Monday Scramble: Sound and fury in Phoenix

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 8, 2016, 5:00 pm

Hideki Matsuyama survives in the desert, Rickie Fowler coughs up the lead, record crowds pack a beleaguered TPC Scottsdale, Bubba Watson ticks off the locals and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

The stage, the crowd, the shots – it was the ideal platform for Fowler to validate his standing in golf’s hierarchy. The only problem was that he lost. 

Searching for his fifth worldwide title in his last 20 starts, Fowler’s trademark has been calm, cold-blooded golf under pressure. After all, that’s how he won at The Players, by playing the final six holes in 6 under. That’s how he won at the Scottish Open, by making birdie on three of the last four holes. That’s how he won at the Deutsche Bank, by passing Henrik Stenson with unwavering play down the stretch. And that’s how he won last month at Abu Dhabi, by holing a bunker shot on the 71st hole to nip a world-class field.

But Fowler wouldn't win this Phoenix Open, a stunning result, truly, because his chip-in on 10, brilliant long-iron into 15 and stuffed tee shot on the chaotic 16th set him up for another comeback victory.

Make no mistake: Fowler didn’t lose because he crumbled under the spotlight, because he made nervy swings with the title on the line. No, he lost, mostly, because of two miscalculations on the wildly entertaining 17th hole and because Matsuyama played mistake-free golf for the final 28 holes. 

But the result is still the same, and one of the most compelling storylines moving forward is whether the Phoenix Open will shake Fowler's newfound confidence.

Because for now, he concedes: “This one hurts.”  

1. The putter came alive at just the right time for Matsuyama, who birdied the last two holes to shoot 67 and then prevailed in a four-hole playoff (which he played in 1 under).

Still just 23, Matsuyama is a ball-striking machine who has all the makings of a future star. But there are two reasons for pause: (1) He swings so violently that his body is bound to break down eventually, and (2) His putting is the weakest part of his game, and that's a problem, for it prevents him from consistently challenging the likes of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. 

Superior ball-striking works on a track like TPC Scottsdale – where he was No. 1 in strokes gained-tee to green and led the field in greens hit – but many experts criticized Matsuyama's putting technique, saying that he freezes over the ball and takes long backswings for short putts and short backswings for long putts. Until that’s addressed, it’s difficult to envision him cracking golf's top tier.

2. Still, Matsuyama joined this club, the only players with multiple PGA Tour wins who are 25 or younger:

  • Jordan Spieth (22): 8 wins
  • Patrick Reed (25): 4
  • Matsuyama (23): 2

3. Nothing brings out the hindsight police like a blown lead, but you couldn’t help but question Fowler’s decisions off the tee on the short 17th, one of the best holes on Tour. 

In regulation, Fowler held a two-shot lead. He had just piped a drive 344 yards two holes earlier; now, only a driver or 3-wood would bring the water long and left into play. That alone should have been enough to put an iron in his hand – it’s the only club with which he couldn’t make 5. After consulting with caddie Joe Skovron, Fowler went with a “chip-cut driver,” but with the adrenaline flowing he pummeled his longest tee ball of the week, a shot that hit short, rocketed across the green and trickled into the pond. He couldn’t get up and down from there, leading to a two-shot swing and a tie heading to the 72nd hole.

Yes, it was an impressive tee shot that had a poor result, but the point is that he shouldn’t have even put himself in that position. Go down the right side with an iron and wedge to 15 feet. That's a par, at worst. If nothing else, he still would have a one-shot lead.

In the playoff, Fowler went with 3-wood, hit it high on the face and found the water again – the ninth time in his career he has found the drink on the 17th. He couldn’t get up and down from short of the green, either, handing the title to Matsuyama, who only needed a par.  

“That’s kind of the unfortunate part,” Fowler said, “to hit the shots that I did and to pull them off and then it kind of backfired there.” 

4. Fowler's post-round news conference was limited to three questions, after he broke down in tears while talking about wanting to win in front of his friends and family, particularly his grandpa, who had never seen him hoist a trophy in person.

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5. Bubba Watson clumsily suggested the same thing earlier, but Phil Mickelson said it best last week – the recent redesign has turned TPC Scottsdale from an “offensive course into a defensive course.” 

And that’s a shame. 

Birdie barrages don’t work every week on Tour, but after the annual slugfest that is Torrey Pines, the Phoenix Open – with its record and boozy crowds – should offer a respite for players.

The 2013 Phoenix Open, which Mickelson won at 28-under 256, was the outlier; only four other times since 2000 has the winning score been at least 20 under.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. These fans, in particular, show up for the party, for the birdies and the excitement. Save for the excellent final four holes – risk-reward holes, all of them – TPC Scottsdale has transformed into a largely unmemorable track where par is a good score. 

6. A reported 201,003 fans rolled through the gates Saturday at the Phoenix Open, setting a new attendance record for golf and ensuring that it is the greenest show on turf, non-Woodstock division.

The perfect weather helped, as did the fact that the Super Bowl wasn’t in town and partygoers didn’t have myriad options to get their fill of fun. (And, sure, maybe the volunteer attendance counters had reason to fudge the numbers a bit.)

For years, this writer scoffed at the suggestion that the Phoenix Open was bigger than the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party – the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville that annually attracts close to 200,000 fans, including this UGA alum for seven years and counting. 

That point, alas, is now moot. Outside of an auto race, the Phoenix Open's third round was the second-largest attended sporting event in U.S. history.

7. Of course, expecting all of those fans to behave is unrealistic, if not naive. The 16th is a different animal, with cheers and jeers in equal measure, but the party vibe spilled out onto other parts of the course and affected James Hahn during the third round. 

Hovering near the lead, Hahn sailed his tee shot out of bounds on the 14th hole after a fan distracted him during his downswing. 

"That was me!" the fan yelled. "Sorry 'bout that, bro!"

The mea culpa was little consolation to Hahn, who made triple bogey on the hole, shot 74 and went on to finish in a tie for 17th. Most players love the energy there or they wouldn't turn up every year, but it's definitely not for everyone, especially those who aren't playing well.

8. As the Matsuyama-Fowler playoff continued to a fourth extra hole, as it cut into the first quarter of the Super Bowl, a question arose: Why doesn’t this thing end on Saturday?

The reason, most likely, is that tournament organizers hope to sell more Sunday tickets than Wednesday passes, but it’s not as drastic a difference in fan turnout as it would seem.

Sunday’s attendance was announced at 65,330 – slightly less than Wednesday (58,702) and a whopping 135,000 less than Saturday (201,003). 

The final round is always a buzzkill, but it doesn’t have to be. End golf’s biggest party on Saturday. 

9. If there are important victories in February, this was one for Danny Willett in Dubai. 

The Englishman’s 15-footer on the final hole gave him a one-shot win over Rafael Cabrera-Bello, and it came with many perks: The win, his fourth on the European Tour since June 2012, moved Willett up to No. 13 in the Official World Golf Ranking. It solidified his spot behind Justin Rose in the Olympic rankings. And it gave him some valuable Ryder Cup points; he is now No. 3 on the European Points List, and, barring a summer slide, seems like a safe bet to land on his first team either via the points list or captain’s pick.

“They’re two massive goals of mine,” he said of the Olympics and Ryder Cup.

10. Rory McIlroy backdoored a top-10 finish at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in what was the least surprising result of the week. How he arrived there was the interesting part. 

After a strong start in Dubai, McIlroy was on the verge of missing the cut until he ran off four birdies in his last six holes. It was the first time since 2009 (!) that he finished a round, in that event, outside the top 10.

Prior to last week, he had led or co-led after 14 of his 25 career rounds there. Weekend rounds of 68-65 gave him a tie for sixth. 

"It's sort of a week of what could have been," he said.

11. The “internship” is coming to an end, and it’s safe to say Bryson DeChambeau is ready for a full-time gig.

With his tie for 18th in Dubai, the 22-year-old NCAA and U.S. Amateur champion has now made the cut in all five pro starts and finished inside the top 30 in three of them. 

DeChambeau's next (and final) start before the Masters is the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which he is playing by virtue of his U.S. Am title. It will not count against his maximum seven exemptions allowed to non-members.  

12. Brooke Henderson’s stock continues to rise, especially after she told colleague Randall Mell that she gained distance over the offseason.

The 18-year-old went to a 48-inch shaft in her driver – the legal limit – and added 10-15 yards to her drive. Through three rounds of the Coates Golf Championship, she averaged 281 yards per drive, second only to Lexi Thompson.

Throw in Henderson’s sound short game, and she may soon emerge as Lydia Ko’s top challenger for world No. 1.  

Bubba put his foot in his mouth again once last week in Phoenix, where he said before the tournament that he’s only there “because of [his] sponsors” despite a track record at TPC Scottsdale that includes runners-up each of the past two years.

Give Watson credit for his candor – he was far from the only player who expressed disappointment with the recent redesign, and his bluntness was refreshing amid a Tour landscape that sometimes seems robotic.

But, once again, Watson’s message was clouded by his delivery, which came off as gumpy, whiny, petulant and entitled. After getting endlessly ripped by fans for the first two days, he finally backtracked, saying that he actually loves the tournament and that he didn’t convey his thoughts properly. He actually did well to tie for 14th, after a closing 66.

Watson may smile, laugh and shrug off the incessant boos and expletives hurled his way, but he has also proven to be deeply sensitive when it comes to criticism (though he says he doesn't read stories about himself).

The problem, of course, is that Watson’s comments won’t just die in the desert. Fans will let him hear it for the foreseeable future, or at least until his next forehand-slapping comment. 

This week's award winners ... 

Best Reaction to a first LPGA title: Ha Na Jang. Behold the "Samurai Lasso":

Breakout Star Alert: Beau Hossler. Remember him? He led the 2012 U.S. Open as a 16-year-old, but he’s starting to come into his own on the college and amateur scene, winning twice this season for Texas and rolling to a six-shot victory Sunday at the prestigious Jones Cup. 

Uh, What was That?: Lydia Ko. Was she too busy cheering on Jang in the group behind her? During the final round, the world No. 1 went 5 over around the turn and faded from contention.

Random Thought of the Week: Does the sand at TPC Scottsdale need to be that blindingly white?

Unorthodox Putting: Lexi Thompson, Ian Poulter and Bernhard Langer. Lexi has started putting with her eyes closed, Poults resorted to a one-handed stroke during the second round in Phoenix and Langer carried two putters in his bag until just before his tee time. What did they all have in common? They didn't putt well.

Worst Call of the Week: Will Wilcox. He told daily fantasy players that his game wasn't ready to contend and that they should look elsewhere in Phoenix. Then he closed with 65 and finished T-6.

Celebration(s) of the Week: Harold Varner. Not only did he dab after a holing a long birdie putt in the opening round, but then the North Carolina native donned a Panthers jersey as he strode off the tee on Day 2. If you don't love this kid, that's a you problem. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Kevin Kisner. The Kis has been awesome everywhere of late (four consecutive top-10s!), but even that strong form wasn’t enough to turn the tide at TPC Scottsdale. In three tries now, he has a pair of missed cuts and a tie for 55th.  

Random Thought of the Week, Part 2: Seriously, no disgruntled pro flipped off the fans on 16? That's impressive.

Rose wins; Aphibarnrat earns Masters bid in Indonesia

By Will GrayDecember 17, 2017, 1:59 pm

Justin Rose continued his recent run of dominance in Indonesia, while Kiradech Aphibarnrat snagged a Masters invite with some 72nd-hole dramatics.

Rose cruised to an eight-shot victory at the Indonesian Masters, carding bookend rounds of 10-under 62 that featured a brief run at a 59 during the final round. The Englishman was the highest-ranked player in the field and he led wire-to-wire, with Thailand's Phachara Khongwatmai finishing second.

Rose closes out the year as perhaps the hottest player in the world, with top-10 finishes in each of his final 10 worldwide starts. That stretch includes three victories, as Rose also won the WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open. He hasn't finished outside the top 10 in a tournament since missing the cut at the PGA Championship.

Meanwhile, it took until the final hole of the final tournament of 2017 for Aphibarnrat to secure a return to the Masters. The Thai entered the week ranked No. 56 in the world, with the top 50 in the year-end world rankings earning invites to Augusta National. Needing an eagle on the 72nd hole, Aphibarnrat got just that to snag solo fifth place.

It means that he is projected to end the year ranked No. 49, while Japan's Yusaku Miyazato - who started the week ranked No. 58 and finished alone in fourth - is projected to finish No. 50. Aphibarnrat finished T-15 in his Masters debut in 2016, while Miyazato will make his first appearance in the spring.

The results in Indonesia mean that American Peter Uihlein and South Africa's Dylan Frittelli are projected to barely miss the year-end, top-50 cutoff. Their options for Masters qualification will include winning a full-point PGA Tour event in early 2018 or cracking the top 50 by the final March 25 cutoff.

Cabreras take 1-shot lead in Father/Son

By Associated PressDecember 16, 2017, 11:23 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. - Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera and Angel Cabrera Jr. birdied their last three holes for a 13-under 59 to take a one-shot lead Saturday in the PNC Father-Son Challenge.

Cabrera, a Masters and U.S. Open champion, is making his debut in this popular 36-hole scramble. His son said he practiced hard for 10 days. What helped put him at ease was watching his father make so many putts.

''We combined very well,'' Cabrera said. ''When I hit a bad shot, he hit a good one. That's the key.''

They had a one-shot lead over Mark O'Meara and Shaun O'Meara, who are playing for the first time. That included a birdie on the last hole, which O'Meara attributed to the strength of his son.

''My little man hit it 58 yards by me on the 18th,'' said O'Meara, the Masters and British Open champion in 1998. ''It's a little easier coming in with a 6-iron.''

Defending champions David Duval and Nick Karavites rallied over the back nine at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club for a 61. They are trying to become the first father-son team to repeat as winners since Bernhard and Stefan Langer in 2006. Larry Nelson won two years in a row in 2007 and 2008, but with different sons.

''I'd imagine we have to break 60 tomorrow to have a chance to win, but hey, stranger things have happened,'' Duval said. ''I've even done it myself.''

Duval shot 59 at the Bob Hope Classic to win in 1999 on his way to reaching No. 1 in the world that year.

Duval and his stepson were tied with Bernhard Langer and 17-year-old Jason Langer, who made two eagles on the last five holes. This Langer tandem won in 2014.

Jack Nicklaus, playing with grandson G.T., opened with a 68.

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Woods' 2018 schedule coming into focus ... or is it?

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 16, 2017, 5:46 pm

Two weeks after his successful return to competition at the Hero World Challenge, Tiger Woods’ 2018 schedule may be coming into focus.

Golfweek reported on Saturday that Woods hopes to play the Genesis Open in February according to an unidentified source with “direct knowledge of the situation.”

Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg declined to confirm the 14-time major champion would play the event and told that Woods – who underwent fusion surgery to his lower back in April – is still formulating his ’18 schedule.

Woods’ foundation is the host organization for the Genesis Open and the event supports the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif.

The Genesis Open would be Woods’ first start on the PGA Tour since he missed the cut last January at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Rose weathering delayed Indonesian Masters

By Associated PressDecember 16, 2017, 3:52 pm

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Justin Rose held a three-stroke lead after eight holes of the third round Saturday when play was suspended for the day due to bad weather at the Indonesian Masters.

Rose was 3-under on the day and led his playing partners Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Scott Vincent. The Englishman led both players by a stroke after the second round was completed Saturday morning due to weather delays on Friday.

Brandt Snedeker withdrew with apparent heat exhaustion on Friday on the 11th hole of the second round. Ranked 51st in the world, he flew to Jakarta looking to move inside the top 50 by the end of the year and ensure a spot in next year's Masters.