Justin Thomas stays hot, Justin Rose and Jordan Spieth battle in the B flight, Rory McIlroy contends (and gets hurt), Jim Furyk lands a new job and there's a 59 watch every day, nowadays, in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
These two weeks in Hawaii altered the trajectory of Thomas’ career.
Viewed at the beginning of the year as one of the game’s many talented youngsters, Thomas showed a glimpse of his best stuff at Kapalua and Waialae.
And it was remarkable.
At the Tournament of Champions, he surged to a big lead, nearly gave it all away and then shut down the (erstwhile) hottest player in golf with a clutch shot on 17.
At the Sony, the rest of the field never had a chance. He opened with 59, broke the 36-hole scoring record, tied the 54-hole mark and made a final birdie Sunday to shoot the lowest 72-hole total (253) in Tour history.
His peers took notice: "JT has got it rolling now," Spieth said, "and he's going to be a tough guy to stop this year."
The Hawaii swing might be a working vacation for many, but it was a career-changer for Thomas. Growing more comfortable and confident in the spotlight, he might just be getting started.
1. Are we witnessing the birth of another American superstar? We’ll have a better idea by the end of the year whether this is merely a hot streak or the beginning of something special.
But for now, chew on this: Only three players have begun a season with three wins in their first five starts.
Johnny Miller (twice). Tiger Woods (three times). And, now, Thomas.
2. Thomas’ play was so dominant from tee to green all week that it almost overshadowed his start. Almost.
His first-round 59 was the result of a perfect storm, with light wind, firm fairways (on an already shortish course) and receptive greens. But that doesn’t diminish his accomplishment at all.
His round was three shots better than the next-best score (Hudson Swafford) and still 9.25 strokes better than the field average on Day 1.
At 23, Thomas was the youngest and, by far, least experienced player to join the exclusive club. Per the PGA Tour, Thomas (252) broke the sub-60 barrier in 139 fewer rounds than David Duval (391). Jim Furyk, who twice has shot in the 50s on Tour, needed 1,768 rounds.
Speaking of which ...
3. Is golf’s magic number losing some of its luster?
It sure felt that way at the Sony Open, where each day a player assaulted defenseless Waialae and prompted the increasingly tiresome #59Watch on social media.
Length helps everywhere, of course, but in optimal conditions it wasn’t just the bombers who had a chance to crack 60 – Zach Johnson, Kevin Kisner and Chez Reavie all took aim but came up short. For the week, there was a 59, a 60, two 61s, two 62s and four 63s.
Birdies and low numbers are fun, but when a quarter of the 60-or-better scores have occurred in the past five years, it’s clear some of the magic is gone.
4. Rose added the Sony Open to his schedule because of the Tour’s new strength-of-schedule rule, which requires members to play at least one tournament they haven’t played in four years. It worked out just fine for the Englishman.
Debuting a new claw putting grip, Rose was solid on the greens and typically excellent off the tee in shooting 20 under, good enough to hold off Spieth for second place.
“I’m not joking when I say I won the other tournament,” Rose said.
It was a positive start after a 2016 campaign that was memorable only for his Olympic gold medal. He managed only five top-10s while battling a nagging back injury.
5. As for Spieth, he continued to impress, even if he’s asked more about his close friend than himself of late.
A prime bounce-back candidate after an uneven 2016, Spieth now has a win and three other top-6s in his last four worldwide starts.
With his ball-striking issues sorted out – he led the Sony field in strokes gained-approach to the green – it’s Spieth’s normally reliable putter that has kept him out of serious contention. At Waialae, he ranked 53rd in putting, but he made a crucial tweak before the final round, moving the ball back in his stance and turning the right toe open. He closed with 63.
6. Over the past nine years, few players in golf have started as quickly as McIlroy. Since 2009, he has five runners-up and eight top-5s overall – but no wins.
That didn’t change at the European Tour's South African Open, where he shook off a back injury to shoot 68 or better all four days. That was only good enough to tie Graeme Storm at 18 under par, with the 38-year-old Englishman prevailing on the third extra hole after a McIlroy bogey.
“I wish I could have done a little more,” McIlroy said afterward, “but it’s not a bad way to start the season and it gives me something to build on in the weeks ahead.”
7. Whether McIlroy will be able to play in the coming weeks remains to be seen.
The world No. 2 tweaked his upper back before the start of the second round and required treatment each day. He is scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Monday and is uncertain for this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. The MRI is precautionary, he said, but added that he doesn’t want to jeopardize the rest of his season for short-term gain.
8. How did he get hurt? McIlroy isn’t quite sure. But he does have one theory: It could be a result of muscle fatigue, after testing equipment during the offseason.
“I’ve hit a lot of drivers,” he said. “You put a lot of force on your body when you do that.”
Last week’s South African Open was the first time that McIlroy put Callaway woods and irons, Titleist wedges and balls, and Odyssey putter in his bag.
9. Graeme Storm: Does the name sound familiar? Three months ago, he finished one shot (and about $111) shy of keeping his European Tour card for 2017, after bogeying the final hole at the Portugal Masters:
But a few weeks later, Patrick Reed was (temporarily) stripped of his European Tour membership when he failed to play the minimum number of events (five). That bumped Storm from No. 112 to the all-important 111th spot, giving him full status on tour this year.
He took full advantage Sunday.
10. We already know this about Jim Furyk, Ryder Cup captain: The man knows how to keep a secret. He was informed of the committee’s choice before the holidays but wasn’t formally announced as Captain America until last week in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
The U.S. team’s revamped structure has added more cohesion to what was a mysterious, one-and-done process, but it’s also eliminated nearly all of the suspense about future captains. Fred Couples was rumored to be in the mix for next year’s matches in Paris, but Furyk was the perfect choice for 2018. And so here’s a guess on the next few captains: Steve Stricker (2020), Zach Johnson (2022) and Phil Mickelson (2024). One wild card: the health of 41-year-old Tiger Woods, and where he would potentially slide into the rotation.
11. If there was any surprise at all, it was that Furyk would want the job. After all, last year he finished second at the U.S. Open and shot the first 58 in PGA Tour history. Had he not sat out until May because of a wrist injury, he likely would have qualified on his own. He'll be 48 in September 2018.
Furyk left open the possibility of becoming the first playing captain since 1963, but it’ll never happen. Over the past half century, the role of captain has evolved into a full-time job with a million distractions. It says something about Furyk’s competitive fire that he wouldn’t relinquish that dream, at least not yet.
Furyk certainly could play well this year, like predecessor Davis Love III in ’15 (won the Wyndham), but if history is any indication, a captain’s form dramatically declines the year of the matches.
12. Hey, you know what they always say: There’s no better way to start your year than in paradise … where the double bogeys and swing compensations are plentiful.
The Web.com Tour's Great Exuma Classic was next-level goofy. On a resort course that apparently wasn't designed for high winds, the best minor leaguers in the world got their teeth kicked in. These were the scoring averages per round, in order: 80.405, 75.758, 74.209, 74.269.
Only one player, Kyle Thompson, finished the week under par. Yeah, he earned that potential trip back to the PGA Tour.
Greg Eason is a former top-10 college and amateur star. A few years ago, he was one of the rookies to watch on the Web.com Tour. Each fall, he’s been one step away from graduating to the big tour.
All of this to say: He is a good player.
A good player who just happened to have a very, very bad week.
The 24-year-old Englishman wasn’t the only player who embarrassed himself during the Web.com Tour’s season opener in the Bahamas, but he was absolutely brutal.
He shot rounds of 91-95 and finished last. By six.
Yes, conditions were horrendous, with the wind howling up to 45 mph. The first-round scoring average was 80.4. The 36-hole cut was a record 11 over par.
But Eason began the week with 36 golf balls … and two days later, he had only four left.
If he can shake off this humiliation and earn his Tour card this year, he’s our Comeback Player of the Year.
This week's award winners ...
Comeback of the Week: Kevin Kisner. He went 3 under for his last three holes Friday to make the cut on the number. In the third round, he burned the edge on a 9-footer that would have given him the second 59 of the week. He shot 60-65 on the weekend to tie for fourth.
Desperately Needs to Resume Control of his Social-Media Accounts: Dustin Johnson. Come on, man.
Keep An Eye On: Phil Mickelson. He has already committed to next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, but he remains “hopeful” that he’ll be able to serve as more than just a tournament ambassador this week in Palm Springs. Lefty had two offseason surgeries to repair a sports hernia.
Not In Kansas Anymore: Toto Gana. After losing a two-shot lead with two to play at the Latin American Amateur, the 19-year-old Chilean made a clutch up and down on the first playoff hole, then stuffed his approach to 2 feet to earn a Masters berth.
Never Seen That Before: Joaquin Niemann. In a sudden-death playoff in Panama, and with a Masters invite on the line, he hit a TV cable on his follow through. The ball raced through the green, but he still made par. He lost on the second playoff hole.
Biggest Story of the Week (ahem): Spieth and Smylie Kaufman went fishing. And their kayak capsized. With Thomas winning in a rout, well, this qualified as news.
What’s “The Zone” Look Like?: Woody Austin. Playing in the Diamond Resorts Invitational, Austin rang up 10 birdies and eagle. He thought he’d shot 60 on the par 72 until he walked off the last green and was congratulated for breaking golf’s magic number. Said Austin: “Everybody goes, ‘No, it’s a par 71.’ So, ah, cool.”
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jimmy Walker. The king of Waialae, he had two wins and two other top-15s there since 2011. Alas, you can add another missed cut, as well, after rounds of 71-67. Sigh.