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. 

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.