Monday Scramble: Caddies in the spotlight

By Ryan LavnerJuly 31, 2017, 4:00 pm

Rory McIlroy makes a change, Jhonattan Vegas successfully defends his title, controversy engulfs the U.S. Girls' Junior, Bernhard Langer takes another senior major and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Around and ’round the caddie carousel spins.

Rory McIlroy joined Phil Mickelson as another star in need of a full-time caddie, after Reuters reported that the world No. 4 axed his longtime bagman, J.P. Fitzgerald, after nine years and four majors together.

The timing is curious, with a WGC event, the PGA and end-of-season series on both the PGA and European tours upcoming. But clearly McIlroy felt it was time for a change.

Their relationship came to an end after a tie for fourth at The Open, where Fitzgerald both kick-started his boss’ run (“You’re Rory McIlroy. What the f--- are you doing?”) and also derailed it, with a mis-club on the 10th hole in the third round, leading to a double bogey.

McIlroy’s bag is arguably the most sought-after in the game, and he should receive no shortage of potential suitors. Not only is he supremely talented, but he requires little hand-holding on the course and needs only to tighten up his course management.

Any takers?

1. How thin are the margins at the elite level? Look at what happened to Jhonattan Vegas.

Entering the RBC Canadian Open, the charismatic Venezuelan had missed five consecutive cuts (and eight of his last 10) and failed to break 70 in his last eight rounds. All it took to reverse his fortunes was a return to his Mizuno MP-4 irons, which had similar specs to the Nike set he used last year to win at Glen Abbey.

Over four days he ranked seventh in strokes gained-approach to green, his best performance of the season.

“My ball-striking was great this week, which is something that I’ve been struggling with the past few weeks,” he said. “I feel like I hit a lot of greens and gave myself a lot of opportunities.” 

2. Vegas hit the shot of the championship in the playoff, when his drive found the left fairway bunker on the par-5 18th.

With 189 yards to the flag, over water, TV commentators thought he’d lay up and try to make birdie with a wedge. Instead, he smashed an 8-iron. His shot clipped the lip of the bunker and somehow landed in the middle of the green, leading to an easy 4 and the victory.

“Obviously a little bit of luck,” he said. “The ball could have gone anywhere from there. But sometimes you have to be aggressive, and when you’re that aggressive, sometimes things go your way.” 

3. Charley Hoffman, Presidents Cup team member? He made himself a more attractive candidate with a playoff loss, but at No. 10 in the points standings, he likely hasn’t done enough yet.

Hoffman said so himself last year, when the idea of playing on his first Ryder Cup team was raised.

“A rookie at 39” – he is now 40 – "is not going to be a captain’s pick,” he said last April. “So I’ve got to play my way onto the team, and I’ve got to play good golf and prove to everybody on that team that I can play and help the team out.” 

4. Ian Poulter continued his resurgent run with a tie for third in Canada. It’s his second top-3 finish of the PGA Tour season – his best showing since 2012, when he won a World Golf Championship in Shanghai.

Poulter didn't qualify for this week's WGC at Firestone, but he could use the week off – playing the WGC and the following week’s PGA would have meant teeing it up seven weeks in a row. 

5. The U.S. Girls’ Junior received some much-needed attention over the weekend. Of course, it was for another rules controversy.

Elizabeth Moon seemed on the verge of winning her semifinal match against highly ranked Erica Shepherd as she lined up her 4-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole. But she missed the putt low, leaving herself about a 6-inch putt for par. She stared in disbelief for a second, then immediately raked the ball back to try again, never turning around to face her opponent.

Standing on the side of the green, Shepherd’s caddie and swing coach, Brent Nicoson, asked: “Did you give her that putt?” Shepherd had not, and so she told Moon: “I didn’t say that was good.”

That was all she needed to say. Moon had violated Rule 18-2, moving a ball in play, and Shepherd was declared the winner.

6. There’s a lot to unpack here.

Who’s most to blame? Easy: It’s Moon. You can’t rake a ball that quickly, even if it’s an obvious gimme. 

But it's not that simple.

In tears afterward, Shepherd explained that she would have conceded the par putt but her eyes were closed during the birdie attempt. By the time she opened them, Moon had already pulled her ball back. However, TV cameras showed her staring at the ball as it passed by the cup, and it only takes half a second to say, “Good.” So if she meant to concede, there was time, even if Moon was WAY too quick to rake.

What about Nicoson, the caddie/coach? Instead of letting Moon’s blunder pass as a mindless moment from a 17-year-old, Nicoson quietly alerted his player to the possible infraction, and she blurted out the reply. (He says there was no malice, and it was just an attempt to gain information from his player.) Nicoson has every right to do that, of course – it was a breach of the rules, after all – even though he could have turned the other cheek and headed to the 20th hole, perhaps even issuing a gentle reminder to Moon along the way. But it's unfair to expect both Nicoson and Shepherd, 16, to make that call in the heat of the moment.

This much is clear: It was a regrettable learning experience for everyone involved.

7. That said, Shepherd deserves props for putting the distraction behind her. She cried for hours after the semifinal victory and hardly slept, and she burst into tears on the practice putting green before the scheduled 36-hole final.

It was her opponent, Jennifer Chang, who comforted her. How’s that for sportsmanship?

“She gave me this whole speech about how there was nothing I could have done about it, and that just really boosted me back up and got me to regroup,” Shepherd said.

Added Chang: “I said, ‘Forget about that. Let’s have some fun. Just you and me, 1-on-1. Let’s go for it.'”

Using the past 24 hours as motivation, Shepherd, a Duke commit for 2019, won the final match, 3 and 2

8. There are three ways to look at Bernhard Langer winning his third senior major of the year (and 10th of his career) Sunday, as former anchorers captured four of the five big ones in 2017:

a.) The governing bodies targeted the wrong issue, because, as Langer and Scott McCarron have showed, anchoring clearly wasn’t that much of a benefit;

b.) Langer and McCarron deserve credit for how well they’ve adapted and practiced their new method, and others are merely jealous of their success;

c.) Their new strokes still violate the spirit of the game, as some have suggested.

Both the USGA and R&A have cleared Langer and McCarron of any wrongdoing, but the murmurs will only grow louder after their stellar major seasons.

Their careers were supposed to be over post-anchor ban. In Langer’s case, at least, he looks as good as ever.  

9. Kevin Stadler made his first competitive start in more than two years last week at the Tour’s Digital Ally Open in Kansas, and he didn’t even last two rounds.

Stadler, the 2014 Phoenix Open winner, has been sidelined since July 2015 because of a broken bone in his left hand. He’d felt better over the past few months and wanted to see if he was ready for a return to the PGA Tour. The short answer: No.

“It feels like an explosion at impact,” Stadler said, after withdrawing following a first-round 72. “It was a setback I wasn’t looking for. It was great to come back and play, to return to some kind of normalcy. But it’s nowhere near good enough to give it a go again.”

Stadler said he’s tried “everything under the sun” and can’t find a solution to his injury woes. “Incredibly frustrated,” he said. 

Oh, there's gotta be a whole lot more to this story. 

Brent McLaughlin, the tattooed, motorcycle-riding tournament director at the Canadian Open, was suspended in the middle of last week’s tournament, according to TSN.

There were no specifics on his ouster, as the CEO of Golf Canada cited a “confidential employee matter.”

This week's award winners ... 

Common Sense Prevailed: USGA. After briefly flirting with the idea of turning Riviera’s iconic 18th hole into a drivable par 4 for the upcoming U.S. Amateur, tournament officials have notified competitors that it won’t happen. The power of the media!

Seriously?: Ladies Scottish Open. There was no full-time leaderboard on the 18th green at Dundonald, so neither Mi Hyang Lee nor her pursuer, Karrie Webb, knew where they stood on the final hole of the tournament. How does this happen in 2017?

Wakeup Call: Paula Creamer. No longer one of the best Americans in women’s golf, Creamer, who is well outside the top 100 in the world ranking, needed to play a one-day qualifier to gain entry into the Women’s British Open. It was first time she needed to qualify for an event, she said, since she was an amateur at the U.S. Women’s Open. 

Golf’s Ric Flair: Maurice Allen. Not sure I’ve ever been this excited about anything in life. 

Score One For the Dads: Reception music. At his wedding, Rory McIlroy tabbed Steve Wonder. For Sergio Garcia’s, it was Kenny G. Whenever Rickie Fowler ties the knot, here’s hoping Billy Joel gets the call.

At Least The Home Décor is On Point: Danny Willett. Sure, his golf game might currently be in tatters, but his barstool game is strong: 

That’ll Help: Robert Garrigus and Brandon Hagy. They both tied for fifth at the Canadian Open, important results that pushed them inside the top 125 in the FedExCup standings and should allow them to keep their cards for next season. 

Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano. Seeing that Kramer Hickok credited a text from Jordan Spieth as the reason why he made his first cut on the PGA Tour, the Spaniard, who sits 182nd in FedExCup points, took to Twitter with this plea: 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Matt Kuchar. Coming off the near-miss at The Open, and returning to a place he loves, Kuchar was an sure-fire pick this week in Canada … except he battled dizzy spells in the opening round, rallied just to make the cut and wound up in a tie for 32nd. Sigh.

Luke List, Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood and Tiger Woods at the 2018 Honda Classic Getty Images

Honda leaders face daunting final day

By Randall MellFebruary 25, 2018, 12:46 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The winner may need a cut man in his corner more than he needs a caddie on his bag in Sunday’s finish to the Honda Classic.

Smelling salts might come in handy, too.

“It just feels like you are getting punched in the face every single hole here,” Daniel Berger said of the test PGA National’s Champion Course offers. “Every single shot is so hard.”

Final rounds have been especially rough and tumble since the Honda Classic moved to PGA National in 2007.

That usually makes Sundays here as much about who can figuratively take a punch as who can throw one.

Luke List will have his jaw tested after taking sole possession of the lead Saturday with a second consecutive round of 4-under-par 66, but he can take comfort in the fact that punishment is doled plentifully around here.

“Just realizing that everyone is facing the same obstacles out there is huge,” List said. “You're not alone out there, if you make a bogey or a bad swing here or there.”

At 7-under 203, List is one shot ahead of a pair of major championship winners, Justin Thomas (65) and Webb Simpson (66). He is two ahead of Tommy Fleetwood (67), the reigning European Tour Player of the Year, and Jamie Lovemark (68).

List, 33, is seeking his first PGA Tour title in his 104th start. He will have to hold off some heavyweights, including Tiger Woods (69), who is seven shots back but feeling like he has a chance again. Woods closed with a 62 here six years ago when he finished second to Rory McIlroy.

“You never know what can happen the last few holes here,” Woods said. “A lot of things can happen and have happened in the past.”


Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Crazy things have happened here.

Three years ago, Padraig Harrington was five shots down with eight holes to play and won. He made two double bogeys in the final round but ended up beating Berger in a playoff.

Berger, by the way, was nine shots back entering the final round.

That was the year Ian Poulter took a share of lead into Sunday, hit five balls in the water and still finished just a shot out of the playoff.

Last year, Rickie Fowler made four bogeys and a double bogey in the final round and still won by four shots.

List will have a heavyweight playing alongside him in the final pairing, with 24-year-old Justin Thomas looking to claim his eighth PGA Tour title. Thomas was last season’s PGA Tour Player of the Year.

List has never held a 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour event.

“You guys build up certain players,” List said. “I know I'll be an underdog going against Justin Thomas and guys like that, which is fine.”

There is some inspiration for List in what Ted Potter Jr. did two weeks at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Potter, largely unknown even though he already had a PGA Tour title to his credit, held off stars Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day in the final round to win. 

Thomas earned the right to play alongside List in the final pairing Sunday with his 65, which equaled the low round of the tournament.

Thomas makes his home in nearby Jupiter and knows the punishment the Champion Course can dish out.

“It's a difficult course,” Thomas said. “If you let it get to you, it can be frustrating, but if you go into it understanding and realizing it's difficult, you just kind of embrace it and deal with it.”

Thomas played the Bear Trap’s trio of daunting holes (Nos. 15-17) in 2 under on Saturday. He birdied the 15th and 17th holes.

Fleetwood got in contention Saturday with a pair of eagles. He’s a four-time European Tour winner.

“I would love to get my first win on the PGA Tour this week,” he said. “It’s just great to be out here. It's great to be playing on courses like this that are such a test of every part of your game.”

Alex Noren, a nine-time European Tour winner, is also seeking his first PGA Tour title. He is three shots back. He lost in a playoff to Day at the Farmers Insurance Open last month.

Though this is just Noren’s second start at the Honda Classic, he knows how wildly momentum can swing on the Champion Course. He shot 65 Saturday after shooting 75 on Friday.

“I’m a few back, but anything can happen,” Noren said.

That’s the theme around here.

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Thomas: Winning hometown Honda would 'mean a lot'

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 24, 2018, 11:53 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas is trying to join Rickie Fowler as a winner of his hometown event.

Thomas will play in the final group alongside Luke List on Sunday at the Honda Classic after matching the low round of the week with a 5-under 65. He is at 6-under 204, one shot back of List.

The reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year is one of several residents of nearby Jupiter. After Fowler won last year, Thomas (who missed the cut) returned to the course to congratulate his neighbor on his fourth Tour title.

“I hope I give him the opportunity or the choice to come back,” Thomas said. “But I’ve got a lot of golf in front of me before I worry about him coming here.”

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

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More important to Thomas, however, is winning this event, which is played at PGA National, one of the most difficult non-major courses on Tour.

“It would mean a lot,” he said. “It means a lot to win any golf tournament, but it would mean more because of how prestigious this golf tournament is and the list of winners that have won this event, how strong of a field it is, how difficult of a golf course.

“A decent number of my wins have been on easier golf courses, so it would be cool to get it done at a place like this.”

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Woods paired with hotshot rookie Burns at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 24, 2018, 11:38 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rookie Sam Burns will be in the biggest spot of his career Sunday – playing alongside Tiger Woods.

Burns, the reigning Nicklaus Award winner who turned pro after two standout years at LSU, will go off with Woods at 12:45 p.m. at the Honda Classic.

Burns, 20, who earned his Tour card via Q-School, is playing this week on a sponsor exemption, his fourth of the season. He is 13th on the money list this year, after a tie for second two weeks ago in Colombia.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

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Burns and Woods are tied for 11th, at even-par 210.

Sunday is an important round for Burns, who can earn a spot into the Valspar Championship with a top-10 finish here.

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List leads Honda; Thomas one back

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 24, 2018, 11:25 pm

Luke List, one of a legion of PGA Tour players who live in Jupiter, just two exits up I-95 from PGA National, shot a 4-under 66 on Saturday to take a one-shot lead after three rounds of the Honda Classic. Here's how things stand going into the final round at PGA National:

Leaderboard: Luke List (-7), Justin Thomas (-6), Webb Simpson (-6), Tommy Fleetwood (-5), Jamie Lovemark (-5), Alex Noren (-4) 

What it means: Leader List has played well this season, with no finish lower than T-26 in six starts. Thomas, of course, is the reigning Player of the Year. The next best pedigree among the leaders belongs to Simpson, winner of the 2012 U.S. Open and three other PGA Tour titles.

Round of the day: Thomas and Noren both shot 5-under 65s. Thomas made two of his six birdies in the Bear Trap (at the par 3s, Nos. holes 15 and17), while Noren played that stretch (15-17) in 1 over. Noren made his hay elsewhere, including an eagle at the last that canceled out his two bogeys.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Best of the rest: List, Simpson and Kelly Kraft all shot 66.

Biggest disappointment: After an opening 76, Jimmy Walker probably thought he was back on track with a 68 that allowed him to make the cut. Alas, the improvement was temporary, as he ballooned back to a 74 on Saturday.

Shot of the day: Tommy Fleetwood hit a fairway wood from 282 yards to within 8 feet of the cup on the 18th hole. He then made the putt for his second eagle of the day.

Quote of the day: "The course played a fair bit easier with not as much wind." - Thomas

Biggest storyline going into Sunday: List may be in the lead, but most eyes will be on Thomas, a five-time winner last year who has yet to lift a trophy in 2018. And of course, more than a few people will be keeping tabs on Tiger Woods. He'll begin the day seven shots back, trying to channel Tiger of 2012 - when he posted a 62 on Sunday at PGA National (which was good only for a runner-up finish to Rory McIlroy).