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Monday Scramble: Which way did he go?

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 19, 2018, 4:15 pm

Bubba Watson reemerges, Tiger Woods misses the cut, the PGA Tour might have a fan problem, Billy Hurley III loses an election and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:

Bubba Golf is back, and not a moment too soon for the PGA Tour.

Love him or loathe him – and there are plenty of folks on both side of the aisle – the game is more interesting when Watson is in the mix.

Bubba went AWOL for two years, and entering the back half of his 30s, he thought his golf career might be finished. He got passed over for a Ryder Cup spot in 2016, despite being ranked inside the top 10 in the world. He endured a mysterious illness that caused him to lose 40 pounds on his already slight frame. He surprisingly changed his golf ball (more on that later). And he questioned his desire and motivation to play, until wife Angie gave him a swift kick in his white pants.

Watson was at his best at Riviera, again, shaping shots around the tree-lined fairways and holing just enough putts for a two-shot win.

Where Bubba goes from here – the Masters is less than 50 days away – is anyone’s guess, but the game just got a lot more entertaining.

1. Watson has not disclosed what illness he suffered from last year, and in true Bubba fashion, he grew tired of being asked about it, even though he was the one who brought it up. “I’m not talking about the illness no more, it’s no big deal. I’m here. I’m healthy. There are people that are a lot sicker than me in this world, so the illness is nothing.”

He said that he seriously wondered whether he’d ever win tournaments again. Though he has a number of small businesses to fall back on – a candy shop, a minor-league baseball team, a car dealership – it’s not as satisfying as playing good golf.  

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

2. Though his game was already trending downward, Watson decided to switch his ball at the beginning of 2017. Players change equipment all the time, of course, but none rely on feel and shot shape as much as Watson.

It was a bizarre decision that he hasn’t yet fully explained, and likely never will, but he said in October that he didn’t have a ball deal to begin this new season. He played the Titleist Pro V1x at Riviera.

“Equipment is not the problem,” he said Sunday. “I got down to low-160s in weight. My ball speed, my swing, everything changed.”  

3. As memorable as Bubba’s holed bunker shot on 14 was, this will be the defining moment of his week in LA:

4. Here’s what Watson said in late 2014: “My goal is 10 wins and to make every team event. Those are the biggest goals. And until we reach those goals, I’m going to keep trying. If I get to 10, then I can switch it from there. Or retire.”

Watson on Sunday bristled when asked whether he was possibly going to retire, like he had said – “I don’t know if I was going to retire, let’s don’t start putting words out there” – but the point remains that he now has to change his goals.

And he doesn’t know where to start.

“Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let’s be honest,” he said. “Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can’t putt. Somehow we’re here, making fun of it. So yes, I’ve got to set a new goal.”

After this latest win, and the two-year exemption, he said that he won’t retire for at least two more years, and that he’ll play the Masters “until they kick me out.”

5. The Tiger Woods comeback tour hit a snag last week at Riviera.

The driving issues that hampered Woods at Torrey Pines didn't magically disappear. He was still inconsistent with his iron play. (His 16 greens hit in two rounds were the fewest of his Tour career.) And he wasn’t as sharp around the greens. It added up to 72-76 and an early exit in his first L.A. appearance in more than a decade.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit 36 percent of the fairways and 54 percent of the greens.

That's a problem, because PGA National might be even more difficult, with water on seemingly every hole and 15-mph winds expected. Uh-oh.

6. Woods’ driver remains his biggest problem.

While he’d largely eliminated the left side of the course at Torrey Pines, that wasn’t the case at Riviera.

Putting a new, more “stout” model of shaft in his TaylorMade driver, Woods missed right almost exclusively in the opening round, then had several double crosses left with the big stick on Day 2.

His short game and putting might be vastly improved compared to the horrors of the past few years, but it’ll be hard to compete and then contend if he’s hitting it off the planet. (And many of those off-line drives would find the water at PGA National.)

For the week, he ranked 128th in strokes gained-off the tee, 100th approaching the green, 95th around the green and 65th putting.

7. The news wasn’t all bad, though.

That Woods committed to the Honda Classic, his hometown event, was an encouraging sign. That signals A) he has a desire to play tournaments, and B) he’s physically able to do it.

For the first time in years, we’re finally able to judge Woods on the quality of his play, not his health. 

8. The PGA Tour might be reaching a breaking point in regards to fan behavior.

Players know what they’re signing up for at TPC Scottsdale, but even regular Tour stops are getting more raucous than players and officials would like.

Woods created such a scene over the first two rounds at Riviera that his playing partner, Rory McIlroy, said that he had a splitting headache and that the circus probably costs Woods a half shot each round. Justin Thomas said Saturday that spectators are trying to scream and time their moronic comments perfectly. “It’s completely unacceptable,” he said.

The same thing happened at Torrey Pines, where a fan screamed during Woods’ putting stroke. It happened (a lot) at Phoenix, where a fan twice yelled in Jordan Spieth’s downswing. And it’ll absolutely happen again this week at the Honda Classic, especially at the long, par-3 17th, where tournament organizers have put their most overserved fans almost directly on top of the tee.

It’s only a matter of time before one of these idiots costs a player the tournament.  

9. Bill Haas was involved in a horrifying car crash last week in Los Angeles. The driver of the Ferrari he was traveling in, 71-year-old Mark Gibello, was killed, while Haas and the driver of the other vehicle were taken to the hospital.

It was a scary incident, and a sad one for the Haas family. Fortunately, Haas escaped without any major injuries, but the mental toll could be immense.

Wish him the best.  

10. So it looks like it’ll be another drama-filled year for Lydia Ko.

After going winless in 2017 and changing every major aspect of her game, she returned this year with even more changes – a new swing coach, Ted Oh, and caddie, Jonny Scott. She tied for 19th in her season debut.

It’s time to be concerned. She was on pace to be one of the all-time greats, but now – whether because of insecurity or too much parental involvement, who knows – she has changed her entire team. Again.

Ko said she deleted Twitter from her phone not because of the deluge of criticism she has received over the past year. No, more curiously, she said it was because she didn’t use the app that much and it was “taking up [too much] storage on my phone.”

Uhh ... Ko has more than $8.5 million in career earnings, so obviously she could splurge for the 256 GB plan, and the app takes up less storage on a phone than Uber, anyway.

Maybe she’ll get it turned around this year, but we’re not overly optimistic. There’s too much noise upstairs. 

11. Just in time for the run-up to the Masters, Spieth’s putter is starting to heat up.

On tricky greens for the second consecutive week, Spieth had another week with a positive strokes gained-putting statistic – and that’s a marked improvement from the start of the year. He tied for ninth at Riviera.

“I just made some tremendous progress,” he said. “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.”

12. Amateur swing coaches popped up everywhere as Patrick Cantlay appeared painfully slow during Sunday’s final round.

On full shots, he shuffles his feet while looking at the target and waggling the clubhead. But over putts, he remains still with his upper body while doing the same dance routine.

While putting on the 16th and 17th holes, he took six and seven looks at the cup, respectively. Perhaps not surprisingly, those putts did not drop. Playing in the final group, he shot 71 and finished three back.

Is there something going on here?

Cantlay’s first-round scoring average (67.67, second on Tour) is almost four shots lower than in his final rounds (71.13, 100th). He has broken 70 only once on Sunday – and that was in Vegas, where he won with a closing 67.  

Cantlay has incredible potential, but this is just one example of smart golf people believing he’d be better suited with a quicker routine:

Billy Hurley III put together one of the most epic campaign ads of all time, but did he release it too late?!

That’s the only reasonable explanation for why Hurley wasn’t elected as the next Player Advisory Council chairman on the PGA Tour.

Hurley’s ad went viral, logging more than 750,000 views on Twitter, but he released it the day before the election. Maybe most Tour players already cast their votes.


Maybe next time, #GoldenMan.

This week's award winners ... 

Peaking For Augusta?: Phil Mickelson. Well, well, well, Phil recorded a third consecutive top-6 finish, the first time he’s done that in 11 years. One massive hurdle remains – putting together four good rounds for his first win in nearly five wins – but he’s absolutely getting closer.

Count Yo’ Money: Kevin Na. With a runner-up at Riviera, the 34-year-old has now crossed $25 million in earnings despite notching just one win in his Tour career.

Changes Coming?: Augusta National’s fifth hole. Site plans were filed last month that show the 445-yard par 4 could be pushed back another 25 to 30 yards, the Augusta Chronicle reported. It’s a short- to mid-iron approach right now, but we’d rather see them address the severe undulations on the green.   

Nice Goin’, Rook: Jin Young Ko. She went wire to wire to win in her first start as an LPGA member, at the Australian Open. She’s just the second to accomplish the feat, joining Beverly Hanson (1951). Of course, the 22-year-old Ko also won last fall, but at the time she wasn’t an official member. The check still cleared, though. 

Stay Hot: Joost Luiten. He made 21 birdies in his last 54 holes to hold off Chris Wood and win the European Tour event in Oman.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Paul Casey. Seemed an easy pick, after a playoff loss at Riviera in 2015 and after recording a tie for eighth at Pebble that was his 12th top-20 in his last 13 starts. Instead, he needed to birdie his final hole to make the cut on the number, then continued to tread water on the weekend, eventually finishing 49th. Sigh. 

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Match Play security tightens after Austin bombings

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 8:06 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – A fourth bombing this month in Austin injured two men Sunday night and authorities believe the attacks are the work of a serial bomber.

The bombings have led to what appears to be stepped-up security at this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club.

“I was out here [Sunday]; typically that's the most relaxed day. But they had security officials on every corner of the clubhouse and on the exterior, as well,” said Dylan Frittelli, who lives in Austin and is playing the Match Play for the first time this week. “It was pretty tough to get through all the protocols. I'm sure they'll have stuff in place.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

The PGA Tour told The Associated Press on Monday that it doesn't comment on the specifics of its security measures, but that the safety of players and fans is its top priority. The circuit is also coordinating closely with law enforcement to ensure the safety of players and fans.

Despite the bombings, which have killed two people and injured two others, the Tour has not yet reached out to players to warn of any potential threat or advise the field about increased security.

“It’s strange,” Paul Casey said. “Maybe they are going to, but they haven’t.”

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Rosaforte Report: Faxon helps 'free' McIlroy's mind and stroke

By Tim RosaforteMarch 19, 2018, 8:00 pm

With all the talk about rolling back the golf ball, it was the way Rory McIlroy rolled it at the Arnold Palmer Invitational that was the story of the week and the power surge he needed going into the Masters.

Just nine days earlier, a despondent McIlroy missed the cut at the Valspar Championship, averaging 29 putts per round in his 36 holes at Innisbrook Resort. At Bay Hill, McIlroy needed only 100 putts to win for the first time in the United States since the 2016 Tour Championship.

The difference maker was a conversation McIlroy had with putting savant Brad Faxon at The Bears Club in Jupiter, Fl., on Monday of API week. What started with a “chat,” as McIlroy described it, ended with a resurrection of Rory’s putting stroke and set him free again, with a triumphant smile on his face, headed to this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and Augusta National in two weeks.

The meeting with Faxon made for a semi-awkward moment for McIlroy, considering he had been working with highly-regarded putting coach Phil Kenyon since missing the cut in the 2016 PGA Championship. From “pathetic” at Baltusrol, McIlroy became maker of all, upon the Kenyon union, and winner of the BMW Championship, Tour Championship and FedExCup.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

As a professional courtesy, Faxon laid low, respecting McIlroy’s relationship with Kenyon, who also works with European stars Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Tommy Fleetwood and Henrik Stenson. Knowing how McIlroy didn’t like the way Dave Stockton took credit after helping him win multiple majors, Faxon let McIlroy do the talking. Asked about their encounter during his Saturday news conference at Bay Hill, McIlroy called it “more of a psychology lesson than anything else.”

“There was nothing I told him he had never heard before, nothing I told him that was a secret,” Faxon, who once went 327 consecutive holes on Tour without a three-putt, said on Monday. “I think (Rory) said it perfectly when he said it allowed him to be an athlete again. We try to break it down so well, it locks us up. If I was able to unlock what was stuck, he took it to the next level. The thing I learned, there can be no method of belief more important than the athlete’s true instinct.”

Without going into too much detail, McIlroy explained that Faxon made him a little more “instinctive and reactive.” In other words, less “mechanical and technical.” It was the same takeaway that Gary Woodland had after picking Faxon’s brain before his win in this year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Sunday night, after leading the field in strokes gained-putting, McIlroy was more elaborative, explaining how Faxon “freed up my head more than my stroke,” confessing that he was complicating things a bit and was getting less athletic.

“You look at so many guys out there, so many different ways to get the ball in the hole,” he said. “The objective is to get the ball in the hole and that’s it. I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”

All of this occurred after a conversation I had Sunday morning with swing instructor Pete Cowen, who praised Kenyon for the work he had done with his player, Henrik Stenson. Cowen attributed Henrik’s third-round lead at Bay Hill to the diligent work he put in with Kenyon over the last two months.

“It’s confidence,” Cowen said. “(Stenson) needs a good result for confidence and then he’s off. If he putts well, he has a chance of winning every time he plays.”

Cowen made the point that on the PGA Tour, a player needs 100-110 putts per week – or an average of 25-27 putts per round – to have a chance of winning. Those include what Cowen calls the “momentum putts,” that are especially vital in breaking hearts at this week’s WGC-Dell Match Play.

Stenson, who is not playing this week in Austin, Texas, saw a lot of positives but admitted there wasn’t much he could do against McIlroy shooting 64 on Sunday in the final round on a tricky golf course.

“It's starting to come along in the right direction for sure,” Stenson said. “I hit a lot of good shots out there this week, even though maybe the confidence is not as high as some of the shots were, so we'll keep on working on that and it's a good time of the year to start playing well.”

Nobody knows that better than McIlroy, who is hoping to stay hot going for his third WGC and, eventually, the career Grand Slam at Augusta.

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Golf's Olympic format, qualifying process remain the same

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 6:25 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Potential Olympic golfers for the 2020 Games in Tokyo were informed on Monday that the qualification process for both the men’s and women’s competitions will remain unchanged.

According to a memo sent to PGA Tour players, the qualification process begins on July 1, 2018, and will end on June 22, 2020, for the men, with the top 59 players from the Olympic Golf Rankings, which is drawn from the Official World Golf Ranking, earning a spot in Tokyo (the host country is assured a spot in the 60-player field). The women’s qualification process begins on July 8, 2018, and ends on June 29, 2020.

The format, 72-holes of individual stroke play, for the ’20 Games will also remain unchanged.

The ’20 Olympics will be held July 24 through Aug. 9, and the men’s competition will be played the week before the women’s event at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

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Webb granted U.S. Women's Open special exemption

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 6:22 pm

Karrie Webb's streak of consecutive appearances at the U.S. Women's Open will continue this summer.

The USGA announced Monday that the 43-year-old Aussie has been granted a special exemption into this year's event, held May 31-June 3 at Shoal Creek in Alabama. Webb, a winner in both 2000 and 2001, has qualified for the event on merit every year since 2011 when her 10-year exemption for her second victory ended.

"As a past champion, I'm very grateful and excited to accept the USGA's special exemption into this year's U.S. Women's Open," Webb said in a release. "I have always loved competing in the U.S. Women's Open and being tested on some of the best courses in the country."

Webb has played in the tournament every year since 1996, the longest such active streak, meaning that this summer will mark her 23rd consecutive appearance. She has made the U.S. Women's Open cut each of the last 10 years, never finishing outside the top 50 in that span.

Webb's exemption is the first handed out by the USGA since 2016, when Se Ri Pak received an invite to play at CordeValle. Prior to that the two most recent special exemptions went to Juli Inkster (2013) and Laura Davies (2009). The highest finish by a woman playing on a special exemption came in 1994, when Amy Alcott finished sixth.