Monday Scramble: After drops, can Phil rise again?

By Ryan LavnerNovember 9, 2015, 3:20 pm

Russell Knox notches his first victory, Phil Mickelson breaks up with Butch Harmon, Dustin Johnson gets unlucky, Steve Williams blames others, and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Phil Mickelson has dropped outside the top 25 in the world ranking for the first time in more than 20 years. He also announced that he was splitting with swing coach Harmon.

A coincidence? No way.

Mickelson made one thing clear with his decision to dump the best swing coach on the planet: He still believes that he has plenty of good golf left, even entering his age-46 season.

Winless in more than two years, he has only contended a handful of times since, and two of those were out-of-nowhere performances at the majors. Mostly, he has looked lethargic. His driving has been as erratic as ever. His usually stellar wedge play has been mediocre. His putting has been suspect.

Lefty needed a change, if only to get re-engaged. 

The big question now is whether new swing thoughts will lead to different results. There are plenty of reasons for skepticism – age, health, better competition, putting woes, desire, etc. – but he now has more than three months to develop a rapport with Andrew Getson (or someone else), to iron out the kinks, to turn around his game. Does he have a little more magic, a few more wins, maybe even a major, still left in that body? Phil clearly believes so, and that's all that matters.

1. How unlikely was Russell Knox’s victory at the HSBC Champions? He is the first player since 1999 – when the four-tournament series debuted – to win in his first World Golf Championships appearance.

In fact, Knox didn’t even learn that he was in the HSBC field until his first round in Malaysia. That started a hectic process of securing a Chinese visa (thanks to his “superstar” wife, Andrea) and getting caddie Bradley Whittle to Shanghai. 

Of his wife, Knox said: “She’s the reason I’m sitting here right now.”

2. It’s nice to see that the, ahem, old guys can still get it done on the PGA Tour. 

Knox, who is (gasp) 30, is the first winner this season who wasn’t 23 or younger. He also snapped a string of seven consecutive winners in their 20s, the longest streak in nearly 30 years. 

The Scot was the fourth consecutive first-time winner during this nascent season. It's only getting tougher for Jordan, Jason, Rory and Co.

3. No practice, no problem? That was the case last week at Sheshan International. 

Knox had his wife caddie for him in the pro-am because his regular looper hadn’t yet arrived in the country. He won. 

Kevin Kisner had never played the course and didn’t play a practice round because of a bad back. He opened with 64 and eventually finished second, his fourth runner-up this year.

4. Say this for the Phil-Butch split: It was anything but acrimonious.

Mickelson handled the breakup with class, flying to Las Vegas to deliver the news in person. It stood in stark contrast to the way that Tiger Woods handled his split with Harmon back in 2002. 

Lefty even said he would continue to bounce ideas off Harmon, who will be just fine, of course, with a stable that still includes Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker, among others. 

5. There were some information discrepancies last week regarding Mickelson’s next coach. Golf Digest said that Mickelson has been working with Scottsdale-based Andrew Getson since splitting with Harmon. A few hours later, Mickelson said that he simply had engaged in discussions with Getson, he doesn’t know where those will lead, and he expects to make a formal announcement in January, when he returns to action.

The backpedalling is a clear attempt to spare Harmon some public embarrassment and take some heat off of Getson, who has a relatively low profile in coaching circles. It’s a smart move too, in case their work this offseason doesn’t go in a direction that Mickelson likes. 

6. Danny Willett’s closing 62 in Shanghai should make the Race to Dubai even more compelling. 

The Englishman now trails Rory McIlroy by just 74,214 points heading into next week’s BMW Masters, which Willett is playing and McIlroy is not. A top-25 finish will be enough to send Willett to the top of the points list. 

Not that McIlroy, who tied for 11th at HSBC despite losing 10 pounds from food poisoning, seems fazed. 

“I’m just with the mindset that I need to go to Dubai and win,” he said, “and whatever happens from there, that’s all I can do.”

7. Given his limited preparation, Jordan Spieth was “extremely pleased” with a tie for seventh at the HSBC. He didn’t pick up a club for two weeks after the Presidents Cup – his longest break, he said, in nearly a decade – and then struggled to find a rhythm on the course.

The good news? Well, for starters, he shot a third-round 63 to surge up the leaderboard. He got some much-needed reps before his final two events of the season, the Australian Open and World Challenge, the tournaments that kick-started his historic run this year. And, yes, he took back the No. 1 ranking from Jason Day, who was idle last week.

“Everyone is pushing each other a little bit,” Spieth said, “and when that No. 1 ranking slips away, it leaves some unrest in you and you really want to get back at it.” 

8. If you didn't realize that there was another PGA Tour event going on last week (it's scheduled to finish today, in Mississippi), Boo Weekley made headlines by blasting the now 3-year-old wraparound schedule, saying that it “sucks” and that it’s “stupid” and that the nonstop golf leaves no time for more important stuff ... like hunting and fishing.

Newsflash, Boo (and any other player who is complaining): No one is forcing you to play. 

If you want to take off the entire fall and fire more shots with your rifle than your driver, hey, go ahead. You'll be giving everybody else a head start, and it’ll make your FedEx Cup climb more arduous, but look on the bright side: At least for a few months your occupation – one that has given you more than $13.5 million – won’t be so “aggravating.”

9. After a year spent toiling on the circuit (49th on the money list), Haotong Li entered an entirely different realm last week at the HSBC Champions, where the 20-year-old was feted like a rockstar.

Drawing crowds even bigger than Spieth’s group, Li responded by finishing seventh in Shanghai. It was the best finish on Tour by a Chinese player since Wenchong Liang (T-8, 2010 PGA).   

Just one shot out of the lead heading into the final round, Li hooked his first two tee shots Sunday and quickly was 3 over. He went out in 38 to end his chances, but two late birdies allowed him to finish inside the top 10. 

“Man, did he have heart,” Spieth said afterward. “It was unbelievable some of the stuff he was pulling off.”

10. Good thing Dustin Johnson has the perfect disposition to shrug off misfortune and near misses, because there sure have been a lot of them in his star-crossed career.

Johnson, whose power was so intimidating that Knox didn’t even watch a shot on the front nine Sunday, was one shot behind when his wedge shot into the par-5 eighth hole danced near the cup and looked as though it’d leave him a tap-in for birdie. Instead, it caromed off the flag and trickled back into the creek, leading to a double bogey.

He wound up in a tie for fifth, four shots behind, but make no mistake: He is still winning off the course. More on that later. 

11. This is uncharted territory for two of the game’s biggest stars – at least when it comes to the world ranking. 

After the most recent update, Woods, out indefinitely after a second (and then third) back procedure, found himself at No. 362 in the world, just behind Jazz Janewattananond. It's his worst position since his rookie year.

Mickelson, who has just five Tour top-10s since his win at Muirfield in 2013, is now ranked No. 27. It’s the first time he has been ranked outside the top 25 since September 1995 – a span of 1,048 weeks. 

And with no scheduled starts the rest of the calendar year, their positions will only get worse. 

12. At least one season-long award has been wrapped up on the LPGA.

Sei Young Kim has clinched Rookie of the Year honors with two events still remaining on the schedule. The 22-year-old has made a quick impression, compiling three wins, one runner-up and six other top-10s in 25 events this season. She is ranked seventh in the world. 

With $1,727,436 in earnings, Kim has already deposited the third-most money ever by a rookie and could join Lydia Ko as the only newcomers in LPGA history to surpass $2 million in a season. 

So who’s to blame in the latest Steve Williams saga?

His publishers, of course!

Williams whined that his own people misrepresented his views by focusing on the most salacious comment in his new book – that Woods treated Williams like a "slave" on the course. 

“It’s one word, one sentence, out of a whole book,” Williams said. 

Yes, but it was a word that HE chose, a sentence that HE wrote and a section that HE OK'd. Nothing better than when an autobiographer claims his own work was taken out of context.

Adam Scott says that he doesn’t think Williams’ remarks will be a distraction when, or if, he returns to the bag in 2016. Don’t be so sure, because Williams didn’t just sound off on Woods. He also decided to throw shade at Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh and Kevin Na, among others. 

For those vindictive remarks, will he blame his publishers, too? 

This week's award winners ... 

Bold Play of the Week: Rory McIlroy, who wore white pants during the second round, when he was still feeling the effects of food poisoning.

User Error: Matt Fitzpatrick’s amateur status. Well, yeah, the kid looks like he’s 12 instead of 21, but he’s very much a pro now. A European Tour winner, even. 

A Potentially Significant Story in 10 Months: The European players currently ineligible for the 2016 Ryder Cup. Right now, that list includes two players in the OWGR top 31: Paul Casey and Knox. Only European Tour members can qualify for the team.

All Good Things Come to An End: Karrie Webb’s player-caddie relationship with Mike Paterson. Webb announced they were parting ways Sunday after 15 years together. 

Uh, Isn't This What Snapchat is For?: Paulina Gretzky, attempting to cheer up fiancé Dustin Johnson after his tough break halfway across the world:

love you @djohnsonpga Dirty Diana

A photo posted by Paulina Gretzky (@paulinagretzky) on

Anchors Away: Bernhard Langer, who went out on top with his broomstick putter, becoming the first player to win three Charles Schwab Cup titles.  

Most Resourceful: Brandt Snedeker, who found a new use for an extra golf club: 

A Kid Everyone Can Cheer For: Justin Thompson, a two-time cancer survivor who gave a verbal commitment to play college golf at SMU beginning in fall 2017.

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Beef's beer goggles: Less drinks = more wins

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 6:07 pm

An offseason spent soul searching is apparently paying quick dividends for Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who is in contention to win Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Johnston acknowledged he was “burning the candle at both ends” last year, playing both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, but he told reporters Saturday that it wasn’t too much golf that hindered his efforts.

It was too much “socializing.”

“I'm a social person,” Johnston said. “If you go out with friends, or you get invited to something, I'll have a beer, please. But I probably had a few too many beers, I would say, to be honest. And it reflected in my golf, and I was disappointed looking back at it. I want to turn that around and have a good season.”

Johnston posted a 6-under-par 66 Saturday, moving into a tie for sixth, three shots off the lead. He said he arrived in Abu Dhabi a week early to prepare for his first start of the new year. It’s paying off with a Sunday chance to win his second European Tour title.

“Last year was crazy, and like getting distracted, and things like that,” Johnston said. “You don't know it's happened until you've finished the season. You’re off doing things and you're burning the candle at both ends. When I got back from last season, sort of had time to reflect on it, I sort of said to myself, 'You've got to keep quiet and keep disciplined and get on with your work.’”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Johnston finished 189th last year in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. He was 116th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.

Johnston’s fun-loving personality, his scruffy beard and his big-bodied shape quickly made him one of the most popular and entertaining players in the game when he earned his PGA Tour card before the 2016-17 season. Golf Digest called him a “quirky outlier,” and while he has had fun with that persona, Johnston is also intent on continuing to prove he belongs among the game’s best players.

His plan for doing that?

“Just put the work in,” he said. “I didn’t put enough work in last year. It’s simple. It showed. So, just get down, knuckle down and practice hard.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one 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.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

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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.”