Monday Scramble: Ranking Masters favorites

By Ryan LavnerApril 4, 2016, 12:15 pm

Masters week finally arrives, Jim Herman stuns in Houston, Lydia Ko dazzles us again, Tiger Woods masters the Friday news dump and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

The Masters is always the most anticipated major, for a few reasons:

It’s the tournament most players most want to win. It’s the inherent beauty and mystique of Augusta National. And it’s the Masters’ place on the calendar – eight months have passed since the last major championship, and every event since has felt like a referendum on the list of favorites.

But this year feels a bit different, no?

Fourteen PGA Tour events have been played in 2016. Eight have been won by major champions, and four former Masters winners have already won a title this year. It's why the Masters field is so small – almost all of the top players are snatching up titles (and, by extension, the automatic invitations).

Four of the top five players in the world have won an event this year, and the only guy who hasn’t, Rory McIlroy, blew a 54-hole lead at Doral and is, well, Rory McIlroy, so he’s a threat every time he tees it up. McIlroy and the other top two players in the world – the winners of five of the past six majors – are all 8-1 odds or better to win at Augusta.

The point here is that this Masters has all the makings of an instant classic, of one of the most memorable majors in the past two decades. Too many great players are in form for there to be a rout, a dud winner, a lack of drama on the back nine.

Or so we hope.

1. Here are one man’s top 10 favorites for the Masters. Adjust your pre-draft rankings accordingly: 

  1. Jason Day: The rare player who can smash right-to-left tee shots and sky-high irons while also dazzling around the greens with one of the game’s best short games. The only thing he hasn’t done at Augusta – where he already has a pair of top-3s – is win.
  2. Adam Scott: Augusta’s stressful greens will test his revamped stroke, but Scott’s ball-striking is strong enough to give himself a great shot at a second green jacket. 
  3. Bubba Watson: The favorite as the Tour left the West Coast, Watson contended at Doral but tweaked his back and then bowed out early at the Match Play. Both of his Masters wins have come in even-numbered years and following victories at Riviera and runners-up at Doral. Hmmm. 
  4. Jordan Spieth: Not exactly peaking heading into Augusta, with five over-par scores in his last 10 rounds, but in his young career he’s already shown a remarkable ability to rise to the occasion on the biggest stages.
  5. Rickie Fowler: The timing just seems right: He’s in good form, with a win in Abu Dhabi and a bunch of other top finishes, and he’s placed in the top 12 in each of the past two Masters. Too bad orange and green don’t go well together. 
  6. Rory McIlroy: Yes, his pursuit of the career Grand Slam remains a major storyline this week, but it almost seems as if he’s flying under the radar, with Day’s emergence and Spieth’s defense. If he can have a decent putting week and avoid a nine-hole blowup, it could be his week.  
  7. Phil Mickelson: For years, Lefty’s early-season struggles were disregarded because his record at Augusta was so good – Don’t worry, he’ll find his game once he heads down Magnolia Lane. Though he remains winless since July 2013, he has played well during the year’s first few months. Now, expectations are understandably high.  
  8. Dustin Johnson: His physical tools are undeniable and he’s coming off his best result at the Masters (T-6). It remains to be seen, once again, whether he has the discipline to handle the Sunday pressure.
  9. Louis Oosthuizen: His runner-up at the Match Play (his fifth consecutive top-15) eliminated any chance of being a Masters sleeper, but perhaps King Louie will go overlooked after laying an egg in his final tune-up in Houston. 
  10. Justin Rose: Quiet start to the year, but he owns one of the best scoring averages on Tour and has finished outside the top 25 only twice in 10 career trips to Augusta. 

2. Tip of the cap to journeyman Jim Herman, who shared the 54-hole lead at the Houston Open, chipped in on the 70th hole and broke through on Tour for the first time in 106 starts. He gave a teary interview afterward and didn't express any regrets about missing his 8:42 p.m. flight back to Fort Lauderdale. 

He was heading to Augusta instead. 

3. A decade ago, Herman was working as an assistant pro at Trump Bedminster in New Jersey when he played a round with a billionaire named Donald Trump. Impressed, Trump wrote Herman a check to help fund his floundering career.

After failing at Q-School, toiling on the mini-tours and then graduating from the Tour a whopping four times, Herman is now a Tour winner.

“I feel awfully good,” Trump told USA Today on Sunday night. “It was really nice to see him win. He’s such a good guy. A nice person. And he deserves it. Such a great story. He’s what America is all about. He never gave up, never gave up on his dream. I’m proud of him.” 

4. Does a high finish in Houston augur a great week in Augusta? Well, it has recently for a few top players:

  • Spieth lost in a playoff in Houston last year. He won the Masters.
  • Matt Kuchar lost in a playoff in Houston in 2014. He tied for fifth the next week.
  • Fowler and McIlroy each finished sixth in Houston in ’14. They tied for fifth at the Masters. 

But no player has ever won the Houston Open and Masters in back-to-back weeks. 

Still, there were a few meaningful takeaways from Houston, such as ... 

5. Spieth got himself into contention Sunday, but he chastised himself for rinsing eight (!) shots during the week. 

6. Mickelson made a number of mistakes as well, especially off the tee, but he shrugged off those miscues. His rationale made sense, too. At Augusta, only one tee shot brings a hazard into play (13), so players are swinging as hard as possible on every tee box. To prepare for the year's first major, Mickelson adopted a similarly aggressive approach at the Golf Club of Houston, which is far more penal, and as a result he took plenty of penalty drops.   

7. Henrik Stenson came close. Again. Since his season-ending victory in Dubai in November 2014, the ball-striking savant has a remarkable 13 top-five finishes, including eight runner-up finishes.

8. DJ might be the least-talked-about player who has the best chance to win. After an opening loss at the Match Play, Johnson added the Houston Open while on the range warming up for his Thursday match, saying that he needed more reps. He reached the knockout stage, torched Patrick Reed with seven birdies and an eagle, and still got in two days of prep at Augusta before a solo third in H-Town. Trending. 

9. Apparently, Daniel Berger’s left wrist is OK. The 22-year-old injured his wrist during the Match Play when he tried to play a shot next to a rock wall. He withdrew from his third-round match but bounced back with a tie for fifth in Houston.    

10. Lydia Ko is truly amazing.

Three weeks from her 19th birthday, she hit all of the clutch shots down the stretch at the ANA Inspiration – none more so than an 88-yard wedge to a foot on the final green, a kick-in birdie that put even more pressure on Ariya Jutanugarn. Read colleague Randall Mell's column here.

Ko is now the youngest two-time major winner, male or female, in the modern era. Her game has no weaknesses – and no limits.

11. The poise and control with which Ko closed out the year’s first major stood in stark contrast to Jutanugarn’s shaky finish.

Staked to a two-shot lead with three to play, she bogeyed the 16th hole, butchered the 17th and then snap-hooked her final tee shot into the water, leading to another dropped shot, her third in a row.

Jutanugarn was one of the best junior players I’ve ever covered, boy or girl, and she’s only now beginning to play her way back into shape after a debilitating back injury. But when you add in her collapse at the 2013 Honda Thailand, there’s already a lot of scar tissue for the uber-talented 20-year-old. 

12. The World Golf Hall of Fame announced last week that it will raise the minimum age for induction from 40 to 50.

About time. 

With players still highly competitive into their 40s, it only makes sense for the Hall to push back the enshrinements until they are Champions Tour eligible.

Most immediately, this new rule affects Tiger Woods, who turned 40 last December, but it’s a move that likely won’t upset him: It spares Woods the awkwardness of being celebrated for a career that isn’t yet over. Mickelson, for instance, won a major a year after his induction speech.  

Tiger Woods

Woods announced – at 8:05 p.m., on a Friday, on April Fools’ Day – that he won’t play in the Masters. In other news, the sun rises in the East.

Of course he wasn’t going to play. Woods is (finally) listening to his doctors and seems determined not to rush what is his final comeback attempt. After all, golfers don’t return from four back surgeries. 

So why the delay? Why wait to announce what seemed so obvious to so many? 

Maybe Woods just wanted to toy with us. Perhaps he seriously thought he could play and the drive to prepare helped his rehab, until he eventually came to his senses.

Whatever the reason, it was odd, and it was unnecessary, and for the first time, few people seemed to notice. Or care.

This week's award winners ... 

Let's Hope This Doesn't Happen at Augusta: Bubba Watson's half-court shot. This is the halftime-entertainment equivalent of having a putt to win the Masters hang on the lip. Brutal.

Surely a Terrible Jinx: The weather forecast for the Masters. This could change at any moment, of course, but Masters week looks nearly perfect – a chance of rain Thursday morning, a steady 20-mph wind Friday, but temperatures will be anywhere from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. Glorious. 

And Your NCAA Player of the Year Is …: Beau Hossler? The Texas junior moved another step closer to wrapping up top-player honors with a two-shot victory Sunday at the Augusta 3M Invitational. It is Hossler’s NCAA-leading fifth title this season – two more than any other player. Voting for the Haskins Award ends before the NCAA Championship, so Hossler has three more events to solidify his position. 

Not Like Jack: Michelle Wie. Much was made of Wiesy’s new putting style – tabletop stance and also mimicking Nicklaus’ famous crouch – but it wasn’t a cure-all for her game. She still averaged 31 putts per round and, after a closing 77, tied for 36th. She hasn’t been better than 25th in seven starts this year. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Oosthuizen. Rounds of 73-77, on a course he loves, a week after a runner-up showing at the Match Play, a few days before the Masters? Sigh. 

Never Gets Old: Tim Herron's scripting.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.