Monday Scramble: Major excitement for Masters

By Ryan LavnerApril 6, 2015, 3:00 pm

So ... anything going on this week?

Nah, only the Super Bowl of Golf. Getting you ready for the Masters with this major edition of the Monday Scramble: 

When the Big Three strike the ceremonial first tee shot Thursday, it'll have been 242 days since Rory McIlroy won in near darkness at Valhalla ... not that we’ve been counting or anything. The gap between majors always sends the hype machine into overdrive heading into the Masters, and that’s before you factor in Tiger’s return and Rory’s run at history and the consistently inspiring play of Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson.

Sure, there’s always a chance that the back nine at Augusta will be a dud – last year’s finale, you may recall, was rather sleepy during the final hour – but it feels like we’re in store for an all-timer here. There are too many great players playing too well for a final-round flameout.

Gone are the days when, realistically, only a handful of players can win at Augusta. The list today is 30, maybe even 35 players deep. And that benefits the golf fan. 

When the first round gets underway, we’ll be nearly eight months removed from the last day at the PGA, when seemingly every top-10 player in the world was in the mix during the most exciting day of golf in 2014. We’re fully expecting the big boys to pick up where they left off. 

1. In case you're just waking up from a long winter's nap and making the Masters your first viewing start of the season, hey, welcome! Here are one man's top-five storylines heading into this week:

  1. Tiger's return
  2. Rory's run at history
  3. The emergence of Spieth
  4. Bubba ball
  5. Who's ready to take the next step?

2. Tiger’s return. Some of you are dealing with Tiger fatigue. Yes, thank you, I received your angry emails. Saw your nasty tweets, too. Complain all you want, but there’s no denying that Woods' opener Thursday will be the most highly anticipated round since he parachuted into Augusta in 2010 following the sex scandal. For two days, at least, he is the main story, 1A. 

This Masters sets up as arguably the most important tournament of Tiger’s career. He absolutely has to show progress – a made cut, no skulled chips, something – to convince not only himself but also the general sports public that he’s over the unwatchable play of the past 15 months. 

Augusta National exposes a player’s weakness better than any course on the planet, and there is no player in the field more fragile than Woods. He can’t afford another setback, not when he turns 40 this year, not after two months of hard work, not with his career in peril, not when the top players are so clearly better. All credit to Woods for putting his vulnerable game on display, but a setback at this point would be devastating. 

3. Rory’s run at history. The clear No. 1 player in the world takes a shot at (A) capturing his first green jacket, (B) completing the career Grand Slam, and (C) winning the third leg of the Tiger Slam. It’s all right there in front of Rory, a career achievement he’s embraced since he kissed the claret jug July 20, and he’s never been one to shy away from the big moment. For a global superstar at the peak of his powers, it doesn’t get much bigger than this. 

4. The emergence of Spieth. At this time last year, the then-20-year-old led by two with 11 to play. He wasn’t ready to win then (bogeying Nos. 8, 9 and 12 and failing to birdie each of the back-nine par 5s), nor was he ready at The Players a month later. 

But the baby-faced hotshot who stumbled down the stretch at Augusta bears little resemblance to the self-assured stud who returns to Georgia as the No. 4 player in the world. There is no hotter player on the planet: In his last 11 worldwide starts, he has three wins and four other top-5 finishes. In his last three starts on the PGA Tour, he has gone 1-2-2, the latest a playoff loss Sunday in Houston. He’s longer off the tee, his short game is otherworldly good (so long as a camera doesn’t go off in his downswing) and he’s a top-5 putter. The kid is going to win a Masters, and there’s a good chance it’ll happen this week. 

5. Bubba ball. Only three players in Masters history have repeated as champion, but Watson is the clear-cut favorite this year – and, incredibly, he’s flying under the radar. That’s to be expected with all of the hype surrounding Tiger and Rory, but Watson is going to challenge for his third green jacket in four years.

He has played only four events this calendar year, but he has a pair of top-threes and no finish worse than 14th. Really, he’s been automatic since September, as the player self-diagnosed with ADD has gone about his business with a newfound serenity. His imagination and Augusta's undulating terrain is a match in green-jacketed heaven. Why can’t he crack the Augusta code at least one more time? 

6. Who’s ready to take the next step? It’s tempting to predict major victories for all of the extravagantly talented players on Tour, but the fact is there are only four Big Ones a year and they’re hard to win. That’s why proven winners like Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Henrik Stenson and Jimmy Walker arrived on property this week without a major title to their name. From that group listed, Day and Walker are the most likely to break through this week. Their big, brawny game is a perfect fit for Augusta’s unique challenges, which helps explain why the Australian has a pair of top-threes at Augusta, while Walker top-10'd in his first visit in ’14.

That's not a knock on the other two players. But it's clear that for all of his awe-inspiring gifts, Johnson has yet to demonstrate the kind of sound decision-making at Augusta that has transformed Bubba from a brainless basher to an artist with a pink driver. Stenson, meanwhile, is arguably the best ball-striker in the game, but his final round at Bay Hill was a reminder that he’s still a work in progress on the greens. Augusta can (and will) expose that. 

7. Don’t look now, but J.B. Holmes was thisclose to making himself a legitimate Player of the Year candidate. Heck, he still might be. The playoff loss at Torrey. The big lead blown at Doral. And now the stout Sunday 64 and playoff win in H-Town? This is a career year for Holmes, and it’s only April 6. In 11 starts this season, he’s already posted a career high in earnings ($2.94M) and matched a career best in top-10s (four).

8. It’s amazing that Holmes, a four-time PGA Tour winner, has made only one trip to Augusta, back in 2008 (T-25). It’s difficult to forecast how he’ll play this week, but his major history leaves much to be desired – in 18 career appearances, his best finish is 14th

He sure didn’t look like it when he pummeled three big drives on the difficult 18th at the Golf Club of Houston, but Holmes is 170th (!) in driving accuracy this season. That wildness off the tee could put him in some awkward positions at Augusta, especially with his predominant left-to-right ball flight. Throw in the fact that he’s outside the top 170 in putting from inside 8 feet, and we’ll be looking for another sleeper in our Masters pool, thank you very much.

9. Quite an eventful Sunday for Spieth: He had a one-shot lead, he fell off the pace, he rallied with a pair of back-nine birdies and he made a sick up-and-down to join the playoff. Bowing out early was a bummer, but Spieth can take solace in the fact that since 1960, only two men have won the Masters after winning the previous week. 

There’s also this: Losing the way he did – chunking a bunker shot after he claimed a cellphone clicked during his downswing – was better than if, say, his ball rolled into the water on his tee shot. Then he’d have felt like he kicked away the tournament, rather than getting jobbed by a clueless fan. Big difference, at least psychologically. 

10. An survey of touring professionals found that 62 percent still believe that Tiger will win a 15th major championship. Maybe the Tour really does have a drug-testing problem. 

11. The Tour’s most disliked players – sorry, the official question is: _____ is in a fight in the parking lot. You’re not helping him. – are, in order, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed, Rory Sabbatini and Robert Allenby. Good thing there aren't too many physical altercations.  

12. Looking at this Getty photo, it's pretty clear that Brittany Lincicome’s fiancée, long-driving Dewald Gouws, has practiced his jump into Poppie’s Pond: 

13. Whose break was worse: Spieth hearing a cellphone click, or Stacy Lewis finding a divot with her layup shot on the third playoff hole at the ANA Inspiration? That’s not to suggest that Spieth would have gotten his shot up-and-down and then prevailed in a playoff, or that Lewis would have stuffed that wedge shot to kick-in range and won, but both were incredibly unlucky. No one wants to see an anticlimactic finish after hours of stirring play. And no one wants to seen an important outcome determined by forces outside a player's control.

14. The rest of the LPGA hasn’t had much success stopping Lydia Ko, but it’s clear that Mission Hills has her number. The world No. 1 stumbled to a T-51 finish at the year’s first major – the third-worst showing of her young career. It also follows pedestrian finishes there of T-25 and T-29 in 2013 and ’14, respectively. 

The casual sports fan already has trouble embracing the teen phenom, and this result was a missed opportunity for a tour that desperately needs a dominant world No. 1 to (if only occasionally) crack the mainstream. Fair or not, Ko needs to win at least one major this year to capitalize on all of the momentum from the past few months.  

15. Seriously, what are the chances that Ko would match Annika’s LPGA record of 29 sub-par rounds, then close out the ANA with three consecutive over-par scores? She hadn't done that since June. 

Lexi Thompson essentially posed topless for the upcoming Golf Digest fitness issue. The only thing she’s wearing is something resembling a gym towel and a golf glove, which is the lone reminder that this is indeed a golf magazine.

Not surprisingly, opinion on the cover was divided. Some thought it was great, another dose of #GirlPower. Others viewed the cover as a blatant exploitation of the female body. And a few cried that there was a double standard at work, because Rory posed shirtless on the cover of the same magazine last month.

Difference is, that cover conveyed power and strength, with his chiseled abs, arms and shoulders the prototype of a modern pro. Sorry, but nothing about a female’s semi-exposed breasts connote those same ideals.

Inside, Michelle Wie, Stacy Lewis, Cheyenne Woods and Thompson were photographed working out in appropriate gym apparel. Strange that those shots weren’t deemed worthy for the cover. Anything to sell magazines ... 

This week's award winners ... 

Most Likely to Dance-Off: Brittany Lincicome and Johnson Wagner. Their reactions on the 72nd hole Sunday were pure, unadulterated joy – and totally awesome. 

Wise Beyond His Years: Jordan Spieth, talking about his hot streak and proving yet again that there's no way he's 21: “Honestly, ideally, I don’t look at this like a run. I look at this as this is the way I should be playing. If I look at it as a run, it means the normal me is something lesser than I am right now. I can’t think of myself that way.” 

Not Ready for the NFL Combine: Patrick Reed, who made an ace in Houston and then couldn't chase down his bag-toting caddie in a race. Hey, just blame it on the bad wheel!

Tweet of the Week: Nike has already released its scripting for Tiger's Masters outfits. Here's another idea:

Most Likely to Rinse a Putter in Poppie's Pond: Sei Young Kim, the third-round leader at the ANA who three-putted SEVEN times during the tournament and still only finished two shots out a playoff.

Give These Folks a Raise: This Nike ad featuring Tiger and Rory will give you goosebumps. At least it should, if you’re a golf fan. 

Actually, an opening 75 is a pretty good guess. I’m expecting some scrappy play but Woods should be able to keep his score from going completely off the rails with a few par-5 birdies. And keep in mind a first-round 75 wouldn’t torpedo his chances of playing the weekend. The past two years the 36-hole cut fell at 5-over 149. In 2012, it was 150.

It’s all going to come down to his first few missed greens. Walking up to his shot, he’s going to wonder, the patrons at Augusta are going to wonder and the viewers at home are going to wonder: Is he about to bungle ANOTHER one? Until Tiger demonstrates that he can consistently handle those shots – especially off those extra tight lies – his short-game woes will follow him around that opening day, and beyond. 

It certainly wouldn’t hurt, but is it essential that he bags a major this year? No way. Spieth has already established himself as a top-5 player, not just for this year, but also for the next, oh, decade and a half. His go-for-broke style is refreshing, and he has separated himself from the other would-be stars – i.e. Rickie – by actually winning tournaments. His game doesn’t have any weaknesses, which is why it’d be a surprise if he didn’t contend in every major. Look for him at Augusta and Chambers Bay (where he missed the cut in the 2010 U.S. Am). 

Can only pick two? Jordan Spieth vs. Patrick Reed is the obvious choice. Former Ryder Cup partners, they have established the foundation for a loooong rivalry with their taut playoff in Tampa. That’d be so fun to watch – two ultra-competitive dudes with world-class short games on the biggest stage in golf. 

Could throw Rickie in that group, but his game looks anything but major-ready. Would put Brooks Koepka in that mix, but his rib injury looks like it’ll hamper his Masters debut. Might want Hideki Matsuyama in that spot, but he lacks the star power of the others. Honestly, just getting a handful of these guys in contention would be a bonus. 

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Teenager Im wins season opener

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 10:23 pm

South Korea's Sungjae Im cruised to a four-shot victory at The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic, becoming just the second teenager to win an event on the Tour.

Im started the final day of the season-opening event in a share of the lead but still with six holes left in his third round. He was one shot behind Carlos Ortiz when the final round began, but moved ahead of the former Player of the Year thanks to a 7-under 65 in rainy and windy conditions. Im's 13-under total left him four clear of Ortiz and five shots ahead of a quartet of players in third.

Still more than two months shy of his 20th birthday, Im joins Jason Day as the only two teens to win on the developmental circuit. Day was 19 years, 7 months and 26 days old when he captured the 2007 Legend Financial Group Classic.

Recent PGA Tour winners Si Woo Kim and Patrick Cantlay and former NCAA champ Aaron Wise all won their first Tour event at age 20.

Other notable finishes in the event included Max Homa (T-7), Erik Compton (T-13), Curtis Luck (T-13) and Lee McCoy (T-13). The Tour will remain in the Bahamas for another week, with opening round of The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic set to begin Sunday.

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Mickelson grouped with Z. Johnson at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 8:28 pm

He's not the highest-ranked player in this week's field, but Phil Mickelson will likely draw the biggest crowd at the CareerBuilder Challenge as he makes his first start of 2018. Here are a few early-round, marquee groupings to watch as players battle the three-course rotation in the Californian desert (all times ET):

12:10 p.m. Thursday, 11:40 a.m. Friday, 1:20 p.m. Saturday: Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson

Mickelson is making his fourth straight trip to Palm Springs, having cracked the top 25 each of the last three times. In addition to their respective amateur partners, he'll play the first three rounds alongside a fellow Masters champ in Johnson, who tied for 14th last week in Hawaii and finished third in this event in 2014.

11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Jon Rahm, Bubba Watson

At No. 3 in the world, Rahm is the highest-ranked player teeing it up this week and the Spaniard returns to an event where he finished T-34 last year in his tournament debut. He'll play the first two rounds alongside Watson, who is looking to bounce back from a difficult 2016-17 season and failed to crack the top 50 in two starts in the fall.

11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Patrick Reed, Brandt Snedeker

Reed made the first big splash of his career at this event in 2014, shooting three straight rounds of 63 en route to his maiden victory. He'll be joined by Snedeker, whose bid for a Masters bid via the top 50 of the world rankings came up short last month and who hasn't played this event since a missed cut in 2015.

1:10 p.m. Thursday, 12:40 p.m. Friday, 12:10 p.m. Saturday: Patton Kizzire, Bill Haas

Kizzire heads east after a whirlwind Sunday ended with his second win of the season in a six-hole playoff over James Hahn in Honolulu. He'll play alongside Haas, who won this event in both 2010 and 2015 to go with a runner-up finish in 2011 and remains the tournament's all-time leading money winner.

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Mackay still a caddie at heart, even with a microphone

By Doug FergusonJanuary 16, 2018, 7:34 pm

HONOLULU – All it took was one week back on the bag to remind Jim ''Bones'' Mackay what he always loved about being a caddie.

It just wasn't enough for this to be the ultimate mic drop.

Mackay traded in his TV microphone at the Sony Open for the 40-pound bag belonging to Justin Thomas.

It was his first time caddying since he split with Phil Mickelson six months ago. Mackay was only a temporary replacement at Waialae for Jimmy Johnson, a good friend and Thomas' regular caddie who has a nasty case of plantar fasciitis that will keep him in a walking boot for the next month.

''The toughest thing about not caddying is missing the competition, not having a dog in the fight,'' Mackay said before the final round. ''There's nothing more rewarding as a caddie, in general terms, when you say, 'I don't like 6-iron, I like 7,' and being right. I miss that part of it.''

The reward now?

''Not stumbling over my words,'' he said. ''And being better than I was the previous week.''

He has done remarkably well since he started his new job at the British Open last summer, except for that time he momentarily forgot his role. Parts of that famous caddie adage – ''Show up, keep up, shut up'' – apparently can apply to golf analysts on the ground.

During the early hours of the telecast, before Johnny Miller came on, Justin Leonard was in the booth.

''It's my job to report on what I see. It's not my job to ask questions,'' Mackay said. ''I forgot that for a minute.''

Leonard was part of a booth discussion on how a comfortable pairing can help players trying to win a major. That prompted Mackay to ask Leonard if he found it helpful at the 1997 British Open when he was trying to win his first major and was paired with Fred Couples in the final round at Royal Troon.

''What I didn't know is we were going to commercial in six seconds,'' Mackay said. ''I would have no way of knowing that, but I completely hung Justin out to dry. He's now got four seconds to answer my long-winded question.''

During the commercial break, the next voice Mackay heard belonged to Tommy Roy, the executive golf producer at NBC.

''Bones, don't ever do that again.''

It was Roy who recognized the value experienced caddies could bring to a telecast. That's why he invited Mackay and John Wood, the caddie for Matt Kuchar, into the control room at the 2015 Houston Open so they could see how it all worked and how uncomfortable it can be to hear directions coming through an earpiece.

Both worked as on-course reporters at Sea Island that fall.

And when Mickelson and Mackay parted ways after 25 years, Roy scooped up the longtime caddie for TV.

It's common for players to move into broadcasting. Far more unusual is for a caddie to be part of the mix. Mackay loves his new job. Mostly, he loves how it has helped elevate his profession after so many years of caddies being looked upon more unfavorably than they are now.

''I want to be a caddie that's doing TV,'' he said. ''That's what I hope to come across as. The guys think this is good for caddies. And if it's good for caddies, that makes me happy. Because I'm a caddie. I'll always be a caddie.''

Not next week at Torrey Pines, where Mickelson won three times. Not a week later in Phoenix, where Mackay lives. Both events belong to CBS.

And not the Masters.

He hasn't missed Augusta since 1994, when Mickelson broke his leg skiing that winter.

''That killed me,'' he said, ''but not nearly as much as it's going to kill me this year. I'll wake up on Thursday of the Masters and I'll be really grumpy. I'll probably avoid television at all costs until the 10th tee Sunday. And I'll watch. But it will be, within reason, the hardest day of my life.''

There are too many memories, dating to when he was in the gallery right of the 11th green in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman. He caddied for Mize for two years, and then Scott Simpson in 1992, and Mickelson the rest of the way. He was on the bag for Lefty's three green jackets.

Mackay still doesn't talk much about what led them to part ways, except to say that a player-caddie relationship runs its course.

''If you lose that positive dynamic, there's no point in continuing,'' he said. ''It can be gone in six months or a year or five years. In our case, it took 25 years.''

He says a dozen or so players called when they split up, and the phone call most intriguing was from Roy at NBC.

''I thought I'd caddie until I dropped,'' Mackay said.

He never imagined getting yardages and lining up putts for anyone except the golfer whose bag he was carrying. Now it's for an audience that measures in the millions. Mackay doesn't look at it as a second career. And he won't rule out caddying again.

''It will always be tempting,'' he said. ''I'll always consider myself a caddie. Right now, I'm very lucky and grateful to have the job I do.''

Except for that first week in April.

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The Social: The end was nigh, then it wasn't

By Jason CrookJanuary 16, 2018, 7:00 pm

The star power at the Sony Open may have been overshadowed by a missile scare, but there were plenty of other social media stories that kept the golf world on its toes this week, including some insight on Tiger Woods from a round with President Obama and some failed trick shots.

All that and more in this week's edition of The Social.

By now you've undoubtedly heard about the false alarm in Hawaii on Saturday, where just about everyone, including most Sony Open participants, woke up to an emergency cell phone alert that there was a ballistic missile heading toward the islands.

Hawaiian emergency management officials eventually admitted the original message was mistakenly sent out, but before they did, people (understandably) freaked out.

As the situation unfolded, some Tour pros took to social media to express their confusion and to let the Twittersphere know how they planned on riding out this threat:

While I would've been in that bathtub under the mattress with John Peterson, his wife, baby and in-laws (wait, how big is this tub?), here's how Justin Thomas reacted to the threat of impending doom:

Yeah, you heard that right.

“I was like ‘there’s nothing I can do,'” Thomas said. ”I sat on my couch and opened up the sliding door and watched TV and listened to music. I was like, if it’s my time, it’s my time.”

Hmmm ... can we just go ahead and award him all the 2018 majors right now? Because if Thomas is staring down death in mid-January, you gotta like the kid's chances on the back nine Sunday at Augusta and beyond.

Before the Hawaiian Missile Crisis of 2018, things were going about as well as they could at Waialae Country Club, starting with the Wednesday pro-am.

Jordan Spieth might have been the third-biggest star in his own group, after getting paired with superstar singer/songwriter/actor Nick Jonas and model/actress Kelly Rohrbach.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more photogenic group out on the course, and the "Baywatch" star has a gorgeous swing as well, which makes sense, considering she was a former collegiate golfer at Georgetown.

As impressive as that group was, they were somehow outshined by an amateur in another group, former NFL coach June Jones.

Jones, who now coaches the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, played his round in bare feet and putted with his 5-iron, a remedy he came up with to battle the yips.

Former NFL and current CFL coach June Jones: A master of 5-iron putting?

A post shared by PGA TOUR (@pgatour) on

Considering he made back-to-back birdies at one point during the day, it's safe to say he's won that battle.

With Tiger Woods' return to the PGA Tour about a week away, that sound you hear is the hype train motoring full speed down the tracks.

First, his ex-girlfriend Lindsey Vonn told Sports Illustrated that she hopes this comeback works out for him.

“I loved him and we’re still friends. Sometimes, I wish he would have listened to me a little more, but he’s very stubborn and he likes to go his own way," the Olympic skiier said. "I hope this latest comeback sticks. I hope he goes back to winning tournaments.”

Vonn also mentioned she thinks Woods is very stubborn and that he didn't listen to her enough. That really shouldn't shock anyone who watched him win the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg. Don't think there were a lot of people in his ear telling him that was a great idea at the time.

We also have this report from Golf Channel Insider Tim Rosaforte, stating that the 14-time major champ recently played a round with former president Barack Obama at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., where he received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon.

The Farmers Insurance Open is sure to be must-see TV, but until then, I'm here for all of the rampant speculation and guesses as to how things will go. The more takes the better. Make them extra spicy, please and thanks.

These poor New Orleans Saints fans. Guess the only thing you can do is throw your 65-inch TV off the balcony and get 'em next year.

Here's two more just for good measure.

Farts ... will they ever not be funny?

Perhaps someday, but that day was not early last week, when Tommy Fleetwood let one rip on his European teammates during EurAsia Cup team photos.

Fleetwood went 3-0-0 in the event, helping Europe to a victory over Asia, perhaps by distracting his opponents with the aid of his secret weapon.

Also, how about the diabolical question, "Did you get that?"

Yeah Tommy, we all got that.

Ahhh ... golf trick shot videos. You were fun while you lasted.

But now we’ve officially come to the point in their existence where an unsuccessful attempt is much more entertaining than a properly executed shot, and right on cue, a couple of pros delivered some epic fails.

We start with Sony Open runner-up James Hahn’s preparation for the event, where for some reason he thought he needed to practice a running, jumping, Happy Gilmore-esque shot from the lip of a bunker. It didn’t exactly work out.

Not to be outdone, Ladies European Tour pro Carly Booth attempted the juggling-drive-it-out-of-midair shot made famous by the Bryan Bros, and from the looks of things she might have caught it a little close to the hosel.

PSA to trick-shot artists everywhere: For the sake of the viewing public, if you feel a miss coming on, please make sure the camera is rolling.

Seriously, though, who cares? Definitely not these guys and gals, who took the time to comment, "who cares?" They definitely do not care.