Column: Not the Next Tiger, But the First Spieth

After Jordan Spieth won his third career major championship on Sunday, four days before his 24th birthday, pundits and fans alike inevitably compared the talented Texan to Tiger Woods.

While Spieth’s career is off to an outstanding start, much like Woods two decades ago, he is not “the next Tiger Woods.”

He’s the first Jordan Spieth.

I not trying to be a smart-aleck, because the fact is that Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods have fewer similarities than some may think.

There are certainly comparisons between the two.  Both won their first three majors at a very young age—Spieth is actually about six months younger than Woods was at the time of his third major.

Both have shown mental strength to be a major key to their success, and both have an innate ability to make big putts from anywhere when needed down the stretch.

Woods used countless Houdini-like shots to escape trouble in many of his major triumphs, and Spieth used a similar shot Sunday on his 3-wood recovery from the practice area 50 yards right of the 13th fairway, turning a near-certain “big number” into a bogey that kept him in contention, which he followed with a 5-under stretch over the next four holes.

But on and off the course, there are major differences between Woods and Spieth.

On the course, Tiger’s first three major wins were more dominant than Spieth’s.  Woods’ first three major wins came by a combined 28 shots, including victories by 12 at the 1997 Masters and 15 at the 2000 U.S. Open.

The combined eight-shot margin of Spieth’s first three majors is still quite impressive, yet is nothing compared to the utter dominance of Woods.  And while Spieth’s 2015 Masters win at 18-under 270 matched Woods’ record for low score in the event, his 18-under came on an Augusta track softened by rain, where 11 players finished 7-under or better; in 1997, Woods was the only player 7-under or better.

After Woods’ third major, he promptly won the next three majors, the 2000 Open and PGA and 2001 Masters, a feat that will be difficult for Spieth to duplicate.  That said, Spieth will have one chance to win the career grand slam at a younger age than Tiger, when he competes in the PGA Championship next month in Charlotte.

Off the course, Woods can be cocky while holding things close to the vest, bluntly answering questions about his golf career and life.  Spieth is one of the humblest professional athletes in recent memory, and is very candid, honest and open.

Woods, the Buddhist son of a middle-class Green Beret, grew up playing the municipal courses of southern California.  Spieth, a Catholic son of a web CEO, grew up on country clubs of suburban Dallas.

Woods, who has a fascination with the Navy SEALs, worked out obsessively in his prime and built a massive muscular physique, using his strength to pull off some of his incredible shots on the course.

While Spieth has shown some strength at times, he is less of a “bomber” of the golf ball, and physically looks more like someone I might have competed against in collegiate intramurals than one of the best athletes in the world.

From a cultural impact level, Spieth has no chance to equal the magnitude of Woods’ career.  The emergence of a black star who also has Asian heritage in a sport historically dominated by white men brought golf to an entire new audience.

While Spieth has throngs of fans he has, more or less, excited existing golf fans with the emergence of a new star more than he has taken the game to new audiences.

These two stars are quite different, so instead of pinning the weight of the “the next Tiger Woods” label on a player—which is quite unfair to anyone, considering there will likely never be another player to match the talent, domination and impact of Woods—let’s simply sit back and watch what someone with the talent of Jordan Spieth can do next.

No, Jordan Spieth is not “the next Tiger Woods.”

He’s the first Jordan Spieth, and that alone is exciting for the game of golf.

 

 

The 146th Open Championship
Leaders:
1. Jordan Spieth, U.S., -12 (65-69-65-69–268), becomes second youngest player to win three legs of the career grand slam (behind Jack Nicklaus)
2. Matt Kuchar, U.S., -9 (65-71-66-69–271)
3. Haotong Li, China, -6 (69-73-69-63–274)
t4. Rory McIlroy, N. Ireland, -5 (71-68-69-67–275)
t4. Rafa Cabrera Bello, Spain, -5 (67-73-67-68–275)
t6. Matthew Southgate, England, -4 (72-72-67-65–276)
t6. Marc Leishman, New Zealand, -4 (69-76-66-65–276)
t6. Alex Noren, Sweden, -4 (68-72-69-67–276)
t6. Branden Grace, S. Africa, -4 (70-74-62-70–276), in third round became the first player in major championship history to shoot 62
t6. Brooks Koepka, U.S., -4 (65-72-68-71–276)
Notables:
t11. Henrik Stenson, Sweden, -3 (69-73-65-70–277), defending champion
t14. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan, -2 (68-72-66-72–278)
t22. Rickie Fowler, U.S., E (71-71-67-71–280)
t27. Jason Day, Australia, +1 (69-76-65-71–281)
t37. Sergio Garcia, Spain, +2 (73-69-68-72–282)
t54. Justin Rose, England, +4 (71-74-69-70–284)
t54. Dustin Johnson, U.S., +4 (71-72-64-77–284)
t62. Alfie Plant, England, +6 (71-73-69-73–286), low amateur
Phil Mickelson (+10) missed the cut; Tiger Woods did not play.

Open Champions, since 2000
2000 Tiger Woods
2001 David Duval
2002 Ernie Els
2003 Ben Curtis
2004 Todd Hamilton
2005 Tiger Woods
2006 Tiger Woods
2007 Padraig Harrington
2008 Padraig Harrington
2009 Stewart Cink
2010 Louis Oosthuizen
2011 Darren Clarke
2012 Ernie Els
2013 Phil Mickelson
2014 Rory McIlroy
2015 Zach Johnson
2016 Henrik Stenson
2017 Jordan Spieth

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ACC Basketball Power Rankings: Week of 12/26

As the ACC moves into conference play starting this week, many big-name athletes are celebrating birthdays this week.  This includes Sandy Koufax, Martin Kaymer, Carlton Fisk, Laila Ali, Theo Epstein, Carson Palmer, Ozzie Smith, Tony Kanaan, and Rick Porcello, among others.

Several big names in basketball are also a year older, so in this week’s power rankings, as I begin the concept of a theme each week, quotes are included from several of them (plus a couple from Tiger Woods), including one beginning quote that applies to the conference at large.

“It’s a wacky race.  I really believe this:  Expect the unexpected.”  -Bill Self (born 12/27/62)

 

1. Duke (12-1, Previous Ranking: 1st, AP Poll: 5th)
This Week:  Saturday at Virginia Tech
“There is a lot of pressure put on me, but I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself.  I feel if I play my game, it will take care of itself.”  -LeBron James (12/30/84)
There is a lot of noise around the Blue Devils, but they have answered it with a successful start to the season, only losing a close game to Kansas and beating Florida, Rhode Island, and Michigan State.  And Mike Krzyzewski’s squad has yet to play a game at full strength.

2. Louisville (11-1, PR: 6th, AP: 6th)
This Week:  Wednesday vs. #12 Virginia, Saturday vs. Indiana (at Indianapolis)
“The reason we win games is not typical of a top 5 team. We’re winning on execution and heart and guts and playing smart.”  -Mark Few (12/27/62)
A gritty Cardinals team is better than I expected, and has the best win of anyone in the ACC against rival Kentucky, as well as a win over Purdue, and only one loss, against undefeated Baylor.  Led by Quentin Snider (11.9 ppg, 3.9 apg), the team is fourth nationally in rebounding (44.6 per game)

3. North Carolina (11-2, PR: 2nd, AP: 9th)
This Week:  Wednesday vs. Monmouth, Saturday at Georgia Tech
“I’m aware if I’m playing at my best I’m tough to beat. And I enjoy that.”  -Tiger Woods (12/30/75)
The Tar Heels have played well early in the season against a tough schedule as well, with a close loss to Kentucky and a road loss to Indiana as the only blemishes.  Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II have stepped up as leaders, and the team is in the top 15 in the nation per game in points (88.7), rebounds (44.5), and assists (18.4).

4. Virginia (10-1, PR: 3rd, AP: 12th)
This Week:  Wednesday at #6 Louisville, Saturday vs. #20 Florida State
“I believe very much in winning with defense and I try to get my players to compete hard on defense to win the games.”  -Nolan Richardson (12/27/41)
As we’ve come to expect from Tony Bennett-led Virginia teams, the Cavaliers are winning with defense, holding opponents to 47.2 ppg, the best mark in the nation.  That said, Virginia is also 12th in kenpom.com‘s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings, led by senior guard London Perrantes (10.0 ppg, 4.3 apg)

5. Florida State (12-1, PR: 5th, AP: 20th)
This Week:  Wednesday vs. Wake Forest, Saturday at #12 Virginia
“There is not a doubt in my mind that any team in this league can beat us. But we have shown we can beat every team in this league.”  -Mark Few (12/27/62)
The Seminoles have as much talent as any team in the ACC, and have run the table with the exception of their loss to Temple, including a win over rival Florida.  Led by three double-figure scorers, Leonard Hamilton’s bunch will be a tough out for any opponent in the ACC, starting with Wake Forest in the league’s first conference game on Wednesday.

6. Notre Dame (10-2, PR: 9th, AP: 24th)
This Week:  Wednesday vs. St. Peter’s, Saturday at Pittsburgh
“We’ve probably had the toughest losses of anybody in America. I think the table will turn.”  -Bill Self (12/27/62)
The Fighting Irish haven’t played the toughest schedule statistically, although they have lost their two toughest games, against top-ranked Villanova and Purdue.  However, they’ve run the table in the rest of their games, led by the strong play of four players scoring at least 13.8 ppg (Bonzie Colson, V.J. Beachem, Steve Vasturia, Matt Farrell), and an offense that ranks sixth nationally in assists per game (19.0).

7. Virginia Tech (10-1, PR: 8th)
This Week:  Wednesday vs. Maryland-Baltimore County, Saturday vs. #5 Duke
“It’s amazing. We got 20 different answers in our locker room.”  -Bill Self (12/27/62)
The problem in the past for the Hokies, who have a solid road win at Michigan and only a neutral-site loss to Texas A&M, was a lack of depth behind some strong players at the top.  Now, the Hokies have that depth, with eight players capable of having big games, and the correlation shows in the results.  Guard Chris Clarke is a rare guard who leads his team in rebounding (7.7 rpg), while also in steals (1.4 per game).

8. Clemson (9-2, PR: 12th)
This Week:  Wednesday vs. UNC Wilmington, Saturday at Wake Forest
“Winning in someone else’s building is always gratifying. I think this win will give them a lot of confidence.”  -Bill Self (12/27/62)
The Tigers won their Palmetto Series matchup with rival South Carolina, on the road in Columbia, one of the best road wins by any ACC team, and a win that could propel the Tigers to further success.  The team’s losses are at neutral sites to strongholds Xavier and Oklahoma, and although no individual stat stands out for the Tigers, they are 23rd in kenpom.com‘s national ranking, led by Jaron Blossomgame (17.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg).

9. Pittsburgh (10-2, PR: 4th)
This Week:  Wednesday vs. Marshall, Saturday vs. #24 Notre Dame
“You’ve got to stay patient, stay in the moment, keep grinding… You never know what can happen.”  -Tiger Woods (12/30/75)
Before the season, I thought the Panthers would be really good and ranked them fourth in the conference, based on their status as an experienced team.  While they haven’t necessarily played poorly, with the exception of a loss to Duquesne, their resume is still somewhat indifferent, although they are the only team in the league with two 20-point scorers:  Michael Young (22.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.9 apg) and Jamel Artis (20.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.5 apg).

10. NC State (10-2, PR: 7th)
This Week:  Wednesday vs. Rider, Saturday at Miami
“Play for one another, and play the right way. The right way is believing in what’s on your chest and not what’s on your back.”  -Kevin Ollie (12/27/72)
For the first time in several years, Mark Gottfried can enjoy some depth with his roster at NC State.  Five players are averaging in double figures (with a sixth at 9.3 ppg), and while Dennis Smith Jr. (18.9 ppg, 5.5 apg) and Terry Henderson (16.8 ppg) have been as good as advertised, transfer guard Torin Dorn (15.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg) has been somewhat of a surprise contributor.  While their resume is nothing spectacular yet, the Wolfpack have the talent and depth return the Wolfpack to the NCAA Tournament.

11. Wake Forest (9-3, PR: 13th)
This Week:  Wednesday at #20 Florida State, Saturday vs. Clemson
“You don’t go through life, you grow through life.”  -Kevin Ollie (12/27/72)
The Demon Deacons appear to be trending upward, as Danny Manning’s team, while young, are over .500 on the road (if you know anything about Wake Forest basketball you know that’s an accomplishment for the Deacs), and have only been blown out once, by top-ranked Villanova.  Forward John Collins is, somewhat quietly, averaging a double-double (17.4 ppg, 10.4 rpg), while Bryant Crawford (14.3 ppg, 6.3 apg) is second in the ACC in assists.  The Deacs could be a sleeper moving into conference play, especially at home.

12. Miami (9-2, PR: 11th)
This Week:  Wednesday vs. Columbia, Saturday vs. NC State
“Well, you know, a lot of people look at the negative things, the things that they did wrong, which I do.  But I like to stress on the things I did right, because there are certain things that I like to look at from a positive standpoint that are just positive reinforcement.”  -Tiger Woods (12/30/75)
Jim Larranaga’s Hurricanes have won the games they should and lost the games they were expected to thus far.  The U has a young team, but they are still playing well defensively, allowing just 57.8 ppg, the fifth best mark in the country.  Three double-figure scorers have led Miami, who has some positive things to look at in their season thus far, as well as some things to work on.

13. Syracuse (8-5, PR: 10th)
This Week:  Sunday at Boston College
“I don’t think panic’s set in by any means. But in fans’ minds, they’re thinking it’s awful early to be struggling this much.”  -Bill Self (12/27/62)
The biggest surprise in the ACC thus far are the struggles of Syracuse, with losses to South Carolina, UConn, Wisconsin, Georgetown, and St. John’s (the 33-point loss was their worst at the Carrier Dome), and only one decent win, over Monmouth.  Frank Howard (7.5 ppg, 6.5 apg) leads the ACC in assists.

14. Georgia Tech (7-4, PR: 15th)
This Week:  Wednesday vs. North Carolina A&T, Saturday vs. #9 North Carolina
“You have to be able to accept failure to get better.”  -LeBron James (12/30/84)
Josh Pashner’s debut season in Atlanta was expected to be tough from the outset, with a very young and patched-together team.  There aren’t necessarily any big wins on the Yellow Jackets’ schedule, although the head-scratching losses that young teams often experience don’t really exist either.  Ben Lammers is averaging a double-double (15.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg), although the Jackets rank 280th in points per game (68.9) and 246th in offensive efficiency.

15. Boston College (7-6, PR: 14th)
This Week:  Sunday vs. Syracuse
“When you go through trying times, you don’t stop trying.”  -Kevin Ollie (12/27/72)
The Eagles were another team expected to struggle, and while they have Power Six wins over Providence and Auburn, they also have the two worst losses by any ACC team this season, falling to Nicholls State and Hartford, while playing the 20th easiest schedule in the country.  Jerome Robinson has been a bright spot (20.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.2 apg), but it will be an uphill battle for the Eagles as they begin ACC play.

If Sports Stars Became President

Today, the United States will elect its 45th president.

But after this dreadful campaign season, instead of imagining either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as the next president, let’s have some fun.  I’ve taken the liberty of looking at what might happen if some of the biggest sports stars in sports became president, using their sports careers as the framework for what might happen in their time in office (the real-life sports example is in parentheses).

Kevin Durant

After Durant has been president for one fairly successful term (nine seasons with the Thunder), he declines a second term (elects free agency) and announces he is moving to Russia (the Golden State Warriors) in an attempt to become the Russian president, claiming he thinks he has a better chance to be seen as a winner on the global stage (winning an NBA championship).

LeBron James

Similar to Durant, James left the country (elected free agency) after one term to try and become a legendary leader (NBA champion) elsewhere in the world (the Miami Heat).  After a successful term as the French president (two NBA titles in Miami), he decides to return home to the United States (the Cleveland Cavaliers) and try to become president again (win a title in Cleveland).  In a classic election (the 2016 NBA Finals), James comes from way behind (three games to one) to upset incumbent Stephen Curry in the election and become president again (win the NBA championship).

Tom Brady

After winning a fourth term as president (four Super Bowl titles), Brady is impeached for shredding the ballots of his opponent’s voters (deflating footballs) in the primary election (AFC Championship Game), and convicted by the Senate (suspended by the NFL).  Brady continuously appeals the impeachment ruling (appeals the suspension to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) and proclaims his innocence, but after multiple appeals finally accepts his fate, and vice president Jimmy Garoppolo (backup quarterback) becomes president (starting quarterback).

Dabo Swinney

After president Tommy Bowden resigns (Bowden resigned as Clemson football coach in 2008), Swinney, the little-known Secretary of Commerce becomes president (Swinney was promoted from wide receivers coach to head coach).  He is initially thought of as nothing more than a temporary figurehead (interim coach), but after he does a good job finishing Bowden’s term (4-3 to finish the season), Swinney wins reelection (is named permanent coach), and goes on to be one of the best presidents in American history (one of the best coaches in Clemson history).

Steve Spurrier

Spurrier oversees a period of great prosperity in his first stint as president (an ACC title at Duke, then six SEC titles and a national championship at Florida), but declines another term to seek other challenges (goes to the NFL).  In the next election, Spurrier wins back the presidency (returns to the college game at South Carolina), and after a slow start to his second stint (five-plus losses his first six seasons at South Carolina), Spurrier oversees the greatest three-year economic stretch in American history (three consecutive 11-2 seasons were the greatest run in South Carolina school history).  However, the economy quickly receded into depression (South Carolina fell back into mediocrity), and Spurrier resigned mid-term (he resigned after a 2-4 start to 2015), citing vice president Shawn Elliott (interim coach) as the new leadership the nation needed.

Peyton Manning

Manning, the son of former president Archie Manning (NFL Hall f Famer), came into office with much anticipation and momentum (entered the NFL as the #1 overall draft pick).  After a lengthy presidential career with many personal accomplishments (five NFL MVP awards), but little tangible evidence to show the nation’s progress (only one Super Bowl entering 2015), the nation has the highest GDP (the Broncos win the Super Bowl) in his final year in office (final NFL season), although much of the public realizes that in his lame-duck status he actually had very little to do with it (Manning was a shell of his former self in the playoffs, and it was the defense who guided the team to the Super Bowl title).

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt is the son of a political legend who died in office (Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in an accident competing in the 2001 Daytona 500), and rides his father’s popularity to become president (Earnhardt Jr. has consistently been the sport’s most popular driver since his father’s death), with a high approval rating.  His presidency is decent, but not overwhelming (26 wins in 18 seasons, highest points finish of third), before he is unexpectedly forced to resign due to a brain injury (he has missed the second half of 2016 with a concussion), and is replaced by rising political star Alex Bowman (Bowman will run a total of 10 races in Earnhardt’s car this season), who becomes the youngest president, while legendary former president Jeff Gordon comes out of retirement to be Bowman’s vice president (Gordon came out of retirement to run eight races in Earnhardt’s car this season)

Tiger Woods

Woods is the most dominant political figure of his time (he won 14 major championships his first 12 years on the PGA Tour), winning every election he ever ran in by a landslide (many of his major championship wins were not close), before he is forced to resign in disgrace after a sex scandal (he took a break from the PGA Tour in 2010 after a sex scandal).  Woods keeps trying to make political comebacks (trying to win more major championships), but each time faces a setback (multiple injuries and a struggling golf game), including most recently withdrawing from a Senate race just three days before the election (withdrawing from the PGA Tour’s Safeway Open three days before), saying he felt he would be “vulnerable” on Capitol Hill (he said he felt his game would be “vulnerable” on the PGA Tour).

Alex Rodriguez

Rodriguez is on track to become one of the greatest presidents in American history (one of the great players in MLB history), when evidence appears that he has been taking specially-designed and illegal drugs to help his performance as president (performance enhancing drugs/steroids), with the help of aide Tony Bosch (Rodriguez’s friend who ran the Biogenesis clinic and provided PED’s).  A-Rod denies the allegations (he denied using PED’s for many years), famously proclaiming “I did not have performance-enhancing drugs with that man.”

Bruce Bochy

A younger Bochy won the presidential nomination with the Padres party but lost to Joe Torre and the Yankees (Bochy’s Padres won the 1998 NL Pennant but lost the World Series to New York), and after moving to the Giants party, Bochy becomes president in 2010 (the Giants won the World Series).  In ensuing elections, Bochy always looks down and out, but he and his political team are gritty competitors and always find a way to win the elections in the even-numbered years (the Giants won the World Series in 2012 and 2014).

Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz

After the United States returns to the Articles of Confederation system, in which a three-person executive panel leads the nation instead of one president, the trio of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz from the Braves party comes into power (the three pitchers were Braves teammates from 1993-2002).  They become known as “the Big Three,” and while they are all from the same party, Maddux and Smoltz lean to the right, but Glavine leans to the left (Maddux/Smoltz were right-handed pitchers, and Glavine left-handed).  While all three are most remembered with the Braves party, all of them switched parties before the end of their political careers (all three left the Braves before the end of their careers).

 

Bonus:  The Chicago Cubs 

The Cubs political party won the White House in 1908 (won the 1908 World Series), but lost each election for the following 108 years (did not win the World Series for 108 years), despite a passionate nationwide base who optimistically proclaims “Wait ’til next year” each time the party loses, while opponents call them the “lovable losers.”  Close calls include losing to a third-party bid by the Billy Goats in 1945 (the “curse of the billy goat” began in 1945), and to another bid by the Black Cats in 1969 (the Cubs blew a large division to the Mets lead after a black cat ran in front of their dugout at Shea Stadium in New York in 1969).  In 2003, the Cubs lost to the Marlins Party (lost the NLCS to the Marlins) after write-in candidate Steve Bartman, a private citizen with no intentions of the fame of public office, stole enough votes to cost the Cubs the election (Bartman, a fan, infamously prevented outfielder Moises Alou from catching a foul ball when the Cubs were five outs away from the pennant, and the Marlins came back and won).  The 2016 Cubs, with the ticket of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo (NL MVP candidates), and under the direction of party chairman Joe Maddon (manager), came from behind with a late surge to beat the Indians party and win the election (came from 3-1 down to win the World Series), ending the party’s drought.

Trailing Tiger at the Wyndham

When Tiger Woods, perhaps the greatest golfer to ever play the game, committed to play in the Wyndham Championship, I knew I had to go.

Having lived in the Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina for nearly 15 years as a child, I am very familiar with Greensboro, where the tournament is held every year.  In fact, while living in the area, I attended at least two rounds of the Wyndham each year from 2007 to 2009.  Even after moving to South Carolina, I still consider the event my “hometown tournament” on the PGA Tour, and it is still the closest to me as far as driving distance.

But Tiger never played the Wyndham.  Greensboro’s tour event is the final event before the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, which begin next week at The Barclays in New Jersey, and in that 2007-09 period, during which he was in his prime, the event was never necessary for him to play to cement his status in The Playoffs (he went on to win the FedEx Cup in 2007 and 2009).

In 2011, while battling injuries and a shaky golf game, Tiger was outside the playoff bubble, but said the week of the Wyndham was a week he was spending with his children (remember, he’s been through a very highly publicized divorce), and that playing tournament golf that week was off-limits.  Last year, coming off of back surgery, he opted to rest to try to get healthy, rather than playing the Wyndham and throwing a “hail mary” to try to make The Playoffs.

Tiger also plays practically the same schedule of events every year.  In addition to the major championships, there are some events Tiger typically plays, and some he typically doesn’t, or never has.  The Wyndham has been in the last category his entire career.  The last time Tiger played an event for the first time was in 2012, when he played the Greenbrier Classic for the first time (that event has only been played since 2010).

This time, however, is different.  Tiger appears to be fully healthy, and instead of injury it is his golf game which needs a return to health.  Tiger’s best finish of the year is a tie for 17th at The Masters, and he missed the cut in the other three major championships this season.  As he retools his swing, he has continuously said he is, slowly, making some progress with his game.

Following the missed cut at the PGA Championship last week, Woods currently ranks 187th in the FedEx Cup standings, with the top 125 at the end of the Wyndham Championship qualifying for The Barclays next week.  Knowing that more competitive rounds are certainly one thing that will help his comeback, Tiger decided to play the Wyndham in an attempt to qualify for The Playoffs.  To do so, he most likely has to win (although a solo second place finish can get him in with some help).

Within ten minutes of Tiger’s commitment to the Wyndham last Friday, I bought a ticket for the tournament’s opening round on Thursday.  I still have family in the area, giving me a place to stay, I had not been to the tournament in six years, and I wanted to witness a bit of tournament history with Woods’ maiden appearance in the event.  By Sunday, my non-golfing aunt, Terri, decided she wanted to see Tiger as well.

With Tiger set to tee off this morning at 7:50 a.m., it was an early wake-up call–my alarm went off at 5:55 a.m.  After changing into a Wyndham Championship golf shirt I still had from years ago, eating a quick bowl of cereal, and stopping by to pick up Terri, we arrived at Sedgefield Country Club around 7:15, immediately finding Tiger on the range (after walking past, and getting the autograph of, the PGA Championship’s third-place finisher Branden Grace as he departed the range for his tee time).  His turquoise-colored hat (a color which surprised me a little) made him easy to spot the rest of the day.

About 7:35, we made our way to the 10th hole, where Tiger’s round was to begin, arriving just in time to see the group of Ben Crane, Charles Howell III, and George McNeill tee off.  I couldn’t decide if they would like playing in the group directly in front of Woods or not, but then had the thought that with many in the gallery going just ahead of Tiger’s threesome then waiting for them to come through, this was still, in all likelihood, one of the bigger galleries the three of them had played in front of all year.

At 7:50, after the opening shots of young guns Brooks Koepka and Hideki Matsuyama, the starter announced “from Jupiter, Florida, Tiger Woods”, followed by a receptive cheer from the gallery.  Tiger acknowledged the crowd by waving briefly and tipping his cap, before beginning his practice swings to prepare to tee off.

During his struggles, Tiger has struggled with what many call a “two-way miss”, and on his opening tee shot the miss was to the left.

Terri and I didn’t have a great vantage point for the tee shot, and that, combined with the overcast sky, made it nearly impossible to see where the tee shot landed.  As we walked down the left, we realized the gallery had been moved back to make room for a player, then realized it was Tiger, who was about 20 feet in front of us at the bottom of the small hill we were on, giving us an excellent vantage point.

All I could tell about the approach to the par-4 was it was headed left.  It ended up about 10 or 15 yards right of the green, and Tiger had short-sided himself, as he only had about 15 feet of green to work with.

We didn’t quite get even with the green before Tiger got set to hit his pitch.  Honestly, at first I wasn’t even sure it was him playing the shot due to him being surrounded by the gallery, but perhaps Koepka or Matsuyama, before seeing both of them on the green watching.  Suddenly I saw the ball pop up about 20 feet in the air, come straight down about 10 feet from the hole, and rolled straight in the middle for a birdie.

Tiger raised his arm in the air, and the crowd let out its first “roar” after he had pulled off the nearly impossible shot.  I too, put my arms in the air, and Tiger’s round was off to a great start.

With two very good young players in Tiger’s group, including Koepka, who happens to also reside in Jupiter, FL and finished tied for 5th in the PGA Championship last week, I tried to watch all of their shots as well, as both have the potential to be superstars down the road.  Instead, I found out quickly that after Tiger holed out, or even got to within tap-in range, most of his followers moved on to the next hole.

At first, wanting to watch Koepka and Matsuyama, and almost having sympathy for them as well, I tried to not by one of those people.  I had also decided to keep a scorecard for Tiger, as well as his playing partners, as a keepsake of the event, meaning it would help to watch all the shots.  However, I rapidly realized that staying back too long would put us at a disadvantage in trying to get the best vantage point of the Tiger, the reason we were there to begin with, on the following hole.

The long par-4 11th played as the toughest hole, statistically, in Thursday’s first round, and after missing the fairway, with the “two-way miss” going right this time (I’d now seen both misses in the first 15 minutes of the round), Tiger’s approach from the right rough landed about 10 yards short of the green.

Instead of playing a low, running shot which I was expecting (as were the announcers on PGA Tour Live, I found out later), Woods tried a higher pitch shot with more backspin.  In what would end up being his biggest mistake of the day, it didn’t work.

The ball didn’t even get on the green, leaving 39 feet for par from just off the edge (note: most of the distances of shots in this post are according to the PGA Tour’s ShotLink).  Tiger missed the putt five feet short, and made the ensuing putt for his first bogey of the day.

With Tiger’s recent track record, I was afraid at this point that what had happened at the 10th was a case of Tiger catching lightning in a bottle and looking like his old self for one hole, and what had happened on the 11th was a more accurate foreshadowing of what was to come in his round.

I was wrong.  That was Tiger’s only bogey of the day.

Thinking ahead to the next hole, knowing it was a par-3, and learning quickly that many in the gallery move when they believe there’s nothing left of the hole to see, we didn’t even see Tiger’s bogey putt.  We were already walking down the 12th hole, and found a spot in the second row just behind the back-right corner of the green, with the pin about 50 feet from us in the back left.

When Tiger teed off on the 12th, the ball bounced right in the center of the green, then rolled just off the back edge, stopping just in front of us.  The split-second decision to abandon Tiger’s bogey putt at the 11th had really paid off with a very good view of his birdie putt, which was a lengthy one, on the 12th.  His birdie putt rolled to within three feet, before he tapped in for par.  With such a good vantage point, this time we didn’t move until after Tiger holed out (he was the last of the group to do so).

Doing so resulted in our view not being quite as good on the 13th, where Tiger hit his first fairway of the round, and hit his approach to the par-4 to just inside five feet.  From about the sixth or eighth row of fans, I saw him make the birdie putt, moving back under-par for the round.

Tiger missed the fairway left on the par-4 14th, then hit his second shot right in the center of the green, 38 feet from the hole, and two-putted for a conventional par on a hole which statistically ranked as the second-toughest on the day.

After the test of the 14th, the players catch a break with the 15th, an easily reachable par-5 which was the day’s second-easiest hole.  After an excellent drive to the center of the fairway, Tiger hit his approach to the center of the green, setting up a 41-foot eagle putt.  His birdie putt was hit with a very good pace, ending up the right distance but five feet right of the hole.  Tiger made that putt, moving to 2-under for the round with his third birdie, as all three players in the group made birdie.

The throng following Tiger, which by the end of the round grew to at least a thousand people (my best guess, anyway), came to somewhat of a dead-end as Tiger’s threesome teed off on the 16th, a short par-3 over water.  When following a group as a fan at Sedgefield, there is no direct way to quickly get from the area of the 16th tee across the lake to the 16th green.  Therefore, our choices after the group hit their tee shots and walked to the green were to stand beside the 16th tee and watch the group from afar, or go on to the 17th hole, which loops back the other direction behind and past the 16th tee.

I knew that space surrounding the greens of the holes later in the back nine would be a commodity with such a big crowd following Tiger, so we went ahead down the 17th hole, and I used the standard-bearer sign, which displays the score of each player for the tournament, to find out if any one of the medium-length birdie putts in the group on the 16th had been successful.  Nope, three pars.

As I had predicted, we all squeezed between the bleachers (those fans had been in those seats waiting for a while) and the skyboxes (for people more connected than I am) at the 17th green, and it wasn’t overly easy to find a vantage point.  We were lucky enough to find one, and saw Tiger, who had hit the fairway and hit his approach to 21 feet, narrowly miss birdie.  With Tiger having a gimme left, we moved to the 18th.

The 18th is traditionally the toughest hole at Sedgefield, and Thursday ranked as the third toughest.  Tiger hit a 321-yard drive down the center of the fairway, then hit his approach from 163 yards to 10 feet, in one of the better shots I’ve ever seen on the hole.  We found a spot on the steps going up to the 18th green’s bleachers, and saw Tiger roll in the putt for his fourth birdie, and an outward nine of 3-under par 32.

Not bad for his first nine holes in competition at Sedgefield.

Tiger and his playing partners got to ride a golf cart from the 18th green to the first tee, while the rest of us walked behind the ninth green, through the hospitality area near the clubhouse, and down a road towards the first hole.  As you can imagine, by the time the throng (our at least our part of it) reached the first, the threesome had all teed off and were walking to their balls.  Tiger’s tee shot on the par-4 landed just off the edge of the fairway on the right (I only know that from looking at ShotLink), and he hit his approach to six feet.  Catching up to the group, we got close enough to see Tiger’s putt.  He made it for another birdie.  Four-under par.

We never could get a great view on the par-4 second hole, as Tiger hit into the left rough and then 51 feet behind the hole.  When he lagged his birdie putt to seven feet, which looked closer from our vantage point, we moved to the third hole, and found a spot behind the green.  Tiger made the par putt.

The pin at the par-3 third was in the back-left corner, and we found a spot behind the back-left corner in about the third row of patrons.  Tiger’s ball hit the center of the green and rolled toward the back-center, 26 feet from the hole.  I thought about moving us to ahead to the fourth, but I had a hunch Tiger was going to make the putt.  I was almost right, as the putt rolled within a few inches of the hole, and he tapped in for par.

We couldn’t see the players tee off on the par-4 fourth from where we were, and we walked quickly to reach the green, even getting to see the group ahead putt.  The pin was on the same side we were, just a few feet from the gallery ropes, and even though we were a few rows deep, we still could see the players and the hole well.  Tiger hit his second shot 12 feet from the hole, facing a quick putt for birdie.

After Tiger hit the putt, he began walking toward the hole, thinking the putt was short, and preparing to line up a par putt. The ball kept rolling, stayed on line, and fell in the hole. Tiger the abruptly stopped and threw up his hands, shrugging at his surprise birdie, which moved him to five-under.

(Note: the videos which you can see on this page are from YouTube. For some reason, the video of this birdie was not posted by the PGA Tour to YouTube, but Tiger’s reaction is worth seeing. To do so, click here.)

Soon after the birdie, we moved down the fifth hole, once again reaching the green and finding a second row spot to see the group ahead putt, then watching Tiger pull his approach just off the left edge of the par-5 green, 120 feet from the pin in the center-left.  Tiger putted from off the green to seven feet, and made the birdie putt to move to six-under.

At this point, a message came up on the leaderboard which said “Alert: Tiger Woods is challenging the Sedgefield course record of 9-under par 61, he is 6-under par through 14 holes.”  Whoa.

While a similar message had appeared earlier when William McGirt was in a similar situation, it was more alarming when it was Tiger.  And while it was Tiger, one of the greatest athletes of all-time, his recent form didn’t suggest the possibility of that kind of history being made here.

On the par-4 sixth, Tiger hit the fairway, then hit his approach within five feet.  I knew the par-3 seventh hole should be a good place to watch Tiger, and there was a shortcut from the sixth fairway area over towards the seventh green.  As it turned out, Tiger missed the birdie putt, which I found out when the leaderboard on the seventh showed he remained six-under through 15 holes.

Watching the action on the seventh, as I was meeting a fellow South Carolinian on the steps of the bleachers behind the green, Tiger’s tee shot landed right in the center of the green, 33 feet from the hole, and he two-putted for par.

On the par-4 eighth, even without a very good vantage point, I knew Tiger’s tee shot was headed right of the fairway.  It was a good 20 yards to the right of the fairway, but on the side of the eighth where there are no fans.  His approach was hole-high, 18 feet away, after an excellent recovery shot, but he missed the birdie putt, settling for par.

We got stuck trying to move across the ninth fairway, but Tiger and his group had to walk right by on our side to cross a bridge, giving me my best photo opportunity since the driving range.  The Tour is very serious about prohibiting the use of cell phones and cameras on the course, but it is generally only enforced when players are about to hit a shot.  As Tiger walked by, I got a decent picture of him and his caddy, Joe LaCava, on my phone.

Tiger’s approach to the par-4 ninth short and right, 13 yards from the hole and about 6-7 yards off the green.  As we reached the ninth, we tried to find a good vantage point, but we eventually had to settle for a spot where we couldn’t see the hole due to a mound on the green.  I told Terri finding a good spot around that green had actually been an “impossible task”.

Tiger’s pitch went 11 feet past the hole (all I could tell was it was several feet by), but he made the putt to save par.  Throughout his career, Tiger has had a knack for making par putts on his final hole of the day, as if he gives every ounce of focus he has left to that putt and wills it into the hole.

As Tiger walked off the green, to a nice ovation from the crowd, he waved appreciatively to the crowd which had cheered him so much throughout the round.  And rightfully so, as the round he had put together added up to a 6-under par 64, the lowest score Tiger has shot in competition since 2013.

When Tiger finished his round, he was tied for third in the tournament.  By the end of the day, as everyone else finished their rounds, he was still in the top ten, with a very respectable position of tied for 7th.  Those who lead the tournament on Thursday (William McGirt, Erik Compton, and Tom Hoge in today’s case) don’t win as much as you might think, but the winner is very often someone who is in contention from the beginning.  Tiger certainly fits that mold.

The level of play I saw was very high, and not just from Tiger.  Matsuyama shot a 5-under 65, and Koepka shot a 3-under 67, with both playing the round without a bogey.  Tiger’s bogey at the 11th was the only bogey in the group all day, as they combined to make 15 birdies.  Tiger made seven of them, along with 10 pars and the lone bogey.

After the exceptional play from Tiger, I believe he can win the Wyndham Championship.  That doesn’t mean he will, but from what I saw today I believe his golf game has improved enough to where he can win this tournament, particularly having placed himself so well after the opening round.

I can also make this bold statement: after seeing Tiger play so well, I believe he can and will win a major championship in 2016.  Tiger is now healthy, and is now becoming much more comfortable with the tweaks that coach Chris Como has made in his golf swing.  A man who has won 14 major championships is naturally always a threat to win more, and he certainly can do it.  That being said, with today’s young, bold stars like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and others, it definitely won’t be easy.

After Tiger’s round was complete, we stayed around the ninth green to watch the next group of two-time major champion Martin Kaymer, former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, and former FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas finish their round. After a quick lunch, we went back to the 18th hole, which by this point had probably less than 100 people in the bleachers and skyboxes surrounding the green, and watched a few groups finish, including Bill Haas’s uncle Jerry Haas, the golf coach at Wake Forest.

We moved back to the ninth hole to watch some of the afternoon wave come through, including former Masters champion Adam Scott, former world number one Luke Donald, defending FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel, four-time major champion Ernie Els, and former Wyndham champions Davis Love III, Brandt Snedeker, Webb Simpson, and Camilo Villegas.

While these players might normally have had me mildly star-struck, after following Tiger for five hours, seeing these big names suddenly wasn’t quite as big of a deal.  Satisfied with seeing the bigger names in the afternoon wave make an appearance at the ninth, we left Sedgefield midway through the afternoon.

I had seen Tiger Woods play before, at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte in 2009.  There, however, Tiger and Phil Mickelson were playing in back-to-back groups on a Saturday, and following was impossible due to the size of the crowds.  The layout of the Quail Hollow course allowed us to move a couple of holes ahead of the marquee pairings and then watch them come through.

This was much better.  While the crowd was still very large, it was bearable, and I was able to follow Tiger for all eighteen holes at my “hometown tournament”.  That would have been excellent as it was, but the fact Tiger played practically like his old self in his best round of the season made it that much better.

You know I’ll be rooting for Tiger this weekend.  The exposure he could bring to the Wyndham and the Greensboro area if he even contends for a win would be enormous.  Should he win, we would get to watch him more in the FedEx Cup Playoffs starting next week.

But more than that, should Tiger find a way to win on Sunday, I could say I saw one of the greatest begin his comeback.  I could say I was there when he won his first tournament since 2013.

But even if Tiger’s week doesn’t develop into a victory, mine has still been made.  I followed Tiger Woods, perhaps the greatest golfer ever to play the game, at my “hometown tournament”, and I must say, it was a dream come true.

 

Stenson Wins The Tour Championship, The FedExCup, And A Large Payday

Henrik Stenson completed a career year today with a 3-shot win in The Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta.  He becomes the 6th player to win the FedEx Cup since its inception in 2007, following Tiger Woods (2007, 2009), Vijay Singh (2008), Jim Furyk (2010), Bill Haas (2011) and Brandt Snedeker (2012).  The Swede is just the second non-American to win the Cup, after Singh, from Fiji, won five years ago.

Stenson’s big win earned him a grand total of $11.44 million.  $10 million of this is the prize for winning the FedEx Cup, which is the largest purse for any event in sport played by individuals (as opposed to team sports).  The remaining $1.44 million is the purse for winning this one event, The Tour Championship.

Whether it was intentional or not, Stenson’s season built up to the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and he was rewarded with the PGA Tour’s biggest prize, excluding the four major championships.  In his first three events, he made 2 out of 3 cuts but failed to record a top-30 finish.  He showed some signs of good play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Shell Houston Open, collecting a T8 and a T2.  Following a top-20 at The Masters and a missed cut, he posted a T5 at The Players.  After some mediocre performances, including a T21 at the US Open, he began his big run to the Cup at The Open Championship where he finished solo 2nd behind Phil Mickelson.  That was followed by a T2 behind Tiger Woods runaway at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and a solo 3rd at the PGA behind Jason Dufner and Jim Furyk.

After the PGA, it was playoff time.  Stenson entered the playoffs ranked 9th, which was the highest among non-winners.  Following a T43 at The Barclays, he changed his winless status with a dominating performance at the Deutsche Bank Championship.  His worst round that week was a 67.  The win, along with his high regular season ranking, left him in good position headed into the final two playoff events, and he remained in 2nd, even after a T33 at the BMW Championship.  Because of his position, he could win The Tour Championship to seal the FedEx Cup, no matter what anyone else, including top-ranked Tiger Woods, did in the tournament.

Stenson earned his title this week with a wire-to-wire victory.  Rounds of 64-66-69-68 gave him a three-shot victory over Jordan Spieth and Steve Stricker.  Had Spieth found a way to win, Stenson would’ve still won the Cup based on Spieth lower ranking prior to the finale and Woods’ poor finish.  Had Stricker won, the Wisconsin would have won the Cup, a prize which he’s been close to several times but fallen just short of.

Today marked Stenson’s 4th Tour win, and they’ve all been in big events.  He won the Accenture Match Play in 2007, followed by The Players in 2009.  Stenson struggled from 2010 to 2012, both on the PGA Tour and in Europe, before a resurgence this year and wins at the Deustche Bank Championship and today.  Counting both the PGA Tour and European Tour, this was his 14th professional win.

How did Stenson do it from a statistical standpoint?  He leads the PGA Tour in greens in regulation and in ball striking (a combination of greens in regulation and total driving), and is 2nd in Total Driving (a combination of the distance and accuracy stats).

Today concluded the 2013 PGA Tour season.  By this time next week, we will know the entire membership for the 2014 PGA Tour season, as the Web.com Tour Finals will conclude Sunday at the Dye Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach.  This year, for the first time, the Fall Series events over the coming weeks will count toward money and points for the 2014 PGA Tour Season.  The new season begins October 10-13 at the Frys.com Open in San Martin, CA.

 

Tour Championship, Final Results
1. Henrik Stenson, Sweden, -13 (64-66-69-68–267)
T2. Jordan Spieth, U.S., -10 (68-67-71-64–270)
T2. Steve Stricker, U.S., -10 (66-71-68-65–270)
4. Webb Simpson, U.S., -9 (68-71-69-63–271)
5. Dustin Johnson, U.S., -8 (68-68-67-69–272)
6. Justin Rose, England, -7 (68-68-70-67–273)
T7. Billy Horschel, U.S., -6 (66-70-70-68–274)
T7. Zach Johnson, U.S., -6 (69-68-69-68–274)
T9. Roberto Castro, U.S., -5 (67-71-72-65–275)
T9. Jason Dufner, U.S., -5 (74-70-66-65–275)
T9. Sergio Garcia, Spain, -5 (68-71-69-67–275)
Notables:
T12. Phil Mickelson, U.S., -4 (71-67-70-68–276)
T14. Jim Furyk, U.S., -3 (70-68-73-66–277)
T14. Adam Scott, Australia, -3 (65-69-74-69–277)
T22. Tiger Woods, U.S., E (73-71-69-67–280)

Final FedEx Cup Standings
1. Henrik Stenson, Sweden, $10,000,000 bonus
2. Tiger Woods, U.S., $3,000,000
3. Steve Stricker, U.S., $2,000,000
4. Adam Scott, Australia, $1,500,000
5. Zach Johnson, U.S., $1,000,000
6. Matt Kuchar, U.S., $800,000
7. Jordan Spieth, U.S., $700,000
8. Graham DeLaet, Canada, $600,000
9. Phil Mickelson, U.S., $550,000
10. Justin Rose, England, $500,000
Notables:
13. Jim Furyk, U.S., $270,000
22. Sergio Garcia, Spain, $215,000