Tiger Woods has pretty decent return to the Tour with first round at WGC-Bridgestone Invitational

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Tiger returns to Tour

Tiger returns to Tour

Tiger Woods appeared to face a big test Thursday in his return to golf.

It was a 3-wood around the trees on the 658-yard 16th hole at Firestone that required him to go at it hard, cut short his back swing to produce the sharp fade, then let the momentum of his motion carry his body forward with an awkward step.

Only it didn’t feel like that big of a deal to Woods.

“I was just trying to hit a cut,” he said. “I didn’t feel any problem with that.”

His only concern in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was that he hit the ball too flush and too far. He still managed three birdies, including a 30-foot putt on the 16th hole, that carried him to a 2-under 68 and sent a strong statement that his leg was as healthy as he thought.

His game wasn’t half bad, either.

“It feels great,” Woods said. “As anybody who’s been off and who’s been injured, first time back it’s a little nervous to see what happens. But my practice sessions were good, so there’s no reason why I should be worried out there. I went out there and let it go, let it rip and see what happens.”

His ex-caddie saw some familiar golf at Firestone, too.

Steve Williams, now working permanently for Adam Scott after Woods fired him a month ago, watched the Australian play flawless in matching his career-low round on the PGA Tour with a 62 that gave Scott a one-shot lead over Jason Day.

Williams was on the bag for all seven of Woods’ wins at Firestone, including his 11-shot win in 2000 when Woods had a 61 in the second round and set the tournament record at 259.

“He didn’t think it was a big deal to shoot 62,” Scott said with a grin. “It was normal.”

Despite all the interest about Woods’ return, there was nothing special about his score, even if it was his lowest opening round this year.

The conditions were so soft and calm that 39 players in the 78-man field broke par, a record number for any round in the 12 years this World Golf Championship has been played on Firestone South.

The scoring average was 69.63, the lowest since the opening round in 2001. Scott, who birdied four of his last six holes, had the lowest opening round ever at Firestone.

Day, who tied for second with Scott at the Masters, shot a 63 in the morning. Nick Watney, a World Golf Championship winner at Doral this year, bogeyed the last hole and still had a 65.

“Probably not what we’re used to seeing around this course, so it was good to take advantage of that,” Scott said.

Even so, this day was primarily about one score, and one player.

The attention on Woods was so great that when he stepped onto the first tee, the gallery lined the entire right side of the 401-yard opening hole and wrapped around the green. Phil Mickelson was wrapping up his round of 67 at No. 9, and when the fans around the green and in the grandstands had their backs turned to watch Woods tee off.

Playing in soft spikes for the first time, and going back to the putter that he used in 13 of his major championships, Woods avoided a poor start by making an 18-foot par putt on the third, and he saved his round toward the end of the front nine by getting up-and-down from a bunker on the eighth, and making a 20-foot par putt on the ninth.

Then came his approach on the 10th, that spun out of the back fringe and settled about 4 feet away for birdie — not only his first of the day, but his first since he two-putted for birdie from 4 feet on the 15th hole at the Masters on April 10.

Woods injured a knee ligament and his Achilles’ tendon in that tournament, and then said he returned too early at The Players Championship. He aggravated the injuries on the first hole at the TPC Sawgrass and quit after nine holes at 6-over par. He said he would not play again until he was fully healthy, and that much showed at Firestone.

There was one moment on the 17th tee when a reporter thought he saw Woods lift his left leg in a peculiar fashion.

“The marker was right in my way,” Woods said with a grin.

Perhaps more telling is that Woods said he stopped putting ice on his leg and taking inflammatory medicine “a while ago,” and held nothing back in his first competitive round in 84 days.

“I hadn’t really gone at it yet until today,” he said. “Just kind of plodding away, just kind of hitting shots. Today was just, ‘Let’s go, let’s go play, just put everything else aside and let’s go give it a go and try to post a low number.”

His lone bogey came on the 14th hole, when he tried to hit a perfect bunker shot from a slightly downhill lie with the green running away from him. He came inches short of pulling it off, leaning back in disbelief. He two-putted from the collar for bogey, and then came back two holes later with a shot on the 16th that showed he might already be at full strength.

The only problem he had was controlling his distance, and Woods had a reason for that, too.

“I’m hitting it just so much more flush, and I’m just not used to that,” he said. Does that mean he was hitting it badly before?

“Yeah,” he said. “My swing was more of a wipey swing … so I wasn’t getting a full transfer of energy. Now I’m swinging easier. I’m not even hitting it hard yet, and that’s what’s fun. I’m hitting it farther without any more effort.”

It took great effort to get atop the leaderboard.

Day went out early and posted a bogey-free round of 63, making birdie on the last hole. No one else from the morning group was better than a 66. And then it was Scott’s turn in the afternoon. He thought 63 was a pretty low score for this South course, but then figured it was there for the taking with so many other scores in the 60s.

“I just feel like I need to get myself in these things from Thursday, show up and go, not show up and see how you get on the first nine,” Scott said. “I feel like that’s a good way for me to go because I’m hitting the ball well, and I feel really confident on the greens. It was green light and just attack.”

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Woods passes on US Open Golf due to injuries

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Tiger Woods passes on US Open

Tiger Woods passes on US Open

Tiger Woods pulled out of the U.S. Open on Tuesday because of lingering issues with his left leg, leaving him uncertain how soon he can resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record for major titles.

 

It will be the first time Woods has missed the U.S. Open since 1994, when he had just graduated high school.

“I am extremely disappointed that I won’t be playing in the U.S. Open, but it’s time for me to listen to my doctors and focus on the future,” Woods said on his website. “I was hopeful that I could play, but if I did, I risk further damage to my left leg. My knee and Achilles tendon are not fully healed.”

Woods said he hoped to be ready for the AT&T National, which starts June 30 at Aronomink, and the next two majors. Then again, he said two weeks ago he would do everything possible to be ready for the U.S. Open, which is far more significant.

“We’re very disappointed that he won be playing in the National Open,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said, whom Woods called Tuesday morning. “He certainly brings excitement to the event. He’ll be missed, but the U.S. Open will go on. The event is bigger than one player, but he certainly will be missed.”

The U.S. Open starts June 16 at Congressional, where Woods won the AT&T National two years ago and tied for 19th when the U.S. Open was last played there in 1997.

He hasn’t won since the 2009 Australian Masters, a stretch of 22 tournaments. He not only lost his No. 1 ranking late last year, he has plunged to No. 15 in the world, his lowest spot in the ranking since the spring of 1997.

Woods announced his decision on Twitter: “Not playing in US Open. Very disappointed. Short-term frustration for long-term gain.”

The Masters is now the only major Woods has played every year since turning pro. He was recovering from knee surgery in 2008 and did not play the British Open and PGA Championship.

“It’s been a frustrating and difficult year, but I’m committed to my longterm health,” Woods said. “I want to thank the fans for their encouragement and support. I am truly grateful and will be back playing when I can.”

The question is when he returns.

Woods is recovering from injuries to his left knee ligaments and left Achilles’, and his Achilles’ is believed to be giving him more trouble.

“My man is hurting,” Arjun Atwal, a close friend and frequent practice partner, said last week at the Memorial. “He’s in a boot, he’s on crutches. Not doing good.”

The most recent of four surgeries on Woods’ left knee came a week after the 2008 U.S. Open, which Woods won in a playoff for his 14th major. He had reconstructive surgery and was out for eight months, then returned and won seven times the following year before his personal life imploded on Thanksgiving night in 2009.

Woods was tied for the lead at the turn in the final round of the Masters this year and wound up in a tie for fourth. But he said he hurt his knee and Achilles’ hitting from an awkward stance in the pine straw on the 17th hole of the third round at Augusta National, and he was limping toward the finish on Sunday. He described it as a “minor injury” in April.

Woods sat out the Wells Fargo Championship, then tried to play in The Players Championship, only to withdraw at 6-over par after nine holes because of what he called a chain reaction of pain in his knee, Achilles’ and eventually his calf.

He later said he tried to come back too early.

The U.S. Open will be the 12th straight major without Woods winning, the longest drought of his career. He remains four majors short of the 18 professional majors that Nicklaus won, the ultimate benchmark in golf.

“I still have plenty of time, and I feel that going forward, I’m excited about playing major championships and playing golf again,” Woods said two weeks ago while promoting the AT&T National. “I just want to be healthy and solid, and I feel like I can give it a go.”

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David Toms rebounds near miss with lead in Colonial

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David Toms leads Colonial

David Toms leads Colonial

David Toms quickly rebounded from the disappointment of his near-miss.

Toms shot a bogey-free 8-under 62 Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial with Chez Reavie. Toms’ best score in more than five years came only four days after he lost a playoff at the Players Championship.

“It was one of those days where the hole just looked big,” Toms said. “This round certainly helps me get past what happened last week at the end. I needed to get off to a good start.”

After forcing a playoff with K.J. Choi at TPC Sawgrass with a rare birdie at the 18th hole, Toms missed a short par putt at the famed No. 17 island hole in the playoff that would have extended play.

At Hogan’s Alley, Toms was tied after one round with Reavie, who bettered his career-best score by two strokes.

It was Toms’ best score in 429 rounds — since a career-best 61 at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January 2006. That was the last of his 12 PGA Tour victories.

The 62s by Toms and Reavie matched the lowest 18-hole scores on the PGA Tour this season, and were the best for an opening round.

Rickie Fowler shot a 63, missing a chance to tie the tournament record after his approach on his final hole, the 407-yard No. 9, hit the green and spun back into the water. He closed with a double-bogey 6 in a round that included an eagle, eight birdies and a three-putt bogey from 6 feet at the par-3 16th.

Fowler made a 20-foot eagle putt on the par-5 first hole and was 8 under over an eight-hole stretch before hitting his tee shot at his final hole left of a bunker into the rough before his penalized approach. And he still had a 29 on the front side.

“It’s a sorry way to finish the round, but I hit it really well, putted well,” Fowler said. “A 29 with a double (bogey) is not too bad. … I’m excited to be playing well this week and kind of draw off the good out there today. A 63 to start off with is pretty awesome.”

Brendon de Jonge, Stewart Cink, Brian Gay, Nathan Green and Charlie Wi shot 64s, a stroke better than Rod Pampling, Mark Wilson and John Senden. Wi was the only of the top 11 scorers who played in the afternoon, when more wind made conditions tougher.

Toms shot 31s on both nines at Colonial, starting on the back and wrapping up both sides with long birdie putts. His 27-foot putt at No. 18 started a stretch of three consecutive birdies, and he punctuated his round with a 29-foot birdie at the ninth hole.

Though he hit only six of 14 fairways, Toms needed just 24 putts.

“It was one of those days where I saw the lines. I had a lot of putts that barely broke right, barely broke left,” he said. “I had a lot of uphill-type putts where you could be aggressive. It’s just one of those days where everything seemed to go right.”

Exactly what the 44-year-old Toms needed playing close to his Louisiana home at one of his favorite tournaments after last week.

Reavie, the 2008 Canadian Open winner, is making a comeback from reconstructive surgery on his right knee last year, when he matched his career-best round of 64 at the Byron Nelson Championship in May before being diagnosed with a second meniscus tear in his knee.

“It’s just great to be out there,” Reavie said. “It feels great. It swells up some, but it’s not from the golf. It’s from the walking. I wake up the next day and feel great. It’s much better than it was.”

Though he made the cut in six of his first 10 tournaments this season while playing on a major medical exemption, Reavie has finished inside the top 40 only once and needs a big check soon. He needs to make $464,707 over this and his next two tournaments to maintain his full PGA Tour exemption for the rest of this season.

The $6.2 million purse at the Colonial includes $1.116 million for the winner, $669,600 for second place and $421,600 for third.

DIVOTS: Anthony Kim opened with four consecutive birdies and was 5 under through six holes. But he bogeyed three of the last six holes and finished with a 67… Jason Day, who plays out of Colonial, shot a 71. … Defending Colonial champion Zach Johnson had three bogeys and five birdies in a round of 68.

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KJ Choi wins the Players Championship on first hole of sudden death

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KJ Choi wins TPC

KJ Choi wins TPC

K.J. Choi did everything demanded of the winner at the Players Championship.

Not only did he hit the island green on the 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass, he did it three times in one day. With the tournament on the line, he got up-and-down for par from 80 feet on the final hole Sunday.

Despite everything Choi did to win, this Players Championship might be remembered as much for how it was lost.

David Toms, who hit 6-iron out of a divot and made an 18-foot birdie putt on the hardest hole to force a playoff, missed a 3-foot par putt on the 17th to hand Choi the biggest win of his career.

“No excuses, no spike marks, no ball marks, no nothing,” Toms said of his three-putt bogey on the first sudden-death playoff hole. “Maybe a lot of pressure. But other than that, there was no excuse.”

On a hole designed to provide great theater — the island-green 17th — the finish fell flat.

Both players hit the green in the playoff, and the advantage went to Toms with a shot that settled about 18 feet away. Choi lagged his long birdie putt about 3 feet by the hole, and Toms thought he had a winner with his 18-foot putt until it slid by the cup and rolled 3 feet by the cup. Into the grain, slightly uphill, he didn’t strike it solidly and missed.

Choi tapped in his putt and pumped his fist, yet his heart felt for the 44-year-old Toms.

“As a fellow player, I felt very sorry for him,” Choi said. “Because I know how that feels. And I felt bad for him.”

Choi had reason to celebrate for his own feats. Winless on the PGA Tour for three years, he took the outright lead with a 10-foot birdie on the 17th in regulation, saved par on the 18th with a putt from just in side 5 feet to close with a 2-under 70 and kept his nerves steady.

The South Korean lived in Jacksonville briefly when he first came to America and once practiced at the TPC Sawgrass, although he said his game wasn’t good enough then to break par.

Now, Choi is the Players champion, a winner of the biggest event on the PGA Tour.

“For me to shoot under par every day on this course this week, it’s like a miracle, to be honest with you,” Choi said.

Choi won for the eighth time in his PGA Tour career, picked up $1.71 million from the biggest purse in tournament golf, moved to No. 15 in the world and all but assured himself a spot on the Presidents Cup team.

Toms, winless in five years, had an easy time taking away positives. He was the 36-hole leader, finished the rain-delayed third round Sunday morning only one shot behind and spent some five hours with his name atop the leaderboard in the final round.

And his birdie on the 18th — one of only four birdies on the hardest hole at Sawgrass in the final round — he hit 6-iron out of a divot to 18 feet and forced a playoff.

“It was the best putt I’ve had in an awful long time,” Toms said.

Even so, it’s hard to get past a pair of mistakes.

The first one came on the par-5 16th, when he had a one-shot lead over Choi and tried to reach the green in two. His approach found the water, and Toms wound up making bogey. This is the guy famous for laying up on the par-4 18th at Atlanta Athletic Club when he won his lone major 10 years ago at the PGA Championship.

Toms was trying to put pressure on Choi.

“I thought I could hit the shot,” he said.

And then came the putt, when part of him already was thinking about going to the second playoff hole that decided the tournament. One consolation for Toms, along with knowing his game is close, is that he moved to No. 46 in the world and can avoid U.S. Open qualifying if he can stay there one more week.

Toms also finished with a 70, joining Choi in the playoff at 13-under 275.

So many other players felt they also squandered chances, none more than U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and Nick Watney.

McDowell, who had a one-shot lead when the third round concluded Sunday morning because of rain delays, lost his way after an errant tee shot into the trees on the sixth hole. He hit four shots into the water the rest of the way and closed with a 79.

Watney was in control late in the third round until playing a three-hole stretch in 4 over par, then fell behind with consecutive bogeys at the turn in the final round and could never catch up.

Paul Goydos, who lost a playoff to Sergio Garcia in 2008 when the tour decided to make the 17th the first playoff hole, closed with a 69 to finish alone in third.

Luke Donald never got on track, but still managed a 71 for his seventh consecutive top 10. He tied for fourth with Watney (71) and moved to No. 2 in the world, giving England the top two spots in the world ranking.

Donald and McDowell wore all-navy blue outfits in honor of Seve Ballesteros — his famous Sunday colors — who died last week.

Toms took a share of the lead on the second hole and never trailed until the finish.

It was a long day for both of them — 32 holes for Toms, 27 holes for Choi, because of the rain-delayed third round that had to be completed Sunday morning.

One shot by McDowell, along with one wicked bounce, set the tone for the final round — for him and those chasing him.

With consecutive birdies amid several collapses, McDowell suddenly had a three-shot lead as he closed out the third round. From the right rough on the 18th, his ball took a hard hop short of the green, caught the slope with some speed and didn’t stop rolling until it tumbled over the edge and into the water. After a drop, he three-putted for double bogey to fall back to 12-under 204.

That one-shot lead didn’t last long, and neither did McDowell.

He drilled a 50-foot birdie putt on No. 5 to catch Toms, then crumbled with a tee shot into the trees on No. 6, a tee shot into the water on No. 7 and a peculiar decision to try to blast out from squarely behind a plant on the ninth. He made bogey on all of them, then dropped another shot into the water on the 13th, 17th and 18th.

What makes the final three holes so dramatic is that anything can happen. No one could have expected it would end the way it did.

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Bad bounce could have been worse as McDowell still leading by one at TPC

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Graeme McDowell not pulling any punches

Graeme McDowell not pulling any punches

The consolation for Graeme McDowell is he still has the lead at the Players Championship.

McDowell made a late surge as he finished the rain-delayed third round Sunday morning, building a three-shot lead with a tap-in birdie on the island-green 17th. But he was shocked to see his approach on the 18th bounce onto the green, take a hard turn to the left and roll all way into the water. He wound up with a double bogey for a 68.

Even so, that gave him a one-shot lead over K.J. Choi and David Toms going into the final round.

It set up what could be a dynamic finish, with so many top players on a course where anything can happen at any minute. That much was evident at the end of the third round.

Nick Watney lost the lead by playing a three-hole stretch in 4 over.

McDowell hit a beautiful pitch on the 16th to set up a birdie and the outright lead. Then came a wedge on the 17th that spun down the slope to within 2 feet for birdie.

He was in the right rough on the 18th, a clear look at the green that features a severe slope to the left on the front part. McDowell said he would have taken anything short or to the right, but with his draw, it headed toward the flag below the teardrop mounds, bounced onto the green with speed and caught the slope.

It looked good, but only for a second.

The ball rolled to the left, further and further away, gathering speed. Then it caught another small slope and McDowell’s jaw dropped when he saw the ball tumble over the wooden frame of the green and into the water.

“Wow!” he said to himself.

He dropped on the fringe, but left his long par putt about 6 feet short and missed that one for double bogey.

McDowell was at 12-under 204 and will play in the final threesome with Choi (67) and Toms (71). McDowell had played mistake-free, and the double bogey brought several players back into the hunt for the final 18 holes Sunday afternoon.

Ryder Cup Captain Davis Love III, a two-time winner on the TPC Sawgrass, avoided the calamity that hit so many others down the stretch for a 70 that put him in the group at 9-under 207 with Luke Donald (71), Jason Dufner (68), Aaron Baddeley (70), Steve Stricker (71) and Watney, who had to settle for a 72.

Donald, who can go to No. 1 in the world with a win Sunday, bogeyed the last two holes.

It was one of several missed chances on a gorgeous morning at Sawgrass.

Watney made the turn in 32 to get to 13 under and was holding steady until he pulled his tee shot so badly on the 14th that it went into the water and he had to play again from the tee. He wound up with a double bogey to fall one shot behind, then kept sliding. He came up well short of the 15th green and made bogey, then chipped through the green and into the water on the par-5 16th for bogey.

Toms, the 36-hole leader, was tied for the lead after Watney’s double bogey. But he failed to birdie the 16th, then put his tee shot on the 17th into a bunker and took two shots to reach the green for bogey.

Stricker was one shot out of the lead when he missed four putts inside 8 feet — three for birdie, one for par.

His tee shot on the 17th was perfect for the traditional Sunday hole location, only this was Sunday morning — still the third round, when the pin is in a bowl at the bottom left of the green, not top right.

That left Stricker a 55-foot putt around a ridge and down the slope, and he took bogey. From the fairway on the 18th, he badly pulled his shot to the left and into the water and did well to save bogey.

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Has Tiger returned to the PGA Tour yet?

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Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods

The trouble with being so good for so long is that it makes the bad times look even worse.

Tiger Woods never looked worse at Torrey Pines.

One of the more astute assessments about the state of Woods’ golf game came last year at the Australian Masters. He was paired in the third round with Kieran Pratt, a 22-year-old from Melbourne. A longtime observer noted that one player had won 14 majors among 82 titles around the world, the other was making his pro debut, and you couldn’t tell the difference. Pratt shot a 70. Woods had a 71.

A new year looked a lot like the old one for Woods.

To see him open with a pair of 69s at the Farmers Insurance Open made it appear as though his game was on an upward trend, until recognizing that Anthony Kim was better in each of the two rounds.

Woods was outplayed in the next two rounds by two rookies: Jhonattan Vegas, an emerging star on the PGA TOUR who showed no effects of a hangover from winning the previous week at the Bob Hope Classic; and Brendan Steele, who grew up in a California town (Hemet) that didn’t even have a golf course.

Even more surprising is that it took place at Torrey Pines.

No one has had more success on San Diego’s public gem than Woods. He won the Farmers Insurance Open six times, and won the U.S. Open in 2008 on a shattered right leg — and in his first tournament in two months. But his record runs far deeper. He had never finished out of the top 10, and he had never finished more than four shots behind the winner.

This isn’t the first time Woods has revamped his swing, either.

The first big overhaul was in 1998, and Woods still finished only one shot out of a playoff that year at Torrey Pines. The other reconstruction project was in 2004, and he wound up two shots out of a playoff.

This time, he was a whopping 15 shots out of the lead in a tie for 44th.

Woods failed to break par only one time on the South Course at Torrey Pines in his first 32 rounds in TOUR events. He shot 74 on Saturday to fall out of the hunt, and 75 on Sunday to fall into irrelevancy.

At least he didn’t finish near the bottom of the pack as he did last summer at Firestone, another course where he has dominated.

Woods was flustered when he finished.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” he said when asked if he was surprised by his scores. “I started out hitting it pretty good out here this week. I really did. And it progressively got worse. We have some things that we need to work on. Sean (Foley) and I have been talking about it every night. I can do it on the range, but it’s a little different when I’ve got to bring it out here.”

Woods said he’s in “the process” of his swing change. When he was changing his swing under Hank Haney, his choice of words was, “I’m close.”

But even he’s not sure how close he is.

So much more was expected. Woods was coming off a solid tournament two months ago at his Chevron World Challenge, where he played great for 54 holes, looked shaky the last 18 and lost in a playoff to U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell.

And then there’s the Torrey factor.

Woods will always be compared with his past, and that’s not about to go away.

At his low point last year — a missed cut at Quail Hollow, a withdraw from THE PLAYERS Championship with a neck injury that no one knew anything about — Paul Goydos cautioned not to judge Woods until he played courses where he traditionally won, and won big. Still to come was the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and the British Open at St. Andrews.

Woods wasn’t a serious contender at either, and by then his game was in full meltdown mode.

So while it’s too early to measure Woods after one tournament, it’s natural to raise questions after such a pedestrian performance at Torrey Pines. Next week is the Dubai Desert Classic, where Woods has never finished lower than fifth. The last time he played, he won by one shot over a young German named Martin Kaymer, who now is No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking and could go to No. 1 at the Qatar Masters this week.

Then after the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship — too fickle to measure anyone’s game — is the World Golf Championship-Cadillac Championship at Doral, where Woods has won three times and has never finished out of the top 10.

Each result that’s not up to previous standards will make him appear to be even further away from where he once was.

Woods says he is working harder than ever on the range, and Foley said he spent about four hours a week with him at Isleworth during the holidays, although it sure didn’t translate to the golf course.

It’s the same process — take the swing from the range to inside the ropes. Perhaps he would do well to add a tournament to give himself more repetitions when it matters, although there is no indication that Woods will play the Northern Trust Open or even The Honda Classic.

The goal is to have his game ready for the Masters. That’s still two months away.

Given the way he started his year, it must feel as though it’s right around the corner.

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Molinari makes decision not to accept PGA 2011 card

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Edoardo Molinari

Edoardo Molinari

For all of the publicity surrounding Chubby Chandler’s clients – Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy – not taking PGA Tour membership in 2011, the likes of Graeme McDowell and Charl Schwartzel did. It was thought Edoardo Molinari might join the group taking up PGA Tour membership.On Friday after a run to the top of the leaderboard in Bahrain, the older Molinari said he would not be taking his PGA Tour card after all.

Speaking with Reuters, Edoardo said:

“I just feel it’s impossible to play 15 events on the PGA Tour as is required under their membership rules, along with the 20 that I want to play here on the European Tour,” he told Reuters.

“I will play the Honda Classic, the Bay Hill Invitational because I played so well there last year in finishing second plus the Players Championship and the Memorial.

“It will mean that with those four events along with the WGCs and the Majors I will be playing 12 events that would count on the PGA Tour.

“But I am not prepared to play 15 and I can’t see myself taking up membership in the future as I find the best way to prepare for the Majors and the WGCs is to be competing in Europe.”

European Tour loyalists are happy to play their 13 in Europe, which for top players only requires six additional European events beyond the majors and the World Golf Championships. Molinari will play the BMW PGA Championship and the Dubai World Championship, leaving four other events. He still would have to play another 8 in the US to satisfy the PGA Tour requirement of 15 events, including Playoff events.

Just another example in favor of my proposal to grant dual membership to any player in the top 50 of the Official World Golf Rankings. (That could be pruned to 25 and I would still support it.) Giving players choices instead of ultimatums would create a better run of events around the world.

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Is the PGA Tour appeasing top star players a bit to much?

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300px-Tiger_Woods_2007

Tiger Woods

All sports are star-driven, but golf even more so. Whether it was Seve Ballesteros decades ago, or Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood today, the major professional tours have always acted to protect their self-interest while making some accommodations to attract that handful of players who sell the tickets and draw the eyeballs to TV screens. This has never been a large number. Why don’t the European Tour and the PGA Tour agree to give the top 10 players in the World Ranking, say over a 24-month period, dual citizenship and waive the minimum tournament requirement as a perk for having reached the top of the game?

The list of names at that altitude changes little over a two-year stretch. At the most, you’re probably talking about 15 guys at any given point in time. If someone slips out of the top 10, he’s got 12 months from that date to enjoy his previous status, then it expires.

The Players aside, how does it help the Wells Fargo Championship if the PGA Tour makes it impractical, if not impossible, for the World’s No. 1 golfer to enter? It’s a noble ideal to treat all players the same, but the stars have never been, and will never be, the same as everyone else.

If the best player in the world wants to play, whether it’s in Charlotte or Abu Dhabi, Memphis or Mallorca, figure out a way to let him. What’s needed is a little more cooperation and a little less protectionism.

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Westwood skips The Players Championship due to restrictions

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Lee Westwood

Lee Westwood

Lee Westwood, the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world, said he will skip the PGA Tour’s signature event, The Players Championship, due to restrictions placed on non-members.

Playing his first European Tour event of the year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the 37-year-old Westwood told reporters he will miss the May event because he does not want to go to Florida from his home in England for just one event. The tournament takes place at the TPC Sawgrass at PGA Tour headquarters.

“I’d go over for The Players if I could play in the tournament the week before, but I don’t want to pitch up at The Players cold, having not played for four weeks since [the Masters at] Augusta,” Westwood said. “So I’ll play a couple of tournaments on the European Tour instead.”

At issue are the restrictions placed on those who give up PGA Tour membership.

Westwood, who was a tour member in 2009, is allowed to play only 10 PGA Tour events, seven of which are taken up by the four major championships and three World Golf Championship events played in the United States.

Late last year, the PGA Tour added a stipulation that The Players Championship would not count against the 10. So, in essence, Westwood has 11 tournaments if he heads to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

But Westwood likes to play the week prior to the majors, meaning he will play at the Shell Houston Open the week before the Masters and at the FedEx St. Jude Classic — where he is defending champion — the week before the U.S. Open.

Because the WGC Match Play and the WGC Cadillac Championship are two weeks apart, Westwood has chosen to play the Honda Classic during the week between.

In order to play the week prior to The Players, he’d have to skip Honda, Houston or St. Jude.

So it appears that Westwood would like to have 12 PGA Tour starts — but not the 15 necessary to be a PGA Tour member. He is required to play 13 to retain European membership, but the event majors/WGCs count on that tour as well.

“This sums up what’s wrong with golf at the moment,” Chubby Chandler, Westwood’s agent, told reporters at the Abu Dhabi event. “There are too many people in power thinking only about their own interests rather than what’s good for the game. It does my head in to think the world No. 1 in his sport can’t play in a tournament he wants to play in, and which the sponsor wants him to play in.”

Due to an oversight, Westwood exceeded the number of events he was allowed in 2010, playing in 11. He withdrew from the WGC Bridgestone Invitational with a calf injury and missed the following week’s PGA Championship.

Westwood is tied for 15th, five strokes back of first-round leader Charl Schwartzel in Abu Dhabi.

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Charles Howell III should not be overlooked

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Charles Howell III

Charles Howell III

There’s a long line of bright young stars on the PGA TOUR, from Dustin Johnson to Rickie Fowler to Louis Oosthuizen. Each one made an indelible mark on professional golf a year ago, whether it was by winning (or losing) a major championship, making the Ryder Cup team or earning some sort of honor. Each is a young face that will likely be around for years.

With the emergence of all these young stars, the still-youthful Charles Howell III has somehow been forgotten by golf fans who are stricken with the bright new faces.

But to overlook Howell would be a mistake.

While Howell has not emerged to become the “next Tiger Woods” as some predicted when he left Oklahoma State, he’s had a productive, fruitful career. Now, at age 31, he continues to make cuts, earn money and join the contenders on a regular basis. All that’s lacking is a few more victories.

“Obviously I want to win a golf tournament more than anything,” Howell said last spring during the Verizon Heritage.

He may get started in that direction this week at the Sony Open in Hawaii, a tournament in which he’s threatened to win more than once. If there’s one place on the TOUR schedule that Howell feels at home, it’s in Honolulu — perhaps even more so than that famed course in his hometown of Augusta, Ga.

There’s something about the Waialae Country Club that gives Howell the ability to relax and contend. He tied for fourth at the Sony Open in 2002 and tied for third there in 2005. He was second in 2007, losing to Paul Goydos by one stroke, and fourth in 2009, shooting in the 60s for all four rounds. He tied for fifth there in 2010, despite opening with a 73.

That’s five top-fives over nine events. No wonder Howell ranks fifth on the tournament’s list of all-time money winners. The Sony Open is his personal overstuffed recliner.

One reason Howell feels so comfortable at the Sony Open is that he’s able to fully use his ability to drive the ball. Howell has always been long off the tee and his ability to mash it works well at Waialae. It’s a course that encourages players to come out of their shoes on the tee — last year 79 percent of the competitors opted to go for the green in two on the layout’s two par-5s. That sets up perfectly for Howell, who can use his aggressive nature to attack the greens.

Waialae also has the toughest fairways to hit on TOUR. Only 47.7 percent of tee shots landed in the short grass, something that can definitely tilt the odds in a player’s favor. This is an area in which Howell can improve — he ranked only 181st in that category last season. But somehow it hasn’t been an issue in the past at the Sony Open.

A casual observer might believe that Howell’s 2010 season was a step back from 2009. He didn’t make as much money (falling 14 spots from the previous season to No. 60) and finishing 75th in the FedExCup standings. But the equation needs to include the fact that Howell and his wife, Heather, had their first child last season. Howell didn’t play for a month — from THE PLAYERS Championship to the St. Jude Classic presented by Smith & Nephew— while awaiting the arrival of Ansley Grace. And anyone with children can attest to the need for a transition period before and after a baby is born.

By the time the Fall Series rolled around, things were more settled at the Howell home. He responded with some of his most consistent play of the season, finishing inside the top 25 in each of the four events with a tie for sixth at the McGladrey Classic and tie for ninth at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic.

Will those performances carry over? They did in 2007 when he opened the season with a bang and beat Phil Mickelson in a playoff to win the Nissan Open at Riviera Country Club. In one of his last events of 2006, Howell tied for ninth at Disney. He went on to make the Presidents Cup team in 2007 and earn a career-best $2.8 million.

If Howell is poised for another spectacular season, don’t be surprised if it starts in Hawaii. It’s not a Green Jacket, but Howell would look good wearing a flowered shirt with a lei around his neck.

Stan Awtrey is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the PGA TOUR.

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