Monday Scramble: After drops, can Phil rise again?


Russell Knox notches his first victory, Phil Mickelson breaks up with Butch Harmon, Dustin Johnson gets unlucky, Steve Williams blames others, and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Phil Mickelson has dropped outside the top 25 in the world ranking for the first time in more than 20 years. He also announced that he was splitting with swing coach Harmon.

A coincidence? No way.

Mickelson made one thing clear with his decision to dump the best swing coach on the planet: He still believes that he has plenty of good golf left, even entering his age-46 season.

Winless in more than two years, he has only contended a handful of times since, and two of those were out-of-nowhere performances at the majors. Mostly, he has looked lethargic. His driving has been as erratic as ever. His usually stellar wedge play has been mediocre. His putting has been suspect.

Lefty needed a change, if only to get re-engaged. 

The big question now is whether new swing thoughts will lead to different results. There are plenty of reasons for skepticism – age, health, better competition, putting woes, desire, etc. – but he now has more than three months to develop a rapport with Andrew Getson (or someone else), to iron out the kinks, to turn around his game. Does he have a little more magic, a few more wins, maybe even a major, still left in that body? Phil clearly believes so, and that's all that matters.

1. How unlikely was Russell Knox’s victory at the HSBC Champions? He is the first player since 1999 – when the four-tournament series debuted – to win in his first World Golf Championships appearance.

In fact, Knox didn’t even learn that he was in the HSBC field until his first round in Malaysia. That started a hectic process of securing a Chinese visa (thanks to his “superstar” wife, Andrea) and getting caddie Bradley Whittle to Shanghai. 

Of his wife, Knox said: “She’s the reason I’m sitting here right now.”

2. It’s nice to see that the, ahem, old guys can still get it done on the PGA Tour. 

Knox, who is (gasp) 30, is the first winner this season who wasn’t 23 or younger. He also snapped a string of seven consecutive winners in their 20s, the longest streak in nearly 30 years. 

The Scot was the fourth consecutive first-time winner during this nascent season. It's only getting tougher for Jordan, Jason, Rory and Co.

3. No practice, no problem? That was the case last week at Sheshan International. 

Knox had his wife caddie for him in the pro-am because his regular looper hadn’t yet arrived in the country. He won. 

Kevin Kisner had never played the course and didn’t play a practice round because of a bad back. He opened with 64 and eventually finished second, his fourth runner-up this year.

4. Say this for the Phil-Butch split: It was anything but acrimonious.

Mickelson handled the breakup with class, flying to Las Vegas to deliver the news in person. It stood in stark contrast to the way that Tiger Woods handled his split with Harmon back in 2002. 

Lefty even said he would continue to bounce ideas off Harmon, who will be just fine, of course, with a stable that still includes Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker, among others. 

5. There were some information discrepancies last week regarding Mickelson’s next coach. Golf Digest said that Mickelson has been working with Scottsdale-based Andrew Getson since splitting with Harmon. A few hours later, Mickelson said that he simply had engaged in discussions with Getson, he doesn’t know where those will lead, and he expects to make a formal announcement in January, when he returns to action.

The backpedalling is a clear attempt to spare Harmon some public embarrassment and take some heat off of Getson, who has a relatively low profile in coaching circles. It’s a smart move too, in case their work this offseason doesn’t go in a direction that Mickelson likes. 

6. Danny Willett’s closing 62 in Shanghai should make the Race to Dubai even more compelling. 

The Englishman now trails Rory McIlroy by just 74,214 points heading into next week’s BMW Masters, which Willett is playing and McIlroy is not. A top-25 finish will be enough to send Willett to the top of the points list. 

Not that McIlroy, who tied for 11th at HSBC despite losing 10 pounds from food poisoning, seems fazed. 

“I’m just with the mindset that I need to go to Dubai and win,” he said, “and whatever happens from there, that’s all I can do.”

7. Given his limited preparation, Jordan Spieth was “extremely pleased” with a tie for seventh at the HSBC. He didn’t pick up a club for two weeks after the Presidents Cup – his longest break, he said, in nearly a decade – and then struggled to find a rhythm on the course.

The good news? Well, for starters, he shot a third-round 63 to surge up the leaderboard. He got some much-needed reps before his final two events of the season, the Australian Open and World Challenge, the tournaments that kick-started his historic run this year. And, yes, he took back the No. 1 ranking from Jason Day, who was idle last week.

“Everyone is pushing each other a little bit,” Spieth said, “and when that No. 1 ranking slips away, it leaves some unrest in you and you really want to get back at it.” 

8. If you didn't realize that there was another PGA Tour event going on last week (it's scheduled to finish today, in Mississippi), Boo Weekley made headlines by blasting the now 3-year-old wraparound schedule, saying that it “sucks” and that it’s “stupid” and that the nonstop golf leaves no time for more important stuff ... like hunting and fishing.

Newsflash, Boo (and any other player who is complaining): No one is forcing you to play. 

If you want to take off the entire fall and fire more shots with your rifle than your driver, hey, go ahead. You'll be giving everybody else a head start, and it’ll make your FedEx Cup climb more arduous, but look on the bright side: At least for a few months your occupation – one that has given you more than $13.5 million – won’t be so “aggravating.”

9. After a year spent toiling on the circuit (49th on the money list), Haotong Li entered an entirely different realm last week at the HSBC Champions, where the 20-year-old was feted like a rockstar.

Drawing crowds even bigger than Spieth’s group, Li responded by finishing seventh in Shanghai. It was the best finish on Tour by a Chinese player since Wenchong Liang (T-8, 2010 PGA).   

Just one shot out of the lead heading into the final round, Li hooked his first two tee shots Sunday and quickly was 3 over. He went out in 38 to end his chances, but two late birdies allowed him to finish inside the top 10. 

“Man, did he have heart,” Spieth said afterward. “It was unbelievable some of the stuff he was pulling off.”

10. Good thing Dustin Johnson has the perfect disposition to shrug off misfortune and near misses, because there sure have been a lot of them in his star-crossed career.

Johnson, whose power was so intimidating that Knox didn’t even watch a shot on the front nine Sunday, was one shot behind when his wedge shot into the par-5 eighth hole danced near the cup and looked as though it’d leave him a tap-in for birdie. Instead, it caromed off the flag and trickled back into the creek, leading to a double bogey.

He wound up in a tie for fifth, four shots behind, but make no mistake: He is still winning off the course. More on that later. 

11. This is uncharted territory for two of the game’s biggest stars – at least when it comes to the world ranking. 

After the most recent update, Woods, out indefinitely after a second (and then third) back procedure, found himself at No. 362 in the world, just behind Jazz Janewattananond. It's his worst position since his rookie year.

Mickelson, who has just five Tour top-10s since his win at Muirfield in 2013, is now ranked No. 27. It’s the first time he has been ranked outside the top 25 since September 1995 – a span of 1,048 weeks. 

And with no scheduled starts the rest of the calendar year, their positions will only get worse. 

12. At least one season-long award has been wrapped up on the LPGA.

Sei Young Kim has clinched Rookie of the Year honors with two events still remaining on the schedule. The 22-year-old has made a quick impression, compiling three wins, one runner-up and six other top-10s in 25 events this season. She is ranked seventh in the world. 

With $1,727,436 in earnings, Kim has already deposited the third-most money ever by a rookie and could join Lydia Ko as the only newcomers in LPGA history to surpass $2 million in a season. 

So who’s to blame in the latest Steve Williams saga?

His publishers, of course!

Williams whined that his own people misrepresented his views by focusing on the most salacious comment in his new book – that Woods treated Williams like a "slave" on the course. 

“It’s one word, one sentence, out of a whole book,” Williams said. 

Yes, but it was a word that HE chose, a sentence that HE wrote and a section that HE OK'd. Nothing better than when an autobiographer claims his own work was taken out of context.

Adam Scott says that he doesn’t think Williams’ remarks will be a distraction when, or if, he returns to the bag in 2016. Don’t be so sure, because Williams didn’t just sound off on Woods. He also decided to throw shade at Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh and Kevin Na, among others. 

For those vindictive remarks, will he blame his publishers, too? 

This week's award winners ... 

Bold Play of the Week: Rory McIlroy, who wore white pants during the second round, when he was still feeling the effects of food poisoning.

User Error: Matt Fitzpatrick’s amateur status. Well, yeah, the kid looks like he’s 12 instead of 21, but he’s very much a pro now. A European Tour winner, even. 

A Potentially Significant Story in 10 Months: The European players currently ineligible for the 2016 Ryder Cup. Right now, that list includes two players in the OWGR top 31: Paul Casey and Knox. Only European Tour members can qualify for the team.

All Good Things Come to An End: Karrie Webb’s player-caddie relationship with Mike Paterson. Webb announced they were parting ways Sunday after 15 years together. 

Uh, Isn't This What Snapchat is For?: Paulina Gretzky, attempting to cheer up fiancé Dustin Johnson after his tough break halfway across the world:

love you @djohnsonpga Dirty Diana

A photo posted by Paulina Gretzky (@paulinagretzky) on

Anchors Away: Bernhard Langer, who went out on top with his broomstick putter, becoming the first player to win three Charles Schwab Cup titles.  

Most Resourceful: Brandt Snedeker, who found a new use for an extra golf club: 

A Kid Everyone Can Cheer For: Justin Thompson, a two-time cancer survivor who gave a verbal commitment to play college golf at SMU beginning in fall 2017.