Monday Scramble: Focus shifts east, toward Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2016, 5:00 pm

Bubba Watson ramps up for Augusta, Adam Scott rediscovers his confidence on the greens, the Jordan-Rory showdown fizzles, the PGA Tour heads to Florida and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble.

The Masters is 44 days away, but we can't help but think about Augusta after watching Watson's victory at the Northern Trust Open. 

Believe in omens? Consider this:

Bubba won at Riviera in 2014, at 15 under par, and took the Masters two months later.

He won again in LA this year, at 15 under par. Does a third green jacket await? He has to be on everyone's (very) short list of contenders. 

Yes, that was the case before Watson birdied two of the last three holes to emerge from a crowded, eclectic leaderboard, but the lanky left-hander is often overlooked in this era of young, hip, popular stars. That’s partly because of his age (37), but there are other reasons, too, namely his week-to-week inconsistency and personality quirks that can rub fans and peers the wrong way. 

For all of Watson’s mood swings, he is a joy to watch play golf, a genius with an awe-inspiring combination of power, creativity and imagination. And when he brushes in putts, like he did last week at Riviera, it’s a tough combination to beat, and it’s why, since 2010, only Rory McIlroy (11) has more wins than Watson’s nine. 

Augusta, here he comes.  

1. With his victory at Riviera, Watson climbed the aforementioned list of players with the most PGA Tour wins since 2010:

  • Rory McIlroy: 11 victories
  • Watson: 9
  • Tiger Woods: 8
  • 5 others with 7

2. Putting is the key statistic for every contender, of course, but it always seems like the go-to answer for Watson when analyzing his improved performance: Today, I just made some putts.

And because of his prodigious length and superior shot-making, that’s usually enough for him to win.

Three of his biggest putts came on the back nine Sunday: The 9-footer for par on 10 after he left himself in an awkward spot off the tee, the 29-footer for birdie on 11 after an indifferent wedge shot, and the bending 5-footer for birdie on 16 to tie the lead. 

“The combination of those two,” he said of the putts on 10 and 11, “gave me the right frame of mind.”

3. Watson joked a few years ago that if he ever reached 10 PGA Tour wins – a seemingly unattainable goal for the self-taught southpaw from Bagdad, Fla. – he would retire. 

Good thing he clarified that statement – he’s almost there.

After his victory at the World Challenge in December, Watson changed his goals to include climbing to No. 1 in the world. Only then would he consider walking away.

“It would be nice to go out on top,” he said. 

4. Maybe Bubba is mentally tougher than he’s given credit for. 

Sure, he still talks himself out of contention if he dislikes a course, but on this West Coast swing he also showed resilience. 

In Phoenix, he endured such an endless barrage of jeers and taunts that a few of his peers complained on his behalf. He still tied for 14th, though he described the fallout as "heartbreaking" and "hurtful."

“I’m man enough to take the bad press now,” he said. 

And then last Monday, he passed a kidney stone. He was asked what headline he'd like for that story. 

"Bubba is a tough guy," he said with a laugh. "Mentally, he's tough."

5. With a closing 67, Scott earned his fifth worldwide runner-up finish since his last win at the 2014 Colonial – the tournament that validated his No. 1 ranking. 

The Australian figures to play the entire season under the microscope, after the anchoring ban went into effect on Jan. 1. 

Predictably, social media exploded with one-liners and memes when Scott made everything he looked at early Sunday, rolling in 109 feet worth of putts across the first six holes. But he has always been a streaky and inconsistent putter, from week-to-week and round-to-round, no matter the method. After the hot start, he made only 33 feet the rest of the way, and short misses on 14 and 15 doomed his chances.

In a lot of ways, that has been the story of his career: Some makes, some misses and, in the end, a boatload of high finishes. The reason 2015 was his first year without a win was because his ball-striking wasn’t good enough to mask his ineffectiveness on the greens. His driving and iron play were sterling at The Riv, a promising sign moving forward.

“I think I putted pretty good this week,” Scott said. “I missed a couple today, but I’m sure heaps of people missed a couple today. They all seem so much more important on the back nine, and every putt is the same, but I made so many great strokes and putts this week.” 

6. Kokrak made only one big mistake over his last 21 holes at Riviera.

It cost him his first Tour title. 

Leading by two in the middle of the 15th fairway, Kokrak sailed his approach shot from 182 yards long and left of the green. He couldn’t get up and down from there, badly missing an 8-footer for par, and did well not to drop shots on the next two holes after poor tee shots.

''You've got to eliminate the mental mistakes,'' said Kokrak, but that's easier said than done, of course, especially for a player who was in an unfamiliar position.

7. Before Bubba stole the show, Riviera was billed as the first PGA Tour showdown of 2016 for Spieth and McIlroy.

It went poorly – for both players. 

Let's start with McIlroy. He surged into a share of the lead with an eagle on the first hole Sunday, but he struggled with his speed control on the greens all day, dropping SEVEN shots before he rammed home a birdie on the 18th hole.

The 75 tied a career high for a non-major final round. The tie for 20th was his worst finish in four months. He'll be the favorite to win this week at PGA National, but this was a head-scratching finale in LA.

"I turned a chance to win into a top-20 at the end of the day," he said, "so it wasn't too good."

8. But as shocking as McIlroy's final-day slide was, by far the biggest surprise of the past week came last Thursday, when the world No. 1 missed eight putts inside 10 feet, got off to the worst start of his PGA Tour career and lost to Camilo Villegas – who hadn’t made a cut all year – by 16 strokes on one of his top-five favorite courses in the world.

By itself, this missed cut doesn’t mean much. Every Tour player, even the very best, have bad days and off-weeks. "It's going to happen," Spieth said. "Just unfortunate when it actually does."

If he can regroup, refocus and refine as the Tour moves to Florida, this will be but a blip on his 2016 résumé.

And keep this in mind, too: Spieth usually bounces back well from missed cuts. Of the 13 early exits in his career, he has returned a top-25 in 10 of those next starts, including three runners-up. 

9. If nothing else, Spieth’s missed cut once again puts into perspective Woods’ incredible record: 

  • Spieth, at age 22, now has 13 missed cuts as a professional.
  • McIlroy, at age 26, has 11.
  • And Woods, at age 40, has 15 – eight of which have come since 2012, when he battled injuries and inconsistency.

10. Here are one man's takeaways from the West Coast swing:

  • Phil is back. Rarely a contender the past two years, Mickelson had a pair of top-three finishes in four West Coast starts. None was more encouraging than his second-place showing at Pebble Beach, where he squandered a 54-hole lead with nervy, uneven play but still made it interesting on the final day. More than anything, Lefty looks reenergized and reengaged – and that bodes well for ’16 and beyond. 
  • The list of Masters favorites is even longer than usual. A convincing case could be made for more than a dozen players. That's what is so appealing about the Florida swing – it sorts out the contenders from the pretenders.
  • Yes, indeed, this is a Ryder Cup year. Many expected the Americans to have a completely new look come late September at Hazeltine – you know, out with the old, in with the new. Yet it was the veterans who showed up most often on the Left Coast, with Jason Dufner, Brandt Snedeker and Watson earning victories and Mickelson posting a couple of high finishes to bolster his position.
  • Snedeker’s 69 at Torrey Pines will stand as one of the best rounds of the season. When play was called at Torrey Pines, Sneds' score was more than nine shots better than the field average that day, and there was only one other round of par or better while already 23 players had posted a score in the 80s. It proved to be the second-most difficult non-major Tour round in the past 25 years.
  • Save that "Wet Coast swing" joke for another year. If you throw out the wild, El Nino weather day at Torrey Pines – when temperatures dove into the 50s and winds howled up to 50 mph – it was perfect weather for every other round. Which is exactly what you hope for when the Tour heads to classic venues like Torrey, Pebble and Riv. 

Relying only on some of the clips that McIlroy has posted to his social media accounts, Brandel Chamblee said on an NBC Sports conference call that he can’t help but be reminded of Tiger Woods’ physical breakdown when he sees some of the “extensive weightlifting” that the world No. 3 is doing.

This wasn’t a new critique, nor was it particularly insightful – Chamblee, after all, has never lifted with McIlroy and has no idea what he really does under the direction of Steve McGregor, who has trained both the New York Knicks and Manchester City soccer team. (Or, in other words, he's a guy who knows what he’s doing.)  

Most concerning, though, was the parallel with Tiger.

Woods was obsessed with working out, with looking like an athlete, with being viewed as strong and powerful. McIlroy, who had 22 percent body fat when he turned pro, works out mostly to avoid injury, to combat a degenerative disc in his back. Big difference.

Woods remains, for now, a cautionary tale for the gym rats, a player who was so hell-bent on being the most fit golfer of all time that he took it too far. As Chamblee himself conceded about McIlroy: “Thus far, there’s been no signs that it’s adversely affected his game.”

Enough said, then. 

This week's award winners ... 

Not a Gear Head: Dustin Johnson. Asked if he was playing new irons at Riviera, DJ responded: "Yeah, I did, I put a new set of irons in. I think they are the [TaylorMade] PSi Tours, something like that." Never mind that the PSi logo was stitched onto the right side of his hat.

It’s Really Hard to Win: Soomin Lee. Leading by two with three to play at the Maybank Championship, the South Korean collapsed down the stretch, double-bogeying the 16th and 18th holes to hand the European Tour title to Marcus Fraser. 

Common Sense Wins: Flipping the nines at East Lake for the Tour Championship. Wait, a 235-yard par 3 isn’t an exciting way to finish a season-long competition? Bring on the reachable par 5. 

Shockingly, This Won’t Help Increase Interest: Kenny Perry’s thoughts on the senior circuit. Fed up with the lack of publicity, the 55-year-old said that the media and fans look at the PGA Tour Champions players as a “freak show” and that nothing that happens out there “means anything to anybody.”

Rory Isn’t the Only Person Working Out: Lindsey Vonn. While her ex is laid up somewhere recovering from another back surgery, here is Vonn, doing pullups in only body paint:

Random Thought of the Week: Is Riviera’s 10th really that great of a hole if players intentionally send their drives left, into the trees, to give themselves the best chance to make 4? 

Thanks, Fluff: Sung Kang. With the veteran caddie on the bag, Kang just posted two of the best results of his career.

In Need of an Explanation: How 3-year-old Caleb Watson came to receive a drumming lesson from Justin Bieber: 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week (non-Spieth division): Jimmy Walker. He hadn’t finished worse than 13th in his last four starts, and Riviera is one of Walker’s favorite courses on Tour – he had missed the cut only once in nine tries. Sorry. Make that twice. Sigh. 

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LAAC returning to Casa de Campo in 2019

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 8:23 pm

The Latin America Amateur Championship will return to Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic in 2019 (Jan. 17-20), event organizers announced Saturday in Chile, where this year’s championship is underway.

The LAAC champion receives an invitation to play the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club every spring.

The champion is also exempt into The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event for which he is eligible to compete. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The championship got its start in 2015 with Chile’s Matias Dominguez winning at Pilar Golf in Argentina. In 2016, Casa de Campo hosted, with Costa Rica’s Paul Chaplet winning. At 16, he became the first player from Central America to compete in the Masters. In 2017, Chile’s Toto Gana won the title at  Club de Golf de Panama.

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Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 6:07 pm

An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.

It was too much “socializing.”

“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”

Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.

“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.

His plan for doing that?

“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one 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.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

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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.