Why Sunday matters so much to Tiger Woods even if he doesn’t win

Golf


SAN DIEGO — It has been seven years since Tiger Woods last won at Torrey Pines, and the results since that eighth professional victory on the shores of the Pacific have been mixed; he has never been in contention coming down the final nine holes.

Sunday presents Woods’ his best chance, although he has quite the climb to the top, with 12 players in front of him as he sits 5 shots back of one of the best players in the game — Jon Rahm.

Here are a few things to consider as the final round unfolds at the Farmers Insurance Open.

1. The Rankings, Part I

Woods, of course, would love to come from behind and win his record-setting 83rd PGA Tour title. While it’s not likely, it remains possible. Torrey Pines presents a stiff challenge, and if he can get hot — which has so far eluded him — there is no guarantee that Rahm, Rory McIlroy or any of the others will prevail. Still, Woods has come from 5 shots back to win just twice in his career — Pebble Beach in 2000 and the Memorial in 2012.

But garnering a high finish is very important as it relates to the Olympic golf tournament this summer. Woods will be in a tense battle for one of the four spots that the U.S. team will get for players ranked among the top 15 in the world. And with Woods at No. 6 in the world — and fourth among Americans — earning as many world ranking points as possible at every tournament he plays will be imperative.

Because Woods will never play more than the minimum amount of tournaments (40) in the two-year ranking period, every event he plays is a chance to earn points. And now he’s on the cusp of being able to grab a good number of them if he can move up the board and, say, finish in the top five.

The eye test suggests that Woods is in a good spot with his game. His swing looks smooth, his driver — despite putting a new one in play this week — is an asset and he has hit plenty of good iron shots. Sure, there have been some misfires. None of his statistics are great, but they are decent, led by 15th in the field in strokes gained tee to green.

Torrey is not easy for him to dominate anymore. With wet, thick rough and cold temperatures on a long golf course, it requires everything to be great. Two years ago, in his first official event since spinal fusion surgery, it was a miracle that Woods gutted out a tie for 23rd. Last year he needed a final-round 67 to tie for 20th.

A 67 on Sunday could help him in many ways.

2. The Rankings, Part II

Rory McIlroy will go to No. 1 in the world with a victory on Sunday. He has not been in that position since the end of 2015, which is almost hard to believe. Now ranked second, he slipped as low as 13th following a missed cut at the Valspar Championship in March of 2018. Since then, it’s been a steady, slow climb back.

Last year, McIlroy made the decision to start his year in the United States rather than the Middle East. And it has seemingly paid off with an amazing run of consistency that saw him earn PGA Tour Player of the Year honors after capturing the FedEx Cup in 2019.

He also likes Torrey Pines after playing it for the first time last year and tying for fifth.

“The way it’s set up this week, I think it’s built for me, especially with how I’m driving the ball,” said McIlroy, who is ranked third in strokes gained tee to green and is tied for 15th in driving accuracy. “It’s playing long, we’re not getting much roll out there. The rough’s up, the fairways are pretty narrow. If it was really built for me, I would love bent greens instead of poa, but I guess you take what you’re given. Tee to green I feel very comfortable on a track like this.”

McIlroy has never won in an opening start to his year.

3. The Rahm-inator

That’s how Woods described Rahm on Thursday as they played the first two rounds of the tournament together. And the Spaniard is doing nothing so far to impact his status as one of the game’s great young talents.

He got his first PGA Tour victory at Torrey Pines in 2017 and has now won nine times worldwide.

“That win was sort of unique,” Rahm said. “I didn’t know any better and I was 3 shots back when I started the day and bogeyed the first hole and I just went flag hunting on every single shot after that. And it paid off, right? I was able to hit a lot of good shots going at flags that maybe I shouldn’t go for.”

Rahm still has an aggressive nature about him, and he has been stalking leaderboards for the better part of the past nine months.

Including a tie for third at the U.S. Open, Rahm has nine top-5 finishes in his past 14 worldwide starts. He has missed just one cut, and won three times — the Duty Free Irish Open, the Spanish Open and the DP World Tour Championship, the European Tour’s season-ending event. He is ranked third in the world behind Brooks Koepka and McIlroy.

“If this is the most confident I’ve been on a golf course?” he said. “No, I think I’m playing a little bit smarter maybe, just learning as a pro. I think we all try to show up to a golf tournament thinking we’re the better player that week and we can do it and it’s just a matter of showing it.”

4. The Rookie

Tyler McCumber, 28, is a rookie on the PGA Tour and had the experience Saturday of playing for the first time with Tiger Woods — and beating him. McCumber shot 68 (to Woods’ 69) and is tied for seventh, 3 shots back. And like many before him, he was in awe of the experience of getting to play with Woods.

“This is his track,” said McCumber, the son of former PGA Tour player Mark McCumber. “I mean, watching the [2008 U.S.] Open here and how well he played and what he battled through is one of the greatest spectacles in golf history, so it was unbelievable.”

McCumber said he has never come close to playing before as many people as he did Saturday. He made four birdies without a bogey.

“Tyler’s a good dude, man. I know his brother [Josh, a golf coach],” Woods said. “It’s cool to see him go out there and play as well as he did. It was a different atmosphere for him, first time he’s been out in an atmosphere like that and he handled himself great.”

5. The Forgotten Man

It might be easy to dismiss Ryan Palmer. He let the second-round lead slip Saturday, shooting 71 after a 62 on Friday on the North course. He’s grouped with big hitters like Rahm and McIlroy.

And although he won the Zurich Classic last year — a team event where Rahm was his partner — he doesn’t have an individual title since 2010.

But he has been playing well, contending two weeks ago at the Sony Open before a bizarre final-hole rules issue that saw him have to declare a lost ball that cost him a chance at a win. Now he’s in the mix again, just a shot back of Rahm.

“The game’s been right there,” said Palmer, 43. “Even in the fall, I played well in Korea and Japan, to be right there on Sunday at the Sony Open and here we are again. The more times you get in that position, the easier it becomes, I think. It’s a matter of just getting into that situation more and more often. This is the arena you want to be in, you want to be there with the greatest players with all the crowd around you and cheering you and heckling you and whatever they’re doing.”

Heckling? Palmer said it happened on the 14th green Saturday, where a spectator kept telling him how to read the putt. “And he said it four times. I was like, OK, I got it. I was over the ball when he yelled it, ‘Hit it right.’ I turned around and kind of motioned with the putter in hand, like you want to come hit it? So he kind of — yeah, that was it.”

And the putt?

“It was “s—ty,” he said. “Maybe he should have hit it.”



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