Monday Scramble: Golf's future is now

RSS

Jordan Spieth exacts his Wyndham revenge, the 54-hole leader bungles another opportunity and Tiger Woods remains MIA for another big tournament.

All that and more in a Monday Scramble that is sheer and utter madness: 

It’s only March, and already this year our sport has been dominated by talk of police reports and task forces, lawsuits and suspensions, indefinite leaves and deactivated glutes. Those topics are a drama queen’s dream – and, yes, pageview boosters – but it’s a shame that it has potentially overshadowed some exquisite play on Tour.

For the better part of three months we have been witness to nonstop, highlight-reel performances: From Patrick Reed’s rally at Kapalua, to Jason Day’s hard-fought title at Torrey, to Brandt Snedeker's near-flawless run at Pebble, to Dustin Johnson’s power display at Doral, some of the best players in the world have produced some of their best golf at crunch time. Looking back, though, do you remember those moments? Or do you most easily recall the stories of Robert Allenby having a night out that he can’t remember, and Reed being accused of cheating during qualifying rounds in college, and a little-known journeyman pro blabbing that Tiger flunked a drug test?

Alas, it’s probably the latter, which is why the star-making performance of Jordan Spieth on Sunday was such a welcome reprieve, a much-needed bump for a sport that has seen more than its share of unflattering headlines of late. The Valspar was the tournament of the year so far, played on arguably the most underrated track on Tour. What a delight.

Viewership is down overall, and that’s to be expected in a post-Tiger world, but you could make the case that the golf has never been stronger. Hopefully, that's what is remembered at the end of the year.

1. Golf crosses the mainstream when a dominant, transcendent, once-in-a-generation superstar leads the way, a charismatic player who can draw in even the most casual viewer. No current player, not even Rory McIlroy, has the ability to lift the game to Tiger-like heights, and that’s OK. Just as appealing is a compelling rivalry, especially with the Tiger-vs.-Phil subplot all but gone. Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed have established the foundation for a long-lasting rivalry, for they are the cornerstones of American golf for the next decade. They are the rare athletes who care more about trophies than cash, even though they are piling up both at a staggering rate. 

With his second PGA Tour title, Spieth now joins an exclusive list of men who won multiple times before the age of 22, but instead of forecasting what this might mean for the Masters, or for his season, or for his career, simply bask in the current golf climate: A youth movement that is not just arriving, but here, with eight of the top 20 in the world age 27 or younger, and a budding rivalry, Spieth vs. Reed, with two guys trying to climb over each other to reach Rory’s throne. We can all get excited about that. 

2. As mentioned above, prior to Sunday, there were only three players since 1940 who had multiple PGA Tour wins before the age of 22:

  • Tiger Woods (6)
  • Sergio Garcia (3)
  • And, OF COURSE, Robert Gamez (2)

A reminder: Jordan Spieth doesn’t turn 22 until July 27. 

3. Since Spieth joined the Tour in 2013, he has been inside the top five nine times heading into the final round. (Only Matt Kuchar, with 12, has more.) Spieth hadn’t converted any of those previous nine opportunities into a victory, which prompted a predictable chorus of he-can’t-close! comments. His play down the stretch at Innisbrook should silence those skeptics: The bold tee shot on 13; the bomb for birdie on 14; the gutsy sand save on 16; the world-class flop shot from right of the green on 17; the cold-blooded 12-foot par putt on 18; and the 30-foot walk-off on the third extra hole. Dude is a gamer.

4. Ryan Moore led by three shots with six holes to play. Following a recent trend, that still wasn’t enough. 

The 54-hole leader or co-leaders have failed to win the last eight events on the PGA Tour. What’s worse, the last TEN leaders or co-leaders have failed to break par on the final day. Add Moore’s name to that list. Pumping his grip with Sergio-like frequency, Moore closed with a 1-over 72 Sunday that included bogeys on three of his last six holes, including two of the last three. This has become something of a habit for Moore, who has now played his last three final rounds 9 over par. Oy. 

5. Patrick Reed must thrive on chaos. How else to explain it? After deciding to reopen old wounds by challenging publicized allegations that he cheated and stole from teammates in college, Reed got better every day in Tampa before closing with 66, including the macho 30-footer on 18 in regulation. All of the turmoil and doubt and whispers only make him better, apparently as they also did at Augusta State, where despite a contentious relationship with his teammates he helped lead the squad to back-to-back NCAA titles. Can you imagine playing elite-level golf with all of this mess swirling around? Reed can. He looks like he embraces it.    

6. With apologies to James Hahn and Padraig Harrington, Sean O’Hair nearly became the most unlikely winner of the past … well … month. Still only 32 (!), the former junior prodigy has fallen on hard times, losing his game, his relationship with his overbearing father and his playing privileges on the PGA Tour. He played Tampa on a sponsor exemption, a reminder of his win there in 2008. Instead of playing tentatively – or what you’d expect from a father of four who needed the big check and who hadn’t been in this position in years – he came home in 31, played the second playoff hole flawlessly and nearly stole the title against two players ranked inside the top 15 in the world. His story offers hope for any golfer who has reached the abyss. 

7. Interesting that Woods waited until about 150 minutes before the 5 p.m. Friday deadline to announce that he’s not ready to play this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. It’s the biggest news yet in an indefinite break that is now entering its sixth week, and the no-go can be viewed two ways:

  • a.) Tiger is so lost that he doesn’t think he can contend at a place where he’s won eight times and enjoys a vast amount of institutional knowledge even after five weeks of work
  • b.) Woods waiting so long is a promising sign, an indication that he was seriously considering playing and decided that he just wasn’t ready at the moment

OK, or maybe he simply enjoys prolonging the drama.

8. The belief here is that the truth is closest to option B. That’s why, as I wrote in this space Feb. 23, Tiger should seriously consider adding the Houston Open, if he’s ready. It makes a lot of sense: 1.) The Golf Club of Houston is set up to simulate the conditions players will face the following week at Augusta National; 2.) If he happens to play well, he could carry that momentum into the next week's major; and 3.) He might already be in the area, with a media preview for his first U.S. golf-course design, Bluejack National, set for Wednesday of SHO tournament week. The invitation did not indicate whether Woods would appear, and the Houston Open tournament director told GolfChannel.com that he has not had any communication with Woods’ camp as of March 13, but the scheduling is intriguing nonetheless.

9. Notah Begay III, who knows Woods better than just about anyone on the planet, said that the former world No. 1 was “improving” but that he just wasn’t 100 percent yet. And therein lies the rub: By taking an indefinite break and declaring that he won’t return until his game is up to his standards, Woods has backed himself into a corner. What happens if he puts in all this time and energy, fully believes that he’s ready to win and makes a triumphant return … and then still chops it up? At that point, you can’t help but wonder: Is it over? 

10. Because think about it: Most players in Woods’ predicament would prefer to play their way back into tournament shape – and they could, because they wouldn’t have to deal with the intense media scrutiny and spotlight. Alas, Woods hasn’t been able to play with any semblance of anonymity since he was a middle-schooler, which is what makes his potential return even more problematic. If he tries to play his way back into tournament shape in front of the entire sports world, and then struggles, it’ll only lead to more doubt and pressure and tension. Rarely in sports is there a 39-year-old comeback story. 

11. Adam Scott’s switch to the conventional putter was deemed a rousing success after two rounds at Doral; he’d shot rounds of 70-68 and was squarely in the hunt at the World Golf Championships event. Even better, he’d missed only twice inside 10 feet and seemed to vanquish questions about whether he’d still be competitive without the broomhandle putter. 

Yet his putter held him back over the weekend at Trump’s Place, and then it was even more uncooperative in Tampa, the biggest reason why he snapped a streak of 45 consecutive cuts made. Since that auspicious start in Miami, Scott has missed 17 times inside 10 feet and is only five of 13 from the 4-to-8-foot range. Over his last four rounds, he has lost an eye-opening 7.9 strokes to the field on the greens.

12. There’s been some chatter that Scott should go back to his old putter, at least through the Masters, but it’s not like he was lighting it up from that range with the long wand, either; from 2011-13, he was outside the top 100 on Tour from inside 10 feet. With the Jan. 1 ban looming, he has no other alternatives. He needs to remain committed to one method and hope that his exemplary ball-striking masks whatever weaknesses exist.  

Normally, this section is reserved for John Daly’s various on-course exploits, but his riff on the not-so-random PGA Tour drug-testing policy struck a chord. Long John called testing a “big joke” and “bulls---”, and publicly challenged PGA Tour chief of operations Andy Pazder and commissioner Tim Finchem to “get off your a-- and get it right,” which will undoubtedly lead to another fine in a career full of them.

Not surprisingly, word of Daly’s remarks spread quickly last week. A few players, including former colleague Steve Flesch, shared personal tales of how they’d get tested after the same event every year or after returning from injury – which doesn’t exactly sound random. Of Daly’s many rants over the years, this one actually seemed spot-on. 

This week's award winners ... 

Woah! Out of Nowhere: Derek Ernst. Despite a Sunday 75 he still managed to record only the second top-25 of his career. (The first was his stunning win two years ago in Charlotte.) He entered last week without a top-50 finish this season and a putting rank that was outside the top 200. Let's face it: Even his loved ones were surprised by this.

Blown Fantasy Pick(s) of the Week: Man, just about everyone! Adam Scott. Jim Furyk. Luke Donald. MC, T-40 and T-53, respectively. Bummer. 

Oh, What Could Have Been … : The University of Texas. The Longhorns have a very good men's golf team. They're ranked fourth nationally, but they’re probably the second-best team in the country, if not the outright No. 1. And it's crazy to think they could be even stronger: That Spieth fella would be a senior this year. 

Home-Country Advantage: South Africans. Apparently there’s no place like home? Of the last 19 European Tour events played in South Africa, 13 have been won by the South Africans, including the most recent champion, George Coetzee at the Tshwane Open. 

Most Unlikely Friends: NBA player J.R. Smith and Bubba Watson. Seriously. Check it out. (And another.)

Mr. Point-Misser: Ian Poulter. As Spieth crossed the $10 million mark in career earnings, and matched Poulter's number of career PGA Tour victories, one of the most abrasive personalities in all of sports tweeted this: 

Gee, can't imagine why he was heckled by fans in Tampa.

Until I change my mind tomorrow, take these to the bank: 

1. Bubba Watson

2. Jason Day

3. Rory McIlroy

4. Jordan Spieth

5. Adam Scott

6. Patrick Reed

7. Jimmy Walker

8. Dustin Johnson

9. Henrik Stenson

10. Matt Kuchar