Monday Scramble: Phil wraps up year Tiger hasn't yet begun


Brendan Steele snaps a five-year drought, Phil Mickelson takes a break, Se Ri Pak says goodbye, Johnny questions Tiger's health and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Apologies for the reminder, but the golf world was supposed to be buzzing today, the aftershocks of Tiger Woods’ first competitive start in 14 months. Alas, we know how that turned out.

Woods’ last-minute withdrawal set the tone for what became a sleepy, sloppy season opener in Wine Country. Sure, Phil Mickelson still flirted with contention, but otherwise the Safeway featured three days of weather delays and re-introductions.

It may not have been the can’t-miss show we were expecting, but don’t tell that to Brendan Steele. A new PGA Tour season has begun, with or without Tiger. 

1. A year ago in Napa, Steele led after 54 holes. Then he made eight bogeys (including a back-nine 40) to shoot 76 and plummet into a tie for 17th

There was no collapse this time. Instead, Steele erased a four-shot lead with a closing 65, making birdie on his last three holes, the final one after a nifty wedge to 10 feet.

“This is a little bit of redemption from last year,” he said. “It’s nice to close it off this way.”

2. It was also Steele’s first victory post-anchoring ban, which was no small feat.

The last few years have been a struggle on the greens for Steele, who used to wield a belly putter. Deciding to switch in 2014, after the ban was first announced, he ranked outside the top 120 in strokes gained-putting each of the past two seasons. At the Safeway, he was sixth in putting, holing more than 133 feet worth of putts in the final round. 

Steele’s first victory in more than five years should give hope to those who were forced to abandon the long wand. After all, major winners Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson haven’t been the same since the ban went into effect on Jan. 1.  

3. It’s a different part of the game that has held back Mickelson in recent years.

Winless since July 2013 – remarkably, a month longer than Woods’ drought – Mickelson has gotten increasingly errant off the tee. No, he has never driven the ball on a rope, but he has dropped outside the top 130 in both strokes gained-off the tee and driving accuracy. 

At tree-lined Silverado, where driving accuracy was paramount because of preferred lies in the fairway, Lefty found the short grass only 25 times in 56 opportunities. That ranked 62nd out of the 70 players who made the cut.

With his putting back on track, his driving will be the primary focus of his offseason work. Phil isn't expected to tee it up again until late January, so he'll have plenty of time to figure it out. 

4. How hard is it to win on the PGA Tour for the first time? Watch a replay of Patton Kizzire’s final few holes.

He held a two-shot lead with seven holes to play, but his swing betrayed him down the stretch. He drove into a fairway bunker on 12, under a tree on 15 and 16, and then left a wedge shot woefully short on 17. On the final hole, he pulled his drive left, into the rough, and had to lay up. He flailed a 9-iron right of the green and couldn’t hole the chip. At least his putting looked solid. 

“I’m really disappointed,” he said, “but I played well. It’s a building block.” 

5. Paul Casey continued to remind the European Ryder Cup team what it was missing when he tied for third at the Safeway. 

Casey declined to take up European Tour membership because he wanted to spend more time with his family, which is based in Phoenix. To be a tour member, players must compete in five tournaments outside of the majors and WGCs.

Europe certainly could have used Casey at Hazeltine – the team suffered its worst loss since 1981, while the Englishman has now finished in the top four in his last four appearances on the PGA Tour.

“I wanted to be there,” he said, “but the best seat in the house has to be at home with the TV and glass of wine, doesn’t it?” 

6. Speaking of which ... after losing for just the second time since 1999, the European Ryder Cup team will have a new skipper as early as this December.

Paul McGinley, the victorious 2014 captain, told Reuters that a decision on Europe’s next captain should be made before Christmas. The committee includes the past three captains – Darren Clarke, McGinley and Jose Maria Olazabal – European Tour CEO Keith Pelley and someone nominated by the players’ committee (likely Henrik Stenson). 

Thomas Bjorn is considered the frontrunner for the position.

7. Did you know: Alex Noren is the 18th-ranked player in the world. That's one spot ahead of Matt Kuchar.

Just four months ago, he was ranked outside the top 100 (No. 108). He just won his third event in his last eight starts, at the British Masters.

Four of his seven career titles have come in the past two seasons, but he is still looking to make a splash on a big stage. He has only one top-15 in 14 career major appearances.

8. Maybe Lee Westwood won’t just fade into oblivion, after all. 

After a yippy, confidence-shattering performance at the Ryder Cup, the 43-year-old rebounded to post a third-place finish in which he shot 68 or better all four rounds. 

9. Score one for Pelley. Last week the ambitious Euro Tour CEO unveiled one of his latest ideas – a one-hole, knockout contest under the lights featuring some of the tour’s biggest stars. 

By all accounts, it was a rousing success. Players competed in seven quick-fire matches on a 156-yard par 3 in front of a few thousand fans. Check out this video for more

“It was amazing to see the crowds and everyone enjoying it,” said winner Alexander Levy. “Golf needs something like this, and it is a great idea.”

Can you imagine how popular this would be if the Tour held a similar exhibition, say, before the Vegas tournament? 

10. Pak ended one of the most influential careers in LPGA history last week in her native South Korea. 

It mattered little that she shot 80 before withdrawing with a nagging shoulder issue. This was a celebration of her life and career, with a children’s choir, video montage and long line of well-wishers. Her two-major season in 1998 is widely regarded as one of the biggest catalysts for the sport’s growth in South Korea. Now, six of the top 10 players in the world are South Korean.

“I think if we had no so-called Se Ri Kids,” she said, “the Korean golf scene would be quite different today.” 

11. Ian Poulter had an encouraging return start, at least early.

Poulter, who hadn’t played since mid-May because of a foot injury, opened with 64 to share the first-round lead at the Asian Tour’s Macau Open. It only got worse from there. The Englishman shot rounds of 73-71-73 to tie for 28th against a weak field.

Still, Poulter reported no physical setbacks. He took off 14 weeks because of arthritis in his right foot, a condition he can only hope to manage with rest and rehab.  

There was plenty of pessimism surrounding Woods’ scheduled return. Part of that was because of his health. 

Miller got skewered for the following comment about Woods – as he does for most comments – but he was right in this case.

“He was getting out of that cart pretty gingerly (at the Ryder Cup). Nobody talked about that," Miller said. "When he got in and out of that cart, he was a little – he didn’t look like he was jumping out and saying, ‘Hi, guys.’ So I’m not sure how healthy he really is.”

Watching Woods at the Ryder Cup, this observer had the same reaction. He moved slowly and awkwardly, tentatively, like he might tweak something at any moment. He has looked that way ever since he went under the knife for the first time in March 2014.   

Keep this in mind: Woods and Henrik Stenson are the same age. They’re both 40.

Watching them move around the course, or swing a club, you'd guess that Woods was at least a decade older.

This week's award winners ...

If Not for That Start …: Justin Thomas. Only seven players posted a score worse than JT’s opening 75 in Napa, a round that included a pair of triple bogeys. He went 66-66-67 to claw back inside the top 10, and now he heads back to Malaysia for his first title defense. 

Oh, So THAT’S What It Looks Like: A 423-yard drive. Joe Miller, you beast

Road to Heaven: Arnold Palmer. As an Orlando resident, it was little surprise to hear that a portion of State Road 408 will be renamed the Arnold Palmer Expressway. This move deserves a thumbs up – not the usual extended finger that we see on the roads here. 

Can’t Help But Root For …: Steven Bowditch. He has struggled mightily over the past year or so, but his Twitter game remains on point. 

Rookie Hazing: Cody Gribble. The left-hander from Texas was the only Tour rookie who finished in the top 10 in Napa (T-8).

Sister Act: Nelly Korda. Following in big sis Jessica’s footsteps, the younger Korda, 18, earned her LPGA card via the Symetra Tour on Sunday. 

Not Sure This Item Will Catch On: LPGA Store pants, with the "See Why It's Different Out Here" slogan embroided on the back pocket.

Can't forget the #seewhyitsdifferent tag!

Keeps Getting Better: The high school class of 2011. With Emiliano Grillo earning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year honors, the heralded class now has earned the title three of the past four years (Jordan Spieth and Daniel Berger). Don't be surprised if the run continues, with Ollie Schniederjans and Cheng-Tsung Pan on deck.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Matt Kuchar. One of the Tour’s most consistent players had 10 top-10s last season. Well, he’s off to an 0-for-1 start, after getting bounced early following rounds of 70-72. Sigh.