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Monday Scramble: Ensemble cast leads to Masters blockbuster

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A 42-regular green jacket wasn’t the only thing Jordan Spieth walked away with Sunday.

He also got a few pages in the Masters record books, the respect and admiration of his more seasoned peers, a lofty world ranking and a new title: American Star. 

Tiger Woods may be the face of golf, but Rory McIlroy and the apple-cheeked Texan are the present and future. This was a Masters win that hinted at so much more. 

In this week's edition of the Monday Scramble, we break down Spieth’s brilliance at Augusta, Tiger’s much-anticipated return, Phil’s inspired run and everything else from the year's first major:  

America has been yearning for the next great homegrown star, and the wait is over. There have been plenty of teases over the years: Hank Kuehne. Charles Howell III. Anthony Kim. Rickie Fowler. But for a variety of reasons – in Kim’s case, he literally disappeared – they all failed to deliver on the marketing hype. Spieth has brought the goods since he contended as a 16-year-old at the Nelson, since he won back-to-back U.S. Junior titles, since he helped Texas win a NCAA title, since he won on the PGA Tour as a 19-year-old.

With his record-breaking week at the Masters, he graduated from being just another talented young American or the Next Big Thing. He is now a bona-fide All-American superstar, with the résumé to back it up. 

It’s been said that Spieth doesn’t do anything particularly great. He doesn’t hit tee shots as long or as high as Dustin Johnson. Or knock down flags with the precision of McIlroy. Or sink every putt like Tiger Woods in his prime. That all may be true, but Spieth’s golf IQ is off the charts and he possesses any uncanny ability to get the ball in the hole and to maximize his considerable potential. He’s relentless, and he keeps coming and coming until he’s right there, at the top, a winner. 

Five things we learned from the year's first major: 

  • Jordan Spieth is a beast
  • Tiger is ba ... OK, he's better than expected
  • Phil's major form defies explanation
  • Rory is left wondering what could have been
  • The game is in a wonderful place

1. Jordan Spieth is a beast

How else to explain what we just witnessed for four days? During a historic romp at Augusta, the new world No. 2:

  • Became the youngest player (21) to lead after the opening round
  • Set the 36-hole Masters scoring record (130) and tied the lowest halfway mark ever in a major
  • Set the 54-hole Masters scoring record (200)
  • Set the record for most birdies made in a Masters (28)
  • Tied the 72-hole Masters scoring record (270)
  • Became the fifth player in history to go wire-to-wire (no ties) at the Masters
  • Became the second player since 1900 (Walter Hagen) to win a major wire-to-wire (no ties) at age 21 or younger

After Day 1, no pursuer got closer than three shots. It was Spieth's week, plain and simple. 

2. Tiger is ba ... OK, he's better than expected

Confession: I thought there was a good chance Woods would embarrass himself at the Masters. He was playing the most demanding and intimidating course in the world, and for the past five months he’d been afflicted with what looked like the chipping yips. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all if Tiger stumbled to back-to-back rounds in the upper-70s and slipped away for the next few months to work on his game. 

The way Tiger sounded Sunday he still might do that – when asked about his immediate plans after the final round, he said only that he was going to “practice.” But at least now there is reason for optimism. He botched only a few short-game shots, he emerged psychologically healthy and he tied for 17th – remarkable progress, considering his career crisis only nine weeks earlier. He’ll continue to fine-tune all aspects of his game, but if the 79th Masters taught us anything it’s that Woods’ rise back to the game’s elite will be his toughest challenge yet. The sport is chock full of players who are longer, stronger and hungrier than Woods. To win against these impatient studs, it'll require his best stuff. This was a step in the right direction, but many more remain. 

3. Phil's major form defies explanation

Over the past 21 months, Mickelson has looked disinterested and lethargic. He has been even more crooked than usual off the tee. His iron game has been surprisingly erratic. And his putting, especially inside 10 feet, has been dreadful.

So of course he shot 14 under at the Masters – a score that would have won all but five Masters outright – and tied for second with Justin Rose. Since his surprising 2013 Open triumph, Lefty has only three top-10s in his last 35 PGA Tour events – and two of those have come at the majors, the 2014 PGA (T-2) and this year’s Masters.

Now 44, Phil has basically become the casual sports fan – only interested in the majors. And he's going to keep contending in 'em, too. 

4. Rory is left wondering what could have been

When he made the turn Friday, Mcllroy was 3 over par and seemingly headed for an early exit, but he played the next 45 holes in 15 under to backdoor a top-five finish. It may not ease the sting of a missed opportunity, but Rory can take solace in knowing that he’s slowly learning how to handle Augusta’s unique challenges. Throw out that first-nine 40 in the second round and he’s likely going head-to-head with Spieth over the weekend. It always seemed unlikely that he would win at Augusta this year – his form wasn’t the best and the pressure was at its highest – but back-to-back top-10s there will eliminate some of the intimidation factor going forward. 

5. The game is in a wonderful place

The new Official World Golf Ranking look like this: 

  1. Rory McIlroy
  2. Jordan Spieth 

It's the first time in the history of the world rankings that the top two players are 25 or younger. 

Anything can happen in the next few weeks, months and years, but there’s a good chance that these two are going to headline the sport for the next decade-plus. If that's the case, golf fans were the big winners at the Masters. In Jordan and Rory, we now have a pair of young, classy, likeable, record-breaking stars. 

One of the best storylines going in golf is the battle between all of these young studs who clearly have taken over the sport and the aging warriors clinging to one last major dream. That’s what we had at the Masters, no? Spieth, 21, was the star of the show, but it was Mickelson, 44, and Woods, 39, who provided the background music. Even in a blowout, it was compelling theater. 

6. Spieth entered the Masters as the hottest player on the planet. So what’s that make him now? This guy?

In his last 12 worldwide starts, Spieth has:

  • 4 wins
  • 8 top-fives
  • 10 top-10s
  • 68.67 scoring average
  • Shot 128 under par 

His finishes over that span: 3-1-1-7-MC-7-4-17-1-2-2-1

It’s the best stretch of golf since … well, Rory, last summer. 

7. Taking a way-too-early look at the U.S. Open … Spieth is one of the few players with experience at Chambers Bay. Though he missed the cut there during the 2010 U.S. Amateur – the USGA let the course get out of control during the second round of qualifying – he may have a secret weapon: Caddie Michael Greller.

Greller lives nearby and used to loop at Chambers during the summer. He was on the bag for one of Spieth’s close friends, Justin Thomas, during the 2010 Amateur.   

If he plays like this, Spieth is a good bet anytime, anywhere. But the U.S. Open would seem like his best chance to win another major this year. Though he doesn’t overpower a golf course, he plays smart and strategic golf, doesn’t get rattled and scrambles as well as anyone. That's a recipe for success at the Open. 

8. Jordan Spieth has reaffirmed his commitment to tournament officials at this week’s RBC Heritage. It’s the first time since Zach Johnson in 2007 that a Masters champion played the following week on Hilton Head, but in Spieth’s case it’s particularly surprising.

He has every reason to bail, of course. He’s making his fourth consecutive start. He’s played in the final group on Sunday each of the past three weeks. He’s coming off a historic performance at the Masters, the most physically and mentally grueling tournament on the calendar. And he's about to embark on a whirlwind media tour. All of that, and he still is going to play the Heritage? Because he gave his word? Respect, kid.   

9. There were no shortage of bizarre moments at the Masters, but 1A was Woods’ brief wrist ailment during the final round. Playing his second shot on the ninth hole, Woods slammed into a root with his club and appeared to be in severe pain. The Tiger Woods Injury Watch officially commenced, but it ended up being no big deal. This was his exchange with CBS Sports' Bill Macatee.

Question: How are you feeling? 

Tiger: A bone kind of popped out and the joint kind of went out of place, but I put it back in.

Question: Really?

Tiger: Yeah.

OK, then. If this explanation sounds familiar, it’s because Woods used the same line when he described a wrist injury in 2012 at Pebble Beach: “Once I popped it back in, it was good. It was just a joint. No big deal.”

(Aside: You know you’ve been injured a lot when (A) you can self-diagnose the problem, and (B) you can also perform the outpatient surgery.)

The true extent of any wrist damage is unknown – Woods said only that he wouldn’t lift any weights for a while – and he set no timetable for his return to the regular Tour. Hopefully the issue isn't more serious than he's letting on. 

10. Mickelson will try to complete the career Grand Slam in two months’ time at Chambers Bay, but in the meantime he can celebrate another achievement:

The Runner-Up Grand Slam. 

OK, so it's not nearly as prestigious, but Mickelson now has finished second in all four majors. You remember the six runners-up at the U.S. Open, of course. And the T-2 finish at the 2011 Open at Royal St. George’s. And the pair of runners-up at the PGA, including last year at Valhalla. But after three wins and five other third-place showings at Augusta, this was Phil’s first T-2 finish. 

In all, he has 10 runner-up finishes (second-most all time), and he’s the sixth player join the Runner-Up Grand Slam club, joining Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Craig Wood. Congratulations?  

11. The symmetry was impossible to ignore Friday: On the day Spieth stormed out to a five-shot lead and set Masters scoring records, 63-year-old Ben Crenshaw, said goodbye after his 44th and final appearance. Crenshaw won a NCAA Championship at Texas in 1972, and Spieth followed 40 years later and helped guide the Longhorns to another team title.

Crenshaw has served a mentor to the 21-year-old Spieth for years. Carl Jackson, who was on Crenshaw’s bag for his two Masters wins (1984, ’95), has served as a mentor to Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller. Before each of the last two rounds, Greller scouted the course and then huddled with Jackson to go over the yardage book. “It was like sitting down with Michael Jordan and talking about the NBA Finals,” Greller said. Very cool. 

12. In the wake of Tiger’s game-changing win in 1997, Augusta National lengthened the course significantly, tightened the landing areas and added pine trees on several holes. The course is less now about imagination and more about playing aggressively to smaller spots. As a result, Woods hasn’t won there since 2005. 

After Spieth was 11 holes away from winning in his Masters debut, and then after he torched the softer-than-usual course with an 18-under 270 total, you can’t help but wonder: How could Augusta possibly Spieth-proof the place?

Eliminate the fairways? Hide fire-breathing dragons in the bunkers? Make the event open only to players 22 and older? Penalize him two shots every time he talks to his ball mid-flight? He’s going to be a factor there for a loooong time.  

13. The top shots of the 79th Masters:

D. Johnson, Round 2 Nos. 2, 8 and 15: The first player to record three eagles in a round. Paulina might want to buy another china cabinet. 

Spieth, Round 3, No. 18: With his seven-shot lead quickly evaporating, he played a ballsy flop shot that landed softly on the downslope and trickled 9 feet away. He drained the putt to take a four-shot lead into the final day. It was more than enough.

Mickelson, Round 3, No. 16: No one has mastered the double fist pump quite like Phil, and he unleashed a big one when his 41-foot bomb slipped into the side door. 

Woods, Round 3, No. 13: His tee shot was one of the worst you’ll ever see – a chunky snap hook that traveled only 175 yards and was fortunate not to dive into the trees. After a slinging iron shot put him back in position, he knocked his third shot to 15 feet and then did this: 

Justin Rose, Round 3, No. 16: The tidy Englishman holed out from the bunker for his fourth consecutive birdie, and what would become his seventh in an eight-hour span:

Hey, it's not easy being famous. Niall Horan, a member of the popular teenybopper band One Direction and a 21-year-old heartthrob with a Kardashian-level Twitter following, caddied for McIlroy at the Masters Par 3 Contest. He smiled a lot and accommodated the numerous photo requests, but his time to shine came on the ninth tee, when McIlroy handed him a club.

And, frankly, he blew it. His tee shot was a snap hook low and left, into the pond. “I apologize to golf,” he said, sheepishly. 

But it only got worse. Walking up to Sky Sports’ Kirsty Gallacher for a post-round interview, Horan slipped on the pine straw and crashed to the ground on live television. Rory’s bag went with him.

Which is probably why now he has payback in mind. After embarrassing himself at Augusta, Horan will return the favor by forcing Rory to come on stage and sing with his band during their Sept. 12 concert in Boston. Here’s guessing Niall gets the last laugh. 

What We Want for Christmas: Titleist golf balls that actually listen to us. 

Most Likely to Win a Major This Year: D. Johnson. The Doral W was impressive. So was the comeback from a disastrous opening round in San Antonio. And now this, a T-6 finish at Augusta, a course where he had struggled despite his immense length off the tee. It’s the surest sign yet that we’re witnessing the emergence of a player who not only has awe-inspiring physical gifts, but also some much-needed resolve and maturity.

2016 Masters champion: Bubba Watson.

His recent record at Augusta:

2011: T-38

2012: 1

2013: T-50

2014: 1

2015: T-38. 

Maybe it’s the distraction of being the reigning champion, or perhaps it’s just an even-year coincidence. Whatever the case, we’re not betting against Bubba next spring.  

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jimmy Walker. He's coming off the Valero win! He's top five in birdie average, par-5 scoring and putting! He was T-8 in his debut a year ago! Nope. Didn’t matter. He hurt his hand in the first round and tied for 38th ... and, yep, there went all of the money I dropped on him in Masters pools. 

Horses for Courses: Augusta National and … well, just about anyone but Martin Kaymer. It wouldn’t surprise if the former world No. 1 eventually captured three legs of the career Grand Slam, but he’s yet to crack the code at Augusta. In eight career starts, he has five missed cuts and no finish better than 31st. This year, it was 76-75 and another trunk slam. 

The GOAT: Jack Nicklaus. Before he played the Par 3 Contest, Big Jack said that he was going to make a hole-in-one. And then, sure enough, he did this: 

Good Mojo: The University of Texas men's golf team. On the same day that Spieth became the second-youngest winner of the Masters, the Longhorns captured the team title at Pasatiempo, with freshman Scottie Scheffler – a former U.S. Junior champion who has been compared to Spieth – earning his first career individual victory.

Oldie But Goodie: Mark O’Meara. With a closing 68, the 58-year-old was T-22 and finished under par for the first time since 2001. Must have been all those practice rounds alongside Tiger. 

Amateur Hour: None of the seven amateurs in the Masters field made the cut, as the quality of the participants continues to worsen. The events in Asia and Latin America are helping to grow the game, but if Augusta National wants a competitive amateur it should offer a spot to the NCAA individual champion. 

Rory, and I still think it’ll end up being a sizable gap between the two. Distance will only grow in importance in the majors, and Boy Wonder has a decided advantage in that department. Look at the top 10 or 15 players in the world. Nearly all of them mash the ball. Spieth isn't short by any means, but he's far from a bomber. He relies mostly on short-game magic and strategy, and when his swing is in a groove, as it has been for the better part of five months now, he is going to contend in nearly every tournament he plays. The belief here, though, is that Rory’s swing is built more for the long haul, and having young rivals like Spieth and P-Reed and Day and Hideki will help keep him motivated over the next few years.

Spieth said it was his 8-foot par putt on 16, and it’s hard to argue. Rose was staring down a 15-foot birdie putt that could have cut into Spieth’s four-shot lead, and we were looking at a possible two-shot swing with two holes to go. But Rose missed, Spieth jarred his – was there ever a doubt? – and the coronation was on. 

That may have gotten the top billing, but the boldest shot he played Sunday was the long iron into 13. He could have – should have, probably – played to the fat part of the green and two-putted for birdie, but he took the aggressive line and went right at it. That shot was a couple of yards from getting wet and making the final 90 minutes a lot more interesting.