Monday Scramble: An Open for the ages

By Mercer BaggsJuly 18, 2016, 5:55 pm

Henrik Stenson is brilliant in winning The Open, Phil Mickelson is (almost) as equally brilliant in defeat and the top 4 don’t come up big in this 145th (we really have no idea how many) edition of Monday Scramble.

Henrik Stenson produced one of the greatest final rounds in major championship history. He went head-to-head with a Hall of Famer, who shot a bogey-free 65 on Sunday. Stenson closed in a major record-tying 63 and finished at 20 under par when only one other player in the field was within 13 strokes of him. And he did all this while trying to capture his first major title. Mickelson did everything he could do to win his sixth major, but nothing was enough. This wasn't like last year's PGA Championship, where Jason Day won on the same number, but 16 players were double digits under par. This was Henrik and Phil and 79 others who got to play four rounds at Royal Troon. Sometimes someone is so good that their achievement isn't fully appreciated. They make the amazing look commonplace. Tiger Woods has done it countless times. Mickelson has had his moments. Having Phil as a foil will help keep Stenson's performance in proper perspective. The way he played this past weekend, particularly on Sunday under the most stressful conditions of his career, deserves its own wing in the WGHOF.

1. It's difficult to put Stenson's accomplishments into perspective. Unless you like numbers. Then it's quite easy.

• 264: Lowest 72-hole total score in major championship history

• 20 under par: Ties lowest score to par in major championship history (Day, 2015 PGA)

• Second player to shoot 63 in the final round of a major and win (Johnny Miller, 1973 U.S. Open)

• Second player since 2000 to get first major victory after turning 40 (Darren Clarke, 2011 Open)

2. Mickelson's numbers weren't bad, either. They just weren't good enough

• 17 under: Ties second-lowest score to par in a major by a non-winner (Bob May was 18 under in 2000 PGA)

• 17 under: Would have won or forced a playoff in 141 of 145 Opens

• 65: Lowest career final-round score in a major

• 11: Second-most career runner-up finishes in a major (Jack Nicklaus, 19)

3. So where do we stand with Mickelson? Was this it, his last chance to win a sixth major? It doesn't seem likely. There appears to be enough tread on the tires to last a few more years. Mickelson is currently one of six men to have five major wins. If he can get one more, he'll join Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino in a tie for 12th place all time. It might not look like much of a leap, going from T-14 to T-12 on the all-time list, but each major win carries an incredible amount of historical weight.

4. One of the best moments of the week came Thursday evening when Mickelson was attempting to become the first man in major championship history to shoot 62. It was different when Stenson did it on Sunday. For the latter, there was no buildup. The focus was on the one-on-one battle and winning, not the winning score. But with Mickelson, it was all about the number. And it was those few seconds, from the time Phil struck his putt until the time it lipped out, that were the most enjoyable. It’s in that compressed frame where nothing else mattered, just the anticipation of what was about to happen. You did't even have to watch it to enjoy it, just close your eyes, listen to the call and the crowd's reaction. Though, admittedly, it was better with your eyes open.

5. Not all major championship 63s are equal – or memorable. Mickelson’s near-62 won’t soon be forgotten, because of who shot it and how he did it. Stenson's 63, the same. The previous 63 in a major? Just last year at the PGA Championship. Hiroshi Iwata posted the number in Round 2 at Whistling Straits. And he was bummed that the press center, barring the Japanese contingent, was so barren following his accomplishment. Twenty-eight men have shot 63 in a major. How many can you name? Check your knowledge here.

6. The Big 4 was a big bust at Royal Troon.  Rory McIlroy finished best (Pete Best?) of the bunch, back-dooring a T-5. Dustin Johnson finished T-9, Jason Day T-22 and Jordan Spieth T-30. But, really, no 

7. Negativity. It sucks. And it’s weighing heavily on Spieth. Following his third round, Spieth was very revealing in a 365-word response to conclude his media interview. While Spieth may have won twice on Tour this year, this year isn’t close in comparison to last year. It’s a good year. But not last year. And all these comparisons, all the judgment, all the criticism has Spieth bummed. It’s easy to understand Spieth’s position. Who among us wants to be criticized, especially when we are having greater success than the bulk of our peers? But Spieth is held to a higher standard, not to that of his peers but to those who have accomplished what few men ever have. The comparisons to 2015 won’t go way. And neither will negativity, actual or perceived.

8. Although Sunday was a two-man show featuring Stenson and Mickelson, it was nice to have the entertaining undercard of Andrew "Beef" Johnston. Although his final-round 73 was his worst score of the week, it wasn't without its highlights, including an opening-hole birdie. In fact, he birdied three of his first four holes. Alas, those were the last circles that would appear on his card. But with the possible exception of Stenson, it's probably safe to say that no one enjoyed his Open experience more than Beef.

9. Would you go to Rio? There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s a personal call. Jordan Spieth isn’t going. He was supposed to be the face of men’s Olympic golf, especially after his fellow top-4 players withdrew from consideration. But then, last Monday, Spieth joined them. Maybe it had to do with Zika, maybe it was personal safety, maybe it was a factor we know nothing about. We don’t really know, other than it was for “health concerns.” That’s as specific as Spieth would get in his pre-Open news conference. He called it the “toughest decision of my life.” Given his up-front nature over the last few years, there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. It’s an individual decision, which you have to respect, but there could be consequences. The Games will go on without him, for this year at least …

10. International Olympic Committee chairman Thomas Bach said last week that after this year’s Games, golf, along with other sports, will be evaluated for the 2020 edition in Tokyo. For now, golf has a spot. But, with the absence of so many top male stars this time around, it’s possible, the Associated Press reported, that the men could get bounced while the women stay. With the head of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics adding that he believes men are skipping because they aren't getting paid (not because of Rio's myriad problems, mind you), the top male players might be watching from home again in four years.

11. Or maybe they'll just be watching track and field. That's what Rory McIlroy said he'd tune in to in a few weeks: "the stuff that matters," not golf. Golf is an individual sport. Unless you’re one of its stars. Then you’re expected to carry a torch (no pun intended) and light the way for the future. McIlroy, when asked about his skipping the Olympics, said he “didn’t get into golf to try and grow the game.” McIlroy took heat for his comments and tried to clarify them a day later. More so than a slight to the game, it appeared Rory was peeved at something or someone, and he let out his frustration in the media center. Even if you don’t agree with him, and few did, at least he's an entertaining interview. Did you listen to the Dustin Johnson news conference?

12. The 1977 Duel in the Sun at Turnberry between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus is often listed as the best Open ever. Now one of the participants says Sunday's Stenson-Mickelson face-off was even better. "Our final round was really good, but theirs was even better," Nicklaus tweeted. For his complete remarks on Sunday's action, click here.

13. If Steve Stricker really wants to pare down his schedule, he's going to have to start playing worse in the majors. For his fourth-place finish, the 49-year-old veteran earned spots in this year's PGA Championship and next year's Masters. And, of course, a trip back across the pond for the 146th Open at Royal Birkdale. "When you're playing well you're rewarded," he said, "and you get to do some pretty cool things."

14. Bill Haas' T-9 finish was his first top-10 in a major. Haas was on the fringe of contention after 54 holes, standing six shots off the lead. But he couldn't get anything going on Sunday, making four bogeys and no birdies.

If you had been able to foresee this Phil Mickelson scorecard before he teed off on Sunday, in your wildest imagination could you predict that he would lose? Tom Watson won the Duel in the Sun with a final-round 65, so Phil's round of the same score isn't exactly the Swoon at Troon. He made not a single bogey - something not even Henrik Stenson could say. Phil got up and down every time he needed to. The only thing he didn't do was match some of Stenson's 10 birdies. And he didn't win. But sometimes you've just got to tip your cap to the other guy.

This week's award winners ... 

Mr. Excitement: Not only did Nicolo Ravano hole his approach shot to cap his second round in a Challenge Tour event, but it was for 59! Not that you could tell by his reaction. People have been happier getting parking tickets.

Badds is back: Victory celebrations don't get much more emotional than Aaron Baddeley's after he won the Barbasol Championship on the fourth hole of a playoff with Si Woo Kim. Baddeley watched his 24-foot birdie putt curling right-to-left toward the hole and, confident that it would go in, started running. When the ball did drop into the cup, he tossed his putter in the air, tore off his logo-less white hat and flung it away. "I think you could tell by my reaction how much it meant to me," he said. Baddeley, 35, hadn't won since the 2011 Northern Trust Open. For his Barbasol win, he gets a two-year exemption. And maybe a logo for that hat.

Low-key Lydia: In contrast to Baddeley was Lydia Ko, who won the LPGA's Marathon Classic, also on the fourth extra hole. Ko actually punctuated her 10-foot winning putt with a fist pump, a rarity for her. ''I'm not really a huge fist-pump kind of person," she said after defeating Ariya Jutanugarn and Mirim Lee, "but I think it's probably the biggest fist pump I've ever done.''

A Good Man: Ernie Els, trying to clear the stage and assist Mickelson in his bid for 62 on Thursday, putted out on the 72nd hole first, even though he was closer than Mickelson. A small gesture, but one that reveals character. Els showed that he stands for goodness.

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Rahm beats Landry in playoff to win CareerBuilder

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:00 am

John Rahm birdied the fourth extra hole Sunday to defeat Andrew Landry in a playoff, win the CareerBuilder Challenge, and moved to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Here’s how things played out in overtime at PGA West:

Leaderboard: Rahm (-22), Landry (-22), John Huh (-20), Adam Hadwin (-20), Martin Piller (-20), Kevin Chappell (-19), Scott Piercy (-19)

What it means:

This is Rahm’s second PGA Tour win and his fourth worldwide victory in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. Rahm took the early lead Thursday with an opening 62 and after rounds of 67-70, he started the final round two back. On Sunday, he made five birdies without dropping a single shot on the intimidating Stadium Course. In the clubhouse at 22 under, Rahm watched as Landry made birdie on 18 to force a playoff. Rahm had missed birdie putts that would have ended the tournament on the final hole of regulation and on each playoff hole. Finally, on his fourth trip down 18, his birdie bid found the cup.. With the victory, Rahm passes Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, trailing only Dustin Johnson. He enters next week at Torrey Pines looking to defend for the first time.

Best of the rest:

A two-time winner playing his second full season on the PGA Tour, Landry shot 68 Sunday, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force extras. Once Rahm finally made birdie on the fourth playoff hole, Landry's putt slid by on the right side of the hole. This is his best career finish on the PGA Tour. Had he won, he would have secured full Tour status through the 2019-20 season and earned invites to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championships.

Round of the day:Sam Saunders fired an 8-under 64 to register this best finish of the season, a tie for eighth at 18 under. The reigning Tour Championship winner was 9 under par through 12 holes before making bogey at 13 and parring his way into the clubhouse.

Biggest disappointment: Overnight leader Austin Cook was eyeing his second win of the season but never contended. The RSM champion carded two double bogeys Sunday en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him from the 54-hole lead to a tie for 14th.

Shot of the day: Rahm's putt to win:

Quote of the day:

"One of us had to do it and either one of us would have been a well-deserving champion." - Rahm on
Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.