Monday Scramble: New season, familiar faces

By Ryan LavnerOctober 10, 2016, 4:00 pm

Updated: 1:45 p.m. ET:: Tiger Woods will withdraw from the Safeway Open, Golf Channel's Tim Rosaforte reported Monday.

Original story:

Tiger Woods returns, a new PGA Tour season arrives, the season comes to an abrupt end and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

The final act of Woods’ career begins this week in Napa, Calif., and he’s as fascinating as ever.

A new body. A new swing. Maybe even a new bag of clubs.

There’s reason to believe this comeback will be short – has any athlete, ever, thrived after undergoing three back procedures in 20 months? – but since it is Woods, conventional wisdom usually doesn’t apply. Because of his past greatness, he still receives the benefit of the doubt.

His appearances will be must-see TV, but it’s anyone’s guess what kind of performances we’ll see.

The fall is usually a quiet time on the golf calendar. Not this year. 

1. Wrote more about it here, but it’s a surprise that Woods is even able to tee it up this week. 

But if he wasn’t ready now, after a full year away, it was reasonable to wonder if he’d ever be cleared to return. Among the many questions that (hopefully) will be answered this week is whether Woods suffered any injury-related setbacks this spring, when he was reportedly on the verge of a return. That never happened – in fact, there was nary an update after his disastrous media-day showing in May – and he shut it down for the rest of the 2015-16 season. 

And so the biggest question is not how will Woods play, but whether he is physically capable of playing six rounds (including practice), walking eight miles a day and spending six hours on his feet. He's been off the grid for more than a year, so there's a lot of mystery here.

2. Once Woods arrives on property at Silverado, there will be a mad dash to his golf bag. Equipment junkies have been eagerly awaiting this week.

Suffice to say, Woods has had no shortage of suitors, ever since Nike announced that it was leaving the equipment space.

It’s a best-case scenario for Woods (and, really, any Nike staffer): He can cobble together a set of whichever clubs suit his game, regardless of brand.

3. It’ll be a good week for the fans in Wine Country: Woods will play the pro-am with NBA star Steph Curry, then make his long-awaited debut alongside Phil Mickelson, according to a report by the San Francisco Chronicle

It’ll be only the second time since 2012 that Woods and Mickelson have played together.   

4. How much of an uphill climb will it be for Tiger? Consider this:

When he last played, at the 2015 Wyndham, he was ranked 257th in the world.

Now? He’s No. 786. That’s behind Fabien Marty, who plays on something called the Alps Tour, and ahead of Ross Kellett, who has only a pair of top-10s in 18 starts this year on the European Challenge Tour.  

5. About the only thing Mickelson didn’t do last season was snap his three-year winless drought.

He had six top-10s. He had three runners-up, none more impressive than his performance at The Open, where he went head-to-head with Henrik Stenson and lost to the best cumulative score in major history. And then he had a strong Ryder Cup, going 2-1-1 and making 10 birdies in his singles match. 

“It’ll be a great day to build on in the offseason,” he said at Hazeltine.  

Over the past few years, Mickelson said that his game needed significant improvement in two areas. The first was his putting, and he has accomplished that. He was ninth in putting last season – the first time he has cracked the top 10 in that statistic since the Tour began keeping track, in 2004.

“I’ve really had a great year putting,” he said, “and I’m very confident with that.” 

But one big issue remains: His driving. He ranked 132nd in strokes gained-off the tee, while finishing 163rd in driving accuracy and losing more than five yards in distance.

“I’ve got to fix my driving this offseason,” he said. “If I do that, I’m going to have some really great years.” 

6. Two players we won’t see anytime soon are Jason Day and Justin Rose, as both announced that they’ll take some time off to rest their ailing backs.

Day, who withdrew from each of the last two events of the Tour season because of a long-standing back issue, won’t play again this year on the advice of his doctors. That means he won’t play two events in his native Australia, nor will he compete against McIlroy in an exhibition in the Philippines.

Rose, meanwhile, after a busy summer that included a gold medal in the Olympics, said that he’ll miss the European Tour’s Final Series to fully recover from a herniated disk in his back, an injury that he suffered during The Players. He expects to be out about eight weeks, which could allow for an appearance at the World Challenge in the Bahamas in early December.

7. Sure, we won’t see many of the game’s biggest stars until early next year, but technically the new season begins this week.

Here are some of the biggest storylines as we look ahead to the 2016-17 season:

Who will emerge as the game’s best player?

Depending on when you asked, Jordan Spieth, Day, Dustin Johnson and even Henrik Stenson were the best players on the planet last season. It's unlikely that we'll see a complete takeover, like Tiger for a decade, but the most likely to emerge as the Tour’s alpha dog is DJ, with his unmatched combination of power, precision and touch. He has made significant strides with both his putting and his wedge play, leading to the best year of his career.

Will Tiger be a factor?

He hasn’t won in more than three years. He’s had four knee surgeries and three back operations. His competition has never been better. It all adds up to a cloudy outlook. That Woods has already accepted a role as a vice captain at the 2017 Presidents Cup might tell you all you need to know about his own level of optimism about this latest (and final) comeback. 

Which Rory will we see? 

This year has brought plenty of frustration for McIlroy, who racked up plenty of top-10s but failed to break through until Labor Day. The biggest culprit was a balky putter; he was 135th in strokes gained-putting, his worst rank in that category since 2010. If the putter heats up – and his performance at the Deutsche Bank and Ryder Cup suggests that he’s certainly on the right track – then he could enjoy the resurgent season that we all expected in 2015-16. 

Will this rookie class be as good as advertised?

It’s insanely deep, starting at the top with Jon Rahm, and continuing with money winner Wesley Bryan, Ollie Schniederjans, Trey Mullinax, Cheng-Tsung Pan and, yes, Andrew “Beef” Johnston. (The most famous of the bunch might be Bryson DeChambeau, but he won’t technically be a rookie after playing 12 events last season.) This should be the most hotly contested Rookie of the Year race in recent memory, and it wouldn't surprise if Rahm won multiple events in 2016-17. 

8. Thomas Pieters received some flak on social media for comments made by his fellow countryman, Nicolas Colsaerts, who told the Telegraph that he didn’t expect Pieters to play full time in the U.S. because he “doesn’t like (Americans) that much.”

That was news to this observer, of course, seeing how Pieters thoroughly enjoyed his three years at Illinois and maintains close relationships with many in the States.

Whether the 24-year-old ever transitions to the PGA Tour is a matter of personal preference; he still lives in Antwerp, close to his family, and has expressed no desire to leave. Selfishly, it’d be great to see Pieters over here more, because he’s a world-class talent.

9. Erik Compton’s career might be coming to an end, after the two-time heart-transplant recipient failed to earn any status on the PGA Tour this season.

“I’m thinking about packing it in,” he told Golf Digest recently. “I just can’t get it done.”

For Compton, 36, it’s time to do a little soul-searching. Two years after tying for second at the U.S. Open, he now has to toil on the mini-tours and try to make the most of his limited sponsor exemptions on Tour. He has only five career top-10s in 160 starts, and his health situation makes a long career unlikely. 

“I’m not going to learn anything out here [on the Tour] at my age,” he said. “The only thing I’m going to learn is how to be away from the family with a short life span.” 

10. Here’s a new one: An amateur just earned an invite to the Masters but won’t use it. 

He already has a spot.

Curtis Luck, who won the U.S. Amateur in August and was part of the World Amateur Team Championship, rallied from a seven-shot, final-round deficit to win the Asia-Pacific Amateur, which offers a Masters invite to the winner. (Because Luck was already exempt by virtue of his U.S. Am win, the spot does not go to the runner-up.) Ranked second in the world, the Australian had planned to turn pro after this event but will stay amateur until at least after the Masters. He looks like the next great Aussie star.

The season-ending Tour Championship was canceled because of Hurricane Matthew, costing hopefuls the opportunity for one final lottery ticket to the PGA Tour.

Not surprisingly, this move didn't go over well with tour types.

Yes, tournament officials should have fought harder to move the event – the hurricane didn't surprise anyone, after all – but it’s hard to feel bad for those left outside the bubble. They had 21 regular-season events to get the job done, then three playoff events.

It's unfortunate, no doubt, but it all comes down to golf's most simple truth: Play better.

This week's award winners ...

Good Mojo: Brandt Snedeker. After going 3-0 at the Ryder Cup, Sneds ran away from the field at the European/Asian Tour’s Fiji International for a nine-shot victory. Surely, he was there for the beautiful scenery and fierce competition, not the appearance fees … 

Don’t Even Bother Asking: So, how do you spend the offseason? The Tour Championship ended 15 days ago. Ugh.  

Quite a Breakthrough: Tyrrell Hatton. Would there be any cooler European Tour title to win than the Dunhill Links, which is played at the Old Course, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns? Hatton went 62-66 at St. Andrews to cruise to his maiden victory. 

Sighting: Sang-Moon Bae. The two-time PGA Tour winner, who is serving a mandatory two-year military sentence in South Korea, attended the Asia-Pacific Amateur. He plans to be back on Tour sometime in 2017.

Oldie but Goodie: Jay Haas. By winning the Toshiba Classic, Haas, at 62 years, 10 months and seven days, became the second-oldest winner on the senior circuit. Only Mike Fetchick, who was 63 at the 1985 Hilton Head Invitational, was older. 

Standing Ovation: Sam Saunders. What a beautiful eulogy by Arnold Palmer's grandson. If you haven't seen this yet, it is the best six minutes you'll spend today. Well done, Sam. 

Smart Take, As Usual: Martin Kaymer. The thoughtful German was asked about the rambunctious fans at Hazeltine. He was spot on with his assessment: “There are just some idiots in the crowd, and I find it amazing that they’re standing there with their children in their hands, and they say things that you think, ‘That’s your child next to you. What role model are you?’ It’s a bit shocking sometimes, the comments you hear.” 

Join the Party: Ha Na Jang. With her third LPGA victory this season, Jang, Ariya Jutanugarn (five) and Lydia Ko (four) have now accounted for nearly a quarter of the wins on tour this year.  

Quality Company: Maverick McNealy. Here is McNealy (left), with Woods and Patrick Rodgers at the Stanford football game. Last week, McNealy tied Woods and Rodgers' school record of 11 career titles. For more on McNealy and his upcoming year, click here

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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.

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

“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 four 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. 

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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."