Monday Scramble: Back's more like it

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 13, 2017, 3:25 pm

Jordan Spieth wins a snoozer, Tiger Woods stays on the sidelines, the U.S. Ryder Cup team makes a few tweaks, and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

This was the kind of week Spieth had been waiting for. 

The work on his swing this offseason led to one of his best ball-striking rounds in terrible conditions Thursday, and his putter finally heated up during the middle rounds to build a six-shot advantage. Sunday at Pebble Beach, he played prevent defense, hitting all but one green to drain any suspense from the final round. 

Yes, it was boring, clinical golf. But to Spieth, it was a sign that he is in complete command, that his game is close to where he needs it for major season.

The criticism of Spieth’s game has long been that he needs his putter to have any chance against the world’s best players. It’s simply not true. He has always been a strong iron player, and the time spent with swing coach Cameron McCormick has him back at his 2015 levels.

That’s a scary thought for the rest of the field.  

1. Tiger is in a league all his own, but there’s at least a case to be made that Spieth is one of the best young players in history.

With his victory at Pebble Beach, the 23-year-old became the second-youngest since World War II to win nine times on the PGA Tour, surpassing Jack Nicklaus.

Woods, if you’re wondering, reached that mark in 39 fewer pro starts than Spieth (100). 

2. There wasn’t much action in the final round. Not that Spieth minded.

He hit 17 greens, and the only one he missed was because of a flier lie out of the rough. He played a delicate pitch shot and saved par.

Most of the day he cozied his first putt to within tap-in range, while the rest of the field failed to mount a charge.

“The only stress I had,” he said, “was why the birdie putts weren’t going in. That’s awesome. I can take that going forward.” 

3. It was another unusual Sunday performance from Brandt Snedeker, who made only 46 feet worth of putts in the final round to drop from second to fourth. The day was reminiscent of what happened three weeks ago at Torrey Pines, where he closed with 73 after sharing the 54-hole lead. 

“I’m getting kind of frustrated,” he said, “because the last two times I’ve played in the last group and had chances, my putter has let me down. I’ve got to go figure something out to get these putts to go in on Sunday."

And how, exactly, will he do that?

“Practice,” he said. “That seems to solve all the problems.” 

4. It might have been a career-changing week for Kelly Kraft and Rob Oppenheim.

Kraft, who had only one top-10 in 40 career Tour starts, finished second to Spieth. That should help solidify his schedule for the rest of the year, after advancing through the Tour Finals. He won the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills, which hosts this year's U.S. Open. 

Oppenheim, meanwhile, has been living on the edge for the past few years, earning his card by $101 two years ago, then losing it a year ago by $392 when the Tour Championship was canceled. Playing Pebble on a sponsor exemption (and in the same group as Bill Belichick, the head coach of his beloved Patriots), Oppenheim tied for eighth, a career best, to earn a spot at Riviera.  

5. The official reason for missing the next two events was back spasms, but it’s certainly possible that Woods is covering up a more serious ailment. Again. 

The Woods who played in the Bahamas last December and the one who showed up earlier this year bore little resemblance. Bulkier, slower, more tentative – he looked, as Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee so aptly described, like an old man. He clearly was injured during the opening round at Dubai, but afterward Woods insisted that he wasn’t in pain. 

The back spasms he supposedly suffered that night were so severe that they knocked him out of that event, and then, even after a week’s rest, out of scheduled starts at Riviera and Honda. His schedule after that is unclear, and so is his competitive future. 

Finally, Woods had showed restraint and patience, returning to competition when he felt that his health and swing were in order. And yet he lasted only seven rounds.  

6. Only an elite athlete can relate to what Woods is going through right now. Fortunately, a few of the biggest sports stars were at Pebble last week. 

Peyton Manning, Kelly Slater, Andy Roddick and others weighed in on the toughest decision an athlete can face: When is the right time to retire? Here was my piece from Friday night.

7. Where could we next see Woods? It’s anyone’s guess at this point, but he’s running out of options before the Masters (if he's even healthy enough for the year's first major). 

He’s never played the March 9-12 Valspar Championship, which is held at claustrophobic Innisbrook; he’s an eight-time winner at Bay Hill; and he’s never played the week before Augusta, at the Houston Open. Woods is ineligible for the two WGC events in March. 

8. The U.S. Ryder Cup committee continues to make sensible moves, as I wrote here

Two minor changes were announced last week: The fourth and final captain’s pick will be announced a week earlier, and there will be fewer points for high major finishes.

The latter point first: It was a head-scratcher that, for instance, Daniel Summerhays’ third-place finish at the PGA was worth more than Daniel Berger’s victory in Memphis. Captain Jim Furyk and Co. recognized that. 

The change to the timing seems a compromise between the Billy Horschel and Ryan Moore rules. The picks can’t be made too early, because then there is a chance that a hot player will be left off, but it can’t be made after the Tour Championship either, because it leaves too little time for strategy and preparation.

This isn't change for the sake of change. With an away game in 2018, these tweaks make sense.

9. One thing that won’t change in the Furyk Era is that fall events will receive zero Ryder Cup points.

Furyk was asked last week whether the decision devalues those events. “Myself and the committee at this time didn’t think that was an area where we needed to improve,” he said.

Points are available this year at the majors, the WGCs and The Players. 

10. Further proof that European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley gets it: the inaugural GolfSixes, an upcoming event that will feature six-hole matches between two-man teams with music, fireworks, mic’d up players and Q&A sessions with fans.

“We are in the entertainment content business with golf as our platform,” Pelley said, “and GolfSixes is the perfect illustration of that.” 

Who knows, the event might flop. But at least the European Tour is willing to try something new, which applies even more pressure to the PGA Tour as consumers look for new and interesting ways to engage with the sport. 

File this under "careful what you tweet." On Friday, after news spread of Tiger's upcoming withdrawals, Steve Wheatcroft sent this out:

A day later, he withdrew from Pebble Beach.

Wheatcroft later tweeted that his son gave him a virus, and he had blisters all over his hands and feet. To his credit, he saw the irony in the situation.

This week's award winners ... 

An Unfortunate Trend: Phil Mickelson. A week after coming home in 40 in Phoenix, Lefty threw up a 44 on his last nine holes at Pebble. The final-round 77 dropped him all the way to 65th, last among those who played all four rounds. 

Fun with Numbers: Spieth’s world ranking. After beginning the year with three consecutive top-10s, he dropped from fifth to sixth. Now, after winning at Pebble, he remained at No. 6. The good news? With continued good play, he’s back in the mix for the No. 1 spot.

Clutch Finish: Ethan Tracy. After holing out from 100 yards on the 72nd hole for eagle, the former Arkansas standout sank a 20-footer in the playoff to earn his first title in a playoff at the Club Colombia Championship. 

Random Thought of the Week: Why aren’t the Florida and California swings reversed? It’s beautiful weather right now in Florida, while both California stops have been plagued by heavy rain. (Not to be a downer, but the forecast for this week's Tour stop at Riviera is terrible, too.) Putting on poa annua isn’t ideal prep for the Masters, but hey, neither is playing in less-than-ideal conditions.  

New Tour, Same Nonsense: John Daly. Still looking for his first top-10 on the senior circuit, Daly withdrew from the Allianz Championship, officially, because of a back injury. In reality, he was fed up with his poor performance, as evidenced by his discarded putter in a pond

Almost Not Worth the Selfie: Justin Rose. He took a picture of partner Justin Timberlake’s swing on the seventh tee. Trouble was, he almost missed the near-ace! Here was my story on their awesome day Saturday.  

Welcome Back: Patrick Cantlay. Sidelined for more than two years because of a back injury and the death of a close friend, the former phenom made the cut at Pebble in his first of 10 starts on a major medical extension. He tied for 48th. 

Pain in the Neck: Ernie Els. The Big Easy withdrew from Pebble Beach because of a neck injury, but apparently he was healthy enough for a round with President Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, on Saturday. Hmmm. 

Assembling an Impressive Stable: Gary Gilchrist. With the addition of world No. 1 Lydia Ko, Gilchrist now teaches three of the top four players in the world, including Ariya Jutanugarn and Shanshan Feng. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jimmy Walker. He didn’t miss his second cut in the pro-am event, but he still put up a clunker for the second year in a row. Walker, who had three consecutive top-10s before a victory in 2014, has now gone three consecutive years without a top-10 finish. This time, he tied for 55th. Sigh. 

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

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

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

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

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

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

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

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

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

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

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

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

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

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

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

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

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

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

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

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

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

More bulletin board material, too.

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

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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