Monday Scramble: Major competition at Erin Hills

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U.S. Open week arrives, Phil Mickelson keeps an eye on the forecast, amateur Braden Thornberry shines in his PGA Tour debut, Ariya Jutanugarn makes a statement and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

It’s an important week for the USGA. The blue blazers need to get this U.S. Open right, after they had a few setup issues at Merion, after they destroyed the greens at Chambers Bay and after they interfered during Dustin Johnson’s final-round comeback at Oakmont.

Adam Scott has put the USGA on notice, and players on social media have already made reference to Erin Hills’ "unique" design, with severe slopes that will turn what should be 20-foot putts into 40-yard pitch shots, and the fact that there is knee-high fescue just five yards off each fairway.

“Why can’t we have a lot of the past U.S. Open winners get together and set up a major?” Kevin Na said Sunday. “I’d like to see that happen one day.”

Let's be clear: Regardless of what happens this week in Wisconsin, players will continue to show up for the year’s second major. But the past few years have significantly damaged the USGA’s credibility, and if this year isn’t any better, there’s a chance the players’ tone will only get more pointed. 


1. Why mess with what works?

Just like last year, Daniel Berger stayed in Room 44 at the Hyatt Place in Germantown but thought there was little chance that he’d be able to defend his title at the FedEx St. Jude Classic – especially after he cracked the face of his driver earlier in the week.

Then he shot back-to-back 66s on the weekend to win for the second time on Tour.

2. It’s been a mediocre year for Boog, who had only two top-10s in 12 starts. With this victory, however, he moved to No. 10 in the season-long standings, making him a virtual lock for the Tour Championship and freeing him up for the rest of the year. He also jumped to No. 5 in the Presidents Cup standings. 

“It means I can go out there and have a little more fun,” he said. “It’s been a battle.” 

3. At one point Sunday, it seemed as though half of the city’s population was tied for the lead. Absent among that massive group: The three 54-hole leaders.

Rafa Cabrera Bello, Stewart Cink and Ben Crane were a combined 7 over par in the final round on a day when the rest of the field averaged 70.6.  



4. Mickelson made two doubles and a triple bogey last week and still finished the week only three shots back. It added up to a ninth-place showing, his fifth consecutive top-11 finish at TPC Southwind.

On Sunday, Mickelson was cruising along, 4 under through 11 holes and tied for the lead, when he sent his tee shot on the par-4 12th hole miles right, out of bounds. Compounding the error, he rinsed his fourth shot and made a 10-footer for triple.

5. The 42-time Tour winner admitted that a leaderboard behind 11 green that showed he was tied for the lead “shook” him.

“It was as if I had never won before, as if I was a rookie,” he said. “I was not as mentally focused as I needed to be.”

And that right there explains why Mickelson, who has played some of the best golf in the world over the past 12 months, is still looking for his first title since July 2013.

“The physical game is as good as it’s been when I’ve won a bunch of tournaments,” he said. “But mentally I’m not as sharp. I’ve made some mistakes.”

6. Common sense eventually prevailed, and Mickelson said on the CBS telecast Sunday that he needs a four-hour delay Thursday in order to attend both his daughter's high school graduation and the first round of the U.S. Open.

Graduation begins at noon CT. His first-round tee time is 2:20 p.m. It’s a 3-hour, 20-minute trip. The numbers don’t add up, and, poor Phil, the forecast for Thursday is projected to be the best of the week: 87 and mostly sunny.

It might be for the best, anyway. Mickelson would arrive on the first tee without having seen the course and would be relying on caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay for every shot. 

“It’s not looking good,” he said, “and that’s totally fine.” 



7. If there was any doubt whether Braden Thornberry and his funky swing could translate to the pro game, his performance in Memphis answered that.

The rising junior at Ole Miss improved every round, going 71-69-67 and capping his week with a bogey-free 65 that briefly gave him a share of the clubhouse lead. He tied for fourth, which matched Justin Rose (1998) and Lee McCoy (2016) for the best finish by an amateur in a non-opposite-field event in the past 20 years.

“Amateur or pro, the ball doesn’t know,” Thornberry said, “so that was my philosophy coming in: just play as good as I could and see what happens.” 

8. Thornberry’s auspicious debut on the big tour was a reminder of the Tour’s shortsighted policy regarding amateurs.

Obviously, the 20-year-old could not receive prize money, so he forfeited $241,280 in earnings. But as an amateur, he also does not get into the next available field (next week’s Travelers) even with a top-10 finish, nor is he able to collect any non-member FedExCup points. That’s important, because he’d be able to stockpile those points and qualify for the season-ending Web.com Tour Finals.

The Tour's main purpose is to provide playing opportunities for its members, but this a rule that needs to be changed ASAP. Thornberry (and the others before him) have earned the chance to keep playing.

9. When will Thornberry turn pro? That's the question that many already are asking. He is exempt into The Greenbrier, by virtue of the Haskins Award, and he should get more looks from tournament directors this summer.

With nothing left to accomplish in college, there has been talk that he will join the play-for-pay ranks after the Walker Cup in September. 



10. Here are one man’s 10 favorites for this week’s U.S. Open:

1. Dustin Johnson: A course that rewards length and strong wedge play plays right into DJ’s strengths.

2. Rickie Fowler: Hasn’t played this major well in the past, but his game is better across the board than it’s ever been.  

3. Jon Rahm: Has a great game for the year’s second major – prolific driver, tidy short game, loves to grind.  

4. Jason Day: Been just a touch off all year, but his Open record is too good to ignore – five top-10s in six career starts.  

5. Jordan Spieth: Last week should have given him time to work on his putting, and if he can stay away from the big number, he should be in the mix for another Open title.

6. Sergio Garcia: Decent finishes since the Masters, but with three majors to go, he seems determined to build on that breakthrough and make it an epic year.

7. Justin Rose: One of the game’s best ball-strikers is surprisingly hit-or-miss at the Open (six made cuts, five missed), but when he plays the weekend he’s almost always in contention.

8. Thomas Pieters: Big, brawny player already has a top-5 this year at the Masters. The Illinois product should be comfortable up north, too.

9. Adam Scott: Four top-20s in his last five Open starts. Whether he can contend will come down to his shaky putter.  

10. Rory McIlroy: Gotta include him, because he's Rory, but he has played just two tournaments in the past 80 days, he's breaking in new clubs, a new ball and a new putter, and he hasn't had any range sessions because of his lingering rib injury. 



11. It could be another eventful major week for DJ.

He didn’t play the Masters after injuring his lower back when he slipped on a set of stairs.

This time, it’s the arrival of his second child – Paulina Gretzky was due to give birth to a baby boy on Monday. Johnson likely won't arrive at Erin Hills until Tuesday, at the earliest, but he already logged two rounds last week. 

12. Having covered the 2011 U.S. Amateur – found my Golfweek gamer in the archives here – your trusty correspondent probably has more experience at Erin Hills than most. Six years removed, here’s what I can tell you: I don’t remember much, other than the prevalence of mosquitos. The course itself was unmemorable. I even played it the day after, too.

Kelly Kraft won that Am. He stunned Patrick Cantlay, who in the summer of 2011 was the best amateur in the world. Alas, they both failed to qualify for this year’s Open.

In all, 18 players from that Am will be at Erin Hills, a group that includes Spieth, who reached the quarterfinals, and Justin Thomas, who lost in the Round of 32.  

13. It will be the rare U.S. Open that has the potential for fireworks, not implosions.

Why?

For starters, it’s a par 72, the first at an Open since 1992. The fairways are huge, by U.S. Open standards. And over the last five holes, there are two par 5s (14 and 18), a drivable par 4 (15), a par 3 that can be set up with a blind tee shot (16), and a beefy, 500-yard-plus par 4 (17).  



14. There was no need for the LPGA to issue a clarification this week: Jutanugarn is the clear No. 1 player in the world.

A week after she was supposed to move to the top spot before a projections error, the 21-year-old left little doubt with a playoff victory at the Manulife LPGA Classic. She buried a 25-footer on the first extra hole to beat Lexi Thompson and In Gee Chun (both of whom are in the top 5 in the world ranking) for her first victory after last season's five-win, Player of the Year campaign.

15. Even Jutanugarn admitted that it was a shocker to hoist the trophy, for two reasons:

At the beginning of the week, she was “scared” to hit her tee shot, a problem that has surfaced in the past and is a big reason why she doesn’t use a driver. “I feel a lot better now,” she said.

And then there was Thompson, who had a one-shot lead entering the final round and at one point on Sunday ballooned her advantage to four shots. Then she made four bogeys in her last seven holes, including short misses on the last three holes (and a 4-footer to win!), and chunked her approach after a 340-yard drive on the first playoff hole. 

16. Golf will get at least two more opportunities to show that it belongs as part of the Olympic schedule.

The IOC executive board’s decision means golf will be in the Olympics through at least the 2024 Games. (It was already guaranteed for 2020.) That’s good news, after all of the handwringing last summer over who would or wouldn’t make the trip to Rio. Big-name winners (Justin Rose and Inbee Park) undoubtedly helped confirm the sport’s participation, even if some stars opined that it had no business being part of the Olympics. It would have been interesting to see if this vote would have been different if, say, Marcus Fraser and Harukyo Nomura had gone on to win the gold medal in a dull final round ... 


Paul Azinger, who will appear on Fox’s U.S. Open coverage, got into the gossip game when he was asked about Tiger Woods on the Open pairings show. He said that pain medications have been a long-term “problem” for Woods.

“I know firsthand there are some players that think there’s a problem there with Tiger,” he said. “I haven’t been around him much the last few years. But there are some players out there that are saying this has been a problem for a while.”

Even if that’s true, it was wildly irresponsible for Zinger to pass along those secondhand comments.   

This week's award winners ...


Common Sense: USGA allowing alternates to play U.S. Open practice rounds. While good in theory – you don’t need any more congestion with a 156-player field – anyone who has attended an Open knows that the course is virtually empty on Monday, Tuesday and especially Wednesday afternoons, thus providing these alternates a chance to get in their hacks. 

Bound for the PGA Tour: Stephan Jaeger. He won his second Web.com event on Sunday, which secured his card for next season. Now it’s just a matter of whether, like Wesley Bryan a year ago, he can win title No. 3 and earn an instant promotion to the big tour before the season is over. 

When You Don’t Tee it Up Properly: Charl Schwartzel. Flipping off a divot, when you have the option to place your ball anywhere you like, is a new level of weird.

No Open Hangover: Travelers Championship. The Hartford-area stop will have its strongest field in years, with Spieth, McIlroy and Day all scheduled to tee it up, thanks to the Tour’s new strength-of-schedule rule. 

He is Human, After All: Bernhard Langer. Trying to become the first player in seven years to win three consecutive starts on the senior circuit, Langer coughed up a first-round lead and eventually finished fourth. 



Not Just a Good College Team: 2012 Texas. The team that won the NCAAs at Riviera has now produced 16 individual pro titles. That number is skewed by Spieth, of course, but Cody Gribble has won on Tour and now Dylan Frittelli, the player who clinched the national title, captured his first event on the European circuit.

Get Your Paper Up: All but 16 professional athletes. Tiger Woods ($37.1 million) landed at No. 17 on Forbes’ list of the highest-paid athletes … ahead of guys like Neymar and Usain Bolt and Conor McGregor and Clayton Kershaw … despite playing no official events in 2017 and being irrelevant on the course for the past couple of years. 

Not As Fun As They Used to Be: U.S. Open pairings. Unveiling the groupings on Skip Bayless’ show was just the latest insult to golf fans. With only a few marquee groups and little creativity, it’s clear these just haven’t been the same since the blue blazers got called out for the “fat guys” group in 2014.  

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Fowler. The Tour’s leader in strokes gained-total, coming off a tie for second at the Memorial, Rickie shot 74-70 to miss the cut. On the plus side, he was able to get in some extra prep at Erin Hills, where he should be a factor.