Getty Images

Monday Scramble: An ode to 2017

By Ryan LavnerDecember 4, 2017, 5:00 pm

Tiger Woods returns from a layoff, Justin Thomas becomes a superstar, Jordan Spieth authors an incredible comeback, Lexi Thompson comes close, Team USA keeps rolling and more in this season-ending edition of the Monday Scramble:

Tiger Woods proved yet again that he is still the needle in golf, but 2017 will be remembered as the year that an already-famous high school class rose to the top.

Members of the class of 2011, Justin Thomas was the no-brainer Player of the Year as a five-time winner, major champion and FedExCup champion; Jordan Spieth moved one step closer to the career Grand Slam, on a major pace with Jack and Tiger; and Xander Schauffele went from struggling newcomer to Rookie of the Year after a torrid three-month stretch.

It’s a trend that isn’t going anywhere: 15 of the 30 players who qualified for the Tour Championship were in their 20s, marking the first time that the average age of a Tour winner was younger than 30.

These 20-somethings are talented. Fearless. Hungry.

If Woods can somehow return to championship form, it would make for one heck of a show in 2018: Golf’s next generation versus the player they grew up idolizing. 

1. Before we wrap up the past year, Tiger Woods returned to competitive golf last week, and there was a lot to digest. A few thoughts:

• The biggest takeaway is that Tiger looks happy and healthy. His gait was more athletic, his swing more free-flowing and powerful. That wasn’t the case last year, when he showed flashes of brilliance but overall looked like he was laboring, like he was 60, not 40. If his body cooperates, this "comeback" – whatever that entails – has a real chance.

• Tiger’s driver is now a weapon, not a liability. That hasn’t been the case in … a decade? On a forgiving course, he avoided the big miss, worked the ball both ways and absolutely pounded it, easily reaching the par 5s in two. His 180-mph ball speed matched the big-hitting Thomas, and it would have ranked among the top 20 on Tour last season. The only question: Can his back withstand that type of velocity over a full season?

• His short game still needs work. One of the misconceptions about his previous aborted comebacks was that he was able to spend more time in the short-game area than on the range. Not true, Woods said. It hurt even more to put himself in the proper posture, and so he avoided it altogether. It became obvious that part of the game had been neglected. Albany’s tight, sandy lies proved a stiff challenge for everyone, but Woods hit enough shaky chips to recall memories of his chip-yip horrors from years’ past.

• Tiger has been through a physical and personal hell. He was in so much pain, he kept a bucket near his bed to go to the bathroom. That's a horrible way to live, and it's little wonder he became so reliant on pain medication. It's impossible to play good golf in a fog, but a clear-eyed Woods says he's now on the "other side." 

Overall, the week was a resounding success - the T-9 put him back in the top 700 in the world ranking - that portends well for Woods perhaps being more competitive than previously thought.

2. Some of the Woods apathy was understandable – after all, this was his 10th comeback, from either personal or physical issues – but he proved that he’s still the most powerful man in golf.

His mere presence turned the Hero World Challenge, an 18-man holiday exhibition, into a must-see event. The first round alone was streamed by so many people, it would have ranked as the sixth-most-streamed four-round event of the year on NBC/Golf Channel. (Don’t you people work?!) Based on the reaction of his peers, the on-site fans and a very unscientific sampling on Twitter, most seem genuinely happy that Woods is back in the fold and eager to see him return to form.

If he can stay healthy, 2018 just got a lot more interesting.

3. So what will his schedule next year look like?

At this point, Woods either isn’t sure or isn’t ready to share it publicly.

Only Woods knows his body and how much he can handle, or how much he needs to play to feel sharp, but a pre-Masters run with Phoenix, Riviera, Honda and Bay Hill sounds ideal to this scribe. Yes, he has so much history at Torrey Pines, but the long, brutal track is no longer the best fit for his game.

The worst mistake he can make with a fused back is to overextend himself. He doesn’t need a 20-event slate to be competitive.   

4. At long last, Thomas has moved out of Spieth’s considerable shadow.

For the majority of his career he has taken a backseat to Spieth, and that divide only grew once both were in the pros. Not anymore. With awe-inspiring drives and a vastly improved short game, Thomas became one of the game’s bona fide stars, surging from 35th in the world last fall to No. 3.

And so a new question has emerged: Right now Thomas trails Spieth in the major department, 3-1, but at the end of their careers, who will have more? Thomas has the firepower – and, now, the self-belief – to make it a close race. 

5. It’s a what-could-have-been year for Dustin Johnson.

Make no mistake, he was brilliant – winning four times, including a pair of World Golf Championships and a playoff event, and holding on to the No. 1 ranking – but you also can’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much better.

DJ had reached Tiger-like levels of dominance. He was the first player in more than 40 years to arrive at Augusta having won his last three tournaments … and then he never even made it to the first tee, after slipping on a set of stairs on the eve of the Masters and injuring his back.

The year’s first major went on without the world No. 1 – and produced a deserving winner in Sergio Garcia – but would the result have been different with a healthy DJ? We’ll never know, of course. The back injury led to compensations in his swing, and he failed to factor in any of the three remaining majors. A shame, because that may have been once-in-a-lifetime form.

6. After a predictable letdown year, all Spieth did in 2017 was put together the best ball-striking season of his career and add another major to his collection.

For as much as Spieth is lauded for his putting prowess, this year it was his iron play that carried him to three wins and some Player of the Year discussion. A point of emphasis moving forward will be improving his performance off the tee, but at 24 he’s already a generationally great player.

His back nine at The Open figures to be replayed for decades, a two-hour period that had a little bit of everything – a meltdown that recalled his Masters collapse, a lengthy ruling, clutch shots, a few iconic moments – and, ultimately, the end result that he desired.

If Spieth can overcome all of THAT and still claim the claret jug, then no obstacle is insurmountable. 

7. As for two guys who disappointed in 2017 …

Expect “angry” Rory McIlroy to show up next year. He has plotted an ambitious, early-season schedule in hopes of rediscovering the form that propelled him to four majors and world No. 1.

There should have been plenty of soul-searching this fall, after a transitional year in which he battled a nagging injury, got married and changed both his equipment and caddie. We should know by March if he’s addressed the issues with his wedges and putting.

And after winning eight times over the previous two years, Day went 0-for-2017 while taking significant steps back with his driver, iron play and putter. It’s probably unreasonable to think he’ll ride another heater like he did in 2015-16, but he also possesses way too much firepower to get left behind for long. 

8. In a year in which the top players played hot potato with the No. 1 ranking, even more memorable might be the ladies who didn’t end the year in the top spot.

Lydia Ko was No. 1 at the start of the year and she’s all the way down to No. 9. Ariya Jutanugarn seemed the most likely challenger, but she was alternately brilliant and bewildering during a two-win campaign. Lexi Thompson had the best year of her career, and yet two self-inflicted mistakes left her wanting more.

Rising to the top, instead, were So Yeon Ryu and talented rookie Sung-Hyun Park, who last year took the Korean tour by storm. The talent level is only getting deeper. That’s bad news for Lydia, Ariya, Lexi and everyone else who was supposed to "dominate" the women’s tour.    

9. How good was Bernhard Langer’s 2017? Smart golf people legitimately debated whether he’s better now than when he won his two Masters titles.

That’s hyperbole, of course, but the 60-year-old German left everyone searching for superlatives after a year in which he won seven events (including three majors), finished in the top 3 on five other occasions and top-tenned in 16 of 21 events.

That he didn’t take the season-long title (that went to Kevin Sutherland) should be reason enough for the PGA Tour Champions to overhaul how it determines the playoff winner.  

Langer is now just 10 wins from overtaking Hale Irwin as the all-time senior wins leader. The way he’s playing, he could accomplish that in the next three years. 

10. Are we entering a new era of American domination in team events?

It sure felt that way at the Presidents Cup, where the U.S. team nearly ran the Internationals out of town on Saturday, with the singles session still to play.

Their rout at Liberty National was a continuation of last year’s beatdown at Hazeltine, and what’s so scary about Team USA moving forward is that its core of players – Spieth, Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger – figures to remain intact for the next decade or so, while Europe transitions to a new wave that includes Jon Rahm and European No. 1 Tommy Fleetwood.

Next September in France, the Americans should be heavy favorites to end a 25-year winless drought on foreign soil. 

No moment generated a bigger what-is-happening?! reaction than when Lexi Thompson was slapped with a four-shot penalty during the final round of the ANA Inspiration.

Thompson was cruising, up by three with six holes to play, when she was notified of the infraction from a day earlier, after she sloppily marked a 1-foot putt.

“Is this is a joke?” she asked an official.

In tears, she staged an improbable rally, only to lose to So Yeon Ryu in a playoff. It would be the first of two heartbreaking finishes; at the season finale, she yipped a 2-footer that would have given her Player of the Year honors.

The governing bodies’ new reasonable-judgment standard wouldn’t exonerate Thompson, but the USGA and R&A now seems open to revisiting the more unfair issue – the post-round scorecard penalty, which added an additional two strokes to her card. 

It'll be a long offseason for Lexi.

This year's award winners ... 

Breakout Star of 2017: Jon Rahm. Already one of the game’s best from tee to green, he won three titles all over the globe – California, Ireland, Dubai – while playing many of these courses for the first time. Stud.

One Way to Go into the Offseason: Rickie Fowler. He erased a seven-shot final-round deficit with a career-low 61 that set a course and tournament record at the Hero. It was his third top-2 finish in his last four worldwide starts. Which is why ...

Breakthrough Pick for 2018: Rickie. He’s such a complete player, with a ton of big-game experience. Yes, he tempts us at every major, but a year of watching his pals win the big ones should light a fire under him.  

Most Overlooked Achievement: Branden Grace’s 62. We’d been waiting forever for someone to finally break the 63 barrier in a major. Grace finally did, on a windless day at Birkdale, but it’s been virtually forgotten because A) it happened in the third round, B) he didn’t win, and C) it was one of the most dramatic finishes in history. Hey, he still goes in the record books.

Quote of the Year: Johnny Miller, after Thomas broke his record for lowest U.S. Open score: “A 63 for a par 72 is a heck of a score, even if it was the Milwaukee Open.”

Best Celebration: Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller. Hard to believe, but a golfer and his caddie actually pulled off a cool celebration, connecting not on a high-five but a chest bump after holing a bunker shot to win the Travelers.

Who Got Next?: Patrick Cantlay. He’s already won in Vegas, and the former world No. 1 amateur is finally beginning to realize his immense potential after years on the sidelines because of a back injury and personal loss. Don’t be surprised if he contends for a major in 2018.

Redemption: I.K. Kim. Three years after blowing a 14-inch putt to win a major, Kim banished all of those demons by cruising to the Women’s British title at Kingsbarns. 

Look For a Comeback in 2018 From …: Bubba Watson and Jimmy Walker. Bubba no longer plays a gimmicky ball that you’d find on a putt-putt course, and Walker should be able to put the toughest physical year of his life behind him with the proper Lyme disease medication.

Biggest Surprise: Stacy Lewis’ victory. The former world No. 1 had come so close so many times over the past few years, but to get back in the winner’s circle apparently she needed to open up her wallet. Before the tournament, she vowed to pledge all of her earnings to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. One of the year's feel-good stories.

What to Watch For: Governing bodies vs. golf manufacturers. Never before has there been such a drumbeat for a scaled-back ball or bifurcation. It promises to get very messy. Can’t wait!

Getty Images

Bubba Golf takes long road back to winner's circle

By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 1:55 am

LOS ANGELES – Bubba’s back.

It’s been just two years since he hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, but with a mind that moves as fast as Bubba Watson’s, it must have felt like an eternity.

Since his last victory, which was also a shootout at Riviera Country Club in 2016, Watson was passed over for a captain’s pick at the 2016 Ryder Cup, endured a mystery illness, lost his confidence, his desire and the better part of 40 pounds.

He admits that along that ride he considered retirement and wondered if his best days were behind him.

“I was close [to retirement]. My wife was not close,” he conceded. “My wife basically told me to quit whining and play golf. She's a lot tougher than I am.”

What else could he do? With apologies to his University of Georgia education and a growing portfolio of small businesses, Watson was made to be on the golf course, particularly a golf course like Riviera, which is the canvas that brings out Bubba’s best.

In a game that can too often become a monotonous parade of fairways and greens, Watson is a freewheeling iconoclast who thrives on adversity. Where others only see straight lines and one-dimensional options, Bubba embraces the unconventional and the untried.

For a player who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it was a perfectly Bubba moment midway through his final round on Sunday at the Genesis Open. Having stumbled out of the 54-hole lead with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6, Watson pulled his 2-iron tee shot wildly right at the seventh because, “[his playing partners] both went left.”

From an impossible lie in thick rough with his golf ball 2 feet above his feet, Watson’s often-fragile focus zeroed in for one of the week’s most entertaining shots, which landed about 70 feet from the hole and led to a two-putt par.

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

“His feel for that kind of stuff, you can’t go to the range and practice that. You can’t,” said Watson’s caddie Ted Scott. “Put a ball 2 feet above your feet and then have to hold the face open and then to swing that easy. That’s why I have the best seat in the house. That’s the essence of Bubba golf.”

There were plenty of highlight moments on Sunday for Watson. There were crucial putts at Nos. 11 (birdie), 12 (par) and 13 (par) to break free of what was becoming an increasingly fluid leaderboard, and his chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker at the 14th hole extended his lead to two strokes.

“It was just a bunker shot, no big deal,” smiled Watson, who closed with a 69 for a two-stroke victory over Kevin Na and Tony Finau.

A player that can often appear handcuffed by the most straightforward of shots was at his best at Riviera, withstanding numerous challenges to win the Genesis Open for his 10th PGA Tour title.

That he did so on a frenzied afternoon that featured four different players moving into, however briefly, at last a share of the lead, Watson never appeared rattled. But, of course, we all know that wasn’t the case.

Watson can become famously uncomfortable on the course and isn’t exactly known for his ability to ignore distractions. But Riviera, where he’s now won three times, is akin to competitive Ritalin for Watson.

“[Watson] feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins,” said Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for sixth after moving to within one stroke of the lead early in round. “A lot of guys don't feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30 footer in the center of the green. He ends up making a lot more birdies than a lot of guys.”

It’s the soul of what Scott calls Bubba Golf, which is in simplest terms the most creative form of the game.

Watson can’t explain exactly what Bubba Golf is, but there was a telling moment earlier this week when Aaron Baddeley offered Watson an impromptu putting lesson, which Bubba said was the worst putting lesson he’d ever gotten.

“He goes, ‘how do you hit a fade?’ I said, ‘I aim it right and think fade.’ How do you hit a draw? I aim it left and think draw,” Watson said. “He said, ‘how do you putt?’ I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘well, aim it to the right when it breaks to the left, aim it to the left when it breaks to the right,’ exactly how you imagine your golf ball in the fairway or off the tee, however you imagine it, imagine it that way.”

It’s certain that there’s more going on internally, but when he’s playing his best the sum total of Watson’s game can be simply explained – see ball, hit ball. Anything more complicated than that and he runs the risk of losing what makes him so unique and – when the stars align and a course like Riviera or Augusta National, where he’s won twice, asks the right questions – virtually unbeatable.

That’s a long way from the depths of 2017, when he failed to advance past the second playoff event and dropped outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But then, Watson has covered a lot of ground in his career on his way to 10 Tour victories.

“I never thought I could get there,” he said. “Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let's be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can't putt, you know? Somehow we're here making fun of it.”

Somehow, through all the adversity and distractions, he found a way to be Bubba again.

Getty Images

Spieth: 'I feel great about the state of my game'

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:43 am

LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth is starting to feel confident again with the putter, which is probably a bad sign for the rest of the PGA Tour.

Spieth struggled on the greens two weeks ago at TPC Scottsdale, but he began to right the ship at Pebble Beach and cracked the top 10 this week at the Genesis Open. Perhaps more important than his final spot on the leaderboard was his standing in the strokes gained putting category – 12th among the field at Riviera Country Club, including a 24-putt performance in the third round.

Spieth closed out the week with a 4-under 67 to finish in a tie for ninth, five shots behind Bubba Watson. But after the round he spoke like a man whose preparation for the season’s first major is once again right on track.

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

“I was kind of, you know, skiing uphill with my putting after Phoenix and the beginning of Pebble week, and really just for a little while now through the new year,” Spieth said. “I just made some tremendous progress. I putted extremely well this week, which is awesome. I feel great about the state of my game going forward, feel like I’m in a great place at this time of the year as we’re starting to head into major season.”

Spieth will take a break next week, and where he next tees it up remains uncertain. He still has not announced a decision about playing or skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship, and he will have until 5 p.m. ET Friday to make a final decision on the no-cut event.

Whether or not he flies down to Mexico City, Spieth’s optimism has officially returned after a brief hiccup on the West Coast swing.

“For where I was starting out Phoenix to where I am and how I feel about my game going forward the rest of the year, there was a lot of progress made,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to figure out what the best schedule is for myself as we head into the Masters.”

Getty Images

McIlroy encouraged by T-20: 'Didn’t quite reflect how I played'

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:23 am

LOS ANGELES – Rory McIlroy sees plenty of reasons to smile despite the fact that the first half of his 2018 Masters prep has officially wrapped without lifting a trophy.

After an injury-plagued campaign last year, McIlroy set out an ambitious schedule that called for eight worldwide starts before heading down Magnolia Lane. He started off with a pair of near-misses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, then followed last week’s missed cut at Pebble Beach with a T-20 finish at the Genesis Open.

McIlroy birdied his final two holes to close with a 3-under 68 at Riviera Country Club, his lowest score of the week. He explained that a “destructive” tee shot on the 12th hole Saturday led to a double bogey and stunted any potential momentum, but he remained encouraged after closing the week on a high note.

“I feel like the position that I finished didn’t quite reflect how I played,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I played better than finishing whatever it is, 25th or whatever it’s going to be. I feel good about my game, just need to sharpen up a couple little areas here and there. But for the most part it’s been OK.”

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

McIlroy will now head across the country to tee it up in the Honda Classic, where he reached world No. 1 for the first time with a win in 2012 and also lost in a playoff in 2014. Although he continued to tinker with his putter this week following a mediocre effort on the greens at Pebble Beach, he believes that some of his putting woes may be solved simply by swapping out tricky poa annua surfaces for more familiar Bermuda greens.

“It was nice to play sort of early the last couple days, the greens didn’t get too crusty or too bumpy. I felt like even coming down the last few holes there, they were still good surfaces,” McIlroy said. “Nice to get back onto Bermuda and surfaces being a little truer than what we’ve experienced the last couple weeks.”

Getty Images

Opinions split on lengthening No. 5 at Augusta

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:07 am

LOS ANGELES – Few topics spark a diverse range of player opinions quite like the whisper of changes to Augusta National Golf Club, and the latest proposed alteration of the par-4 fifth hole is no exception.

According to an Augusta Chronicle report, the club has submitted preliminary plans that would call for the construction of a new tee later this year behind what currently is Old Berckmans Road. The new tee could reportedly lengthen the hole by 20-30 yards and would alleviate congestion with the adjacent fourth green. It would also signal the first club-enacted changes to the famed layout since 2006.

Phil Mickelson has three green jackets hanging in his closet, and he sees no problem with adding teeth to a hole that already measures 455 yards on the scorecard.

“I’m a big fan of making the hard holes harder and the easy holes easier,” Mickelson said Sunday at the Genesis Open. “So making No. 5 harder, which is perennially a difficult par, or should be one of the harder par-4s out there, I’m a big fan of. What I’m not a fan of is taking a hole like 7 and making it the second-toughest par on the golf course. I think that’s a mistake. I think making 5 more difficult is not.”

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

Jordan Spieth believes the proposed changes would force driver into players’ hands on what he described as a “3-wood hole” given the pitch of the fairway, and added that firm and fast conditions could potentially push a longer fifth hole to the brink of playability.

“It would make an already very difficult hole even harder,” Spieth said. “If the greens are firm and fast, then it’s a pretty dicey hole given how severe that green is. But when you can still land a mid-iron on and stop it on the back of that green, then it makes sense. So I think they’d probably do a mix of the tees.”

While former champs Mickelson and Spieth welcome the promise of a more difficult Masters test, Graeme McDowell simply shook his head and grinned before explaining that his love of Augusta National remains unrequited after nine career Masters appearances.

“That green, it’s just not a 5-iron green. I’m sort of hitting between 5- and 7-iron into there as it is,” McDowell said. “It’s a tough golf course, and (No.) 5 is one of the toughest holes on the course. Certainly doesn’t need any lengthening for my money.”