Monday Scramble: Shock and lots of Pebble awe

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 15, 2016, 6:30 pm

Vaughn Taylor climbs out of the career abyss, Phil Mickelson coughs up a 54-hole lead, Bernhard Langer wins without anchoring, "celebrities" steal the show and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Maybe this was too much, too soon for Mickelson.

It’s hard enough to compete when undergoing a swing change. The task is exponentially more difficult when putting a revamped swing under the gun for the first time while trying to snap a career-long winless drought.

In retrospect, Mickelson was doomed as soon as he flew in his swing coach, Andrew Getson, on the eve of the final round for an emergency session. It showed he didn't have enough confidence in his new swing to close the deal.

Really, it's a testament to his otherworldly short game that Phil even had a chance to win this AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He hit only nine greens each of the last two rounds, yet he still was only one 5-footer from forcing a playoff against journeyman Taylor. Had they gone head-to-head in overtime, the odds certainly would have been in Lefty's favor: Prior to Sunday, he had twice as many wins at Pebble (four) as Taylor had in his entire Tour career.

This loss likely will sting, if only for a few days, because the confirmation of his career revival now has to wait. With a cast of largely unproven players behind him, Mickelson squandered a two-shot lead and his best chance to win since that unlikely triumph at Muirfield in summer of 2013. But the big-picture takeaway here is this: Despite legitimate concerns about his age (45), his health (arthritis), his desire and his swing change, Phil is once again a factor. He might be mired in an 0-for-53 slump, but never has winning seemed more attainable.

1. Vaughn Taylor, a winner at Pebble Beach? We can't believe it, either. Among the many did-that-just-happen? nuggets:

  • He trailed a Hall of Famer by six shots entering the final round.
  • He was the first alternate into the event, playing only on past champion’s status.
  • He used a carry bag, because he didn’t want to get dinged with an excess baggage fee.
  • His main goal Sunday was to finish in the top 10, so he wouldn't have to race down to Riviera in time for the Monday qualifier. 
  • The 39-year-old won twice on Tour, but never had he beaten the best players in the world – both of his wins came at the Reno-Tahoe Open, an opposite-field event.
  • More than that, he hadn’t won in 10 1/2 years, nor has he owned a full PGA Tour card since 2012.
  • He finished 151st on the 2015 FedEx Cup points list, meaning he was thisclose to securing conditional status for this season.
  • He was ranked 447th in the world, a few spots behind an idle Tiger Woods.
  • His last two playing opportunities came on the circuit, including a stint 11 days ago in Bogota, Colombia, where he came down with food poisoning and needed an IV.

And, yes, now, improbably, he’s back in the winner's circle, after beating the best field to date, with six of the top nine players in the world in attendance.

"Just absolutely amazing," he said. "I didn't know if it would ever happen again, to be honest." 

2. The victory at Pebble secured Taylor a spot in his hometown event. Fortunately for him, that happens to be the Masters, which he hasn't played since 2008. 

"Playing in the Masters is my Super Bowl," he said. 

In three previous appearances at Augusta, he missed a pair of cuts and tied for 10th (2007). He is the first player this year to win and get in to the year's first major.

3. Taylor’s out-of-nowhere performance was a reminder that it just takes one week to change the fortunes of a PGA Tour journeyman. When Mickelson’s putt rimmed out, Leot Taylor sobbed uncontrollably while holding her 2-year-old son, Locklyn.

“There are so many ups and downs in this career,” Taylor’s wife told the San Diego Union-Tribune afterward. “And this goes to show you that you don’t count anyone out. Everybody can win out here, and I’m happy my guy won this week.” 

The victory was worth $1.26 million. Taylor hasn't earned more than $547,000 in a season since 2010.

4. You might recall that Taylor was a member of arguably the weakest U.S. Ryder Cup team ever assembled, in 2006, a squad that also featured Brett Wetterich, J.J. Henry and Chad Campbell. It's a wonder (miracle?) the Americans mustered 9 1/2 points while getting lapped at the K Club. 

Well, how about this: Taylor now sits at No. 12 in the U.S. team standings.

5. Mickelson was a perfect 23-for-23 on all putts inside 7 feet last week.

Until the 72nd hole, that is.

He powered his 5-foot-1-inch putt through the break, caught the top lip and spun out. 

“It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t make that one,” he said.

Seems nerves can affect even 42-time Tour winners.

ShotLink was only available at Pebble Beach, but it's worth noting that Mickelson finished the week second in strokes gained-putting. Though he missed a few crucial putts – including five tries from inside 10 feet on Sunday – he also rolled in a 9-footer for par on 9, an 11-footer for birdie on 13, a slippery 11-footer for par on 16 and a dramatic 13-footer for birdie on 17 just to stay alive on a day when his ball-striking betrayed him. 

6. The close call at Pebble Beach pushed Mickelson’s "near-miss total" to 58 – that’s how many runners-up and third-place finishes he has in 530 career events on Tour. He is nothing if not exciting. 

How does that compare to the other great players in his generation? 

  • Tiger Woods: 48 (327 events)
  • Davis Love III: 46 (723)
  • Jim Furyk: 46 (544)
  • Ernie Els: 35 (405)

7. It’s overshadowed by Woods’ insane rate, but Mickelson has been a reliable closer for much of his career: Prior to Sunday, he had gone on to win 18 of the 22 times that he held at least a share of the 54-hole lead. 

Taylor became just the third player (Woods and David Toms) to beat Mickelson when the left-hander had at least a two-shot advantage.

Which is why Mickelson's final-round stumble served as a reminder of the difficulties that Woods will face when, or if, he returns to competition. It’s really hard to win on Tour these days. 

For the better part of three rounds, Mickelson was nearly flawless with the putter on a course that he clearly enjoys a significant advantage as a four-time winner. But the Tour’s depth is such that he still was passed by a journeyman without status who shot 67 on Saturday and matched a career best with a 65 in the final round. For Phil, Tiger or any of the other members of the old guard to win, they have to be nearly perfect for four days, especially with the putter. And that’s a lot to ask. 

8. Langer on Sunday won for the 26th time on the Champions circuit, but the first without anchoring.

For all of the consternation over how Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson would fare without their long wand, it was Langer, 58, who stood to lose the most.

But after a steady, unspectacular start to the PGA Tour Champions season – when he tinkered with three putting methods all the way up to his tee time – Langer seems to have found a solution: He moved his left hand ever so slightly away from his sternum and stroked the putt. His hand doesn’t appear to be more than an inch off his chest, and he keeps it anchored until the moment before he pulls the trigger (hopefully he doesn't have a senior moment), but he opened 62-66 and won the Chubb Classic by three. This method might not work as effectively in windy conditions, but for now it’s a relief that a shortsighted decision by golf’s governing bodies won’t end the career of one of the game's best seniors.

9. Lydia Ko only gets more impressive the more we learn about her. Yes, she now has 15 pro titles at the age of 18, but a week after she openly rooted for Ha Na Jang to win the LPGA event in Ocala, she donated her entire $33,000 first-place check from the New Zealand Open to help her home country. Special kid. 

10. Jordan Spieth was relegated to an undercard Sunday at Pebble Beach. When’s the last time we could say that? 

Spieth and Dustin Johnson – two pre-tournament favorites – finished on the ninth hole while the final groups were coming down the 18th at Pebble Beach. 

After three frustrating rounds, the world No. 1 salvaged a T-21 finish following a closing 66. It represented his worst result, anywhere, since a missed cut over Labor Day weekend. 

His biggest issue? He ranked near the bottom of the pack in proximity to the hole at Pebble, and he was “sloppy” with his play on the par 5s. Prior to Sunday (when he picked up two birdies), he played the longest holes in even par. Mickelson, by contrast, was 8 under on the par 5s.   

11. The European Tour made good on its promise to call out violators of its new pace-of-play policy, announcing that Spieth, Daniel Brooks, Benjamin Hebert, Eddie Pepperell and Gavin Green each received monitoring penalties for taking longer than 40 seconds to play a shot once their group was deemed out of position. 

The potential for a $2,800 fine isn’t the deterrent here; it’s the threat of being publicly shamed.

Here’s hoping the European Tour continues to release its monthly, um, “traffic” report.

Bill Murray apparently can do no wrong on the course at Pebble Beach – after all, it was only a few years ago that he pulled an elderly woman from the stands, danced with her, flung her around in a bunker and wasn’t publicly reprimanded.

But the legendary comedian crossed a line off the course last week when he reportedly became so irritated with a group of selfie-seekers that he hurled their cellphones off a second-story balcony. (Murray has agreed to pay for the damages.)

He was probably just tired from six hours of entertaining, making him grumpy and susceptible to this Kanye-esque meltdown. Whatever the reason, if the 65-year-old flips out at a ritzy post-round party in Carmel, how does he handle the aggressive paparazzi at LAX?

News, notes and observations from the past week ... 

Charl Schwartzel

Sure, a win is a win, but it's hard to read too much into Charl Schwartzel’s latest European Tour victory, for two reasons: (1) It was an incredibly weak field, as he earned only five more world-ranking points than the winner of the Asian Tour’s Bashundhara Bangladesh Open, and (2) eight of his 11 career titles have come from November to February.

There are plenty of stars this week in Hollywood: Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Johnson and Justin Rose are all in the field this week at Riviera. A proper end to the West Coast swing.

• Even though a judge surprisingly dismissed the caddies’ lawsuit against the PGA Tour, that the loopers’ treatment at Tour events is now being discussed is a sign of progress. 

Apparently, Patrick Reed’s ankle is OK. The injury, which led him to withdraw from Torrey Pines (and caused a tiff on social media, thanks to cranky Canadian Graham DeLaet) didn’t appear to affect Reed as he shot 65 Sunday and tied for sixth at Pebble Beach. It was his eighth top-10 in his last 10 worldwide starts.

• Ryder Cup vice captain Tiger Woods suggested that prospective team members take a fishing trip to get better to know each other, that it’ll only help them come fall. Or maybe Tiger is just bored. 

If you're keeping score at home: With his tie for 11th at Pebble Beach, Jason Day leapfrogged McIlroy and returned to No. 2 in the world.

• Give it up for Mike “Fluff” Cowan. All he did last week was fill in as caddie for Sung Kang, who came to his 18th hole Friday at Monterey Peninsula needing a birdie for 59. He settled for 60, denying Fluff an incredible feat: Looping for two players who shot 59. Cowan’s boss, Jim Furyk, who is recovering from wrist surgery, shot 59 at the 2013 BMW.

Jonas Blixt's last nine starts: MC-MC-MC-MC-MC-28-6-MC-3.

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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.