Monday Scramble: Home sweeter for McIlroy than Spieth

By Will GrayMay 23, 2016, 4:20 pm

Rory McIlroy wins his national Open, Sergio Garcia returns to the PGA Tour winner's circle, Jordan Spieth remains erratic, Phil Mickelson writes a check and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Well, that was emphatic.

McIlroy could only sit idly by in recent months as Jason Day racked up trophy after trophy en route to the top spot in the world rankings. McIlroy was contending, sure, but his top-10s and top-15s often came without a serious chance for victory in the final round.

That trend changed in a hurry at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, where McIlroy dazzled fans by winning his national Open, simultaneously reminding us all that he's one of the best in the business when his game is on.

It was already a big week for McIlroy, whose eponymous foundation sponsored the event for the second straight year. But needing to find something down the stretch to distance himself from Russell Knox, McIlroy uncorked a pair of fairway-wood bombs that few players can author.

From 271 yards and 253 yards, McIlroy first found the green, then knocked an approach within a few feet for a tap-in eagle on the final hole.

They're shots we've seen him hoist at places like Kiawah, Valhalla and Hoylake. They're also shots that will make the season's second major even more tantalizing should he be able to reproduce them at Oakmont.

Day remains No. 1, and rightfully so, but when McIlroy reaches his potential as he did during those closing holes, it's hard to see many weaknesses in his game.

1. The timing of the win could not be any better for McIlroy, who like many top-ranked players is gearing up for a hectic summer. McIlroy won the season-ender in Dubai in November, but it's been more than a year since his last PGA Tour victory and last week he was overshadowed by Day's wire-to-wire win.

But with many big events on the horizon, there's a good chance McIlroy is only just beginning. On multiple occasions - including last May - the Ulsterman has turned one win into two (or three) within a few weeks' time.

2. Last year, McIlroy pledged to donate all of his Irish Open winnings to his charitable foundation, and he promptly missed the cut at Royal County Down.

This time around, things went a little more according to plan, as McIlroy will hand over 666,660 euros - about $750,000 - to charity.

It's a noble gesture, but it's also an indication of just how important this event is to McIlroy, who badly wanted to make up for last year's early exit.

"I don't really get emotional when I win, but I was holding back tears there," McIlroy said. "To play like that and finish like that, with all of my family and friends watching, was just so special."

3. Mid-day Sunday, it appeared all of the stars were aligning. One week after Day took home the PGA Tour's flagship event, McIlroy won in front of partisan crowds and Spieth appeared ready to do the same back home in Texas.

But for Spieth, a game that had been held together with chewing gum and bobby pins couldn't survive the crucible of the final round at the AT&T Byron Nelson.

The dreaded two-way miss, the one Spieth alluded to throughout the week, reared its ugly head early and often. Spieth was never able to get his ball-striking on track, and his trusty putter failed to bail him out. Despite hearty support from the partisan crowds, he trailed by five shots by the time he made the turn, ultimately finishing T-18.

"It was an off round," Spieth said. "Just didn't really get anything going and kind of stinks, you know, given I had a chance here at a hometown event."

If anything, Spieth's stagger toward the finish line both here and in Augusta show how special - and rare - his 2015 form was.

4. If Spieth's week could be summed up in one word, it would be "frustrated." He spoke both at TPC Sawgrass and before the Nelson began about trying to relax, have more fun and return to an easy-going nature inside the ropes.

But his performance this week was chock full of on-course strife as he said he was some variation of frustrated after each competitive round.

Talking to the ball, dramatic post-shot reactions, the "me vs. we" debate with caddie Michael Greller. They all came off as endearing idiosyncrasies last year when all the putts were falling, but in recent weeks as Spieth has struggled to get his season back on track, they appear to be only fueling his fire of frustration.

It's a trend he'll likely take another shot at reversing this week, as he heads across the Metroplex for more fun at Colonial.

5. While Spieth didn't leave Dallas with a new trophy, as the photo above indicates, Garcia did. The Spaniard captured the Nelson title in a playoff over Brooks Koepka that was over before it started.

Garcia's ninth PGA Tour win in 301 starts tied Seve Ballesteros for the most ever by a Spaniard, and it also continued his affinity with the Lone Star State.

A third of Garcia's U.S. hardware has come in Texas, as his first win was at Colonial in 2001 and he also won the Nelson in 2004, when the tournament's namesake handed him the trophy.

6. While Garcia's victory was well-earned after a closing 68,  it begs the question - why doesn't he win more, especially in the States?

After all, Garcia has played at least 15 events every year since 2000. And while he racked up six wins in a four-year span from 2001-05, this is his first win since 2012 and just his second PGA Tour title since his breakthrough victory at the 2008 Players.

Garcia is a global player with a stockpile of trophies outside the U.S., but he has not won here at the rate of similarly elite players over the past decade.

Whatever the reason, it certainly hasn't been from a lack of effort - or chances. Garcia, for his part, took a philosophical approach after the playoff.

"I guess nowadays I realize that obviously winning is amazing, it's great, it's unbelievable, but it's not the only thing in the world," he said. "When I'm out there I'm trying my hardest, but if it doesn't come out, you know, I try to take it as the best way possible. Some weeks are better than others."

7. Garcia's gain was Koepka's loss, as the American surrendered a three-shot lead down the stretch and promptly rinsed his first shot in the sudden-death playoff.

Koepka's burly game seems ideally suited for TPC Four Seasons, but like Spieth, he professed to be scraping it around over the weekend. A lack of control showed up at the worst possible time for Koepka, who bogeyed Nos. 14 and 15 before making a mess of the only hole of overtime.

While golf fans were treated to a display early in the morning as McIlroy grabbed the proceedings by the throat at the K Club, the Nelson turned into a pillow fight down the stretch as players faltering near the lead far outweighed those making a run up the standings.

Count Koepka among that former group after he failed to notch a single back-nine birdie. Although the 26-year-old will surely contend again somewhere soon, three-shot leads don't come around during the final round that often.

8. McIlroy and Garcia shining, combined with the ball-striking struggles of both Spieth and Koepka, again highlighted the fact that top Americans haven't been keeping pace with their European counterparts in recent weeks as the Ryder Cup looms.

In fact, the last American to win a PGA Tour event while ranked inside the OWGR top 50 remains Bubba Watson - who won the Northern Trust Open way back on Feb. 21.

9. Phil Mickelson made national headlines last week without hitting a shot, as his name was tied to a federal case on insider trading.

This was the culmination of a two-year investigation by the SEC, and while Mickelson's attorney said his client was "vindicated" that no criminal charges were brought against him, Mickelson will have to write a check for a little more than $1 million - the profits, plus interest, from a quesitonable 2012 stock transaction.

Given the choice, Mickelson would've probably written the check months ago in order to make the situation disappear. But now he'll have to deal with the scrutiny from being linked to such a case - and perhaps some extra scrutiny from the Tour after the SEC filing detailed that he owed money to a noted sports gambler, Billy Walters, at the time that Walters supplied MIckelson with the stock tip in question.

10. Mickelson was also tied to another high-profile story last week, as he might be the last Champion Golfer of the Year to be crowned at Muirfield for some time. Mickelson won there in 2013, but the Honourary Company of Edinburgh Golfers voted Thursday not to allow the club's first female members through the doors.

That's certainly their prerogative as a private institution, but it's a choice that prompted the R&A to quickly pull the course from its Open Championship rota. Hopefully, at some point in the near future, the club can be dragged into the 21st century and the claret jug can once again be handed out on its famed links.

One ball in the water from close range? Fine. Chalk it up to a stiff back and no warm-up.

But two, and then three in a row?

In the span of a couple minutes, Tiger Woods turned media day at the Quicken Loans National into a bit of a sideshow, unable to flip a wedge 80-some yards across a pond.

And while there are some fervent truthers who insist he rinsed those shots on purpose as part of some sort of long-range public relations scheme, the far more likely scenario for Woods is that the equity created with recent public appearances at Sage Valley and Bluejack National quickly unraveled.

Woods' cryptic comments about his prognosis certainly didn't help his cause, and calls for a return to action next week at Memorial, followed by the U.S. Open, have grown rather faint.

Instead, we're left to wonder whether we'll see Woods compete at all this season.

This week's award winners ... 

The beat rolls on: Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin. That's the entire list of players with more PGA Tour Champions majors than Bernhard Langer after the German cruised to another victory at the Regions Tradition, his sixth major on the over-50 circuit. Memo to Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and others: there is, in fact, life after anchoring.

No island in sight: Russell Knox nearly took home the title in Ireland, one week after he was pantsed on national television by the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. While the Scot came up a couple shots short, he still earned his second worldwide runner-up in his last three starts. It won't be long before he has his hands on another trophy.

Twice as nice: What better way to follow your maiden victory than by winning the your next start? That's what Ariya Jutanugarn did, chasing her first LPGA win with another at the Kingsmill Championship. At 21, she continued the incredible youth movement this year on the LPGA, which has yet to crown a winner who was born before 1992.

Tears of joy: After a birdie on the 72nd hole in Ireland, journeyman Matthew Southgate hugged his caddie, then broke down in tears. It made for an emotional scene as the moment overtook Southgate, a survivor of testicular cancer who, after a fourth-place showing at the K Club, clinched his European Tour card for next season. It also showed the magnitude of the battle many players wage, far from the spotlight, simply to maintain their status.

At least there will still be plenty of flags: McIlroy's triumph in Ireland will make his absence this week from the BMW PGA Championship all the more noticeable. With Justin Rose missing the European Tour's flagship event because of a bad back and Ian Poulter opting for Colonial instead of Wentworth, the tournament could be in for one of its weakest fields in years.

Check, please: With his team facing a sudden-death playoff for a spot in the NCAAs, former U.S. Amateur champ Gunn Yang jarred a 7-iron from 218 yards for an albatross on the first extra hole. That's one way to help your team punch its ticket to Eugene.

Put down the mic: Esteemed commentator Peter Alliss supported the result of the vote against female members at Muirfield, saying, "If somebody wants to join, well, you'd better get married to somebody who's a member." It's the latest in a series of questionable remarks from Alliss, 85, who has been the voice of golf for generations on the BBC but who could benefit from a bit more forward thinking.

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.

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Tour's Integrity Program raises gambling questions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 17, 2018, 7:00 pm

The video begins with an eye-opening disclaimer: “Sport betting markets produce revenues of $1 trillion each year.”

For all the seemingly elementary elements of the 15-minute video PGA Tour players have been required to watch as part of the circuit’s newly created Integrity Program, it’s the enormity of the industry – $1 trillion annually – that concerns officials.

There are no glaring examples of how sport betting has impacted golf, no red flags that sent Tour officials into damage control; just a realization that with that kind of money it’s best to be proactive.

“It's important that in that world, you can operate not understanding what's happening week in and week out, or you can assume that all of our players and everybody in our ecosystem understands that that's not an acceptable activity, or you can just be proactive and clarify and educate,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan explained earlier this month. “That's what we have attempted to do not with just the video, but with all of our communication with our players and will continue to do that.”

But if clarification is the goal, a copy of the training video obtained by paints a different picture.

Although the essence of the policy is straightforward – “prohibit players from betting on professional golf” – the primary concern, at least if the training video is any indication, is on match fixing; and warns players to avoid divulging what is considered “inside information.”

“I thought the questions were laughable. They were all like first-grade-level questions,” Chez Reavie said. “I would like to think everyone out here already knows the answer to those questions. But the Tour has to protect themselves.”

Monahan explained that the creation of the integrity policy was not in reaction to a specific incident and every player asked last week at the Sony Open said they had never encountered any type of match fixing.

“No, not at all,” Reavie said. “I have friends who will text me from home after a round, ‘Oh, I bet on you playing so-and-so.’ But I make it clear I don’t want to know. I don’t gamble like that. No one has ever approached me about losing a match.”

It was a common answer, but the majority of the video focuses on how players can avoid being placed in a compromising situation that could lead to match fixing. It should be noted that gamblers can place wagers on head-to-head matchups, provided by betting outlets, during stroke-play rounds of tournaments – not just in match-play competitions.

Part of the training video included questions players must answer to avoid violating the policy. An example of this was how a player should respond when asked, “Hello, buddy! Well played today. I was following your progress. I noticed your partner pulled out of his approach on 18, looked like his back. Is he okay for tomorrow?”

The correct answer from a list of options was, “I don’t know, sorry. I’m sure he will get it looked at if it’s bothering him.”

You get the idea, but for some players the training created more questions.

How, for example, should a player respond when asked how he’s feeling by a fan?

“The part I don’t understand, let’s say a member of your club comes out and watches you on the range hitting balls, he knows you’re struggling, and he bets against you. Somehow, some way that could come back to you, according to what I saw on that video,” said one player who asked not to be identified.

Exactly what constitutes a violation is still unclear for some who took the training, which was even more concerning considering the penalties for a violation of the policy.

The first violation is a warning and a second infraction will require the player to retake the training program, but a third violation is a fine “up to $500,000” or “the amount illegally received from the betting activity.” A sixth violation is a lifetime ban from the Tour.

Players are advised to be mindful of what they post on social media and to “refrain from talking about odds or betting activity.” The latter could be an issue considering how often players discuss betting on other sports.

Just last week at the Sony Open, Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas had a “friendly” wager on the College Football Playoff National Championship. Kisner, a Georgia fan, lost the wager and had to wear an Alabama football jersey while playing the 17th hole last Thursday.

“If I'd have got the points, he'd have been wearing [the jersey], and I was lobbying for the points the whole week, and he didn't give them to me,” Kisner said. “So I'm still not sure about this bet.”

It’s unclear to some if Kisner’s remark, which was a joke and didn’t have anything to do with golf, would be considered a violation. From a common sense standpoint, Kisner did nothing wrong, but the uncertainty is an issue.

Much like drug testing, which the Tour introduced in 2008, few, if any, think sport betting is an issue in golf; but also like the anti-doping program, there appears to be the danger of an inadvertent and entirely innocent violation.

The Tour is trying to be proactive and the circuit has a trillion reasons to get out in front of what could become an issue, but if the initial reaction to the training video is any indication they may want to try a second take.

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.