Monday Scramble: TPC Sawgrass puts on a show

By Ryan LavnerMay 15, 2017, 4:30 pm

Si Woo Kim makes Players history, Ian Poulter locks up his card (again!), the 12th hole flames out, the stars struggle and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble: 

For better or worse, there is no tournament as unpredictable as The Players.

Kim hadn’t done anything of note this season – in fact, after dealing with back and wrist injuries, he had more withdrawals (four) than top-25s (two).

And yet he looked like a completely different player for four days on a course that can punish even decent shots. No one goes to TPC Sawgrass to find their game, and yet Kim, statistically one of the worst ball-strikers this season, finished the week ranked second.

Golf is funny sometimes.

Just 21 years old, Kim is used to being a part of the “one of the youngest to …” discussion. It'll be fascinating to see where this burgeoning star goes from here. 

1. Kim was the youngest player to earn a Tour card, in 2012, when he was just 17. At 20, he closed with 63 and lost in a playoff at Barbasol. A few weeks later, he blew away the field in Greensboro.

Not only is he the youngest winner of The Players – by two years – but he is the fourth-youngest player in the past 25 years to win twice on Tour, behind some bold-faced names, Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia and Jordan Spieth. 

Some elite company, for sure.

2. An instant classic, it was not, but Kim’s short game Sunday was what many will take away from his Players victory.

He hit only eight (!) greens in the final round and still shot a bogey-free 69. Think about that.

He was a perfect 10-for-10 scrambling, rolled in all 15 of his attempts inside 10 feet and needed just 23 putts on the day. 

3. A victory at The Players won’t exempt Kim from fulfilling his mandatory military service in South Korea.

Kim receives a five-year exemption for winning at TPC Sawgrass, and he has until age 30 to complete the two-year obligation that has paused the career of Sang-Moon Bae (who is expected to return next season).

“Regardless of me winning this tournament, I really have to go to the military service, and I’ve already decided that I’m going to go, too,” Kim said. “So I’m ready for that.” 

4. Poulter completed an incredible story Sunday with a tie for second Sunday at The Players.

Incredible because of his position just a few weeks ago – he’d lost his card and was in danger of being sent back to the minors or Europe.

Instead, thanks to Brian Gay, he kept his card after the Tour recalibrated the points for players on major medicals. Then, at TPC Sawgrass, he ranked third or better in strokes gained-tee to green and around the green, went 39 consecutive holes without a bogey in difficult conditions, and earned a paycheck worth $924,000 – enough to keep his card for next season.

5. In contention for the biggest title of his career, Poulter said that he felt “very comfortable” as he played the nerve-wracking finishing stretch at Sawgrass, but he played cautiously given his position.

Down two and with his ball sitting in the right rough on 16, he had only 238 yards to the flag. He chose to lay up and, at least statistically, hit the worst wedge shot of the day (by 21 feet), to 40 feet. Par.

On 17, still trailing by two, he hit it 40 feet left. Par.

And on 18, still trailing by two, in need of a birdie, he shanked his approach shot off a tent and into a palmetto bush, leading to a miraculous bogey and a boatload of badly-needed FedEx and world-ranking points.

6. Steve Elkington rarely looks smart on social media, but he tweeted this Sunday: 

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee offered an even more pointed critique, saying on "Live From": "He clearly did not play to win, and he didn't!"

Were they right?

Afterward, Poulter said it was an “extremely good week” and he was “really pleased.” And he should have been – again, it locked up his card for next season.

But after all that he has been through, after the most trying 18 months of his career, it’s reasonable to wonder whether he was just trying to protect his place on the leaderboard, rather than making a run for the title.

Because we can’t help but think back to how Patrick Cantlay handled the disappointment of losing the Valspar Championship in March.

Cantlay, like Poulter, was competing on a major medical, was coming off a rough patch (injuring his back and losing his best friend/caddie), was trying to earn as much money and as many points as he could, was trying to lock up his card.

But in the aftermath of a second-place finish, he didn’t view it like that at all. He was trying to win, period.

Even as a 25-year-old just starting his career, and with so much at stake, he dismissed any sense that there was solace in finishing second and securing his card. In fact, he was peeved.

“It didn’t really feel like a burden to begin with,” he said. “I’m not too worried about that. It didn’t really feel like much consolation at the moment. I didn’t finish the deal.”

In other words, it was a stark contrast to how Poulter sounded in his post-round presser. 

What Cantlay said was what we want to hear from the great players: We want them to compete for titles, not for points or money or status.

7. As much as the Tour tried to promote a “new-look” TPC Sawgrass, the only notable changes were the drastic makeover of the par-4 12th hole and the redone greens.

It’s clear the greens are still a year or two away from being as receptive as Tour players see on a weekly basis, but the early returns on the 12th are already in:

Good idea. Poor execution. 

The Tour wanted to see a 50-50 split, but only 29 percent of players (131 of 439) went for the green throughout the week – and even that number was boosted by a third-round setup with an easy hole location. Even then, just 62 percent of players went for the green.

Only 19 percent of players were successful in holding the green and putting for eagle. It ranked as the fourth-easiest hole of the week, playing to a 3.83 average.

No doubt, it was a more interesting hole than in previous years. But there is work to be done: 1.) The layup area needs to be more challenging, forcing players to go for it; 2.) The left side of the green is basically unusable because the slope is so severe that any shot spinning in that direction would roll into the water, and 3.) The area between the right bunker and the front edge of the green is too penal and can put good tee shots in bad spots.

Until those issues are resolved – and you can bet Camp Ponte Vedra received plenty of player feedback – the hole will continue to be underwhelming.

Get those bulldozers ready.

8. Rory McIlroy, who has already missed six weeks this year because of a rib injury, is set for another MRI today after feeling discomfort in his upper back.

It might be just a minor inconvenience, a slight tear in a muscle – after all, he was able to complete 72 holes, finishing in a tie for 35th. But it continues what has been a bizarre year for McIlroy.

After Dustin Johnson’s emergence, this was supposed to be the year that McIlroy reasserted himself as golf’s alpha male. Instead, he was an afterthought in the Masters, he changed his clubs and his ball, and he is now, once again, dealing with an injury.

McIlroy is entering one of his busiest stretches of the season. More time on the sidelines would be a massive bummer. 

9. DJ had a career-best finish at The Players – and it still was a disappointing result.

For the first time in nine appearances, Johnson finally got a top-15 finish, thanks to a closing 68 that matched his lowest round there.

It was just the third time in his past 14 starts that Johnson finished outside the top 10.  

10. Even with the deepest field in golf, it seems the star of the show is always Pete Dye’s diabolical Stadium Course, which tricks and confuses and confounds the year’s best once a year.

Early in the week, players will discuss how they’ve (1) come to appreciate the genius behind the design, or how they (2) enjoy how you have to “think” your way around the course.

But by the weekend, by the time the double bogeys rack up and the balls bounce over the green and into impossible spots, the warm, fuzzy feelings disappear.

Here’s Pat Perez on Saturday afternoon, speaking for the rest of the field ... if the rest of the field was speaking honestly:

“I think like everybody else: It’s tough to get through. The course is hard. It doesn’t fit my eye on almost any shot, like everybody else. That’s how it was designed. So you know who loves it? Maybe the winner of Sunday. That’s about it. It was designed to penalize you and cause trouble, and that’s what it does and it makes it uneasy for you. There’s not a shot out there that I’m comfortable hitting.”

11. Another example of why The Players doesn't play favorites and is the most wide-open big tournament:

Of the top 25 players in the world, only four (Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott, Alex Noren and Rafa Cabrera Bello) finished inside the top 10.

If it felt like this ’board was lacking the necessary star power, it's because it was.

The USGA already puts a cap on which amateurs can try and qualify for the U.S. Open, stating that those who don’t play for pay must have a handicap index of 1.4 or lower.

But maybe the blue blazers should pay closer attention to the “professionals.”

Last week, Clifton McDonald shot a 127 in a local qualifier in Alabama, a lowlight that was only brought to our attention thanks to Lee McCoy. 

We attempted to find out more about McDonald – who he is, why he attempted to qualify, why he’s so unfathomably awful – but he declined an interview request, via the USGA.

Since McDonald, a professional from Meridan, Miss., did not shoot a score within eight of the USGA Course Rating, his future entries may be declined if he does not provide proper documentation showing that he won’t embarrass himself once again. The USGA only offered this: “The USGA’s goal is to provide a fair competition and not exclude a player from making the attempt.”

Well, sorry, but there’s nothing fair about playing with or behind a guy who needs 127 shots to play an 18-hole qualifier. 

This week's award winners ... 

Zinger of the Week: Phil Mickelson. When asked whether the USGA needs to get the upcoming U.S. Open right, from a credibility standpoint: “I don’t know if doing one thing right is going to fix that.” 

Pour Some Out For …: J.B. Holmes. The 54-hole co-leader shot a final-round 84, dropping all the way to a tie for 41st. An all-time ejection. 

Sunday (Blood) Red: Big final-round numbers. Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose – they all shot 78 or worse on the last day. 

More Troubles: Danny Willett. The 2016 Masters champion hasn’t done anything of note since that fateful Sunday a year ago, and things have only gotten worse lately. In the past month alone, his caddie fired him and now an achy back has sent him (perhaps fortuitously) to the sidelines. 

Re-Upped: FedEx Cup. Good news, as the Tour’s playoff system will continue through at least 2027, though it could look drastically different in a few years, with a new spot on the schedule and one fewer postseason event. 

How Not to Celebrate an Albatross: Rafa Cabrera Bello. After recording the first 2 on the par-5 16th, the Spaniard flung his iron into the air … and into the pond. Doh!

Life Comes at You Fast: Jon Rahm. Through two days, he looked like the man to beat at TPC Sawgrass. Then, on Saturday, he shot the worst round of his young career, a third-round 82 that led him to miss the secondary cut. Speaking of which …

Seriously?: 54-hole Players cut. The Tour usually resorts to a “secondary” cut when more than 78 players make the weekend. But at the Tour’s flagship event, at the event FOR the players, with so much money and so many points at stake, it just seemed wrong to send 11 players home early. It’s the third time in the last 10 years that this has been used, but it still doesn’t make it right. 

Crisis Management 101: Billy Horschel. After getting shredded on social media for whipping his 5-wood into his bag in a kind of are-you-kidding-me? celebration following a chip-in, Horschel took to Twitter to explain his actions. No matter what you think about the club toss, this was a smart move – and a good use of social media. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jordan Spieth. Striking the ball as well as 2015, and at a course that he actually enjoys because of the strategy involved, Spieth railed against a poor rake job in Round 1, shot a second-round 75 and missed the cut for the third year in a row. Sigh. 

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Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.

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McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.