Monday Scramble: Big wins, big weeks in the deserts

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 25, 2016, 5:00 pm

Rickie Fowler steals the show (again), Jordan Spieth looks gassed, Jason Dufner escapes from a rocky patch, pros flash a little skin and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

The week began with the prospect of a Jordan vs. Rory showdown in the desert. It ended with the other member of the star-studded three-ball reminding observers that the future likely includes plenty of high-tops and joggers.

Rickie Fowler himself may insist that he doesn’t belong in the same tier as Spieth, McIlroy and Jason Day because he lacks one of golf’s defining titles – a major – but he proved once again on Sunday that he at least deserves to be in the conversation. Consider the quality of his four wins since May: The Players, arguably the strongest field in golf; the Scottish Open, which attracted a deep, pre-major field; the Deutsche Bank Championship, the second leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs; and now the Abu Dhabi Championship, with four of the top six in the world in attendance.

Top-tier events, all of them. 

Fowler says that he believes he can go “head-to-head and toe-to-go” with those guys, and why shouldn’t he? He has done it, repeatedly.

Big 4 or not, his latest victory shows that he’s just like Spieth, Day and McIlroy – capable of beating the world’s best every time he tees it up. 

1. Golf has a statistic for just about everything – left rough tendency, proximity to the hole from 250-275 yards, sand save percentage from 30-plus yards, three-putt avoidance from 25 feet.

What’s not so easy to calculate is a player’s clutchness.

There is no data point to back up this claim, but this generation of stars seems to deliver more often in the critical moments, whether it’s Spieth getting up-and-down from long and right of the 18th green at the Masters, or Day canning a 25-footer on the last in Canada, or McIlroy rallying from two late deficits to win the Match Play. They aren’t overwhelmed by the moment, and they aren’t afraid of failing. If anything, they crave that spotlight and pressure.

After a few years of underachieving, Fowler has acquired that same set of closing skills. He went 6 under for his last six at The Players, then added two more birdies in the playoff. He birdied three of his last four at the Scottish Open. And he chipped in on the 71st hole to carry a two-shot lead to the par-5 finishing hole in Abu Dhabi.

All of his victories, even dating to his 2012 Quail Hollow title, feature some late dramatics. Down the stretch, he plays freely and without fear.

It's what makes this collection of stars so exciting: their sense of the moment, their ability to summon a bit of magic when it matters most.

2. The players with the most worldwide wins since Feb. 1 of last year:

  • Jordan Spieth: 6
  • Jason Day: 5
  • Rickie Fowler: 4
  • Rory McIlroy: 4

3. Yet all anyone wants to point out is that Fowler hasn't won a major. (And that won't change for another 2 1/2 months, if not longer.) Keep in mind that he hasn't exactly flamed out in golf's biggest events. In fact, in his last 11 major starts, he has six top-12 finishes. 

4. What could have been a statement victory instead became just another high finish for McIlroy in Abu Dhabi.

That’s now SEVEN top-five finishes (with no wins) in the desert, where he has begun each year since 2008. “It seems like this could be the tournament that I just can’t quite master,” he said. 

A long eagle on the last gave him a share of third place, but it wasn’t enough to cut into his deficit in the world rankings. He is still No. 3, behind Spieth and Day. 

5. Spieth looked exhausted in Abu Dhabi, and he likely won’t be any more refreshed this week for his spot start at the Asian Tour’s Singapore Open.

Even Spieth conceded that he is “kind of beat up mentally” after visiting South Korea, Shanghai, Australia, the Bahamas, Hawaii and Abu Dhabi since October. He said he plans to reevaluate his schedule moving forward and won’t bounce around the globe as much as he did these past few months.

Always ahead of the curve, it seems he has already learned an important lesson about international travel, at age 22.

To his credit, Spieth easily could have mailed it in during what was clearly an off week in Abu Dhabi. He wasn't sharp, but he still shot a pair of weekend 68s (and went 4 under for his last seven on Sunday) to sneak into a share of fifth. 

But Spieth’s schedule is something to monitor in what figures to be a hectic year for the top pros. He plays a lot of golf. Always has. After Singapore, he will tee it up at Pebble, Riviera, Doral and Innisbrook, with the Match Play and Houston Open likely on his schedule, as well. If he's fatigued now, in mid-January, it's reasonable to wonder what shape he'll be in during the summer.

6. After a forgettable two years both on and off the course, Dufner reemerged in a big way with his playoff victory at the CareerBuilder Challenge, the fourth of his PGA Tour career and first since the 2013 PGA. 

Since then, he has struggled with his putting, battled a neck injury and gone through a public divorce. He didn't speak to the media for the rest of the 2015 season, but Dufner told the Tour's website recently that he plans to play a lot this year, because he’s healthy, because it’s a Ryder Cup year, and because, well ... 

“I don’t have anything else to do,” he said.

Entering his age-39 season, he proved he isn’t done winning just yet. 

7. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without a few incredible saves.

First, the ridiculous up-and-down from the rocks on the Stadium Course's 17th hole, where his chip shot from the hard pan clanked off the flagstick. 

“It was probably like one-in-50 million that the ball ends up there,” he said afterward. “But I’ll take it. Some guy won the Powerball a couple weeks ago. He’ll take it, right?”

And then, after a wayward drive forced him to lay up on the first hole of sudden death, he rammed home a 10-footer for par to extend the playoff, which he won on the second extra hole over David Lingmerth.

It was vintage Duf … which is to say utterly emotionless. 

8. Clearly, it’s been a productive few months for Phil Mickelson. 

Out of sorts the last time he played a PGA Tour event, Mickelson showed plenty of promise in his 2016 debut in Palm Springs. Though his swing changes under new coach Andrew Getson aren’t noticeable to the naked eye, Lefty says he is more on plane and able to control the clubface.

It sure looked like it too, because while playing in ideal conditions, Mickelson avoided the wild misses with the driver, ranked second in strokes gained-tee to green and holed out a career-best four times en route to his T-3 finish.

"This is a really good week for me," he said, "for validation that I'm on the right track and that it's continuing to get better as I go along."

The CareerBuilder was his first of four events in a row.

9. Traditionally a slow starter, Henrik Stenson’s early-season prospects improved following a T-3 finish just six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. It’s his best start to a new year since 2008 (T-2, Abu Dhabi).

Despite some lingering soreness, Stenson reported no pain in his right knee but will sit out this week’s event in Qatar as a precaution. He said he wants to be as close to 100 percent as possible for Dubai in 10 days.

10. Spieth became the first victim of the European Tour’s new pace-of-play policy.

After being deemed to take too long to hit a putt on his 17th hole in the first round, Spieth was slapped with a “monitoring penalty,” or a bad time. Two monitoring penalties result in a $2,800 fine. 

The fine isn’t so much the concern here; after all, Spieth banked more than $52 million last year, according to a recent Golf Digest story. The bigger takeaways are that (1) the European Tour didn't shy away from singling out one of the game's biggest stars, and (2) it understands the power of a little public shaming.

Peer pressure and public opinion are powerful motivators. Why do you think NFL, MLB and NBA disclose suspensions and fines?

If no major tour will hit these players where it really hurts – the scorecard – then calling out the slowpokes will at least keep things interesting.

11. He disappeared from the leaderboard as quickly as he appeared, which made the Abu Dhabi Championship another learning experience for decorated amateur Bryson DeChambeau.

The fascination of the European media, the self-proclaimed “golfing scientist” had the first-round lead after a 64 and played well enough on Day 2 to earn a tee time with Rory McIlroy and Andy Sullivan in the final group. DeChambeau’s third-round 78 – which included a back-nine 41 – sent him crashing out of contention, and he ultimately finished in a tie for 54th, 14 shots back.

An amateur in name only, DeChambeau is now a full-time golfer after leaving SMU to pursue opportunities in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai in advance of the Masters. He describes him as an “intern," and in that sense, he received plenty of real-life experience last week, competing (and, for a while, contending) on a new course in a new country in a new position, the last group out on a weekend round. It won’t be his last. 

For once, the biggest fashion statement of the week wasn’t made by Fowler.

The European Tour approved a policy last week that will allow shorts to be worn during tournament practice rounds and pro-am days. This makes a lot of sense, not least because it can be hot in certain parts of the world and because, oh yeah, it’s practice

Let's be clear: This bare-legged step toward the 21st century won’t suddenly spark participation across the board. But if the top players want a more relaxed look during their pre-tournament prep, what's the big deal? 

Naturally, there has been some handwringing from fans who suggested that there should be a clear divide between the best players in the world and weekend warriors. Um, just look at the difference in their physique, golf bag, swing, entourage, significant other and quality of shots. It's not hard to tell. 

Just don’t expect to see players in Bermuda shorts anytime soon on the PGA Tour. Above all, Camp Ponte Vedra values class, professionalism and image. That means plenty of ill-fitting khakis, even in the sweltering Memphis humidity. Which could only lead to more of this.

This and that from the past week ... 

How studly was David Lingmerth’s 127 (62-65) weekend? It was three shots better than the next-best score (Kevin Na, 130). Johnny Miller isn't the only one who believes this Swede has a major in his future.

Patrick Reed, one of the most popular picks to win in the desert, tied for 56th at the CareerBuilder. That snapped a streak of seven consecutive top-10s worldwide. 

Was Spieth made a scapegoat for his slow play in Round 1 in Abu Dhabi? While yes, technically, he violated the new policy, which states that a player must hit his shot in less than 40 seconds if his group is deemed out of position, it's worth noting that only two other players received monitoring penalties last week, according to Golf Channel colleague Rex Hoggard, and neither was in contention. Interesting.

The quote(s) of the week belonged to Ken Brown of the Golf Channel broadcast team, who riffed after an errant Jordan Spieth drive plunked a spectator on the backside: “Dear, oh dear. That was nearly a plugged lie.”

With his tie for sixth in Palm Springs, Jamie Lovemark now has three consecutive top-10s. That’s two more than he had in his previous 56 events on Tour. 

World No. 7 Justin Rose makes his 2016 debut this week at Torrey Pines, but keep expectations in check: He doesn't have a top-20 finish in six previous tries there.

Though he still lacks the week-to-week consistency of the game’s elite, Thomas Pieters has shown some big-game chops and now is inching his way toward serious Ryder Cup consideration. With two wins last fall and a runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi, he is now ranked 58th in the world and would be a more inspired choice than some of the European team's old warhorses.   

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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.