Monday Scramble: Shiny finish to golf season


Jordan Spieth regains the winning touch, Henrik Stenson and Ariya Jutanugarn deposit big checks, Mackenzie Hughes outlasts the field at Sea Island and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

This was clearly a transitional year for Spieth. There were new expectations, as a two-time major winner. And there were new experiences, as a 23-year-old global superstar.

His year had its share of highlights and lowlights as he adjusted to his new status in the game, but Spieth captured his third title of the year Sunday at the Australian Open. 

That's three victories in what was perceived as a down year. The only players with more worldwide titles this year: Hideki Matsuyama and Alex Noren, with four. 

Even more promising, Spieth closed out his victory in typical fashion – with a gritty par on the 72nd hole, followed by a 10-foot birdie in the playoff

Now that Spieth is refreshed and refocused, look out, 2017. 

1. If you don’t think a silly-season event can be a harbinger of future success, recall what happened to Spieth in 2014.

After his breakout rookie campaign, when he qualified for the Tour Championship and made the Presidents Cup team despite beginning the year with no status on a major tour, Spieth struggled through a lackluster summer and fall before heading Down Under for the Australian Open. He put on a clinic at Royal Melbourne, dusting the field by six, and then had the best ball-striking week of his career a week later at Tiger Woods’ event, romping to a 10-shot victory against an elite field. What followed was one of the best seasons in recent memory.

Expecting that type of historic run is unrealistic – and the mountain isn't as tall to climb – but Spieth viewed his playoff victory Sunday as the start of something special. Again. 

“The way we played the playoff, I think it's going to do wonders for me,” he said. “I’ve been in a little bit of a stall hitting shots when they mattered. To hit those two shots in there, right where I want to hit them and then make the putt, it's really big going forward.” 

2. They lost to Spieth in the Australian Open, but Sunday wasn’t all disappointing for Cameron Smith and Ashley Hall. They both earned a spot in next year’s Open Championship with their high finishes. (Aaron Baddeley also punched his ticket.)

Smith is a promising talent, but expectations for Hall were decidedly lower. The 33-year-old journeyman earned the first title of his career earlier this year, but he’s been mired in a miserable slump, missing four consecutive cuts and sinking to No. 902 in the world. 

"I was pretty close to getting a job in a couple weeks, no idea what,” he said. “I’ve got a couple young kids, so I have to keep the money flowing in." 

Then came his home open.

“I’m going to keep playing golf now.” 

Henrik Stenson

3. Stenson had a fitting end to the best year of his career, with a final-round 65 and the crown as Europe’s No. 1. 

The Open champion, who added another title and a silver medal at the Olympics, captured the season-long Race to Dubai for the second time in his career (2013). There wasn’t much drama in the season finale, with Stenson finishing eighth while his nearest contenders Danny Willett (50th) and Noren (23rd) both failed to make a charge. 

Where does Stenson go from here? There have been plenty of examples of players achieving major success and promptly fading from the limelight. Motivation is the only question mark at this point for the 40-year-old, but a ball-striker that pure will always have a chance.

4. On Jan. 3, this scribe pegged Matt Fitzpatrick as the breakout star of 2016.

OK, so it didn’t quite pan out. He won the Nordea Masters but had only four other top-10s in 29 starts. He was a massive disappointment at the Ryder Cup, going 0-2 in a lopsided European loss. Prior to last week’s season finale in Dubai, he’d actually dropped in the world rankings this year, from 43rd to 51st

And then he won the DP World Tour Championship.

Perhaps I remain more bullish than others – his short game, like a fellow Under Armour endorser, is absolutely filthy – but the belief here is that he will one day grow into a top-10 player in the world.

5. Jutanugarn birdied three of the last eight holes to steal the $1 million prize for the Race to the CME Globe.

The LPGA has been waiting for a game-changing talent, for Lexi Thompson with a putting stroke – a player who bombs it off the tee, launches sky-high iron shots and putts well. That player, undoubtedly, is Jutanugarn, one of the most electrifying players to hit the tour in the past several years. 

Jutanugarn’s ascension is bad news for Ko, who can’t possibly match her physical gifts. This is merely the beginning of her tour takeover. 

6. After a Friday 62 at the CME Group Championship, Ko was in position to sweep all of the end-of-season awards.

Two days later, she walked away empty-handed.

Ko got whipped by Jutanugarn by 11 shots over the weekend, forfeiting her lead in the tournament and points standings, and losing the Vare Trophy to rookie In Gee Chun by 0.013 strokes.

“It’s been a really fun season, but Ariya played better,” the always gracious Ko said afterward. “When you play good and somebody plays better, you can’t do much about it.” 

7. It’s a testament to Ko’s grit and short game that she won four times this season despite losing distance and accuracy. What saved her, of course, was leading the tour in two putting categories.

Yes, Ko is on track to become one of the all-time greats, but there is some cause for concern: Her diminished game, the emergence of a dominant star, constant caddie changes and a reported move to PXG equipment don’t bode well for her long-term prospects. 

8. Chun made a 9-foot putt on the 72nd hole to edge Ko and become the first rookie since Nancy Lopez in 1978 to lead the tour in scoring average.

But she and Ko were far from the only players to take it low this year. It’s the first time in tour history that five players had a sub-70 scoring average:

  • In Gee Chun: 69.583
  • Lydia Ko: 69.596
  • Ariya Jutanugarn: 69.870
  • Shanshan Feng: 69.877
  • Ha Na Jang: 69.976

9. Charley Hull won the LPGA season finale. That meant the big winners were all 22 or younger: Hull (20), Jutanugarn (20) and Chun (22).

There’s going to be plenty of soul-searching this offseason for the tour’s old stalwarts. 

10. Of the potential breakout candidates for next year, Brooks Koepka should be near the top of everybody’s list.

The 26-year-old ended a year of close calls with an impressive performance at the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, where he went 63-65 on the weekend.

An awesome physical talent, Koepka has teased us for a while. He wasn’t quite as sharp in 2016 – and a late-season ankle injury didn’t help – but he has been exceptional of late, going 3-1 at the Ryder Cup, finishing second in Las Vegas and now capturing the seventh title of his career. 

If, like his pal Dustin Johnson, he can shore up his short game and wedges this offseason – Koepka ranked 113rd in strokes gained-around the green and 97th in approach shots from 50-125 yards – then he’s a lock to have a huge year.  

11. It took an extra day, but Hughes earned a life-changing victory at Sea Island.

His ball-striking left much to be desired – he ranked 61st in strokes gained-approaches – but a tidy short game never goes out of style. He got up-and-down 18 of 21 times, none bigger than his 15-foot par save from the edge of the green in the playoff. 

As is often the case in that situation, Hughes poured in his putt first, applying pressure on Blayne Barber, Henrik Norlander and Camilo Villegas.

They all missed. 

12. Hughes’ playoff victory was a reminder of how much a Tour veteran can factor in the development of a young player.

The 25-year-old was playing in his fifth career Tour event when he was paired with Phil Mickelson on the weekend in Napa. Hughes wasn’t used to those crowds, playing at Kent State and on the Canadian and tours, but he acclimated himself well, shooting 69-68 and learning from Lefty.

After winning the RSM, he said that playing with Mickelson prepared him for what he dealt with in the final round (when he held a one-shot lead) and in the playoff, where he battled four other players and 43-degree temperatures. 

“You couldn’t buy that experience,” he said. 

12. It’s been a while since Billy Horschel gave himself a legitimate chance to win, and he’ll be kicking himself for how he frittered away his opportunity at Sea Island.

Part of the five-way playoff, Horschel rushed his 2-foot par putt on the first playoff and missed on the high side.

“I didn’t take my time over that short putt,” he tweeted later. “Simple as that.”

The worst part for Horschel? He had the best chance to win, after knocking his approach to 15 feet and narrowly missing his birdie try. 

Don’t expect Chris Wood and Lee Westwood to team up at the Ryder Cup anytime soon.

When Danny Willett withdrew from this week’s World Cup because of a back injury, the status of his partner, Westwood, also was in limbo.

As the next eligible player, Wood had the option to choose his partner. He picked Andy Sullivan, one of his longtime friends and frequent practice-round partners.

Left out was Westwood – after he’d booked his travel, planned his schedule and prepared for the event.

“I haven’t spoken to Woody yet,” Westwood fumed in Dubai last week, “but frustrated would be one word you could use to describe how I feel about it.” 

Hey, don’t blame Wood – he’s able to partner with whomever he wants.

Instead, why isn’t Westwood ticked at Willett? He should have known there was at least some doubt about his availability to play.  

This week's award winners ... 

The Best Thing You'll Watch This Week: Rory gets grilled by Billy. Would love to see this cheeky little kid interview/poke fun at more of the game's biggest stars. 

Doesn’t Understand How the Internet Works: Pat Perez. He told that coverage of Tiger Woods’ return has been overkill and gotten “old.” Website metrics, however, suggest that the appetite for any Woods news has never been greater.

Equipment Junkies Unite!: Tiger and TaylorMade. Woods was spotted on the range using TaylorMade’s M-series fairway woods, if you're interested in that kind of thing.

The Player-Caddie Combo That Works Together, Gets Surgery Together: Phil and Bones. The same day Lefty underwent sports-hernia surgery, his trusty looper had BOTH knees replaced. They’re both expected to be ready for Mickelson’s 2017 debut on Jan. 19. 

Worst Decision of the Week: RSM’s final-round tee times. Hmm, threesomes with limited daylight and an 11:50 a.m. final group? Tournament officials were asking for trouble.

Awesome Amateur: Curtis Luck. It’s been a rather remarkable summer for the Australian, who won the U.S. Amateur and Asia-Pacific Am, rose to No. 2 in the world and tied for 11th at last week’s Australian Open. Big-time talent.

Back For Another Year: Diana Murphy. She was elected to a second term as USGA president, which guarantees a few more deliciously awkward trophy presentations.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Chris Kirk. The part-time Sea Islander had a win and two other top-20s at this event, he was rolling with three top-10s this season, he shot consecutive rounds of 69 to open … and it wasn’t good enough to make the cut in what was an early-week track meet. Sigh.