Monday Scramble: Bubba Ball and the Spieth Slam

By Ryan LavnerJune 29, 2015, 4:00 pm

Bubba Watson continues his love affair with TPC River Highlands, Luke Donald earns his way into another major, mathematicians determine Jordan Spieth has virtually no shot at the Grand Slam, a 59-year-old amateur shoots 57 and more in this week’s highly questionable edition of the Monday Scramble: 

So here's a question: Is Bubba Watson more dangerous at a big ballpark or a small yard? He bombed it all over the lot with victories at Torrey Pines and Augusta National (twice), but it’s revealing that Watson has now won twice at TPC River Highlands, which at 6,840 yards ranks as one of the shortest venues on Tour.   

On the same course that has proven kind to dinkers like Kevin Streelman, Ken Duke and Ryan Moore, Watson is 94 under par there ... 27 shots better than the next-best player. It’s not like he dials back and tailors his game to the tighter tracks, either – last week he ranked first in driving distance and topped the field in drives over 300 yards. River Highlands fits his eye, whereas Harbour Town and Colonial, which he has skipped each year since 2008, do not. 

Watson attributed his Travelers success to his mindset – he’s freer and more aggressive the week following a U.S. Open where par is usually a good score. He flips a switch and knows he can make birdies once he gets to Cromwell, especially with his prodigious length, because he is coming into many of the holes with short irons and wedges. And when he’s as sharp with the putter as he was last week – he missed only twice inside 10 feet, a career best – he is tough to beat, on courses both long and short. 

1. Is Bubba Watson underappreciated? Yes, his physical gifts are so overwhelming that it seems like he should have a chance to win every time he tees it up, but he's been as consistently excellent over the past half-decade as anyone on the PGA Tour. 

The players with the most Tour wins since the start of 2010: 

  • Rory McIlroy: 11
  • Tiger Woods: 8
  • Bubba Watson: 8

2. For much of the final hour Sunday, it appeared as though Watson was on the verge of throwing away the Travelers. Chalk it up to some suspect course management. 

His driver may be his greatest weapon, but he didn’t need it off the tee on 15 and 17, when one of his blistered 3-irons would have sufficed.

“I’m not very good on those holes,” Watson said afterward, and that much was true. In 34 career rounds on the par-4 17th, he is a whopping 10 over par. Even more reason why he should have laid farther back off the tee.

Watson explained later that because the hole was playing into the wind and into the mist, he wanted to hit his go-to shot: a low punch driver. He just cut it too much. After hooking his shot out of the fairway bunker and winding up 30 yards off-line, Watson noticed that he'd hit a rock at impact. Marking his ball on the green, he saw that it had been gouged.  

Staked to a three-shot lead with four to play, these miscues didn’t end up costing him the title – plus, Paul Casey was never a serious threat in the playoff, after twice missing the 18th green – and Watson became the fourth multiple winner this season.   

3. Bubba is a tough guy to take down in a head-to-head setting. His playoff victory over Casey was his fifth in six playoff appearances. The only one that got away? The 2010 PGA, when he lost to Martin Kaymer. 

When asked about the mental fortitude required in those stressful situations, he joked: “Kind of funny you’re asking me about the mental part because I’m not very good at it. It’s really about who can stay focused and committed under pressure.” 

And Watson has an awfully good record for a player self-diagnosed with ADD.   

4. The only other interesting subplot during what was an otherwise sleepy post-Open event was the race to snag one of the Open Championship berths that went to the low four players not already eligible among the top 12. 

Brian Harman, the 54-hole leader, got one of the spots. Graham DeLaet, who came close yet again, and Carl Pettersson, who shot three rounds of 66 or better, also punched their ticket to St. Andrews.  

The final berth went to Luke Donald, who closed with 66 and finished in a tie for seventh, matching his best result of the season (Honda). 

The former world No. 1 has fallen on hard times recently, but you have to give the guy credit – he played his way into the U.S. Open field via sectional qualifying, and now he has played his way into the British Open field via the Qualifying Series. Prevailing in these types of pressure situations shows that he’s on the right track, if nothing else. Keep in mind that when the Open was last played at the Old Course, in 2010, he tied for 11th

5. When does the topic of conversation about DeLaet switch from this is a guy who’s going to win soon on the PGA Tour to hmmm, why hasn’t he already won?  

The sweet-swinging Canadian has 17 top-10s since the start of the 2013 season, the second-most during the span, behind only Sergio Garcia (19). Included in that stretch is SIX top-3s. With a chance to break through Sunday, DeLaet instead made a double on the first hole, hit several iffy wedge shots and then bogeyed the 72nd hole when a birdie would have gotten him into a playoff.   

Two statistics help explain his winless drought: His final-round scoring average (71.64, which ranks 154th on Tour) and his proximity to the hole from 50 to 125 yards (20 feet, 9 inches, which ranks 181st). The former suggests that he puts too much pressure on himself to close the deal. The latter should be a major point of emphasis considering how many wedges he hits per round.   

6. Neil Payne over at ESPN’s site crunched some numbers and determined that Jordan Spieth does NOT have a high mathematical probability of winning the Grand Slam this year. In fact, Payne pegged the likelihood at about 1 percent. So don't even bother to show up, Jordan. 

Payne uses something called a Z-score, which calculates how well a player scored relative to the rest of the field on a given day. Spieth’s +2.41 Z-score, for instance, was only slightly less than Tiger Woods’ +2.63 Z-score when he captured the first two majors of 2002. Of course, Woods was then blown off the course during a Saturday 81 at Muirfield, which ended his hopes of a Grand Slam. 

To be honest, this math stuff makes little sense to me. Here’s what I do know: If Spieth can drive the ball in play at St. Andrews and knock down the flags at Whistling Straits, he’s going to give himself every chance to complete the Spieth Slam. I wrote more here

7. Fox Sports didn’t have a camera on Spieth when he learned that he’d won the 115th U.S. Open. Fortunately, Darren Carroll, one of the best sports photographers in the world who worked the Open for the USGA, was one of the few people in the scoring trailer during the critical final moments at Chambers Bay. He wrote about the experience on his personal blog.

Once Spieth learned that Dustin Johnson had missed his 4-foot comebacker and won the second leg of the Grand Slam, Carroll wrote:

There was no reaction, save for a barely perceptible shift in Spieth’s shoulders as he exhaled. No fist pump, no yelling, no whooping and hollering. Spieth and Greller were sitting there, backs to me, silent, and seemingly stunned. Finally, after a few seconds, Greller stood up. “Hey man, give me a hug,” he said, holding his arms out. And with that Spieth, still slack-jawed in disbelief, stood up and embraced his caddie. I stayed back against the wall, and as Spieth rose, I raised the camera. 

Click here for the rest of Carroll's incredible post-round slideshow. 

8. Admittedly, I didn't watch much of the U.S. Senior Open last weekend, but what I did see was strangely familiar: Woody Austin seems just as unstable now that he’s joined the over-50 set as he was on the PGA Tour. Best known for his on-course outbursts (such as when he bashed his putter so hard against his head that it bent around his skull) and his faceplant in the pond at the 2007 Presidents Cup, Austin was back to his usual tricks at the Senior Open, offering nonstop commentary that required some occasional censorship from the Fox folks. In the third round, Austin left a putt short and gave his ball a thumbs up and A-OK hand signal. The next hole, he ripped himself a new one. (Not literally ... I think.) Dude’s always on the verge of coming unhinged. 

9. Bernhard Langer couldn't hang on for his sixth senior major Sunday, so he instead settled for his 10th consecutive top-10 in the Champions Tour's biggest events. Ho-hum. 

He has only one senior major left this season – and it’ll be his final one with an anchored putter, which will be illegal beginning Jan. 1. 

Langer is still upset about the impending ban – “I just don’t understand why we’re banning it 80 years later,” he told reporters last week – and it’ll be interesting to see how well he adapts.

Two decades ago he went to the anchored stroke because of the yips. Now what? Will he simply move his left hand away from his chest a few inches? A reasonable option, but the stroke could be wobblier with so many moving parts. Will he switch to a counter-balanced putter? Maybe, but he’ll have to put in a lot of time to ingrain that pendulum stroke. A shame, but it's fair to wonder whether his days of Champions Tour dominance are coming to an end. 

10. Pablo Larrazabal hasn’t lucked into his four wins on the European Tour. Each time he’s stared down one of the world’s best players on Sunday. 

In 2008, he beat Colin Montgomerie by four shots to win the French Open. In 2011, he defeated fellow Spaniard Garcia in a playoff. Last year, he finished one shot ahead of McIlroy and Phil Mickelson in Abu Dhabi. And last week, at the BMW International Open in Germany, he withstood a furious final-round rally to edge world No. 6 Henrik Stenson by a shot.

Little wonder he’s earned a reputation as a giant killer. 

11. Cheyenne Woods penned a terrific first-person essay for Derek Jeter’s Players’ Tribune website, in which the 24-year-old LPGAer opened up about being “Tiger’s niece.” 

“I’m very proud to be related to my uncle," she wrote, "but that’s not what defines me as a golfer or a person.”

The entire piece was thoughtful and well done, but what's confusing is the timing. Yes, she's probably already sick of only being asked about Tiger, but wouldn’t her message – that she’s more than just Tiger’s niece – be more impactful and effective if she had a few LPGA wins under her belt? At least then she’d have a legitimate beef that there’s more to her than just her famous surname. Right now, she is ranked 267th in the world, with one top-25 this season and less than $30,000 in career earnings. 

12. wrote a story (piece of sports fiction?) last week about plus-4 handicap Patrick Wills, a 59-year-old retired Marine who shot 57 and made three holes-in-one, two of which came on par 4s. 

Is it possible? Well, yes, but the odds are in the billions. Here were some of the best, um, incredulous replies when the story was posted on the @GolfChannel Twitter account: 

To his defense, Wills said this to Will Gray: “I’ve been around the world 10 or 12 times, fighting for this country’s freedom. People are allowed to believe what they want to believe - I fought for that freedom. But I know what I shot, my playing partners know what I shot and the people at the tournament do as well. I mean, I’m an accomplished amateur. I set my first course record when I was 16, shot a 65 or 66, and I’ve added a few since then. Anyone that has ever played a competitive round with me, they know what I’m capable of. They’ve seen it. So people are entitled to believe what they want, but I’ve always been drawn to golf because it aligns with my morals. I’d rather call a penalty on myself, or even disqualify myself, because I respect the game.” 

Ever tried to throw away your clubs but instead get your head stuck in the trash bin? No? OK, well that’s exactly what happened to a chap named Dave Sayers, who, according to the Telegraph, was playing in a charity tournament in England when he had a biiiiit too much to drink and went head first into the trash. 

And you thought his biggest mistake was wearing those ridiculous pants. 

There are many questions left unanswered in this case – the biggest one: Why? – but if you listen closely you can hear this man’s wife and kids laughing hysterically at his expense. Nice work, dad.

This week in player profile screw-ups ... the USGA. If you were new to golf and wanted to know Tom Watson looked like, this is what you would have seen last Thursday (screenshot via @NoLayingUp). Why yes, that IS Watson's crotch. 

Get ready for another week of wall-to-wall coverage of the 220th-ranked player in the world. Woods is back in action at the Greenbrier Classic, where he missed the cut in his only appearance there, in 2012. For those keeping score at home, Tiger hasn’t recorded a top-10 in a PGA Tour event in 23 months. 

• Former Vanderbilt All-American Hunter Stewart won the prestigious Northeast Amateur over the weekend, and the task for the super-secret Walker Cup selection committee just got even more difficult. 

Keegan Bradley is approaching Kevin Na levels with his pre-shot twitchiness. What once was peculiar fun has now become a spectacle, as Keegs took nearly a minute to pull the trigger on an approach shot in the second round. The fidgety (yippy?) routine was so intense – there were 19 mini practice swings! – even the PGA Tour felt compelled to send out the embarrassing clip of the tap dancing before it was removed a few hours later. Hmm, wonder why? You can still check it out here:

Jordan Spieth is instructor Cameron McCormick’s most prized pupil – for now. Another of his students lit up the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions – one of the circuit’s “majors” – last week en route to a record-breaking victory. Philip Barbaree, a top-10 junior in the country, broke the AJGA’s 72-hole scoring record with a 24-under performance in Oregon. Barbaree, committed to NCAA champion LSU for the fall of 2017, won by 14 shots. 

Are you trolling me for my Fowler pick at the U.S. Open? OK, so I’m probably just paranoid now, but after feeling so good about that choice my confidence is clearly shaken. Everything that set up so perfectly for Fowler at Chambers Bay – his length, his creativity, his resiliency – will be back in play at St. Andrews. I’ll peg him as one of the favorites yet again – he would have been in serious contention there in 2010 if not for an opening 79 – and wait to be disappointed.   

They’re co-favorites, according to, but I see your point – Spieth leads the major championship leaderboard this season, 2-0. Still, I think McIlroy should be considered a significant favorite on the Old Course. We know about his history at St. Andrews in 2010, when he opened with 63 and followed it up with an 80, but he also shot 64-68 there last year during the European Tour’s Dunhill Links event. His key, as always, is whether his driver cooperates: Rory is one of the few players in the field who can carry the penal fairway bunkers, while Spieth will have to navigate around them. That's a huge advantage. 

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Cut Line: Color Rory unafraid of the Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardJanuary 19, 2018, 7:09 pm

In this week’s edition, Rory McIlroy gets things rolling with some early Ryder Cup banter, Dustin Johnson changes his tune on a possible golf ball roll-back, and the PGA Tour rolls ahead with integrity training.

Made Cut

Paris or bust. Rory McIlroy, who made his 2018 debut this week on the European Tour, can be one of the game’s most affable athletes. He can also be pointed, particularly when discussing the Ryder Cup.

Asked this week in Abu Dhabi about the U.S. team, which won the last Ryder Cup and appears to be rejuvenated by a collection of new players, McIlroy didn’t disappoint.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

McIlroy has come by his confidence honestly, having won three of the four Ryder Cups he’s played, so it’s understandable if he doesn't feel like an underdog heaidng to Paris.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that,” he said. “The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

September can’t get here quick enough.

Mr. Spieth goes to Ponte Vedra Beach. The Tour announced this year’s player advisory council, the 16-member group that works with the circuit’s policy board to govern.

There were no real surprises to the PAC, but news that Jordan Spieth had been selected to run for council chair is interesting. Spieth, who is running against Billy Hurley III and would ascend to the policy board next year if he wins the election, served on the PAC last year and would make a fine addition to the policy board, but it is somewhat out of character for a marquee player.

In recent years, top players like Spieth have largely avoided the distractions that come with the PAC and policy board. Of course, we’ve also learned in recent years that Spieth is not your typical superstar.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

On second thought. In December at the Hero World Challenge, Dustin Johnson was asked about a possible golf ball roll-back, which has become an increasingly popular notion in recent years.

“I don't mind seeing every other professional sport. They play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball,” he said in the Bahamas. “I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage.”

The world No. 1 appeared to dial back that take this week in Abu Dhabi, telling BBC Sport, “It's not like we are dominating golf courses. When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy?”

Maybe it didn’t feel that way, but DJ’s eight-stroke romp two weeks ago at the Sentry Tournament of Champions certainly looked pretty easy.

Long odds. I had a chance to watch the Tour’s 15-minute integrity training video that players have been required view and came away with a mixture of confusion and concern.

The majority of the video, which includes a Q&A element, focuses on how to avoid match fixing. Although the circuit has made it clear there is no indication of current match fixing, it’s obviously something to keep an eye on.

The other element that’s worth pointing out is that although the Tour may be taking the new program seriously, some players are not.

“My agent watched [the training video] for me,” said one Tour pro last week at the Sony Open.

Missed Cut

Groundhog Day. To be fair, no one expected Patton Kizzire and James Hahn to need six playoff holes to decide last week’s Sony Open, but the episode does show why variety is the spice of life.

After finishing 72 holes tied at 17 under, Kizzire and Hahn played the 18th hole again and again and again and again. In total, the duo played the par-5 closing hole at Waialae Country Club five times (including in regulation play) on Sunday.

It’s worth noting that the playoff finally ended with Kizzire’s par at the sixth extra hole, which was the par-3 17th. Waialae’s 18th is a fine golf hole, but in this case familiarity really did breed contempt.

Tweet of the week:

It was a common theme last Saturday on Oahu after an island-wide text alert was issued warning of an inbound ballistic missile and advising citizens to “seek immediate shelter.”

The alert turned out to be a mistake, someone pushed the wrong button during a shift change, but for many, like Peterson, it was a serious lesson in perspective.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”