Rickie Fowler rejoins the race, the world's best (save for Jason Day) head south of the border, Pat Perez buries Tiger Woods and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
Sunday was billed a must-win for Fowler, and he delivered.
A must-win because he hadn’t established himself as a strong frontrunner. (More on that later). A must-win because one of golf’s most popular players had been lapped by his peers and close friends, including Justin Thomas, who won as many times in five starts this season (three) as Fowler had in his entire career. And a must-win because, with the Masters now just six weeks away, he needed to prove to himself that his game was where he wants it.
No, it wasn’t always pretty Sunday at PGA National, but then again few rounds were during the final round at PGA National that featured the strongest wind of the week.
It was enough for Fowler’s first Tour title in 18 months and his first victory anywhere in 13 months, and it returned him to the top 10 in the world ranking.
“I didn’t play great. It wasn’t a pretty round,” he said. “But we got the job done. A win is a win.”
And a much-needed win at that.
1. NBC analyst Johnny Miller had an interesting take as Fowler stood on the 18th hole, staked to a five-shot lead.
“I don’t know what this does for him,” Miller said. “Obviously a win is a win, but you’ve gotta learn to finish out Sundays like a true champion. He hasn’t learned how to do that yet.”
Miller, as usual, was lit up on social media. The most common comeback: Miller's comment overlooked Fowler’s heroics at The Players, where he went 6 under for the final six holes to get into a playoff he eventually won. Luke Donald offered this: “The art of a great player is getting it done despite not having your best. Great patience, resilience and putting by Rickie today.”
Maybe it wasn’t as dire as Miller suggested, but Fowler still offered reasons for pause Sunday.
As good as he looked in 2015 at The Players, he also played the role of pursuer, not frontrunner. It's a big difference mentally, and something Fowler is still learning to handle.
He still hasn’t broken par when he's had a 54-hole lead on Tour:
- 2010 Memorial: 1-over 73 (finished 2nd)
- 2011 Quicken Loans: 4-over 74 (T-13)
- 2016 Wells Fargo: 2-over 74 (T-4)
- 2016 Barclays: 3-over 74 (T-7)
- 2017 Honda: 1-over 71 (won)
It just so happened that this time, he had a big lead and his fellow competitors couldn’t make up the deficit on a very demanding track.
2. The club that allowed Fowler to hang on to win?
“My putter saved me,” he said.
He made a field-high 134 feet worth of putts in the final round and finished second in strokes gained-putting for the week.
Most crucial were the 30-footer on No. 8, the 38-footer on 12 and the 23-footer on 13.
“If I don’t make those putts,” he said, “I’d have a pretty tight race.”
3. It’s easy to knock on the easygoing Fowler, whose career résumé doesn’t yet match his visibility. (A fair question: Given the immense marketing muscle behind him, will it ever?).
But Sunday offered a timely reminder of (1) just how difficult it is to win on Tour, and (2) how special this group of young stars is.
With the youth takeover on Tour well underway, it seems like there’s dozens of kids with a handful of victories. Not true.
Only SIX players 28 or younger have four or more Tour titles: Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama, Thomas and, yes, now Fowler.
4. Helping Fowler was that no one made a sustained run behind him – or at least couldn't make it to the clubhouse.
Tyrrell Hatton, who was paired with Fowler, turned in 3 over to fade from contention.
Morgan Hoffmann missed a 4-footer on the last.
Billy Horschel rinsed his second shot into 18.
Jimmy Walker played the 15th and 17th holes in 5 over.
The biggest threat was Gary Woodland, who pulled within one. But his putter turned cold, three-putting the 17th, and then he laid up into the water on 18 for back-to-back bogeys.
On the leaderboard, at least, it added up to an easy four-shot victory.
5. The big names (Spieth, Dustin Johnson and now Fowler) have enjoyed big blowouts the past three weeks on Tour.
The action hasn’t been electrifying, but these Sunday snoozers are more rare than you might think.
It’s the first time since July 2005 that the Tour saw three consecutive winners by four or more shots.
This stands in stark contrast to last year, when 12 tournaments in a row were decided by one stroke or a playoff, beginning with the Sony Open and extending to the Masters.
6. Fowler and 49 of the top 50 players in the world will head to Mexico this week for the first World Golf Championships event of the year.
The only one missing? Day. The world No. 2 withdrew Sunday because of a double ear infection and flu.
The WGC-Mexico was set to be the first event with all of the OWGR top 50 since the PGA Championship.
7. If you’re thinking to yourself, Boy, Jason Day sure seems to get sick a lot, you’re not alone.
A quick Google searched confirmed that Day has cited the flu, or flu-like symptoms, five times in the past 13 months.
What’s more problematic: His back or immune system?
8. Here’s another illustration of how Tour players are never more than a few tweaks away from playing great golf.
Entering the Honda, Ryan Palmer was ranked 211th out of 213 players in strokes gained-putting. It’s hard to compete like that, and so he had missed four of five cuts this year.
At the urging of his manager, Palmer met with Dave Stockton and his son, the putting savants. They moved the ball further back in his stance. They kept his putter lower through impact, to keep his left hand from breaking down. And they sped up his routine, even telling him to look at the hole, not the ball, on shorter putts.
It proved to be only a quick fix – he shared the 36-hole lead before a forgettable weekend – but it never ceases to amaze how quickly these guys can go from also-rans to leaders.
9. Palmer will be a popular man to root for this year. His wife, Jennifer, is undergoing treatment for stage 2 breast cancer. She has five more radiation treatments to go.
“Things are clear and she’s doing awesome,” he said.
10. Is PGA National’s 17th tee getting out of hand?
Sergio Garcia was told by a numbskull fan “Hope your marriage fails,” and Billy Horschel was among those who voiced concerns about the raucous atmosphere surrounding the tee on the par 3.
Hey, it’s all good at TPC Scottsdale, because it’s a straightforward, easy hole, but that isn’t the case here, with a 190-yard carry over water, a narrow green and a deep bunker left.
The party brings non-golfers to the tournament, and that's great. But it doesn’t need to be directly on top of the players.
11. This week’s WGC-Mexico Championship is a bit of a mystery. (And who could forget Donald Trump’s “I hope they have kidnapping insurance” line last June?). One thing we do know: They're playing at 7,600 feet, which should lead to some unusual club choices.
For comparison, Reno plays about 5,500 feet above sea level.
Said Adam Scott: “I think TrackMan is going to get a workout next week to find out how far you actually hit it.”
12. This disjointed Florida swing won’t change in 2018.
The same lineup is set for next year, with Honda, Mexico, Tampa and Bay Hill before heading to Texas.
Only 12 of the top 25 players in the world teed it up at the Honda.
Many have mentioned how it makes more sense for the Tour to go from Riviera to Mexico to Florida, but keep in mind that the circuit is weighing dramatic changes to the schedule beginning as early as the 2019-20 season, which could include moving The Players back to March.
13. Meanwhile, the field for the Arnold Palmer Invitational is taking shape.
It’s expected to be an emotional week at Bay Hill, Palmer’s second home, and so far five of the top seven players in the world have signed up.
Those who likely won’t commit to the March 16-19 event: Johnson and Spieth.
As great as it’d be to have a full turnout to celebrate Palmer's life and career, it’s also unrealistic.
Spieth, for example, will play Mexico, Tampa, Match Play and Houston. Adding Bay Hill would mean that he plays five events in a row leading into the Masters.
Perez found himself in the middle of a very non-golf story last week.
Calling out a peer? That happens all the time in team sports, and sometimes even in an individual pursuit like tennis. But it is exceedingly rare in golf, which values its traditions, decorum and professionalism.
Among other things, Perez said that Woods was playing just to keep his sponsors relevant and that, deep down, he “knows he can’t beat anybody.” Which is true, of course, because it’s impossible to beat players while face down on a massage table.
Only Tiger Truthers took exception with Perez’s content. Others railed at his tone, which they said was unnecessarily harsh considering the résumés of the two players in question. But even that argument falls flat – Perez was chatting ON HIS OWN RADIO SHOW, and last we checked, calm, measured discourse doesn’t play well on the airwaves, and it definitely isn’t Perez’s brash style.
The surprise wasn’t what Perez said. (Can’t we all agree that Woods' future looks bleak?). It’s that, in the deferential world of pro golf, he actually had the stones to say it.
This week's award winners ...
Comeback of the Week: Brendan Steele. Seven over after his first eight holes, Steely didn’t mail it in – he played the rest of the tournament in 11 under to tie for 14th. Pro.
Freefall of the Week: Cody Gribble. The rookie winner co-led after an opening 64, barely made the cut after a 76 then added rounds of 71-80 on the weekend to finish last among those who made the cut.
At Odds with the USGA: Bryson DeChambeau. The 2015 U.S. Amateur champion had some harsh words for the blue blazers, whom he says steered him away from side-saddled putting after deeming one of his face-on putters non-conforming: “The USGA essentially doesn’t like me doing it. I’m pretty much done with it. They’re not a good organization, and you can quote me on that. I’m part of their family, and as a family it’s very frustrating to see them stunt the growth of the game.” He apologized two days later, saying “my emotions got the better of me.” But maybe the USGA was doing DeChambeau a favor – he’s ranked 209th out of 213 players in putting.
One Guy Who Didn't Have Putting Problems: Fowler. He was a perfect 57 for 57 (!) inside 7 feet at the Honda.
Desperate Times Call For …: Jaco Van Zyl. Struggling with his putting leading into the Joburg Open, Van Zyl opted for Cleveland’s Smart Square Stubby, which is originally designed as a training aid because it requires a player to strike the putt in the center of the face. Somehow, Van Zyl made the cut, but he changed putters for the final round and finished in a tie for 83rd.
A Fair Process?: Joburg Open. The European Tour event (part of the year-long Open Qualifying Series) was shortened to 54 holes, but it still sent three players to Royal Birkdale. That doesn’t sit well, especially with the potential for the 51st-ranked player in the world to be left home come July.
Unnecessary: McIlroy’s explanation. According to a story in the New York Times, 50 of the 56 players polled said they would play a round with President Trump if asked (just like Tiger and Ernie Els did). That McIlroy even had to justify this was ridiculous.
Welcome Back: Inbee Park. In her first start since the Olympics last summer, the seven-time major winner tied for 25th in Thailand. More important, she expressed confidence in her injured thumb.
Couldn't Have Said It Any Better Ourselves: Justin Thomas-Rickie Fowler "tale of the tape," with both players about 5-foot-10, 150 pounds and averaging 309 yards off the tee.
That's a fight nobody would want to waste their money on https://t.co/P58fAvG6Qo— Justin Thomas (@JustinThomas34) February 25, 2017
The Things You’ll Do to Try and Make the Cut: Shawn Stefani. After finding the hazard off the tee, and with his only other option to drop in the rough 30 yards back, Stefani stripped down to his Calvin Kleins and splashed out of ankle-high water. He made bogey, missed the cut by two, and, well, sorta apologized afterward: “Hopefully my wife wasn’t disappointed. But I was out there fighting for my family. I was fighting to make the cut.”
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Russell Knox. A great one-and-done pick, because of his record at PGA National (top-3s two of the past three years) and his week-to-week consistency, finishing in the top 20 in five of his six starts this season. And so of course he missed the cut by five. Sigh.