Monday Scramble: Spieth more machine than man

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 11, 2016, 5:00 pm

Jordan Spieth steamrolls another elite field, Brooks Koepka shrugs off any equipment concerns, Patrick Reed stays hot to open the year, Justin Thomas chooses a Ryder Cup victory and more in this week’s sun-kissed edition of Monday Scramble:

Spieth sent a clear message with his spectacular play at Kapalua: This run is far from finished. 

That’s what he suggested before the tournament even began, that an encore means that the show is over. And that’s what he reminded everyone after his runaway victory in paradise, that he took a three-week break during the holidays and the only thing that's changed is the date on the calendar.

It sure looked like it too, because for four days Spieth played the same kind of smart, demoralizing, near-flawless golf that has become his trademark.

The only drama Sunday was whether Spieth would match Ernie Els’ record total. Spieth came up one shot short, but he still became just the second player in Tour history to finish a 72-hole event at 30 under or lower. 

Indeed, a kid who has smashed expectations ever since he landed on Tour surprised even himself with the way that he started the new year – really, it couldn’t have been much better.

Now there's a scary thought: Maybe his best is yet to come. 

1. In recent years, it felt like the new season truly started at Torrey Pines, PGA National or Doral – wherever all of the game’s biggest stars convened for the first time.

Thanks to Spieth, there’s a buzz in early January that has been lacking for the past decade.

The addition of Spieth, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler to the Tournament of Champions field – along with three other top-10 players – gave the Tour its strongest lid-lifter since 2005, the last time Tiger Woods played on Maui. 

By blowing away the winners-only field in the first event of '16, Spieth provided a spark to a sleepy event and set the tone for the run-up to Augusta.

2. With an 8-foot birdie on the last, Spieth became only the second player to finish a 72-hole PGA Tour event at 30 under par or lower. He showed he could win a shootout, too. 

When Ernie Els shot a record 31 under at Kapalua in 2003, he was one of 11 players that week to eclipse the 20-under mark. He won by eight.

Spieth was one of five players who went 20 under or better during a week when the wind wasn't much of a factor.

The updated list for the lowest score in relation to par in a 72-hole PGA Tour event:

  • Ernie Els, 31 under, 2003 Hyundai
  • Jordan Spieth, 30 under, 2016 Hyundai
  • Patrick Reed, 28 under, 2014 CareerBuilder
  • Phil Mickelson, 28 under, 2013 Phoenix
  • Phil Mickelson, 28 under, 2006 AT&T
  • Mark Calcavecchia, 28 under, 2001 Phoenix
  • John Huston, 28 under, 1998 Sony 

3. You may have read that with his seventh victory, Spieth tied Tiger Woods for the most PGA Tour wins before the age of 23. 

But look at the Tour landscape – these days, age is just a number.

A better comparison is this: Kapalua was Spieth’s 77th start as a pro. Woods won 18 times in his first 77 events.  

Advantage: Woods ... for now. 

4. He probably won’t slam the door every time, of course, but it’s clear that Spieth has learned out how to close out victories.

After blowing his first four opportunities with at least a share of the 54-hole lead, he has nailed down his last five opportunities. 

What makes him so tough to catch? He has such a great short game, and such a solid game plan, that he forces his opponents to take unnecessary risks to try and catch up.

Think about it: Spieth is rarely in trouble, and he isn’t going to beat himself and make mistakes. That puts pressure on his pursuers to play near-perfect golf, and oftentimes they’ll come up short.   

5. Spieth said his putting “feels like it is 100 percent ready for major championships.”

No kidding – he was dropping bombs just like it was a major. 

Spieth poured in four putts longer than 25 feet at Kapalua on his way to finishing first in the strokes gained-putting statistic. 

He was also No. 1 in putting average. And strokes gained-tee to green. And par-4 and par-5 scoring. And the most birdies and eagles made. Decent week.

6. These days, it doesn’t matter whether Reed is in Hong Kong, Dubai, the Bahamas or Hawaii. 

His game travels well. 

The runner-up at Kapalua was Reed’s seventh consecutive top-10 finish worldwide, dating to late October. 

7. But this should help put into perspective how well Spieth played last week: Reed didn’t record a bogey until his 69th hole of the tournament … and yet he still trailed by six shots at the time. 

Reed had a chance to make the finale interesting, but his putter let him down. After back-to-birdie birdies to open his round, he didn’t make a putt longer than 5 feet the rest of the way. For the week, he missed nine times inside 10 feet.

8. Players who change equipment at the start of the year often are under more scrutiny, and so it was refreshing to see new Nike client Brooks Koepka contend for, well, B-flight honors at Kapalua. 

He ran out of birdies Sunday with a final-round 71, but his 21-under 271 was good enough for a tie for third. For the week, Koepka finished inside the top 6 statistically in driving distance, greens hit and putting – a promising sign moving forward. 

Other high-profile players who swapped sticks didn’t fare quite as well. 

Reigning Open champion Zach Johnson, Chris Kirk and James Hahn – all of whom transitioned to PXG, the new company started by the former founder – struggled during the opening week, finishing T-21, T-24 and T-31 (tied for last), respectively. 

9. There was more chatter last week about Rickie Fowler’s fashion than his play (solo fifth), which means we’ve temporarily returned to 2011. Golf’s most fashion-forward star tends to favor “progressive apparel,” which helps explain why he arrived at Kapalua with high-top golf shoes and jogging pants.

To be sure, reviews of his new look were mixed. 

Any look that can make golf seem less stodgy is welcome here – #GrowTheGame – but that doesn’t mean Fowler’s was a hit. The combination of high-top shoe, Velcro strap and tapered pant bottoms made him look like an ’80s pop star, or perhaps on house arrest. 

Personally, I’m a huge proponent of moving away from the traditional golf shoe – Keegan Bradley has sported Jordans for years, and Koepka’s Flyknit Chukkas looked sweet – but for the final verdict on all of the latest and greatest trends from Kapalua, we’ll have to wait until E!’s Fashion Police weighs in.

10. It was a quiet opener for Jason Day, which wasn’t all that surprising considering he played only four holes – during a corporate team event – over the past two months. From a competitive standpoint, he should have been rusty at Kapalua, and indeed he was. He tied for 10th, thanks in large part to a closing 65.

Instead, what registered as the biggest surprise was his admission in a pre-tournament news conference that he suffered another setback with vertigo Saturday at the St. Andrews Open. He said he didn’t disclose his illness at the time because “it wasn’t as severe” and because it would only have prompted more questions.

Day insisted that he’s been fine ever since, and that he’s been able to stay on top of the condition with medication, but it’s an issue that he can never fully control. “It will come back whenever it wants to,” he said. It’s something to monitor as 2016 progresses. 

11. Thomas found himself in the middle of the silliest social-media controversy ever last week when he answered a fun hypothetical: In 2016, would you rather win a major or a Ryder Cup?

The 22-year-old Thomas, who has his entire career ahead of him, chose a victory at Hazeltine, “hands down,” and yet somehow this answer – remember: to a hypothetical was spun as proof that he doesn’t want to take his career to the next level.

Uh, I’m fairly certain Thomas will give his all whether he’s trying to win his first major or playing on his first Ryder Cup team. It’s an interesting response, but only because it shows the camaraderie of these young players and how desperately they want to win together, nothing more.

12. The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am is relevant once again, after drawing seven of the top-10 players in the world. As the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out last week, only five years ago, the event drew just three of the top 20. 

What gives? 

The power of the celebrities is likely the biggest factor. Spieth wants to play with country singer Jake Owen. Bubba Watson wants to play with actor Mark Wahlberg. Dustin Johnson wants to play with his famous soon-to-be father-in-law, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. 

As tournament director Steve John told the Chronicle: “It’s kind of turned into a buddy tournament.” 

Throw in a smaller amateur field, shorter rounds and picturesque venues, and the Crosby Clambake is once again a must-play for many of the game’s biggest names. That’s a win-win for players, amateurs and winter-weary fans.  

13. Strange but true: Matt Every, who earned his spot in the field by defending his title at Bay Hill, finished 28th at Kapalua. That was his best result since April.  

John Peterson underwent surgery last week on his left hand, an injury that has affected the 26-year-old since March. It’s unclear how long he’ll be out, but it could be a while, which means that he’ll have plenty of time for social media.

Lucky us.

Here was Peterson's post before he headed into surgery: 

And after the successful procedure, whoever was running his social-media account that day posted nine videos as Peterson woke up from the anesthesia. It was epic.

This week’s award winners … 

Quote of the Week: Spieth, when asked what he would do for an encore: “Doesn’t an encore mean that the show is over?”

No Longer a Football School: The University of Texas. Former Longhorns teammates (for about three months, in fall 2012) Spieth and Brandon Stone won on the same day on the two best golf circuits in the world about 12,000 miles apart. After Spieth turned pro, Stone went on to win National Freshman of the Year honors. On Sunday, he won the South African Open for his first European Tour title.

Awkward Moment of the Week: CBS Sports on-course reporter (and longtime Titleist staffer) Peter Kostis weighing in on some of the players who changed equipment companies in the offseason. This could make for a few awkward post-round interviews.

Ideal Replacement Caddie: Joey Diovisalvi. Seriously, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better fill-in looper for Kapalua’s calf-burning climbs than the jacked Jupiter-area trainer.   

Ridiculous Stat of the Week: Spieth has been first or second on the leaderboard after all of his eight career rounds at Kapalua’s Plantation Course. 

Sad Confessions: Luke Donald, who told the Telegraph that he nearly quit the game because of his recent slide from world No. 1. Recently sacked by his caddie, winless since 2012 and down to 78th in the world, Donald still owns one of the world’s best short games but that alone is no longer enough to contend on today’s Tour. As 2016 begins, he is an afterthought for the European Ryder Cup team. 

Least Unexpected News of the Week: Padraig Harrington used a cryotherapy tub, set at minus-140 degrees for six minutes, as part of his rehabilitation from a torn meniscus in his knee. The notorious tinkerer explained that cryo (naturally) boosts testosterone levels and makes it easier to recover from injuries. He also doesn’t like ice baths. “I find the cold air quite easy on me,” he said.

Random Thought of the Week: Butch Harmon should get as much airtime as possible. Did anyone else catch the GOAT during Friday’s telecast? When he speaks, you listen. His résumé speaks for itself. He offers tremendous insight. He’s a great storyteller. He understands how TV works, after commentating for Sky Sports for the better part of the past decade. Selfishly, I wish he had a permanent spot in the booth at a major U.S. network.

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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.

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McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

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

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.