Monday Scramble: Emphatic, exhausting week on HHI

By Ryan LavnerApril 18, 2016, 3:40 pm

Branden Grace breaks through, Bryson DeChambeau shines in pro debut, Mike Weir gets called out, Ernie Els rebounds and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Grace won’t be underappreciated much longer. 

The tidy South African shook off a disappointing Masters with a clinical performance at the RBC Heritage, where he finished in the top 10 in both ball-striking and putting en route to his breakthrough victory. 

Grace has been one of golf's most prolific winners of late, racking up 10 worldwide titles since 2012. He splashed onto the major scene last year, when he shared the lead late on U.S. Open Sunday, only to send his tee shot onto the railroad tracks on the 70th hole. Two months later, he finished fourth at the PGA. His win in Harbour Town was his fourth top-five finish in nine starts this year.

And yet, even the CBS announcers said that Grace is not very well known in golf circles – a troubling remark, seeing how the 27-year-old is now ranked 11th in the world, just behind Justin Rose.

This may have been Grace's first U.S. victory, but it most certainly won't be his last.

1. Grace received a sponsor exemption into the Heritage a year ago, and his T-7 in Hilton Head helped secure his playing privileges for this season.   

It was Els who had told Grace that the tight, quirky Harbour Town was a good fit for his game, that it had a similar feel to Fancourt Links, Grace's home course in South Africa. When Grace and Els met for coffee last Wednesday, the Big Easy reaffirmed that belief: “This is one event that you’re going to win a couple of times in your career.” 

And so, after Grace slipped into the tartan jacket, Els was quick to remind him of their discussion.

“I told you you were going to win it a couple of times,” he said.  

2. For casual golf fans, their only introduction to Grace was at Chambers Bay a year ago, when he double-bogeyed the 16th hole and lost to Jordan Spieth by that two-shot margin. 

Was Grace thinking about that critical mistake down the stretch as he tried to close out his first PGA Tour victory? 

His answer might surprise you.

“Actually,” he said, “when I hit that bad shot on 16, I thought, Here we go again.” 

Actually, he hit two bad shots on 16 – a pull-hook into the fairway bunker and an approach that came up short, in another bunker. He splashed out to 12 feet and made the par putt to stay three clear, burying some of the memories of that Chambers Bay collapse. 

“I’m obviously smiling about it now,” he said of the Open, “but it’s a little bit of a tough one. I played some great golf. There are a lot of positives to take from it: I secured my card, my playing rights. It’s one of those things that I look back and I think it’s made me stronger.”

3. Stop us if you've heard this one before: Luke Donald had another close call at Harbour Town. His tie for second was his SIXTH top-three finish there.

In all of his other near misses, Donald had broken par in the final round. Sunday, the former world No. 1 could manage only an even-par 71, which allowed Grace (66) to race past him and Russell Knox (67) to match him. Still, it was Donald's best finish, anywhere, since his runner-up in Hilton Head in 2014, but he hasn't won on Tour in more than four years. He also dropped to 2-for-10 with a 54-hole lead.

4. It was a rather impressive pro debut for Bryson DeChambeau, who shared the lead briefly during the third round, closed with 68 and finished in a two-way tie for fourth.

That’s an important result for a few reasons: 

  • By finishing inside the top 10, DeChambeau is automatically exempt into this week’s event in San Antonio. That’s good news, because he was slated to burn the second of his seven sponsor exemptions allowed to non-members. Now he can save it for later in the season, if necessary.
  • The fourth-place check (thanks to Jason Kokrak's 72nd-hole double bogey) was worth about $259,600, or 123 FedEx Cup points. DeChambeau needs 361 points to earn special temporary membership, which would allow him to receive unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of the season. If (or when) he satisfies that requirement, he can focus on earning enough money to place 125th on either the points or money list by season's end. Last year, that target was about $750,000, so the Heritage was a critical step toward earning enough for a card next year. 

5. Each week we learn more about one of golf's most eccentric characters. Yes, DeChambeau is artistic in the way he maneuvers himself around the course, but he is first and foremost a scientist. How else to explain this card on his golf bag, which shows his yardages based on his clock model? (A swing to 10 o'clock with his 55-degree wedge, for instance, can be expected to fly 61.8 yards.)

6. Last year, DeChambeau's college coach at SMU, Jason Enloe, told me this about the newest NCAA champion:

“He’s the best ball-striker in college golf for sure. Possibly top 20 in the world, like, you could put him against any ball-striker playing for a living. He’d be right there with those guys.” 

At the time, it seemed like hyperbole, but he might have been on to something.

In his pro debut, DeChambeau finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-tee to green, gaining more than 10 shots (10.64) on the field average.


7. Playing the week after a major has to be an absolute grind, even if the laid-back vibe of the Heritage usually makes it feel as though it’s a working vacation. (Not so this year, with swirling, 20-mph winds.) Everybody hits the wall eventually, and Jason Day finally did in the third round ... unfortunately, after he climbed into a share of the 36-hole lead. His Saturday 79 was his worst score in his last 62 rounds, and it sent him plummeting to a tie for 23rd.

Day was gassed and ready for a break. He said he's been away from his Columbus, Ohio, home for all but 10 days since Dec. 28. The world No. 1 likely wouldn’t have been in the field if not for his sponsorship obligations with RBC, but his poor weekend showing was a missed opportunity to put some daylight between he and Jordan Spieth in the world rankings. 

8. A few years ago, Steve Stricker’s appointment as the 2017 Presidents Cup captain would have doomed his chances to lead the U.S. Ryder Cup squad.

Not anymore.

Jack Nicklaus remains the only man to lead both the Ryder and Presidents Cup teams, but the task force's mission is to create a more unified American effort. That’s why we should view Stricker’s Presidents Cup gig as an apprenticeship for the 2020 Ryder Cup, when the biennial matches head to his native Wisconsin.

9. Dawie van der Walt likely received a phone call from a 904 area code last week after blasting one of his peers on social media.

Van der Walt, a PGA Tour rookie who was the second alternate into the RBC Heritage, was peeved that Mike Weir withdrew following an opening 78 in Hilton Head. The early exit extended Weir’s run of futility – it was his 24th consecutive missed cut or withdrawal – and provided even more ammunition for his many detractors.

And so Van der Walt wrote what many of us are thinking: “Gota (sic) love a guy who gets an invite into a Tour event and then WD after the first round #hangitupmike.” 

That hashtag was particularly cruel, but if Weir isn’t well physically or mentally – and it’s painfully obvious that he is not – then he should stay home and let sponsors use one of their precious spots on a player who will actually be competitive. 

10. Valderrama is one of the most demanding venues on any tour, and its reputation was enhanced yet again last week at the European Tour’s Spanish Open. It was the first time in 20 years – since Ian Woosnam at the 1996 Scottish Open – that the winner of a regular tour event was over par. 

11. Which is why Andrew Johnston was so ecstatic, and relieved, to walk away with his first European Tour title, at 1 over par. Afterward, the man nicknamed “Beef” was asked what his maiden victory meant to him. His response was an all-timer:

12. Minjee Lee erased a five-shot, final-round deficit with a closing 64 to win the Lotte Championship. The 19-year-old Australian’s second LPGA title pushed her into exclusive company: Only Lydia Ko, Lexi Thompson, Marlene Hagge, Sandra Haynie and Lee have won multiple times before their 20th birthday.

That list will only continue to grow. As colleague Randall Mell noted here, the oldest winner on the LPGA this season is Ha Na Jang. She was 23 at the time of her victory. Ancient.

Josh Pastner was already a controversial choice for Georgia Tech’s head coaching vacancy, given his lack of recent success at Memphis, and now he isn’t exactly ingratiating himself with his new fans or alumni base.

Pastner wants all of his assistants to work hard because they have a long road ahead to return the Yellow Jackets to relevance. That's understandable. Where he crosses the line is that he says he won't hire anyone who – wait for it – plays golf, because that's a waste of time and they should be in the locker room drawing up plays on the dry-erase board or hitting the road recruiting. 

Is this guy really that tone-deaf?

Never mind that golf is the recreational activity of choice for many successful coaches, including one of his main ACC counterparts, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, who earlier this month took his team to the brink of the NCAA title. Never mind that golf is one of the best ways to network and build relationships. And never mind that Georgia Tech has one of the largest and most vocal alumni bases in all of college golf. 

But you do you, Josh. Surely your plan to hire only work-obsessed robots that have no time for fun or their family will work out just fine. 

This week's award winners ... 

Comeback of the Week: Ernie Els. A week after yipping his way to an embarrassing performance at the Masters, the Big Easy shot a season-best 66 in the final round and tied for 14th at the Heritage. Even better news? He was third in strokes gained-putting. Golf, man.

Best Story of the Week: Jason Bohn. In his first start since suffering a heart attack, Bohn made the cut at the Heritage. “I put a little stress on the old ticker,” he said, “so that’s good.”

Good Timing: The Ryder Cup being held in late September. Pop quiz: Who is the only American to win a non-opposite-field event over the past eight weeks on Tour? The answer: Jim Herman. Oh. 

Another Class of 2011 Winner (well, kind of): Anthony Paolucci. Funny to think now, but Jordan Spieth, Patrick Rodgers and Justin Thomas weren’t the No. 1-ranked players in their vaunted high school class. No, it was Paolucci, one of Spieth’s chief rivals growing up, who held the top spot. He just won his first pro title, on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica circuit.  

Best Way to Unwind After a Stressful Masters: Rickie Fowler, who shotgunned beers on stage with country star Dierks Bentley. 

Hey, Thanks, Vij!: Siddikur Rahman. With the news last week that Vijay Singh will skip the Olympics because of the Zika virus and a crowded summer schedule, the 31-year-old from Bangladesh is now in line to qualify for the Summer Games. 

No One Likes a Whiner: Camilo Villegas, who complained that he wasn’t given relief when his ball clearly was not embedded. He tied for 71st

Buffoon of the Week: Colin Cowherd, who tweeted that a Spieth victory at the Masters would have been “terrible for golf.” The Fox Sports talking head doubled down on that moronic opinion later, saying that now, and only now, is Spieth interesting because he is “vulnerable” and “layered.” It’s nauseating that he gets paid about $6 million annually to pander to the lowest common denominator.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Kevin Kisner. Last year’s playoff loser actually did well to make the cut, after rallying from a rough start, but he bombed out with weekend rounds of 75-77 to tie for 69th. Sigh.  

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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 a trip to Augusta.

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

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Tour and is likely 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.

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.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.