Monday Scramble: Almost, won and done

By Ryan LavnerOctober 9, 2017, 3:00 pm

Brendan Steele defends, Phil Mickelson comes close, Tony Finau uses a backboard, Rory McIlroy wraps up his year and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Brendan Steele went back-to-back at the Safeway Open, but it was Phil Mickelson who injected some excitement into what was an otherwise sleepy opening to the PGA Tour season.

Lefty pulled within a shot of the lead heading into the final two holes before eventually finishing in a tie for third, his best finish on Tour in 15 months. But the close call validated what he had said a day earlier: “I’m going to win [soon]. It’s a matter of time.”

That’s bold talk for an arthritic 47-year-old who hasn’t won since the 2013 Open Championship – or a longer victory drought than Tiger Woods. And yet it isn’t totally unrealistic. His putting has been solid for a few years. His short game still has plenty of magic. And his iron play has remained sharp.

Phil is right: It now seems like just a “matter of time” before he wins again. 


1. Steele knows all about fast starts, winning the Tour's season opener for the second consecutive year. (In 2015, he held the 54-hole lead there before a closing 76.)

Over his last eight rounds at Silverado, Steele is a whopping 33 under par. This time, he used a final-round 69 in difficult, windy conditions to pass rookie Tyler Duncan and win for the third time on Tour.

2. Steele used last year’s Safeway victory to propel him to his best season on Tour. Inside the top-30 bubble for much of the season, he was bumped out of a spot at the Tour Championship (33rd) with a poor playoff performance, where he didn’t finish better than 44th in three events.

Looking back on a season that ended three weeks ago, Steele said he played too conservatively in trying to accrue as many FedExCup points as possible.

“I wasn’t trying to win,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to play my best. I was just trying to get whatever points I could, and I played to that level where you could just barely miss. I’m definitely going to try not to do that this year.”  

3. Those in Napa had a scare after the final round, after several massive wildfires burned out of control in Napa and Sonoma counties and forced the evacuation of the surrounding neighborhoods and those staying at Silverado Resort.

It was a frightening situation, with 30-40 mph winds and a hell storm of smoke and ash.  


4. Mickelson might have scared the leaders, but he couldn’t finish off his Sunday charge.

Trailing by one heading into the final two holes – a short par 4 and a reachable par 5 – Mickelson hit his iron tee shot into the left rough, where he was blocked out by a tall tree. His approach shot expired in the greenside bunker, and he failed to get up and down, missing an 8-footer – the kind of sloppy, unforced error he’s made too many times over the past four-plus years.  

Mickelson rebounded with a birdie on the home hole, but his chance to win was gone.

5. That said, it was remarkable that Mickelson even had a shot, what with his putrid driving performance last week at Silverado.

For the week, he hit only 15 of 56 fairways – tied for the worst in the field.

At least he kept his sense of humor about it. After finally finding the fairway on the 16th hole, he turned to the gallery and joked, “Let’s take a moment to admire the fact I just hit a fairway.”

6. The reigning Player of the Year unwittingly thrust himself into a debate about player integrity Sunday night.

During the final round, Tony Finau, who was only two shots off the lead, used playing partner Jason Kokrak’s ball as a backstop as he played a difficult bunker shot from a plugged lie. With no chance to get it close – even Finau admitted that his ball would have scurried well past the cup – he played his shot before Kokrak, who had chipped from 30 yards away, marked his ball.

“It was a bonus to hit his ball,” Finau said afterward. “I used the rules to my advantage, I guess.”

But it was seen by many as the latest example of Tour players who are more interested in being chummy with each other than protecting the field. Yes, it required incredible accuracy to hit Kokrak’s ball, but not everyone who played from that bunker last week had the benefit of a ball sitting 2 feet from the cup.

Had Finau gone on to win, the controversy would have marred the outcome.  

On Twitter, Justin Thomas said that it was “ridiculous” that these types of situations are even scrutinized, that it's more of a pace-of-play issue, and that “if I want to rush and hit a shot for that reason” – to use the ball on the green as a backboard – “it’s my right.”

Except that’s not true. According to Rule 22-1, a tournament committee can disqualify any player(s) they determine agreed not to lift a ball that might assist another competitor.

Will Tour officials start cracking down on the buddy system? 



7. See you in January, Rory.

In a round that epitomized his entire year, McIlroy wrapped up 2017 with an even-par 72 and a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He finished the year with seven top-10s in 18 worldwide starts … but no victories, and in a year when Thomas asserted himself as golf’s newest star, Dustin Johnson held onto the No. 1 ranking for much of the year and Jordan Spieth added another major, there’s no other way to describe McIlroy’s 2017 campaign: It was wildly disappointing.

It was his first year since 2008 that he didn't win at least once.

“Even though I haven’t won and the results haven’t been what I wanted," he said, "I can still salvage something from the rest of the year, even though I am not playing.” 

And so now comes a three-month break, where McIlroy will shelve the clubs and focus on resting and rehabbing his injured rib, which has affected him since January.

Was that the only reason for his relative struggles this year? Of course not. He was one of the worst wedge players on Tour last season, ranking 190th in approaches from 125-150 yards, and he was the 140th-best putter.

Those are weaknesses that the other top players in the world don’t have. If he doesn’t improve in those areas by the time he returns in January, it could be another underwhelming year. 

8. Tyrrell Hatton won the Dunhill Links at 24 under, but the biggest drama Sunday was whether golf’s magic number would be shot on one of golf’s most famous courses.  

Prior to Sunday, the lowest round ever recorded on the Old Course at St. Andrews was a 10-under 62 (by Curtis Strange, in 1987).

Victor Dubuission was the first to challenge that mark in the final round (before settling for a 63), and Ross Fisher later breezed through with a bogey-free 61 in which he three-putted for par on the final hole from the Valley of Sin.  

There have been 13,146 professional rounds played on the Old Course. Fisher now owns the lowest score. 

And not everyone was pleased.


9. With the sports world focused on a wild college football Saturday, Tiger Woods couldn’t help himself, teasing fans with a slow-motion video of a "smooth" iron shot.

Woods said at the Presidents Cup that he was only able to hit 60-yard shots, per his doctor’s instructions, but he clearly was given the green light for some heavier lifting.

We’ll leave the swing analysis to our Golf Channel colleagues, but it’s an encouraging sign, given his uncertain future. The Masters is only 177 days away, you know … 

10. The European Tour will reportedly test a 40-second shot clock at an event next summer.

The Austrian Open will be the first event with a shot-clock system that will immediately penalize any player who takes longer than 40 seconds to play a shot. An official will follow every group in the reduced field.

It likely won’t become the norm, because it’d be unrealistic with a full field and major stakes, but it’s a worthwhile experiment to see how much of a difference it can make. 



11. Marc Leishman’s American wife Audrey posted some thoughtful comments on the boorish fan behavior at the recent Presidents Cup.

Taking exception with the 7 a.m. drinking, cheering for missed putts, heckling of the wives and girlfriends, and even the overly aggressive tone from the American players and commentators, Leishman concluded that the week was “hard on her heart” and golf fans did themselves no favors at Liberty National.

There was similar disappointment expressed from those who attended the Ryder Cup last fall at Hazeltine, and it’s not hard to imagine how insane the experience will be at Bethpage Black in 2024.

It makes for a huge home-course advantage, but the PGA Tour and PGA of America executives might want to consider a limit on alcohol sizes or crowd size. 

12. There are fewer spots available for the men’s and women’s U.S. Open qualifiers, after the USGA offered two more spots to the previous year’s U.S. Junior and Mid-Amateur champions.

While that’s two fewer spots for someone who could actually win the tournament, it was a no-brainer for the USGA, as this move helps validate those big-time tournaments.

It never made sense that the Mid-Am champ got into the Masters but not the USGA’s own premier event.

13. Leading by nine with one round to go, Cristie Kerr completed a wire-to-wire victory at the French Open, her first on the Ladies European Tour.

Afterward, though, she broke down in tears, after losing a friend from back home and Ladies European Tour player Cassandra Kirkland to cancer. Kerr made a $5,000 donation to the charity in Kirkland’s name.

“I’m sorry, but f--- cancer,” she said. “I played for them, and I played for myself. I’m so sorry to say the F-word, but I’m so sick of losing people to cancer. … I’ve been having an angel on my shoulder all week. I was on a mission and I got it done for them.”  

There’s so much to take in here, from the facial expressions to the golf-themed dance moves. But it’d be a miracle if any of us move this well at age 81 … 

This week's award winners ... 


It’s Not That Easy: Tyler Duncan. Taking the 54-hole lead at the Safeway in just his second career Tour start, the rookie crashed back to reality with three consecutive bogeys to start his final round and a closing 75. The tie for fifth was still a good start in helping him try and keep his card for next season. 

Easy to Root For: A.J. McInerney. The Web.com Tour player recounted last week his harrowing experience of attending the country music concert in Las Vegas. Fortunately, he and his friends survived the shooting.

Honest … To A Fault?: David Howell’s caddie. On the bag for the first time with his new boss, Howell’s looper informed him while playing the 18th hole that he committed a rules violation by playing in front of the tee markers. Perhaps the caddie should have piped up earlier, but Howell wasn’t upset: “I patted him on the back and told him he’s just done a good honest thing. It’s not easy doing that when it hurts your own pocket.” 

At Least One Tiger Event is Fine: Hero World Challenge. Woods’ D.C.-area event is in a world of trouble, with Congressional backing out and no title sponsor for 2018, but he’s had little trouble attracting stars to the Bahamas in December for an exhibition with world-ranking points. Fourteen of the top 20 players in the world are expected to tee it up at the Hero. 

Signs of Life: Hunter Mahan. Lost for the past few years, he lost his PGA Tour card and will be playing this season on the Web.com circuit, but he continued to show signs of progress with a T-13 in Napa. That followed a T-16 in the regular-season finale in Greensboro. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Sam Saunders. Riding high after earning his Tour card at the Web.com Tour Championship (where he opened with a 59 and tied for second), he couldn’t keep the momentum rolling on the West Coast. With rounds of 74-70, he missed the cut in the season opener. Sigh. 

Open Qualifying Series kicks off with Aussie Open

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 4:24 pm

The 147th Open is nearly eight months away, but there are still major championship berths on the line this week in Australia.

The Open Qualifying Series kicks off this week, a global stretch of 15 event across 10 different countries that will be responsible for filling 46 spots in next year's field at Carnoustie. The Emirates Australian Open is the first event in the series, and the top three players among the top 10 who are not otherwise exempt will punch their tickets to Scotland.

In addition to tournament qualifying opportunities, the R&A will also conduct four final qualifying events across Great Britain and Ireland on July 3, where three spots will be available at each site.

Here's a look at the full roster of tournaments where Open berths will be awarded:

Emirates Australian Open (Nov. 23-26): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Joburg Open (Dec. 7-10): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

SMBC Singapore Open (Jan. 18-21): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Mizuno Open (May 24-27): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

HNA Open de France (June 28-July 1): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The National (June 28-July 1): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Dubai Duty Free Irish Open (July 5-8): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The Greenbrier Classic (July 5-8): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open (July 12-15): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

John Deere Classic (July 12-15): Top player (not otherwise exempt) among top five and ties

Stock Watch: Lexi, Justin rose or fall this week?

By Ryan LavnerNovember 21, 2017, 2:36 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): Just imagine how good he’ll be in the next few years, when he isn’t playing all of these courses for the first time. With no weaknesses in his game, he’s poised for an even bigger 2018.

Austin Cook (+7%): From Monday qualifiers to Q-School to close calls on the Web.com, it hasn’t been an easy road to the big leagues. Well, he would have fooled us, because it looked awfully easy as the rookie cruised to a win in just his 14th Tour start.

Ariya (+6%): Her physical tools are as impressive as any on the LPGA, and if she can shore up her mental game – she crumbled upon reaching world No. 1 – then she’ll become the world-beater we always believed she could be.  

Tommy Fleetwood (+4%): He ran out of gas in Dubai, but no one played better on the European Tour this year than Fleetwood, Europe’s new No. 1, who has risen from 99th to 18th in the world.   

Lexi (+1%): She has one million reasons to be pleased with her performance this year … but golf fans are more likely to remember the six runners-up and two careless mistakes (sloppy marking at the ANA and then a yippy 2-footer in the season finale) that cost her a truly spectacular season.


FALLING

J-Rose (-1%): Another high finish in Dubai, but his back-nine 38, after surging into the lead, was shocking. It cost him not just the tournament title, but also the season-long race.  

Hideki (-2%): After getting blown out at the Dunlop Phoenix, he made headlines by saying there’s a “huge gap” between he and winner Brooks Koepka. Maybe something was lost in translation, but Matsuyama being too hard on himself has been a familiar storyline the second half of the year. For his sake, here’s hoping he loosens up.

Golf-ball showdown (-3%): Recent comments by big-name stars and Mike Davis’ latest salvo about the need for a reduced-flight ball could set up a nasty battle between golf’s governing bodies and manufacturers.

DL3 (-4%): Boy, the 53-year-old is getting a little too good at rehab – in recent years, he has overcome a neck fusion, foot injury, broken collarbone and displaced thumb. Up next is hip-replacement surgery.

LPGA Player of the Year (-5%): Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu tied for the LPGA’s biggest prize, with 162 points. How is there not a tiebreaker in place, whether it’s scoring average or best major performance? Talk about a buzzkill.

Titleist's Uihlein fires back at Davis over distance

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 12:59 am

Consider Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein unmoved by Mike Davis' comments about the evolution of the golf ball – and unhappy.

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, the outlet which first published Davis' comments on Sunday, Uihlein took aim at the idea that golf ball distance gains are hurting the sport by providing an additional financial burden to courses.

"Is there any evidence to support this canard … the trickle-down cost argument?” he wrote (via Golf.com). “Where is the evidence to support the argument that golf course operating costs nationwide are being escalated due to advances in equipment technology?"

Pointing the blame elsewhere, Uihlein criticized the choices and motivations of modern architects.

"The only people that seem to be grappling with advances in technology and physical fitness are the short-sighted golf course developers and the supporting golf course architectural community who built too many golf courses where the notion of a 'championship golf course' was brought on line primarily to sell real estate," he wrote.

The Titleist CEO even went as far as to suggest that Tiger Woods' recent comments that "we need to do something about the golf ball" were motivated by the business interersts of Woods' ball sponsor, Bridgestone.

"Given Bridgestone’s very small worldwide market share and paltry presence in professional golf, it would seem logical they would have a commercial motive making the case for a reduced distance golf ball," he added.

Acushnet Holdings, Titleist's parent company, announced in September that Uihlein would be stepping down as the company's CEO at the end of this year but that he will remain on the company's board of directors.

Class of 2011: The groups before The Group

By Mercer BaggsNovember 20, 2017, 9:00 pm

We’ve been grouping things since the beginning, as in The Beginning, when God said this is heaven and this is earth, and you’re fish and you’re fowl.

God probably wasn’t concerned with marketing strategies at the time and how #beastsoftheearth would look with a hashtag, but humans have evolved into such thinking (or not evolved, depending on your thinking).

We now have all manner of items lumped into the cute, the catchy and the kitschy. Anything that will capture our attention before the next thing quickly wrests said attention away.

Modern focus, in a group sense in the golf world, is on the Class of 2011. This isn’t an arbitrary assembly of players based on world ranking or current form. It’s not a Big Pick A Number.

There’s an actual tie that binds as it takes a specific distinction to be part of the club. It’s a group of 20-somethings who graduated from high school in the aforementioned year, many who have a PGA Tour card, a handful of who have PGA Tour wins, and a couple of who have major titles.

It’s a deep and talented collective, one for which our knowledge should continue to expand as resumes grow.

Do any “classes” in golf history compare? Well, it’s not like we’ve long been lumping successful players together based on when they completed their primary education. But there are other notable groups of players, based primarily on birthdate, relative competition and accomplishment.

Here’s a few on both the men’s and women’s side:

BORN IN 1912

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Feb. 4, 1912 Byron Nelson 52 5
May 27, 1912 Sam Snead 82 7
Aug. 13, 1912 Ben Hogan 64 9

Born six months within one another. Only a threesome, but a Hall of Fame trio that combined for 198 PGA Tour wins and 21 majors.


BORN IN 1949

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Sept. 4, 1949 Tom Watson 39 8
Dec. 5, 1949 Lanny Wadkins 21 1
Dec. 9, 1949 Tom Kite 19 1

Only 96 days separate these three Hall of Fame players. Extend the reach into March of 1950 and you'll get two-time U.S. Open winner Andy North.


BORN IN 1955

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Jan. 30, 1955 Curtis Strange 17 2
Jan. 30, 1955 Payne Stewart 11 3
Feb. 10, 1955 Greg Norman 20 2

Another trio of Hall of Fame players. Strange and Stewart were born on the same day with Norman 11 days later. Fellow PGA Tour winners born in 1955: Scott Simpson, Scott Hoch and Loren Roberts.


WITHIN A CALENDAR YEAR, 1956-57

Birthdate Player LPGA wins Major wins
Feb. 22, 1956 Amy Alcott 29 5
Oct. 14, 1956 Beth Daniel 33 1
Oct. 27, 1956 Patty Sheehan 35 6
Jan. 6, 1957 Nancy Lopez 48 3

A little arbitrary here, but go with it. Four Hall of Famers on the women's side, all born within one year of each other. That's an average (!) career of 36 tour wins and nearly four majors.


EUROPE'S BIG 5

Birthdate Player Euro (PGA Tour) wins Major wins
April 9, 1957 Seve Ballesteros 50 (9) 5
July 18, 1957 Nick Faldo 30 (9) 6
Aug. 27, 1957 Bernhard Langer 42 (3) 2
Feb. 9, 1958 Sandy Lyle 18 (6) 2
March 2, 1958 Ian Woosnam 29 (2) 1

The best 'class' of players Europe has to offer. Five born within a year of one another. Five Hall of Fame members. Five who transformed and globalized European golf.


WITHIN A CALENDAR YEAR, 1969-70

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Sept. 12, 1969 Angel Cabrera 3 2
Oct. 17, 1969 Ernie Els 19 4
May 12, 1970 Jim Furyk 17 1
May 12, 1970 Mike Weir 8 1
June 16, 1970 Phil Mickelson 42 5

Not a tight-knit group, but a little more global bonding in accordance to the PGA Tour's increased international reach. Add in worldwide wins – in excess of 200 combined – and this group is even more impressive.


BORN IN 1980

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Jan. 9, 1980 Sergio Garcia 10 1
July 16, 1980 Adam Scott 13 1
July 30, 1980 Justin Rose 8 1

Could be three future Hall of Fame members here.

Editor's note: Golf Channel's editorial research unit contributed.