Rickie Fowler steals the show (again), Jordan Spieth looks gassed, Jason Dufner escapes from a rocky patch, pros flash a little skin and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
The week began with the prospect of a Jordan vs. Rory showdown in the desert. It ended with the other member of the star-studded three-ball reminding observers that the future likely includes plenty of high-tops and joggers.
Rickie Fowler himself may insist that he doesn’t belong in the same tier as Spieth, McIlroy and Jason Day because he lacks one of golf’s defining titles – a major – but he proved once again on Sunday that he at least deserves to be in the conversation. Consider the quality of his four wins since May: The Players, arguably the strongest field in golf; the Scottish Open, which attracted a deep, pre-major field; the Deutsche Bank Championship, the second leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs; and now the Abu Dhabi Championship, with four of the top six in the world in attendance.
Top-tier events, all of them.
Fowler says that he believes he can go “head-to-head and toe-to-go” with those guys, and why shouldn’t he? He has done it, repeatedly.
Big 4 or not, his latest victory shows that he’s just like Spieth, Day and McIlroy – capable of beating the world’s best every time he tees it up.
1. Golf has a statistic for just about everything – left rough tendency, proximity to the hole from 250-275 yards, sand save percentage from 30-plus yards, three-putt avoidance from 25 feet.
What’s not so easy to calculate is a player’s clutchness.
There is no data point to back up this claim, but this generation of stars seems to deliver more often in the critical moments, whether it’s Spieth getting up-and-down from long and right of the 18th green at the Masters, or Day canning a 25-footer on the last in Canada, or McIlroy rallying from two late deficits to win the Match Play. They aren’t overwhelmed by the moment, and they aren’t afraid of failing. If anything, they crave that spotlight and pressure.
After a few years of underachieving, Fowler has acquired that same set of closing skills. He went 6 under for his last six at The Players, then added two more birdies in the playoff. He birdied three of his last four at the Scottish Open. And he chipped in on the 71st hole to carry a two-shot lead to the par-5 finishing hole in Abu Dhabi.
All of his victories, even dating to his 2012 Quail Hollow title, feature some late dramatics. Down the stretch, he plays freely and without fear.
It's what makes this collection of stars so exciting: their sense of the moment, their ability to summon a bit of magic when it matters most.
2. The players with the most worldwide wins since Feb. 1 of last year:
- Jordan Spieth: 6
- Jason Day: 5
- Rickie Fowler: 4
- Rory McIlroy: 4
3. Yet all anyone wants to point out is that Fowler hasn't won a major. (And that won't change for another 2 1/2 months, if not longer.) Keep in mind that he hasn't exactly flamed out in golf's biggest events. In fact, in his last 11 major starts, he has six top-12 finishes.
4. What could have been a statement victory instead became just another high finish for McIlroy in Abu Dhabi.
That’s now SEVEN top-five finishes (with no wins) in the desert, where he has begun each year since 2008. “It seems like this could be the tournament that I just can’t quite master,” he said.
A long eagle on the last gave him a share of third place, but it wasn’t enough to cut into his deficit in the world rankings. He is still No. 3, behind Spieth and Day.
5. Spieth looked exhausted in Abu Dhabi, and he likely won’t be any more refreshed this week for his spot start at the Asian Tour’s Singapore Open.
Even Spieth conceded that he is “kind of beat up mentally” after visiting South Korea, Shanghai, Australia, the Bahamas, Hawaii and Abu Dhabi since October. He said he plans to reevaluate his schedule moving forward and won’t bounce around the globe as much as he did these past few months.
Always ahead of the curve, it seems he has already learned an important lesson about international travel, at age 22.
To his credit, Spieth easily could have mailed it in during what was clearly an off week in Abu Dhabi. He wasn't sharp, but he still shot a pair of weekend 68s (and went 4 under for his last seven on Sunday) to sneak into a share of fifth.
But Spieth’s schedule is something to monitor in what figures to be a hectic year for the top pros. He plays a lot of golf. Always has. After Singapore, he will tee it up at Pebble, Riviera, Doral and Innisbrook, with the Match Play and Houston Open likely on his schedule, as well. If he's fatigued now, in mid-January, it's reasonable to wonder what shape he'll be in during the summer.
6. After a forgettable two years both on and off the course, Dufner reemerged in a big way with his playoff victory at the CareerBuilder Challenge, the fourth of his PGA Tour career and first since the 2013 PGA.
Since then, he has struggled with his putting, battled a neck injury and gone through a public divorce. He didn't speak to the media for the rest of the 2015 season, but Dufner told the Tour's website recently that he plans to play a lot this year, because he’s healthy, because it’s a Ryder Cup year, and because, well ...
“I don’t have anything else to do,” he said.
Entering his age-39 season, he proved he isn’t done winning just yet.
7. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without a few incredible saves.
First, the ridiculous up-and-down from the rocks on the Stadium Course's 17th hole, where his chip shot from the hard pan clanked off the flagstick.
“It was probably like one-in-50 million that the ball ends up there,” he said afterward. “But I’ll take it. Some guy won the Powerball a couple weeks ago. He’ll take it, right?”
And then, after a wayward drive forced him to lay up on the first hole of sudden death, he rammed home a 10-footer for par to extend the playoff, which he won on the second extra hole over David Lingmerth.
It was vintage Duf … which is to say utterly emotionless.
8. Clearly, it’s been a productive few months for Phil Mickelson.
Out of sorts the last time he played a PGA Tour event, Mickelson showed plenty of promise in his 2016 debut in Palm Springs. Though his swing changes under new coach Andrew Getson aren’t noticeable to the naked eye, Lefty says he is more on plane and able to control the clubface.
It sure looked like it too, because while playing in ideal conditions, Mickelson avoided the wild misses with the driver, ranked second in strokes gained-tee to green and holed out a career-best four times en route to his T-3 finish.
"This is a really good week for me," he said, "for validation that I'm on the right track and that it's continuing to get better as I go along."
The CareerBuilder was his first of four events in a row.
9. Traditionally a slow starter, Henrik Stenson’s early-season prospects improved following a T-3 finish just six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. It’s his best start to a new year since 2008 (T-2, Abu Dhabi).
Despite some lingering soreness, Stenson reported no pain in his right knee but will sit out this week’s event in Qatar as a precaution. He said he wants to be as close to 100 percent as possible for Dubai in 10 days.
10. Spieth became the first victim of the European Tour’s new pace-of-play policy.
After being deemed to take too long to hit a putt on his 17th hole in the first round, Spieth was slapped with a “monitoring penalty,” or a bad time. Two monitoring penalties result in a $2,800 fine.
The fine isn’t so much the concern here; after all, Spieth banked more than $52 million last year, according to a recent Golf Digest story. The bigger takeaways are that (1) the European Tour didn't shy away from singling out one of the game's biggest stars, and (2) it understands the power of a little public shaming.
Peer pressure and public opinion are powerful motivators. Why do you think NFL, MLB and NBA disclose suspensions and fines?
If no major tour will hit these players where it really hurts – the scorecard – then calling out the slowpokes will at least keep things interesting.
11. He disappeared from the leaderboard as quickly as he appeared, which made the Abu Dhabi Championship another learning experience for decorated amateur Bryson DeChambeau.
The fascination of the European media, the self-proclaimed “golfing scientist” had the first-round lead after a 64 and played well enough on Day 2 to earn a tee time with Rory McIlroy and Andy Sullivan in the final group. DeChambeau’s third-round 78 – which included a back-nine 41 – sent him crashing out of contention, and he ultimately finished in a tie for 54th, 14 shots back.
An amateur in name only, DeChambeau is now a full-time golfer after leaving SMU to pursue opportunities in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai in advance of the Masters. He describes him as an “intern," and in that sense, he received plenty of real-life experience last week, competing (and, for a while, contending) on a new course in a new country in a new position, the last group out on a weekend round. It won’t be his last.
For once, the biggest fashion statement of the week wasn’t made by Fowler.
The European Tour approved a policy last week that will allow shorts to be worn during tournament practice rounds and pro-am days. This makes a lot of sense, not least because it can be hot in certain parts of the world and because, oh yeah, it’s practice.
Let's be clear: This bare-legged step toward the 21st century won’t suddenly spark participation across the board. But if the top players want a more relaxed look during their pre-tournament prep, what's the big deal?
Naturally, there has been some handwringing from fans who suggested that there should be a clear divide between the best players in the world and weekend warriors. Um, just look at the difference in their physique, golf bag, swing, entourage, significant other and quality of shots. It's not hard to tell.
Just don’t expect to see players in Bermuda shorts anytime soon on the PGA Tour. Above all, Camp Ponte Vedra values class, professionalism and image. That means plenty of ill-fitting khakis, even in the sweltering Memphis humidity. Which could only lead to more of this.
This and that from the past week ...
• How studly was David Lingmerth’s 127 (62-65) weekend? It was three shots better than the next-best score (Kevin Na, 130). Johnny Miller isn't the only one who believes this Swede has a major in his future.
• Patrick Reed, one of the most popular picks to win in the desert, tied for 56th at the CareerBuilder. That snapped a streak of seven consecutive top-10s worldwide.
• Was Spieth made a scapegoat for his slow play in Round 1 in Abu Dhabi? While yes, technically, he violated the new policy, which states that a player must hit his shot in less than 40 seconds if his group is deemed out of position, it's worth noting that only two other players received monitoring penalties last week, according to Golf Channel colleague Rex Hoggard, and neither was in contention. Interesting.
• The quote(s) of the week belonged to Ken Brown of the Golf Channel broadcast team, who riffed after an errant Jordan Spieth drive plunked a spectator on the backside: “Dear, oh dear. That was nearly a plugged lie.”
• With his tie for sixth in Palm Springs, Jamie Lovemark now has three consecutive top-10s. That’s two more than he had in his previous 56 events on Tour.
• World No. 7 Justin Rose makes his 2016 debut this week at Torrey Pines, but keep expectations in check: He doesn't have a top-20 finish in six previous tries there.
• Though he still lacks the week-to-week consistency of the game’s elite, Thomas Pieters has shown some big-game chops and now is inching his way toward serious Ryder Cup consideration. With two wins last fall and a runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi, he is now ranked 58th in the world and would be a more inspired choice than some of the European team's old warhorses.