Monday Scramble: Different roads to Augusta

By Ryan LavnerMarch 20, 2017, 4:00 pm

Marc Leishman celebrates with family, Rory McIlroy keeps trending, Anna Nordqvist goes low, Tiger Woods reports emerge and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

The first Arnold Palmer Invitational without its beloved host went about how you’d expect.

Sam Saunders, Graeme McDowell and Peter Jacobsen were the epitome of class, the frontmen for what Palmer stood for and what this tournament means going forward.

Touches of Palmer were everywhere – players signed a commemorative flag in his office, and there was a 13-foot bronze statue near the first tee, and there was signage with inspirational messages scattered throughout the course, and Palmer’s cart (with two sets of clubs strapped to the back) was positioned near the 16th tee, his favorite spot to watch golf.

Players honored Arnie in different ways, from wearing custom shoes to stitching the colorful umbrella logo to hats, bags and shirts, to taking more time to sign autographs, because that’s what Palmer would have done.

What happens to the Bay Hill tournament is largely up to the players. In Year 1 without Palmer, they stepped up in a big way. 


1. Leishman’s victory at the API was one for the family.

It was for his 5-year-old son, Harvey, who kept pestering his dad about why he never wins.

And it was for his wife, Audrey, who emerged from two years of medical hell almost completely healthy, pregnant for the third time.

Here’s my piece from Sunday night on what the victory meant to the Leishmans

2. Leishman didn’t look like he was part of the picture until the last hour of the tournament. Facing a 50-foot for eagle, the big Aussie readjusted his line after remembering that he’d stroked a similar putt earlier in the week. This one was center cut, and it allowed him to leapfrog the leaders at 11 under.

After a wayward drive on 18, Leishman laid up short of the green. Helping him was that the hole location wasn’t in its traditional Sunday position, tucked over the pond in the back-right corner. He had the entirety of the green in front of him, and he bumped his chip to 3 feet for a solid par to close.

Leishman finished the week first in greens hit in regulation and second in strokes gained-putting – usually a winning combination. 

3. Leishman went from watching the Masters at home to a potential sleeper pick.

At No. 62 in the world, he needed a big week at Bay Hill or this week’s WGC-Match Play to qualify for the year’s first major. His victory at the API secured an invitation, and he improved to 32nd in the world.

Leishman has been hit-or-miss at Augusta throughout his career, with three missed cuts in four appearances, but he also had a chance to win in 2013, when he tied for fourth. His booming drives, sky-high irons and strong putting (he’s ranked second on Tour on the greens) could lead to another shot at the green jacket.   



4. After a rough start to the week, McIlroy made an Arnie-like charge to nearly steal the title.

Making only his third start of the year, McIlroy opened with a 74 and was in danger of missing the cut. He climbed his way back into contention with a third-round 65 (which tied the low round of the week) and then made seven birdies during a final-round 69.

His most spectacular shot was his second shot on the par-5 16th, after another massive drive. He hooded a wedge and hit a hook around a tree, the ball scooting over the green. He nearly holed the pitch shot and walked off with a tap-in birdie.

When he teed off on 18, he was in a share of the lead, but that scenario changed once Leishman eagled 16. McIlroy’s problem on the finishing hole wasn’t the first putt but the approach. With only a wedge into the green from 153 yards, he flared his second shot about 30 feet right of the flag, leaving a must-make putt that was fast and had plenty of break. He raced it 7 feet past and missed the comebacker.

“I gave the putt a run, that’s for sure,” he said. “Too much of a run.”  

5. McIlroy shot 10 under on the weekend and appears as confident as ever with the driver. With most players dialing back because of the firm and fast conditions, the world No. 2 continually pounded the big stick, smoking four drives of at least 360 yards on Sunday. He led the field in driving distance and also ranked first in strokes gained-approaches.

In other words, he’s trending nicely toward Augusta.  

6. Kevin Kisner doesn’t have the highest apex height, launch angle or spin rate, and it cost him Sunday when he couldn’t hold two critical shots on the increasingly firm greens.

Leading by three on the back nine, Kisner came home in 2-over 38 and failed to make a birdie after the seventh hole.

Even more frustrating was that Kisner thought he’d hit good enough shots to win.

On 15 and 16, he looked in prime position to make birdie, but both times his ball ended up in difficult spots from which to make par. He finished a shot behind Leishman.

“That’s just the nature of the beast on Sunday on the PGA Tour,” he said. “The golf course turns and gets very difficult, and you’ve got to be in the right position and I was not in the right position on either hole.”  



7. Muirfield might be back in the Open rota – and likely in line for 2022 – after voting to admit female members for the first time, but the club hasn’t exactly been praised for finally entering the 20th (let alone the 21st) century.

It was revealed that only 80.2 percent of members voted to allow women, which means that, even after a worldwide scolding, and with the specter of never again hosting an Open, one-fifth of the club’s members STILL didn’t want women to become members.

That’s why McIlroy was so outspoken about Muirfield’s exclusionary practices, calling it “obscene” and “ridiculous” and “horrendous” that it even took this long to get with the times.

“We’ll go back there for the Open Championship at some point,” he said, “but I won’t be having many cups of tea with the members afterward.” 

8. The paths to earn a Masters invitation are narrowing. The top 50 in the world at the end of this week’s WGC-Match Play will earn a spot in the year’s first major.

Here is how the bubble looks (* already exempt):

  • 45. Jeunghun Wang
  • 46. Martin Kaymer*
  • 47. Bill Haas*
  • 48. Charley Hoffman*
  • 49. Lee Westwood*
  • 50. Zach Johnson*
  • 51. Byeong-Hun An*
  • 52. Kevin Na*
  • 53. Ross Fisher
  • 54. William McGirt*
  • 55. Chris Wood*

9. Here is your viral video of the week, courtesy of Cody Gribble, who, apparently content with winning one Tour title, whacked a gator on the tail. 

This seems foolish, of course, but Gribble wasn’t concerned in the slightest. “They’re quick, but they’re not that quick,” he said. And then: “If you think that’s crazy, you should meet my father, Bill. He loves all types of animals.” Tournament officials had some fun at Gribble’s expense before the start of his second round:



10. Riding the momentum of a third-round 61, Anna Nordqvist cruised to a two-shot victory Sunday at the Founders Cup over a host of major champions.

It was Nordqvist’s seventh career title, and the first since she lost the U.S. Women’s Open in heartbreaking fashion, when she was penalized two shots for grazing the sand on her takeaway.

Her 25-under total was two shots off the LPGA record.

11. Finishing in a tie for second – again – was Stacy Lewis.

It was her 13th runner-up since her last victory, in summer 2014. She also has 19 top-5s and 29 top-10s in the 63 tournaments during that span.

“Hit a lot of good shots and didn’t quite get rewarded for them,” she said. “I played well. Hard to be too upset.” 

12. In perhaps a preview of what’s to come this spring and summer, about a dozen protesters assembled last week at the LPGA’s Founders Cup event in Phoenix.

Holding signs like “LPGA: Take a Mulligan: Dump Trump,” a group of protesters for UltraViolet, formed to fight sexism and expand women’s rights, assembled at the front entrance of the course Saturday before being asked by security to leave private property.

The U.S. Women’s Open will be staged this July at Trump Bedminster in New Jersey. The event is hosted by the USGA, not the LPGA, a point the women’s tour attempted to drive home again in a statement.

“When it comes to decisions regarding venue, purse, TV, etc.,” the statement read, “those are solely made by the USGA. We respect and support the decisions made by the USGA on this matter.”  



13. Amateur golf enthusiasts were concerned last week when it was revealed that the U.S. Walker Cup team will announce all 10 members at the same time. That’s a departure from previous years, in which the squad was essentially split into two announcements – those who were no-brainers and those who earned their spot with a strong summer push.

The uneasiness about the change stemmed from the fact that those in the mix for a Walker Cup berth might not want to wait around to turn pro if they don’t know for sure that they’ll be on the team.

It’s a non-issue.

Two years ago, the first wave of players was announced two weeks before the U.S. Amateur, after which the rest of the team is finalized. More college kids than ever before are turning pro after the NCAAs in June because they want to take advantage of the maximum seven sponsor exemptions allowed to non-members and try and earn a card or qualify for the Web.com Tour Finals. Turning pro in early August, then, would be pointless. The season is almost over.

And besides, even though the USGA sticks to its arcane policy of secrecy over transparency, nothing will keep captain Spider Miller from giving his studs a heads-up about their standing. (They should be able to figure it out for themselves, anyway.) This new rule keeps everyone playing through the summer – especially at the Western Am, arguably the most grueling test in amateur golf – allows the best chance for players to prove themselves and removes the notion that the final five selections barely made the team.

There are many reasons to question the Walker Cup selection process, but this isn’t one of them. 


With two and a half weeks to go, the will-he-or-won't-he game has begun in earnest. 

Tiger Woods was on "Good Morning America" on Monday to promote his book, for which he's holding a signing in New York City. It's his first public appearance since Feb. 3 in Dubai. He didn’t play Bay Hill. There have been scant updates on his progress. He would appear doubtful to play the Masters; though, he said Monday that he's "trying everything" to play. This is common sense.

A published report confirmed as much, via unnamed sources, who said that Woods “didn’t look good” and would be rushing back to play at Augusta.

Again, common sense, but the report prompted a strong rebuke from Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg, who unwittingly confirmed the original news – that Tiger is doubtful for the Masters.

“We’re not in a situation to even talk about playing in the Masters now,” said Steinberg, while adding that he didn’t want to get into specifics about Woods’ progress.

The Masters begins in 17 days. If they’re not even talking about playing in the Masters now, that's not a good sign.

This week's award winners ... 


(Un)welcome to the Tour, part 1: Steve Stricker. With a two-shot lead with three to play in his PGA Tour Champions debut, Stricker whiffed a 4-footer for par on 16 and then hit a 3-wood, not a driver, into the water on the long finishing hole to lose to Tom Lehman. 

(Un)welcome to the Tour, part 2: Curtis Luck. The reigning U.S. Am champion and top-ranked amateur in the world made his PGA Tour debut at Bay Hill. In his final tuneup for the Masters, the talented Aussie shot rounds of 79-82 and was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. Oy. 

Good Vibes: Matt Every at Bay Hill. Mired in a yearlong slump, all Every needed was a return trip to Arnie’s Place, where he won in back-to-back years. His tie for 62nd snapped a streak of 18 consecutive missed cuts. 

Teethless Tour: LPGA. What's gotten into these ladies? Four of the five events this year have been won with a four-round score of 19 under or lower (and the Founders Cup was the third event with a winning score at least 22 under). Birdie-fests are fun, but are they necessary every week? 



Streaking: Bernhard Langer. He now has a Champions record 32 consecutive rounds under par. The longest streak on the PGA Tour is 26; Lydia Ko shares the record on the LPGA, with 30.

Best Club Toss: Emiliano Grillo. Melting down Saturday on the par-5 sixth hole, where he already put two in the drink, Grillo, in one seamless motion, chucked his offending 3-iron into the pond. The 78 knocked him out of contention, but he rebounded with a final-round 68 to tie for seventh.


Not Yet Found His Form: Brooks Koepka. A trendy pick for breakout star in 2017, Koepka has instead gone the other way, fast. His missed cut at Bay Hill (which included a Thursday 78) was his fourth early exit in six starts, and he doesn’t have a finish better than 42nd. Peaking for Augusta, he is not.  

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Henrik Stenson. A popular pick in one-and-done formats, Big Stense shot 75 in the miserably cold conditions Thursday, then rolled up his pants and twice splashed out of a pond en route to a Friday 74 and his first career missed cut at Bay Hill (five consecutive top-15s here). Sigh. 

Open Qualifying Series kicks off with Aussie Open

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 4:24 pm

The 147th Open is nearly eight months away, but there are still major championship berths on the line this week in Australia.

The Open Qualifying Series kicks off this week, a global stretch of 15 event across 10 different countries that will be responsible for filling 46 spots in next year's field at Carnoustie. The Emirates Australian Open is the first event in the series, and the top three players among the top 10 who are not otherwise exempt will punch their tickets to Scotland.

In addition to tournament qualifying opportunities, the R&A will also conduct four final qualifying events across Great Britain and Ireland on July 3, where three spots will be available at each site.

Here's a look at the full roster of tournaments where Open berths will be awarded:

Emirates Australian Open (Nov. 23-26): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Joburg Open (Dec. 7-10): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

SMBC Singapore Open (Jan. 18-21): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Mizuno Open (May 24-27): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

HNA Open de France (June 28-July 1): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The National (June 28-July 1): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Dubai Duty Free Irish Open (July 5-8): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The Greenbrier Classic (July 5-8): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open (July 12-15): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

John Deere Classic (July 12-15): Top player (not otherwise exempt) among top five and ties

Stock Watch: Lexi, Justin rose or fall this week?

By Ryan LavnerNovember 21, 2017, 2:36 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): Just imagine how good he’ll be in the next few years, when he isn’t playing all of these courses for the first time. With no weaknesses in his game, he’s poised for an even bigger 2018.

Austin Cook (+7%): From Monday qualifiers to Q-School to close calls on the Web.com, it hasn’t been an easy road to the big leagues. Well, he would have fooled us, because it looked awfully easy as the rookie cruised to a win in just his 14th Tour start.

Ariya (+6%): Her physical tools are as impressive as any on the LPGA, and if she can shore up her mental game – she crumbled upon reaching world No. 1 – then she’ll become the world-beater we always believed she could be.  

Tommy Fleetwood (+4%): He ran out of gas in Dubai, but no one played better on the European Tour this year than Fleetwood, Europe’s new No. 1, who has risen from 99th to 18th in the world.   

Lexi (+1%): She has one million reasons to be pleased with her performance this year … but golf fans are more likely to remember the six runners-up and two careless mistakes (sloppy marking at the ANA and then a yippy 2-footer in the season finale) that cost her a truly spectacular season.


FALLING

J-Rose (-1%): Another high finish in Dubai, but his back-nine 38, after surging into the lead, was shocking. It cost him not just the tournament title, but also the season-long race.  

Hideki (-2%): After getting blown out at the Dunlop Phoenix, he made headlines by saying there’s a “huge gap” between he and winner Brooks Koepka. Maybe something was lost in translation, but Matsuyama being too hard on himself has been a familiar storyline the second half of the year. For his sake, here’s hoping he loosens up.

Golf-ball showdown (-3%): Recent comments by big-name stars and Mike Davis’ latest salvo about the need for a reduced-flight ball could set up a nasty battle between golf’s governing bodies and manufacturers.

DL3 (-4%): Boy, the 53-year-old is getting a little too good at rehab – in recent years, he has overcome a neck fusion, foot injury, broken collarbone and displaced thumb. Up next is hip-replacement surgery.

LPGA Player of the Year (-5%): Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu tied for the LPGA’s biggest prize, with 162 points. How is there not a tiebreaker in place, whether it’s scoring average or best major performance? Talk about a buzzkill.

Titleist's Uihlein fires back at Davis over distance

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 12:59 am

Consider Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein unmoved by Mike Davis' comments about the evolution of the golf ball – and unhappy.

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, the outlet which first published Davis' comments on Sunday, Uihlein took aim at the idea that golf ball distance gains are hurting the sport by providing an additional financial burden to courses.

"Is there any evidence to support this canard … the trickle-down cost argument?” he wrote (via Golf.com). “Where is the evidence to support the argument that golf course operating costs nationwide are being escalated due to advances in equipment technology?"

Pointing the blame elsewhere, Uihlein criticized the choices and motivations of modern architects.

"The only people that seem to be grappling with advances in technology and physical fitness are the short-sighted golf course developers and the supporting golf course architectural community who built too many golf courses where the notion of a 'championship golf course' was brought on line primarily to sell real estate," he wrote.

The Titleist CEO even went as far as to suggest that Tiger Woods' recent comments that "we need to do something about the golf ball" were motivated by the business interersts of Woods' ball sponsor, Bridgestone.

"Given Bridgestone’s very small worldwide market share and paltry presence in professional golf, it would seem logical they would have a commercial motive making the case for a reduced distance golf ball," he added.

Acushnet Holdings, Titleist's parent company, announced in September that Uihlein would be stepping down as the company's CEO at the end of this year but that he will remain on the company's board of directors.

Class of 2011: Who's got next?

By Rex HoggardNovember 20, 2017, 9:00 pm

The sprawling legacy of the Class of 2011 can be traced to any number of origins, but for some among what is arguably the most prolific class ever, it all began in June 2009.

The 99-player field that descended on Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., for the AJGA’s FootJoy Invitational included Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and so many others, like Michael Kim, who up to that moment had experienced the weight of the ’11 class only from afar.

“It was that year that Justin won the FootJoy Invitational and that got him into [the Wyndham Championship]," Kim recalled. "That was my first invitational and I was like 'these guys are so good’ and I was blown away by what they were shooting. I remember being shocked by how good they were at that time.”

Tom Lovelady, who like former Cal-Berkeley Bear Kim is now on the PGA Tour, remembers that tournament as the moment when he started to realize how special this particular group could be, as well as the genesis of what has become lifetime friendships.

In the third round, Lovelady was paired with Spieth.

“We kind of hit it off and became friends after that," Lovelady recalled. "The final round I got paired with Justin Thomas and we became friends. On the 10th hole I asked [Thomas], ‘Where do you want to go to school?’ He said, ‘Here. Here or Alabama.’ My first reaction was, ‘Don’t go to Alabama.’ He’s like, ‘Why?’ I wanted to go there. I knew the class was strong and they only had so many spots, but that’s where I really wanted to go.”

Both ended up in Tuscaloosa, and both won an NCAA title during their time in college. They also solidified a friendship that endures to this day in South Florida where they live and train together.

While the exploits of Thomas, Spieth and Daniel Berger are well documented, perhaps the most impressive part of the ’11 class is the depth that continues to develop at the highest level.

To many, it’s not a question as to whether the class will have another breakout star, it’s when and who?



There’s a good chance that answer could have been found on the tee sheet for last week’s RSM Classic, a lineup that included Class of ’11 alums Lovelady; Kim; Ollie Schniederjans, a two-time All-American at Georgia Tech; Patrick Rodgers, Stanford's all-time wins leader alongside Tiger Woods; and C.T. Pan, a four-time All-American at the University of Washington.

Lovelady earned his Tour card this year via the Web.com Tour, while Schniederjans and Rodgers are already well on their way to the competitive tipping point of Next Level.

Rodgers, who joined the Tour in 2015, dropped a close decision at the John Deere Classic in July, where he finished a stroke behind winner Bryson DeChambeau; and Schniederjans had a similar near-miss at the Wyndham Championship.

To those who have been conditioned by nearly a decade of play, it’s no surprise that the class has embraced a next-man-up mentality. Nor is it any surprise, at least for those who were forged by such an exceedingly high level of play, that success has seemed to be effortless.

“First guy I remember competing against at a high level was Justin. We were playing tournaments at 10, 11 years old together,” Rodgers said. “He was really, really good at that age and I wasn’t really good and so he was always my benchmark and motivated me to get better.”

That symbiotic relationship hasn’t changed. At every level the group has been challenged, and to a larger degree motivated, by the collective success.

By all accounts, it was Spieth who assumed the role of standard-bearer when he joined the Tour in 2013 and immediately won. For Rodgers, however, the epiphany arrived a year later as he was preparing to play a college event in California and glanced up at a television to see his former rival grinding down the stretch at Augusta National.

“Jordan’s leading the Masters. A couple years before we’d been paired together battling it out at this exact same college event,” he laughed. “I think I even won the tournament. It was just crazy for me to see someone who is such a peer, someone I was so familiar with up there on the biggest stage.”

It was a common theme for many among the Class of ’11 as Spieth, Thomas and others emerged, and succeeded, on a world stage. If familiarity can breed contempt, in this case it created a collective confidence.

Success on Tour has traditionally come slowly for new pros, the commonly held belief being that it took younger players time to evolve into Tour professionals. That’s no longer the case, the byproduct of better coaching, training and tournaments for juniors and top-level amateurs.

But for the Class of ’11, that learning curve was accelerated by the economies of scale. The quality and quantity of competition for the class has turned out to be a fundamental tenet to the group’s success.

“Since the mindset of the class has been win, win, win, you don’t know anything other than that, it’s never been just be good enough,” Lovelady said. “You don’t think about being top 125 [on the FedExCup points list], you think about being as high as you can instead of just trying to make the cut, or just keep your card. It’s all you’ve known since you were 14, 15 years old.”

It’s a unique kind of competitive Darwinism that has allowed the class to separate itself from others, an ever-present reality that continues to drive the group.

“It was constantly in my head motivating me,” Rodgers said. “Then you see Jordan turn pro and have immediate success and Justin turn pro and have immediate success. It’s kind of the fuel that drives me. What makes it special is these guys have always motivated me, maybe even more so than someone like Tiger [Woods].”

The domino effect seems obvious, inevitable even, with the only unknown who will be next?

“That’s a good question; I’d like for it to be myself,” Lovelady said. “But it’s hard to say it’s going to be him, it’s going to be him when it could be him. There are just so many guys.”