Monday Scramble: Best in the World

By Will GrayMarch 6, 2017, 4:45 pm

Dustin Johnson remains top dog, Rory McIlroy shows signs of promise, Phil Mickelson escapes as only he can, a new course shines and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

He came to Mexico as No. 1, and he's leaving as No. 1.

Much of the early-round fanfare went to other players, but when the last putt fell it was Johnson who had separated from the other elite contenders, strengthening his spot atop the world rankings.

Johnson showed plenty of power at Club de Golf Chapultepec, hitting par-4 greens with irons and launching missiles that may still be in orbit. But this tournament was won not with his braun, but with his touch.

Johnson made a number of critical up-and-downs from tough spots during the final round, including one for birdie on No. 15 that ultimately provided the winning margin. Then, clinging to a one-shot lead on the final hole, he produced a fairway bunker shot from an awkward lie that would've made Tiger Woods blush.

The delineation between any of the top six golfers in the world is razor-thin at the moment, but Johnson seems to have been on cruise control for the better part of a month. That doesn't bode well for the other five in the upper echelon.

1. Johnson's win might have been even more convincing had his putter made the trip south.

DJ missed a total of 16 putts inside 10 feet for the week, including several during an opening-round 70 that left him chasing the pack. That mark tied Vijay Singh for the most close-range putts missed by an eventual tournament winner in the last decade.

Granted, Johnson made more than his fair share from long range - 10, to be precise. But his ability to win in spite of a number of short misses shows how much his game has grown in recent months.

2. Among the many accolades to come his way, Johnson now joins a prestigious list of players to win their first start as the No. 1-ranked player in the world:

  • Ian Woosnam (1991 Masters)
  • David Duval (1999 BellSouth Classic)
  • Vijay Singh (2004 RBC Canadian Open)
  • Adam Scott (2014 Dean & DeLuca Invitational)
  • Dustin Johnson (2017 WGC-Mexico Championship)

3. While Johnson's win was impressive, the true standout performer this week was the Club de Golf Chapultepec.

Little was known about the host site entering the week, but it provided an exacting test for the game's best players. What's more, it created compelling, can't-look-away shotmaking at every turn.

Just months before the USGA hosts the U.S. Open at one of its biggest ballparks ever, Chapultepec showed that short, tight and tree-lined is still a winning combination.

Players were forced to improvise with nearly every errant shot, and the yardage conversions at 7,500 feet of altitude meant tons of play was dictated by feel.

It's unfortunate that Doral no longer has a spot on the Tour's schedule, but Chapultepec proved to be a worthy - and more entertaining - replacement.

4. He didn't win, but MIckelson certainly gave the Mexican fans their money's worth.

No one embraced the shotmaking challenges of Chapultepec quite like Mickelson - partly thanks to his imagination, and partly out of necessity because he couldn't keep his tee shots on the planet.

It's a skill set that has won five majors, and it was on full display during a third-round 68 that included nearly as many free relief drops (three) as fairways hit (four).

And it was all capped by an "I know it looks bad" discussion with an official before taking a drop from an above-ground sprinkler head while buried in the middle of a shrub.

Never change, Phil.

5. A T-7 finish for McIlroy out-performed even his own expectations.

McIlroy made his much-anticipated return from a rib injury and didn't appear to lose a step, opening with rounds of 68-65 before slowing down over the weekend.

It's easy to lose sight of the Ulsterman, what with Johnson's convincing ascent to No. 1 and wins by Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler in his absence. But McIlroy more than held his own in his attempt to kick off the rust, and that bodes well with the Masters in sight.

This season is already filled with plenty of major storylines, but the trip down Magnolia Lane won't be the same without McIlroy firing on all cylinders as he chases the career Grand Slam.

6. The back-nine rally came up short this time, but Jon Rahm offered another example as to why his stock remains red-hot.

The Spaniard turned pro less than a year ago, but he's already won on a beastly track (Torrey Pines) and contended on several others. Sunday he was the only player to give Johnson a run for his money, briefly overtaking him for the lead before a pair of three-putt bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17.

Many casual fans will cite Rahm as a Masters sleeper next month, but that label doesn't even fit anymore if you've been paying attention.

7. The USGA and R&A announced this past week a proposal to lighten the rule book, and we're all better for it.

There will be plenty of time to analyze the new rules before they go into effect in January 2019, and the debate will rage on over why a spike mark can be fixed but a ball must still be played from a divot.

But golf's two governing bodies did well for both the amateur and the professional with one word: simplify.

After so many recent headaches with seemingly miniscule infractions and complicated decisions, a little dose of common sense will go a long way toward making the game easier - and faster - to play.

8. While most of the rule changes were well-received, a few LPGA players bristled at the notion that their caddies will soon not be allowed to line them up.

There is no limit to the list of skills required to play golf at a high level, but one of them surely is the ability to gauge your own alignment. What once served as a helpful confirmation at address has become, for many, a crutch.

It'll be an adjustment for some top players, sure, but it's no different than the one several top men endured when adjusting to the anchoring ban.

9. Welcome back Queen Bee.

Inbee Park has been largely on the sideline since her gold medal-winning performance in Rio, but the former No. 1 showed in Singapore that when she's on her game, she's almost impossible to beat.

Park entered the final round amid a crowded leaderboard that also included top-ranked players Lydia Ko and Ariya Jutanugarn. But Park left them all in her dust with five straight birdies en route to a final-round 64 and a one-shot win.

It was just her second start since the Olympics, an event that itself was preceded by a long injury layoff for Park. But if she's as healthy as she seemed during Sunday's finale, the rest of her peers will need to step up their games.

10. While she didn't win, it was refreshing to see MIchelle Wie's name again on an LPGA leaderboard.

Wie reached the pinnacle of the game at the 2014 U.S. Women's Open, but she's barely been heard from since and entered last week ranked No. 179 in the world. An opening 66 gave her an early lead, and she ultimately tied for fourth.

Wie leaned all week on the mantra that she had once again found a way to have fun on the golf course. Her career has already had more than its fair share of twists and turns, but at age 27 Wie still has plenty of script left to write.

11. The rankings giveth and the rankings taketh away.

Last week Charles Howell III was bumped out of a spot in the WGC-Mexico at the last minute, passed by both Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland at Honda.

This week Ross Fisher - who finished 20th in the Race to Dubai standings when only the top 20 qualified for Mexico - made the most of his opportunity and tied for third after a final-round 65.

The result should allow Fisher to go from one WGC to the next, as he's now 55th in the world with the top 64 next week qualifying for the WGC-Dell Match Play.

What's more, he now has a chance to earn a spot in the Masters with a strong run through the bracket, given that the top 50 on March 27 will earn trips down Magnolia Lane.

As for Howell, he heads to Tampa firmly on the match-play bubble at No. 65, and a return to Augusta National remains barely out of reach as a result.

12. Thomas Pieters' T-5 finish in Mexico shows his game can travel.

The Belgian bomber has already been discussed as a player to watch at the Masters and U.S. Open at Erin Hills, but his result this week - and his runner-up at Riviera - shows he does not need a big ballpark to thrive.

The former NCAA champ has found his footing on the global stage, thanks in large part to his coming-out party at Hazeltine. With his PGA Tour privileges now secured for the rest of the season, don't be surprised if a win soon follows.

The reviews this week in Mexico were largely positive, save perhaps for the food.

A number of players were stricken with some form of stomach bug or food poisoning, ranging from McIlroy to William McGirt and including Henrik Stenson, who withdrew after only 11 holes.

But the gastrointestinal issues also extended to the caddies, notably Mickelson's bag man, Jim "Bones" Mackay. Mackay appeared to struggle for much of the week, and even had to tap out during the second round at which point Mickelson's brother, Tim, took over as caddie.

Mackay was back on the bag for the weekend, but you know it had to be bad considering the fact that Mackay had double knee replacement surgery in October and didn't miss a start.

This week's award winners ... 

Steering Clear of the Snake Pit: Jordan Spieth. Spieth's win at the Valspar Championship sparked his 2015 season, but he has opted to skip the event for the first time as a professional. He's also unlikely to play Bay Hill, meaning Spieth will have skipped the entire Florida swing and will instead use Austin and Houston for his final Masters prep.

Freefall of the Week: Lee Westwood. Westwood birdied two of his first four holes Sunday to reach 11 under and get within a shot of the lead. He then played the rest of his round in 9 over, including four doubles, to finish in a tie for 28th. Ouch.

Turnaround of the Week: Brandt Snedeker. Snedeker was on the other side of the coin, opening with a 75 before going 14 under across his final 54 holes to snag a share of seventh.

Head on a Swivel: Justin Thomas' frustrations got the better of him Sunday, including at one point when a club toss off the tee nearly sent his driver into the gallery. Thomas took the result in stride, and at least it led to a memorable Twitter exchange between him and McIlroy, who has been known to toss a club or two in his day.

Turnabout is Fair Play: Tommy Fleetwood. The Englishman beat Johnson by a shot in Abu Dhabi in January, but this week Johnson was able to edge him by a shot in Mexico. It's still a strong result for Fleetwood, whose recent turnaround continues to impress.

Obligatory Tiger Stat: Johnson's win moves him into second on the all-time WGC victories list with four. But the only man in front of him on that list is Woods, who has 18 trophies on his mantle. That's a record that will still be standing long after we are gone.

Still Seeking Momentum: Danny Willett. The reigning Masters champ missed the cut at Honda, then shot four straight rounds over par in Mexico to finish 69th out of 76 players. Still, there's no better place to limp in for a title defense (and celebratory dinner) than Augusta.

Tweet of the week: Tour rookie Grayson Murray, who believes a rising social media tide would lift all boats:

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Stenson. In a no-cut event you always expect your players to make it through 72 holes at the very least, but the Swede's abrupt first-round exit doomed many a lineup. Alas.

Cabreras take 1-shot lead in Father/Son

By Associated PressDecember 16, 2017, 11:23 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. - Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera and Angel Cabrera Jr. birdied their last three holes for a 13-under 59 to take a one-shot lead Saturday in the PNC Father-Son Challenge.

Cabrera, a Masters and U.S. Open champion, is making his debut in this popular 36-hole scramble. His son said he practiced hard for 10 days. What helped put him at ease was watching his father make so many putts.

''We combined very well,'' Cabrera said. ''When I hit a bad shot, he hit a good one. That's the key.''

They had a one-shot lead over Mark O'Meara and Shaun O'Meara, who are playing for the first time. That included a birdie on the last hole, which O'Meara attributed to the strength of his son.

''My little man hit it 58 yards by me on the 18th,'' said O'Meara, the Masters and British Open champion in 1998. ''It's a little easier coming in with a 6-iron.''

Defending champions David Duval and Nick Karavites rallied over the back nine at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club for a 61. They are trying to become the first father-son team to repeat as winners since Bernhard and Stefan Langer in 2006. Larry Nelson won two years in a row in 2007 and 2008, but with different sons.

''I'd imagine we have to break 60 tomorrow to have a chance to win, but hey, stranger things have happened,'' Duval said. ''I've even done it myself.''

Duval shot 59 at the Bob Hope Classic to win in 1999 on his way to reaching No. 1 in the world that year.

Duval and his stepson were tied with Bernhard Langer and 17-year-old Jason Langer, who made two eagles on the last five holes. This Langer tandem won in 2014.

Jack Nicklaus, playing with grandson G.T., opened with a 68.

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Woods' 2018 schedule coming into focus ... or is it?

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 16, 2017, 5:46 pm

Two weeks after his successful return to competition at the Hero World Challenge, Tiger Woods’ 2018 schedule may be coming into focus.

Golfweek reported on Saturday that Woods hopes to play the Genesis Open in February according to an unidentified source with “direct knowledge of the situation.”

Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg declined to confirm the 14-time major champion would play the event and told that Woods – who underwent fusion surgery to his lower back in April – is still formulating his ’18 schedule.

Woods’ foundation is the host organization for the Genesis Open and the event supports the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif.

The Genesis Open would be Woods’ first start on the PGA Tour since he missed the cut last January at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Rose weathering delayed Indonesian Masters

By Associated PressDecember 16, 2017, 3:52 pm

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Justin Rose held a three-stroke lead after eight holes of the third round Saturday when play was suspended for the day due to bad weather at the Indonesian Masters.

Rose was 3-under on the day and led his playing partners Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Scott Vincent. The Englishman led both players by a stroke after the second round was completed Saturday morning due to weather delays on Friday.

Brandt Snedeker withdrew with apparent heat exhaustion on Friday on the 11th hole of the second round. Ranked 51st in the world, he flew to Jakarta looking to move inside the top 50 by the end of the year and ensure a spot in next year's Masters.

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Lexi (wrist) WDs from Diamond Resorts Invitational

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 15, 2017, 11:27 pm

Lexi Thompson on Friday withdrew from the Diamond Resorts Invitational, citing inflammation in her wrist. Thompson, who teamed with Tony Finau to finish tied for fourth place in last week's QBE Shootout, said she is under strict doctor's order not to hit golf balls until mid-January.

The Diamond Resorts Invitational is scheduled Jan. 12-14 at Tranquilo Golf Club in Orlando, Fla. The field for te 54-hole event includes LPGA and PGA Tour Champions players, as well as celebrities from the worlds or sports and entertainment.