Monday Scramble: Banner year for new Big 3

By Ryan LavnerNovember 30, 2015, 2:00 pm

Recapping an epic year in golf, handing out a few awards, looking ahead to 2016 and more in this week's season-ending edition of the Monday Scramble:

No matter how you look at it, the 2015 golf year was one of the best in recent memory. The history. The roll call of winners. The 72nd-hole drama in the majors. Good stuff, all of it. 

But here’s the most exciting part: It set the table for even more compelling action over the next few years. 

Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy comprise a Big 3 that should challenge for all of the biggest titles for the next decade.

The prepared, aggressive and fearless youngsters that set the PGA Tour ablaze this year are only growing more confident with each passing week. Who will emerge as the best under-25 talent? How many more stars will surface next year? 

Lydia Ko and Inbee Park combined for 10 wins and three majors this year, dueling until the final event in one of the most competitive Player of the Year races in LPGA history. There’s little reason to believe they won’t continue their high-stakes game of H-O-R-S-E in 2016.

Will the task force – sorry, Task Force – accomplish anything of significance? Will a coaching change lift Lefty to another major? Will a wounded Tiger summon one more comeback?

Yeah, 2015 was memorable, but we can’t wait for January. 

What We Were Talking About This Year … 

1. Jordan Spieth becomes a household name. 

Spieth burst onto the scene in 2013, when he began the year with no status on any major tour, became the youngest Tour winner since 1931 and reached the Tour Championship. A year later, he played in the final group at both the Masters and Players, but otherwise failed to build on his auspicious freshman season. As ridiculous as it sounds now, there were legitimate questions about his ceiling as a player.  

All it took, apparently, was one stellar final round in Australia to send the now-22-year-old on his way. That win at the Aussie Open, followed by his blowout victory the following week at the World Challenge, changed everything. Imbued with self-belief, he scrambled his way to a win in Tampa, took J.B. Holmes to extra holes in Houston, and then blew away the field at Augusta National, a ballpark that was supposedly too big for his medium-length game.

That kick-started a run in which he won the U.S. Open (thanks in large part to another Dustin Johnson gaffe), torched TPC Deere Run, shared the lead at St. Andrews after 70 holes and finished with a 72-hole score at Whistling Straits that would have won all but two PGAs outright. His near-perfect year – after all, he was only four shots from the Slam – was capped in the best possible way, with a Tour Championship victory that gave him the FedEx Cup and the first $22 million season.

Needless to say, there are no lingering questions about his star power. 

2. Tiger Woods drifts toward retirement.

Long-term concerns about Woods’ game reached an all-time high in 2015, after he suffered a very public case of the short-game yips, missed the cut in three consecutive majors and went under the knife for the fourth time in 19 months.

There were finally reasons for optimism after Woods' game showed promise at the Wyndham Championship in August, but he later revealed that he needed another back surgery. After this latest procedure it’s uncertain when, or if, he will play next year.

Woods won't stay completely out of the picture, after signing up to be a vice captain at the Ryder Cup, but it's merely the latest sign that he's become a ceremonial golfer. 

3. Spieth and Inbee Park chase their own Grand Slams. 

Spieth became the first player since Woods in 2002 to take the calendar year Slam into the third stage. After tying for the lead with two holes to go at St. Andrews, Spieth ultimately finished one shot out of the Open playoff. At the PGA, he finished three shots behind Day, meaning that he was four shots from a perfect major season. It could be years (decades?) before we see that feat challenged.

On the women’s side, Park sparked debate about what constitutes a career Grand Slam after she won the Women’s British Open at Turnberry. Within minutes of that victory, the LPGA trumpeted its star as having completed the Slam, because she now had wins in four different majors. Problem is, the women’s tour has since elevated the Evian Championship to the fifth major, and Park hasn’t won that event, at least not when it counted as a major. So it isn't a Slam, by definition.

Changing the rules as it goes, the LPGA then contended that a sweep of all five majors would be considered a Super Slam … which no one is buying. Sorry, but for Park, the real Slam Watch continues next year in France. 

4. Lydia Ko rewrites the record books.

At this point, it’s safe to assume that the 18-year-old is the “youngest ever” to do just about everything. 

She’s the youngest player to win an LPGA event.

She’s the youngest player to reach 10 titles.

She’s the youngest player to win five times in a season. 

The youngest to reach world No. 1. To youngest to win a major. The youngest to claim the $1 million Race to the CME Globe bonus (twice).

Until a player comes along with the power of Lexi and the putting stroke of Inbee, Ko is going to rule the game for a loooong time. 

5. The worst-timed kickabout in golf history. 

If the photo of Rory McIlroy on crutches wasn’t jarring enough, then the deflated scene at St. Andrews did the trick, with the former world No. 1 unable to defend his title at the Home of Golf in the prime of his career – an opportunity that arises only every five years.

Technically, the ankle injury cost McIlroy five weeks and only three scheduled starts, but he didn’t look right at the PGA or in the FedEx Cup playoffs, despite his assurances that he was 100 percent healthy. McIlroy boosted hopes for a big 2016 with a season-ending victory in Dubai. Even better news was that he vowed to cut down on his silly mistakes – such as playing soccer in the middle of major season.  

6. Jason Day and Rickie Fowler break out.

Before this year, Day was known mostly for his unfulfilled promise, a talented but injury-plagued Australian who had only teased us with his close calls in majors. Fowler? Well, he had only two pro titles despite a massive marketing presence, and his peers thought so much (or little) of his game that they voted him the most overrated player on Tour.

Both players blew those reputations to smithereens in 2015, combining for eight wins, a major and a Players title while vaulting into the top five in the world ranking. Fowler silenced his critics for good, while Day proved that his best stuff is every bit as good as Rory’s or Jordan’s. 

7. The gimme that wasn’t.

The Solheim Cup was marred by Suzann Pettersen's unsportsmanlike conduct after she declined to concede an 18-inch putt in the late stages of her team match against the Americans.

The dispute over the tiddler angered the U.S. team and led to one of the great comebacks in the history of the event. Pettersen was skewered in the aftermath, even by some of the European squad’s longtime backers, and after initially defending her actions she tapped out a long apology that reeked of an outside (p.r.) influence. 

Pettersen became the villain that the Solheim Cup desperately needed, and though she may have lost a few friends along the way, the reception wasn’t overly chilly once she returned to the States. The tone may be decidedly different in 2017, however.

8. Welcome additions to the 2015 golf scene: 

  • Justin Thomas: Thankfully, he won’t just be known as Jordan Spieth’s good buddy anymore. The 22-year-old had a few chances to win in his rookie season and nearly qualified for the Tour Championship, but his year ended on a high note when he broke through at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. 
  • R&A women members: The club decided to end years of male-only exclusivity by inviting women to join, thus ensuring that they’ve officially entered the 20th century.
  • Bryson DeChambeau: One of the most talked-about players this summer because of his unconventional approach and quirky personality, the 22-year-old left school in October after SMU was banned from postseason play because of recruiting violations under the team’s former head coach. Bryson will get plenty of opportunities to earn his card next year.
  • Brooke Henderson: Denied LPGA membership by commissioner Mike Whan, the talented Canadian took matters into her own hands by winning an event by eight shots. 
  • Matt Fitzpatrick: Don’t be fooled by this baby-faced assassin – he has a killer short game and figures to be part of a new-look European Ryder Cup squad in ’16.   
  • Sei Young Kim: All she did during her rookie season was win three times, place in the top 10 on eight other occasions and rocket to No. 7 in the world. 

9. Shot of the Year: Jordan Spieth at the Masters.

Reeling from a double bogey on the 17th hole Saturday at Augusta National, Spieth flew his approach shot into the patrons surrounding the final green. His lead had been trimmed to four shots, and now it appeared that it would be cut to three, maybe even two, at the end of the day. 

Then Spieth pulled off one of the best shots of his career – a soft, high-risk flop shot that carried over a bunker, landed on a downslope and trickled out to 10 feet. Because he’s Jordan Spieth, he also poured in the par putt to maintain a comfortable cushion heading into the most pressure-packed final round of his life. 

10. Putt of the Year: Gerina Piller at the Solheim Cup.

She didn’t get credit for the clinching point, but her 8-foot putt to defeat Caroline Masson was the most important in the Americans’ incredible comeback in Germany.

If Piller missed, the Europeans would have secured the half point they needed to clinch the cup and guaranteed that the only talk afterward would have been about Concessiongate. Instead, she kept the Americans alive, all the way until Paula Creamer closed out her match, and the party was on. 

11. What do Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen, Matt Kuchar and Hideki Matsuyama have in common? They all failed to win in 2015. 

That’s right – 138 combined starts, zero titles. 

Scott’s oh-fer was the most surprising. (He still has one more chance, this week at the World Challenge.) This was his final year to make hay with the long wand, but he never looked comfortable with either method and battled the usual lethargy that comes with being a new parent. The Australian is too good of a ball-striker not to win and contend on a consistent basis, but 2015 was a stunning off-year. 

12. A few predictions for next year ... 

  • Jordan Spieth won’t win a major. Quite simply, the numbers aren't in his favor: Over the past 20 years, only four players have won multiple majors in a season. Woods (2005-06) is the only one who returned the following year and added to his major total. 
  • Rory McIlroy wins a major and earns Player of the Year honors. Motivation is no longer an issue for the former boy wonder. He lost his No. 1 ranking. He saw Jordan assume the role as golf’s biggest star. He squandered two prime chances to add to his major haul. It won’t happen again.  
  • Patrick Rodgers wins a PGA Tour event. In fall 2011, I ranked Rodgers ahead of players like Spieth, Justin Thomas, Ollie Schniederjans, Emiliano Grillo, Daniel Berger and Michael Kim in that heralded high school class. Oops. His career trajectory may have been more gradual than some of the others, but he has all of the physical tools to win a few times next year.
  • Branden Grace wins a major. Arguably the most complete player who still doesn’t get his due, Grace could have – should have? – won the U.S. Open if not for a 70th-hole tee shot that wound up on the railroad tracks. After a two-win season that pushed the South African into the top 20 in the world, and after top-20 finishes in each of the last three majors, Grace is ready to take the next step. 
  • Sorry P-Reed, but Spieth and Justin Thomas team up at Hazeltine. Alas, Thomas didn’t earn a single Ryder Cup point in the fall, but he’ll show Love and Co. more than enough to earn a spot on the 12-man roster. He and Spieth will form a partnership of which dreams are made. 
  • The U.S. wins the Ryder Cup. Long live the task force!

There was no shortage of head-scratching moments this year, from Donald Trump’s continued affiliation with golf to the PGA Tour’s laughable personal conduct policy to Steve Williams' "slave" comment to the World Golf Hall of Fame failing to get Laura Davies to the induction ceremony in time to the Keegan Bradley-Miguel Angel Jimenez royal rumble, but Robert Allenby takes the top prize.

Nearly a year later, no one really knows what transpired that night in Hawaii, but Allenby’s on-course exploits were even more bizarre. He and his caddie Mick Middlemo nearly came to blows during the Canadian Open, leading Middlemo to walk off in the middle of the round. They bickered back and forth in the press, but it was just another black eye for Allenby, who now has mowed through more than 20 caddies during his professional career.

This year's award winners ... 

Best Player: Jordan Spieth. The only worry? That, at age 22, he has already reached the mountaintop. How much better can it get?

Best Tournament: The Players. With the backdrop of that negative player poll, Rickie Fowler went 6 under for his last six holes to force a playoff, then birdied the famous 17th hole twice in overtime.   

Best Moment: Spieth birdies the 70th hole at St. Andrews. In that moment, the Grand Slam actually felt possible – he was tied for the lead with two holes to go, with the brutal Road Hole and gettable home hole ahead of him. You know what happens next, of course, but only Woods can generate the kind of electricity that followed that 40-foot birdie.

Biggest Disappointment: Tiger. Late last year, Woods renewed hopes because he was returning to his roots, slimming down his muscle-bound body and watching tapes of his old swing. It turned out to be a fantasy, as he battled short-game yips, deactivated glutes and general ineptitude during another lost season that ended with the soon-to-be 40-year-old on the operating table. 

Honorable mention: Michelle Wie. Following up on the best year of her career, she couldn’t even muster a top-10 in 24 events and slipped all the way to 49th in earnings. Oy. 

Biggest Heartbreak: Dustin Johnson’s U.S. Open. The most star-crossed player in recent memory added to his list of major gaffes with a slippery three-jack on Chambers Bay’s cauliflower greens. 

Most Improved: Kevin Kisner. This was was a guy, remember, who finished 2014 ranked 236th in the world. This year, he posted four runner-up finishes, including three playoff losses, before blowing away the field in the finale at Sea Island. At No. 16 in the world, he’s now a legitimate major and Ryder Cup contender. 

Next Generation Star: Maverick McNealy. The Stanford junior is the can’t-miss prospect of the moment, soaring to No. 2 in the world after a Player of the Year season. What makes his story even more intriguing is that he might not even turn pro in spring 2017. 

Biggest Surprise: Inbee Park’s five-win, two-major season wasn’t enough to win Player of the Year. To put that in perspective: Her season was better than any in Paula Creamer’s career, but the Queen Bee still got Ko’d. 

Biggest Revelation: The youth movement is bigger and better than anyone could have imagined. Every generation has a few boldfaced stars, but the new wave of talent on Tour is strong, deep and growing exponentially.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.