Monday Scramble: Road to Augusta exits Florida

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A quick story, if you don’t mind:

An elderly man was walking his dog outside the Bay Hill media center on Sunday night. It was about 8:45 p.m.; nearly three hours had passed since Matt Every won the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The TV trucks had packed up and shipped out. The clubhouse parking lot was empty, save for a few cleanup crews. Dressed in a blue blazer, the man shuffled along the dark sidewalk, with a security guard trailing some 30 feet behind. The man nodded politely as he passed a few fans. He thanked them for coming to the tournament. He even gave them a little thumbs-up. Then he tugged gently on his dog's chain, and off they went into the night.

Good night, Arnie. 

Your new favorite for Augusta is … ha! Like we have any idea. Just draw a name out of a hat.

All of the leading options have flaws, reasons to doubt them. For so many years it was Tiger and Phil or the field, and oftentimes the two stars prevailed. Now it’s an imperfect, wide-open Masters. Isn’t it wonderful?

The favorite could be Rory McIlroy … but his wedge game has gone MIA. Could be Henrik Stenson … but he’s one three-putt away from snapping that putter over his knee. Could be Jason Day … but his play has been sleepy since Torrey. Could be Adam Scott … but he’s putting like it’s 2010. Could be Bubba Watson … but he’ll go a month between starts, and in the past few weeks he’s blown a lead at Doral and is dealing with the death of a close friend.

One of the boldfaced names likely will find a way to slip into the green jacket, but the list of potential winners is longer and deeper than in recent memory. With the first pick in the annual Masters pool draft … oh, wait a second. Let's grab that hat.   

The Florida swing being the unofficial Road to the Masters, here are five things we learned during the four pit stops in the Sunshine State:

1. 54-hole leaders can’t slam the door. With his final-round stumble at Bay Hill, Henrik Stenson became the ninth consecutive third-round leader who coughed up the lead on the final day. At least the world No. 2 didn’t completely gag it away on Sunday – he still shot 70, which was an improvement over the past 10 third-round leaders and co-leaders, each of whom failed to break par over their final 18 holes. If this trend continues, we might soon see guys playing hot potato on Saturday afternoon, trying to avoid the top spot. 

2. Rory is frustrated. So much for a leisurely stroll into Augusta. A missed cut at Honda. A tie for ninth at Doral that was more notable for his iron-sling into the pond. And a T-11 at Arnie’s Place after a weekend fade. He’s already going to get badgered about trying to become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam. Now he also has to worry about persistent questions about his form. It’s another distraction, and another reason, why he’s not scribbled atop our list of can't-miss contenders.   

3. Tiger’s woes are deeper than they originally appeared. Last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational was the tournament everyone circled on their calendar for his return. Playing Arnie’s event would have given Woods six weeks to prepare and a few much-needed reps before the Masters – and besides, he could practically play Bay Hill in his sleep, having won there eight times. Yet his decision to skip the API is viewed now as an important benchmark in his stalled comeback. His physical gifts aren’t so much the question as what’s going on between the ears. So fragile mentally, would he dare risk undoing two months of hard work with a potential embarrassment on the sport’s biggest stage? Today, it doesn’t seem likely.  

4. Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed have established the foundation for a long rivalry. And not just against each other, which would be plenty fun, but also teaming up to challenge Rory’s throne. They’ll never put up Tiger’s numbers – in viewership or victories – but their thrilling game of H-O-R-S-E in Tampa proved that these guys can at least move the needle a little bit. The last hour of the Valspar registered a 3.6 overnight rating, which is big for a non-major and non-Tiger event. (Comparison: The NCAA selection show had a 3.9.) During a PGA Tour season that has been rife with parity – the API was the 19th event this season with a 19th different winner – the ascendance of these two under-25 studs is worth applauding.  

5. Dustin Johnson reminded observers that he is one of five players on Tour who are worth the price of admission. His pace of play is refreshing, and so is the simplistic way in which he approaches the game – select club, pick target, shoot. The possibility that you could get sucked into his driver vortex is appealing, too. The other four guys I’d pay to watch play golf:

  • Rory. When he’s on, it’s performance art, an awe-inspiring display of power, finesse and bravado.
  • Bubba. High shots, low shots, hook shots, slice shots, shots with raw power, shots with deft touch. The beauty is that even Watson doesn’t know what he’ll do next. 
  • Adam. Can your swing improve simply through osmosis? Here’s hoping. And the gallery-watching isn't bad, either.
  • Tiger. We used to watch because it was history in the making. Now, we watch because we don’t know how much longer he’ll be around, and because you’re bound to get up close, with all of his foul balls. 

6. Watching Henrik Stenson pulverize his way around a golf course, it’s a wonder that he doesn’t win multiple big-time events each year. The ball just sounds different coming off his club – clean, crisp, compressed. But seeing how The Stense handled the closing hour at Bay Hill provided an illuminating answer into why he has won *only* four times on Tour. Stenson became frazzled when a rules official told his group that it was out of position and on the clock for a second time. Without the “extra five seconds” he apparently needed to go through his usual (lengthy) routine, Stenson took six putts total on Nos. 15 and 16 and cost himself a shot at his first Tour title since the 2013 Tour Championship.

It was a weak excuse – especially when the Tour hasn’t doled out a slow-play penalty in eons. Needless to say, they weren’t going to break that streak at Arnie’s event.  

7. To his credit, though, Stenson has made massive strides with his putting over the past few years. It was the biggest weakness in his game and he’s put in the time and effort to improve. Through the API he is ranked second on Tour in strokes gained; last year he was 135th.  

Stenson was ranked second in the field in strokes gained-putting through three rounds at Bay Hill, with nine made putts over 10 feet and only three misses inside that range. The final round was a different story. He was dead last in the field in strokes gained. No makes over 10 feet. Six misses inside that range. That was the difference between winning and losing – not some pushy rules official. 

8. For the next two weeks, you can bet that Rory will place the greatest emphasis on his wedge play. At Bay Hill, the world No. 1 hit 75 percent of the greens, but he didn’t give himself enough good looks for birdie. His length and right-to-left ball flight give him a tremendous advantage at Augusta, which is why he needs to capitalize on the shots from 150 yards and in.

Last year he was 58th or better on Tour in proximity to the hole from 75-100 yards, 100-125 yards and 125-150 yards. That’s a sharp contrast to the numbers he posted in 2013, when he was outside the top 125 in all three ranges. His Masters success will hinge on how well he can dial in his wedges. 

9. The headline last week was that Bubba Watson’s pre-Masters preparation was turned upside down when he withdrew from Bay Hill because of the unexpected death of a childhood friend. Turns out David Miller was more than that. Miller and Watson played at Georgia at the same time, and they remained close over the years – so close that during the Bulldogs’ annual alumni tournament, they frequently played together. Last year, they won. So close, that Watson skipped Arnold Palmer’s event to serve as a pallbearer at Miller’s funeral. His friend was 36 years old, a father of two young kids. Even more heartbreaking was what Watson posted on Instagram on Friday – that Miller had been baptized just three days before his death. 

10. In addition to the soon-to-be-ripped-up greens at Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer also mentioned before last week’s tournament that he hoped to make a few changes to 16, the easily reachable 511-yard par 5. “That’s really the weak part of the golf course right now,” said Palmer, but your correspondent couldn’t disagree more. It’s one of the best holes on an otherwise nondescript Florida swing course. 

Who cares that it played to a 4.23 average for the week, yielding 223 birdies, 31 eagles and an albatross? You don't hear complaints that the first hole at Riviera is too easy. The overall winning score is what matters, not the total under par. Bay Hill's 16th played a pivotal role in the tournament, whether it was Rory’s forehead-slapping bogey there on Saturday or Stenson’s three-jack from the back of the green on Sunday. It’s a fun departure from the gut-check closing stretch. Tricking up the green will only make the hole less dramatic. 

11. That drive that sailed past the out-of-bounds fence left of 18 Sunday? Turns out it cost Morgan Hoffmann 63 large – the difference between a tie for third ($365,400) and solo fourth ($302,400). The 25-year-old impressed with his start in the final round, going 5 under through eight holes, but playing his last 10 in 4 over cost him some serious cash. That private plane isn’t going to fly itself, you know … 

12. If you missed the surprising backstory of Matt Every's Bay Hill defense, you can find it here.

13. If desperate times call for desperate measures, then maybe Scott really should consider going back to the broomstick for the upcoming Masters. Some shocking stats were unearthed by the Golf Channel research team:

  • Last week alone, Scott had five misses inside 5 feet, 11 misses inside 10 feet and he lost more than four shots (4.1) to the field on the greens.
  • That follows his previous four rounds with the conventional putter, when he lost – gulp – 7.8 strokes.

Augusta’s greens can make even a good putter look average. Imagine how they could expose a player who is struggling with both his stroke and his confidence.  

14. Bashing a golf ball puts an incredible strain on the body. Even more so when your name is Brooks Koepka and you own a 121-mph golf swing. He dislocated a rib at Bay Hill, had it pushed back in twice during his third round and was in such discomfort Sunday that he didn’t even take full practice swings. Grimacing after every shot, he withdrew after 11 holes in the final round, his first WD at any level. “It really pisses me off, to be honest with you,” he said in the parking lot. A winner earlier this year in Phoenix, Koepka is scheduled to play the Houston Open in two weeks. It’d be a shame if he tried to tough out this injury but in the process only damaged his Masters hopes. 

15. So, how was YOUR Florida swing? Not as good as Daniel Berger’s. The 21-year-old rookie lost in a playoff at the Honda – a defeat with a $658,800 consolation prize – and hit for the par-5 cycle at Bay Hill, recording a 2-3-4-5 during a third-round (sigh) 68. It was the first time that feat had ever been accomplished on the PGA Tour, yet it didn’t even crack the top 3 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 list.

Cue Berger: 

Good point, but it got us thinking: Was it the wildest stretch ever in a tournament? Nah. The nod here still goes to Karen Stupples, who began the final round of the 2004 Women’s British Open with an eagle and an albatross. It propelled her to a closing 64 and her first (and only) major win.

To say it's wet in Madeira would be an understatement.

The European Tour’s Madeira Islands Open was mercifully canceled Sunday, after four days of 50-mph winds and heavy downpours. It was just as well – it had the worst field on any major tour this year. Only ONE top-200 player was entered in the tournament – SSP Chowrasia, who checks in at No. 174. The next best was Bradley Dredge, at No. 255. The only two guys in the top 340. There were more than 30 – THIRTY! – with the lowest possible ranking of 1,548. So much for the circuit’s triumphant return to Europe. 

And before we go ...

What a missed opportunity for Harris English. At No. 52 in the world, he likely needed a top-5 finish at Bay Hill to move safely inside the top 50 and secure a spot to the Masters. Instead, he shot rounds of 72-75 on the weekend, dropped to T-29 and actually fell a spot in the rankings, to No. 53. He’s entered in this week’s Texas Open. If he doesn’t make a move at TPC San Antonio – where he doesn’t own a top-60 finish in two previous tries – then it’ll be win-or-bust in Houston. … Happy Thanksgiving! The 2016 Olympic course will host a test event Nov. 26-29 in Rio. ... Tiger Woods is now the 96th-ranked golfer in the world. If he even plays the Masters, it'll be the first time in his pro career that he entered a major outside the top 100. ... Lydia Ko shot 66-69-69-69 at the LPGA's Founders Cup and finished T-6. Washed up. ... Our NCAA bracket is all shades of busted. If you’re a die-hard college fan, go ahead and pencil in Texas as a No. 1 seed in your, um, NCAA Golf Tournament bracket. Last weekend the Longhorns won their third event in a row, and fourth overall. ... Um, was that a cyst taken out of Azahara Munoz’s left hand, or a meatball? ... McIlroy joked that Arnie “made” him eat a banana split during their two-and-a-half-hour dinner Thursday night. Not so, says Palmer: "He went into it like it was the last supper." ... You Know Who’s car in the parking lot, in the most visible spot. Subtle. 

Right now, my gut says no, but I’ve flipped on this over the past week. When he didn’t commit to Bay Hill, I thought the fact that Woods waited until virtually the last minute was encouraging, a sign that he was close but not quite ready. Now, it feels like it could be a while before we see Tiger back in competition. With issues that are more mental than physical, Augusta might literally be the last place on the planet that he’d want to return. The risk of embarrassment – and a psychological relapse – is too great.

The two burning questions, it seems, from the past week:

  1. That’s the ninth week in a row that the 54-hole leader didn’t win. For so many years Tiger tricked us into thinking that winning is straightforward, almost easy. Even the best closers in baseball cough up a lead every once in a while, but this recent oh-fer is startling. The pursuers don’t sleep on the lead, don’t have the expectations to perform, don’t have the internal here-we-go-again drama when a bad break or shot happens early in the round. That's about the only explanation we have.
  2. Of course it’s an albatross. It’s a 3-under score. An eagle is 2 under. Double that, and it’s 4 under par. A “double eagle” is a strictly American invention, and it’s one that makes absolutely no sense.