Monday Scramble: Playing favorites at the PGA


Hideki Matsuyama bags another big title, the PGA Championship takes shape, Steph Curry debuts, I.K. Kim earns major redemption, the Solheim Cup teams are finalized and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

From our seat, at least, this has been one of the most memorable major seasons in years.

There was a long-awaited breakthrough (Sergio Garcia). A U.S. Open record (Justin Thomas). A 62 (Branden Grace). And a comeback for the ages (Jordan Spieth).

And now the game’s best head to Quail Hollow, a big ballpark that tends to produce drama and star-studded leaderboards.

At 24, Spieth can become the youngest player to complete the career Grand Slam, but even if he misses out there’s reason to believe this PGA will be won by a mega-talent. Too many top players are in form, from Rory McIlroy to Matsuyama to Rickie Fowler to Dustin Johnson.

Here’s hoping there is a fitting end to this unforgettable major season. 

1. By now we know that Matsuyama has high standards. There’s no other way to describe his one-hand follow-throughs and looks of disgust after iron shots that still plop 15 feet from the cup.

But this was a completely different type of fake-out.

CBS’ on-course reporter Dottie Pepper said on air Sunday that Matsuyama’s pre-round range session was one of the worst she’d ever seen. “It was so rough,” she said.

Not surprisingly, Matsuyama concurred: “I was nervous all the way around, because I really wasn’t sure of my swing today.”

So, of course, he went out in 30. So, of course, he birdied his last three holes. So, of course, he shot a course-record-tying 61, the lowest final round ever by a WGC winner.

2. Will someone other than Matsuyama and DJ win a WGC event? They’ve won the last five, dating to last year’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Matsuyama’s two WGC titles (HSBC Champions in Shanghai) have been won by a whopping 12 shots.

The 25-year-old Japanese star now has six victories and three runners-up in his last 20 starts. Scorching.

3. Matsuyama has joined the conversation for PGA Tour Player of the Year, and the winner should emerge over the next six weeks.

Right now, there are four candidates, in this order: Spieth, DJ, Matsuyama and Thomas. Of that group, only Spieth has won a major this year, so he gets the edge.

But Matsuyama or DJ could become the frontrunner if they win this week’s PGA. That’d give them a major along with multiple WGC titles and a regular Tour victory – or a better résumé than Spieth’s.

If they don’t win at Quail Hollow, however, then Spieth would take the lead heading into the playoffs, and it’d take a big postseason push to dethrone him. 

4. Here are one man’s favorites for the PGA Championship:

1. Rory McIlroy: Finally in form and pounding his driver as he heads to Quail Hollow, one of his personal playgrounds, where he has two wins and a playoff loss. (A rainy forecast plays into his hands, as well.)

2. Hideki Matsuyama: No longer trending, he's a serious force. Big Sunday at Firestone, and top-15s in every major so far this year.

3. Jordan Spieth: Won’t be fazed by the Grand Slam pressure. A bigger concern is whether he can find the fairway at a course that should have thick, juicy rough.

4. Rickie Fowler: Form has dipped a bit over the past two months, but he’s a former winner at Quail Hollow whose game is perfectly suited for a shootout PGA.  

5. Brooks Koepka: Has only played twice since Erin Hills, but both of those starts went for top-20s. Like Rory, his driver is a big weapon.

6. Dustin Johnson: The model of consistency has been erratic ever since he slipped before the Masters. Bummer. The world No. 1 is capable of turning it on at any moment, but a top-10 in Canada was his only notable result in the past three months. 

7. Jason Day: Has finished in the top 2 in each of the past two PGAs, and he’s beginning to show signs of life after a quiet year.  

8. Jon Rahm: Was undone by one bad round at Bridgestone. If he keeps his driver on the planet, he should be in the mix.  

9. Sergio Garcia: Shook off the post-wedding rust with a pedestrian showing at Firestone. Here is one last chance to make this an epic year.

10. Charley Hoffman: Remarkably, he has seven missed cuts in eight career PGA starts, but never has he performed this well, or this consistently. His third-place showing at Firestone was his fourth top-10 in his last six starts, and he has finished 22nd or better in the first three majors of the year. 

5. A reminder that Quail Hollow will look different than its last appearance on the world stage, during the 2016 Wells Fargo.

In an ambitious 90-day project, four holes on the front nine were redone, all of the greens were re-grassed (to a different strand of Bermuda) and thousands of trees were removed.

Among the biggest changes:

• The first hole used to be a benign, 418-yard par 4. Now, it’s a dogleg-right par 4, and the longest on the course, at 524 yards.

• The second hole was a 178-yard par 3. Now, it’s a 452-yard par 4.

• The fourth hole used to be a 483-yard par 4. Now, it’s a brand-new, 184-yard par 3.

• The fifth hole used to be a 570-yard par 5. Now, it’s a dogleg-right, 449-yard par 4.

• Bunkers were also added to the 11th hole, and the green pushed back. 

It adds up to a par-71 layout of about 7,600 yards.

6. This week, the PGA of America is expected to confirm its long-rumored move of the PGA Championship from August to May, beginning in either 2019 at Bethpage Black or 2020 at Harding Park.

This makes sense for many reasons, but mostly because it allows PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan to shorten the season. Under the proposed changes, the Tour Championship would wrap up on Labor Day weekend, before the NFL kicks off. It would also reduce the congestion every four years with the Olympics.

The PGA has been played in August all but twice since 1969, so the move will take some getting used to. But so did the FedExCup playoffs. A decade later, it’s an integral part of the schedule. 

7. With all due respect to the World Golf Championship event and the fourth women’s major, the biggest happening last week, at least for two days, was the Tour’s Ellie Mae Classic, where NBA superstar Steph Curry made his long-awaited debut.

Curry missed the cut by 11 shots, after consecutive rounds of 74, but that mattered little. He was competitive and engaging. He was grateful for the opportunity, but he also left with a better understanding of what separates golf’s minor leagues and everyday amateurs.

That’s all that could be hoped for from this experiment.

8. Curry attracted big crowds at TPC Stonebrae and casual sports fans online, many of them pointing out on social media that this was the first time they’d ever checked out a Tour leaderboard. Maybe those same fans didn’t stick around until the end of the event, won by Martin Piller, but at least now there’s more awareness of the Tour’s equivalent of the D-league.

The Web will always be starved for attention, at least until they revamp the schedule (perhaps to a Sunday-Wednesday format, in bigger markets) and boost the purses. But these types of one-off definitely can’t hurt.  

9. For those who whined that Curry – one of the tournament’s UNRESTRICTED sponsor exemptions – was taking up a spot: He finished three shots behind Sam Ryder, who won two weeks ago and is No. 2 on the money list, and two back of Aaron Wise, the 2016 NCAA champion and future PGA Tour star.

Oh, and by the way, Colt McNealy (Maverick’s brother) earned the other unrestricted sponsor exemption, after he took medalist honors at a Junior Tour of Northern California qualifier. McNealy finished last, at 21 over par – or 13 shots worse than Curry.

This type of scenario plays out every week … only this time, the spot went to one of the most famous athletes on the planet. No complaints here.

10. With a few fortunate breaks and a red-hot putter, I.K. Kim built a huge lead and then held on for a two-shot victory at the Women’s British Open.

It was the LPGA’s feel-good story of the year, after Kim missed a 14-inch putt to win the 2012 ANA Inspiration. (She later lost in a playoff.) That’s a massive mental hurdle to overcome. 

Think about it: Kim went to sleep with a six-shot lead Saturday night, but she also knew that she’d been close before, 14 inches away, and lost it. Her peers knew it. The fans watching knew it.

And she still got it done. It’s hard to find a more redemptive performance this year. 

11. It was written in this space multiple times that the LPGA was primed for an exciting year, with Lydia Ko and Ariya Jutanugarn poised to dominate not just this season but for the foreseeable future. It hasn’t panned out that way. At all.

Ko hasn't won in 13 months, and she hasn’t finished in the top 10 in her past six majors (and was outside the top 30 for her third consecutive major). Jutanugarn has won once, but her missed cut at Kingsbarns was her third in a row in golf’s biggest events.

Ko has seemingly changed everything over the past couple of years – swing coaches, caddies, equipment – and continues to plummet in the world rankings, while Jutanugarn is once again dealing with a balky right shoulder and confidence issues.

There’s one major left, and so there’s time to salvage their lost seasons. But they’ve shown no signs that turnarounds are imminent. 

12. The top 10 players in the U.S. Solheim Cup standings entering the Women’s British Open ended up making the team after the final qualifying event.

With a team full of veterans (save for U.S. Women’s Open champion Danielle Kang), captain Juli Inkster opted for a pair of rookies as her wildcard picks: Angel Yin and Austin Ernst.

Yin has been an exciting newcomer and a no-brainer pick for Inkster, after racking up five top-15s. But the captain played it too safe with the Ernst selection.

Ernst was next in line in the points standings, but that was based largely on what she accomplished last year and early this spring. She doesn’t have a top-10 in her last 13 starts. Frankly, she just isn’t playing well enough right now to warrant a spot.

Still, Inkster said: “I just felt like last time (in 2015), she was on the outside looking in and I had to tell her no. This year, she was the same, kind of on the outside looking in. I just felt she deserved a chance to see what she can do.”


Inkster should have taken Nelly Korda, the 19-year-old sister of Jessica and a player who figures to be a fixture on these teams for the next decade-plus. She already has five top-20s and would have a ready-made pairing with her sister (who is currently battling an arm injury). 

European captain Annika Sorenstam filled out her team with Anna Nordqvist, Caroline Masson, Emily Pedersen and Madelene Sagstrom.

These matches aren’t won on paper, however, and that’s a good thing for the Europeans. They would be massive underdogs. 

That Curry shot 74 in his Tour debut surprised many ... and probably even Curry himself. player Dawie van der Walt was so convinced that it was a fluke, in fact, that he told ESPN that he would eat his golf bag if Curry broke 80 in the second round.

We all know what happened next, so van der Walt followed through: 

This week's award winners ... 

One Way to End a Winless Drought: Chris Stroud. Entering Reno 0-for-289 in his Tour career, he recorded nine birdies and an eagle in regulation (including on the 72nd hole to force a playoff), then made a pair of birdies in overtime to vanquish rookie Richy Werenski. Stout. 

Everyone Digs the Long Ball: Rory. Fifty-two of his 56 drives last week traveled 300 yards or more. Have mercy.

Don’t Forget About: Phil Mickelson. Sure, he has looked a bit lost since splitting with longtime caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay, but Lefty has a ridiculously good record at Quail Hollow: Seven top-5s and 11 top-12s in 13 appearances. 

Best Player-Caddie Exchange of the Week: Charley Hoffman and Brett Waldman. Sizing up his second shot on the 667-yard par-5 16th, Hoffman overruled his bagman and went for the green in two shots, saying, “I’m three back with three to play. I’m trying to win a golf tournament. I’m tired of finishing second.” Alas, he made par and finished third. 

Better Luck in 2019: Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel. The Solheim Cup stalwarts were passed over after poor seasons in 2017 (though Creamer has played better in the past month). It’ll be the first cup without them in a decade.  

As If The Walker Cup Race Couldn’t Get Any More Crowded: Norman Xiong. He nearly blew a huge lead on the back nine, but the Oregon sophomore (and NCAA Freshman of the Year) won the Western Amateur in 22 holes. The condensed schedule makes the Western the most difficult amateur event to win, and Xiong earned medalist honors and breezed through the match-play portion. That should be enough to put him on the U.S. squad.  

No Good Very Bad Luck: Stewart Hagestad. The mid-am standout apparently had his clubs stolen out of his car – about a week before the start of the U.S. Amateur. Fortunately, a few equipment companies stepped in to offer assistance. (Nice work, TaylorMade.) 

Nothing Lasts Forever: Pat Perez. His 72-hole scoring record at the Junior PGA held up for 24 years, but Perez's mark was shattered last week by Akshay Bhatia, a 15-year-old left-hander from North Carolina who shot 22 under (including a 61 in the second round). 

Too Soon: Spieth and Matt Kuchar. The two protagonists from Birkdale were paired again Sunday at Firestone, which not nearly as much at stake. (They shot matching 68s.) Wonder if they had anything to talk about? 

Said No One Ever: Ted Bishop. Yeah, um, some opinions are best kept to yourself:

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Rose. Winless since the Olympics last summer, he still has racked up five top-5s since Rio. Three of his four career top-5s at Firestone have come since 2012, but he threw up a clunker last week, breaking par only once and tying for 63rd. Sigh.