Monday Scramble: Follow the leaders

By Will GrayMay 22, 2017, 3:00 pm

Billy Horschel gets back in the winner's circle, Rory McIlroy heads back to the disabled list, Jordan Spieth abandons his trusty putter, Phil Mickelson beefs up his travel itinerary and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble: 

What a difference a week makes.

As The Players Championship wrapped up in his hometown, Horschel found himself dressed in street clothes and trying to put out a social media fire.

His club toss toward caddie Josh Cassell en route to a missed cut was deemed disrespectful by many, and Horschel offered to "clear the air" in a two-minute video on Twitter while Si Woo Kim cruised to victory.

Fast forward a few days and it was Horschel and Cassell celebrating on the 18th green at the AT&T Byron Nelson as the pair captured their first win together, and Horschel's first title since winning the season-long title in 2014.

Horschel wears his emotions on his sleeve when inside the ropes. It's a tendency that can sometimes raise eyebrows, but it's also one that kept him in the mix down the stretch against a formidable opponent.

Sure, it was a rather anticlimactic conclusion as Jason Day booted a short par putt. But lifting a trophy on Sunday afternoon is always better than digging through one's mentions.

1. The key to Horschel's resurgence in Irving can be found on the greens.

While he endured back-to-back three-putts on Nos. 12 and 13 to fall off the pace, Horschel dropped a 60-foot birdie on the very next hole - the longest make of his PGA Tour career and a shot that kept his victory hopes afloat.

It was a big chunk of the 453 feet worth of putts he made for the week, as he finished second among the field in putting after ranking 72nd entering the event.

This was the second playoff this season that ended on a short miss for Horschel: a three-putt ended his chances at the RSM Classic in November, while this time his opponent's miscue gave him the title.

2. While he missed out on his first win in more than a year - and fell victim to the classic "no three-putts this week" TV graphic jinx in overtime - Day showed that his world-class game has not deserted him.

The Aussie spent the weekend bombing drives around Las Colinas, and appeared to author the shot of the tournament with his chip-in birdie on No. 15. He ultimately needed one more birdie, and the runner-up was just Day's second top-10 finish since September.

As Dustin Johnson has entered a new stratosphere in recent months, it's been easy to lose sight of the elite level of his closest pursuers. But when he's on his game, Day's very much still got it - even if the trophy eluded him this time.

3. It was nearly a three-way playoff in Texas after James Hahn came inches from authoring one of the craziest shots in recent memory.

Hahn looked like an also-ran when he stood over his 122-yard approach on the final hole. But the ball landed just past the hole, spun back and lipped out for what would have been a tying eagle.

Instead, Hahn was left with an easy birdie, a solo third-place finish and a spot on the what-could-have-been highlight reel.

"I was looking at the green contour just before I hit it, and I knew it broke left," Hahn said. "When you're 120 yards out and it lips out, it's hard to be mad about it."

4. For all the theorizing that recent success can translate into future results, consider the run-up that Horschel and Hahn both had entering this week.

Horschel had missed four straight cuts and hadn't cracked the top 10 since the Honda Classic, while Hahn had missed two of his last three cuts and had seven straight results outside the top 40.

So don't beat yourself up if you left one (or both) off your fantasy lineups.

5. With the summer season about to heat up, Rory McIlroy is back on the disabled list. It's a troubling development, to say the least.

McIlroy has played in only six events this year, and it seems his health status has been hanging over his head for nearly every one. He was less than 100 percent two weeks ago at TPC Sawgrass, and now the rib injury that sidelined him in February has led to his withdrawal from this week's BMW PGA Championship.

McIlroy was expected to kick off a busy stretch of four events in five weeks at Wentworth, but now that's off the table. His statement focusing on the U.S. Open means his status for next week's Memorial Tournament is far from a sure thing.

If a conservative treatment plan is what's best to ensure McIlroy has a chance at the remaining three majors, especially the PGA Championship at one of his favorite venues, so be it. But we're inching closer toward a lost season for one of the world's best.

6. He didn't contend over the weekend, but Dustin Johnson still left Texas with a T-13 finish.

It was Johnson's third top-15 result in as many weeks, and perhaps more importantly it capped a three-week stretch without an injury flare-up or setback.

While the world No. 2 still can't shake his lingering ailment, the world No. 1 has clearly shown that the back injury that cost him a shot at the Masters is a thing of the past. Let the countdown to Erin Hills continue.

7. It was an unexpectedly early exit from the Nelson for hometown hero Spieth.

Spieth sprayed two balls out of bounds en route to a quadruple bogey on his 16th hole Friday and ultimately missed the cut by a shot in an event where his likeness was plastered around the course.

Spieth hasn't had much success at TPC Four Seasons, with his best result coming when he was a 16-year-old amateur. Still, the missed cut was his first here and came as a bit of a shock, especially on the heels of his trunk slam at The Players Championship.

But it's not all bad for Spieth: this week he defends at Colonial, and the last time he missed back-to-back cuts he bounced back to win the Tour Championship and season-long title two weeks later.

8. While Spieth's errant drives on No. 16 largely contributed to his missed cut, his decision to switch to a mallet putter at the start of the week certainly raised eyebrows.

What was even more surprising, though, was Spieth's continued efforts to downplay the switch.

"It's really not that big of a deal," Spieth said. "Guys switch putters every single week. It's nothing new. Just a new look for the time being."

That may be true, but it's a much bigger deal when you have risen to world No. 1 in large part on the greens and have used the same putter for each of your 12 professional wins. Spieth was uncomfortable on the greens at TPC Sawgrass, and the switch to a new weapon didn't yield the expected results in Dallas.

It'll be interesting to see what he has in the bag when he turns up at Colonial, but the putter choice is very much a story - whether Spieth likes it or not.

9. Don't be surprised if Bud Cauley nabs a breakthrough win sooner rather than later.

Cauley's last four starts: T-9 at RBC Heritage, T-10 at Valero Texas Open, T-5 at the Zurich Classic alongside Justin Thomas and T-5 at the Nelson.

Cauley was seen as a rising star when he first turned pro, but that ascent was hampered by injury. Now healthy, Cauley has shown that he is more than ready to contend with the big boys.

10. Golf fans can expect to see plenty of Phil Mickelson over the next month.

Mickelson made a flurry of tournament commitments last week, and now will play each of the next four events starting this week at Colonial and ending with the U.S. Open.

Lefty will turn 47 the day of the second round at Erin Hills, and it's certainly an unorthodox approach to end a four-week stretch with arguably the biggest event on his calendar. It's even more curious given that Mickelson eschewed practice rounds at TPC Sawgrass in an effort to conserve energy for the weekend.

Should Mickelson fail to contend in his bid to round out the career Grand Slam, his decision to add starts at a few extra starts leading into the season's second major may come under fire.

11. It won't give her the major title that the Mark Heard 'Round the World took away, but Lexi Thompson did well to bounce back and return to the winner's circle at the Kingsmill Championship.

Thompson shot 65 three times during the 72-hole event, won by five shots and eclipsed the tournament scoring mark previously held by Annika Sorenstam.

Much like the 2016 Masters dogged Jordan Spieth, the ANA Inspiration will remain an uncomfortable talking point for Thompson in the months to come. But with wins like that, she can help shift narrative away from ball marks and back to birdies.

The men's NCAA regional in Baton Rouge, La., gave us what will clearly be a finalist for WTH? Moment of the Year.

Jacksonville's David Wicks accidentally dropped his ball into a greenside hazard before putting out, and in order to avoid a penalty for failing to finish the hole with the same ball, he stripped down and dove into the lake in search of his ball.

He came up empty, and ultimately added two strokes to his score. But on the plus side, he avoided any gators lurking in the muddy water, and the Dolphins still advanced out of the regional.

A similar situation played out a few years ago at TPC Sawgrass, but Wicks had no caddie or trainer to send into the water in search of his lost ball.

On the surface, the rule as written is logical. But Wick's situation is the latest example that sometimes, the rule book could use a dose of common sense.

This week's award winners ... 

Slump Busters: Mike Weir and Brendon Todd. Weir made his first cut since November 2014 at the European Tour's Rocco Forte Open, while Todd had a final-round tee time for the first time in 26 starts in Dallas on the three-year anniversary of his lone PGA Tour win.

Back from the Abyss: Alvaro Quiros, who won a playoff in Sicily for his first win in six years. Quiros reached as high as No. 21 in the world in 2011 and played in every major from 2009-12, but he entered last week's event ranked No. 703 in the world and hadn't cracked the top 10 anywhere in more than a year.

Good Riddance: TPC Four Seasons at Las Colinas. After 35 years at one of the more wholly unremarkable venues on Tour, the Nelson will shift to just-opened Trinity Forest in 2018. Expect the novelty of a new venue to give the field strength a short-term boost.

We're Hitting From Where?: The NCAA introduced an artificial tee during the opening round of the women's team championship at Rich Harvest Farms. Given tough weather conditions, the alternative was reportedly a tee where many players would have struggled to carry a hazard off the tee. Perhaps that's true, but this was still a bad look as players struggled to get a tee in the ground.

Pot Meet Kettle: USGA chief executive Mike Davis, who Wednesday declared the "arms race" for ever-faster greens bad for the game of golf. The point is a good one, but it's a little rich coming from the organization that has made its mark for more than 20 years by annually pushing course conditions to the brink - and sometimes beyond.

Sunday Swoon: Sergio Garcia. After shooting himself out of contention with a final-round 78 on the Stadium Course, Garcia fired a third-round 64 at the Nelson only to balloon to a 74 on Sunday and fall off the pace. It's not a trend yet, but something to keep an eye on as the Spaniard prepares for Erin Hills.

Not a Fan: Alice Dye, who gave Golf Channel's Matt Ginella her reaction to the newly-revamped 12th hole at TPC Sawgrass. "It's an awkward hole," she said. "It doesn't fit the course. (Pete) OK'd it, but it's not a Pete Dye design."

Death, Taxes and ...: Bernhard Langer crushing the PGA Tour Champions. Langer won the first major of the year by five shots for his record-tying eighth major on the over-50 circuit. Check back next week when he inevitably snags major No. 9 at the Senior PGA.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Brooks Koepka. After losing a playoff last year and coming in hot this year, Koepka was in the mix at the halfway point only to shoot 70-74 over the weekend to plummet into a tie for 50th. Another One & Done pick down the drain.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.