Monday Scramble: Masters countdown really begins

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 20, 2017, 5:00 pm

Dustin Johnson dominates Riviera, a new world No. 1 emerges, the Masters comes into focus, Tiger Woods remains horizontal and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

What seemed inevitable has now become reality, with Johnson taking over the No. 1 spot in the world ranking.

Inevitable because of Johnson’s immense physical gifts, his awesome power and his vastly improved wedge game and putting. It’s not a surprise that he became world No. 1; to many, it’s a surprise that it took him so long, in his 10th full season on Tour.

Look, we cannot predict the future. Johnson’s stay at No. 1 could be two weeks, 20 weeks or 200 weeks. But at age 32, with the major monkey off his back and with his personal life in order, Johnson has the potential to reign for a while. Last year’s Player of the Year campaign felt like the start, not the pinnacle.   

1. The rankings have finally caught up to the eye test – right now, Johnson is the best player in the world.

Johnson has a slim lead (by about .50 over Day), but to his peers it’s about time the math worked in his favor. He is remarkably consistent. Of the 50 events that count toward Johnson's world ranking, 30 – THIRTY! – have gone for top-10s, and over the past eight months he counts victories against top fields at Oakmont, Firestone, Crooked Stick and now Riviera. 

“Honestly, I’m surprised it took so long for him to get to No. 1 in the world,” said Wesley Bryan, who attended the same high school and grew up playing junior golf with Johnson in South Carolina. “He’s got all the talent that you could ever want in a golfer.” 

Said Jordan Spieth: “No surprise to us players, and I don’t think too much surprise to many others.” 

Said Day: “He deserves it because he’s been playing great golf.”

2. Johnson doesn’t overthink much. He claims he didn’t think about the No. 1 ranking on Sunday, even when he was a few hours from taking over.

Unlike many of the recent world No. 1s, DJ didn’t publicly express that reaching the top spot was a significant goal. Win tournaments, he reasoned, and I’ll get there eventually. And so he did.

“I don’t really understand it,” he said of the OWGR math, “but I can read 1-2-3. I guess that’s all that matters.”

3. There’s been a revolving door at the top in this post-Tiger era. 

Johnson’s rise to No. 1 is the 24th (!) change at the top of the world rankings since October 2010. That followed a five-year run in which Woods was the only No. 1 in golf.

The players who have held the spot the longest since 2010:

  • Rory McIlroy (95 weeks)
  • Luke Donald (56)
  • Jason Day (51) 

4. About the only thing Johnson didn’t accomplish Sunday at Riviera was setting a new tournament scoring record. 

Lanny Wadkins’ 20-under 264 has held up since 1985, the longest standing record on the Tour schedule. Johnson moved to 20 under after a birdie on the sixth hole, but he made three meaningless bogeys over his final 10 holes to keep Wadkins’ record safe, for now.

“Next year,” Johnson said with a smile. 

5. DJ’s ascension ended Day’s 47-week stay at No. 1. 

It’s been an uneven start to the year for Day. He has struggled with his driving accuracy and iron game, but most concerning is his putter. The Tour’s best putter a year ago, he entered Riviera ranked 193rd. Then he had another brutal week on the greens in LA, losing nearly 1.9 strokes to the field and ranking 59th out of 71 players. 

6. That Sunday 63 was an important round for Thomas Pieters’ immediate future. 

Trying to earn his PGA Tour card so he can play both tours in the future, Pieters took a big step toward earning special temporary status with a tie for second at the Genesis Open. (He needs just 13 more FedEx Cup points to match the total of No. 150 last year.) The high finish earned him a spot in both WGC events next month, essentially locking up status that would give him unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of the season.

“It’s not going to change [my schedule] for this year probably,” he said. “It will just make my schedule a little bit easier next year.

“I’d like to combine both of them. Ideally I want to play here until May and then go back to Europe and play the events I want to play.”

Pieters will be in the field this week at the Honda.   

7. Something to keep an eye on: Justin Rose’s thumb. 

Taped up during the final day, Rose said that there’s a “little flare-up” on the top side of his left thumb that only affects his chip and pitch shots, not full swings. He still tied for fourth.

“It was good motivation to try and hit as many greens as possible,” he said.

8. Rarely does a regular PGA Tour event have such a scoring disparity between the two waves.

The early-late starters (like, say, DJ) were greeted by scoreable conditions in the first round that became more difficult as the afternoon progressed. By Friday morning, those in the late-early wave (like, say, Spieth) encountered 40-mph winds and a cold, driving rain. Johnson was among those who began their second round Saturday, after the worst weather had rolled through, and found a rain-softened Riviera with hardly any wind.  

The stats bear that out:

  • Early-late wavers in Round 2: 70.47.
  • Late-early wavers in Round 2: 72.86.

That’s an Open Championship-like imbalance, but an unfortunate part of the game in an outdoor sport. Players can only hope their misfortune evens out over the course of a year.  

9. No result last week was as surprising as the play of Hideki Matsuyama. 

A combined 146 under par over his last 10 starts, he ballooned to a second-round 80 at Riviera. Sure, Matsuyama has blown up before – in fact, he has four scores of 78 or worse since March – but he’s been on a tear of late, with five wins in his last nine worldwide starts. This was his first missed cut worldwide since The Barclays.  

10. In other Hideki news … his familiar disgusted follow-through moves have only gotten worse. The shot below kissed the flagstick, but he looked as though someone ran over his dog. 

It’s OK to have high standards – these are the best players in the world, after all. But someone needs to get in his ear, because this is really annoying, both to fans and his fellow playing competitors. 

11. Here are the biggest storylines to watch as the PGA Tour begins the Florida/Mexico/Florida/Texas swing and the road to Augusta: 

  1. The status of Rory McIlroy: In his only appearance this year, the world No. 3 finished second while playing with a stress fracture in his ribs. He hasn’t played since, but he plans to return at next week’s WGC-Mexico Championship. Will he log enough competitive rounds this spring to complete the career Grand Slam?  
  2. Who will emerge as the favorite?: According to oddsmakers, Spieth is the narrow favorite over Johnson, but five players in all (Rory, Day and Hideki) are better than 12/1. Which one of these studs will pick off another one or two titles in the next six weeks as the Masters draws nearer? 
  3. Will another star step forward?: The first two months of the next year have been awesome, with Justin Thomas, Matsuyama, Jon Rahm, Sergio, Spieth and now DJ all hoisting trophies around the globe. If players like Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Patrick Reed or Rickie Fowler enter the fray, it’ll be one of the most wide-open Masters in recent memory. 

12. The format was a bit confusing, and Sunday was emotionally draining for players, but stroke-play medalist Brett Rumford won the experimental World Super 6.

Twenty-four players competed in five six-hole matches on the final day, with the top eight players after 54 holes of stroke play receiving byes. Afterward, Rumford called it a “really, really tough week.”

“It was a unique challenge in trying to win a golf championship and feeling that same emotions, tension and pressure for six holes in four straight matches,” he said. 

13. Who did Rumford beat in the final match? Thailand’s Phachara Khongwatmai, who is only 17. Viewed another way, he was born two years AFTER Tiger’s first Masters victory.

This kid already has two pro wins and is ranked inside the top 150 in the world. 

14. Lizette Salas’ bid to make it 2-for-2 for the Americans went up in flames with a final-round 78 in Australia.

Instead, it was Ha Na Jang who closed with a 69 to steal the title. Only Ariya Jutanugarn (five) has more wins over the last 13 months than Jang (four), who moved to No. 5 in the world.

Speaking of Jutanugarn, she placed third as she looks to tighten the top of the world rankings. World No. 1 Lydia Ko, making her 2017 debut after wholesale changes last fall, didn’t break 71 and tied for 46th.

This week, in As the Tiger Turns … 

Woods scheduled a news conference for Tuesday, rescheduled it for Wednesday and then canceled it altogether. Doctor’s orders. He also wasn't able to present the trophy.

This would seem troubling, that the “back spasms” were so intense that he couldn’t even appear at the tournament that now benefits his foundation. But not so, said Tiger’s agent Mark Steinberg: “We’re not talking about an extended break.”

Of course, that doesn’t add up. Woods has taken off the past three weeks, which means that whenever he’s cleared to resume physical activity – right now, he’s been advised to “stay horizontal” – he’ll again have to ramp up his fitness and practice. And that takes time, lest he put his body in another vulnerable position. 

It wouldn't surprise if he didn't play again until the Masters.

This week's award winners ... 

Unsung Heroes: Riviera and PGA Tour grounds crew, which began work at 2 a.m. Saturday to try and get Riviera playable. Without these guys, the Genesis Open doesn’t end on Sunday, simple as that. 

Nope, Nothing to See Here: USGA and R&A. In an unintentionally hilarious study released last week, they found little driving distance growth from 2003 to now. A convenient window for analysis, since there was a 25-yard increase the previous decade … 

Not What He Was Looking For: Phil Mickelson. The 46-year-old just wrapped up a busy West Coast swing, with five consecutive starts after offseason hernia surgery. His best finish was a tie for 14th, and Mickelson said it was his normally reliable short game – lag putting, chip shots – that cost him strokes. 

End of a Hot Run: Spieth’s under-par streak. His 1-over 72 in the third round at Riviera ended a streak of 27 consecutive rounds in red numbers. He tied for 22nd. 

Welcome Back: Fred Couples. Boom Boom won the Chubb Classic for his first Champions title since 2014. It also completed some cool symmetry, as this was the 25-year anniversary of Couples’ victory at Riviera. 

More Disappointment: Bryson DeChambeau. Looking for just his second top-30 worldwide in the past nine months, the eccentric 23-year-old instead withdrew from Riviera with a hand injury. He even posted a picture of his bandaged palm, claiming the injury was a result of, gulp, working too hard. (Not surprisingly, this did not go over well in the comment section.) DeChambeau’s absence, coupled with his Microsoft Cloud commercial, touting his scientific background, added up to a rough weekend.

Not Havin’ It: Grayson Murray. You don’t need a physics background to figure out to whom he was referring. 

But How Do You REALLY Feel?: Colin Montgomerie. He told he wouldn’t trade his career for Tiger’s, because Monty says he overachieved, becoming a Hall of Famer despite never winning a major. Some pros wouldn’t trade their careers for Tiger’s because of the fishbowl existence, and that’s understandable. But here’s guessing Monty (31 Euro Tour wins) would gladly trade his career résumé for Bernhard Langer’s (42 wins, two majors) or Nick Faldo’s (30 wins, six majors), no?

Why Are We No Longer Yelling “Fore!”?: Pat Perez (and everyone else in his group). During the third round, Perez brained an unsuspecting fan to the right of the 12th fairway. Not a single player in the group yelled to signal the errant shot, and the ball made a sickening sound when it bounced off the fan's forehead. Fortunately, the guy was OK, but he needed help to stop the bleeding. Three holes after the scary incident, Perez pegged another spectator, this time in the arm, again without a warning. Yelling "fore!" should not be optional.

Rough Week for Media Members, Non-Trump Division: Golf photographers/cameramen. First, photographer Cy Cyr got drilled in the stomach by a worm burner, then a CBS cameraman nearly was taken out by a Sergio Garcia tee shot. Anyone know the number for workers’ comp? 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Bubba Watson. A winner at Riviera twice in the past three years, Watson was careening toward a missed cut before he no-showed for the resumption of his second round Saturday morning. He’s been all out of sorts this year. Sigh.  

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in four months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014. 

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."