Monday Scramble: Emotions run high at Match Play

By Ryan LavnerMarch 27, 2017, 4:00 pm

Dustin Johnson keeps rolling, Jon Rahm impresses, Jason Day withdraws, and the Match Play format debate rages on in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

There are a few ways to describe Johnson when he performs like this. Dominating. Intimidating. Electrifying.

And then there’s how Rahm described him Sunday night, after losing, 1 up, in the championship match of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play:

“He’s just a perfect, complete player.”

Awesome power works everywhere, of course, but Johnson’s wedge game and solid putting are why he has now won three tournaments in a row, why he has put a stranglehold on world No. 1.

DJ is a player without weakness, a superstar who, if on his game, requires his opponent to be nothing short of perfect to beat him.  

Now the clear-cut favorite for the Masters, can anybody stop him? 

1. Even on a Sunday without his best stuff, Johnson continued his weeklong romp at Austin Country Club.

Here are his final stats from the week:

  • 112 holes played
  • 105 holes led
  • 7 holes tied
  • 46 holes won
  • 23 holes lost

DJ saw the 17th and 18th holes only twice – both times on Sunday, when he went birdie-par to knock off Hideto Tanihara in the semis, then par-par to hold off a hard-charging Rahm in the finals. 

2. Only two players have won the WGC-Match Play without trailing in any match.

Those dominant performances came from two wildly different players.

Luke Donald relied on his precision and short game to accomplish the feat in 2011, when he led 81 of the 89 holes (91 percent) he played over six 18-hole matches at Dove Mountain.

Johnson bashed his way around Austin CC and led for 94 percent of the 112 holes he played. 

3. Six of DJ’s 15 career titles have come since June.

That haul includes some of the biggest prizes in the game: a U.S. Open trophy, victories at a FedEx Cup playoff event and Riviera, and  – gulp – three World Golf Championships.

He is the first player to sweep the four WGCs. 

4. Rahm continued his meteoric rise in the world rankings with a(nother) breakout performance at the Match Play.

His spectacular all-around game was no secret to those who have watched his game over the past four years. He was an 11-time winner at Arizona State, he recorded a pair of top-3 finishes in his first few starts as a pro, and he rallied to win at Torrey Pines earlier this year.

But over the past month, against elite fields, he has proven himself as one of the game’s best.

Rahm briefly led with three holes to play in Mexico, only to stumble late. Then came the Match Play, where he overpowered a series of opponents before taking the world No. 1 to the final hole.

Rahm looked like he was toast, 4 down with six to play, but that’s when he staged a furious rally. He pounded driver and flew the water on 13. He stiffed an approach on 15. He hit a bold shot through the trees on 16. And then he got up and down from a dodgy lie on 17.

It wasn’t quite enough, but Rahm should no longer be viewed as a rising star or a kid with a bright future.

He’s the 14th-ranked player in the world – ahead of Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson and Brooks Koepka – and that’s only because his average points are weighed down by his 40-event divisor. Rahm has played only 19 counting events – based on that calculation and his average points, he’s really the second-ranked player in the world.

5. Sunday was the last day for players to qualify for the Masters via the top 50 in the world ranking.

Clutch performances in Austin by Hideto Tanihara and Ross Fisher secured those two invitations.

Tanihara, who began the week No. 60 in the world, finished fourth but did enough to move inside the top 50.

A trip to the quarterfinals was good enough for Fisher, who was No. 53 and is now set to play the Masters for the first time since 2012.  

The Masters field is at 94 players.

6. It was an unusual week for Rory McIlroy. He played well in two matches, going 7 under, but came away with a 0-1-1 record.

McIlroy would have beat just about anybody else in the opening round of pool play, but Soren Kjeldsen made four consecutive birdies to close – five straight approaches inside 10 feet – to put away the world No. 2.

An injury-hampered start to the season has added up to only 14 competitive rounds of golf heading into the Masters. McIlroy won’t add Houston to get more reps; he is playing Augusta early this week and then returning to South Florida to fine-tune his game.

McIlroy doesn’t think it’ll affect his performance at the year’s first major. In fact, he says his short game is as sharp as it’s ever been going into Augusta after the six weeks away because of his rib injury.

“Freshness could help, especially mentally,” he said. “Mentally going in there and not being drained.” 

7. The opposite might be true for Rahm. Unlike DJ, who withdrew on Monday afternoon, the young Spaniard is still expected to tee it up in the Shell Houston Open, less than a week after playing seven matches over five days on a difficult course to walk. That's a lot of energy expended, with a final test run at Houston and then a long, grueling week at Augusta.

Another reason why the timing of the Match Play just doesn't work.

8. Look, there's no arguing with the quality of winners in the new format – McIlroy, Jason Day, and DJ all ranked no worse than second in the world - and Austin Country Club is a home run as a match-play venue.

But another year of uninspiring round-robin matches has us thinking of more changes. 

Here's why: Supporters of the round-robin format pointed to last year’s results and that it still was basically one-and-done, that only three players lost a match in pool play and still advanced.

That argument doesn’t hold up as well after this year.

Six players lost a match and still moved on to the Round of 16. Five of those players needed a sudden-death playoff. Zach Johnson was the only player to win his group with two points (2-1 record).

Twenty-two players were mathematically eliminated after the first two days of pool play, and that's a problem. When a third of the field is going through the motions Friday, playing only for pride and a few FedEx Cup points, it dilutes the product.  

What we’ll continue to propose here is a stroke-play qualifier that leads into the knockout rounds.

It’d be similar to the format used by the U.S. and Western amateurs: 54 holes of stroke play, after which the field would be cut to the low 16, then single-elimination match play to determine a winner.

Why does this work?

It keeps everybody there until Friday, which was one of the major reasons the Tour (and its TV partners) abandoned the traditional format. It cuts down the number of also-rans, because their poor play doesn’t become a protect-the-field dilemma. And it keeps the schedule they’ve already established, with doubleheaders days on Saturday and Sunday.

Here’s guessing there wouldn’t be as many dropouts with a more traditional approach to the Match Play. It allows the players who are performing the best to play the weekend, while also keeping the integrity of survive-and-advance match play.

9. The Puerto Rico Open victory didn’t earn D.A. Points a spot in the Masters, but the two-year exemption, through 2019, might be even more valuable.

Since his career-best year in 2013, when he won his second of two PGA Tour titles in Houston, Points has fallen on hard times. Each of the past three years, he has finished outside the top 170 in FedEx Cup points. Last year, he needed to survive the Tour Finals.

Points didn’t have a top-30 finish in six starts this season, but it sure didn’t look like it Sunday. He made five birdies in a row to start the final round in Puerto Rico, then ran off four birdies in the last six holes to post a two-shot victory over a trio of players.

“I would like to thank my wife and kids for being so supportive during these last few years, while I have been sucking!” he tweeted. “They never gave up on me!”

10. A final-round 67 gave Bryson DeChambeau a career-best tie for second.

It’s his second encouraging performance in a row, after getting off the schneid and posting a top-30 finish in Tampa.

The mad scientist has had more than his share of growing pains this season, but it appears he’s finally heading into the right direction. Golf is more interesting with him in the mix. 

11. Some of the players who figure to be in the mix at the Masters will get one final tune-up in Houston.

Among the big names in the field, besides DJ and Rahm: Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and Justin Rose.

No player since Mickelson (2006) has won the week before the Masters and then again at Augusta. 

12. Speaking of majors ... an ideal way to prepare for the ANA Inspiration, this was not: Lydia Ko last week missed just her second cut in 91 career LPGA events.

It’s been a peculiar start to the year for the world No. 1. In five starts, she has three top-10s, but none of those were legitimate chances to win. She also has a T-46 and a missed cut.

Ariya Jutanugarn, meanwhile, is drawing closer to the top ranking … 

It was hard to watch Day’s news conference Wednesday at the Match Play, after he walked off the course after just six holes.

The concern originally was that Day had re-injured his balky back, but this was much more troubling – his mother, Dening, was scheduled for lung-cancer surgery after she was originally told that she had only 12 months to live. Day lost his father to stomach cancer when he was only 12.

Dening’s prognosis is better here in the States, and the surgery, according to Day's manager, went well and the doctors are optimistic about her recovery.

Much respect to J-Day for recognizing that family supersedes another golf tournament.

All the best to the entire Day family. 

This week's award winners ... 

Karma: Sam Saunders. After admirably performing all of his unofficial hosting duties two weeks ago at Bay Hill, Saunders shot 67-65 on the weekend in Puerto Rico to score a T-5 finish. It was his best finish on Tour since losing a playoff there in 2015. 

Games We’re Not Familiar With: Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm. Blasting away on the par-5 12th hole Sunday, DJ smoked a 424-yard drive – and was still away. Rahm’s went 438. (Only DJ made birdie.) 

Bad Timing: Dude behind 18 green. There was a loud crash behind the 18th green while Rahm took back the club for his decisive chip shot on the final green. He chunked the shot, leaving the ball atop a steep slope and giving him virtually no chance to make birdie and force a playoff. 

What Could Have Been: Tyrrell Hatton. Locked in a three-man sudden-death playoff to advance to the Round of 16, Hatton’s ball moved on the first playoff hole. Instead of stopping to return the ball to its original position, he quickly discussed the situation with fellow competitor Rafa Cabrera Bello, then went ahead and finished out. Problem was, he played the ball from the new position, and that’s a two-shot penalty. His week was done. 

Hey, Remember Me?: Lucy Li. She was the adorable 11-year-old who qualified for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst. Well, Li, now 14, has qualified for another major, this week’s ANA Inspiration, after winning an AJGA event by four shots. 

Still Going Low ...: LPGA scores. With Mirim Lee's 20-under winning total at the Kia Classic, five of the six events this year have been won with at least a 19 under total.

Trash Talk of the Week: Gary Player. Gotta love this playful jab from the Black Knight as the ceremonial first tee shot at the Masters approaches: 

Nice Consolation: Bill Haas. It must be painful to head back out for another 18-hole match after losing in the semifinals, but Haas made the final tour worthwhile, knocking off Tanihara to bank the extra $133,000 ($678,000 total) and jump eight spots in the world ranking, to No. 39. 

Best Topped Drive: Sergio Garcia. With rain pelting Garcia and everybody else at Austin CC, the Spaniard’s hands slipped off the driver, resulting in the rare Tour player cold-top. (Yes, he lost the hole.)

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Louis Oosthuizen. The South African’s 14 matches won since 2013 was the second-most in the field, behind only Day. He got off to a rousing start, thumping Ross Fisher, but with a 2-1 record he ended up losing to Fisher in a sudden-death tiebreaker, failing to qualify for the Round of 16. Sigh. 

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Mickelson grouped with Z. Johnson at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 8:28 pm

He's not the highest-ranked player in this week's field, but Phil Mickelson will likely draw the biggest crowd at the CareerBuilder Challenge as he makes his first start of 2018. Here are a few early-round, marquee groupings to watch as players battle the three-course rotation in the Californian desert (all times ET):

12:10 p.m. Thursday, 11:40 a.m. Friday, 1:20 p.m. Saturday: Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson

Mickelson is making his fourth straight trip to Palm Springs, having cracked the top 25 each of the last three times. In addition to their respective amateur partners, he'll play the first three rounds alongside a fellow Masters champ in Johnson, who tied for 14th last week in Hawaii and finished third in this event in 2014.

11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Jon Rahm, Bubba Watson

At No. 3 in the world, Rahm is the highest-ranked player teeing it up this week and the Spaniard returns to an event where he finished T-34 last year in his tournament debut. He'll play the first two rounds alongside Watson, who is looking to bounce back from a difficult 2016-17 season and failed to crack the top 50 in two starts in the fall.

11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Patrick Reed, Brandt Snedeker

Reed made the first big splash of his career at this event in 2014, shooting three straight rounds of 63 en route to his maiden victory. He'll be joined by Snedeker, whose bid for a Masters bid via the top 50 of the world rankings came up short last month and who hasn't played this event since a missed cut in 2015.

1:10 p.m. Thursday, 12:40 p.m. Friday, 12:10 p.m. Saturday: Patton Kizzire, Bill Haas

Kizzire heads east after a whirlwind Sunday ended with his second win of the season in a six-hole playoff over James Hahn in Honolulu. He'll play alongside Haas, who won this event in both 2010 and 2015 to go with a runner-up finish in 2011 and remains the tournament's all-time leading money winner.

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Mackay still a caddie at heart, even with a microphone

By Doug FergusonJanuary 16, 2018, 7:34 pm

HONOLULU – All it took was one week back on the bag to remind Jim ''Bones'' Mackay what he always loved about being a caddie.

It just wasn't enough for this to be the ultimate mic drop.

Mackay traded in his TV microphone at the Sony Open for the 40-pound bag belonging to Justin Thomas.

It was his first time caddying since he split with Phil Mickelson six months ago. Mackay was only a temporary replacement at Waialae for Jimmy Johnson, a good friend and Thomas' regular caddie who has a nasty case of plantar fasciitis that will keep him in a walking boot for the next month.

''The toughest thing about not caddying is missing the competition, not having a dog in the fight,'' Mackay said before the final round. ''There's nothing more rewarding as a caddie, in general terms, when you say, 'I don't like 6-iron, I like 7,' and being right. I miss that part of it.''

The reward now?

''Not stumbling over my words,'' he said. ''And being better than I was the previous week.''

He has done remarkably well since he started his new job at the British Open last summer, except for that time he momentarily forgot his role. Parts of that famous caddie adage – ''Show up, keep up, shut up'' – apparently can apply to golf analysts on the ground.

During the early hours of the telecast, before Johnny Miller came on, Justin Leonard was in the booth.

''It's my job to report on what I see. It's not my job to ask questions,'' Mackay said. ''I forgot that for a minute.''

Leonard was part of a booth discussion on how a comfortable pairing can help players trying to win a major. That prompted Mackay to ask Leonard if he found it helpful at the 1997 British Open when he was trying to win his first major and was paired with Fred Couples in the final round at Royal Troon.

''What I didn't know is we were going to commercial in six seconds,'' Mackay said. ''I would have no way of knowing that, but I completely hung Justin out to dry. He's now got four seconds to answer my long-winded question.''

During the commercial break, the next voice Mackay heard belonged to Tommy Roy, the executive golf producer at NBC.

''Bones, don't ever do that again.''

It was Roy who recognized the value experienced caddies could bring to a telecast. That's why he invited Mackay and John Wood, the caddie for Matt Kuchar, into the control room at the 2015 Houston Open so they could see how it all worked and how uncomfortable it can be to hear directions coming through an earpiece.

Both worked as on-course reporters at Sea Island that fall.

And when Mickelson and Mackay parted ways after 25 years, Roy scooped up the longtime caddie for TV.

It's common for players to move into broadcasting. Far more unusual is for a caddie to be part of the mix. Mackay loves his new job. Mostly, he loves how it has helped elevate his profession after so many years of caddies being looked upon more unfavorably than they are now.

''I want to be a caddie that's doing TV,'' he said. ''That's what I hope to come across as. The guys think this is good for caddies. And if it's good for caddies, that makes me happy. Because I'm a caddie. I'll always be a caddie.''

Not next week at Torrey Pines, where Mickelson won three times. Not a week later in Phoenix, where Mackay lives. Both events belong to CBS.

And not the Masters.

He hasn't missed Augusta since 1994, when Mickelson broke his leg skiing that winter.

''That killed me,'' he said, ''but not nearly as much as it's going to kill me this year. I'll wake up on Thursday of the Masters and I'll be really grumpy. I'll probably avoid television at all costs until the 10th tee Sunday. And I'll watch. But it will be, within reason, the hardest day of my life.''

There are too many memories, dating to when he was in the gallery right of the 11th green in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman. He caddied for Mize for two years, and then Scott Simpson in 1992, and Mickelson the rest of the way. He was on the bag for Lefty's three green jackets.

Mackay still doesn't talk much about what led them to part ways, except to say that a player-caddie relationship runs its course.

''If you lose that positive dynamic, there's no point in continuing,'' he said. ''It can be gone in six months or a year or five years. In our case, it took 25 years.''

He says a dozen or so players called when they split up, and the phone call most intriguing was from Roy at NBC.

''I thought I'd caddie until I dropped,'' Mackay said.

He never imagined getting yardages and lining up putts for anyone except the golfer whose bag he was carrying. Now it's for an audience that measures in the millions. Mackay doesn't look at it as a second career. And he won't rule out caddying again.

''It will always be tempting,'' he said. ''I'll always consider myself a caddie. Right now, I'm very lucky and grateful to have the job I do.''

Except for that first week in April.

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The Social: The end was nigh, then it wasn't

By Jason CrookJanuary 16, 2018, 7:00 pm

The star power at the Sony Open may have been overshadowed by a missile scare, but there were plenty of other social media stories that kept the golf world on its toes this week, including some insight on Tiger Woods from a round with President Obama and some failed trick shots.

All that and more in this week's edition of The Social.

By now you've undoubtedly heard about the false alarm in Hawaii on Saturday, where just about everyone, including most Sony Open participants, woke up to an emergency cell phone alert that there was a ballistic missile heading toward the islands.

Hawaiian emergency management officials eventually admitted the original message was mistakenly sent out, but before they did, people (understandably) freaked out.

As the situation unfolded, some Tour pros took to social media to express their confusion and to let the Twittersphere know how they planned on riding out this threat:

While I would've been in that bathtub under the mattress with John Peterson, his wife, baby and in-laws (wait, how big is this tub?), here's how Justin Thomas reacted to the threat of impending doom:

Yeah, you heard that right.

“I was like ‘there’s nothing I can do,'” Thomas said. ”I sat on my couch and opened up the sliding door and watched TV and listened to music. I was like, if it’s my time, it’s my time.”

Hmmm ... can we just go ahead and award him all the 2018 majors right now? Because if Thomas is staring down death in mid-January, you gotta like the kid's chances on the back nine Sunday at Augusta and beyond.

Before the Hawaiian Missile Crisis of 2018, things were going about as well as they could at Waialae Country Club, starting with the Wednesday pro-am.

Jordan Spieth might have been the third-biggest star in his own group, after getting paired with superstar singer/songwriter/actor Nick Jonas and model/actress Kelly Rohrbach.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more photogenic group out on the course, and the "Baywatch" star has a gorgeous swing as well, which makes sense, considering she was a former collegiate golfer at Georgetown.

As impressive as that group was, they were somehow outshined by an amateur in another group, former NFL coach June Jones.

Jones, who now coaches the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, played his round in bare feet and putted with his 5-iron, a remedy he came up with to battle the yips.

Former NFL and current CFL coach June Jones: A master of 5-iron putting?

A post shared by PGA TOUR (@pgatour) on

Considering he made back-to-back birdies at one point during the day, it's safe to say he's won that battle.

With Tiger Woods' return to the PGA Tour about a week away, that sound you hear is the hype train motoring full speed down the tracks.

First, his ex-girlfriend Lindsey Vonn told Sports Illustrated that she hopes this comeback works out for him.

“I loved him and we’re still friends. Sometimes, I wish he would have listened to me a little more, but he’s very stubborn and he likes to go his own way," the Olympic skiier said. "I hope this latest comeback sticks. I hope he goes back to winning tournaments.”

Vonn also mentioned she thinks Woods is very stubborn and that he didn't listen to her enough. That really shouldn't shock anyone who watched him win the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg. Don't think there were a lot of people in his ear telling him that was a great idea at the time.

We also have this report from Golf Channel Insider Tim Rosaforte, stating that the 14-time major champ recently played a round with former president Barack Obama at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., where he received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon.

The Farmers Insurance Open is sure to be must-see TV, but until then, I'm here for all of the rampant speculation and guesses as to how things will go. The more takes the better. Make them extra spicy, please and thanks.

These poor New Orleans Saints fans. Guess the only thing you can do is throw your 65-inch TV off the balcony and get 'em next year.

Here's two more just for good measure.

Farts ... will they ever not be funny?

Perhaps someday, but that day was not early last week, when Tommy Fleetwood let one rip on his European teammates during EurAsia Cup team photos.

Fleetwood went 3-0-0 in the event, helping Europe to a victory over Asia, perhaps by distracting his opponents with the aid of his secret weapon.

Also, how about the diabolical question, "Did you get that?"

Yeah Tommy, we all got that.

Ahhh ... golf trick shot videos. You were fun while you lasted.

But now we’ve officially come to the point in their existence where an unsuccessful attempt is much more entertaining than a properly executed shot, and right on cue, a couple of pros delivered some epic fails.

We start with Sony Open runner-up James Hahn’s preparation for the event, where for some reason he thought he needed to practice a running, jumping, Happy Gilmore-esque shot from the lip of a bunker. It didn’t exactly work out.

Not to be outdone, Ladies European Tour pro Carly Booth attempted the juggling-drive-it-out-of-midair shot made famous by the Bryan Bros, and from the looks of things she might have caught it a little close to the hosel.

PSA to trick-shot artists everywhere: For the sake of the viewing public, if you feel a miss coming on, please make sure the camera is rolling.

Seriously, though, who cares? Definitely not these guys and gals, who took the time to comment, "who cares?" They definitely do not care.

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Spieth selected by peers to run for PAC chairman

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 6:43 pm

Jordan Spieth may still be relatively young, but he has gained the confidence of some of the PGA Tour's most seasoned voices.

Spieth is one of two players selected by the current player directors of the Tour's Policy Board to run for Chairman of the Player Advisory Council (PAC). Spieth will face Billy Hurley III in an election that will end Feb. 13, with the leading vote-getter replacing Davis Love III next year on the Policy Board for a three-year term through 2021.

Last year's PAC chairman, Johnson Wagner, replaces Jason Bohn as a player director on the Policy Board beginning this year and running through 2020. Other existing player directors include Charley Hoffman (2017-19), Kevin Streelman (2017-19) and Love (2016-18).

The 16-member PAC advises and consults with the Policy Board and Tour commissioner Jay Monahan on "issues affecting the Tour."

In addition to Spieth and Hurley, other PAC members for 2018 include Daniel Berger, Paul Casey, Stewart Cink, Chesson Hadley, James Hahn, Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Anirban Lahiri, Geoff Ogilvy, Sam Saunders, Chris Stroud, Justin Thomas, Kyle Thompson and Cameron Tringale.