Monday Scramble: Major mettle, Masters favorites

By Ryan LavnerApril 3, 2017, 3:30 pm

Lexi Thompson agonizingly loses a major, Russell Henley heads back to Augusta, Tiger Woods withdraws late and more in this week's major edition of Monday Scramble:

No sport lacks common sense quite like golf, a point that was reinforced Sunday at the ANA Inspiration. 

Yes, the Rules of Golf were applied correctly, and Thompson should have been penalized two shots for playing from an incorrect spot. But allowing an outside agency to affect the outcome – and, most troubling, a day later – was maddening for anyone with an interest in fairness.

After announcing 30 proposed rules changes last month, the USGA and R&A asked for feedback before those rules go into effect in 2019.

Here is one that wasn’t considered and now should move to the top of their to-do list: Viewers should not be allowed to call, email, fax, tweet or smoke signal any potential infraction – especially a day late.

The lessons from Lexi’s lost major shouldn’t soon be forgotten. 

1. In a way, Thompson was fortunate not to have been disqualified on the spot as she made her way to the 13th tee Sunday.

Two years ago, she would have been sent packing.

The Rules of Golf were changed for 2016 so that, according to the exception to Rule 6-6d, any player who turns in a scorecard and did not knowingly commit an infraction would not be disqualified but rather assessed a two-shot penalty. That was the second of the two-shotters she incurred. 

Where that rule fails, however, is that it’s only used for the first, second and third rounds. If Thompson had won Sunday, but a rules breach wasn’t spotted until Monday, it’s too late. The tournament has been completed. No penalty.

That’s a huge problem. 

2. The real crime here was that the LPGA wasn’t notified about Thompson’s potential infraction until the final group was on the ninth hole on Sunday.

That’s nearly 20 hours after she marked her 1-foot putt and didn’t replace it in the original spot.

Had that person sent in the email earlier, Thompson would only have been docked two shots and could have played the back nine of a major without tears streaming down her face.  

3. There is some hope that this kind of infraction will be eliminated in the future, if the proposed rules changes are approved.

Among those proposals was a reasonable judgment standard, which states that a player needs only to estimate or measure a spot, point, line, area or distance and will not be second-guessed based on later evidence (such as a video review) if the player did all that “could reasonably be expected under the circumstances to estimate or measure accurately.”

That would seem to absolve Thompson, whose infraction went undetected by both her and her fellow playing competitors on Saturday. 

4. There is an argument to be made that allowing viewer call-ins is a necessary evil. A professional golf tournament is a massive playing field that cannot possibly be covered by a few rules officials. They can’t see everything.

And players don’t want to win with a penalty. Can you imagine the uproar had video surfaced of this infraction, she was not penalized, and she went on to win by one? There would have been calls for her to disqualify herself. She would have been skewered on social media.

A solution would be to have a rules official dedicated to watching the TV feed. If he spots a potential infraction, fine. But it would cut out the armchair officials at home. 

5. After the five-shot swing, Thompson rallied just to force a playoff.

It was reminiscent of what happened to Dustin Johnson at last year’s U.S. Open. Leading the toughest tournament in the world on one of the United States’ most difficult golf courses, Johnson was confronted by a rules official, informed of a potential penalty, and brushed it off to win his first major. 

Thompson, meanwhile, played her last six holes in 2 under par, and her eagle putt on the last in regulation to win outright came up a few inches short.

To this scribe, at least, that was the most impressive aspect: Neither DJ nor Lexi wilted when confronted by a rules official in the MIDDLE of a final round of a major. Remarkable resilience. 

6. And, as usually happens in these scenarios, the winner was completely overshadowed.

So Yeon Ryu, 26, won her second career major with a closing 68 and a birdie on the first playoff hole.

Even she admitted that the ending was awkward. 

“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” Ryu said. “It just hurts me as well. It’s a weird feeling. But at the same time I’m really proud of myself and just appreciate everything right now.” 

7. Here’s one way to get back to the Masters: Make 10 birdies while playing in the final group.

It worked for Henley on Sunday at the Shell Houston Open, as he erased a four-shot deficit to storm past Sung Kang and capture his third career Tour title.

The former Georgia product regularly attended the Masters while growing up in Macon, about 120 miles from Augusta. He finished 21st in his most recent appearance, in 2015. 

8. Kang couldn’t miss over the first two rounds, rolling in 300 feet worth of putts to take a six-shot lead. His 17-under 199 total after three rounds matched the tournament scoring record.

On the weekend, however, he made only six birdies and sank just 156 feet worth of putts.

The runner-up finish was his career best on Tour. 

9. All of the handwringing over whether players should withdraw before (or during) the final round of the Houston Open turned out to be for naught.

Tour officials moved up tee times several hours in anticipation of strong storms that threatened to push the Masters tune-up into a fifth day. That, of course, would have proved problematic for the 17 players who made the cut in Houston and also had a major to prepare for.

But ultimately, there was no suspension of play, no last-second withdrawals and no drama. Phew. 

10. Here are one scribe’s 10 favorites for the Masters, in order:

1. Dustin Johnson: Such an obvious favorite that it makes you wary: Can he play smart and position himself in the proper spots? Can his short game hold up? Will his power fade work as well at a course that favors drawers?

2. Jordan Spieth: Not as sharp entering Augusta as he was in 2015, but it’s the course that fits his game best. He’ll be a factor once again.

3. Rory McIlroy: An early-season injury and all of the storylines surrounding DJ and Spieth have actually allowed the world No. 2 to – can you believe this? – slip under the radar entering the year’s first major. That should help as he aims for that elusive green jacket.

4. Phil Mickelson: Figures to contend here for the next decade, but he might not get a better chance than this – he’s motivated, in form, putting brilliantly. Just needs to string four rounds together.

5. Jason Day: Granted, he’s a big question mark, given his family turmoil and his stop-and-start schedule this spring, but he’ll be highly motivated to nab another major. 

6. Rickie Fowler: A risky pick for Masters pools, because he looked good last year, too, and then opened with 80 to miss the cut.  

7. Jon Rahm: Virtually no experience at Augusta, but that’s about the only drawback for a kid who has all of the tools to break the rookie drought here.

8. Justin Rose: Been a quiet past few months for Rose, but he and Lee Westwood are as solid as they come here. Seven consecutive top-25s.

9. Sergio Garcia: Comfortable and confident, but he’s currently ranked 191st in putting. The Masters isn’t his best chance to win a major this year, but wouldn’t it be something if he broke through?

10. Louis Oosthuizen: A fixture in this spot, because a swing that pure is always dangerous.

Others receiving consideration, and an explanation why they weren’t ranked higher: Hideki Matsuyama (slumping of late), Justin Thomas (impossible to predict), Henrik Stenson (best finish T-14), Thomas Pieters (lack of experience).

11. Woods confirmed – at 7:30 p.m., on the Friday before Masters week – that he would not play in the first major of the year.

A surprise, this was not. As much as he talked about “trying everything” in hopes of being ready to play, it was a pipe dream. He only began practicing within the past week, and Golf Channel insider Tim Rosaforte reported that one of his sessions late in the week lasted no more than five minutes.

The bigger question is where does Woods go from here. Does he ramp up his activity for The Players, at a course he doesn’t particularly like? Or Erin Hills, a brutish, new U.S. Open venue? Or Royal Birkdale, where he hasn’t played in nearly two decades?

All of a sudden, with the Masters out of the picture, it makes a 2017 return less appealing. 

12. It’s unusual that a player who has won two green jackets in the past five years isn’t even discussed this week as one of the Masters favorites. So it goes these days for Bubba Watson.

He doesn’t have a top-10 in a full-field stroke-play event in more than a year. Watson changed golf balls (to Volvik) and has lost more than 15 pounds because of changes to his diet. His play has yet to catch up; he is ranked outside the top 130 in iron play and has been woeful around the greens, one of the worst on Tour in putting and scrambling.

Watson said Sunday that his drives once again have the low, boring trajectory he’s had his entire career, and it was as simple as a change in his ball position.

“It’s never been a swing flaw,” he said, and he has only four options for why his shots don’t start the way he wants it: His ball is positioned either too far back, forward, close or far away. Same with his putting.

“It feels good,” he said.

If his putter can catch fire this week, hmm … 

Kelly Kraft and Grayson Murray thrust themselves into a Twitter storm last week when they pointed out how quickly European and Asian players seemed to rise in the world rankings.

Of course, they didn’t put it that politely, and suggested that they could surge up the rankings if they played overseas. 

That prompted this from Thomas Pieters:

The solution for Kraft and Murray, as always, is this: Play better. 

This week's award winners ... 

Still Left Unanswered: Why Lexi marked her 1-foot putt. She wasn’t in her fellow playing competitor’s line. It was the kind of little putt she has made thousands of times without a second thought. So why mark it? To move it away from a pitch mark or spike mark? That was never addressed, only that Thompson didn’t realize it wasn’t in the exact same position. 

Hoping This All Blows Over: Phil Mickelson. The New York Post, citing court documents, reported that Mickelson paid off a $1.95 million debt to noted sports gambler Billy Walters in 2012. A clause in the PGA Tour handbook stipulates that players should not associate with people who could reflect poorly on the game …  

So You’re Saying There’s a Chance: Henley at the Masters. Only four players have won the week prior to the Masters and then again in Augusta – and only one since 1988 (Mickelson in 2006). 

Might Want to Stick to Your Day Job: Tony Romo. With the NFL in the midst of its offseason and his playing future uncertain, the (soon-to-be former) Cowboys quarterback dusted off his clubs and played at the Azalea Invitational. He shot rounds of 78-77-77 to miss the cut. 

Good Results No One Is Talking About: Rafael Campos. With no status on Tour, he top-10'd in his native Puerto Rico, which earned him a spot at Houston, where he finished in the top 10 again, a solo seventh. Now he’s bound for Hilton Head next week. He is a lock to at least secure a spot in the season-ending Tour Finals. 

Locked up: Rory McIlroy. On the eve of the Masters, McIlroy and Nike announced a contract extension that will keep the world No. 2 with the Swoosh until at least his age-37 season. Ten years!

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Seriously, just name somebody you might have picked. Stenson. Spieth. Scott. Kuchar. JB. They all missed the cut. Sigh. 

Newsmaker of the Year: No. 1, Justin Thomas

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 18, 2017, 1:00 pm

He won a major, captured the FedExCup and was named the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year. It should come as no surprise that Justin Thomas holds the top spot on our Newsmakers list for 2017.

Thomas entered the year ranked outside the top 20, and few might have pegged him for a transcendent campaign. But he kicked off January with a win in Hawaii, added another before leaving the Aloha State and never looked back.

Thomas’ seminal moment came in August when he captured the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow for his breakthrough major title. One month after greeting Jordan Spieth behind the final green at Royal Birkdale, this time it was Thomas’ turn to have friends stick around to snap pictures with the trophy that signaled his arrival among golf’s upper echelon.

Full list of 2017 Newsmakers of the Year

In addition to racking up the hardware – five in total, including the inaugural CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in his first start of the new wraparound season – Thomas dazzled with style. His runaway win at the Sony Open included an opening-round 59, and his third-round 63 at Erin Hills marked the first time anyone had ever shot 9 under on a U.S. Open venue.

Thomas’ consistency was rewarded at East Lake, when a runner-up finish at the Tour Championship netted him the season-long title and $10 million prize. It was in the subsequent press conference where he shared the goals list he had written into his cell phone in February, having ticked off nearly every one. It showed a dedicated attention to detail as well the tactical approach with which Thomas had steered his rapid ascent.

Heading into a new year, he’s now very clearly entrenched as one of the world’s best. And as his career progresses, it’s likely we’ll look back at 2017 as the point where Thomas first transformed great potential into eye-popping results.

Win No. 1: Title defense at the CIMB Classic

Article: Thomas (64) rallies to defend CIMB title

Win Nos. 2 and 3: The Hawaiian double

Article: Thomas refuses to let disastrous hole derail TOC win

Article: Worst week ever ends with another title at Sony Open

Record Round No. 1: 59 at the Sony Open

Article: Thomas becomes youngest player to shoot 59

Take a look: Thomas’ scorecard from his amazing 59

Record Round No. 2: 63 at the U.S. Open

Article: Thomas sets U.S. Open record with 9-under 63

Temporary Slide: Open MC makes it three in a row

Watch: Thomas loses club, makes 9, misses Open cut

Mr. Major (and win No. 4): PGA champ at Quail Hollow

Article: Thomas joins the club – the major club

Win No. 5: Dell Technologies Championship

Article: Thomas wins the battle of buddies over Spieth

The $10 Million Man: FedExCup champ

Biggest Win of All? Player of the Year

And One to Grow On: Wins at CJ Cup in 2017-18 season

Article: Thomas caps torrid 12-month run with CJ Cup win

Photo Galleries: Best of ...

Best of: Justin Thomas and Jillian Wisniewski

Best of: Justin Thomas through the years

Getty Images

Newsmakers of the Year: Top 10 in 2017

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 18, 2017, 12:30 pm

Cabreras win PNC Father/Son Challenge

By Associated PressDecember 17, 2017, 11:36 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. - Angel Cabrera and Angel Cabrera Jr. closed with a 12-under 60 for a three-shot victory in their debut at the PNC Father/Son Challenge.

The Cabreras opened with a 59 at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club and were challenged briefly by the defending champions, David Duval and Nick Karavites, in the scramble format Sunday. The Argentines went out in 30, and they had a two-shot lead with Cabrera's son came within an inch of chipping in for eagle on the final hole.

They finished at 25-under 199 for a three-shot victory over Duval and Karavites, and Bernhard Langer and Jason Langer. The Langer team won in 2014.

Mark O'Meara and Shaun O'Meara tied for fourth at 21 under with Jerry Pate and Wesley Pate.

Cabrera wasn't even in the field until two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange and his son, Tom Strange, had to withdraw.

Duval and his stepson went out in 28, but the Cabreras regained control by starting the back nine with back-to-back birdies, and then making birdies on the 13th, 14th and 16th. The final birdie allowed them to tie the tournament scoring record.

''This is certain my best week of the year,'' said Cabrera, the 2009 Masters champion and 2007 U.S. Open champion at Oakmont. ''To play alongside all the legends ... as well as playing alongside my son, has been the greatest week of the year.''

The popular event is for players who have won a major championship or The Players Championship. It is a scramble format both days.

In some cases, the major champions lean on the power of their sons for the distance. O'Meara said Saturday that his ''little man'' hit it 58 yards by him on the 18th. And on Sunday, Stewart Cink said son Reagan told him after outdriving him on the opening four holes, ''In this tournament I may be your son, but right now I'm your Daddy!''

Jack Nicklaus played with his grandson, G.T. They closed with a 64 and tied for 15th in the field of 20 teams.

Rose wins; Aphibarnrat earns Masters bid in Indonesia

By Will GrayDecember 17, 2017, 1:59 pm

Justin Rose continued his recent run of dominance in Indonesia, while Kiradech Aphibarnrat snagged a Masters invite with some 72nd-hole dramatics.

Rose cruised to an eight-shot victory at the Indonesian Masters, carding bookend rounds of 10-under 62 that featured a brief run at a 59 during the final round. The Englishman was the highest-ranked player in the field and he led wire-to-wire, with Thailand's Phachara Khongwatmai finishing second.

Rose closes out the year as perhaps the hottest player in the world, with top-10 finishes in each of his final 10 worldwide starts. That stretch includes three victories, as Rose also won the WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open. He hasn't finished outside the top 10 in a tournament since missing the cut at the PGA Championship.

Meanwhile, it took until the final hole of the final tournament of 2017 for Aphibarnrat to secure a return to the Masters. The Thai entered the week ranked No. 56 in the world, with the top 50 in the year-end world rankings earning invites to Augusta National. Needing an eagle on the 72nd hole, Aphibarnrat got just that to snag solo fifth place.

It means that he is projected to end the year ranked No. 49, while Japan's Yusaku Miyazato - who started the week ranked No. 58 and finished alone in fourth - is projected to finish No. 50. Aphibarnrat finished T-15 in his Masters debut in 2016, while Miyazato will make his first appearance in the spring.

The results in Indonesia mean that American Peter Uihlein and South Africa's Dylan Frittelli are projected to barely miss the year-end, top-50 cutoff. Their options for Masters qualification will include winning a full-point PGA Tour event in early 2018 or cracking the top 50 by the final March 25 cutoff.