Monday Scramble: Weird week for Spieth at Valspar

By Ryan LavnerMarch 14, 2016, 4:00 pm

Charl Schwartzel ends his drought Stateside, Jordan Spieth fires back, another amateur shines on the PGA Tour, a guarantee goes awry and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Even major champions have to clear “mental hurdles” once they lose their way on the course. 

Schwartzel’s epic four-birdie run to steal the 2011 Masters was supposed to propel him into another stratosphere, but it only led to more frustration. 

“I figured that I would win a few times the way I played,” he said. “It just never came.”

His playoff victory Sunday in the Valspar Championship may have been his 15th career title worldwide, but it was only his second in the U.S. It doesn't add up.

The South African owns one of the most envy-inducing swings on Tour, yet he has rarely contended in the States. When his swing got off-track late last year, and his world ranking tumbled toward the top 50, he turned to the only coach he has ever known, his father, George.

“If you’re swinging well,” he said, “you start believing in yourself again because you’re hitting good shots.”

Schwartzel has hit plenty of them recently. He won twice in South Africa over the past few months, and then on Sunday in Tampa closed with the best round of the day, a 4-under 67, to earn that long-awaited second PGA Tour title. 

Consider the mental hurdle cleared. 

1. The Masters must be right around the corner – the past champions are rounding into form. 

The last five Masters winners all have won events so far this season, the latest coming at the Valspar, where Schwartzel erased a five-shot deficit on the final day and defeated Bill Haas on the first playoff hole. 

Schwartzel followed victories by Spieth (Kapalua), Bubba Watson (Riviera) and Adam Scott (Doral and Honda). Even Phil Mickelson, the 2010 Masters champion, has shown resurgent play of late, holding the 54-hole lead at Pebble Beach and coming up one shot short.

Will the streak continue this week? Zach Johnson (2007), Trevor Immelman (’08) and Angel Cabrera (’09) are in the field at Bay Hill. Hey, it could happen.  

2. The greens on Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course were resurfaced last summer, and it was clear early on at the Valspar that they were significantly slower than players were accustomed to. 

That’s why, in a sense, it wasn’t a massive surprise that Schwartzel won on Sunday. The tournament was always going to come down to which player made the adjustment and the big putts during a week when everyone – Jordan Spieth included – struggled to get the ball to the cup.

Schwartzel made nearly 145 feet worth of putts in the final round – none bigger than the 64-footer he rolled in on 13 and the 25-footer for birdie on 17. By way of contrast, Haas sank only 72 feet worth of putts on the final day. 

3. Haas became the latest frontrunner to falter down the stretch at Innisbrook. Only twice in the past nine years has the 54-hole leader gone on to win.

Haas said that he was “hanging on by a thread” on the final day, but the tournament was in his hands with three holes to play. From a perfect spot in the 16th fairway, he fanned his approach into the greenside bunker and hit such a poor shot from the sand that he said a “12-handicapper could have done that.” The bogey dropped him into a playoff, which he lost on the first hole after another bogey. 

Why all of the struggles for the leaders on the Copperhead Course? It’s a demanding, strategic layout that dishes out more bogeys than it surrenders birdies. Players are already tight while trying to protect a lead; the pressure is then ratcheted up on a course where every miscue is magnified.

4. It was an odd week both on and off the course for Spieth.

The opening 76 that fueled (absurd) talk of a slide. The quick trigger on social media. The spirited run into the top 10. The bafflement at the slower-than-normal greens. And then the caddie blame game.

The middle rounds of 68-67 showed his grit, but the common denominator last week was one of fatigue. He couldn’t adjust to the greens and showed plenty of frustration and indecision during a wind-whipped final round, his pace of play screeching to a halt at times.

Most unusual, though, was his post-round comment Sunday about poor decision-making with caddie Michael Greller – very surprising, indeed, given how in sync they were a year ago.

“We both get the credit when things are going good,” Spieth said, “and we’re going to take the fall today. I hit the shots, but we made a couple of decisions that make me look back and think, Wow, we’ve got some stuff to talk about before we get ready to go into a major. Bit of a bummer.”

Spieth still appears to be reeling from the early-season scheduling mistake. Ideally, he would take a few weeks off, regroup and get ready for the year’s first major and what figures to be an even more hectic summer. But it’s just not possible. On Monday morning, he was already in New York City promoting the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. Then he has two events in a row, the Match Play and Houston, before the Masters. Will he ever catch his breath? 

5. By the way, Spieth may not be at the top of his game, but it's worth remembering that he still has finished inside the top 21 in six of his seven starts this year. That's some "slump," all right. 

6. I wrote a lot about amateur Lee McCoy here, but the main takeaway from his solo fourth in Tampa was that it’s time to start taking these college and amateur stars more seriously.

In the past 14 months, Arizona State’s Jon Rahm (Phoenix), Alabama’s Robby Shelton (Barbasol), Oklahoma State’s Jordan Niebrugge (Open) and now Georgia’s McCoy (Valspar) all have earned top-six finishes in PGA Tour events. 

It seems like just a matter of time before an amateur wins again on Tour. It hasn’t happened since Mickelson, then a 20-year-old junior at Arizona State, won in 1991. 

7. Even after a tough day, Spieth applauded McCoy as he finished out on the 18th green. Spieth, of course, knew the feeling well, contending in his hometown tournament as an amateur. He had done the same thing nearly six years earlier, when he stole the show at the 2010 Byron Nelson Championship in Dallas as a 16-year-old. He tied for 16th. 

8. A new USGA rule that allows amateurs to participate in a pro event and then donate the earnings to a recognized charity won’t have as much of an impact as it initially seemed. 

The PGA Tour made it clear that its regulations regarding amateur status remain unchanged and likely will stay that way for the foreseeable future. At Tour events, amateurs are not entitled to any official prize money, and the cash they would have earned goes to the player(s) directly behind him on the leaderboard.

That meant the $292,800 that would have gone to McCoy for his solo fourth instead was split by the players who tied for fifth, Graham DeLaet and Charles Howell III.

The aim of Rule 3-1b was to allow amateurs to compete in exhibitions or events that support a bona fide charity, not necessarily a U.S. Open or a Tour event. Instead, it was the tournament organizers in Tampa who stepped up for McCoy, offering to make an undisclosed donation to the charity of his choice – 50 Legs, started by a close friend of McCoy’s who provides prosthetic legs to kids and adults.   

9. Last week might be the final time that DeLaet publicly declares that he’s going to win a tournament.

One shot back after 54 holes, the Canadian, winless in 136 PGA Tour starts, proclaimed that “tomorrow is going to be the day” and left little doubt that he was about to take the title. 


DeLaet shot a birdie-less 75 and tied for fifth.

He backtracked afterward, saying that he didn’t “Babe Ruth and call my shot or anything like that. I needed to believe in myself. I wanted to take control.” 

This was DeLaet’s 19th top-10 over the last four seasons. Only Sergio Garcia, with 21, has more over that span without a victory.

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Double Whammy: McCoy’s amateur status. Not only did he miss out on nearly $300,000, but he couldn’t collect the non-member FedEx Cup points because he wasn’t a pro. That would have gone a long way toward qualifying him for the Tour Finals at the end of the year (and potentially earned his PGA Tour card), but now he’ll be starting from scratch once he turns pro after the NCAAs in June. Ouch. 

SOS: Steven Bowditch. Fortunately, he snapped a run of five consecutive rounds in the 80s, but his form chart has seen better days. His last eight scores on Tour: 80-72-81-80-80-84-81-76. Time for a break. 

• Have Game, Will Travel: Scott Hend. He finished 63rd out of 65 players at Doral, shooting 22 over. Seven days later, he won the European Tour event in Thailand, shooting 18 under. 

• Anyone Hiring a Writer?: Tiger Woods. The former world No. 1 tapped out his second blog post in the past nine days, only this time, well, he didn't have much to say, writing about a three-week-old Ryder Cup dinner and his nationally televised appearance at Bluejack National. Maybe writing is a form of physical therapy?

• End of an Era?: Ian Poulter at the WGC-Match Play. Barring any other withdrawals, one of the best match-play competitors of his generation will miss the event for the first time since 2003. Patton Kizzire currently holds the 66th and final spot for Austin.

Take Cover!: Justin Thomas' failed driver-off-the-deck shot Saturday. From 268 yards away, Thomas tried to reach the par 5 in two on the 14th hole at Innisbrook. He hit well behind the ball and sliced it, badly, into a few unsuspecting fans. The best part? He still made birdie. 

Um, Whatever Works?: Shingo Katayama. If you don't think pros are always looking for the next key to make more putts, check out this pre-shot routine:

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... 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."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.