Monday Scramble: Winning again and back, again


Hideki Matsuyama has déjà vu, Tiger Woods withdraws, Sergio Garcia looks happy, the Phoenix Open sets a record and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble: 

The big question after Woods announced that he’d begin the year with four starts in five weeks was how his surgically repaired back would hold up after all of the swings, travel and practice with limited recovery time.

Well, we now have our answer. He didn’t even last until round No. 4.

The lower-back spasms that knocked Woods out of the Dubai Desert Classic might in fact be a minor issue; his agent, Mark Steinberg, suggested that next week’s Genesis Open at Riviera is still in play. But what’s more troubling is that he did seemingly everything right over the past 17 months – taking off all of last year, working on his swing, rehabbing – and still wound up on the sidelines. Again.

Another setback has led to more retirement talk, but only Woods knows for sure the state of his body and mind. Now it’s just a matter of how much more he can endure. 

1. All that changed at the Waste Management Phoenix Open was Matsuyama’s challenger. 

A year ago, the Japanese star birdied the 72nd hole and won on the fourth playoff hole to defeat Rickie Fowler. This time, Matsuyama’s birdie putt on the final hole came up an inch short, but he knocked out Webb Simpson with a birdie on – you guessed it – the fourth playoff hole.

Matsuyama's world has changed dramatically over the past 12 months. Up to No. 5 in the world, he has five titles in his past nine worldwide starts. 

“It’s been a good run,” he said. “I’m going to ride it as long as I can.”    

2. It’s ironic that Matsuyama seems to thrive at TPC Scottsdale.

The king of the one-handed follow-through, Matsuyama is often distracted and annoyed by crowd noise. On several occasions last week, he glared at spectators who either (a) snapped photos near the tee box, (b) moved behind him, or (c) yelled something during his deliberate downswing. It comes with the territory at the Phoenix Open – it's the only event on the Tour schedule that players prepare to be harassed on the course. 

Somehow, Matsuyama claimed his second title and finished in the top 4 for the fourth consecutive year. Maybe he's mentally tougher than we give him credit for.

Webb Simpson

3. Welcome back, Webb Simpson.

Down on his game and “lost” on the greens, the former U.S. Open champion said he met with Billy Harmon after the CareerBuilder and straightened out his putting. 

Entering the week, he was 189th in strokes gained-putting, a continuation of his struggles post-anchoring ban. But when his putter is hot, Simpson tends to play well, and on the weekend he shot rounds of 65-64 (including birdies on three of his last four holes Sunday) to join Matsuyama at 17-under 264. He scared the hole on two putts in overtime before bowing out with a par on the fourth extra hole. 

“I have found a method that’s been working,” Simpson said. “I hope it works for a long time. But I know that this game is a fickle game, and things happen.” 

4. Caddie Paul Tesori also deserves credit for an assist.

After all, it was Tesori who noticed that Simpson was swaying away from the ball on his backswing instead of loading onto his right side. 

Simpson needed only 30 balls Friday to see significant improvement, and then he played his last 45 holes in 15 under par.  

5. All of the playoff drama overshadowed Byeong-Hun An’s back-nine collapse.

Staked to a three-shot lead at one point, the former U.S. Amateur champion made several poor decisions and came home in 40. He finished sixth, three shots back. 

“It’s not like it’s the last event of the year or last event for the rest of my life,” he said. “I just can’t wait to come back next year. It will be great.” 

6. With all of the focus on the game’s youth movement, the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic was a throwback, with the final group all 37 or older. Garcia, 37, walked away with the trophy, but in pursuit were Henrik Stenson, 40, and Ian Poulter, 41.

They’ve combined for 35 career European Tour titles. 

7. Jon Rahm might be the future of Spanish golf, but Garcia showed last week that his best golf might still be ahead of him. 

Ranking in the top 3 in the field in total driving and greens in regulation, Garcia won in wire-to-wire fashion in Dubai, holding off Stenson on the final day. Garcia has now won a pro event in 15 different countries. 

8. Happy people play great golf. That's been especially true for Garcia.

Recently engaged, he reflected Sunday on his career that has been filled with plenty of highs and lows. 

“I’ve been very open with you guys,” he said. “When things are going well off the golf course, it’s much easier to feel comfortable on a golf course, because there’s no worries. There’s no worries outside and you can concentrate on what you’re doing out there on the course.”

And right now, there are no worries for Garcia, which is good news entering major season. 

Only Ed Dudley (24) has more major top-10s without a win than Garcia (22). That long-awaited Grand Slam title could cement the Spaniard as one of the greatest players of his generation. 

9. It’s fair to ask: What happened in the seven weeks between Woods’ event in the Bahamas and his start at Torrey Pines?

Did he hit the weight room too hard? Did he suffer a physical setback?

At the Hero, Woods showed off a new lithe frame. His uninhibited swing had speed and freedom. Even longtime critics conceded that there were reasons for optimism. 

At Torrey, the slimmed-down Woods was gone. His arms and chest were noticeably bigger. And, frankly, he walked like he was trying to avoid land mines. Maybe it was the cold morning temperatures, but he swung slowly (6 mph slower than 2013) and tentatively, especially early. 

It wasn’t cold in Dubai, and yet Woods’ swing and gait were labored. He claimed that he wasn’t in pain during a birdie-free 77. It was difficult to believe him. 

10. Another question: Why was Woods even in Dubai? 

He made $34 million last year without playing an official round. Did he really need the reported $2 million appearance fee that badly? He said the reps were important, that he wanted to get his game ready for the Masters. So how would the desert golf in Dubai help him any more than the nearby Phoenix Open?

Much was made of the commercial flight that Woods took from California to Dubai, but he was in a first-class suite, not seat 29E, and didn’t have a layover.

That he even subjected himself to the 16-hour flight was the mistake.

11. If you’ve grown leery of these so-called Tiger Comebacks, there’s a reason. 

Since the beginning of 2014, Woods has now missed the cut or withdrawn in 11 official events. Over that span, he has played on Sunday only nine times. 

12. The USGA said at its annual meeting that the newly proposed Rules of Golf – a few potential changes were leaked last month – will be made public sometime in March, with a six-month comment period to follow. 

The blue blazers have promised that the new rulebook will “fundamentally change the understanding of the rules” and that every rule was “on the table.”

Executive director Mike Davis even stressed the need for technology in today’s times, saying: “How come we can’t have an instance where someone can [take their phone and] say, ‘Siri, I hit my ball into a water hazard. What are my options?”

Probably because the game already takes long enough as it is? 

Steven Bowditch was arrested early Friday morning and charged with extreme DUI. He was reportedly found asleep at the wheel of a white pickup truck and registered a .204% on a breathalyzer test.

Bowditch, 33, could face jail time, a fine and even a PGA Tour suspension.

On Friday night, after shooting 74 at the Phoenix Open, he apologized on Twitter:

This is sad news. Bowditch overcame clinical depression to become a two-time PGA Tour winner. He is a likable character with a self-deprecating sense of humor. 

He has fallen on hard times of late, and since June he has missed 15 of 17 cuts. Here’s hoping Bowditch gets the help he needs.  

Biggest Show on Bermuda: Phoenix. Last week the Wasted Open drew 655,434 fans, the most in tournament history. There has been a push to make tournament golf more fun, with walkup music, nighttime attractions and fan-friendly zones. But it’s no small feat to get 200,000-plus people to roll through the gates on a Saturday.

Smart Take: Dottie Pepper. Weighing in on the state of Tiger’s health, Pepper relayed a story about tennis great Michael Chang. They played golf together toward the end of Pepper’s career, and she asked Chang when he knew it was time to retire. “He told me when he spent more time in rehab than he did getting better at this progression, he knew it was his time. Is it that time for Tiger? I think we’re getting close.” 

Why We Love Phil: Driver from the rough. Asked to explain his bizarre club choice, Mickelson said: “The only play was to pitch out, but that’s not really, you know, what I like to do.”

Welcome Back?: Diana Murphy. Murphy has been re-elected to a second one-year term as USGA president. Based on the comments left on the USGA’s official Twitter account, the news wasn't well-received. 

A Pro Sooner than Later: Curtis Luck. The reigning U.S. Amateur champion signed with IMG and plans to turn pro after the Masters, thus forfeiting exemptions into the second and third majors of the year. The Australian's thinking: He can still qualify for the summer opens on his own. 

Next College Star: Braden Thornberry. A three-time winner this season, the Ole Miss sophomore led from start to finish at the Jones Cup, one of the most loaded fields on the amateur schedule. Better believe Walker Cup captain Spider Miller took notice.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. The 23-year-old, who torched the Hawaii swing to become the Hottest Player in Golf, took two weeks off, shot rounds of 69-73, missed the cut by one in Phoenix and surrendered that unofficial HPIG title to Matsuyama. Sigh.