SAN DIEGO — Tiger Woods wrapped up his week at Torrey Pines with a 67 to tie for 20th and said it was good to shake off some rust and see what needs work. It was his first competition in seven weeks, and only his second event since the Ryder Cup ended on Oct. 1.
Whether it’s because of age or injury — both are relevant — keep in mind that for the first 12 years of his pro career, Woods never finished outside the top 10 in his first event of the year, winning six times. The streak ended at the Match Play in 2009 after he sat out eight months recovering from reconstructive knee surgery.
Dating to 2009, he has finished in the top 10 just twice in his first event of the year — a tie for fourth in the 2010 Masters and a tie for third in Abu Dhabi in 2012.
Even at his best, and when healthy, when Woods didn’t win his first start of the year it was written off in some corners as spring training. Everything was geared toward that first full week at Augusta National. In some respects, that remains true.
It’s about peaking four weeks every year, and Woods said that starts “months out.”
But when does it become important to start seeing results?
“Just want to keep building, keep getting more crisp,” Woods said. “It’s hard to peak for four major championships. It’s not easy. I’ve only done it 14 times.”
Most players would love to peak at majors half as much — if that many — in their careers. While conceding that “only” 14 sounds like a lot, Woods put it into context by referencing Jack Nicklaus winning “only” 18 times in 164 majors.
“It’s not easy to do,” said Woods, who has played 80 majors, six as an amateur. “It’s hard to have mind, body and soul come together at the same time. Luckily in this sport, we have four chances per year.”
What has his attention this year is not getting ready for the Masters, but the quick turnaround for the next one, with the PGA Championship moving to May. Last year, for example, there were nine weeks between the Masters and the U.S. Open. Now, there are four weeks between the Masters and the PGA.
“It’s very different because it feels like it’s our Players Championship week,” Woods said. “I’m familiar with the new date where we are with the Players (March). That’s not a big change for me. But having the PGA in May is going to be a little bit different.”
Saturday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open is typically about the volume and antics on the par-3 16th hole. This year, NBC Sports will devote a fair amount of the broadcast saying goodbye to Johnny Miller, the biggest voice in golf over the last 30 years.
Miller announced last fall he would retire. The third round will be his final day so nothing will detract from the winner on Sunday.
The two-time major champion never had a problem saying what he thinks. This time, his biggest concern is guarding his emotions.
“This is going to be quite the one-day telecast for me,” Miller said. “Yeah, I’ve given a lot of thought about this last event for me. I know it’s time. I could feel it was time to step down, but I stepped down a little early in my playing career, and I think maybe I’ve done the same thing here with my announcing career.
“I’m looking forward to trying not to cry, basically.”
Miller will be joined briefly in the booth Saturday by Paul Azinger, who replaces him as the lead analyst at NBC, and then Azinger will call the shots on Sunday. Azinger’s first full tournament as Miller’s replacement will be the Mexico Championship.
Each week of the new year seems to bring a new rules debate, whether it’s the knee-high drop or putting with the flagstick still in the cup. On Sunday in Dubai, it was the rule created to keep caddies from lining up the player.
And the debate was between two administrators.
Li Haotong was penalized two shots on the 18th green when he began to take his stance on a short putt with his caddie behind him. The caddie stepped away immediately and it appeared there was no intent to align him. If Li had stepped away and began his routine anew, there would not have been a penalty. But he was docked two shots, turning his 71 into a 73, and his tie for third into a tie for 12th, a difference of about $100,000.
After outrage on social media for how bad it looked, European Tour chief Keith Pelley issued a statement saying that while the officials made the right call by the strict wording of the rule, the officials should have been allowed some discretion in applying the rule. He referred to the outcome as “grossly unfair.”
Pelley said there needs to be a proper balance between maintaining integrity and promoting golf’s global appeal.
That prompted a statement a short time later from Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, which read more like a rebuke that even the modernized Rules of Golf that took effect Jan. 1 are not designed for officials to apply them based on how it looks.
“Whether the player intends to be lined up is not the issue,” Slumbers said. “We appreciate that it was a very unfortunate situation and I completely understand Keith Pelley’s concerns when a rules incident occurs at such a key stage of a European Tour event. But there is no discretionary element to the rule precisely so that it is easier to understand and can be applied consistently.”
Akshay Bhatia tried again to get into his first PGA Tour event. He made it through the pre-qualifier, but then missed by three shots in Monday qualifying for the Farmers Insurance Open.
The 16-year-old from North Carolina plans to turn pro when he finishes high school, though the amateur game still holds plenty of appeal. He already is the first boy to win the Junior PGA Championship in consecutive years since it began in 1976. He would love to repeat in the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley in Augusta, Georgia, again. He wants to be the No. 1 amateur, win the U.S. Amateur and play on the Walker Cup team this year.
“I know I can do it as long as I work on the right things,” Bhatia said.
Bhatia recently was featured in the Whistle Sports’ docuseries “No Days Off,” which looks at prodigies in various sports. It showed a teen who is relentless in his work ethic, and Bhatia doesn’t mind a perception that he is all golf and no play.
“It doesn’t bother me what people think,” he said. “I do have a life. I do have fun.”
But he loves his golf.
He says he has tried Monday qualifying since he was 14, and once got into a playoff for the final spot at a Web.com Tour event at his home course. In the meantime, he has three American Junior Golf Association victories, winning the Polo Golf Junior Classic by 10. He won his second Junior PGA by holing a 40-foot eagle chip on the 18th hole to win at Valhalla.
“Especially in this game, you have to learn how to win, learn how to close,” Bhatia said. “Any time you can put yourself in position like that, it’s definitely key because it helps going to the PGA Tour and the Web.com Tour.”
Fred Couples, Jim Furyk and Bill Haas have been given sponsor exemptions to the Genesis Open at Riviera. Haas withdrew last year when he was the passenger in a fatal car accident. … Justin Rose ended one streak at Torrey Pines. He was the first player in nine years to start the Farmers Insurance Open on the easier North Course. … Gary Nicklaus, the third son of Jack Nicklaus who played two years on the PGA Tour, has received a sponsor exemption to the Oasis Championship on Feb. 8-10 on the PGA Tour Champions.
STAT OF THE WEEK
With their 1-2 finish at Torrey Pines, Justin Rose and Adam Scott both went over the $50 million mark in career earnings on the PGA Tour.
“I’ve made myself look silly enough through the years. It’s nice to be left out of that for a change.” — Ian Poulter, on not being part of the latest European Tour social media spot.