Only Tiger Woods could overshadow the finale of the tournament that he, himself, is supposed to be promoting. Just as Max Homa was prevailing in one of the more enthralling conclusions on the PGA Tour, so Woods cast doubt about competing in the Masters in six weeks time.
The 45-year-old has yet to appear this year after undergoing a fifth back operation in late December. That caused him to miss the $9.3m Genesis Invitational which benefits his charitable foundation. Part of his duties is to appear on the US telecast as the action nears its denouement and it was inevitable in his two-minute appearance that he would be quizzed concerning the date of his return.
Alas, his comments were not what the golf world wanted to hear and certainly not as optimistic as the words of his friends Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, who both said after talking to Woods that he would be fit to tee it up at Augusta, where he so famously won his first major in 11 years in 2019.
“I'm a little bit stiff,” Wood said on CBS. “I have one more MRI [scan] scheduled so we'll see… and then I can start doing more activities. I'm still in the gym, still doing the mundane stuff that you have to do for rehab.”
As for any golf it has been limited to the practice green at his home in South Florida. But then only after he adjusted his putter to compensate for the spine that had been fused three years ago. “I have lengthened my putter,’ Woods said. “It helped.”
Will he be ready for Augusta? “God, I hope so, but I’ve got to get there first,” he said. “A lot of it is based on my surgeons, my doctors, my therapist and making sure that I do it correctly. This is the only back I have got and I don't know how much more wiggle room is left there. I don't know what the plan is. Right now it’s just to go ahead and get that MRA and see if it [the back] is healed and then start progressing.”
Nobody should be surprised, if Augusta proves to be Woods’s first appearance of 2021. He did the same in 2010 in the wake of his sex scandal and still managed to finish fourth. Woods will not rush this latest comeback, but The Masters is a special place in his story.
Meanwhile, the agony continued for Tony Finau. The big-hitting 31-year-old of Samoan heritage shot a 64 to make a play-off with Homa - but it was the same old story as he lost on the second extra hole.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 21, 2021
Finau’s inability to get over the finishing line, despite being in the world’s top 15, has become a part of golfing folklore, as well as YouTube. Since lifting his maiden title in Puerto Rico, Finau, 31, had finished in the top 10 a remarkable 40 times, including runner-up on nine occasions.
There have been so many near misses, an English pianist by the name of Sam Harrop, recorded a song - to the tune of Reo Speedwagon’s “ Can’t Fight This Feeling” - entitled “When Will Tony Finau Win Again?”.
Homa missed a four-footer in regulation to win, but then, on the first sudden-death hole, Finau skewed a putt from seven feet to land the spoils. Finau then bogeyed for that bitter taste of silver once again.
Genesis Open Final Leaderboard: Top 10
USA unless stated
1. M Homa -12
2. T Finau -12
3. S Burns -11
4. C Smith (Australia) -9
T5. J Rahm (Spain) -7
T5. V Hovland (Norway) -7
T5. M Fitzpatrick (England) -7
T8. F Molinari (Italy) -6
T8. W Clark -6
T8. M Jones (Australia) -6
T8. D Johnson -6
Matt Fitzpatrick moves himself into contention going into Genesis Invitation final round
One of Matt Fitzpatrick’s aims for the season was to break his duck on the PGA Tour and he made great strides towards that goal by surviving the high winds in Los Angeles to play himself into the final group.
The gusts were strong enough on Saturday to force a four-hour delay, with balls moving on the greens. But before and after, nobody in the Genesis Invitation went lower than the 26-year-old from Sheffield.
Fitzpatrick’s two-under 69 moved him up to seven-under, two off the pace set by Sam Burns and earned him a Sunday afternoon date in that last threeball not only with the young American but also with world No 1 Dustin Johnson. Fitzpatrick was relishing the challenge.
“I grew up on a golf course that's very much like this all the time,” Fitzpatrick said, perhaps making the first comparison ever between Hallamshire Golf Club on Redmires Road and Riviera Golf Club on Sunset Boulevard. “You've just got to get it round and today was another day like that where you've got to stick in. Fortunately had a nice stretch on the front nine of birdies and kicked on from there.”
What Fitzpatrick failed to mention was that as well the six birdies in that 10-hole run from the third, there were also four bogies. Hackers go weeks without a par, but professionals rarely go almost three hours, as was the case with the world No 20.
“I honest had no idea I did that,” he said. “But yeah, this course does it to you. You've really got to stick in, you've got to plot your way around and miss in the right areas. Even missing fairways in the right areas with this wind to sort of give you a bit better angle. You've just got to really be smart.”
Fitzpatrick might wish he played the 18th on Saturday evening, instead of electing to come back on Sunday morning at 6.50am. The sloppy bogey dropped him into a tie with Johnson, with Burns playing his remaining five holes in level par to post a 74 that meant his advantage diminishing from the five shots he enjoyed at the 36-hole stage.
Of course, Johnson was remarkable to continue his excellent form and follow up his win in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago. But this was a huge opportunity for Fitzpatrick to go one better than his runner-up at the Arnold Palmer Invitational two years ago. The former US Amateur champion highlighted his quality with his win at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in December and began 2021 full of confidence that big things were in store.
Genesis Open Leaderboard: Top 10 after round 3 (concluded on Sunday ahead of final round)
USA unless stated
1. S Burns -9
T2. M Fitzpatrick (England) -7
T2. D Johnson -7
T2. M Homa -7
T5. M Jones (Australia) -5
T5. T Gooch -5
T5. T Finau -5
T5. C Smith (Australia) -5
T5. P Cantlay -5
T5. A Noren (Sweden) -5
Padraig Harrington believes Tiger Woods is now more suited to Ryder Cup golf
The wait goes on for Tiger Woods, with the concern inevitably intensifying about his fitness ahead of the Masters. But for Padraig Harrington the apprehension surrounding the 15-time major-time winner is of a different nature.
Europe’s Ryder Cup captain is not only confident that Woods will have recovered sufficiently to be part of the US team at Whistling Straits in September, but that he will be Steve Stricker’s most potent weapon.
“It used to be tough for Tiger at the Ryder Cup, because he liked to practise at 6am and be done, and then he’s being told, ‘No, you are going out at 10.30am, you are going to be out on the golf course for 5½ hours’,” Harrington said.
“It was very hard for a good player. And remember, all golfers are self-managed. We decide exactly how much work we are doing and how much practice we are doing, and when, where at the Ryder Cup you are given a schedule.
“But Tiger has become more dangerous in that environment. At one stage you are just managing your own golf, but then you get a little older. Tiger now understands he’s got two roles to play – he’s got to get back and help the other part of the team with motivation and just being Tiger, because everybody would love to follow Tiger. If he’s prepared to give that of himself, I think the team would fall in behind him. So that is a worrying area for me, for sure.”
Woods is down in 23rd in the standings and having not played in more than three months due to yet another back operation, there seems little prospect of him picking up points in the next few weeks. It was hoped that the 45-year-old would return at the WGC Workday Championship taking place a few hours west of his south Florida home, starting on Thursday. But Friday’s entry deadline came and went without Woods committing. Woods could come back at the second event on the Florida Swing – the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where he has won eight times – or the Players Championship at Sawgrass in a fortnight. If Woods has not been seen by then, the alarm bells will ring for the Masters, the major he famously won for a fifth time in 2019.
Nobody should be surprised, however, if Augusta proves to be Woods’ first appearance of the year. He did the same in 2010 in the wake of his sex scandal and still managed to finish fourth. Woods will not rush this latest comeback, but is convinced that he can come back better and stronger than in 2020 – which was basically a write-off – and if he is remotely in form by September, then Stricker would almost certainly hand him one of his six wild cards.
The last time the US played in a team matchplay event was the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne 15 months ago and Woods more than proved his worth to the flag by not only captaining America to a 16-14 victory but also winning all three of his games as a player. As Harrington pointed out, Woods seems a different team animal these days.
While Harrington remains assured of Woods’s excellence, he bizarrely singled out Rory McIlroy as the one member of his prospective team he would not pick to hole the definitive 10-footer with the Ryder Cup on the line.
“It wouldn’t be you, Rory, sorry,” Harrington told golf.com, before going on to name the young Spaniard Jon Rahm. To be fair, McIlroy’s putting in the first two rounds of the Genesis Open in Los Angeles was woeful as he missed his first cut in almost two years. In his absence, American Sam Burns took a five-shot halfway lead, over a group in second including world No 1 Dustin Johnson.
Genesis Open Leaderboard: Top 10 after round 2
USA unless stated
1. S Burns -12
T2. D Johnson -7
T2. J Niemann (Chile) -7
T2. T McCumber -7
T2. J Kokrak -7
T6. W Clark -6
T6. M Homa -6
T6. J Spieth -6
T9. P Cantlay -5
T9. M Fitzpatrick (England) -5
Genesis Open round two: McIlroy misses the cut
Rory McIlroy’s Masters build-up suffered a setback in Los Angeles where his record streak ended with a first missed cut in almost two years.
The Irishman never looked like qualifying for the final two rounds of the Genesis Open, as he struggled to a 76 for a desultory seven-over total. McIlroy, 31, was miles off the mark, leaving a tournament prematurely for the first time since the 2019 Open at Royal Portrush.
Up until this demise, McIlroy’s 30 consecutive weekends had been the longest active run on the two main men's tours.
The consolation for falling short so emphatically was that McIlroy did not have to wait around and could immediately exit the gates at Riviera Country Club on to Sunset Boulevard and to the airport for a private jet back to his Florida home.
McIlroy will be deeply frustrated, however. After finishing third in his opening event of the year - the Abu Dhabi Championship - he was confident that he had left behind the mediocre form that has dogged him since the golf resumed from the lockdown last June.
This error-strewn display - featuring eight bogeys and a double-bogey in his 36 holes - came on the back on a tie for 13th and a tie for 16th in his first two PGA Tour events of 2021, and although it is hardly panic stations, McIlroy will be eager to put himself back on track at the WGC Workday Championship, a three-hour drive west of his Jupiter base, that starts on Thursday.
McIlroy is also due to play in the following week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando and then, in the final week of the “Florida Swing”, at The Players Championship, where he will attempt to become the first player in history to retain the Tour’s flagship title. With the World Match Play in Austin also to come, McIlroy has plenty of competitive action to fix the wrongs, before arriving at Augusta in seven weeks’ time for yet another shot at completing the career grand slam.
McIlroy’s tournament was essentially over when he stepped on to the par-four eighth, his penultimate hole, and, by then, he was likely figuring out his travel schedule. But the six on the par-four summed up what must be classed as his worst show in a long time.
He pulled his drive, but only had 90 yards to the pin. From an iffy lie, he came up short of the green. McIlroy “fatted” his third and saw it roll back down the hill. He chipped to eight feet with his fourth but could not rescue a bogey. Sloppy in the extreme.
At the other end of the leaderboard, the first-round leader, American Sam Burns, shot a 66 to move to 12-under and into a five-shot lead over a group in second including world No 1 Dustin Johnson.
And having finished fourth and third in the previous two weeks, Jordan Spieth is threatening another charge for his first title in almost four years carding a second successive 68 to move to six-under.
Genesis Open round one: Willie Mack living the dream
Two years ago, Willie Mack III stood by the side of the freeway with his golf clubs in hand and cowered as his car blew up. Everything he owned, apart from his precious sticks, were in that burning Kia.
There was a very good reason for that. For two years, the struggling pro had lived in his car as he scratched around the mini tours trying to scratch a living and emulate his hero and fellow African-American Tiger Woods by making it to the big time. A long hard road, does not begin to describe it.
Yesterday, the only thing on fire was the 32-year-old’s putter as he played his way to the fringes to first-round contention at the Genesis Open, shooting a one-under 70 to stand alongside the likes of world No 2, Jon Rahm, promising to make the cut and so pulling off one of the game’s more remarkable tales.
With all respect to Matt Fitzpatrick’s excellence, the Englishman shooting a five-under 66 to assume the clubhouse advantage in Los Angeles, it was the first round of Mack sending Riviera Country Club into distraction. The world No 1,829 is only in Tinsel Town because of an invite from Woods, the tournament host.
The 15-time is not playing because of a back injury, but he vowed to keep a close eye on Mack’s progress. “Willie has endured through difficult times off the course,” Woods tweeted.
Of course, Woods knew he was dealing in understatement. A son of a single-parent social worker, Mack earned a sponsorship at a black college, but with finances tight there was obviously limited funds to fuel the dream. Hence the bed in the back seat. But Mack preserved and became somewhat a prolific champion on the mini-tours and, although a few trips to Q-School were unsuccessful, he was convinced that if he kept on pressing, a chance would come. And here it is.
Mack actually made his PGA Tour debut at Torrey Pines last month when his friend from the Advocates Pro Golf Association Kamaiu Johnson was diagnosed with Covid 19 on the eve of the championship. Grateful, but woefully underprepared and playing with what was later found to be a cracked driver, Mack missed the cut. “This week will see the proper ‘me’,” he said on Wednesday.
And with five birdies - albeit with four bogeys - he was certainly true to his vow. Can he make the cut today? Imagine being in his spikes? The last tournament he played in he won £200 - and the entry fee was roughly £80. If he makes the cut on Friday the least Mack will collect is £55,000. And his entry fee was a only nod from Tiger.