Monday Scramble: Tiger puts a bow on 2016

By Ryan LavnerDecember 5, 2016, 5:00 pm

Wrapping up Tiger Woods’ return, putting a bow on the year and looking ahead to 2017 in this week’s season-ending Monday Scramble:

After a 466-day layoff, after rumors of physical inactivity and reports of a vulnerable game, Woods returned to competition last week at the Hero World Challenge and, if we’re being honest, exceeded all expectations.

He looked healthy, going full bore with the driver. He looked sharp, hitting a number of terrific iron shots. And most of all, he looked happy, which is no small feat considering how bleak his outlook was just a year ago. 

Whether Woods can return to the Tour as anything more than a bit player will be sorted out over the next year. (After all, he played reasonably well in the Bahamas and still lost by 14.) For now, though, his return can be viewed as nothing less than a resounding success. 

Next year just got a lot more interesting. 

1. Woods carded 24 birdies last week – the same number as tournament winner Hideki Matsuyama. That’s good news, because it’s much easier to eliminate mistakes than to make more birdies. 

2. The bad news, of course, is that Woods also made six double bogeys, including three during a final-round 76 (the worst score of the week by any player). It's the most he's ever made in a single tournament.

The six doubles can be attributed to two things, both of which should have been anticipated: rust and fatigue.

Out of competition for nearly 16 months, Woods clearly wore down on the back nine each day, making sloppy swings and poor decisions. Part of Woods’ training was to get back into walking shape, but there was no way to simulate the inevitable waves of adrenaline. By Sunday afternoon, he was gassed.

One of the biggest tests for Woods in early 2017 will be playing consecutive weeks, especially if he still requires treatment and physical therapy after each round.

3. With that in mind, where will we see Woods next? He said after the final round that he'd like to play a full schedule next year, but he needs to see how his body responds after a few weeks off.

He'll have a few options next month: He could play in Abu Dhabi, fly halfway around the world to tee it up at Torrey Pines, take two weeks off and then compete at Riviera; or he could play Torrey Pines, fly halfway around the world to play in Dubai, take a week off and then compete at Riviera. 

Unable to prepare and practice like he used to because of his surgically repaired back, Woods, who turns 41 later this month, must ensure that he doesn't overexert himself at the beginning of a long year. 

4. Matsuyama is making plenty of noise during a quiet time of year. 

In his last six starts, the Japanese star has gone 5th-1st-2nd-1st-1st-1st. He led the World Challenge by as many as seven shots at one point Sunday before settling for a closing 73 and a two-shot victory.

He is still 89 under par over his last 20 rounds. Too bad it's not April. 

5. Which players will take the next step and win a major in 2017? Here are the three most likely candidates: 

  • Matsuyama: His putting was the biggest reason why he didn't win more often, but that part certainly seems to have been figured out. That's scary, because he's a preeminent ball-striker.
  • Brooks Koepka: Big hitter, strong iron player, streaky putter. If he can shore up his wedge game, like his buddy DJ, he’ll be a consistent force in the majors next year.  
  • Patrick Reed: Remarkably, he doesn’t have a top-10 in a major, but it seems like just a matter of time before it all comes together for four days.    

6. That no-good, overrated, sky-is-falling year that Jordan Spieth supposedly had? He still won three times this year, more than all but two players.

Spieth had braced himself for the backlash, had prepared himself to fall short of everyone’s expectations after a record-breaking 2015. But that didn't make it any easier. This year was still a learning experience for the 23-year-old, both on and off the course.

Two poor swings on the 12th hole at Augusta cost him another major, then he struggled with his iron play and wedges, leading to some middling play during the crammed summer schedule. Off the course, he grew frustrated with constant questions about his game and found out the hard way that he needed to better manage his time and energy with international travel.

That he experienced all of this now, while he’s young and on the heels of a breakout year, will only help him for the future. He’s too smart and driven to fall off.   

7. Boy, there’s a lot more buzz surrounding Phil Mickelson than at this time last year.

In late 2015, he had just left Butch Harmon, hooking up instead with little-known swing coach Andrew Getson. He hadn’t won in more than two years. He hadn’t really be competitive, either, save for a few out-of-nowhere major performances.

No, he still didn't break through for his first victory since the 2013 Open, but no winless player was better this year. Phil became an elite putter (again). He qualified for another team competition. And he had a few chances to win, none more agonizing than at Royal Troon, where he lipped out a putt for 62, closed with 65 and lost to the player with the lowest 72-hole score in major history.

Then came the Ryder Cup, where he faced more pressure than anyone … and all he did, as a de facto playing captain, was post a 2-1-1 record and record 10 birdies in Sunday singles.

Only offseason hernia surgery can slow down Lefty.

8. Whether Spieth and Rory McIlroy can return to world No. 1 will be a big storyline in 2017, of course, but I’m most interested to see where Dustin Johnson goes from here.

He possesses the most raw talent of any player on the PGA Tour – he didn’t practice after the HSBC Champions in October and still finished in a tie for third at the Hero – and now he has a long-awaited major title on his résumé.

Does DJ continue to maximize his awesome talent and rise to No. 1? Or does he simply become content with checking off two of his biggest career goals (major and Player of the Year) and coast for the foreseeable future, winning a few titles each year just because he’s too good not to. It’ll be fascinating to watch. 

9. Was there a more scrutinized tournament this year than the Olympics?

The golf course was a headache for the design team. There were security concerns in Rio. And top players bailed for reasons ranging from the Zika virus to scheduling.

In the end, the event proved successful for both the men and the women, thanks in large part to the players who landed on the medal stand. The men’s tournament was riveting, going down to the 18th hole with a pair of major winners vying for the gold. The action was so compelling, and the thought of a medal so enticing, that many of those who missed out – namely Spieth and McIlroy – later expressed regret over their decision.

Would they have felt the same with different medal winners, with just another boring 72-hole event? Probably not. But it’s full steam ahead to the 2020 Games, with the prospect of a format change on the horizon. 

10. It took nearly 40 years for a tournament to challenge the Duel in the Sun.

Locked in a thrilling, high-stakes game of H.O.R.S.E., Henrik Stenson and Mickelson lapped the field at The Open, combining for 14 birdies, an eagle and two bogeys in the final round while shooting 63 and 65, respectively.

Afterward, Stenson reveled in a life-changing victory. Mickelson, meanwhile, looked stunned in defeat, as he tried to come to grips with how he could play so well and still lose.

It was the best tournament of the year by a wide margin.

11. There’s a new young star in women’s golf, and she poses massive problems for Lydia Ko.

Ariya Jutanugarn, with her incredible power and smooth putting stroke, is the star that the LPGA has been waiting for once it was clear that Michelle Wie wouldn’t put a stranglehold on the game. 

Jutanugarn is ranked inside the top 25 in driving distance despite almost never hitting driver. She’s in the top 20 in greens in regulation and putting average, too. 

She swept the postseason awards after a breakout, five-win season. When Jutanugarn is on, and healthy, there is no way that Ko can hang – she doesn’t have the length or the precision to go head-to-head.  

This is just the beginning of Jutanugarn's takeover of the LPGA.

12. So this is telling: An American won a major and yet it was still a historically awful year for the U.S. women.

Brittany Lang took the U.S. Women’s Open, but she was one of only two Americans to find the winner’s circle in 2016. Lexi Thompson won in February but otherwise had the glaring weaknesses in her game exposed on a weekly basis. 

Stacy Lewis, Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lincicome and Wie? All MIA.

It was the Americans’ worst season in the 67-year history of the tour – and there isn't much hope for the immediate future, either.

13. As we look back on 2016, here are a few personal highlights ... 

  • I was going to continue walking with the Patrick Reed-Rory Mcllroy Ryder Cup singles match once they made the turn, but decided against it. There was no way it would get any better, and I was right. That was the most thrilling two hours of golf I’ve ever seen, with the birdies and the eagles and the fist pumps and the “I can’t hear you!” screams and the finger wags. Two months later, the hair still raises on my neck every time they show a highlight of the eighth green.
  • When major Sundays are over, I usually mill around the clubhouse, looking for people who can add perspective and color to my stories. After Spieth’s collapse at the Masters, I followed Spieth and his team for the next half hour or so. Michael Greller disappeared into the caddie building. Spieth’s family and swing coach Cameron McCormick gathered near their courtesy SUV, too emotional to offer any insights on the day’s final two hours. But while everyone around him was devastated, Spieth, then just 22, was as polite and gracious as ever, slipping the green jacket on another man’s shoulders and then thoughtfully answered every tough question asked of him. Respect.
  • One of the best tournaments of the year was seen by only about 500,000 viewers: The men’s and women’s NCAA Championships. The match-play portion had everything you could want as a sports fan: drama, hole-outs and clutch putts. And all on a classic design, Eugene Country Club.

The USGA should be thankful that Johnson won the U.S. Open by a comfortable margin, because Mike Davis and Co. made a “big bogey” in how they handled a ruling during the final round at Oakmont. 

Informing Johnson on the 12th tee that a penalty was still possible after the round, the blue blazers threw the U.S. Open into flux, as everyone was unsure of where they stood in the tournament. USGA officials got roasted by players and industry types on social media, and afterward, they insisted that they followed the proper protocol, even trotting out some legal mumbo jumbo in a news conference. It ended up being a moot point – Johnson's final margin of victory was three shots, not four – and 24 hours later, Davis conceded that he’d like a mulligan and the rule will be revisited. 

Gee, really? 

This year's award winners ... 

Best Performance of the Year: Stenson at The Open. He matched Johnny Miller as the only players to win a major with a final-round 63 … and Big Stense’s incredible round included a pair of bogeys. His ball-striking has long been a sight to behold, but now he has a reliable putting stroke, too.  

Random Thought of the Year: How many majors did Nike cost Tiger? Woods admitted that he returned to his old Scotty Cameron putter the same day that the Swoosh decided it was leaving the equipment business. By no means was he a poor putter with the Nike model – he just wasn’t in the top 5 annually, like usual.  

Oldie But Goodie: Jim Furyk. Leave it to Furyk – the aging warrior with the funky swing – to become the first player with two sub-60 scores on Tour. 

Year to Forget: Brendon Todd. Ranked 80th in the world at the end of last year, he is now No. 472 after missing 25 cuts in 27 starts. Oy. 

Most Expected Rise into the OWGR Top 10: Matsuyama. He stared down Rickie in Phoenix, had top-10s at the Masters, Players and PGA, and won four of his last five starts. Stud. 

Most Unexpected Fall out of the OWGR Top 10: Rickie Fowler. So much for that whole Big 5 thing. Fowler won early in the year, in Abu Dhabi, but otherwise didn’t do much, failing to finish in the top 30 in a major and booting away a few chances to win. 

Most Unlikely Rise into the OWGR Top 10: Alex Noren. The 34-year-old Swede had enjoyed a solid if unspectacular career until this June. Over the last four months of the season, however, he matched his career win total (four) and soared into the top 10 in the world. The next step is competing in the States against the world’s best.

Boneheaded Move of the Year: Peter Willett. The Masters champion had struggled ever since he left Augusta, and his brother only compounded his issues by writing a satirical column that disparaged American golf fans just days before the Ryder Cup. Sure enough, Wilett was targeted by spectators and went 0-3 in what was a lopsided European defeat. 

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Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.

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McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.