Monday Scramble: Thomas relentless; 59 fatigue

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2017, 5:00 pm

Justin Thomas stays hot, Justin Rose and Jordan Spieth battle in the B flight, Rory McIlroy contends (and gets hurt), Jim Furyk lands a new job and there's a 59 watch every day, nowadays, in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

These two weeks in Hawaii altered the trajectory of Thomas’ career.

Viewed at the beginning of the year as one of the game’s many talented youngsters, Thomas showed a glimpse of his best stuff at Kapalua and Waialae. 

And it was remarkable.

At the Tournament of Champions, he surged to a big lead, nearly gave it all away and then shut down the (erstwhile) hottest player in golf with a clutch shot on 17.

At the Sony, the rest of the field never had a chance. He opened with 59, broke the 36-hole scoring record, tied the 54-hole mark and made a final birdie Sunday to shoot the lowest 72-hole total (253) in Tour history. 

His peers took notice: "JT has got it rolling now," Spieth said, "and he's going to be a tough guy to stop this year."

The Hawaii swing might be a working vacation for many, but it was a career-changer for Thomas. Growing more comfortable and confident in the spotlight, he might just be getting started.

Justin Thomas

1. Are we witnessing the birth of another American superstar? We’ll have a better idea by the end of the year whether this is merely a hot streak or the beginning of something special.

But for now, chew on this: Only three players have begun a season with three wins in their first five starts. 

Johnny Miller (twice). Tiger Woods (three times). And, now, Thomas. 

2. Thomas’ play was so dominant from tee to green all week that it almost overshadowed his start. Almost.

His first-round 59 was the result of a perfect storm, with light wind, firm fairways (on an already shortish course) and receptive greens. But that doesn’t diminish his accomplishment at all. 

His round was three shots better than the next-best score (Hudson Swafford) and still 9.25 strokes better than the field average on Day 1.

At 23, Thomas was the youngest and, by far, least experienced player to join the exclusive club. Per the PGA Tour, Thomas (252) broke the sub-60 barrier in 139 fewer rounds than David Duval (391). Jim Furyk, who twice has shot in the 50s on Tour, needed 1,768 rounds.

Speaking of which ... 

3. Is golf’s magic number losing some of its luster?

It sure felt that way at the Sony Open, where each day a player assaulted defenseless Waialae and prompted the increasingly tiresome #59Watch on social media.

Length helps everywhere, of course, but in optimal conditions it wasn’t just the bombers who had a chance to crack 60 – Zach Johnson, Kevin Kisner and Chez Reavie all took aim but came up short. For the week, there was a 59, a 60, two 61s, two 62s and four 63s. 

Birdies and low numbers are fun, but when a quarter of the 60-or-better scores have occurred in the past five years, it’s clear some of the magic is gone.   

4. Rose added the Sony Open to his schedule because of the Tour’s new strength-of-schedule rule, which requires members to play at least one tournament they haven’t played in four years. It worked out just fine for the Englishman.

Debuting a new claw putting grip, Rose was solid on the greens and typically excellent off the tee in shooting 20 under, good enough to hold off Spieth for second place.

“I’m not joking when I say I won the other tournament,” Rose said. 

It was a positive start after a 2016 campaign that was memorable only for his Olympic gold medal. He managed only five top-10s while battling a nagging back injury.

5. As for Spieth, he continued to impress, even if he’s asked more about his close friend than himself of late.

A prime bounce-back candidate after an uneven 2016, Spieth now has a win and three other top-6s in his last four worldwide starts.

With his ball-striking issues sorted out – he led the Sony field in strokes gained-approach to the green – it’s Spieth’s normally reliable putter that has kept him out of serious contention. At Waialae, he ranked 53rd in putting, but he made a crucial tweak before the final round, moving the ball back in his stance and turning the right toe open. He closed with 63.  

6. Over the past nine years, few players in golf have started as quickly as McIlroy. Since 2009, he has five runners-up and eight top-5s overall – but no wins.

That didn’t change at the European Tour's South African Open, where he shook off a back injury to shoot 68 or better all four days. That was only good enough to tie Graeme Storm at 18 under par, with the 38-year-old Englishman prevailing on the third extra hole after a McIlroy bogey. 

“I wish I could have done a little more,” McIlroy said afterward, “but it’s not a bad way to start the season and it gives me something to build on in the weeks ahead.”

7. Whether McIlroy will be able to play in the coming weeks remains to be seen.

The world No. 2 tweaked his upper back before the start of the second round and required treatment each day. He is scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Monday and is uncertain for this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. The MRI is precautionary, he said, but added that he doesn’t want to jeopardize the rest of his season for short-term gain.

(Update: McIlroy has a rib injury and withdrew from Abu Dhabi)

8. How did he get hurt? McIlroy isn’t quite sure. But he does have one theory: It could be a result of muscle fatigue, after testing equipment during the offseason.

“I’ve hit a lot of drivers,” he said. “You put a lot of force on your body when you do that.” 

Last week’s South African Open was the first time that McIlroy put Callaway woods and irons, Titleist wedges and balls, and Odyssey putter in his bag. 

9. Graeme Storm: Does the name sound familiar? Three months ago, he finished one shot (and about $111) shy of keeping his European Tour card for 2017, after bogeying the final hole at the Portugal Masters: 

But a few weeks later, Patrick Reed was (temporarily) stripped of his European Tour membership when he failed to play the minimum number of events (five). That bumped Storm from No. 112 to the all-important 111th spot, giving him full status on tour this year. 

He took full advantage Sunday. 

10. We already know this about Jim Furyk, Ryder Cup captain: The man knows how to keep a secret. He was informed of the committee’s choice before the holidays but wasn’t formally announced as Captain America until last week in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

The U.S. team’s revamped structure has added more cohesion to what was a mysterious, one-and-done process, but it’s also eliminated nearly all of the suspense about future captains. Fred Couples was rumored to be in the mix for next year’s matches in Paris, but Furyk was the perfect choice for 2018. And so here’s a guess on the next few captains: Steve Stricker (2020), Zach Johnson (2022) and Phil Mickelson (2024). One wild card: the health of 41-year-old Tiger Woods, and where he would potentially slide into the rotation.

11. If there was any surprise at all, it was that Furyk would want the job. After all, last year he finished second at the U.S. Open and shot the first 58 in PGA Tour history. Had he not sat out until May because of a wrist injury, he likely would have qualified on his own. He'll be 48 in September 2018.

Furyk left open the possibility of becoming the first playing captain since 1963, but it’ll never happen. Over the past half century, the role of captain has evolved into a full-time job with a million distractions. It says something about Furyk’s competitive fire that he wouldn’t relinquish that dream, at least not yet.

Furyk certainly could play well this year, like predecessor Davis Love III in ’15 (won the Wyndham), but if history is any indication, a captain’s form dramatically declines the year of the matches.

12. Hey, you know what they always say: There’s no better way to start your year than in paradise … where the double bogeys and swing compensations are plentiful.

The Tour's Great Exuma Classic was next-level goofy. On a resort course that apparently wasn't designed for high winds, the best minor leaguers in the world got their teeth kicked in. These were the scoring averages per round, in order: 80.405, 75.758, 74.209, 74.269.

Only one player, Kyle Thompson, finished the week under par. Yeah, he earned that potential trip back to the PGA Tour.  

Greg Eason is a former top-10 college and amateur star. A few years ago, he was one of the rookies to watch on the Tour. Each fall, he’s been one step away from graduating to the big tour.

All of this to say: He is a good player. 

A good player who just happened to have a very, very bad week.

The 24-year-old Englishman wasn’t the only player who embarrassed himself during the Tour’s season opener in the Bahamas, but he was absolutely brutal. 

He shot rounds of 91-95 and finished last. By six. 

Yes, conditions were horrendous, with the wind howling up to 45 mph. The first-round scoring average was 80.4. The 36-hole cut was a record 11 over par. 

But Eason began the week with 36 golf balls … and two days later, he had only four left.

If he can shake off this humiliation and earn his Tour card this year, he’s our Comeback Player of the Year. 

This week's award winners ... 

Comeback of the Week: Kevin Kisner. He went 3 under for his last three holes Friday to make the cut on the number. In the third round, he burned the edge on a 9-footer that would have given him the second 59 of the week. He shot 60-65 on the weekend to tie for fourth.

Desperately Needs to Resume Control of his Social-Media Accounts: Dustin Johnson. Come on, man

Keep An Eye On: Phil Mickelson. He has already committed to next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, but he remains “hopeful” that he’ll be able to serve as more than just a tournament ambassador this week in Palm Springs. Lefty had two offseason surgeries to repair a sports hernia.  


Not In Kansas Anymore: Toto Gana. After losing a two-shot lead with two to play at the Latin American Amateur, the 19-year-old Chilean made a clutch up and down on the first playoff hole, then stuffed his approach to 2 feet to earn a Masters berth

Never Seen That Before: Joaquin Niemann. In a sudden-death playoff in Panama, and with a Masters invite on the line, he hit a TV cable on his follow through. The ball raced through the green, but he still made par. He lost on the second playoff hole. 

Biggest Story of the Week (ahem): Spieth and Smylie Kaufman went fishing. And their kayak capsized. With Thomas winning in a rout, well, this qualified as news.

What’s “The Zone” Look Like?: Woody Austin. Playing in the Diamond Resorts Invitational, Austin rang up 10 birdies and eagle. He thought he’d shot 60 on the par 72 until he walked off the last green and was congratulated for breaking golf’s magic number. Said Austin: “Everybody goes, ‘No, it’s a par 71.’ So, ah, cool.”

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jimmy Walker. The king of Waialae, he had two wins and two other top-15s there since 2011. Alas, you can add another missed cut, as well, after rounds of 71-67. Sigh.

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Teenager Im wins season opener

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 10:23 pm

South Korea's Sungjae Im cruised to a four-shot victory at The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic, becoming just the second teenager to win an event on the Tour.

Im started the final day of the season-opening event in a share of the lead but still with six holes left in his third round. He was one shot behind Carlos Ortiz when the final round began, but moved ahead of the former Player of the Year thanks to a 7-under 65 in rainy and windy conditions. Im's 13-under total left him four clear of Ortiz and five shots ahead of a quartet of players in third.

Still more than two months shy of his 20th birthday, Im joins Jason Day as the only two teens to win on the developmental circuit. Day was 19 years, 7 months and 26 days old when he captured the 2007 Legend Financial Group Classic.

Recent PGA Tour winners Si Woo Kim and Patrick Cantlay and former NCAA champ Aaron Wise all won their first Tour event at age 20.

Other notable finishes in the event included Max Homa (T-7), Erik Compton (T-13), Curtis Luck (T-13) and Lee McCoy (T-13). The Tour will remain in the Bahamas for another week, with opening round of The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic set to begin Sunday.

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Mickelson grouped with Z. Johnson at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 8:28 pm

He's not the highest-ranked player in this week's field, but Phil Mickelson will likely draw the biggest crowd at the CareerBuilder Challenge as he makes his first start of 2018. Here are a few early-round, marquee groupings to watch as players battle the three-course rotation in the Californian desert (all times ET):

12:10 p.m. Thursday, 11:40 a.m. Friday, 1:20 p.m. Saturday: Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson

Mickelson is making his fourth straight trip to Palm Springs, having cracked the top 25 each of the last three times. In addition to their respective amateur partners, he'll play the first three rounds alongside a fellow Masters champ in Johnson, who tied for 14th last week in Hawaii and finished third in this event in 2014.

11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Jon Rahm, Bubba Watson

At No. 3 in the world, Rahm is the highest-ranked player teeing it up this week and the Spaniard returns to an event where he finished T-34 last year in his tournament debut. He'll play the first two rounds alongside Watson, who is looking to bounce back from a difficult 2016-17 season and failed to crack the top 50 in two starts in the fall.

11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Patrick Reed, Brandt Snedeker

Reed made the first big splash of his career at this event in 2014, shooting three straight rounds of 63 en route to his maiden victory. He'll be joined by Snedeker, whose bid for a Masters bid via the top 50 of the world rankings came up short last month and who hasn't played this event since a missed cut in 2015.

1:10 p.m. Thursday, 12:40 p.m. Friday, 12:10 p.m. Saturday: Patton Kizzire, Bill Haas

Kizzire heads east after a whirlwind Sunday ended with his second win of the season in a six-hole playoff over James Hahn in Honolulu. He'll play alongside Haas, who won this event in both 2010 and 2015 to go with a runner-up finish in 2011 and remains the tournament's all-time leading money winner.

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Mackay still a caddie at heart, even with a microphone

By Doug FergusonJanuary 16, 2018, 7:34 pm

HONOLULU – All it took was one week back on the bag to remind Jim ''Bones'' Mackay what he always loved about being a caddie.

It just wasn't enough for this to be the ultimate mic drop.

Mackay traded in his TV microphone at the Sony Open for the 40-pound bag belonging to Justin Thomas.

It was his first time caddying since he split with Phil Mickelson six months ago. Mackay was only a temporary replacement at Waialae for Jimmy Johnson, a good friend and Thomas' regular caddie who has a nasty case of plantar fasciitis that will keep him in a walking boot for the next month.

''The toughest thing about not caddying is missing the competition, not having a dog in the fight,'' Mackay said before the final round. ''There's nothing more rewarding as a caddie, in general terms, when you say, 'I don't like 6-iron, I like 7,' and being right. I miss that part of it.''

The reward now?

''Not stumbling over my words,'' he said. ''And being better than I was the previous week.''

He has done remarkably well since he started his new job at the British Open last summer, except for that time he momentarily forgot his role. Parts of that famous caddie adage – ''Show up, keep up, shut up'' – apparently can apply to golf analysts on the ground.

During the early hours of the telecast, before Johnny Miller came on, Justin Leonard was in the booth.

''It's my job to report on what I see. It's not my job to ask questions,'' Mackay said. ''I forgot that for a minute.''

Leonard was part of a booth discussion on how a comfortable pairing can help players trying to win a major. That prompted Mackay to ask Leonard if he found it helpful at the 1997 British Open when he was trying to win his first major and was paired with Fred Couples in the final round at Royal Troon.

''What I didn't know is we were going to commercial in six seconds,'' Mackay said. ''I would have no way of knowing that, but I completely hung Justin out to dry. He's now got four seconds to answer my long-winded question.''

During the commercial break, the next voice Mackay heard belonged to Tommy Roy, the executive golf producer at NBC.

''Bones, don't ever do that again.''

It was Roy who recognized the value experienced caddies could bring to a telecast. That's why he invited Mackay and John Wood, the caddie for Matt Kuchar, into the control room at the 2015 Houston Open so they could see how it all worked and how uncomfortable it can be to hear directions coming through an earpiece.

Both worked as on-course reporters at Sea Island that fall.

And when Mickelson and Mackay parted ways after 25 years, Roy scooped up the longtime caddie for TV.

It's common for players to move into broadcasting. Far more unusual is for a caddie to be part of the mix. Mackay loves his new job. Mostly, he loves how it has helped elevate his profession after so many years of caddies being looked upon more unfavorably than they are now.

''I want to be a caddie that's doing TV,'' he said. ''That's what I hope to come across as. The guys think this is good for caddies. And if it's good for caddies, that makes me happy. Because I'm a caddie. I'll always be a caddie.''

Not next week at Torrey Pines, where Mickelson won three times. Not a week later in Phoenix, where Mackay lives. Both events belong to CBS.

And not the Masters.

He hasn't missed Augusta since 1994, when Mickelson broke his leg skiing that winter.

''That killed me,'' he said, ''but not nearly as much as it's going to kill me this year. I'll wake up on Thursday of the Masters and I'll be really grumpy. I'll probably avoid television at all costs until the 10th tee Sunday. And I'll watch. But it will be, within reason, the hardest day of my life.''

There are too many memories, dating to when he was in the gallery right of the 11th green in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman. He caddied for Mize for two years, and then Scott Simpson in 1992, and Mickelson the rest of the way. He was on the bag for Lefty's three green jackets.

Mackay still doesn't talk much about what led them to part ways, except to say that a player-caddie relationship runs its course.

''If you lose that positive dynamic, there's no point in continuing,'' he said. ''It can be gone in six months or a year or five years. In our case, it took 25 years.''

He says a dozen or so players called when they split up, and the phone call most intriguing was from Roy at NBC.

''I thought I'd caddie until I dropped,'' Mackay said.

He never imagined getting yardages and lining up putts for anyone except the golfer whose bag he was carrying. Now it's for an audience that measures in the millions. Mackay doesn't look at it as a second career. And he won't rule out caddying again.

''It will always be tempting,'' he said. ''I'll always consider myself a caddie. Right now, I'm very lucky and grateful to have the job I do.''

Except for that first week in April.

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The Social: The end was nigh, then it wasn't

By Jason CrookJanuary 16, 2018, 7:00 pm

The star power at the Sony Open may have been overshadowed by a missile scare, but there were plenty of other social media stories that kept the golf world on its toes this week, including some insight on Tiger Woods from a round with President Obama and some failed trick shots.

All that and more in this week's edition of The Social.

By now you've undoubtedly heard about the false alarm in Hawaii on Saturday, where just about everyone, including most Sony Open participants, woke up to an emergency cell phone alert that there was a ballistic missile heading toward the islands.

Hawaiian emergency management officials eventually admitted the original message was mistakenly sent out, but before they did, people (understandably) freaked out.

As the situation unfolded, some Tour pros took to social media to express their confusion and to let the Twittersphere know how they planned on riding out this threat:

While I would've been in that bathtub under the mattress with John Peterson, his wife, baby and in-laws (wait, how big is this tub?), here's how Justin Thomas reacted to the threat of impending doom:

Yeah, you heard that right.

“I was like ‘there’s nothing I can do,'” Thomas said. ”I sat on my couch and opened up the sliding door and watched TV and listened to music. I was like, if it’s my time, it’s my time.”

Hmmm ... can we just go ahead and award him all the 2018 majors right now? Because if Thomas is staring down death in mid-January, you gotta like the kid's chances on the back nine Sunday at Augusta and beyond.

Before the Hawaiian Missile Crisis of 2018, things were going about as well as they could at Waialae Country Club, starting with the Wednesday pro-am.

Jordan Spieth might have been the third-biggest star in his own group, after getting paired with superstar singer/songwriter/actor Nick Jonas and model/actress Kelly Rohrbach.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more photogenic group out on the course, and the "Baywatch" star has a gorgeous swing as well, which makes sense, considering she was a former collegiate golfer at Georgetown.

As impressive as that group was, they were somehow outshined by an amateur in another group, former NFL coach June Jones.

Jones, who now coaches the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, played his round in bare feet and putted with his 5-iron, a remedy he came up with to battle the yips.

Former NFL and current CFL coach June Jones: A master of 5-iron putting?

A post shared by PGA TOUR (@pgatour) on

Considering he made back-to-back birdies at one point during the day, it's safe to say he's won that battle.

With Tiger Woods' return to the PGA Tour about a week away, that sound you hear is the hype train motoring full speed down the tracks.

First, his ex-girlfriend Lindsey Vonn told Sports Illustrated that she hopes this comeback works out for him.

“I loved him and we’re still friends. Sometimes, I wish he would have listened to me a little more, but he’s very stubborn and he likes to go his own way," the Olympic skiier said. "I hope this latest comeback sticks. I hope he goes back to winning tournaments.”

Vonn also mentioned she thinks Woods is very stubborn and that he didn't listen to her enough. That really shouldn't shock anyone who watched him win the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg. Don't think there were a lot of people in his ear telling him that was a great idea at the time.

We also have this report from Golf Channel Insider Tim Rosaforte, stating that the 14-time major champ recently played a round with former president Barack Obama at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., where he received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon.

The Farmers Insurance Open is sure to be must-see TV, but until then, I'm here for all of the rampant speculation and guesses as to how things will go. The more takes the better. Make them extra spicy, please and thanks.

These poor New Orleans Saints fans. Guess the only thing you can do is throw your 65-inch TV off the balcony and get 'em next year.

Here's two more just for good measure.

Farts ... will they ever not be funny?

Perhaps someday, but that day was not early last week, when Tommy Fleetwood let one rip on his European teammates during EurAsia Cup team photos.

Fleetwood went 3-0-0 in the event, helping Europe to a victory over Asia, perhaps by distracting his opponents with the aid of his secret weapon.

Also, how about the diabolical question, "Did you get that?"

Yeah Tommy, we all got that.

Ahhh ... golf trick shot videos. You were fun while you lasted.

But now we’ve officially come to the point in their existence where an unsuccessful attempt is much more entertaining than a properly executed shot, and right on cue, a couple of pros delivered some epic fails.

We start with Sony Open runner-up James Hahn’s preparation for the event, where for some reason he thought he needed to practice a running, jumping, Happy Gilmore-esque shot from the lip of a bunker. It didn’t exactly work out.

Not to be outdone, Ladies European Tour pro Carly Booth attempted the juggling-drive-it-out-of-midair shot made famous by the Bryan Bros, and from the looks of things she might have caught it a little close to the hosel.

PSA to trick-shot artists everywhere: For the sake of the viewing public, if you feel a miss coming on, please make sure the camera is rolling.

Seriously, though, who cares? Definitely not these guys and gals, who took the time to comment, "who cares?" They definitely do not care.