AFP/Bethesda, United States
Tiger Woods has predicted that golf’s return to the Olympics will be a hit even without Rory McIlroy and other top stars while lamenting the messy penalty issue at the US Open.
Speaking on the eve of his charity foundation’s US PGA event at Congressional Country Club, the 14-time major champion, whose recovery from back surgery has kept him off the tour for nearly 11 months, weighed in on the sport’s latest issues.
Just hours earlier, world number four Rory McIlroy said he would not compete at the Rio Olympics, when golf returns after a 112-year absence, because of health concerns over the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects and severe illness.
McIlroy joined an absentee list for Brazil that includes world number eight Adam Scott of Australia, South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, Fiji’s Vijay Singh and Aussie Marc Leishman.
In addition, top-ranked Jason Day, number two Jordan Spieth and sixth-ranked Rickie Fowler have said they are still looking at what conditions will be like in Rio.
“It will be a spectacular event just because it’s the Olympics,” Woods said. “It would be better if we had a more top-heavy field.”
Woods said he would have preferred a top-50 lineup rather than up to four players for a nation from the top 15 and no more than two players for any country beyond that.
“I know they have to try to have each country participate, but I just wish they would have had more quality of a field similar to what we face in major championships or the World Golf Championships or the Players,” Woods said. “I think the Olympics deserve that.”
But Woods said he understood the idea of growing the sport and lesser-ranked players in the field, giving non-dominant golf nations a chance to cheer heroes as well. “To have players that aren’t ranked very high still being able to compete in the Olympics, I think it’s great for Brazil,” he added.
Olympic teams will be set based on world rankings two weeks from Monday, with only 20 of the world’s current top 50 set to compete. The lowest ranked player in the field of 60 would be Italy’s Nino Bertasio at 332, with 26 players from outside the top 100.
Woods watched on television as Dustin Johnson won the US Open last Sunday despite being told on the 12th tee he might be assessed a penalty for a ball movement issue on the fifth green.
“It was frustrating to watch how it was handled,” Woods said. “That being our national championship and the history behind it, it deserved a better handling of the situation. If you have a rules official there, I thought it was binding, his decision. I just didn’t understand how they can say that we’re going to take you in, we may or may not assess you a penalty, you still have six holes to go. I just don’t see how that was appropriate.”
Woods was as upset for the contenders having to guess at whether they needed to gamble or play safely on certain holes as US Golf Association officials botched their chance to get the call correct and timely, something for which they later apologised.
“No one understood where they were in the tournament so that determines what you are going to do. Am I going to challenge the flag? Am I going to play conservative? So much depends on scenarios and where you stand to dictate how you play,” Woods said.
“I just saw guys were making a lot of mistakes coming in. I think it was because it became such an unnerving situation. It just wasn’t fair to anyone. It was awful. DJ didn’t know how he stood.
“The rest of the guys didn’t know what was going on. No one had a clue. Am I one ahead, am I tied, am I down by one? I’m a little bit feistier than Dustin, so I think I probably would have said a few more things during the round.”
Woods further said he is “excited” about his rehabilitation progress following back surgery but the 14-time major champion gave no sign he might play in July’s two major championships.
Woods, 40, has not played competitively since last August, then had surgery in September, the latest in a series of injuries and distractions away from the game.
“I’m still progressing. I’m getting stronger. I’m excited about what has transpired so far,” Woods said. “It’s about trying to recover for the next day. I need to get in golf shape.”
“I’m trying to get back as fast as I can,” added Woods, a former world number one who is now languishing at a lowly 582.
Woods refused to rule out any future events, knowing that next month brings the year’s final two majors, the British Open and PGA Championship, thanks to a compressed schedule to accomodate golf’s return to the Olympics at Rio after a 112-year absence.
“I’m playing it week to week,” Woods said. “I keep getting physically better. I hope everything clicks in and I can do it sooner rather than later.”
Woods has not won a major since the 2008 US Open after battling a number of knee, leg and back injuries. At times he was unable to even hit the ball. “I’ve gotten better,” the American added. “I’ve been able to hit shots. I have good distance off the tee and that’s a positive. I have enough speed now. More speed is what I need.”
Woods has played full 18-hole rounds and on consecutive days but wants to get to the point where he can play 36 holes in a day or five or six consecutive days with no issues. “I’m not quite there,” Woods said.
Past premature comebacks have led to relapses and more recovery time battling injuries, so Woods has adopted the approach of taking extra time to make certain he is fit, not willing to venture a guess as to what percentage of his recovery he has completed.
“I’m driving myself in my training,” Woods said, saying he works in the gym as well as swimming and cycling and playing soccer with his children. “I need to pretty much do anything off the golf course and then do anything I would do on the golf course.”
Woods said his past injuries give him experience to cope with the mental aspects of coming back on the tour and suffering lacklustre results on his immediate return. “It’s going to take a little bit of
tuning up,” Woods said. “Hopefully not too long.”
Woods spoke on the eve of the PGA National at Congressional Country Club, the suburban Washington event he hosts that benefits his charity foundation.
“I just wish I could be out there,” Woods rued. “It’s tough not playing in your own event.”
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