Monday Scramble: Fast, but not-so furious

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 9, 2017, 5:00 pm

Justin Thomas takes another step, Tiger Woods fills out his early schedule, Jay Monahan begins Year 1, Jason Day isn't worried about pace of play and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

Fair or not, Thomas has spent the past few years obscured by Jordan Spieth’s considerable shadow. The same age, they were fierce junior and college rivals. They’re frequent practice-round partners. You might have even seen that they once vacationed together.

That can’t be an easy spot, being an enormously talented youngster who is constantly playing second fiddle to a good friend who is more famous and, for now, more accomplished.

Thomas doesn’t yet have the résumé to match Spieth – Kapalua was his third Tour title; Spieth has eight – but his own star is beginning to rise. He has a fun personality and is active on social media. He’s expressive on the course. And he’s a world-class talent, with his awesome power and stratospheric iron shots. It helps, too, that there is a chip on his shoulder.

“It drove me a lot,” Thomas said of his peers’ success. “I wasn’t mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating seeing some friends and peers my age do well. Not because I wasn’t cheering for them, but because I feel like I was as good as them.”  

His title defense in Malaysia last fall helped Thomas feel like he belonged. And now he has two titles in the first four starts of the season and is the 12th-ranked player in the world.

Leave it to Spieth – with whom Thomas has been inextricably linked – to sum up what we all saw in paradise: 

“I think it’s potentially floodgates opening.” 

1. Yes, Thomas made a few mistakes down the stretch. A poor tee shot on 9. A poor wedge on 10. A poor approach on 15. But on the verge of frittering away a five-shot lead, he summoned one of the best shots of his young career: a 226-yard missile from a slope so severe that he walked after the shot, a la Gary Player. 

His 8-iron shot on 17 nestled within 3 feet of the cup, and the easy birdie gave him a three-shot cushion heading to the last.

“It was definitely the best shot I hit this week,” he said. 

2. If there’s one area of Thomas’ game that needed improvement, it was his driving accuracy. Finding the fairway isn’t as important when you’re blasting 350-yard drives, but Thomas quickly learned that some of his big foul balls were costing him. 

Each of the past two years, he’s been ranked outside the top 135 in driving accuracy. Last year, he was ranked No. 97 in strokes gained-off the tee. 

What Thomas showed at Kapalua was not just an ability to pound driver mind-boggling distances; he also displayed something of an off-speed pitch, where he choked down, dialed back and shaped a cut into the fairway. He led the field in 400-yard drives, with two, but he also finished third in strokes gained-off the tee.

Driver is the greatest weapon for the game’s top players – reigning Player of the Year Dustin Johnson was No. 1 in driving last season – so it’ll be interesting to see if Thomas can continue this trend with fairways that aren’t as wide as Kapalua’s.  

3. Only one player has beaten Hideki Matsuyama over the past three months: Justin Thomas. 

Matsuyama is 402-0 against every other player since mid-October. 

4. The Japanese star trailed by two shots entering the final round, dropped five back at one point but still had a chance to pull even on the par-5 15th.

He had missed only four times inside 10 feet during the first three rounds, but here he failed to convert a 10-footer. On the next hole, and with another chance to tie, he left his 10-footer a few rolls short. 

As great as he’s been of late, his putter let him down Sunday. Overall, he lost more than two shots to the field on the greens in the final round. 

5. Spieth didn’t win the Tournament of Champions in a rout, and that’s probably a good thing. 

Last year, after one of the most remarkable major runs in recent memory, Spieth shot 30 under par at Kapalua and blew away the field. The victory served only to inflate what were already insanely high expectations.

There isn’t nearly as much anticipation this year surrounding Spieth – all eyes, for the time being, are on DJ’s follow-up and Rory McIlroy’s bounce back – so he is in a prime position to rebound.  

“I was happy when the ball touched down and 2017 started,” he said. 

All Spieth did at Kapalua was lead the field in birdies (26) and close with a flawless 65. (Alas, he also made five bogeys, two doubles and a triple during the week.) It still added up to a backdoor top-3 finish – and a lot of momentum as he heads to the Sony Open at Waialae, another course that should fit his game.

6. Wrote more about it here, but we’ll have a much better idea of where Woods is headed on Feb. 26. By that point, he’ll have completed (hopefully) four events in five weeks, an ambitious early-season schedule that will include stops in San Diego, Dubai, Los Angeles and West Palm Beach. 

Woods hadn’t competed in 466 days before his appearance last month at the Hero World Challenge. So was it a surprise that he’d craft such a hectic start to his year? Maybe a little. But it suggests two things: 1.) he's healthy, and 2.) he's determined to fight his way back to relevancy. 

7. Dramatic changes could be coming to the PGA Tour schedule. It seems increasingly likely that, beginning as early as 2019, The Players will return to a March date, the PGA will move from August to May, and the playoffs (which likely will shrink from four events to three) will wrap up on Labor Day weekend, before football takes over the sporting calendar. 

This seems like a no-brainer for the Tour – it’d be one huge event each month from March until July, with the postseason during sports-light August – but new commissioner Monahan cautioned that no decisions have been made.

One issue: How the proposed plan would benefit the PGA of America, which would lose its billing as the year's final major and, potentially, some traditional northern venues for agronomical reasons.

8. New commissioner, but the same ol' policy regarding the disclosure of player fines and suspensions. Monahan made clear last week that, like his predecessor, he has no desire to publicly reveal which players have run afoul of the Tour’s regulations. 

“I think our system works,” he said. “I know there is a desire to know everything that’s happened, but our job is we’re family, and if there’s an issue in your family, you deal with it.”

It’s just that every other major sporting league (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, etc.) deals with it differently than the Tour. They understand what Camp Ponte Vedra still does not fully grasp – that public humiliation is a strong deterrent, and that fans, sponsors and media appreciate full transparency. 

Day must have known this wouldn’t go over well, his plans to slow down his play this year.

Already a deliberate player, Day is essentially challenging the new Tour regime to do something about slow play.

“I’ve got to get back to what makes me good,” he said. “If that means I have to back off five times, then I’m going to back off five times before I have to actually hit the shot.” 

The world No. 1 was right about one thing here: There’s a massive difference between recreational and professional golf.

A casual round at your local country club should not take five hours; but at least it’s more acceptable for those competing for a major, or a $1 million paycheck, to play a course with fast greens and thick rough in five hours. (And besides, slow play doesn’t affect the fans at home anyway – TV coverage windows are the exact same, and the producer can cut to players when they’re ready to hit.)

Should a professional golfer be able to make up his mind and hit a shot in 40 seconds? Yes. Of course. But until the Tour decides to end a 22-year drought and crack down on slow play – with, and only with, a one-stroke penalty – then Day and others will be able to dawdle all they want.  

This week's award winners ... 

Welcome to 2017: players. Last year ended with a hurricane. The new year practically started with one, as the seaside course in the Bahamas was pounded with 45-mph gusts in the first round. (A course that isn’t built for wind? In the Bahamas? Oops.) It was carnage – when the first round was suspended because of darkness, 46 players had signed for 80 or worse, with three scores in the 90s.  

2016 is Definitely Over: Davis Love III. Last year was undoubtedly a great year for DL3, who captained a slump-busting Ryder Cup victory and received the call that he’d soon be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But 2017 is already off to a rocky start: Last week, he broke his collarbone while snowboarding and will miss the next three months. 

Random Thought of the Week: Does a colored golf ball really make the game “more fun”?

Maybe Not a Lock for 2020 after all: McIlroy. Seems it wasn’t just Zika that kept the world No. 2 out of the Olympics. The Northern Irishman revealed that he also would have felt “uncomfortable” at the Games having to represent Ireland or Great Britain, knowing that he doesn’t “feel a connection to either flag.” He added that he “resents” the Olympics for forcing him to choose, since Northern Ireland does not field a separate team.  

A Not-So-Hot Take: Monahan. Smart move by the Commish, pumping up the game’s biggest star just a week into his new job: “Just so we’re clear, when he’s 75 years old, I’m going to still think he can win on the Tour.” That, of course, would be a record. 

Wedding Bells: Sergio Garcia. Congrats on the upcoming nuptials. If history is any indication, a happy Spaniard usually has good on-course results.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Bubba Watson. Talk about a rough week in paradise. He was dead last in putting (losing more than six shots to the field on the greens) and below average in both approach shots and scrambling. The only thing that saved him on the par-73 layout was his nuclear driver, because he didn’t break 71 and finished in a tie for 25th. Sigh. 

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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, four 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.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation.