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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. 

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O. Fisher, Pepperell share lead at Qatar Masters

By Associated PressFebruary 24, 2018, 5:13 pm

DOHA, Qatar - Oliver Fisher birdied his last four holes in the Qatar Masters third round to share the lead at Doha Golf Club on Saturday.

The 29-year-old Englishman shot a 7-under 65 for an overall 16-under 200. Eddie Pepperell (66) picked up shots on the 16th and 18th to catch his compatriot and the pair enjoy a two-shot lead over American Sean Crocker (67) in third.

David Horsey (65) was the biggest mover of the day with the Englishman improving 31 places for a share of fourth place at 12 under with, among others, Frenchman Gregory Havret and Italian Andrea Pavan.

Fisher, winner of the 2011 Czech Open, made some stunning putts on his way in. After an eight-footer on the par-4 15th, he then drove the green on the short par-4 16th for an easy birdie, before making a 12-footer on the 17th and a 15-footer on the 18th.

Like Pepperell, Fisher also had just one bogey to show on his card, also on the 12th hole.


Full-field scores from the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters


''I gave myself some chances coming in and thankfully I made them,'' said Fisher, who has dropped to 369th in the world rankings.

''You can quite easily make a few bogeys without doing that much wrong here, so it's important to be patient and keep giving yourself chances.''

Pepperell, ranked 154th in the world after a strong finish to his 2017 season, has been a picture of consistency in the tournament. He was once again rock-solid throughout the day, except one bad hole - the par-4 12th. His approach shot came up short and landed in the rocks, the third ricocheted back off the rocks, and he duffed his fourth shot to stay in the waste area.

But just when a double bogey or worse looked imminent, Pepperell holed his fifth shot for what was a remarkable bogey. And he celebrated that escape with a 40-feet birdie putt on the 13th.

''I maybe lost a little feeling through the turn, but I bounced back nicely and I didn't let it bother me,'' said the 27-year-old Pepperell, who hit his third shot to within four feet on the par-5 18th to join Fisher on top.

The long-hitting Crocker is playing on invites on the European Tour. He made a third eagle in three days - on the par-4 16th for the second successive round.

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Uihlein fires back at Jack in ongoing distance debate

By Randall MellFebruary 24, 2018, 4:32 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Wally Uihlein challenged Jack Nicklaus’ assault this week on the golf ball.

Uihlein, an industry force as president and CEO of Titleist and FootJoy parent company Acushnet for almost 20 years, retired at year’s start but remains an adviser.

In an interview with ScoreGolf on Friday, Uihlein reacted to Nicklaus’ assertions that the ball is responsible for contributing to a lot of the troubles the game faces today, from slow play and sagging participation to the soaring cost to play.

Uihlein also took the USGA and The R&A to task.

The ball became a topic when Nicklaus met with reporters Tuesday at the Honda Classic and was asked about slow play. Nicklaus said the ball was “the biggest culprit” of that.

“It appears from the press conference that Mr. Nicklaus was blaming slow play on technology and the golf ball in particular,” Uihlein said. “I don’t think anyone in the world believes that the golf ball has contributed to the game’s pace of play issues.”

Nicklaus told reporters that USGA executive director Mike Davis pledged over dinner with him to address the distance the golf ball is flying and the problems Nicklaus believes the distance explosion is creating in the game.

“Mike Davis has not told us that he is close, and he has not asked us for help if and when he gets there,” Uihlein said.

ScoreGolf pointed out that the Vancouver Protocol of 2011 was created after a closed-door meeting among the USGA, The R&A and equipment manufacturers, with the intent to make any proposed changes to equipment rules or testing procedures more transparent and to allow participation in the process.

“There are no golf courses being closed due to the advent of evolving technology,” Uihlein said. “There is no talk from the PGA Tour and its players about technology making their commercial product less attractive. Quite the opposite, the PGA Tour revenues are at record levels. The PGA of America is not asking for a roll back of technology. The game’s everyday player is not advocating a roll back of technology.”

ScoreGolf said Uihlein questioned why the USGA and The R&A choose courses that “supposedly” can no longer challenge the game’s best players as preferred venues for the U.S. Open, The Open and other high-profile events.

“It seems to me at some point in time that the media should be asking about the conflict of interest between the ruling bodies while at the same time conducting major championships on venues that maybe both the athletes and the technology have outgrown,” he said. “Because it is the potential obsolescence of some of these championship venues which is really at the core of this discussion.”

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J. Korda leads M. Jutanugarn by four in Thailand

By Associated PressFebruary 24, 2018, 3:00 pm

CHONBURI, Thailand - Jessica Korda kept an eye on her younger sister while firing a 4-under 68 in the third round of the LPGA Thailand on Saturday to lead Moriya Jutanugarn by four strokes.

A day after a course-record 62 at Siam Country Club, Korda fought back from a bogey on the front nine with five birdies to finish on 20-under 196 overall. The American was on the 18th hole when concerns over lightning suspended play for 30 minutes before play resumed.

''(I) was playing really well at the end of the season, but I haven't been in this (leading) position. Being back, it just takes you a little bit of time,'' said the 24-year-old Korda, who won her fifth and last title at the LPGA Malaysia in 2015.

Her 19-year-old sister Nelly Korda (65) is eight shots off the lead.


Full-field scores from the Honda LPGA Thailand


''I'm definitely a leaderboard watcher. I love seeing her name up there,'' said Jessica Korda, who was playing her first tournament since jaw surgery.

Propelled by eight birdies and an eagle on the par-4 No. 14, with three bogeys, Moriya signed off with a 65 and a total of 16-under 200.

''Everybody has the chance to win as all the top players are here this week,'' said Moriya, who has a chance to become the first Thai winner in her home tournament.

Australian Minjee Lee (68) is third on 15-under 201, followed by former top-ranked Ariya Jutanugarn (65) on 202. Lexi Thompson (69), the 2016 champion, is a stroke further back. Michelle Wie (69) is tied for sixth.

Brittany Lincicome was in second place after the second round, four shots behind Jessica Korda, but the American dropped down the board and is tied for ninth after a 73.

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The Tiger comeback just got real on Friday

By Randall MellFebruary 24, 2018, 1:11 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Slow play was a big storyline on the PGA Tour’s West Coast swing, but not so much anymore.

Not with Tiger Woods speeding things up Friday at the Honda Classic.

Not with Woods thumping the gas pedal around PGA National’s Champion Course, suddenly looking as if he is racing way ahead of schedule in his return to the game.

The narrative wondrously started to turn here.

It turned from wondering at week’s start if Woods could make the cut here, after missing it last week at the Genesis Open. His game was too wild for Riviera, where a second-round 76 left him looking lost with the Masters just six weeks away.

It turned in head-spinning fashion Friday with Woods climbing the leaderboard in tough conditions to get himself into weekend contention with a 1-over-par 71.

He is just four shots off the lead.

“I’d be shocked if he’s not there Sunday with a chance to win,” said Brandt Snedeker, who played alongside Woods in the first two rounds. “He’s close to playing some really, really good golf.”

Just a few short months ago, so many of us were wondering if Woods was close to washed up.

“He’s only going to improve,” Snedeker said. “The more time he has, as the weather gets warmer, he’ll feel better and be able to practice more.”

Snedeker has had a front-row seat for this speedy Tiger turnaround. He played the third round with Woods at the Farmers Insurance Open last month. That was Woods’ first PGA Tour start in a year.


Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos


How much improvement did Snedeker see from that Torrey Pines experience?

“It was kind of what I expected – significantly improved,” Snedeker said. “His iron game is way better. His driver is way better. I don’t’ see it going backward from here.”

This was the hope packed into Friday’s new narrative.

“I’m right there in the ballgame,” Woods said. “I really played well today. I played well all day today.”

Tiger sent a jolt through PGA National when his name hit the top 10 of the leaderboard. He didn’t do it with a charge. He did it battling a brutish course in wintry, blustery winds, on “scratchy” and “dicey” greens that made par a good score.

When Woods holed a 25-foot putt at the ninth to move into red numbers at 1 under overall and within three shots of the lead, a roar shook across the Champion Course.

“It got a little loud, which was cool to see,” Snedeker said. “It’s great to have that energy and vibe back.”

Woods sent fans scampering to get into position, blasting a 361-yard drive at the 10th, cutting the corner. He had them buzzing when he stuck his approach to 9 feet for another birdie chance to get within two of the lead.

“I thought if he makes it, this place will go nuts, and he could get it going like he used to,” Snedeker said.

Woods missed, but with the leaders falling back to him on this grueling day, he stuck his approach at the 12th to 10 feet to give himself a chance to move within a shot of the lead.

It’s another putt that could have turned PGA National upside down, but Woods missed that.

“It really is hard to make birdies,” he said. “At least I found it hard. It was hard to get the ball close, even if the ball is in the fairway, it's still very difficult to get the ball close, with the wind blowing as hard as it is. It’s hard to make putts out here.”

Patton Kizzire, a two-time PGA Tour winner who won just last month at the Sony Open, could attest to how tough the test at Honda has become. He played alongside Woods this week for the first time in his career. He shot 78 Friday and missed the cut.

Kizzire had a close-up look at what suddenly seems possible for Woods again.

“He’s figuring it out,” Kizzire said. “He hit some nice shots and rolled in some nice putts. It was pretty impressive.”

Woods could not hide his excitement in getting himself in the weekend hunt, but his expectations remain tempered in this comeback. He knows the daily referendums his game is subject to, how we can all make the highs too high and the lows too low.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Woods said.

Woods lost a tee shot in a bush at the second hole and made bogey. He hit his tee shot in the water at the 15th and made double bogey. He three-putted the 16th to make bogey. He knows this course can derail a player’s plans in a hurry, but he knows his game is quickly coming around.

“I’m right there where I can win a golf tournament,” Woods said. “Four back on this golf course with 36 holes to go, I mean, anybody can win this golf tournament right now. It’s wide open.’”

Woods hit his shot of the day at the 17th to right his game after the struggles at the 15th and 16th. He did so in front of the Goslings Bear Trap Party Pavilion, cutting a 5-iron to 12 feet. It was the hardest hole on the course Friday, with nearly one of every three players rinsing a shot in the water there. Woods made birdie there to ignite an explosion of cheers.  He got a standing ovation.

“I was telling you guys, I love Riviera, I just don't play well there,” Woods said. “So here we are, we're back at a golf course I know and I play well here.”

So here we are, on the precipice of something special again?

Woods seems in a hurry to find out.