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Monday Scramble: Just getting started

By Will GrayJanuary 22, 2018, 4:30 pm

Tommy Fleetwood dazzles, Jon Rahm outlasts, Phil Mickelson falters, Rory McIlroy starts the year on the right foot and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:

He didn't hit a single shot on Sunday, but the biggest winner of the weekend may have been Thomas Bjorn.

That's because the burly Dane watched one potential European Ryder Cup stud after another either lift a trophy or show significant signs of promise.

First it was Sergio Garcia cruising to victory in Singapore, then Tommy Fleetwood's stirring rally in Abu Dhabi. By the time Jon Rahm finished off the CareerBuilder Challenge in the waning daylight, the European skipper likely had a grin plastered from ear to ear.

There will be countless ebbs and flows of momentum before the first shot is struck at Le Golf National, but this week proved once again that the Americans won't be the only ones sporting some serious depth at the biennial matches.


1. The most dazzling display Sunday came from Fleetwood, who successfully defended his title in Abu Dhabi thanks to an absolutely unconscious back nine.

The Englishman was five shots back when he made the turn, but six birdies over his final nine holes turned that deficit into a two-shot win.

It was in Abu Dhabi last year that he sparked a career turnaround, winning the event en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. He turned up once again this year with ample confidence and a new wedding ring, and the results were much the same.

He doesn't have the star power of some of his contemporaries, but it's becoming increasingly clear that Fleetwood can more than hold his own against even the best in the game.

2. Hours before Fleetwood caught fire, it was Garcia rolling to a five-shot win in Singapore to complete the transition from tournament headliner to tournament champion.

Garcia was just days removed from his 38th birthday and making his first start with a full bag of Callaway clubs. But he showed no signs of offseason rust or equipment adjustment while capturing his second worldwide win since slipping into his green jacket.

The Spaniard has certainly enjoyed the fruits of his Masters victory nine months ago, but it's apparent that he has no plans to rest on the laurels of last spring.



3. He didn't leave Abu Dhabi with the trophy, but McIlroy may have found something more lasting: confidence.

It was in his first start last year that McIlroy injured his rib and plummeted into a vicious cycle of attempted rehabs and ill-fated comebacks. This time around, he came out of the gates with a relaxed swagger en route to a tie for third.

As Ryan Lavner wrote, it was an ideal beginning to a big year for McIlroy, who has already offered up the notion that 2018 could be the busiest season of his career as he chases the final leg of the career Grand Slam and a return to golf's upper echelon.

After the first leg of a two-week stay in the Middle East, that plan is off to a promising start.

4. Let's take a moment to marvel at McIlroy's record in Abu Dhabi, where he has done everything but win the tournament.

In his last nine appearances, McIlroy has finished fifth or better eight times. That stretch includes four runner-up results and now two straight T-3 finishes.

There remain two equally remarkable factors to McIlroy's run: the fact that he somehow hasn't managed to lift the trophy (yet), and the lone outlier: a missed cut in 2013 after his celebrated switch to Nike.



5. With darkness rapidly encircling the Coachella Valley, Rahm managed to shake off Andrew Landry and capture his second career PGA Tour victory.

Rahm's 20-foot birdie on the fourth playoff hole proved the difference in Palm Springs, where he entered as the highest-ranked player in the field and supported that status with his stout play.

Rahm barely took his foot off the gas, both across the difficult closing stretch at PGA West and during the playoff when he sent one approach after the next hurtling toward the pin. It's the fourth worldwide win in less than a year for Rahm, who continues to outpace even the rosiest of projections for his burgeoning career.

6. The win moves Rahm past Jordan Spieth to world No. 2, making him the fourth-youngest player to ever reach such heights.

One year ago, the Spaniard was ranked 137th in the world. His win at the Farmers Insurance Open the following week altered his trajectory, and he now finds himself only one rung away from the top of the ladder.

While so much focus has been (deservedly) heaped upon players like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, perhaps it's Rahm who has the best chance to eventually unseat world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. He'll have a chance to chip into that deficit this week as he defends his title at Torrey Pines.



7. Speaking of Torrey Pines, it's officially Farmers Insurance Open week which means that Tiger Woods watch is about to kick off in earnest.

It's something of a tradition to see Woods strolling the fairways of the South Course, where he has won eight times including the 2008 U.S. Open. But this week will bring heightened expectation following Woods' better-than-anticipated return from injury last month at the Hero World Challenge.

Granted, Torrey Pines is a far cry from the forgiving fairways of Albany. But if Woods is able to put together two solid rounds and make the cut, it should be seen as a step in the right direction.

Of course, for all of Woods' success in San Diego, it's also the place where he struggled with chipping yips prior to a withdrawal in 2015 and missed the cut last year in his final official PGA Tour start of the year. So his results this time around might be anyone's guess.

Ken Duke is one of the bona fide nice guys on Tour, and he proved it this weekend in Palm Springs.

Duke is playing off past champion status this season, and he unsuccessfully petitioned tournament officials at the CareerBuilder Challenge for a sponsor invite. With 156 players in the field, Duke was the odd man out at No. 157 and relegated to first alternate status.

He didn't get into the tournament proper, but Duke was willing to step in when Corey Pavin's first Tour start since 2015 ended with a withdrawal after just 17 holes. Because of the tournament's pro-am format, Pavin's amateur partner was left without a pro for the next two rounds.

So in came Duke to play what amounted to a 36-hole pro-am, an effort of good faith to help an event that couldn't find room for him at the start of the week:

It's not often you see a pro compete where his score only counts for his amateur partner. But such was Duke's situation this week, and kudos to him for handling it with class.

This week's award winners ...


Unusually Short Stay: Phil Mickelson. Lefty has become a regular in Palm Springs, but three shaky rounds left him with his first missed cut in this event since 1994 - a few months before Rahm was born.

Nice Job, Kid: Sungjae Im. The 19-year-old Korean joined Jason Day as the only two teenagers to win on the Web.com Tour, as Im shot a final-round 65 to win the season opener in the Bahamas.

A for Effort: Andrew Landry. Landry put up a stellar fight in Palm Springs, holing a birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff and going shot-for-shot with Rahm for nearly an hour. He came up short in his effort to win for the first time, but Landry certainly has plenty of positive takeaways from his week in the desert.



On the Disabled List: Brooks Koepka. The reigning U.S. Open champ is out for the next couple months because of a torn ligament in his wrist, with hopes of returning before the Masters. The diagnosis comes after Koepka finished last at both the Hero World Challenge and Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Still the Bridesmaid: Ross Fisher. The Englishman now has 14 runner-up finishes on the European Tour after he coughed up a late lead to Fleetwood. It's been a resurgent year for Fisher, including nine top-10s and three runner-ups in his last six starts. But he's still looking for his first win in nearly four years.

More Euro Momentum: Not to be outshone by Fleetwood and McIlroy, Matthew Fitzpatrick (T-3) and Thomas Pieters (T-5) both started the year on the right foot in Abu Dhabi. Both men were at Hazeltine two years ago, and expect one (or both) to factor on the team in Paris this fall.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Bill Haas. A two-time winner and the all-time leading money-winner in Palm Springs, Haas never factored and eventually missed the cut. Honorable mention here goes to 2014 champ Patrick Reed who also stayed home on Sunday.

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.


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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.


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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.


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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”