay Singh and 2009 champion Y.E. Yang.

Although U.S. captain Corey Pavin would previously have been considered daring for leaving Woods off the squad — Pavin gets four wild-card picks — he would now get bravery points for picking him.

Barring a good showing at the PGA or the next week's Wyndham Championship (not an event he usually plays), Woods will go to the Barclays, the first of four FedEx Cup playoff events, in danger of being cut from the remaining three.

The '09 FedEx Cup champion, he vowed to keep working on his game, which he admitted hasn't been this off since he rebuilt his swing under Butch Harmon in the late '90s. It took him two years then to rediscover his A-game.

He's older now, though. His left knee isn't as strong, and he's been battered by an unprecedented tabloid tornado. It has been, as Woods said Sunday, a long year.

"I think I can turn it around," he said, but it wasn't clear when that might be.

Arnold Palmer eventually lost his game, as did Nicklaus. Even Usain Bolt lost a 100-meter dash over the weekend.

Woods may or may not be washed up, but over four warm days in Akron, he gave us the clearest picture yet of what he'll look like when that day comes.

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Shawn Humphries
Courtesy of Shawn Humphries
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Final round at Firestone offers a preview of golf without Tiger

Ernie Els, Saturday, 2010 Bridgestone
Amy Sancetta/AP
With a win on Sunday, Ernie Els would be the only three-time winner on Tour this season.

AKRON, Ohio — Take a good look at the Bridgestone Invitational leaderboard, people. This is the future of professional golf in a Tiger-less world.

Ryan Palmer and Sean O'Hair in first place. Matt Kuchar in third. Also among those in the top 10: Ernie Els, Hunter Mahan, Justin Leonard and a Van Pelt — Bo, not Scott.

Big names? Other than Els, not really. Big talents? No question.

If the Tiger Woods spiral we're seeing this week at Firestone Country Club continues much longer, golf may have to rely on a new selling point. (Tiger shot 75 Saturday, and he's ahead of only two players.) Instead of a charismatic world-beater who wins in spectacular fashion like Tiger, or a smiling celebrity like Phil Mickelson, golf may have to rely on something new — the drama of tournament golf.

You've got 20 players within five shots of the lead at Firestone. Sunday's final round has all-world, O.K. Corral-shootout potential. Just about anyone can win. A guy named Miyamoto fired a 62 in the third round and vaulted into contention. That's Katsumasa Miyamoto, a 37-year-old Japanese player with an orange golf ball. He's tied for 10th. He could win this thing. Who doesn't love a good Cinderella story?

Also, he's got a sense of humor, which came through despite a language barrier. Asked what it's like to be back after playing the PGA Tour in 1999, Miyamoto joked, "Like Steve Stricker, I want the comeback show."

Stars have to start somewhere. They're made, not born. Even in the case of Tiger and Phil.

The Bridgestone leaderboard isn't filled with golf's sexiest names, but the truth is, Tiger and Phil have dominated for so long that they have largely precluded anyone else from becoming big names. The last time Tiger had an extended absence, Padraig Harrington stepped in and won back-to-back major championships to secure his legacy.

There is a major next week, the PGA Championship, and the Ryder Cup is on the horizon. This is a golden opportunity from someone to pull a Padraig and become a household name.

Start with Kuchar, who shot 66. He enjoyed a star turn as an amateur at the Masters. Like Mickelson, his normal expression appears to be a smile. People love that. Kuchar had some success early as a pro, then played his way onto the Nationwide Tour, and now has revamped his game with the help of teacher Chris O'Connell. Kuchar has quietly become one of the best American players on tour. He leads the PGA Tour in scoring average, is 10th in greens in regulation and ranks No. 1 in the all-around category of tour stats — a combination of all the categories.

The golf experts I've heard scoffing about Kuchar making the U.S. Ryder Cup team might want to look closer. Here's a guy who's on the verge of a breakout.

"When I was younger, I heard you're going to make 80 percent of your money in 20 percent of the tournaments, but that's never the guy I wanted to be," said Kuchar, a former star at Georgia Tech. "I wanted to be the guy who had a chance just about every week. It's been a great year. I hope to continue to improve."

Kuchar has been a BMW all week — the ultimate driving machine. On Saturday, he missed only one of 14 fairways, and that came at the first hole, where he found himself in the fringe and still made birdie. Memo to experts: Straight is hard to beat at Firestone.

Another thing to like about him is his sense of humor. Asked about suddenly playing his way into the Ryder Cup standings, he grinned and said, "I'm doing everything I can not to talk about it. It's one of those topics that is hard to avoid. Everybody is bringing it up. Thanks a lot."

Palmer won in Hawaii at the start of this year when his heavy-handed chip shot luckily banged off the flagstick for a kick-in birdie that iced the victory. He also won the defunct Ginn sur Mer Classic in 2008 and Disney in 2004. Consistency has eluded him, the 33-year-old Texan admitted, but he piled up seven birdies and no bogeys en route to a 63 on Saturday.

Palmer has played in only a handful of major championships. He's coming off a 10-week stretch in which he missed nine cuts. Part of it, he said, was due to playing with a set of irons that he only lately discovered was set up with the wrong specs. Maybe he's finally hitting his stride.

Then there is O'Hair, who has been a star waiting to happen for a couple of years. His game has always been solid, and his putting and chipping have improved. O'Hair had four birdies and an eagle and shot 64. He's brimming with quiet confidence. Maybe, just maybe, he's the man to beat Sunday. He is a three-time winner and 19th in the Ryder Cup standings, also close to making the team.

If you're picking an "All Nice Guy" team from the tour, O'Hair would be on it. He doesn't brag or have a big ego. He was asked what he's been doing to play himself into this position and answered, "Well, I've been playing solid golf for a while now. I know my game is there and I know I'm ready to win. It's a shootout tomorrow. Whoever wins is going to be ready to play and be on top of his game, and I think I'm definitely capable of doing that."

That's confidence talking. You have to like that.

There are plenty of other reasons to like what could happen Sunday. A win by Els would make him the only three-time winner this year and the new leading candidate for player of the year.

Justin Leonard, among the group tied for fourth, could be one of the favorites for next week's PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where he lost in a playoff in 2004. Leonard could also make himself a very attractive wild-card pick for the Ryder Cup.

Young Americans Hunter Mahan and Jeff Overton could make statements. Dustin Johnson, who's tied for 10th, could wipe out some of those bad memories from Pebble Beach.

Mickelson stumbled to a third-round 71. He's four shots off the lead. He loves to make Sunday charges, and he'll need one to win. If he finishes fourth or better, he'll finally claim the No. 1 ranking that has eluded him.

The potential is there for drama on Sunday. A lot is on the line. Tiger won't be part of it, but that's OK. There is more to golf than one man — if you like golf. Do you?

Tiger Woods is not making any progress with PGA Championship and Ryder Cup on the horizon

Tiger Woods, Friday, 2010 Bridgestone
Fred Vuich/SI
Tiger Woods has two top 10s in seven starts this season.

AKRON, Ohio — One word that has never been used to describe the South Course at Firestone Country Club is fun. There isn't another place on the PGA Tour, other than any U.S. Open site or possibly the Masters, where poor play is punished so severely.

The South Course has narrow, tree-lined fairways. The greens aren't huge, but those trees are. The rough is almost always lush and thick.

So maybe it's understandable that Tiger Woods doesn't appear to be enjoying himself this week at the Bridgestone Invitational. Coming to the South Course without your A game — or even your B game — is like a trip to the dentist for a root canal.

Friday didn't go any smoother than Thursday for Woods, who struggled through another difficult round. He actually struck the ball worse in the second round than he did in the first, but he scored better, pairing a two-over 72 with his opening 74. (He'll still make the weekend, as will the entire field; it's a no-cut event.)

On Thursday, Tiger had a defeated look that bordered on uninterested, and he played like it. On the opening hole, he pulled his drive into the left trees, took very little time before he blew his recovery shot into the right greenside bunker, stepped into the sand and casually played a splash shot that came up 40 feet short. He two-putted for bogey. It was reminiscent of the Quail Hollow Championship, where Tiger seemed out of sorts and missed the cut with a Friday 79, which included a back-nine 43.

He's looked like he'd rather be anywhere else than Firestone, a course that he has historically owned, winning seven times in his last nine appearances here. Woods tried to put some spin on his round Thursday when he spoke with reporters after a tough day. He spoke about how surprised he was that he hit it poorly after a good warm-up session. Observers at the range, however, said Woods hit it poorly there, too. Woods is prone to revisionist history, and this seemed another example.

Tiger seemed more determined on Friday. He sprayed the ball all over the course again but shot even-par 35 on the back nine, his opening side. It was classic Tiger in that he easily could've shot four or five over if his scrambling abilities weren't so good. A good example was the par-4 14th hole, where he sent his drive into a fairway bunker and had to play a 40-yard hook to get in the greenside bunker. He was short-sided — the pin was on the right side of the green — but he splashed the ball out to 10 feet and made the par putt like the Tiger of old.

He bogeyed the 18th, missing the fairway right, which resulted in missing the green short and left. Then he bogeyed two of the next three holes. At No. 1, he blocked a drive way right, hit into the right greenside bunker and couldn't get up and down. He parred the par-5 second despite never visiting the fairway, and another visit to the right rough cost him a bogey at the third hole, too.

Tiger hit five fairways and 11 greens in regulation in the opening round, and only three fairways and seven greens in the second round. He has yet to birdie a par-5.

This is not progress.

He hacked out of the rough at the ninth, his final hole, and couldn't reach the green in two. He pitched his third shot to 15 feet and missed the putt.

The disturbing thing about his recent play is that Woods has struggled with all parts of his game. It appeared that he found something in his swing at the British Open, where he "drove it on a string," in his words, but he struggled with his putting. For two days at Firestone, both his putting and his ballstriking have been off.

The PGA Championship is next week. It will be a tall order for Tiger to turn things around by then. He's got two more rounds to play on the weekend, two more chances to find his game, to find something, as he tries to salvage what can only be considered a lost year so far. At the moment he finished, he was at six over par and beating only five other players in the 81-man field.

The Ryder Cup? That's so far on the back burner among his pressing issues, it's no wonder he doesn't want to discuss it. The man has to find a golf swing first. And a putting stroke.

After Tiger emerged from the scoring trailer early Friday afternoon, a Tour media official, who seemed resigned to the inevitable answer, asked if Woods wanted to do a media interview. "F--- no," Woods answered, in a joking tone of voice. How about a TV interview? "F--- no," Woods repeated.

It was understandable. Firestone is a place that tests your game. It's not a place to find your game if you arrived with it in tatters. A few moments later, Woods pulled out of the player parking lot in his courtesy Lexus SUV and drove away.

Woods struggles, Watson thrives and more early lessons from Firestone

Tiger Woods
Fred Vuich/Si
Despite his struggles this season — and on Thursday — Tiger Woods is still No. 1 in the world ranking.

AKRON, Ohio — There is a feeling, maybe it's actually more of a hope, that next week's PGA Championship will define an otherwise muddled, mixed up, what-the-hell kind of a golf year.

It has been a year with no Tiger Woods. At least, not with him in any meaningful role other than in a fallen-idol, distraction kind of way. Phil Mickelson made a mark at the Masters with a memorable finish, but that seems like a long time ago and now stands like a bookend looking for its lost partner. Without looking it up, can you even name the U.S. and British Open winners? It was Graeme McDowell in a last-man-standing scenario at Pebble Beach and Louis Oosthuizen starring in a one-man-on-an-island script at St. Andrews.

There was a grooves controversy that died as fast as it arose. It's an odd thing that 59s are sprouting up as often as perfect games and no-hitters this season in Major League Baseball. It's a year in which Woods is poised to lose the No. 1 ranking, except no one has managed to step up and take it ... yet.

How to make sense of 2010 in golf? It's all up to the PGA, which makes this week's Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club interesting for perhaps a sneak preview of what we can expect, although the tree-lined fairways and smallish greens of the South Course resembled the wide-open, huge greens of Whistling Straits the way Go Fish resembles Texas Hold 'Em.

Here's what we learned from Thursday's opening round, the equivalent of a sneak preview:

Phil Mickelson lives. After a slow start, your Masters champion enjoyed a fast finish with birdies on three of the last four holes for a closing 30 and a 66. The man has been missing in action since somewhere in the middle of the back nine at Pebble Beach but he made what could be a timely reappearance.

Mickelson always has some new wrinkle he's working on. This time, he shortened his driver shaft to 44 inches but made it 20 grams heavier. "I'm obviously not going to hit it as far but I thought the ball still came off pretty hot," Mickelson said. "I wasn't displeased with how far it was going. And it went a lot straighter. My misses were inside the tree line so I always had a shot into the green. That led to a lot more aggressive iron shots."

He even displayed the Phlopping Phil magic of old, holing a lob shot from off the sixth green for an unlikely birdie. Rory McIlroy, who was paired with Mickelson, called it the best shot he's seen all year. Mickelson wasn't willing to go that far. "There were some shots at Augusta that I kind of remember a little more fondly than Thursday at Akron," he said, grinning, "but it was a good one."

The re-emergence of Mickelson, who was perceived as the tour's potential savior early in the year when Woods was in exile, might not only make this a banner year for golf but also spark a U.S. Ryder Cup team that so far looks like a huge underdog against Europe next month. But, as Phil said, it's only Thursday.

Tiger's troubles. Woods endured a long day. He started bogey-bogey and things didn't get much better after that. He found himself playing out of the trees quite a bit and again had trouble with the putter, missing most of his putts left. When he finally made a birdie putt of modest length at the 17th green, he tipped his cap and bowed in several directions as a mocking gesture to his struggles. He shot 74 and didn't look PGA-ready, at least not on this day.

He hit only five fairways, 11 greens and had 32 putts, the worst of which were a couple from inside four feet that didn't even catch a piece of the cup.

"I just didn't play well," Woods said. "I didn't get off to a good start and those first two are easy holes. From then on, I didn't hit any good putts and I hit only two good iron shots all day. That's not enough. I did not execute the shots today."

Hanging with Chad. You may remember Chad Campbell as an ex-Ryder Cupper, and a slow-talking and very polite Texan who plays brilliant golf from time to time. He shot 67 in the opening round and suddenly was slinging one-liners. Asked about European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie saying that he could fill two strong teams for the matches, Campbell quipped, "But you only play with one, don't you?"

Then, when Campbell was asked how big his family is now, he replied, "Weight-wise?" No, population-wise. The answer, he said, is that he and his wife have a growing brood of three boys. "They drive you crazy at times but then you get out here for a day and you miss them," he said. "It's been awesome."

Left hand down under. Adam Scott, wielding the putter with a cross-handed grip that he began using in Hartford, had a good start. He shot a bogey-free 4-under 66 and tied for second. "I was struggling the other way and I think, technically, this is a good stroke for me," he said. "It feels good so I'm sticking with it."

The other Watson. It was Bubba, not Tom, who grabbed the first-round lead with a 64. He had a great moment on Golf Channel afterwards, saying his only goal this week was to make the cut. Told that there is no cut this week, Watson answered, "Then that's perfect — I made it!'

Watson went off on the back nine and reeled off four birdies in a row from holes 11-14. He finished the round off with a 35-foot birdie putt on the 18th. It was pretty impressive for a guy who had never seen Firestone before this week, and who spent the previous two weeks vacationing with his parents at a lake house in North Carolina. His dad is battling throat cancer and the post-British Open break was Watson's first chance to see his family since he got his breakthrough victory in Hartford.

He did squeeze in a little golf while filming an episode of the Shaquille O'Neal reality sports show in which Bubba and Charles Barkley teed it up against Anthony Kim and Shaq. "It was a good time," Watson said, "and Charles Barkley is not very good at golf."

Questions with ... Justin Leonard

Justin Leonard, 2008 U.S. Open
Robert Beck/SI
Justin Leonard has been on two winning Ryder Cup teams.

How much did you miss the Ryder Cup and how sweet was it to get back there in 2008?
It was a lot of fun. I had missed it quite a bit. I think I realized going into the event how much I missed it. For those three or four teams I didn't make, it was obviously disappointing, but until I was back there playing in 2008 I don't think I realized how much I missed it.

What's the best part of playing for the Ryder Cup? Is it the intensity? The competition? Playing for your country?
It's just being able to come together with guys that — while we're peers — we're trying to beat each other every week. And to be able to pull together and play practice rounds and really root for each other is a lot of fun and that's something I missed. The second thing is the intensity of the competition. To be able to play on that stage is something that very few people get to do. Early in my career on the teams that I made, '97, '99, I was so nervous and trying so hard that I didn't perform as well. Last time — because I was out of it and I appreciated it more — I was going to enjoy the experience no matter what and because of that I played better, a lot better.

You've been on two winning sides (1999 and 2008) and one losing side (1997). What's the recipe for Ryder Cup success?
In the end it comes down to guys just playing well and finding the right pairings. I think the captain plays a big part in setting the tone for the week. In 2008 with Zinger, we had a lot of input as far as pairings went. He put us into our little groups and within those groups we made up our own pairings. Because we took some ownership in that, it made us all a lot closer.

After missing a short putt that cost the U.S. team a point in the opening round of the 2009 Presidents Cup, you downed five fake vodka shots as a prank. What would happen if you actually drank five shots of vodka?
[Laughs] I'm not sure because I would not remember it.

The next day you played with Phil Mickelson and made some really big putts. How do you get your confidence back so quickly?
Just experience. Going through the career valleys I've been through and being able to come back. I rely on those experiences and I tell myself that I'm not going to let a couple missed putts ruin the week. I just told myself quite a few times that being able to come back from that disappointment on Thursday would be something I could really learn from and maybe some other guys on the team might draw some inspiration from it as well.

How did you become friends with Phil?
We've known each other since we were 15 or 16 years old. We played a few college events together and our wives are good friends. About six years ago we started playing practice rounds together here and there. Since then, we have been on a few family trips together. We've skied together. I think Phil's a fascinating person. He's very intelligent. But he's a guy's guy too. He likes to be in the locker room and hang out and give guys a hard time. I seem to have his number a little bit and he likes that. He likes the grief and banter that goes back and forth. Some guys are hesitant to give it to him or talk to him that much, but I'm right in his kitchen. [Laughs.]

What would surprise people about Phil?
I think some people have the impression that he's not very sincere. The fact is that he cares a lot. He does not always show that but he's very sincere and he's a great father and a great husband.

You have 12 Tour wins, you've won a major [the 1997 British Open], you played on two winning Ryder Cup sides and you made one of the most famous putts in golf history at the 1999 Ryder Cup. What more do you need to accomplish to have a bulletproof hall-of-fame resume?
I don't know. I don't know what it takes to make the hall of fame and it's not something that really drives me. I know if one day if I'm included it will be an honor but it's not something that drives me. I've heard guys from other sports at this stage of their career that I am at in mine and that's all they talk about, getting into the hall of fame. Baseball players, for sure.

Cooperstown feels like a bigger deal than Jacksonville.
Maybe so. The history of the World Golf Hall of Fame is pretty short and I certainly think that's part of it.

What drives you to keep going to the gym and staying on top of the latest equipment and technology trends?
Playing on Ryder Cup teams and Presidents Cup teams, realizing how special those weeks are and how much I want to make those teams and be successful at those events. I'd love to get in contention more often at majors. I feel like through my experience in the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup that if I'm able to get myself in contention than I'll succeed. Part of it is working hard for my kids to see. And wanting to play well for them. I didn't know my wife when I won the Open Championship in 1997. I'd like her to be there for a major victory and experience that with her.

Are there any young players who remind you of a young Justin Leonard?
No, they're all a lot better than I was [laughs]. The game has changed quite a bit. Most of the young players who come out are 140 lbs and hit it 320 yards. The game has changed a lot. There aren't a whole lot of Justin Leonards out there.

Davis Love III was a mentor to you when you came on Tour. Do you have a mentor relationship with any of the young guys on Tour?
There are some young Tour players and college players whom I've talked to and some Tour players I've practiced with. Colt Knost is one player who's willing to listen and ask questions. I enjoy playing that role. A great example is at the Ryder Cup in 2008 with Hunter Mahan. He had great experience but not as much on that stage. I was able to play three matches with him and talk to him about situations in the matches and really just try to keep him relaxed. Because that's the biggest thing for a young player, to stay relaxed and say, "You know, it really is just a golf tournament." It's really hard to think that way when you're at an event like that in that atmosphere. To be able to play with Hunter, and play a very small role in his development, was a lot of fun.

The atmosphere at the Ryder Cup in Brookline in 1999 was off the charts. What was it like in the eye of the storm?
[The atmosphere] in 2008 was close to it because we hadn't won in so long. And being in Kentucky, which is not a place we visit every year, the fans were unbelievable that week. But in 1999, I can remember the intensity of that last day, winning the first seven matches and being able to make that comeback on the golf course late on Sunday.

When you see highlights from that Sunday comeback and your long putt on 17, do you ever wish you were wearing a different shirt?
No, that shirt kind of brought it all together, didn't it? [Laughs].

Tiger returns to Bridgestone — and a course he's dominated like no other

Tiger Woods
Fred Vuich/SI
Tiger Woods is in the field for the first time since the British Open.

Tiger Woods last won on the PGA Tour at the BMW Championship on Sept. 13, 2009, which means it's been 325 days, one major for Phil, one for Graeme and one for Louis since he lifted a trophy most fans care about.

Even for a guy coping with the aftermath of dropping his personal life into a Cuisinart, Woods seems due for a W.

He is ninth in Ryder Cup points, which means he would require a pick from U.S. captain Corey Pavin, and he's 111th in the FedEx Cup standings, which means unless he does something good in the next month, Woods won't make it past the first playoff event, the Barclays, Aug. 26-29.

When was the last time golf threw a party and Tiger Woods wasn't invited?

And so this week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club's South Course, where Woods has won seven tournaments worth $9.35 million, could not come at a better time. Isleworth is his real home course; Firestone is his home away from home. His 181-yard 8-iron to within a foot on the 16th hole to ice the '09 Bridgestone was typical.

In his 10 starts at Firestone since 1999 (he missed the 2008 tournament after knee surgery), Woods has finished no worse than a tie for fourth. He's averaged 67.5 over 40 rounds, 29 of which have been in the 60s. He shares the course record, 61, with Jose Maria Olazabal, and invented the Bridgestone Blizzak LM-50 Run Flat tire. (Wait! Not true! Although perhaps Woods was studying such things in John Gribbin's "Get a Grip on Physics.")

Augusta National, Bay Hill, Muirfield Village, Torrey Pines and St. Andrews have all seemed like Tiger's personal playgrounds, but none of them, with the possible exception of Torrey (six regular Tour victories, one U.S. Open, a Junior World), is a better match for Tiger's talents than Firestone.

"Certain courses you just feel comfortable," Woods said after his win there in '09, when he and Padraig Harrington were put on the clock on the 16th tee. They promptly made a legendary birdie (Tiger's aforementioned 8-iron) and a triple-bogey 8. "You see the tee shots, you see the approach shots, and the greens seem to be easier to read than others. This golf course is one of those for me. I think my results kind of show that."

That's a ridiculous understatement, but whether Tiger 2010 can tame the 7,400-yard, par-70 track is another matter. Driving woes plagued him at the beginning of the year. Now it's his putting. For at least the first two rounds he will be paired with Lee Westwood, who would assume the top spot in the ranking if he finishes second alone, Woods finishes worse than ninth and Mickelson doesn't win.

Mickelson, who will be paired with Rory McIlroy, would become No. 1 with a victory no matter what Woods does, or a top-four finish if Woods winds up outside the top 37. That seems beyond unlikely. Mickelson's best result at Firestone was his solo second in 1999, and Woods is usually at his best on the Bert Way/Robert Trent Jones design, which features the longest hole on Tour, the 667-yard 16th.

Not that this is a usual year. Woods has parted with his swing coach and his putter, reuniting only with the latter. He has looked as lost on the course as he's looked off it.

Meanwhile Graeme McDowell at the U.S. Open and Louis Oosthuizen at the British have taken advantage of the vacancy at the top. And Europeans have staged a slow, steady takeover of the World Ranking, holding down 11 of the first 20 spots.

Colin Montgomerie's Ryder Cup 12 could wind up being golf's version of the Dream Team, the loaded 1992 U.S. men's basketball squad. Pavin's side could be Angola.

Then again, nothing is for certain. Until last Thanksgiving you could count on Woods winning at least five tournaments a year, just as you could count on lesser American golfers to shrug their shoulders as if to say, "What do you want from me? He's Tiger Woods!"

But the rest of the Americans have disappeared even in his absence, winning just four of the last 15 tournaments on Tour.

The trend could continue at Firestone, because of the select, 82-player field (no cut), culled from the six circuits of the International Federation of PGA Tours. Fifty-one of the players hail from outside the United States.

This is a big week not only for Woods, but also for all Americans.

The country's best young player, Anthony Kim, 25, returns from three months of inaction after a thumb surgery and will be paired with Oosthuizen for the first two rounds. Kim said Tuesday he'd never heard of Oosthuizen when he turned on the TV to catch some of the British Open last month. Kim also joked about the flurry of 59s and 60s that were shot in his absence, especially in the last month.

"I guess everyone has gotten a lot better since I've been away," he said.

Stewart Cink has played in the last three Ryder Cups but is languishing at 13th in the U.S. standings. He's won at Firestone (2004) and finished second to Woods in a rousing sudden-death playoff ('06). Cink needs to mobilize now.

So does his ski buddy Zach Johnson, who has finished in the top 16 four times in six starts at Firestone. Johnson is 20th in Ryder points and will need to show something in the next month to justify a captain's pick.

Then there's Mickelson, who has all but disappeared since winning the Masters, and Woods, who hasn't played like the No. 1 player since winning the Australian Masters in mid-November, right before his world imploded.

Among the majors, only next week's PGA Championship remains, and if Woods doesn't win that one, he'll have gone two-plus years without a victory in the big four. Whistling Straits is not his favorite track; he tied for 24th there at the '04 PGA.

If he's going to make 2010 a year to remember for even one good thing, this is Tiger's time, this is his week. As they say in Akron, this is where the rubber meets the road.

• Charles Howell III and South Africans Brendon de Jonge (third at Greenbrier) and Rory Sabbatini headline the Tour's Turning Stone Resort Championship in Verona, N.Y., for those who didn't get into the Bridgestone.

• Minnesotan Tom Lehman will be the people's choice at the Champions Tour's 3M Championship at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine, Minn. But Bernhard Langer, who won the senior British and U.S. Opens in consecutive weeks and is the defending 3M champion, will be the heavy favorite.

Admission for the week will be free for all fans for the second straight year.

• The Nationwide tour's Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open at Crestview C.C., in Wichita, Kan., has featured among its prominent winners Lehman (1990), David Duval ('93) and David Toms ('96).

GOLF Magazine Interview: Tim Clark

Tim Clark
Angus Murray
PRIME TIME: "I've always felt that I've played a little better at majors."

You’ve said that the highlight of your career was having your father come over for your first Masters in 1998. Was he at The Players for your win this year?

No, he’s never been back to America. He tapes every tournament because they come on late at night in South Africa, then he watches them when he gets up the next morning. But I guess my mom was watching it live and she stayed up to watch the whole thing. I think she woke him up right before I won.

Did you call him afterward?

I didn’t have the chance because I was tied up with the media, but my wife called and talked to my parents. They had a bunch of friends and neighbors who had stayed up, and they started calling at 3 a.m. their time. It was quite a celebration, especially for someone who goes to bed at 9 p.m. every night.

Now that you’ve had some time to reflect on it, why did it take you so long to break through for your first Tour victory?

It was just one of those things. I had played well enough in the past and at the end of the day, I had gotten beat. It wasn’t one particular thing.

You took out Tiger Woods at the Accenture Match Play Championship in 2009. Do you like the spotlight?

I’ve always felt that I’ve played a little bit better at majors, and certain times in events like the Presidents Cup, situations like that. I enjoy having a little bit of pressure and feeling the nerves because I think it gets me a little bit more focused, and I tend to play better that way.

You’re one of the best hybrid players. What’s your secret?

There’s not really a secret. You either hit the ball straight or you don’t. I hit it straight with all of my clubs, not just the hybrids. I’m in a mind-set where I’m treating the hybrid like an iron, and I’m trying to hit it close. I’m not just trying to hit it up around the green or on the green. I’m approaching it like I would an iron shot, really trying to use it as a birdie opportunity.

Gary Player once admitted that he had a chip on his shoulder because he wasn’t big and strong like Arnie. Do you get fired up to beat up on the big guys out here?

Sometimes, you get a little bit depressed when you’re getting outdriven by 40, 50 yards, and you realize that on a day-to-day basis it’s going to be tough to beat those guys, especially if they’re on their game. But at the end of the day, I have the game I have. I can’t change it. I’m not going to be able to pick up 50 yards, so I need to make the best of what I’ve got. That’s what still makes this game fun, I can come out and still compete with those guys and improve on areas of my game that I need to improve, and that keeps me competitive. We’ve seen guys who are not some of the longest hitters still winning tournaments, so it can be done.

Do people relate to you more because you look like a regular guy?

Certainly I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say they admire the way I play and enjoy my game, so that’s a nice compliment. Maybe the average golfer can learn a little bit more from someone like me, the way I play the game, because obviously, they also aren’t going to hit it 350 yards off the tee.

You’ve been on the Tour for a while. Does it take an adjustment period to really feel comfortable out here?

It certainly does, for sure. Some guys can do it right away—a guy like Rickie Fowler seems like he’s really very comfortable. Obviously, he’s still learning, but his game is at a level where he’s already competing for tournaments. I feel like I’m still getting better every year, a little bit at a time. I certainly haven’t felt like I’ve gone backward at any stage in my career, which is nice. It probably took me a good two, three years to feel comfortable enough to relax and go out and just play.

Hot this week: Appleby, Faldo and the LPGA. Not hot? Overton, Freddy and Paddy

Stuart Appleby
Steve Helber/Getty Images
Stuart Appleby shot a 59 to return to the winner's circle for the first time in four years.

HOT
1. Golf fans. Sunday had it all — drama, history, spectacular shotmaking and three fantastic, diverse stages in Birkdale, Sahalee and the Greenbrier. For 10 hours it was impossible to leave the couch. At least, that's what I told my wife.

2. Stuey. Great guy, great swing. The missing ingredient has always been passion. Maybe Appleby's 59 will spur him on to great heights, maybe it won't. Either way, his magical round at the Greenbrier is likely to always be his greatest moment.

3. The LPGA. Among the things I love about this tour is that the major championships are usually won by big-time players. You won't get a better quartet than Yani, Cristie, Paula and Yani. With all the jockeying going on atop the World Ranking, Tseng's double-dip has given this LPGA season some much-needed clarity.

4. Nick Faldo. He had one of his best telecasts of the year on Sunday, including some incisive analysis about how the new grooves were making it easier to control approach shots to the Greenbrier's soft greens. I wish Nasty Nick would stop mumbling and be this assertive more often.

5. Ray Halbritter. The head honcho at Turning Stone avoided a P.R. fiasco by deciding not to burn a sponsor's exemption on himself, instead granting Kirk Triplett a spot in the field. This gives us the chance to reflect on Triplett's career and collectively ask, "Didn't that dude retire like five years ago?"

NOT
1. Jeff Overton. He didn't prevail at the Greenbrier but still deserves a trophy: best actor, for his hissy fit on the 71st hole. Maybe that crucial little putt he missed did hit a spike mark, but that's part of the game. Memo to Overton — skip all the bush histrionics and man-up and make birdie at the last.

2. The USGA/R & A. Advances in equipment are the biggest reason why the 7,000-yard golf course is now obsolete to Tour pros. What's it gonna take for the governing bodies to finally take notice? Dudes shooting in the 50s on a regular basis? It's already happening.

3. Freddy. It wasn't a surprise the flighty superstar got dusted by Bernhard Langer, but what a ghastly way to blow a feel-good hometown story: a snowman on the second hole of the final round. Couples has always been a talented tease who couldn't win the big one, so why would that change now?

4. Paddy. He came up short at the Irish Open — running his winless drought to a full two years — and now comes word that Harrington lost some $5 million investing in a failed tech firm. At least he gets to go to Firestone this week, where he has such good vibes.

5. Katherine Hull. She made a spirited run at the Women's British but missed a short putt on the 71st hole and then chunked a chip on the 72nd. It never ceases to amaze me how drastically seasoned pros are affected by pressure on the closing holes of a big tournament. Sadly, players like Hull rarely get the chance to make amends.

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