Monday Scramble: Spieth more machine than man


Jordan Spieth steamrolls another elite field, Brooks Koepka shrugs off any equipment concerns, Patrick Reed stays hot to open the year, Justin Thomas chooses a Ryder Cup victory and more in this week’s sun-kissed edition of Monday Scramble:

Spieth sent a clear message with his spectacular play at Kapalua: This run is far from finished. 

That’s what he suggested before the tournament even began, that an encore means that the show is over. And that’s what he reminded everyone after his runaway victory in paradise, that he took a three-week break during the holidays and the only thing that's changed is the date on the calendar.

It sure looked like it too, because for four days Spieth played the same kind of smart, demoralizing, near-flawless golf that has become his trademark.

The only drama Sunday was whether Spieth would match Ernie Els’ record total. Spieth came up one shot short, but he still became just the second player in Tour history to finish a 72-hole event at 30 under or lower. 

Indeed, a kid who has smashed expectations ever since he landed on Tour surprised even himself with the way that he started the new year – really, it couldn’t have been much better.

Now there's a scary thought: Maybe his best is yet to come. 

1. In recent years, it felt like the new season truly started at Torrey Pines, PGA National or Doral – wherever all of the game’s biggest stars convened for the first time.

Thanks to Spieth, there’s a buzz in early January that has been lacking for the past decade.

The addition of Spieth, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler to the Tournament of Champions field – along with three other top-10 players – gave the Tour its strongest lid-lifter since 2005, the last time Tiger Woods played on Maui. 

By blowing away the winners-only field in the first event of '16, Spieth provided a spark to a sleepy event and set the tone for the run-up to Augusta.

2. With an 8-foot birdie on the last, Spieth became only the second player to finish a 72-hole PGA Tour event at 30 under par or lower. He showed he could win a shootout, too. 

When Ernie Els shot a record 31 under at Kapalua in 2003, he was one of 11 players that week to eclipse the 20-under mark. He won by eight.

Spieth was one of five players who went 20 under or better during a week when the wind wasn't much of a factor.

The updated list for the lowest score in relation to par in a 72-hole PGA Tour event:

  • Ernie Els, 31 under, 2003 Hyundai
  • Jordan Spieth, 30 under, 2016 Hyundai
  • Patrick Reed, 28 under, 2014 CareerBuilder
  • Phil Mickelson, 28 under, 2013 Phoenix
  • Phil Mickelson, 28 under, 2006 AT&T
  • Mark Calcavecchia, 28 under, 2001 Phoenix
  • John Huston, 28 under, 1998 Sony 

3. You may have read that with his seventh victory, Spieth tied Tiger Woods for the most PGA Tour wins before the age of 23. 

But look at the Tour landscape – these days, age is just a number.

A better comparison is this: Kapalua was Spieth’s 77th start as a pro. Woods won 18 times in his first 77 events.  

Advantage: Woods ... for now. 

4. He probably won’t slam the door every time, of course, but it’s clear that Spieth has learned out how to close out victories.

After blowing his first four opportunities with at least a share of the 54-hole lead, he has nailed down his last five opportunities. 

What makes him so tough to catch? He has such a great short game, and such a solid game plan, that he forces his opponents to take unnecessary risks to try and catch up.

Think about it: Spieth is rarely in trouble, and he isn’t going to beat himself and make mistakes. That puts pressure on his pursuers to play near-perfect golf, and oftentimes they’ll come up short.   

5. Spieth said his putting “feels like it is 100 percent ready for major championships.”

No kidding – he was dropping bombs just like it was a major. 

Spieth poured in four putts longer than 25 feet at Kapalua on his way to finishing first in the strokes gained-putting statistic. 

He was also No. 1 in putting average. And strokes gained-tee to green. And par-4 and par-5 scoring. And the most birdies and eagles made. Decent week.

6. These days, it doesn’t matter whether Reed is in Hong Kong, Dubai, the Bahamas or Hawaii. 

His game travels well. 

The runner-up at Kapalua was Reed’s seventh consecutive top-10 finish worldwide, dating to late October. 

7. But this should help put into perspective how well Spieth played last week: Reed didn’t record a bogey until his 69th hole of the tournament … and yet he still trailed by six shots at the time. 

Reed had a chance to make the finale interesting, but his putter let him down. After back-to-birdie birdies to open his round, he didn’t make a putt longer than 5 feet the rest of the way. For the week, he missed nine times inside 10 feet.

8. Players who change equipment at the start of the year often are under more scrutiny, and so it was refreshing to see new Nike client Brooks Koepka contend for, well, B-flight honors at Kapalua. 

He ran out of birdies Sunday with a final-round 71, but his 21-under 271 was good enough for a tie for third. For the week, Koepka finished inside the top 6 statistically in driving distance, greens hit and putting – a promising sign moving forward. 

Other high-profile players who swapped sticks didn’t fare quite as well. 

Reigning Open champion Zach Johnson, Chris Kirk and James Hahn – all of whom transitioned to PXG, the new company started by the former founder – struggled during the opening week, finishing T-21, T-24 and T-31 (tied for last), respectively. 

9. There was more chatter last week about Rickie Fowler’s fashion than his play (solo fifth), which means we’ve temporarily returned to 2011. Golf’s most fashion-forward star tends to favor “progressive apparel,” which helps explain why he arrived at Kapalua with high-top golf shoes and jogging pants.

To be sure, reviews of his new look were mixed. 

Any look that can make golf seem less stodgy is welcome here – #GrowTheGame – but that doesn’t mean Fowler’s was a hit. The combination of high-top shoe, Velcro strap and tapered pant bottoms made him look like an ’80s pop star, or perhaps on house arrest. 

Personally, I’m a huge proponent of moving away from the traditional golf shoe – Keegan Bradley has sported Jordans for years, and Koepka’s Flyknit Chukkas looked sweet – but for the final verdict on all of the latest and greatest trends from Kapalua, we’ll have to wait until E!’s Fashion Police weighs in.

10. It was a quiet opener for Jason Day, which wasn’t all that surprising considering he played only four holes – during a corporate team event – over the past two months. From a competitive standpoint, he should have been rusty at Kapalua, and indeed he was. He tied for 10th, thanks in large part to a closing 65.

Instead, what registered as the biggest surprise was his admission in a pre-tournament news conference that he suffered another setback with vertigo Saturday at the St. Andrews Open. He said he didn’t disclose his illness at the time because “it wasn’t as severe” and because it would only have prompted more questions.

Day insisted that he’s been fine ever since, and that he’s been able to stay on top of the condition with medication, but it’s an issue that he can never fully control. “It will come back whenever it wants to,” he said. It’s something to monitor as 2016 progresses. 

11. Thomas found himself in the middle of the silliest social-media controversy ever last week when he answered a fun hypothetical: In 2016, would you rather win a major or a Ryder Cup?

The 22-year-old Thomas, who has his entire career ahead of him, chose a victory at Hazeltine, “hands down,” and yet somehow this answer – remember: to a hypothetical was spun as proof that he doesn’t want to take his career to the next level.

Uh, I’m fairly certain Thomas will give his all whether he’s trying to win his first major or playing on his first Ryder Cup team. It’s an interesting response, but only because it shows the camaraderie of these young players and how desperately they want to win together, nothing more.

12. The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am is relevant once again, after drawing seven of the top-10 players in the world. As the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out last week, only five years ago, the event drew just three of the top 20. 

What gives? 

The power of the celebrities is likely the biggest factor. Spieth wants to play with country singer Jake Owen. Bubba Watson wants to play with actor Mark Wahlberg. Dustin Johnson wants to play with his famous soon-to-be father-in-law, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. 

As tournament director Steve John told the Chronicle: “It’s kind of turned into a buddy tournament.” 

Throw in a smaller amateur field, shorter rounds and picturesque venues, and the Crosby Clambake is once again a must-play for many of the game’s biggest names. That’s a win-win for players, amateurs and winter-weary fans.  

13. Strange but true: Matt Every, who earned his spot in the field by defending his title at Bay Hill, finished 28th at Kapalua. That was his best result since April.  

John Peterson underwent surgery last week on his left hand, an injury that has affected the 26-year-old since March. It’s unclear how long he’ll be out, but it could be a while, which means that he’ll have plenty of time for social media.

Lucky us.

Here was Peterson's post before he headed into surgery: 

And after the successful procedure, whoever was running his social-media account that day posted nine videos as Peterson woke up from the anesthesia. It was epic.

This week’s award winners … 

Quote of the Week: Spieth, when asked what he would do for an encore: “Doesn’t an encore mean that the show is over?”

No Longer a Football School: The University of Texas. Former Longhorns teammates (for about three months, in fall 2012) Spieth and Brandon Stone won on the same day on the two best golf circuits in the world about 12,000 miles apart. After Spieth turned pro, Stone went on to win National Freshman of the Year honors. On Sunday, he won the South African Open for his first European Tour title.

Awkward Moment of the Week: CBS Sports on-course reporter (and longtime Titleist staffer) Peter Kostis weighing in on some of the players who changed equipment companies in the offseason. This could make for a few awkward post-round interviews.

Ideal Replacement Caddie: Joey Diovisalvi. Seriously, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better fill-in looper for Kapalua’s calf-burning climbs than the jacked Jupiter-area trainer.   

Ridiculous Stat of the Week: Spieth has been first or second on the leaderboard after all of his eight career rounds at Kapalua’s Plantation Course. 

Sad Confessions: Luke Donald, who told the Telegraph that he nearly quit the game because of his recent slide from world No. 1. Recently sacked by his caddie, winless since 2012 and down to 78th in the world, Donald still owns one of the world’s best short games but that alone is no longer enough to contend on today’s Tour. As 2016 begins, he is an afterthought for the European Ryder Cup team. 

Least Unexpected News of the Week: Padraig Harrington used a cryotherapy tub, set at minus-140 degrees for six minutes, as part of his rehabilitation from a torn meniscus in his knee. The notorious tinkerer explained that cryo (naturally) boosts testosterone levels and makes it easier to recover from injuries. He also doesn’t like ice baths. “I find the cold air quite easy on me,” he said.

Random Thought of the Week: Butch Harmon should get as much airtime as possible. Did anyone else catch the GOAT during Friday’s telecast? When he speaks, you listen. His résumé speaks for itself. He offers tremendous insight. He’s a great storyteller. He understands how TV works, after commentating for Sky Sports for the better part of the past decade. Selfishly, I wish he had a permanent spot in the booth at a major U.S. network.