AUSTIN, Texas — Tiger Woods has come close to looking like the player who ruled golf for the better part of 15 years, and Ernie Els is happy to see it.
Never mind that Els was on the losing end to Woods more than any other player.
He speaks for his generation of Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and others. Els keeps hearing about the depth of talent being greater than ever, and he has seen it. But he gets weary listening to suggestions that Woods might not have 79 PGA Tour victories if he had to face this group.
“I’m just glad he’s playing like I know he can play to validate me — validate me, Phil and Vijay,” Els said. “We weren’t bad players. This guy was a special player. To see him back, playing special stuff again … is great for the game.”
Generational debates are nothing new.
Every generation was better than the next one. Then again, Jack Nicklaus used to lament that Woods was lacking competition from players who had more experience winning majors, such as Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros.
Mickelson, Els and Singh combined to win 12 majors. Els says Woods won 14 on his own because he was that much better.
Does it get under his skin to hear fans rave about this generation’s players?
“It doesn’t (tick) me off. Can you imagine how it must (tick) Tiger off?” he said. “He was leaps and bounds the best player. People forget very quickly, and then you see special players like we have now, the younger generation. But I know what I played against. You can’t take anything away from anybody.”
LEFTY REJECTION: Jordan Spieth says the importance of signing autographs for kids is to give them the personal touch, and perhaps inspire them. He knows that because he was one of those kids, trying to get autographs while attending the Byron Nelson Classic.
One of those moments involved Phil Mickelson. It didn’t end well.
“There was a time that I was out with my dad, and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green,” Spieth said. “And I was yelling at them — as I now get annoyed while I’m practicing when I’m getting yelled at — and they were talking and then they said, ‘One second.’ And when they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me.
“And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off, and Davis was like the nicest guy,” Spieth said. “And Phil, I didn’t care for as much for a little while because of that.”
Spieth laughed as he told the story, mainly because he now knows the drill.
“He could have been late for media, he could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kids’ area, where there was a 100 of them,” Spieth said. “Time management is so different out there. You have no idea, and there’s certainly been kids that probably think I’ve blown them off, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil’s intention, either.”
Spieth was 19 when he made it on the PGA Tour. The first time he played with Mickelson, he shot 62 in the final round at the TPC Boston, a round that inspired Mickelson to recommend Spieth for the Presidents Cup.
And yes, Spieth told him the story from his youth.
“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were and I didn’t want to go over there and sign it,”’ Spieth said.
KOEPKA UPDATE: U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka had hoped to recover from his wrist injury in time for the Masters.
That is now in doubt.
Koepka was quoted by Treasure Coast Newspapers as saying that doctors told him he would be about 80 per cent healthy, and that he doesn’t want to risk reinjuring the wrist and being away from golf even longer.
His manager at Hambric Sports, Blake Smith, says the report was premature. “No decision has been made,” Smith said Tuesday.
GAMESMANSHIP: Paul Casey has seen his share of gamesmanship in match play, most notably on the professional level when Jason Day wouldn’t concede short putts in the Match Play. One of his memorable times was as a junior in England.
This involved miscommunication, and the sudden ability to lose the ability to speak English.
His opponent’s ball was close to Casey’s line on the green, both of them about 10 feet away, and there was eye contact on what to do.
“I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my life and it needed to be moved,” Casey said. “And I said, ‘That’s OK there.’ So he picked it up. And then of course his perfect English … yeah, he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”
Casey doesn’t remember the outcome, and he doesn’t expect anything like that his week.
WINNER’S FEAST: Rory McIlroy won the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first victory in 18 months, which would seem to call for quite a celebration.
Then again, maybe not.
“Two glasses of wine and a big bowl of ice cream,” McIlroy said Tuesday. “That was it. And I watched the highlights, but I fell asleep before the fireworks started on the 15th. Just tired.”
The ice cream of champions: Ben & Jerry’s. One scoop of Salted Caramel. One scoop of Americone Dream. The wine was Opus One.
MAJOR INVITATIONAL: Dustin Johnson had reason to feel like a winner last week even without playing. Johnson’s team of juniors went wire-to-wire and won by seven shots over a junior team representing Jack Nicklaus in the inaugural Major Champions Invitational.
Nick Faldo organized the event as an extension of his Faldo Series for juniors. He reached out to some 20 major champions who have foundations and junior programs to send boys and girls to Bella Collina outside Orlando, Florida.
Johnson’s team of Isabella Britt, Trent Phillips, Lauren Stephenson and Grayson Wotnosky combined to post 19-under par.
Tom McKibbin, a 15-year-old from Northern Ireland, won the male division while representing Rory McIlroy. Cory Lopez, a 16-year-old from Mexico, won the female division as an individual.
DIVOTS: Jay Danzi is leaving Lagardere Sports after the Masters and taking Jordan Spieth with him. Danzi worked for his own agency when he signed Spieth and joined Lagardere Sports in 2013. He was the U.S. chief operating officer in charge of developing new business and managing Spieth. … Judy Rankin broke her left collarbone during a fall in the dark while on a family vacation in Florida. She will be in a sling for six weeks but still hopes to work the ANA Inspiration next week, if not the Kia Classic this week. … Bay Hill is adding a 2-acre short-game facility and will enhance the driving range before next year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. The short-game area will feature four greens with a collection of bunkers built to different depths to simulate what players find on the course. Bay Hill also will get a new irrigation system installed. … Davis Love III plans to play in his first U.S. Senior Open this year at The Broadmoor in Colorado. … The U.S. Women’s Amateur is going to Westchester Country Club in 2021. The New York club most recently hosted the Women’s PGA Championship.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Five of the 11 winners on the PGA Tour this year have at least 10 career tour victories — Phil Mickelson (43), Dustin Johnson (17), Rory McIlroy (14), Jason Day (11) and Bubba Watson (10).
FINAL WORD: “I don’t really chirp at guys who have $100 million.” — Pat Perez, on why there isn’t much trash talking when he plays Phil Mickelson.