Mon. Scramble: No doubting Thomas; Wounded Tiger

By Ryan LavnerNovember 2, 2015, 3:30 pm

Justin Thomas leaps to the next level, Adam Scott's putter catches fire, Tiger Woods undergoes another back procedure, John Peterson does his best "Happy Gilmore" impression and more in this week's travel-weary edition of the Monday Scramble: 

Justin Thomas is much more than Jordan Spieth’s “good buddy.” Always has been. 

That’s been the lazy parallel drawn by TV commentators and fans over the past few years who didn’t know that Thomas is the son of a longtime PGA professional, or that he made his first PGA Tour cut at age 16, or that he was the 2012 college Player of the Year (over that Spieth fella) or that he was the best rookie in 2015, no matter how the final vote shook out.

There should be no confusion anymore, not after Thomas scared 59 in the second round in Malaysia and then threw down a 67-66 on the weekend to win his first PGA Tour event at the CIMB Classic. 

The victory pushed Thomas into the top 30 in the world. It will also earn him a spot in next year’s Masters, an invitation he appeared on the verge of securing six weeks ago at the BMW Championship, until he found the water on the 72nd hole and finished two shots – two measly shots – from a top-30 FedEx Cup rank.

Thomas has been compared to Spieth for years, ever since they were slugging it out for national junior titles. Even though Thomas (Alabama) edged Spieth (Texas) for NCAA POY honors in 2011-12, their only full year together in college, the young Texan got the last laugh in the NCAA Championship, holing an approach shot late and beating Thomas in a critical singles match that helped give the Longhorns their first national title in 40 years. 

It followed a familiar pattern, for Spieth has always seemed to step up on the biggest stages and garner more attention. (After all, he did match Tiger Woods as the only players to win multiple U.S. Junior titles.) With a 10-month head start, Spieth then made a quicker transition in the pros, after fine-tuning his lethal short game.

Thomas might not be a once-in-a-generation talent, but it’s abundantly clear that he possesses all of the physical gifts and the competitive makeup to win a boatload of tournaments, maybe a few majors, and become a fixture in American team competitions, perhaps someday partnering with Spieth.

After this maiden title, thankfully, he should no longer be viewed as just the trusty sidekick with the splashy game. 

1. After frittering away chances over the past year in Palm Springs, White Sulfur Springs and Napa, Thomas showed his resolve with a brilliant closing stretch in Malaysia. 

Thomas fatted his tee shot in the water on the 14th hole Sunday and walked off with a double bogey. It seemed like a crushing blow. Then he ran off three consecutive birdies on Nos. 15-17 to surge ahead and stayed out of a playoff with a gut-check 6-footer on the last. 

Thomas has never lacked confidence, and so it was little surprise that he said afterward that he wasn't surprised that he won so early in his Tour career.

"I expected to win a lot sooner than this, honestly," he said. "I always had high expectations for myself, and I definitely played well enough last year in some events to win."

2. So here’s something that hasn’t happened in more than 30 years on the PGA Tour: Four consecutive winners who were age 23 or younger. 

Jordan Spieth, Emiliano Grillo, Smylie Kaufman and Thomas are part of a group of 20-somethings who now have won 11 of the past 12 events on Tour.

"Seeing them win was a little bit motivating," Thomas said. 

Since the beginning of last season, players age 25 or younger have won nearly 25 percent of the events.  

3. The fall events offer players an opportunity to get a head start in the FedEx Cup race, a two-year exemption and a Masters invitation. What isn’t on the table?

Ryder Cup points.

It was the task force that decided to exclude the six events, a decision PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem later admitted that he "kind of whiffed." And so Thomas (and Kevin Na, for that matter) has made no headway in trying to earn a spot on the ’16 team. Keep that in mind when a lesser player finishes third in a major and leaps near the top of the standings. 

4. Speaking of Na … he put himself in position to win, again. He went out in 32 and added a birdie on the 10th hole, but that was his final birdie of the day. He ended with eight consecutive pars, after two short lip-outs down the stretch. That wasn’t going to be enough in a track meet.

His updated finishes this season: 2-2-3. He's nothing if not consistent.

5. After a transitional year in which he juggled a sagging game, an impending rules change and the responsibilities of being a new father, Adam Scott resurfaced in a big way last week in Malaysia, closing with a 9-under 63 and finishing solo second. It was his best finish of the year.

Even though he remains without a worldwide victory this year – remarkably, he hasn’t been shut out since 2000, his first year as a pro – Scott showed significant progress at the CIMB, particularly on the greens. Using a conventional-length putter, he was ranked fifth in putts per green in regulation.

"I'm playing well, and that's nice," he said, "because I haven't played that well for a while."

Scott has three more events, including two in his native Australia, to notch his first W of the year. That’s ample opportunity to salvage a disappointing year. 

6. Tiger Woods announced last week that he underwent a third back procedure, this time to alleviate discomfort stemming from his Sept. 16 microdiscectomy.

It’s another troublesome development for the soon-to-be 40-year-old who already seemed destined to be on the shelf until at least mid-spring. Now, Woods said on his website, there is “no timetable” for a return.

It’s not a given that when he does come back he will even remotely resemble the player who finally appeared to be making some strides at the Wyndham in August. Getting back into competitive playing shape will take time. The big question, of course, is whether his body will allow it. 

7. In an explosive excerpt from his new autobiography, out today, Woods’ former caddie Steve Williams wrote that he was “hung out to dry” in the wake of Woods’ sex scandal and said that at times he was treated like a “slave” on the course.

It was a poor choice of words, comparing slavery to looping for Woods, especially since Williams was handsomely compensated for his work, likely raking in more than $6 million during their partnership. It's clear that Williams still harbors plenty of resentment after one of the nastiest player-caddie breakups in recent memory. 

It always seemed like a matter of time until Williams dished on his relationship with Woods, with whom he worked for 13 years. reported that Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg declined to comment when asked whether Woods and Williams had a non-disclosure agreement in place. 

8. For the first time since his return from injury, Rory McIlroy moved into serious contention for a title at the Turkish Airlines Open. He walked away disappointed after a final-round 71 left him six shots back of Victor Dubuisson. 

McIlroy’s closing score was the worst of any finisher in the top 10. He made three bogeys in a five-hole span around the turn – critical errors that came at a time when the Frenchman started a run of 6 under for his last 10 holes. 

Though he said that “it’s not all bad,” McIlroy conceded that “I’ll be going away from this tournament very disappointed with how I played today.” 

Our panic meter is hovering at about .0001.

9. As for the victor, Victor, it was his second win in Turkey in the last three years. 

The 25-year-old Frenchman has been off the map for the majority of the season, recording just one top-10 worldwide since January. After ending 2014 at No. 17 in the world, he had dropped all the way to 69th entering last week. He attributed his slump to "personal reasons." 

Yet in Turkey, he made a tournament-high 27 birdies and looked like the player who earned a spot on last year's Ryder Cup team. 

"Sometimes you feel like your game is never going to come back," he said, "and this week I realized that my whole game was here." 

10. At least Ian Poulter got the airline points.

After a spate of withdrawals from this week’s WGC-HSBC Champions, Poulter, the sixth alternate, got into the limited-field event, after all.

That last-minute Orlando-to-Hong Kong flight that left the Englishman fatigued and Rich Beem in tbe broadcast booth? Completely unnecessary.

Poulter only booked that trip because he had dropped out of the top 50 in the world and didn’t qualify for the WGC event, which he had scheduled as one of his mandatory 13 European Tour events. Without that appearance, he would have lost his Euro Tour membership and been ineligible for next year’s Ryder Cup.

Poulter couldn’t take the chance that several players would pull out of the Shanghai event, even though flying halfway across the world for a no-cut event during a quiet time of year has never been a priority for many top players.

John Peterson was 36 shots off the lead heading into the final round of the CIMB Classic. He approached the last day like it, too. 

Stepping up to his first shot of the day (literally), Peterson took a "Happy Gilmore" swing:

He followed it up with this tweet: "Guys. It’s just a happy Gilmore. It was pure, yeah. But I ain’t playing till Hawaii. We will see y’all in January. #huntingseason."

Some people on social media loved it. Others thought it was unprofessional and that he should be fined. 

When you're playing that bad, though ... does it really matter? 

• Probably the only player more frustrated than Kevin Na at the moment? Stacy Lewis. Sei Young Kim’s 72nd-hole birdie gave Lewis her EIGHTH top-three finish of the season. She hasn’t won since June 2014. 

Kim now has three wins this season and is a virtual lock to claim Rookie of the Year honors. She is the third newcomer in the last 10 years to win three or more times in her debut season.

• Brendan Steele didn’t blow up in the final group this time. Two weeks after he shot 76 while trying to go wire to wire at the Frys, Steele shot 68 in Malaysia but got lapped by both Thomas and Scott (63). The solo third was his best finish since a runner-up at PGA West in January. 

Tim Mickelson, the head coach at Arizona State and Phil's brother, won Halloween with this costume:

Pre-tournament favorite Henrik Stenson tied for 47th at the CIMB, his worst finish since May. It remains to be seen whether the big Swede will be able to complete a busy end-of-year schedule in which he will play five events in six weeks. He recently revealed that he is set to undergo surgery next month to repair the meniscus in his right knee. 

Danny Lee withdrew from the CIMB, citing an injured finger. A WD during a no-cut, guaranteed-money event? He must really have been hurting. 

The Solheim Cup is heading to Scotland’s Gleneagles Resort in 2019. The venue is unspectacular, but it still managed to secure a Ryder Cup last year and produced one of the most bizarre news-conference moments in golf history. Who will play the role of Phil Mickelson in 2019? Here’s hoping Suzann Pettersen. 

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

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

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

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

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

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

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

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

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