Monday Scramble: McIlroy sharp, wild-card faves not


Rory McIlroy reminds everyone that he's still, well, Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey lets a trophy slip away, the U.S. Ryder Cup picks come into focus (or maybe a little more blurry) and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Hey, I remember that guy.

Coolly bombing his way around a beastly track, rolling in clutch putts with regularity and shaking his competition to the core, one birdie at a time.

We've seen that version of McIlroy in 2012, and certainly in 2014, but he's been scant since the Ulsterman rolled his ankle playing soccer more than a year ago. But my, how quickly things can change.

One week after struggling on the greens at Bethpage, McIlroy flipiped the switch, found his putting groove and torched TPC Boston with 66-65 over the final 36 holes to erase a six-shot, final-round deficit at the Deutsche Bank Championship. It gave him his first PGA Tour win in more than a year, added another trophy to what was an otherwise underwhelming year and reminded everyone that when he's firing on all cylinders, McIlroy is nearly untouchable.

1. McIlroy led the field in both driving distance and putting in Boston, which is a career first and also a rather scary thought for those trying to keep pace. McIlroy was making just his second competitive start since switching to a mallet-style Scotty Cameron putter, but while his work on the greens kept him from contending at Baltusrol and Bethpage, it was the putter that spurred him into the mix Sunday and into the lead on Monday.

The key for McIlroy came in the middle of the final round, when he reeled off four birdies in a six-hole stretch. That included an 18-footer on No. 8, a 10-foot make on No. 9 and a 23-footer on No. 12.

As he sat in the media center with the trophy on one side and a championship belt on the other, there was one thing missing: the notion that McIlroy's putting might turn into one of the key weaknesses for the European Ryder Cup team later this month.

2. McIlroy's victory was even more remarkable considering how he began the tournament on Friday. He was 4 over after just three holes, reeling from a triple bogey on the par-4 12th. But he got it back together enough to post an even-par 71, then improved his score in each of the subsequent three rounds.

Often times, players can check out mentally after an especially difficult start to a round or tournament. But credit goes to McIlroy for not only keeping it on the rails, but ultimately fighting his way back to the top of the board.

3. McIlroy's gain came at the expense of Casey, who let a golden opportunity slip away. Casey has had a prolific career in Europe, winning 13 times, but he has only managed one such victory on the PGA Tour, at the 2009 Shell Houston Open.

It's an odd stat for a player of his caliber - Casey notably got snubbed from the 2010 Ryder Cup team despite being ranked in the top 10 in the world. And while three straight rounds of 66 created a three-shot gap over the field, Casey bogeyed four of his first 14 holes Monday en route to a 1-over 72 that left him two back of McIlroy.

It's another illustration of how final-round pressure can affect professionals even at an elite level, and a testamenlt to how difficult it can be to win once - let alone time and again, as we're accustomed to seeing from the game's best.

4. That 2010 snub created a rift between Casey and the European Tour, one that led, in part, to the Englishman's decision last year to rescind his membership which in turn cost him any consideration this year for Hazeltine.

It was an unorthodox decision, but one that seems to have paid off for Casey, whose wife and young child live in Arizona. He finished fourth at the Masters, 10th at the PGA and is now back up to No. 22 in the world, his best ranking since January 2012.

While Darren Clarke is assuredly happy with the three picks he made a week ago, he probably would have at least liked the option of considering Casey, who went 3-2-4 in Ryder Cup play from 2004-08. But alas, that ship has sailed and, as was the case with Clarke passing over world No. 19 Russell Knox, it might elicit a sigh of relief from the American contingent.

5. If McIlroy's putter is no longer Clarke's chief concern, that focus may now shift to the wobbly right knee of Henrik Stenson.

Stenson withdrew from the U.S. Open with knee pain earlier this summer, but he bounced back to win his next start in Germany. This time, after the injury caused him to withdraw from The Barclays after just one round, the response wasn't quite as positive.

Stenson tied for 41st in Boston, but he admitted that the injury is related to an arthroscopic procedure he had on the knee in December. The 40-year-old also now plans to skip the no-cut BMW Championship, giving him two weeks off before heading to East Lake and ultimately Hazeltine.

The Swede is in the midst of a career year, one that included his historic win at Royal Troon and a silver medal in Rio. It would be a shame for all parties involved if he was less than 100 percent for the matches.

6. While the European Ryder Cup team has now come into focus, the final pieces of the puzzle for the American side remain anyone's guess.

Several notable players failed to separate themselves in what is seen as the first of a two-week audition for captain Davis Love III. But the person sweating the most may be Jim Furyk, since a T-57 finish in Boston means that his truncated season is now over.

Furyk burst into the Hazeltine discussion with his 58 in Hartford, and he followed that by contending at the Wyndham Championship in his next start. But it seems difficult for Love, equipped with a re-tooled pick system to best identify the hottest players, to use one of his selections on a player who won't hit another competitive shot before the Ryder Cup.

Love has seemed to be looking for a reason to pick Furyk for weeks, but the veteran's postseason resume (70-71-71-73 at Barclays, 67-71-73-72 in Boston) doesn't exactly jump off the page.

7. Furyk's candidacy might not be dead, though, and it's largely because none of the other big American names made a move at the Deutsche Bank. Bubba Watson, whose Hazeltine travel plans never seemed in doubt this summer, missed the last cut of the season while Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler (both T-46) never factored.

Fowler's strong showing at Bethpage gave his Ryder Cup chances a much-needed boost, but Watson and Kuchar could both be feeling some pressure to perform this week at Crooked Stick since one (or both) could easily be left off Love's roster when he makes three additions on Monday.

8. Speaking of Crooked Stick, no one is happier to make a detour to the Hoosier State than McIlroy. The last time the tournament was held at Crooked Stick was in 2012, when McIlroy followed a Deutsche Bank win with a two-shot victory, torching the Pete Dye design for a 20-under total one month after he lifted the Wanamaker at Kiawah.

That victory came over Phil Mickelson, and the star-studded leaderboard also included Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott and ... Tiger Woods, who tied for fourth. Suddenly, four years seems like quite a long time ago.

9. While Love will make three captain's picks on Monday, his final selection is still two weeks away. It's a tweak to the rules inspired by Billy Horschel's run to the FedEx Cup back in 2014, a rally that came after the 12-man roster was finalized. Here, then, is a trio of not-so-household names who could unexpectedly crash the party with a strong finish to the season:

  • Ryan Moore. Moore won the John Deere Classic while most of the attention was on the Olympics, but he has followed that victory with some stellar play. He finished T-8 in Boston after a T-7 result the week before at Bethpage, and Moore's match-play resume includes a U.S. Amateur win back in 2004. Still, he's never played a Ryder Cup and didn't get much consideration two years ago despite finishing 11th on the points list.
  • Gary Woodland. The bomber seems like he could be an ideal fit for a track like Hazeltine, but like Moore he doesn't have any Ryder Cup experience. What he does have, though, is top-15 finishes in four of his last seven starts, including at each of the first two legs of the playoffs (T-4 Barclays, T-15 Deutsche Bank).
  • Jason Kokrak. It may seem way off the radar, but remember that Kokrak played his way into that first task force dinner in February with a runner-up finish at the Northern Trust Open. He is one of only six players to crack the top 10 each of the last two weeks (T-7, T-8) and has a game well-suited for each of the next two venues.

10. One last coda on McIlroy's rally in Boston: it vaulted him back to No. 3 in the world, dropping Jordan Spieth and Stenson to Nos. 4 and 5, respectively.

It's another example of why limiting hot takes to the Big 3/4/5/25 is a waste of time. World No. 6 McIlroy has the same potential to dazzle as does world No. 3 McIlroy or the old world No. 1 McIlroy. The list of elite players is hardly written in stone with some sort of tangible drop off to a player like Adam Scott, who holds the No. 6 spot after another top-5 result.

Golf is a fluid game and an individual sport, and as a result the narratives don't quite travel week-to-week as effectively as perhaps we'd prefer. The margins are thinner than we realize.

Just remember that the next time someone tries to tell you that Jason Day (or anyone else) is head and shoulders above the competition.

11. Good Phil and Bad Phil both made an appearance this week in New England.

Mickelson led with the good stuff early in the week, attending a Patriots' preseason game with his Ryder Cup cohorts. A closest-to-the-pin contest was held, but only a right-handed wedge was available. No problem for Mickelson, who stepped to the other side of the plate and stuffed it to 4 feet, beating out the competition:

But that same, uh, moxie led Mickelson to attempt not one but two bold rescue shots from a hazard lining the sixth green during the opening round. He failed to move the ball with either swipe, ultimately made a quadruple bogey-8 and signed for a 75 that led to a missed cut.

Hey, everyone knows that with Mickelson, it's a package deal.

Justin Rose was cruising right along at TPC Boston, firmly in the mix at 11 under par through 64 holes. Then the wheels came off.

Rose went bogey-double-triple on Nos. 11-13, then added a bogey on No. 15 before another triple on the par-3 16th. It added up to a 10-over 45 on his final nine, and Rose dropped into a tie for 57th after a final-round 79. But hey, at least he still has that gold medal (and his sense of humor):

This week's award winners ... 

Get your "Beef" chants ready: Andrew "Beef" Johnston is a surprise entrant into the first Tour Finals event. It's basically a free roll for the Englishman as he looks to secure full-time PGA Tour status, and should he snag one of the 25 cards available over the next month, American fans can expect to see plenty of Beef sightings next season.

How times can change: Among the notables joining Johnston in Finals, each hoping to reinstate his PGA Tour status and each a sobering reminder that form doesn't last forever: Stuart Appleby, Erik Compton, Brendon de Jonge, Rory Sabbatini and Camilo Villegas.

Random Thought of the Week: Alex Noren outlasted Scott Hend to win the Omega European Masters in scenic Switzerland. Noren, Knox, Casey ... could a B squad of Euros who won't make the trip to Hazeltine still have enough chops to beat whoever the Americans end up sending?

Closing in: Patrick Reed quietly chased his Barclays win with a T-5 finish in Boston, moving him up to a career-best eighth in the world ranking. The top five is officially in sight.

Big incentive: Players making the season-ending Tour Championship gain entry into the first three majors of 2017. It's a tasty perk for guys like Jason Kokrak (34th) and Tony Finau (38th), neither of whom have ever played the Masters. Oh, and don't forget about Augusta's own Charles Howell III, who heads to Crooked Stick at No. 48.

Trophies don't come easily: Kevin Chappell surrendered a 36-hole lead at the Deutsche Bank Championship, finishing T-8 after rounds of 71-73. It's now the fourth time he's failed to convert a lead at the halfway point into a win, and after three runner-up finishes this season he has cemented his status as the best player on the PGA Tour without a trophy to his name.

Race heats up: Ariya Jutanugarn and Lydia Ko both finished T-5 at the ManuLife LPGA Classic, setting up an intriguing Player of the Year race as the season nears its conclusion. Given the choice, I'd currently side with Jutanugarn, who has been lights-out since May.

Age is just a number: Tom Watson shot a 65 on PGA Tour Champions Friday at age 66, then celebrated his 67th birthday Sunday with, you guessed it, a final-round 67. Golf's ageless wonder rolls right along.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Mickelson. For reasons noted above, the former Deutsche Bank champ went out in surprising fashion, missing the final cut of the season and his first since the U.S. Open in June.