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Monday Scramble: Change in title

By Ryan LavnerNovember 13, 2017, 4:30 pm

Bernhard Langer gets robbed, Patton Kizzire breaks through, Kevin Sutherland ends a drought, the LPGA season comes to an end and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

The Charles Schwab Cup playoffs produced a familiar, unsatisfying ending Sunday: The best player didn’t walk away with the hardware.

That’s been the case for too many years with the PGA Tour’s FedExCup playoffs, a big reason why the postseason structure is poised to undergo a major overhaul.

“Season-long champion” and “season-finale drama” typically don’t mix, and yet the PGA Tour (and, by extension, the senior circuit) continues to try to force the issue with talk of point resets and “controlling your own destiny.” All it creates is more fan confusion and player frustration.

That anyone other than Bernhard Langer – who won a tour-best seven times, including three majors and two of the three playoff events – could capture the “season-long prize” was absurd, just as it was when Rory McIlroy or Dustin Johnson failed to win the FedExCup.

Here's guessing next year's senior "playoff" looks a bit different.


1. This isn’t meant to diminish Kevin Sutherland’s accomplishment. Even without a victory this year, he entered the week at No. 5 on the points list and could take the Schwab Cup with a win or high finish at the season finale. He got the job done, while Langer finished 12th.

Still, the resumes don’t match up.

Player A: 23 events, 1 win (0 majors), 3 runners-up, 15 top-10s

Player B: 22 events, 7 wins (3 majors), 2 runners-up, 16 top-10s

Forget the guy who showed up at the right time. Disregard the comparisons to the 2007 New England Patriots, who went undefeated and then lost the Super Bowl.

The question the Tour should be trying to answer with these “playoffs” is who had the best year?

In this case, the answer is obvious. 

2. Langer is on the PGA Tour Champions policy board and, even though he voted to approve this version, said it needs tweaking:

“I think it needs adjusting,” he said. “I do, personally, because you could have somebody win the whole thing that hasn’t won a tournament all year, and I’m not sure that’s ideal. But I was on the [PGA Tour Champions policy] board. We said we’re going to try this out. I’m not sure if it’s perfect. It’s maybe like the FedExCup. They had to adjust it two or three times to make it interesting but also make it a little fair.

“It was never meant to be fair. It was meant to be playoffs. Everyone in the field has a chance to win. Is it fair? No, it’s not, but that’s how it is right now.” 

3. That it was Sutherland who ended Langer’s bid for four consecutive Schwab Cup titles was a surprise.

This was the 53-year-old’s first victory ANYWHERE since 2002, and his first stroke-play victory on either the PGA or Champions tours.

“It’s been a long time since I won a tournament,” he said. “I think, early on, I was beating myself up a little bit. But this year, I didn’t really get too frustrated by it. I knew I was playing well, and if I kept doing what I was doing, I was eventually going to get a win.”

Talk about a well-timed breakthrough – he earned $1.44 million.



4. As much as it pains this Georgia grad to admit, it was an awfully good weekend for Auburn athletics.

Sure, the Tigers knocked off the top-ranked Dawgs. (Single tear.) But big ol’ country boy Patton Kizzire survived a 36-hole Sunday to hold off Rickie Fowler and win his first Tour event, the OHL Classic at Mayakoba.

The first win is never easy, but Fowler made it even tougher by trimming a four-shot deficit to just one stroke as they played the 72nd hole.

With his ball just outside a fairway bunker, Kizzire played a remarkable shot under the circumstances – crowding the ball, choking down on an 8-iron, he hit his approach to about 30 feet, setting up a two-putt par.

With the victory, he earned a spot in the Masters and likely will reach the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. 

5. Making his first start in five weeks, Fowler came up just short. This one would have been special, as he tried to win for the first time in front of his grandparents. (His grandfather, Yutaka, taught him the game at age 2.) You may recall that Fowler broke down in tears at the 2016 Phoenix Open, when he lost in a playoff with his grandparents in attendance. It seemed clear then that he tried too hard to win for them.

That wasn’t the case in Mexico; he just got outplayed during the marathon Sunday. Fowler made Kizzire earn it, making birdie on the 70th and 71st holes, but his approach into the final green didn’t cut enough from a hanging lie, leaving him a 35-footer to force a playoff. He left it short. 



6. In a year of special moments, Branden Grace added another one Sunday as he became the first South African in a decade to win “Africa’s Major,” the Nedbank Challenge.

Grace hit every green and holed a 40-footer on 16 en route to a final-round 66 and one-stroke victory, his first worldwide since the 2016 RBC Heritage.  

No South African had won this event since Trevor Immelman in 2007. Throw in Grace’s record-setting 62 at The Open, and no doubt it’s been a memorable year. 

7. Tommy Fleetwood tied for 10th in Sun City, extending his lead atop the Race to Dubai standings.

Heading into this week’s DP World Tour Championship, the only two players who can catch Fleetwood for the season-ending prize are Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia, and even their chances are unlikely. Rose trails by more than 250,000 points, while Garcia is more than a million behind. Everyone else in the field is just playing for a slice of the bonus pie.  

“Just to be in with a chance of winning the Race to Dubai, it’s pretty special, really,” Fleetwood told reporters. “I don’t feel stressed about it. I don’t feel anxious. And as much as it depends on what they do [in Dubai], it is in my hands.” 



8. There’s more than one way to get to the top of the world.

Shanshan Feng showed that last week, winning for the second consecutive week and ascending to No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings for the first time … despite ranking 97th on tour in driving distance.

Lexi Thompson might have the most firepower of any of the top players, but if there are massive holes in her game – and there are – then it’ll be difficult for her to dominate against more complete (if shorter-hitting) players.

9. By the way, does anyone want to be No. 1?

Feng is the FIFTH No. 1 player this year, joining Lydia Ko, Ariya Jutanugarn, So Yeon Ryu, S.H. Park (who held the top spot for a total of one week) and now Feng.

10. The top five players in the Race to the CME Globe standings will take the top prize if they also win the season-ending event.

Those players who – all together now – control their own destiny this week: Lexi Thompson, Sung Hyun Park, Shanshan Feng, So Yeon Ryu and Brooke Henderson. 

So much is still to be determined, and not just the $1 million bonus. Still up for grabs are the Player of the Year awards, the money title and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. 

11. There is a massive gulf between those who survive second stage of Web.com Tour Q-School and those who do not, and fortunately for us some familiar names are guaranteed at least conditional status next year on the Web.

Among those who advanced are Maverick McNealy, Sam Burns, Sean Crocker, Jimmy Stanger and Jack Maguire.

Unfortunately, A.J. McInerney, who bypassed a free start at Mayakoba to play second stage, failed to reach the final stage. 

Hey, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of Jon Rahm than this correspondent … but even this is a bit much.

The Spaniard made his first Tour start (as an amateur) at the Mayakoba in 2014. For some reason, tournament officials decided to make a plaque to commemorate that moment, even though he’s unlikely to ever play there again.  

This week's award winners ... 


About to Receive a Call From a 904 Number: Grayson Murray. After Sutherland’s victory, Murray, the controversial second-year player who has had his fair share of social-media incidents, wondered aloud whether anyone actually cares about the Tour’s senior circuit. In a now-deleted tweet, he asked: "Does anyone really care is the real question.....those guys were relevant 10 plus years ago." Yeah, that’s probably a no-no.

Auspicious Debut: John Oda. In his first PGA Tour event as a pro, the former UNLV star challenged for the lead through two rounds and wound up in eighth. Impressive. 

Hey, Remember Me?: Si Woo Kim. He had gone quiet since his Players win, as his third-place showing at Mayakoba was his first top-10 in 15 starts since Sawgrass.



Awkward Line of Questioning of the Week: Reporter to Rickie Fowler.

Question: "Cancun is a beautiful place; a beautiful place for marriage. Are you thinking about this?"

Fowler: “Not yet. Not yet. I’m in a good spot both in my personal life and professional life.”

Sheesh.

Bluegrass Special: Valhalla. In case you missed it, the PGA-owned course in Louisville will host the year’s second major – yeah, it felt strange to type that – in 2024. Rory McIlroy won there in '14. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Pat Perez. The defending champion had come in with good form, winning the CIMB Classic a few weeks ago and finishing no worse than 24th since the playoffs. Then he threw up a second-round 74 to barely make the cut and tied for 34th (after a closing 66) in his title defense. Sigh. 

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Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from a trip to Augusta.

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquinn Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.