Monday Scramble: Day pulls away from McIlroy, Spieth


Jason Day's dominance continues, Jordan Spieth returns, Kevin Chappell crashes the Ryder Cup party, TPC Sawgrass' setup goes over the edge and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Is it too early to bury the Big 3 narrative?

With his seventh win since late July, Day now has five more victories over that span than any other player. He is separating himself. More than that, his cakewalk victory at The Players Championship highlighted his advantages over his top rivals.

The best driver in the game, Day overpowers courses and now has overwhelmed Jordan Spieth in each of their past two head-to-head duels on big stages; in two rounds at Sawgrass, Day outscored him by 14 shots. And Day has a massive edge over Rory McIlroy in the short-game department. Whereas McIlroy repeatedly missed opportunities to salvage a round with his chipping and putting, Day led the field in scrambling and bounced back from mistakes with momentum-saving birdies. 

For years, McIlroy was thought to possess the most firepower of any player because of his eight-shot romps in the majors, and that may be true. But if he doesn’t access his potential on a consistent basis, like Day, then it’s simply a tease. 

Day's potential, meanwhile, seems limitless, as he's shown an ability to win on different courses and is playing with a ton of confidence. How much higher he ascends is simply a matter of health and motivation, and neither poses much of a threat right now. 

1. An accomplishment this impressive begs for the proper context.

Day’s eight titles over the past three seasons are more than any other player. He has three wire-to-wire wins since last fall. He is the undisputed best player on the planet, and the gap between Nos. 1 and 2 in the world ranking is so large that Spieth could sweep both Texas events and still not reclaim the top spot. 

Since last July, Day has won at a 41-percent clip (7 of 17).

“That’s Tiger-esque,” Adam Scott said.

Yes, Day’s dominance feels underappreciated, especially in this age of parity and depth. But keep this in mind, too: Woods had seven SEASONS of at least a 30-percent win rate, and in 2006 he won seven tournaments in a row

2. Most revealing about the state of Day’s game right now is that he joined Woods, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson as the only players since 1970 to go wire-to-wire twice in a season. This was Day’s third wire-to-wire victory since last September (a stat that doesn't include his Match Play title, where he played the 18th hole only once in seven matches).

Why is it so impressive? Because not only did Day race out to an early lead, but he also kept his foot down, withstood challenges from his pursuers, slept on the lead each night and overcame his own stumbles to win each time. That’s the sign of a player who is strong from tee to green, supremely confident and comfortable in what is a most uncomfortable position.  

3. After beginning his career 1-for-7 with a 54-hole lead, Day has now converted his last five opportunities. And there was little doubt about this one: He didn't record a bogey on the back nine all week.

4. TPC Sawgrass wasn’t a great fit for Day’s game – it rewards accuracy, not power, and the Australian said earlier in the week that he’s never felt comfortable there because it takes driver out of his hands on several holes. (Which is why he had only one top-10 in five previous trips.)

And yet Day adapted his brawny game, dialing back when he needed to, going full throttle when the situation presented itself. In the end, he was tops in driving distance and ranked inside the top 10 in putting, scrambling and sand saves.

“He’s a freak of nature,” Chappell said. “Not only does he hit it farther than everyone, but he also has the best short game.” 

5. His nuclear 2-iron helped tremendously, but no shot last week was bigger than Day's 6-foot bogey putt on No. 9 Sunday, after three flubbed chip shots out of the tricky Bermuda rough. 

“If I walk away with a double bogey there," Day said, "I let everyone in the field back in, and that gives them a boost of energy, a boost of momentum their way to really say, ‘Oh, OK. We’re back in this tournament now. He’s not playing well, and obviously he’s thinking about trying to win.’”

Instead, well, Spieth said it best:  

6. Even last Tuesday, two days before the event began, Day said one of his primary motivations for winning The Players was that it could someday push him into the Hall of Fame. 

Talk about a long-term plan: He still has 22 more years until induction.

All three of the game’s big stars – Day, Spieth and McIlroy – are destined for enshrinement, but it was Day who singled out The Players as the one he wanted to win because of the Hall connection. The current criteria calls for least 15 wins on the major tours and/or two victories at the four majors and The Players. Day can now check that box, after his win last summer at the PGA. 

“I’m hoping that this doesn’t just get me over into the Hall of Fame,” Day said. “I’m hoping that I kind of smash that out of the water and I don’t really need to think about it, and once I’m on the ballet, I hope I have the majority and am able to get into it.”

7. On paper, it looked like another solid week for McIlroy – his fourth consecutive top-15 finish at TPC Sawgrass. 

In reality, it was another week of close, but not close enough for one of the game’s stars.

Despite long-game statistics that were off the charts, McIlroy’s wedge game was a mess and his putting again left him too far behind to seriously contend. He missed a whopping 16 times inside 10 feet. Over the last two rounds, he lost nearly four and a half shots to the field on the greens. For the week, he ranked 68th of the 76 players who made the cut.

“Everything is just not clicking,” he said, “and hopefully as the summer approaches, everything can start to click and I can go on a run, because I really don’t feel like it’s too far away.”  

8. Spieth missed the cut at The Players in his first start since the Masters, not that there was any connection.

At Augusta, it was Spieth’s magical short game and putter that covered up four days of shaky ball-striking. He didn’t put as much emphasis on that part of his game over the past four weeks, and it showed, especially on a Pete Dye course where players were going to miss a lot of greens and face difficult putts.

Ranked 123rd in putting Thursday and 92nd in the second round, it was Spieth’s worst performance on the greens all year – and it couldn’t have been timed worse, coming off his Masters collapse and playing alongside the world No. 1, who was holing just about everything.

“It’s tough when you’re getting shellacked by 15 shots in the same group,” Spieth said. “When someone is birdieing almost every single hole, every other hole, you start to wonder why in the world you aren’t making any of them.”

This was just an off-week on the greens, nothing more. A home game this week in Dallas might be just what he needs.

9. Spieth wasn’t the only big name to miss the cut. Defending champion Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed were among the players who headed home early. What do they all have in common? They’re expected to be on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Hopefuls Brandt Snedeker, Charley Hoffman, Kevin Kisner, Chris Kirk, Jimmy Walker, J.B. Holmes, Smylie Kaufman and Tony Finau all missed the cut, too.

10. Golf’s richest tournament usually has a few winners. 

Chappell earned the $1.13 million consolation prize, as well as valuable world-ranking points that propelled him inside the top 50 (to No. 33) and earned him spots in both summer Opens. Another big bonus: He rose from 26th to 10th in the latest U.S. Ryder Cup standings. 

It was Chappell's third runner-up finish this season (and second to Day), a run reminiscent of Kevin Kisner's 2015 season. He eventually broke through last fall, and Chappell will soon, too.

It was also ideal timing for Justin Thomas’ closing 65, his best score since his win in Malaysia last November. The $504,000 payday, and tie for third, pushed him inside the top 30 in the world. 

11. And here we thought Brandt Snedeker’s final-round 69 at wind-swept Torrey Pines would hold up as the round of the year.

It barely lasted three months. 

Along came – surprise! – Ken Duke, whose third-round 65 at TPC Sawgrass was a whopping 10.59 strokes better than the field average, the best mark in tournament history. 

Duke’s remarkable score still doesn’t rank in the top 10 of best rounds against the field since 1983 – Jim Furyk’s 59 at the 2013 BMW tops the list, at 12.1 strokes gained – but it drew plenty of praise from his peers. 

“That’s the best round of golf ever, probably,” Russell Knox said. 

Added Day: “What course was Ken Duke playing today? Can anyone tell me? Was he playing across the road? I think that should be the course record. It was just an absolute joke.” 

12. This reaction by Will Wilcox has to rank near the top of all-time hole-in-one celebrations.

It was the first ace on Sawgrass’ watery 17th in 6,300 attempts, or since Miguel Angel Jimenez in 2002. That’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Many hole locations on the island green have a slope or backboard that funnel balls closer, yet it took more than 14 years for another hole-in-one.

Golf-course setups that are pushed to the brink will eventually go too far, which is what happened at TPC Sawgrass. 

Double-cut and double-rolled after two rounds of play, the greens Saturday were unplayable – players estimated that they were running about 16 or 17 on the Stimpmeter (when the goal was 13).

The Tour staff blamed a “perfect storm” of low humidity and high winds, but there was more to the problem. In an attempt to challenge today’s players and to overcompensate for modern equipment that has overmatched today’s courses, fairways have been narrowed, rough has been lengthened and greens have been taken to the limit with extreme speeds and crazy hole locations. Last year at Chambers Bay was a prime example: What should have been a fun test of creativity and skill turned into a laugher when the USGA burned out the greens the weekend before the tournament and they never recovered, damaging the course’s reputation and creating some of the worst surfaces the pros had ever putted on. 

During the first two rounds of The Players – when Day set a 36-hole mark and there were record-low scores – the scoring average was 71.07 and there were a combined 122 three-putts among the 144 players in the field. 

In the third round alone, there were only six rounds under par, with a 75.59 average and a Shinnecockian 149 three-putts (or worse, much worse).

It's an unenviable position, dancing that fine line, but to have this kind of bloodbath at the flagship event – at the event for the players – was a black eye for the Tour.

This week's award winners ... 

What Could Have Been ... : Russell Knox. He needed nine strokes to play the par-3 17th in the third round, although he took the whole episode in stride, calling it an “epic fail.” A day later, he made a bogey and described it as a “career-defining moment.” Alas, had he made par on the hole Saturday, he would have tied for second ...

Good College Players, Even Better Pros: Alabama. Turns out the group of players that reached the NCAA finals in 2012 and won back-to-back titles in 2013-14 make pretty good pros, too. Justin Thomas won on Tour last fall, Bobby Wyatt nearly stole the title in New Orleans, and now, Trey Mullinax captured the Tour’s Rex Hospital Open and clinched his Tour card for next season.

Different Vibe Next Year: Day's finish at The Players. Something tells us that the highlights of Day's efficient, stress-free, undramatic victory won't be replayed ad nauseam for the next 52 weeks.

No Fluke: Daniel Berger. Quietly, the 2015 Rookie of the Year has cobbled together an impressive sophomore campaign, with six consecutive top-20s in stroke-play events. Berger and Hideki Matsuyama are the only players to post top-10s in both the Masters and The Players.

Maybe This Will Help?: Steven Bowditch at the Nelson. The defending champion has missed the cut or finished last (sometimes both!) in his last seven starts. If nothing else, it should be an enlightening pre-tournament news conference.

What Are Little Brothers For?: Dustin Johnson. After Johnson mishandled his ball and watched it tumble into the water surrounding the 17th green, he had two options: Retrieve the ball or incur a two-shot penalty. Enter brother/caddie Austin, who jumped into the pond (with his shoes on) and came up with the ball. “It was going to be a penalty,” Dustin said, “so there was no doubt that he was going in.” 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Sergio Garcia. In decent shape through two rounds, he threw up a 77-75 on the weekend to sink to a tie for 54th, snapping a streak of three consecutive top-10s. Sigh.