Monday Scramble: Paddy rolls, Rory stumbles

RSS

So the run-up to the Masters began just the way we expected – with the 297th-ranked player in the world winning for the second week in a row. Or not.

More on Padraig Harrington surviving the Watery Grave Classic, Rory McIlroy stumbling in his first domestic start of the year and Lydia Ko making winning look frighteningly easy in this week’s waterlogged edition of the Monday Scramble:

The old guard’s days are numbered. This we know. But Padraig Harrington went head to head with a kid less than half his age Monday and prevailed. While it’s increasingly rare for the old-timers to stand up to the PGA Tour’s influx of talented youngsters, the 43-year-old's hard-fought playoff victory over 21-year-old Daniel Berger was proof that the geezers can still win – but only if they work harder than ever before. 

Granted, not many can keep pace with Harrington on the range – he promised to hit 10,000 balls after a win last winter – but never before has talent alone been so meaningless. Every player on Tour – every under-30 stud – is talented. That’s plainly obvious. Just look at their athletic builds, their technically sound swings. “The standard keeps going up,” said Harrington, which in turn puts more pressure on the aging warriors to play their absolute best, which oftentimes only makes them play worse. 

The Irishman has been a tormented tinkerer all his life, but after his two-major season in 2008, he spent hours and days and weeks and months digging it out of the dirt, trying to get better. More often than not, it still won’t be enough to win, especially once Father Time intervenes. But every once in a while experience rules in a four-round, five-day slugfest. Imagine how rewarding that must feel.

1. Remember that guy? It’d been 2,396 days since he frantically fist-pumped his way to a third major title, and second in a row. That day you could have lost a lot of money predicting he’d go 118 PGA Tour starts between Ws on a major tour. 

Since his win at the 2008 PGA, Harrington lost his mental edge. He developed the putting yips in 2012, particularly unfortunate, because that season he also enjoyed the best ball-striking year of his career. He lost fully exempt status on Tour. He plummeted as low as No. 371 in the world. 

“In 2008, 2009, I was very much in the penthouse,” he said. “I wasn’t quite down to the doghouse, but not far away from it.”

2. Yet he climbed out of abyss, this time because of a sharper mental approach. Yes, he won in December in Indonesia, but he had become “intolerant” of his mental game. His focus waned. His frustration mounted. He found peace on the range Saturday at Riviera, and after another meeting with Dr. Bob Rotella early last week, he teed it up at the Honda with renewed confidence and a fresh slate. A few days later, he became the season’s best early surprise.   

3. Thankfully, the feel-good story was enough to make us overlook the other, less enviable aspects of his game, such as his pace of play, which is so excruciatingly slow that many wondered whether the Honda might actually finish on Tuesday. Then again, we’ve come to expect this kind of, um, methodical approach from Harrington, a man who warms up by taking a few “Happy Gilmore” swings with a giant rubber band around his knees:

4. Now that Lydia Ko has reached double-digit wins, at an unfathomable age of 17, you can’t help but wonder how high she’ll climb. The teen phenom said recently that she’d like to retire at 30 so she can pursue a career in psychology, but if she’s poised to become one of the all-time greats, well, it’s reasonable to think she’ll put those dreams on hold. Because what we’re witnessing here is a once-in-a-lifetime talent:

  • Her 10 pro wins are as many as Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson – COMBINED. 
  • She’s more than a year faster to 10 pro wins than Jiyai Shin. More than four years faster than Nancy Lopez. More than seven years faster than Annika Sorenstam. 
  • Kathy Whitworth won 88 times on the LPGA circuit, the most all time. Annika finished with 72. Ko already has six on the big tour, so she is well on her way.

So now we wait. We wait to see if she will want something more out of life, like Lorena. To see if she will seek other challenges, like Annika. To see if she will lose her form, like Yani. One thing is for sure: It’ll be fun to watch. 

5. Sometime last year we reached a point of Tiger-Jack fatigue, but last week was a reminder of one of Woods’ records that will never be broken. From 1998 to 2005, he made the cut in a remarkable 142 consecutive events.

Rory McIlroy is only a few months removed from one of the best seasons in recent memory, and he’s playing the best golf of his life, but at the Honda his consecutive cuts-made streak came to an end … at 22. The longest active streak belongs to Adam Scott, with 44. He’d be fortunate to make it through another season without heading home early, let alone another five years. 

6. So consider:

  • In 304 PGA Tour starts as a pro, Woods has a total of 12 missed cuts.
  • In only 88 Tour starts, McIlroy already has 11. And he’s 14 years younger. 

Granted, Woods has six withdrawals since 2010 that would have bumped up his career number, but during his prime his week-in, week-out consistency – and his ability to grind to play the weekend – will endure as one of his most extraordinary attributes.     

7. Rory’s entire game is predicated on how he drives the ball. In wins at the Open, Bridgestone and PGA, he ranked first in driving distance and never was worse than 20th in fairways hit. That combination of power and accuracy bled into the rest of his game, because it led to shorter irons and closer birdie putts, and it’s a big reason why he’s the game’s undisputed No. 1.

Two rounds at the Honda is a small sample size, of course, but there’s a reason why he departed after only two rounds. Not only did he rank 22nd in distance, but he was T-90 in fairways hit (14 of 28). Granted, the Champion Course is a tough driving track, with pinched-in fairways and hazards galore, but it’s clear that McIlroy’s driver – his greatest weapon – didn’t make the 15-minute drive from his home to PGA National. 

8. Automatic qualifiers for the Ryder Cup will be determined after the 2016 Barclays, three of the captain’s picks will be named after the BMW, and the final selection will be made following the Tour Championship. From now on it’ll be known as the Billy Horschel Rule, and it should guarantee that the hottest players are on the U.S. team. It’s a smart decision – a rarity over these past seven months. 

9. To that point: Nothing says the PGA is truly determined to change the culture of losing like creating a six-person committee (which includes Love, Tiger, Phil and three PGA officers) with a combined won-lost record of 38-50-14, including Love’s stints as a captain and assistant.   

10. The PGA is putting a renewed interest in past Ryder Cup experience – even if that experience is negative. Already tabbed as an assistant at Hazeltine is Tom Lehman, who got blown out as a captain in 2006 and was part of the losing effort in 2010. No offense to Lehman, but by requiring that two of the four assistants have experience as a captain, the PGA is potentially robbing the U.S. team of such positive team-room influences as Fred Couples, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, David Toms, Stewart Cink, Chris DiMarco, Mickelson and maybe even Woods, simply because they have not yet been named captain. The belief here is that the more of those guys who are involved, the better. 

11. Here are our favorite scenes from Saturday at PGA National, which at times resembled an aquarium: 

12. So, yes, as you can see, a biblical storm hit PGA National on Saturday. Torrential rain! Frequent lightning! Gale-force winds! It was downright nasty, so naturally everybody shuffled inside the resort at PGA National to seek shelter. Everybody, that is, except the caddies, who aren’t allowed in the clubhouse. That's right: Media members are allowed in the clubhouse, but not the loopers, who are an integral part of the PGA Tour show. Instead, they were forced to wait out the delay in – wait for it – a three-sided METAL structure. 

Indeed, sadly, the caddies have always been viewed by the Tour as second-class citizens, only now there’s a spotlight on the issue with the ongoing lawsuit.

13. Big news last week: New Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model Hannah Davis swung a golf club for the first time. To commemorate this joyous occasion, SI posed this question on Twitter: 

Oh, please. Just stop it. This is embarrassing. Are you really asking that? Are you really going to make us choose? 

Because, obviously, the answer is E.) All of the above.

Little-known (but very loud) pro Dan Olsen created a stir last weekend by accusing Tiger of failing a drug test, being suspended by the PGA Tour and playing a golf ball that hadn’t been tested. As far as foot-in-mouth moments go, he might as well have shoved a size-18 in his trap. Later, when he recanted his previous comments, he told ESPN: “I’ll be looked at as just some fu----- nobody making accusations about Tiger.”

Hey, at least he got that part right!

This week's award winners ...

Most Unrecognizable: Jason Dufner. Skinny Duf recorded his first top 20 of the new year at the Honda, but that doesn't mean we've fully come to grips with his new look.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Rory McIlroy. Seventy-six percent of Golf Channel Fantasy users selected him in Group 1. We all went down together, my friends.

'You're a Genius!' Fantasy Pick of the Week: Paul Casey. Because, duh, of course we fully expected him to post back-to-back top-fives for the first time since the 2010 playoffs …

Ohhh, So You’re NOT Dead Yet: Phil Mickelson. Yes, he was a different player on Monday morning, with four bogeys (and no birdies) in 9 ½ holes to tumble down the leaderboard. But he showed enough glimpses last week that it wouldn’t completely surprise if he were to steal another Masters.

Pro Move: Ian Poulter. After hitting a cold shank on No. 5 Sunday, Poults put his right hand to his visor and squinted straight ahead, into the sun, waiting for his ball to find the green ... riiiight, as if he couldn't feel that ball rocket off the hosel. 

Did you catch the unintentional dig by Phil Mickelson in the Ryder Cup news conference? This year’s six fall events won’t award Ryder Cup points to the winners, because, in Phil’s words, “if you count money for those last three or four months, you’re giving the bottom half of the Tour a three-month head-start over ultimately the top guys.” Bottom half of the Tour. Captain Davis Love, of course, is the official host of the McGladrey Classic in November. ... With news that the WGC-Match Play is headed to Austin, Texas, beginning in 2016, Arnold Palmer's event at Bay Hill will almost surely take a hit. Adding the WGC to an already crowded late-March schedule means there will be two WGCs and a major in a six-week span. Something has to give, and it'll most likely be the strength of the field in Orlando. ... With the Web.com Tour no longer heading to Midland, Texas, only 13 of the 20 regular-season events on the developmental circuit are held in the States. The road to the PGA Tour is not just winding. It is a potentially costly pursuit, too. ... Since earning a trip to outer space, Andy Sullivan has taken his game to another stratosphere. Coincidence? In the 14 starts since the KLM Open last September (when he made that hole-in-one with the cool perk), Sullivan has two wins and five top-fives. In his 76 previous starts, he had only four top-fives.

Poulter, by a wide margin. On two separate occasions during the final round he was staked to at least a two-shot lead. He began the final 18 three shots clear. Then he hit an out-of-nowhere shank on No. 5, the first of five – FIVE! – water balls. He actually did well to shoot 74 and finish T-3, after birdieing the last two holes.

That said, Reed’s collapse was more surprising, at least to this observer. Poulter is many things, but a consistently excellent ball-striker is not one of them. (Just look at his career statistics.) He had played flawless golf for the better part of 3 ½ rounds, and he was bound for a market correction. By contrast, Reed was playing steady and seemed poised to bolster his reputation as a rock-solid closer, especially in a head-to-head, match-play situation. Recent history suggested that he’d rise to the occasion, brush aside Harrington and cruise to the title. Instead, he played the famed Bear Trap in 4 over par when he was tied for the lead, he stumbled to a 73 and he dropped to joint seventh. Shocker.  

See what you’re saying, but don’t forget the first five winners on the PGA Tour this year were ranked inside the top 41 – established players, all of them. With Doral starting this week, and 50 of the world’s best descending on Miami, we should get a better sense of what this year will look like.

We know the game is skewing young – really young. But for the first time we’ll finally have the world’s best players, all in one place. Rory is making only his second Tour start of the year, and Adam Scott is back, and Jason Day and Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose are all at Trump’s Place, too. The PGA Tour season seems like it’s been going on forever, because it has, with 15 (of 43) events already in the books. But the year is really only just beginning.