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. 

Thompson wins Race, loses tournament after short miss

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 8:52 pm

The drama went down to the very last hole in the LPGA's final event of 2017. Here's how things ended up at the CME Group Tour Championship, where a surprising miss from Lexi Thompson opened the door for Ariya Jutanugarn to win in dramatic fashion:

Leaderboard: Ariya Jutanugarn (-15), Lexi Thompson (-14), Jessica Korda (-14), Pernilla Lindberg (-13), Eun-Hee Ji (-13)

What it means: There were scenarios aplenty entering the final round, with nearly every season-long accolade still hanging in the balance. Thompson appeared set to take them all as she sized up a 2-foot par putt on the final hole - a stroke that looked like it would take her to world No. 1 for the first time. Instead, the putt barely touched the hole and allowed Jutanugarn to rally to victory with birdies on the closing two holes. Thompson still took home $1 million for winning the season-long Race to the CME Globe, as it was a reverse scenario from last year when Jutanugarn won the $1 million but not the final tournament.

Round of the day: Sei Young Kim made the day's biggest charge, turning in a 6-under 66 to close the week in a share of 11th at 10 under. Kim made eight birdies during the final round, including five over her first eight holes en route to her lowest round of the week while erasing a third-round 75.

Best of the rest: Jutanugarn seemed like an afterthought as the tournament was winding down, but she kept her hopes alive with an 18-foot birdie on No. 17 and then capitalized on Thompson's mistake with a clutch birdie on the difficult final hole. It capped off a final-round 67 for the Thai who now ends what has been a tumultuous season with a smile on her face.

Biggest disappointment: Thompson faced heartbreak after the penalty-shrouded ANA Inspiration, and she again must handle a setback after essentially missing a tap-in with everything on the line. Thompson can enjoy a $1 million consolation prize along with the Vare Trophy, but a tournament win would have clinched Player of the Year honors as well as her first-ever trip to world No. 1. Instead, she now has the entire off-season to think about how things went awry from close range.

Shot of the day: There were only three birdies on No. 18 during the final round before Jutanugarn laced one down the fairway and hit a deft approach to 15 feet. The subsequent putt found the target and gave her win No. 7 on her young LPGA career.

Watch: Fleetwood gets emotional with family after Race to Dubai win

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 19, 2017, 5:30 pm

Tommy Fleetwood took home the season-long Race to Dubai title on Sunday after a T-21 finish at the DP World Tour Championship.

He was, understandably, emotional after learning his fate while sitting with his wife and baby following a career year in which he won the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship and the French Open and finished fourth at the U.S. Open.

Luckily for us, cameras were rolling:

Matsuyama after Koepka rout: 'Huge gap between us'

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 4:22 pm

Hideki Matsuyama offered a blunt assessment after finishing 10 shots behind Brooks Koepka at the Japan Tour's Dunlop Phoenix event.

Koepka waxed the field en route to successfully defending his title in Japan, shooting a 20-under par total that left him nine shots clear of a runner-up group that included PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele. Koepka's score was one shot off the tournament record, and his margin for victory eclipsed Tiger Woods' eight-shot romp in 2004.

Matsuyama appeared set to make a final-round charge after a birdie on No. 2 was followed by an ace on the par-3 third hole. But he played the next eight holes in 3 over and eventually finished alone in fifth place following a 2-under 69. Afterwards, he stacked his game up against that of Koepka in a telling comment to the Japan Times.

"I feel there's a huge gap between us," Matsuyama said.

The Japanese phenom entered the week ranked No. 4 in the world, though he will be passed in the next rankings by Jon Rahm following the Spaniard's win in Dubai. Matsuyama won twice this year on the PGA Tour, including the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, but he has largely struggled since missing out on a maiden major title at the PGA Championship, where he tied for fifth.

Matsuyama was a runner-up to Koepka at the U.S. Open earlier this summer, and the 25-year-old seems headed back to the drawing board before defending his title at the Hero World Challenge in two weeks.

"I don't know whether it's a lack of practice or whether I lack the strength to keep playing well," Matsuyama said. "It seems there are many issues to address."

McCormick to caddie for Spieth at Aussie Open

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 2:21 pm

When Jordan Spieth returns next week to defend his title at the Australian Open, he will do so without his regular caddie on the bag.

Spieth and Michael Greller have combined to win 14 tournaments and three majors, including three events in 2017. But Greller's wife, Ellie, gave birth to the couple's first child on Oct. 13, and according to a report from the Australian Herald Sun he will not make the intercontinental trip to Sydney, where Spieth will look to win for the third time in the last four years.

Instead, Spieth will have longtime swing coach and native Aussie Cameron McCormick on the bag at The Australian Golf Club. McCormick, who won PGA Teacher of the Year in 2015, is originally from Melbourne but now lives in Texas and has taught Spieth since he was a rising star among the junior golf ranks in Dallas.

While Greller has missed rounds before, this will be the first time as a pro that Spieth has used a different caddie for an entire event. Greller was sidelined with an injury last year in Singapore when Spieth's agent, Jay Danzi, took the bag, and trainer Damon Goddard has subbed in twice when Greller was sick, including this year at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational.

Spieth's torrid 2015 season traced back to his win at The Australian in 2014, and he returned to Oz last year where he won a playoff at Royal Sydney over Cameron Smith and Ashley Hall.