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Monday Scramble: Drowning out - or in - the noise

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 5, 2018, 4:00 pm

Gary Woodland prevails, Rickie Fowler falters, the party at 16 rages on, Juli Inkster signs on for another Solheim Cup and more in this week’s Super edition of Monday Scramble:

During a final round in which some of the game’s biggest names were supposed to square off, the only players left standing were Gary Woodland and Chez Reavie.

It’s a prime example of the remarkable depth of talent on Tour – and how difficult it is to win.

Both Woodland and Reavie have been on the fringes of contention all season, and they took advantage when the bigger-name players – the ones with more pressure to perform, with more to lose – faltered on the final day.

It wasn’t the star-studded finish everyone expected, but Woodland’s Sunday 64 was the best of the day, and he was rewarded for his stellar play in the spotlight. 

1. Gary Woodland called 2017 the most difficult year of his career. Last spring, his wife, Gabby, lost one of their twins mid-pregnancy. It affected him the rest of the year.

He was eager for a fresh slate in 2018, and it showed, with three consecutive top-12 finishes.

Swing coach Butch Harmon sent Woodland a text message at the start of the week: Forget about everything else. Just put four rounds together.

Whether it put Woodland’s mind at ease, he doesn’t know. But he just notched his first victory since 2013 – and is the new leader in the clubhouse for feel-good story of the year.

2. It was a heartbreaking finish for Chez Reavie, at a tournament he calls his “fifth major.”

Reavie grew up in Mesa, was a standard bearer at the event as a kid and finally, after years of frustration there, put himself in position to win.

He buried a must-make 21-footer on the final hole of regulation, but he hit a poot approach shot on the first playoff hole, coming up short and left of the green. He misplayed his chip shot and missed the 11-footer for par.

Just like that, it was over. It was just his fifth bogey of the week. 

3. Another year, another close call in Phoenix for Rickie Fowler. It was his third straight top-11 finish there.

This year was perhaps the biggest surprise.

After surviving what was thought to be his worst round of the week to take the 54-hole lead, Fowler couldn’t get a putt to drop on the back nine and finished with three bogeys in his last four holes. That added up to a 2-over 73.

There are a lot of factors involved … but Fowler is now 1-for-6 with at least a share of the 54-hole lead. His all-around game is so solid that it’s easy to envision him winning a major (and probably soon), but his inability to close out tournaments from the lead position is becoming a concern. 

4. This clip generated a lot of buzz on social media Sunday:

It wasn’t Jon Rahm’s first outburst, and it certainly won’t be his last. Here’s what he told your trusty correspondent last year about his anger issues: “Every time I try to keep it to myself, just imagine a Coke bottle. If you shake it once, then it comes down. But once you open it, it’s a complete mess, and that’s what happens if I try to keep it down. … Sometimes I need to get mad.”

And so he does. Depending on your perspective, he’s either passionate or wildly immature.

The belief here? It’s hard to argue with Rahm’s success. And he’s 23. If that’s the way he feels like he can perform best, then let him have his outbursts. He'll grow out of it. For now, it affects only himself, not his playing partners.

5. The party vibe at TPC Scottsdale always brings out the get-off-my-lawn crowd, but this year the opponents seemed larger and more vocal.

Their main beef, best we can tell, is that the scene isn’t “good for golf” and that the sport doesn’t need to showcase boorish fans who have little interest in the actual sport, who just want to drink and yell ridiculous things when players are on the tee.

Let’s be clear: The Waste Management Phoenix Open is not helping grow the game. No one in the stands at 16 is watching the action and thinking to themselves, in between sips, Boy, I need to pick up this sport, because this is really cool.

The Phoenix Open is a party, first and foremost, and a golf tournament just so happens to be played around it.

It may not be a good look for the sport, but it’s undoubtedly good for the tournament, which attracted a record 719,179 fans for the week and generated tons of money for charity, and it’s probably even good for the image of the Tour, which has a reputation for being a bunch of stodgy, old country-club guys.

It’s not a model for success, not a preview of what professional golf will soon become. It’s a fun one-off, nothing more.

6. We couldn’t help but chuckle, however, when a few players complained about the abusive heckling on the 16th.

You receive worldwide notoriety, put 20,000 rowdy fans in close proximity, bake them in 85-degree temperatures, allow them to chug Coors Light and then expect them to keep their jeers light-hearted and respectful?

Come on now.

They can hire more undercover cops to throw out the most egregious offenders, but this is the monster they created. It will only get rowdier.

7. Keep in mind: Players don’t have to subject themselves to this. They’re there because they either like the course or enjoy the vibe, probably both.

Only a handful of Tour types have sponsor-related obligations there – Bubba Watson in 2016: "I’m not going to PC it. I’m here because of my sponsors" – and that’s why there is a 44-event schedule. These independent contractors can pick and choose where they want to play.

Think it’s a distraction? Tired of getting heckled? Good news! There are plenty of other options.

And that’s why it’ll be interesting to see whether Jordan Spieth returns to the desert. Two knuckleheads got him – on his downswing in the first round, and while putting on his final hole to try and make cut in the second round. He didn’t speak to reporters after missing the cut, so it’s unclear how much those two incidents affected him.

8. One quick thing: Ian Poulter is no stranger to fan abuse, or to shanks, but he should be applauded for his reaction to what happened on the 16th hole Friday.

Fortunately for Poulter, his shank came toward the end of the day, when the crowd was already starting to leave, and not at prime party time, 4 p.m. local. 

9. Can someone please explain why this event isn’t on a Wednesday-Saturday schedule? Because it makes too much sense?

Sunday is such a letdown, with “only” 64,273 fans pouring through the gates. That’s about 150,000 (!) fewer fans than Saturday. There’s no energy in the final round, with everyone seemingly more concerned about leaving early to get to their Super Bowl party.

The tournament should end on Saturday, with the biggest crowds, and so it doesn’t bump up against the Super Bowl, as it has for the past few years.

It’s an easy commute from the previous week’s event in San Diego, so the players shouldn’t mind the earlier start. For those concerned about attendance, consider there were more fans Wednesday (83,034) than Sunday, and the money made during the pro-am can be made up with some kind of charity event Sunday morning.

Stop the madness!

10. Spieth missed his first cut in 16 starts after another uncharacteristic performance on the greens.

In eight measured rounds prior to the Phoenix Open, Spieth was 193rd on Tour in strokes gained-putting. It only got worse on the perfect greens at TPC Scottsdale, where Spieth looked visibly uncomfortable over the ball and missed a whopping nine times inside 10 feet. If he converts those putts, like he usually does (and like Fowler did over the first two rounds), then he would have been tied for the lead. Instead, he was leaving early.  

Spieth didn’t speak to reporters afterward, but he explained to Tom Lehman (on-site to work as an analyst Golf Central Pre-Game) that he’s thinking too much about the technical aspects of his stroke instead of speed and line. Seven of his 10 rounds this year have been negative strokes gained-putting, and the bumpy greens at this week’s Pebble Beach National Pro-Am will pose even more of a challenge for a player who is clearly searching for consistency and confidence. 

11. We might go all year before we see another round as wild as Justin Thomas’ Saturday in Phoenix.

Six straight birdies to start. A bogey-triple-double stretch late on the back nine. An even-par 71, when it was all added up.

“Shocked. I’m speechless,” he said. “That pretty much sums it up.”

Per Golf Channel research, Thomas’ round was the first in 197 Tour rounds at TPC Scottsdale that featured eight birdies but did not finish under par. That’s hard to do. 

12. The U.S. Solheim Cup team seems committed to Inkster until she no longer wants the job.

That could be a while, because the Hall of Famer, as energetic as ever, is 2-0 as the leader of Team USA and will be a big favorite when her team heads to Gleneagles in 2019.

Her impact on the Americans has been immense, a complete and much-needed culture change, as they’re finally more interested in winning than face paint, chants and hair ribbons. That’s all Inkster.

(Read colleague Randall Mell on this, and what more she can do.)

Other women deserve the chance to captain the U.S. Solheim Cup team, whether it’s Pat Hurst or Dottie Pepper. But this job should be Inkster’s as long as she wants it. 

Well, it's good to know that at least there are limits to the debauchery at the 16th hole. This streaker was eventually arrested.

This week's award winners ... 

Big Points in Scrabble, Even Better Golfer: Shubhankar Sharma. The 21-year-old Indian prodigy shot a flawless 62 to steal the Maybank Championship, his second win in his past five starts. A lot of doors will soon open for Sharma, who just clinched his spot in the WGC-Mexico. 

Stop Using the “Misquoted” Defense: Suzann Pettersen. Her comments that President Donald Trump “cheats like hell” at golf unsurprisingly went viral, and, unsurprisingly, she defended herself by saying that the reporter took the exchange out of context and that it was “fake news” … except the reporter came out and said, unsurprisingly, that he had recorded the conversation (duh, it’s 2018!) and had proof that’s what she said and what she meant. Athletes: Just stop using that defense. It never, ever works, and it makes you look ridiculous.   

Good Sport: Henrik Stenson. Seriously, Big Stense is just the best. 

Work On Your Trophy Presentations Now: Mark Newell. A key figure in the rules modernization, Newell is the next president of the USGA, succeeding Diana Murphy.

Someone Is Asking For It: PGA Tour employee. An unnamed Tour employee decorated commissioner and rabid Patriots fan Jay Monahan’s car with Eagles balloons. Do it again Monday, and that person is definitely fired.

More of the Same: College golf. The best men’s team (Oklahoma State) and the best men’s player (USC’s Justin Suh) opened up their spring seasons with victories at the Amer Ari Invitational in Hawaii. 

How Did That Not Drop?: Robert Garrigus. Giving it a rip on the drivable par-4 17th, Garrigus’ ball climbed up onto the green, clanked off the flagstick and somehow didn’t drop for an ace. It would have been just the second hole-in-one on a par 4 in Tour history. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Hideki Matsuyama. This one hurts. After an opening 69, the two-time defending champion in Phoenix started receiving treatment on his left shoulder. He decided he couldn’t go, citing a wrist injury, and in the process he torpedoed each of the one-and-done leagues in which he was undoubtedly picked. Sigh.  

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”