Monday Scramble: Phil lights fire; Tiger states desire

By Ryan LavnerOctober 12, 2015, 3:00 pm

The Presidents Cup gains credibility, Phil Mickelson justifies his pick (and does a very Phil thing), Tiger Woods racks up a long-distance phone bill, Jason Day earns half a point, Matt Fitzpatrick wins the first of many titles and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

This was just about the best-case scenario for the Presidents Cup.

Yes, the International team desperately needed a victory to avoid falling to 1-9-1, but what played out over four days in Incheon, South Korea, was the next best thing. It was arguably the best Presidents Cup ever, rivaled only by the 2003 tie in the dark in South Africa. 

These matches previously lacked any sense of animosity. Phil Mickelson filled that void, thanks to his Friday fourball taunt that kick-started the Internationals. 

These matches previously lacked competitiveness. This time, it came down to the final match, to the final hole, to the final two players. Wildly mismatched on paper once again (the Americans' average world ranking was nearly 20 spots better), the matches were nearly dead even for three days. 

Hometown hero Sangmoon Bae and Indian star Anirban Lahiri were understandably devastated, after failing to deliver in the biggest moments, but the rest of the squad should be buoyed by a new wave of players and a format change that helped level the playing field against the red, white and blue. 

It's no longer a biennial boat race. This was a loss that felt like a win for all. 

1. This was one of the most evenly matched Presidents Cups ever. 

After the U.S. surged to an early 4-1 lead – which can be blamed on rookie nerves and a few curious lineup decisions by Nick Price – the home team settled in and won the same number of points (10) over the final three sessions. 

The problem for the Internationals is that they’re always playing from behind. When the matches head to Liberty National in 2017, the Americans will have held the lead for 25 consecutive sessions.  

2. Anirban Lahiri should be a popular player when he makes his debut as a full-time PGA Tour member this season. He handled a crushing singles loss to Chris Kirk with total class. 

Here’s the 4-foot miss for birdie on 18 that swung the cup in favor of the U.S.:

Bubba Watson came up to Lahiri afterward and said that he had missed the exact same putt, and that he hoped Lahiri would continue to play well. That was classy, too. 

“These things are scripted, I guess,” Lahiri said, “and I wasn’t in the script this time.” 

3. And to think, this event almost ended in a good ol' fashioned tie because of the captains' agreement, because apparently everyone needs a participation trophy. That would have been an all-time buzzkill after the thrilling action Sunday. 

4. Kirk doesn't show much (any?) emotion on the course, even after a victory. That changed Sunday, when he buried a 15-foot birdie putt on the final green and then watched as Lahiri missed the 4-footer to halve the match. Kirk's 1-up victory was the most pivotal moment on a taut day, and it helped salvage what was an otherwise forgettable week for the rookie, who had gone 0-2-0 in team play. 

“That,” he would say later, “was for everybody who has never seen me fist pump before.”

5. Turns out Phil Mickelson was much more than a ceremonial “players' pick.” Lefty formed an unlikely partnership with Zach Johnson, going 2-0-1 even after a boneheaded mistake when he violated the one-ball condition.

Mickelson was at his best in South Korea, holing bunker shots and making clutch putts and inspiring his teammates with his boundless enthusiasm. He had a ridiculous celebratory handshake with Johnson and even had other players rub his belly for good luck.

Don’t forget how roundly Jay Haas was criticized for selecting the 45-year-old over Brooks Koepka, a young power player who figures to be on teams for years to come. But the 10 automatic qualifiers on the team never wavered in their support of Lefty. 

Who knows whether Mickelson will show enough form to play the Ryder Cup next year, or if this will end his run of 21 consecutive teams made. He single-handedly elevated the event, and he was the MVP for this victorious U.S. squad.

6. As if ripped from a Hollywood script, the Presidents Cup came down to Bill Haas, the captain’s son, who beat hometown hero Sangmoon Bae – due to report for 21 months of mandatory military service any day now – after a stellar bunker shot on the final hole and Bae's miscue from short of the green that sent him to his knees. 

Try watching this post-round interview with Papa Haas and not getting misty: 

7. Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed remained unbeaten together, but the world No. 1 may have found a different partner to future team competitions. 

Spieth teamed up with Dustin Johnson to go 2-1, their lone loss coming against the dominant team of Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen. 

At the beginning of the week it seemed like a given that Spieth would reprise his successful pairing with Reed, with whom he went 2-0-1 last year as Ryder Cup rookies. But Spieth asked captain Haas to be paired with the long-hitting Johnson, and, for the most part, they backed it up with stellar play.

And then, just to show that Gleneagles wasn't a fluke, the team of Spieth-Reed knocked off Jason Day and Charl Schwartzel, 3 and 2, in Saturday fourballs. 

It’ll be interesting to see which guy, DJ or P-Reed, gets the starting nod with Spieth next year at Hazeltine.

8. Both captains whiffed on a chance to turn the final day of the Presidents Cup into must-see TV – even at 2:30 a.m. on the East Coast, even with a crowded sports calendar. Unlike the Ryder Cup, there is no blind draw for the pairings. Haas and Price could have intentionally matched up Spieth vs. Day, Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, the two main protagonists in one of the most captivating years of golf in recent memory. Instead, they avoided the blockbuster match for the sake of strategy. A massive opportunity missed. 

9. This year’s Presidents Cup was the first U.S. team competition since the PGA of America formed an 11-member group of players, past captains and PGA officials. 

Davis Love III, the 2016 captain at Hazeltine, was one of Haas’ assistant captains in South Korea. One of the most interesting nuggets to emerge from the exhibition was that Tiger Woods – recovering at home after back surgery – phoned Fred Couples during Day 2 action and then spoke to Love about “all the things he thought we needed to do” for the 2016 matches. He has already volunteered to be an assistant captain for those matches if he doesn’t qualify for the team or get picked.

Maybe he got caught up in the exciting action. Maybe he's lonely. Maybe he's bored. The view here is that Woods is embracing more of an elder statesmen role and wanting to help any way he can. That's a good thing. Many of the Tour’s younger players grew up idolizing Woods, and having him in the team room and encouraging the new crop of guys can only help the American side. 

10. It doesn't matter if he's putting with a conventional or crosshanded grip on a short putter, or if he has the broomhandle putter, Adam Scott is suffering a serious crisis of confidence on the greens. Don't let his 6-and-5 singles win over an out-of-form Rickie Fowler fool you. For the better part of four days, he looked like he had no clue on the Jack Nicklaus Korea greens, and now he’ll head into a busy stretch looking for answers on how to consistently get the ball in the hole.

Adjusting to life as a new parent, Scott was 158th in putting on Tour last season and slid down the world rankings. With the anchor ban looming, he said recently that he planned to simply move his left hand away from his sternum a few inches and swing the long putter normally. He showed up at the Presidents Cup with the short putter, and a conventional grip, and it didn’t work. He needs to find some relief soon, because he has seven events in nine weeks. 

11. It’s amazing to think that the International squad even had a chance to win with world No. 2 Day and Masters champions Scott and Schwartzel combining to go 2-9-3 for the week.

It was a particularly rough week for Day, though perhaps not a total surprise, for he appeared to run out of gas a few weeks ago at the Tour Championship. He lost to Player of the Year Spieth twice, got outplayed by Open champion Zach Johnson, and failed to secure a point in team play despite tryouts with three different players. 

12. Grace is still a relative unknown to most sports fans, even though the 27-year-old South African has amassed six European Tour wins and nearly won this year's U.S. Open. In South Korea he became just the fifth player to post a perfect 5-0 record, and the first to do so in a losing effort. 

13. Remember when Jimmy Walker was the hottest player in golf? Well, it's been a while since he showed any good form. Walker, who has won five times in the past 24 months, has just one top-10 in his last 15 starts, and he was out of sorts once again at the Presidents Cup, posting a 1-3 record. 

After a blowout victory in the opening foursomes, Walker lost three team matches and then squandered a 2-up lead to Steven Bowditch, one of the Internationals' weakest players, in singles. It's been a puzzling months-long slump, especially since it came immediately after his win in San Antonio, but his ball-striking is to blame. He was outside the top 100 in both fairways hit and greens in regulation. 

Of course this would happen to Phil.

Trying to outsmart the competition and gain any advantage possible, Mickelson violated the one-ball condition when he teed off with a firmer model golf ball on the seventh hole in his Friday fourballs match. 

He claimed afterward that he had “never heard” of that rule being used in Presidents Cup fourballs, but that does little to explain why he approached a rules official after that tee shot to ask whether it was in effect that day. Odd, to say the least. 

Yes, it is a player’s responsibility to know the rules, and Mickelson, in his 11th cup appearance, should have asked any official before the match if he had any questions. But it’s even more the officials’ responsibility to know the rules, and how Mickelson was given an improper ruling in that situation is mind-boggling.

Fortunately, by the end of the week, it was rendered a mere footnote to a U.S. victory. 

This week's award winners ...

There's More Where That Came From: Matt Fitzpatrick. The baby-faced 21-year-old won for the first time last week on the European Tour, with the rookie moving all the way to No. 12 in the season-long Race to Dubai. As an amateur he was compared to Luke Donald, only with a better long game. Now the youngest top 100 player in the world, he's going to start piling up high finishes in a hurry.

Did You Miss Me?: The PGA Tour season. The new 2015-16 schedule gets underway this week with the Open. Already? Seriously? Ugh. 

Barb of the Week: Phil Mickelson. Teaming with Zach Johnson, Lefty violated the one-ball condition in their fourballs match against Scott and Day. The American squad still eked out a half point, leading Mickelson to woof: “I feel like we spotted the Internationals’ best team two holes, and they still couldn’t beat us. Just saying.”

I’m Sorry … Who?: Justin Hueber. That’s the guy who is replacing Tiger Woods and partnering with Matt Kuchar at the upcoming Americas Golf Cup. Apparently, Hueber is the leading American on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica Order of Merit. Little wonder tournament officials offered fans a refund if they bought tickets pre-Tiger WD. 

This Doesn't Make Much Sense: Fowler's record in team competition. A listless performance in the Presidents Cup dropped his overall record to 1-6-5. Why his Tuesday money-game success hasn't yet carried over to the biennial contests is puzzling. 

Not a #HotTake: Nick Faldo on Woods' major prospects. So the Golf Channel/CBS Sports analyst expressed doubt about Woods' chances of ever getting to 15 majors, saying that it is "really, really unlikely" that a soon-to-be 40-year-old with a brittle body and plenty of psychological scars will once again be able to rise up and beat Jordan and Rory and Jason – beat the best fields in golf – at the events that are the toughest to win. How long was that limb – an inch? 

Here's One Way to Earn a Masters Invitation: Sammy Schmitz, clinging to a 2-up lead on the 260-yard 33th hole at the U.S. Mid-Amateur, aces the par 4 to essentially seal the match, the title and a ticket to Augusta:

It was a great event, and it was sorely needed considering how lopsided the results have been over the past decade. Another big loss after Price persuaded PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to reduce the number of overall points (from 34 to 30) would have been crushing for the future of the event, and Day said even the players would begin to lose interest if it wasn’t competitive.

Will it ever reach the prestige of the Ryder Cup? No, but that’s OK. There has always been a natural, decades-long rivalry with the Ryder Cup because the Europeans are playing for their home tour and are seemingly always overlooked. The fact that the Americans haven’t been able to solve the mystery has only ratcheted up the pressure and made the event more compelling.

Let’s face it: It’s hard to get players (and fans) fired up about another team competition at the end of a long year with the new season only days away. This year’s Presidents Cup still offered team match play and six of the top 10 players in the world. That’s good enough for me.  

Not sure we can kill it for good quite yet. There was serious angst heading into this event, especially on the International side. Price begged for a format change, and if his dozen didn’t perform the event was destined for irrelevance. (The 13-hour time difference wasn't ideal for drumming up fan interest, either.) As mentioned above, though, this year's edition was a tremendous step forward for the Internationals, even in a losing effort. It should make the players hungrier after getting so close to ending their long winless drought. The only problem? If there's another blowout in '17, this will look like an aberration.

Surely I can’t be the only one who thought the Internationals were on the verge of getting lapped after trailing, 4-1, after the opening session. Then, and only then, did I believe that the format needed to be changed further, to copy the 28-point, three-day format that has been so successful in the Ryder Cup. (I’d still prefer this event be reduced to three days, because the action tends to drag.) 

Yes, the fewer number of overall points, the more a captain can bench weaker players and compensate for a perceived lack of depth. And yes, Finchem would obviously prefer to see the Americans continue their winning ways in a PGA Tour exhibition. But he and the Tour’s TV partners also need drama and close matches for this thing to be successful.

Keep in mind that Finchem’s decision to reduce the number of points from 34 to 30 pleased neither the Internationals (who wanted 28) nor the Americans (who wanted the format to remain unchanged). It may have been the perfect compromise. 

The best player? Yes, absolutely, and his 3-and-2 singles victory over world No. 2 Day was a fitting end to a stellar week. Forming an unlikely veteran partnership with Mickelson – whom I would pick as the Most Valuable Player, because of his impact both on and off the course – Johnson proved a steady hand and showed why he has now gone 6-1-1 over the last two Presidents Cups. Now entering his age-40 season, Zach showed he still has plenty more tournaments to win. 

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.''

Getty Images

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. 

Getty Images

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.