Monday Scramble: Era of Tiger and Phil fading fast

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In this week’s edition of the Monday Scramble, we discuss how Jason Day bolstered his reputation as the most hard-nosed player in golf, when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will exit stage left, and why the dreaded y-word was all anybody could talk about at Torrey Pines. Ready, set … activate your glutes:  

If it’s not here already, a time will come soon when golf fans tire of the Tiger & Phil Show. How many more WDs must they see before they realize Woods will never reach 19? How many more short putts must Mickelson miss before it’s clear that his best days are behind him?

Last season marked the first time since the mid-’90s that neither star won a tournament, and this year has been even more disastrous. Tiger looks yippy with both his full swing and short game, while Phil says his main focus is to peak for the four majors – an unrealistic pursuit, given his 18-plus weeks of uninspired play. If were lucky, theyll still win the occasional event.

Sad as it might be, an era has slammed shut. This is not an unexpected development, of course, for these aging warriors have dazzled us for the past two decades. Might they still conjure up one or two magical runs in a major? Oh, we can hope. But it’s obvious – painfully so – that the Show now features an entirely new cast of characters. Better get to know ’em. 

1. Last October, in a weekly mailbag, we were asked by a loyal reader to predict the 2015 major champions. Our selection for the U.S. Open: Jason Day. There is no player who embraces the rough-and-tumble test that the Open presents quite like Day, and it’s reflected in his record (three top-five finishes in four appearances). 

Torrey Pines played like a U.S. Open last weekend, with its brutal length, firm greens and hide-your-shoes rough. It was the first tournament since Congressional with a single-digit winning score. And sure enough, Day emerged victorious in San Diego. Why? “I like tough courses that force you to be stressed,” he said afterward. “A lot of people when they feel fear they run away from it. I just said, ‘Enough.’ Instead of feeling the fear and running away from it, I’ve got to run toward it and try and face it.”

2. Granted, it wasn’t always this simple. In the 2013 Masters, remember, Day held a one-shot lead with three holes to play. It was in that moment, standing on the 16th tee, that his mind wandered to what it would be like to become the first Australian to win the Masters. Oops. He promptly bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17 and watched another Aussie, Adam Scott, slip into the green jacket. “The only way to learn from your experience is actually getting in the hunt, experiencing the loss and trying to improve and get better,” he says now. Those tough lessons paid off in San Diego, as he captured his second career stroke-play title on Tour, and first since ’10. 

3. From the Enjoy It While You Can department: 2015 has been dominated by the higher-ranked (aka better) players. Consider the world ranking of the first five PGA Tour winners of the calendar year:

  • Patrick Reed (23) 
  • Jimmy Walker (17)
  • Bill Haas (41)
  • Brooks Koepka (33)
  • Jason Day (8)

4. Last week your correspondent dove deep on the yips – what they are, where they come from, what (if anything) can be done to cure them. The original basis for the story was Woods’ hard-to-watch short game, but after seeing Lucas Glover putt it appears he’s in even more dire need of an intervention. The 2009 U.S. Open champion ranked last on Tour last year in strokes gained-putting (and third-to-last in 2013), and his flinching stroke was on full display in the final round at Torrey Pines. The man doesn’t just need a putting coach. He needs an exorcism. Which reminds us ... 

5. When talking about Tiger, mainstream media types and players (both current and former) invariably will say something along the lines of: Well, he’ll figure it out. He’s still Tiger Woods. Maybe they firmly believe that, or maybe they just don’t want to create a headline. But here’s the reality: Over his last nine PGA Tour starts, Woods has finished: MDF-WD-T25-MC-69-WD-MC-MC-WD. That’s not an aberration. That’s a trend.

6. The most overlooked part of Tiger’s decline is what’s happening to his world ranking. Let’s say he plays only Honda and Bay Hill before the Masters. If he misses the cut in both of those events – and let’s face it, the way he’s playing, it’s not all that unlikely – he will be outside the top 100 in the world by the time he drives down Magnolia Lane. This is important, because 1.) It puts his participation in the World Golf Championship events in jeopardy, from Doral to the Match Play to Firestone; and 2.) He might need to win twice just to crack the top 50. Does he appear anywhere close to being able to accomplish that feat, especially while playing his usual top-tier schedule? (Short answer: No.) 

7. Count swing-coach-to-the-stars Butch Harmon among those who think that Woods’ issues stem from the fact that he’s swinging too hard. “He’s in warp speed,” Harmon told Sky Sports last week. “It’s unbelievable how hard he goes.”

8. When he returned to competition at the World Challenge, Woods crowed about how he had his “explosiveness” back. That may in fact be true, because in his first start of 2015, he posted a swing speed of 121 mph, his highest since ’08. But two events into his year – heck, 2 ½ rounds into his year – he had already broken down, this time because of a stop-and-start delay that caused tightness in his back. Try as he might to keep up with the Brooks Koepkas of the world, it’s glaringly obvious that the incredible torque he puts on his brittle body is doing more harm than good. 

9. The only players with more PGA Tour titles than Billy Casper (51) are all on a one-name basis: Snead, Tiger, Jack, Hogan, Arnie, Nelson. RIP, Billy, the most underappreciated player in the game’s long history.

10. Casper’s three major wins came at a time when the sport was dominated by the Big Three – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Even more impressive: From 1956-71, he won at least once in a remarkable 16 consecutive years. Consider that the longest active streak is Dustin Johnson, with eight.

11. Brilliant move by Hunter Mahan to withdraw before the start of the Farmers Insurance Open with his second child was due any day. With his luck, he would have been leading at the halfway mark.

12. Well, at least the Shot of the Year award is locked up. Check back Dec. 31 for the rest of the top 10:

13. Speaking of Mr. Green … after that hole-in-one albatross in the Victorian Open pro-am, the 43-year-old left-hander not only went out and won the tournament proper – so did his fiancée, Marianne Skarpnord, who won on the women’s side. “I really think it’s fascinating that we’ve both done it,” he said. No argument here.

14. Even with a Sunday 75, Lee Westwood's T-5 finish in Malaysia was enough to push him to the top of the career earnings list on the European Tour, with 30,566,013 euros. It took him an entire career to reach that spot, 22 years. In this era of inflated purses, Rory McIlroy is already fourth on the all-time list, at 24.3 million euros. 

15. Gee, it sure wasn’t hard to tell when some players teed it up on the easier North Course last week:

  • Pat Perez: 75-65-77-83
  • Zack Sucher: 78-65-79-76
  • Kyle Stanley: 76-67-76-75
  • Cameron Tringale: 66-76-75-78

This about sums up the week (h/t @CanadianOpen, and others): 

See what 21-year-old Justin Thomas has done in early 2015, with three consecutive top-20s and multiple opportunities to win? That’s Patrick Rodgers, in 2016. The reigning NCAA Player of the Year needed only two Web.com Tour events to notch his first W. He's coming, soon. … The USGA formally announced last weekend the creation of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which will begin in 2018. President Tom O’Toole said that “simply, the timing is right,” and that interest in the event has “steadily increased” since the organization began looking into the event’s viability in the ’90s. That’s fine, but whether fans actually tune in for three-plus hours remain to be seen. … Lydia Ko’s reign at world No. 1 was threatened in her very first week. Something tells us the top spot will change hands plenty this year, so here ends the week-to-week status updates. 

Not optimistic. Lefty looks completely lost on the greens – he’s poor with his speed, he’s not hitting his lines, he’s tinkering with grips. Unless he makes a last-minute U-turn and adds Riviera, he’s taking two weeks off before heading to PGA National, where last year he missed the cut. Even Phil conceded this won’t be a quick fix: “If you putt bad for a few weeks, it’s going to take not only fundamental change, but it will take some good low rounds and some hot putting streaks to get the confidence back, too.” Yikes.

Scrolling through Twitter last night, there was plenty of criticism directed at the long-hitting Holmes. I don’t get it. He made the right call. From 235 yards he was in between clubs and on a downhill lie. He couldn’t land short, because of the pond, nor could he have gone deep, because getting the ball up-and-down from the gnarly rough behind the green was no easy task. (Just ask Jason Day, who was mere inches from drowning his playoff hopes.) Laying up was Holmes’ best opportunity to make 4, even if it didn’t work out. 

We’ve all been there – and it’s hard to watch. Glover thought he’d stumbled upon a solution earlier this year at the Humana, when he widened his stance and started to feel as though he was hitting his putts, not stroking them. But it was clear from his final-round 77 – and multiple yippy episodes – that it was only a temporary fix and much work remains. A shame too, because he was in position for his first top 10 since 2011.