ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Wandering away from the Old Course with the echoes of Monday’s frenzied finale still ringing across the links, thoughts inevitably turn to what’s next.
With the PGA Tour firmly headed into the closing loop of this season, there are still plenty of questions that remain.
From the couch to contention?
Rory McIlroy watched the claret jug, his claret jug after last year’s victory at Royal Liverpool, passed to Zach Johnson from the confines of his Northern Ireland home after being recently sidelined by an ankle injury.
McIlroy, who did retain the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking, answered the call earlier this season when Jordan Spieth won the Masters with triumphs of his own at the WGC-Match Play and Wells Fargo Championship.
A member of McIlroy’s management team said last week that there is still no timetable for his return to competition, with the PGA Championship looking more and more doubtful. Whenever that comeback commences, the pressure will be on to fend off an increasingly impressive challenge from the 21-year-old would-be king.
More history to be made?
As Spieth’s birdie attempt at the 72nd hole on Monday slipped past the hole, the gravity of the moment still hadn’t seemed to sink in.
Vying to become just the second player to win the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship in the same season, Spieth finished a stroke out of the playoff that was won by Johnson, yet even in defeat young Jordan was impressive.
“None of the historical element came into my head whatsoever,” he said.
With the hunt for the single-season Grand Slam now over, Spieth can turn his attention to another slice of history at the PGA Championship where he will be looking to become just the third player to win three majors in the same season.
Will the troubling trend continue?
In the messy aftermath of the 2010 PGA Championship, an embarrassment of mistakes that was defined by Dustin Johnson’s misadventure on the 72nd hole, Whistling Straits owner Herb Kohler bristled at the notion that things didn’t go the way they should have.
“It’s what should have happened,” he said of the penalty Johnson endured on the last hole after grounding his club in a hazard that looked nothing like a hazard.
One can only imagine what will happen in three weeks when the golf world descends on Wisconsin for the year’s final major considering what has already been an eventful major championship season.
From the crusty “browns” at Chambers Bay that made putting a lottery to the meteorological nightmare that was last week’s Open Championship, there is every chance the PGA is an adventure both on and off the golf course.
What is the price of progress?
Following his second consecutive missed cut at a major Tiger Woods talked of missed opportunities and spin rates, of all things.
“I'm just not scoring,” Woods said on Saturday at St. Andrews. “Every opportunity I have to make a key putt or hit an iron shot in there stiff with a short iron and get some momentum going, I haven't done that.”
It was a familiar refrain for Woods, who talked of progress and being more than the sum of his scorecard, but cautious optimism does little to mitigate the fact that he is quickly closing in on another lost season.
At 258th in the world, Woods has just two events remaining, next week’s Quicken Loans National and the PGA Championship, to turn things around (he’s currently not qualified for the FedEx Cup Playoffs). Otherwise it will be time to offer a new narrative – wait until next season.
How thick could the Teflon be?
Following Dustin Johnson’s high-wire loss to Spieth at last month’s U.S. Open, the collective thought became, “how much can one man endure?”
The bomber appeared to offer a spirited answer when he opened his week on the Old Course with rounds of 65-69, but just as quickly, he backtracked with closing cards of 75.
This one, more so than his misadventure on the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay and at the 2010 U.S. Open and PGA, was a genuine surprise. Sunday pressure is understandable, expected even. But when Sunday is little more than a bridge to the final round like it was at St. Andrews we’ve come to expect more from DJ.
Closing the gap?
There have been plenty of missed opportunities for Jason Day but this one seemed to sting more than the others.
After beginning the final round at the Open tied for the lead, the Australian launched his bid to get off the major schneid with birdies on two of his first six holes on Monday. But he played the rest of the way in even par and watched his playoff bid come up painfully short at the last.
“I've been working very hard to try and accomplish my first major, and you know, it's a little frustrating with how it finished,” he said. “I don't know, it's just something that I really want to do. I really want to have that shot at immortality. It'll soon come my way.”
If winning majors were easy we wouldn’t assign so much importance to them, but for Day it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier.
What will Phil do next?
Like Woods, Phil Mickelson’s season has been a study in frustration born from Lefty’s inability to score. At St. Andrews there were glimpses of progress, highlighted by an early Monday run up the leaderboard.
“I got rid of one of the areas of weakness, which was a big slice off the tee,” Mickelson said.
Of course, the big hook didn’t work all that well on Monday when he deposited his tee shot at the 17th hole onto an Old Course Hotel balcony to close with a 69 and tie for 20th place.
Mickelson still has time. He finished 12th at Whistling Straits in the 2010 PGA, sixth in ’04 and he saved his season with a runner-up showing last year at the PGA. But as it always is with the southpaw, past performances and good intentions do little to focus the looking glass.
Can the transition be made from Presidential pushovers to Cup contenders?
Presidents Cup captain Nick Price has tried, however unsuccessfully, to tinker with the format to create what he and other Internationals consider a more level playing field, but the Tour has largely balked leaving many to wonder if October’s matches will be another boat race for the U.S. side.
The Internationals are 1-1-8 in the biennial event and in danger of becoming the Generals to the American Globetrotters.
Day and Hideki Matsuyama would appear to be the new anchors for Price’s team, but without a dramatic makeover the event seems poised to be another exhibition.
Who will be this year’s FedEx Cup spoiler?
As brilliant as Spieth has been this year, it’s time to start thinking about who will clip him at the wire in September at East Lake for the FedEx Cup.
Last year, fresh off his own back-to-back major victories, McIlroy began the post-season with a commanding lead in the season-long race only to watch the $10 million payout go to Billy Horschel. In 2013, it was Henrik Stenson who caught fire at the right time to beat Woods, who would go on to win the Player of the Year Award.
Spieth’s FedEx Cup lead is commanding, he’s over 1,800 points clear of No. 2 Jimmy Walker, but as we’ve learned, the Tour’s playoff experiment rarely goes according to plan.