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.

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.