Monday Scramble: Peaks and valleys

By Ryan LavnerJuly 10, 2017, 3:00 pm

Jon Rahm soars to win No. 2, another rules controversy emerges, Xander Schauffele comes up clutch, the anchoring ban returns to the spotlight and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

And here we thought Rahm’s biggest statement of the week was dusting world No. 4 and tournament host Rory McIlroy by 13 shots over two days.

Not even close.

Displaying all of the tools in his considerable skill set, and showing decidedly more patience on the course, Rahm lapped a good field at the Irish Open en route to his second pro title.

Some observers were ready to give up on the 22-year-old after his petulant display over the past month, but his tour de force at Portstewart was a reminder that Rahm has generational talent – and even more room to grow.

Rahm is thrilling to watch – capable of meltdowns, sure, but even more likely to produce stunning golf that will, someday soon, challenge Dustin Johnson for the No. 1 world ranking.

1. All year Rahm has been building toward a performance like we saw at Portstewart.

There was the back-nine 30 at Torrey Pines to steal his first PGA Tour title in January. Since then, he posted seven other top-10s, took DJ to the final hole at the Match Play, contended at another WGC event and the Masters, and now stormed to victory at the $7 million Irish Open. You have to look long and hard to find a weakness in this kid’s physical game. He has power and accuracy. He hits nuclear, sky-high irons. And he has incredible imagination around the greens and a rock-solid putting stroke.

At 22, his only concern is on-course maturity, and how he handles adversity. Fortunately for him, he hasn’t encountered much in the past 13 months. 

2. Rahm’s 24-under 264 total was a tournament record and the lowest 72-hole score this season on the European Tour. And that was with two careless bogeys in his last three holes. 

3. While sound in theory, the new reasonable judgment standard failed its first big test Sunday at the Irish Open.

In April, the USGA and R&A announced that they were implementing two new decisions to the Rules of Golf that would rely less on video replay and more on a player’s integrity. On the sixth hole, replays appeared to show that Rahm marked and replaced his 1-foot putt from a slightly different location.

The new rule states that a player won’t be assessed a penalty “if it is determined that the player did all that can be reasonably expected under the circumstances to make an accurate estimation of measurement … even if later shown to be wrong by other means (such as video technology).”

And so Rahm wasn’t penalized, keeping his lead at five shots, not three.

“Do I think he’s got the ball back in exactly the right place?” said Andy McFee, chief referre for the European Tour. “No, but we’re talking about maybe a couple of millimeters here or there. Has the player made a reasonable judgment? I believe he has.”

Except now every player and fan watching the coverage now knows that Rahm made a careless mistake and wasn’t penalized for it. A cloud was cast over his victory, and that's a shame.

It's why this rule is grossly unfair for the players – officials might clear the player of any wrongdoing, but obvious infractions can overshadow a result. 

4. The Irish Open not only was one of the Rolex Series events, which will figure largely into the season-ending Race to Dubai, but it also offered three spots to next week’s Open.

Grabbing those invitations were Richie Ramsay, who went 67-65 on the weekend; David Drysdale, who posted a 10-shot improvement with a Sunday 63; and New Zealander Ryan Fox. Just missing out was Daniel Im, who played in the final group and hovered near the lead all week before a few short misses early rattled his confidence. He bogeyed the 72nd hole to miss the spot by one. 

5. It’s almost crisis time for McIlroy and his shaky short game. He missed his second consecutive cut last week at the Irish Open, and he has only this week’s tuneup in Scotland before the year’s third major.

At the Travelers he used three putters in four rounds, and the model that he settled on didn’t cooperate over two days at Portstewart. “Just silly mistakes,” he said, but it appears to be a more significant issue than that. He appears lost on the greens, uncomfortable over the ball. McIlroy’s long game is usually so good that he only needs to putt decent to have a chance to win. Alas, right now, he’s not even doing that.

6. It was easy to see this one coming. Xander Schauffele hung tough all week at the U.S. Open, finishing fifth and flashing a complete game.

He won less than a month later.

Schauffele stuffed a 161-yard pitching wedge for a birdie on the final hole to edge Robert Streb by one shot and take The Greenbrier Classic for his first title.

The 24-year-old has an interesting backstory. His father, Stefan, was a decathlete in Germany who was hit by a drunk driver at 23. The accident altered his career, and he turned to golf, eventually teaching his second son, Alexander, how to play. Schauffele blossomed into a top-tier amateur player, reaching the finals of the Western Amateur and owning the lowest career scoring average at San Diego State.

Schauffele finished 26th on the money list to miss his card by less than $100. He punched his ticket to the PGA Tour, anyway, after finishing 15th on the Finals money list. 

7. Alas, it was also easy to see this one coming ... 

Sebastian Munoz was riding a heater that was destined to run out. Through three rounds he gained 9.2 strokes on the field and holed a remarkable 396 feet worth of putts – or 100 feet more than Streb, also in the final group.

In the final round, he sank only 32 feet worth of putts. No one was worse on the greens Sunday – he lost nearly five strokes to the field.

Cruel game. 

8. Small consolation, perhaps, but Munoz was one of four qualifiers for The Open, along with Schauffele, Streb and Jamie Lovemark. 

9. Jim “Bones” Mackay won’t land with another big-time player, after all. In a move that, selfishly, we were hoping for, the longtime caddie has signed a multiyear deal with NBC/Golf Channel to work as an on-course reporter. He will make his official debut next week at Royal Birkdale.

More was written about this move here, if you missed it, but in short: If he’s unafraid to discuss (and criticize) the players and caddies with whom he has become friends over the past 25 years, Bones should become a hit on TV, offering a unique and fresh perspective on the game. Welcome to the team. 

10. Heading into this week’s U.S. Women’s Open, there are two big questions:

1.) Will there be a Trump sighting?

2.) Which of golf’s young stars will step up at the toughest women’s major?

A third question mark was answered Sunday, when Ariya Jutanugarn’s agent said that the right-shoulder injury that caused the world No. 2 to withdraw from last week’s LPGA event would not affect her participation in the Open. That’s good news, of course, but she clearly won’t be 100 percent healthy. It’s the same shoulder that needed surgery a few years ago … 

11. The 2014 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year is headed back to the big leagues after spending some time this year in the minors. After a close call earlier this season, Chesson Hadley had to shoot 15 under on the weekend to take the Tour’s Lecom Health Challenge and secure his Tour card for 2017-18.

Pushing him to the finish line was Beau Hossler, the 2016 NCAA Player of the Year who began the year with no status anywhere, following shoulder surgery last June that cost him six months. He earned his second runner-up finish in the past few weeks and now is inside the top 25 on the money list, in position to earn his Tour card for next season. 

In a peculiar move, the USGA, Bernhard Langer and Scott McCarron all issued statements last week defending the two PGA Tour Champions players’ putting strokes, which have come under scrutiny recently after slow-motion replays showed that their long putters, if not anchored to their bodies, were at least close enough to create suspicion.

But by even acknowledging this controversy, Langer and McCarron – Nos. 1 and 4 on the money list, respectively – will be under even more of a microscope. You don’t think everybody now will be watching for a possible anchoring infraction?

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said that the anchoring rule needs to be rewritten, immediately, because there is a loophole that players can use – that their “intent” was not to anchor. Chamblee argues that the rule should state that there must be a clear separation between the anchoring hand and the body, to ensure that no competitive advantage is gained.

Hard to disagree. 

This week's award winners ... 

Weird Stat of the Week: Leaders at The Greenbrier. How about this one? A first-, second- or third-round leader has never gone on to win at the Old White TPC. Like, ever. 

When The Tinkering Has Gone Too Far: Padraig Harrington. The anniversary of his victory at Birkdale is coming up, and it appears that he will return there having gone Full Happy Gilmore.

Keep An Eye On: Joaquin Niemann. The No. 1-ranked amateur in the world carded a 65 in the final round at The Greenbrier, jumping all the way into a tie for 29th. He is set to start at South Florida in the spring. 

Not Too Late?: Chambers Bay’s U.S. Open chances. The Seattle-area venue, still smarting from the greens debacle in 2015, recently converted all of its putting surfaces to poa annua in hopes of attracting another major. The USGA is essentially booked for another decade. 

A Bit More Cumbersome Than a Trophy: Michael Greller’s rake. Not sure if he’ll hang this in his den or his outdoor shed, but it’s a cool memento from the best golf celebration in years. 

Remember When Tiger Comparisons Were Flattering?: Novak Djokovic. The former No. 1-ranked tennis player was asked repeatedly last week at Wimbledon about comments made by analyst John McEnroe, who compared Djokovic’s off-court troubles to Woods, whose personal life imploded amid revelations of infidelity in 2009. Sigh.  

Youth Is Served: Atthaya Thitikul. At 14 years, 4 months and 19 days, she became the youngest winner on the Ladies European Tour.

Boss: Sergio Garcia. The Royal Box at Wimbledon has never looked better.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Kevin Kisner. Solid across the board in almost every statistical category, the Colonial winner had a pair of other second-place finishes as he rolled into West Virginia. Then he shot rounds of 72-70 and missed the cut. Sigh. 

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Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 6:07 pm

An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.

It was too much “socializing.”

“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”

Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.

“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.

His plan for doing that?

“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

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

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

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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.”