Monday Scramble: McIlroy fit; Lowry scrambles to win

By Ryan LavnerAugust 10, 2015, 4:00 pm

Shane Lowry makes a few great escapes, Rory McIlroy returns to action, Jim Furyk coughs up another 54-hole lead and the best players in the world are reminded that "THIS IS MAJOR" in this week's cheesy edition of the Monday Scramble: 

Even before he posted workout videos and spoke in emoji, before he played two practice rounds at Whistling Straits and declared his injured left ankle a “non-issue,” there were many smart people who thought Rory McIlroy would be making a mistake by trying to return for the PGA Championship.

They said he’d be rushing back, that he wouldn’t be 100 percent, that he’d be a victim of his own hubris. They said that it’d be too much too soon, that there would be more risk than reward, that he’d overcompensate and develop bad habits. 

"Save your season, Rory!" they cried. "No, no … save your career!"

Is he making a mistake? Maybe, but right now he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Only he knows how he's feeling, how much discomfort he can handle.

He’s probably not at full strength, and he’ll likely be sore by Sunday night after walking 25-plus miles at one of the hilliest major venues, but if he and his team believe he’s healthy enough to give it a go at the year’s final major, then why not try?

If there was a high probability of re-injury – the most likely scenario is a shot from a downhill lie, with all of the weight on his front foot – then he’d take this week off. His trainer is Steve McGregor, who has worked previously for the Manchester City soccer club and also the New York Knicks. Think this is the first severely sprained ankle he has seen? 

The expectation here is that McIlroy will be fine physically, but that he’ll struggle to score at the PGA – it’ll be 53 days between competitive shots. 

A little rust is easier to fix than a bum ankle.

1. Shane Lowry had not one but two potential candidates Sunday for Shot of the Year – and both came on the back nine, when the pressure was at its most intense.

First came a power wedge shot on 10, after a wild hook off the tee trapped him deep in the woods. He caught a break, receiving a free drop on an upslope because of the 11th tee signage, and he lashed out of the thick rough, his ball soaring over the trees and nestling within 2 feet of the cup.

After the scramblin' man made clutch par saves on Nos. 14 and 17, he went upstairs again for his second shot on 18, when he was clinging to a one-shot lead, when a ricochet off the trees could have led to a big number. His ball somehow sneaked through the branches and came to rest 10 feet away. 

“I couldn’t believe I was seeing the ball coming down from there, coming down on the green,” he said.

Lowry buried the birdie putt to cap a flawless 66 and become the first non-Tour member to win a WGC event since Martin Kaymer in 2011. 

2. One of the best measures of a player’s popularity is the reaction when he wins. Tweets from Lowry's fellow pros poured in after he captured the Bridgestone on Sunday, but the celebration from those at his home club (Esker Hills in Ireland) was even better: 

3. Lowry has just one win since 2012, and a spotty record recently if not for top-10s at the BMW PGA and U.S. Open, but he’s already rocketed up to No. 19 in the world – just one spot behind Patrick Reed, who has four wins in the past 24 months, and ahead of Phoenix Open winner Brooks Koepka, two-time major champion Martin Kaymer and FedEx Cup champ Billy Horschel. Surprising.

4. Jim Furyk had a four-shot lead at the halfway point of the Bridgestone Invitational. It was not an unfamiliar position for the 17-time Tour winner, of course, but over the past few years, whenever he had a lead, he faced an uncomfortable line of questioning:

So ... are you going to close out THIS one?

Granted, the narrative has shifted somewhat thanks to his come-from-behind victory in Hilton Head, his first title since 2010. Furyk even said last week that it was “a refreshing conversation to sit here and talk.”

Two days later, though, he added to what is one of the more amazing stats in golf: He is now 0-for-his-last-10 when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead. 

To hear Furyk afterward, he was surprised to even have a chance to win.

“If we go back to a lot of the interviews I was doing Thursday and Friday, I was saying I was missing too many fairways, made too many poor swings. I really never did figure it out,” he said. “I was covering up with putts early in the week. And under the gun, it got a little worse on the weekend. We’ve got some work to do.” 

Not all losses are created equal – Lowry closed with a bogey-free 66 – but it's clear Furyk still hasn’t vanquished all of his final-round demons. 

5. It’s worth noting that Furyk’s counterpart on Sunday, Justin Rose, hasn’t fared much better as a frontrunner. His closing 72 (and eventual T-3 finish) dropped his career mark to 3-for-11 when sharing the third-round lead on Tour. 

6. Does the Bridgestone help predict major success?

  • The last three years, the PGA winner finished in the top-5 the week prior at Firestone. 
  • Going back even further, over the last nine editions, the eventual PGA champ hasn’t finished worse than 22nd at the final WGC event of the season. 

So, if history holds, that would rule out (among others): Sergio Garcia, Zach Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson, Louis Oosthuizen, Kaymer, Dustin Johnson and Jimmy Walker. Yikes. 

7. Here are one man’s favorites for the PGA Championship:

  1. Bubba Watson: His smash-mouth game and the Straits' big ballpark are a perfect fit, as evidenced by his 2010 playoff loss. His major record this year is a concern, but back-to-back runners-up should give him a little extra fire this week. 
  2. Jason Day: In great form and brimming with confidence. The difference now is that, after his macho finish in Canada, he knows he can get the job done down the stretch.
  3. Rickie Fowler: Ditto for this stud, who could stamp a breakout year with a breakthrough major.  
  4. Henrik Stenson: Under the radar, per usual, but he’s coming off a T-6 at Firestone and he’s a proven late-season performer, finishing in the top six in four of the past five PGAs he’s played.
  5. D. Johnson: Would have listed him No. 1 before his lackluster weekend (75-76) at the Bridgestone, a continuation of his troubling finish at the Open (75-75). If he were to win, it’d be a redemption story for the ages. 

8. Bubba led the field in driving distance at Firestone, averaging (gulp) 331.3 yards per pop, the highest total since the PGA Tour began keeping the statistic in 2003.

Keep blaming those belly putters, though. 

9. Jordan Spieth prefers to play the week before a major.

Why? “I can kind of find out the tendencies, good and bad, that are in my game at the time when the pressure is on,” he said.

Clearly, it works for him.

Here is how he has fared in his 2015 major tuneups:

  • Shell Houston Open: T-2 (lost in playoff); Masters: 1st 
  • Memorial: T-3; U.S. Open: 1st
  • John Deere Classic: 1st; Open Championship: T-4 
  • WGC-Bridgestone Invitational: T-10; PGA: ?

10. Some perspective: When the PGA was last held at Whistling Straits, in 2010, Spieth was a rising high-school senior who didn’t even reach match play at the Western Amateur.

11. Spieth toured the Straits for the first time before heading to Firestone, and said that the successful players this week will have to be “very special” from tee to green. If he wants to become the first player to win all three American majors in the same year, he’ll definitely have to be sharper than he was in Akron.

He hit only 52 percent of the greens at Firestone (38 of 72), a product of a driver that was uncharacteristically wild. Spieth was much better Sunday, finding 10 fairways (four more than any other round), and not surprisingly so was his score: 66, which was good enough for a backdoor top-10. 

Driving will be a major point of emphasis when he arrives at the PGA, because medium-length hitters need to be in the short grass to have any chance to attack. 

12. Dustin Johnson won’t have a chance to ground his club again down the right side of the 18th hole at Whistling Straits – that area has been covered by a spectator grandstand. 

Trying to explain what happened on the 72nd hole back in 2010, DJ said that he thought his ball had come to rest on a trampled piece of dirt and that it never crossed his mind that he was in a bunker.

“Maybe I should have looked at the rule sheet a little harder,” he admitted afterward.

Hey, DJ: You’re in luck! 

The notice to competitors was sent out on social media Sunday, so that (hopefully) there are no misunderstandings this time. 

Interestingly, only four words of the letter have been amended from 2010 (in bold):  

All areas of the course that were designed and built as bunkers, filled with sand, will be played as bunkers (hazards), whether or not they have been raked. This will mean that many bunkers positioned outside of the ropes, as well as some areas of bunkers inside the ropes, close to the rope line, will likely include numerous footprints, heel prints, trash and tire tracks during the play of the Championship. Such irregularities of surface are a part of the game and no free relief will be available from these conditions. All bunkers inside the ropes will be raked each morning prior to play as normal. 

13. When it comes to Tiger Woods, what’s the major number?

Assuming he doesn’t snap a seven-year drought in the majors or finish second at Whistling Straits, he’ll be outside the cut line for the FedEx Cup Playoffs. He said that he’ll decide whether to play the Wyndham based on how he plays at the PGA, but he’ll have to get an early sense of how he is going to finish – that decision has to come no later than 30 minutes after he finishes his second round. 

Woods is currently 185th in the standings, at 147 points. That leaves him 275 points behind the current bubble boy, Vijay Singh, who has 422. 

More points are available at majors, but to be safe, let’s say that Woods needs 325 points to crack the top 125. If he finishes 10th at the PGA – he doesn’t have a top-10 on Tour in two years, remember – then he would still need a top-2 finish at Wyndham. If he is fifth at Whistling Straits, a solo third in Greensboro might still leave him on the outside looking in.

The question: Would he really want to face a win-to-get-in scenario in Greensboro, knowing the potential embarrassment of coming up short against a weak field? Stay tuned Friday. 

14. File this under “because golf”: 

• Troy Merritt shot 138 on the weekend at the Quicken Loans National, including a third-round 61, and won his first tournament on the PGA Tour. 

Three days later, he shot his first Tour round in the 80s, the start of a 22-over 302 week, and he finished last among the 77 starters at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. 

• Eight days ago, Steven Bowditch shot 83 during the final round of the Quicken Loans – five strokes higher than the next-worst score that day. He made $13,000 and some change. 

Saturday at Firestone, he shot 63 to climb up the leaderboard, and he finished T-12 to match his third-best finish in 27 starts. He earned $126,000. 

Andres Romero doesn’t have a fighting chance to make the playoffs.

Battling to keep his card, Romero became so frustrated after back-to-back bogeys at the Barracuda Championship that he punched a sign and – wait for it – broke his hand. Could be tough to form an interlocking grip with a cast on his right paw.

Romero, No. 157 in the FedEx Cup standings, ended up withdrawing from the opposite-field event, but not before he putted a ball off the tee on the last four holes and took double bogey – the highest possible score in the modified Stableford format, and the proper punishment for such petulance.  

In a Facebook post, he apologized to the tournament, the fans and his sponsors for a “big mistake,” and said that his heart was “broken” after throwing away all of his hard work. 

A knockout blow, indeed.

This week's award winners ... 

You Had One Job: 18th-green announcer. Reading from a tee sheet as the players walked up 18, he somehow mangled the tournament winner’s name, calling him “Shawn” Lowry. 

Rest in Peace: Louise Suggs. One of the most influential LPGA players of all time, the Hall of Famer won 11 majors and served as the tour’s president three times. She was 91. 

Math wizard: Kyle Reifers. An eagle is worth five points in the modified Stableford format. So making three eagles in the last six holes is very, very good. Reifers’ record-breaking 22-point total in Reno helped get him into a playoff, where he lost to good-guy journeyman J.J. Henry (who, of course, eagled 18 to win).

Mr. Consistency: Jordan Spieth. Only five of his last 51 rounds have been over par. That streak began March 8. Absurd.

Future Olympian: Matt Kuchar. Oh, he probably won’t end up making the U.S. Olympic golf team, but he’s worth a tryout for the USA Table Tennis squad, no?:

Maybe NOT a Future Olympian: Adam Scott. After the PGA Tour trotted out Henrik Stenson, Byeong-Hun An and Kuchar as the faces of their one-year-to-go countdown, Scott once again made clear that he has little interest in all things Olympics, calling the event a “fun exhibition.” Scott added that “it’s absolutely a possibility” that he will skip the event, because it is not a “priority.” It’ll be interesting to see if Scott changes his tune, or if many other elite players follow suit and let someone else get a crack at a gold medal.

Clean, Old Fashioned Hate: Kisner vs. Hadley (with Harman and Peterson cameos!). In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a proud UGA alum, but this innocuous tweet by Hadley, a former Tech standout, touched off quite a bit of Twitter fun. Dawgs on Top. 

A couple of theories: Because it's hard to win; because the pursuers have less pressure and can take more chances; and because Tiger Woods spoiled us, because he tricked us into believing that anyone with a 54-hole lead should go on to win. It's just not that simple. If nothing else, the dismal closing records of some of the game's best players should help us appreciate Woods more, because he was so proficient in that position (53 of 57, including 42-2 when holding the outright lead). 

The biggest story would be Spieth, because he'd become the first player to capture all three U.S. majors in the same season, and he'd join Hogan and Woods as the only guys with three majors in a year. Then Rory. (An aside: I heard somewhere that a Rory win would rank right up there with Tiger at Torrey in '08. I thought the talking head was kidding, that there was no way he would say something so ludicrous. Sadly, he was not.) Then DJ. Johnson's story is the most likely, especially if he can turn around his recent weekend woes. As I wrote up top, however, I think we'll see a winner with the surname Watson, Fowler, Day or Stenson.

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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.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.