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Monday Scramble: Deep pools at WGC-Match Play

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Justin Rose channels his inner Steph Curry, the PGA Tour unveils its new match-play format, Lydia Ko stomps out another would-be challenger, Tiger Woods returns to some semblance of normalcy and more in this week's bracket-busting edition of the Monday Scramble: 

The WGC-Cadillac Match Play is the event that tour types have circled on their calendar since it was announced that the tournament would have a new date, a new site, a new format and even a new selection show for 2015. The only certainty? That no one really knows what to expect this week in San Francisco, other than that the fact that (1) Wednesday is no longer one of the best days in golf, and (2) the biggest stars are guaranteed at least three days at TPC Harding Park. The inherent win-or-go-home drama brought some much-needed urgency to the proceedings, but let's face it: The event could never truly thrive if there was a chance that Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson all could be gone by sundown Wednesday.

So this format seems to offer a good alternative: Even with a sleepier-than-usual Wednesday, there’s a potential payoff down the line. First, there is the possibility of at least a few playoffs on Friday, if after group play three of the four players have the same record. (The head-to-head record is used to break a tie between two players.) And then the weekend should produce a few can’t-miss matchups, because the better players should prevail after playing three matches against weaker opponents (on paper, at least). 

The WGC-Match Play has been unkind to favorites in recent years, so we won't even bother offering a prediction. Our only hope is that we don’t get Joost Luiten vs. Tommy Fleetwood in the finals and have to go back to the drawing board.

1. Any discussion of PGA Tour thoroughbreds has to include Justin Rose.

His victory at the Zurich Classic was his seventh on the PGA Tour and his sixth consecutive season with at least one win. Only Dustin Johnson (eight) has a longer streak. 

“I’m actually incredibly grateful and proud of that stat,” Rose said afterward. 

And there's also this: Since 2010, only Rory McIlroy (nine) and Tiger Woods (eight) have more Ws than Rose’s seven. 

2. Rose said he recently drew inspiration from NBA sharpshooter Steph Curry, and why not? Just as Curry fills it up with 3s, Rose has been pouring in birdies from everywhere over the last few weeks. At TPC Louisiana, the classy Englishman went 23 under with no bogeys over his final 66 holes. 

Rose and his caddie, Mark Fulcher, took in the Warriors’ game on Thursday night and saw Curry’s heroics in person. The next day, when Rose’s round had stalled, “Fooch” reminded his man of the analogy – how Curry kept wanting the ball and hoisting up 3s and believing in himself, even when the shots weren’t dropping.

Rose proceeded to bury the next 12-footer he faced and was on his way. 

“That’s what great athletes that you look up to do,” he said. “In the big moments, they want the ball and they make big shots and big putts.” 

Even Rose admitted that the setup last week in New Orleans wasn’t in his “wheelhouse.” He’s made his living on tough, traditional golf courses, places like Merion and Congressional, where par is rewarded. “But you want to become a player that can win on every type of course,” he said afterward, and so now he can take a lot of confidence knowing that he can go low with the best of 'em, too. 

3. Speaking of birdies ... in his last two starts, at the Masters and Zurich, Rose has shot a combined 36 under par while making 49 (!) birdies and destroying the par 5s (20 under). 

4. Breaking down the just-released match-play bracket ... 

Most intriguing group: Group 1. Maybe it's just because it has four very familiar names. Maybe because it has two major champions and two FedEx Cup winners. Whatever the case, it was the first group determined and stood through the selection process as the one to watch.

Three can't-miss matchups in group play: 1. Rory McIlroy vs. BIlly Horschel: Anyone remember their heated battles at the 2007 Walker Cup? We do. 2. Jimmy Walker vs. Ian Poulter: This is Poulter's best chance to win a Tour event each year, but maybe he should be scared of Walker, not the other way around. 3. J.B. Holmes vs. Brooks Koepka: Balls go far.

Star with the toughest path to the finals: Bubba Watson. Louis Oosthuizen wants some Masters payback, Keegan Bradley loves him some match play, and Miguel Angel Jimenez is just awesome.

Star with the easiest path to the finals: Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson make strong cases, but we're going with Jordan Spieth. He faces Lee Westwood, Matt Every and Mikko Ilonen. Westwood is traveling from Indonesia; Ilonen from China; and unless Arnold Palmer hosts this event, Every shouldn't put up much of a challenge.

Wake-me-up-when-it's-over group: Group 16 - Hideki Matsuyama, Kevin Na, Joost Luiten and Alexander Levy. What's worse than matches you don't want to watch? Matches you don't want to watch that won't end.

5. Lydia Ko: She giggles on the 18th tee, she jokes with her caddie after stuffing a wedge shot in the playoff ... and then she crushes the spirit of a former teen phenom desperately hoping for her first win in seven years. A lovable assassin. 

6. Morgan Pressel’s return to competitive relevance was a welcome sight at the Swinging Skirts, but we should also hope that we saw the early stages of a budding rivalry between two under-20 studs, Ko and Brooke Henderson.

So far it’s a completely one-sided affair, of course – Ko has seven LPGA titles while Henderson has made only two tour starts as a pro – but it shouldn’t be that way for long.

After all, it was Henderson, the 17-year-old Canadian starlet, who looked like she had the tournament in the bag when she opened up a big lead Saturday. (She played a nervy final round and finished one shot out of a playoff.) Henderson is fiery and aggressive. Ko is stoic and ruthlessly efficient. That week-in, week-out consistency will keep Ko in the winner’s circle more often, but Henderson makes for a perfect foil because of her competitive makeup.

7. Henderson's reward for a third-place finish in San Francisco: a last-minute flight to Irving, Texas ... to Monday qualify for this week’s event. Unlike on the PGA Tour, non-members don’t automatically get into the next tournament with a top-10 finish. This ridiculous rule makes the LPGA even more of a closed shop.

8. OK, so it was always going to be a difficult task with the marathon, hottest-guy-wins finish in NOLA, but Jason Day is now just 1-for-5 when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead. Puzzling, because if you could construct the perfect golfer, he’d look something like the 27-year-old Australian: built like a NFL safety, with a rocket-launching driver, sky-high irons and relentless attitude. So why does he *only* have three wins?

He’s first in the Tour’s all-around ranking, but Day remains prone to the occasional stray ball (176th in accuracy) and missed putt (187th from inside 7 feet). It’s also possible he wants it too much – he gets amped up, he gets in his own way and, before he even has a chance to calm himself down, he has already cost himself the tournament. Despite his nearly 10 years of pro experience, he's still learning how to win.

It’s frustrating to watch, because Day has the potential to be an absolute world-beater.  

9. A record that won't be approached anytime soon: Freddie Jacobson went 542 consecutive holes without a three-putt.

His three-jack Friday at the Zurich was his first since Jan. 23. To put that in perspective: The average PGA Tour player would have 16 three-putts over that span.

10. In one of the least surprising developments of the past week, Tiger Woods announced that he had signed up for next week’s Players Championship. Why couldn’t he have just made that obvious decision Sunday at the Masters? Good question, and there is no clear answer, other than he enjoys staying in the news. TPC Sawgrass is one of the most demanding layouts on the Tour schedule, requiring players to shape shots in both directions and scramble from tricky spots. Woods’ history there isn’t overwhelmingly great – though he’s a two-time winner, he has only one other top-10 in 13 tries – but the tough test should provide a better barometer of where his game is as we enter the second half of the season.

11. Unless Woods turns around his game in a hurry, or adds a few non-traditional events to his schedule, he could be looking at a short competitive season. He’s already booked for The Players, Memorial and U.S. Open. There’s a chance he will return to the Greenbrier before the Open. Then he has the Quicken Loans and PGA. That’d be only seven starts, max. At No. 116 in the world, he is not yet eligible for the WGC-Bridgestone. (Must be top 50 as of Aug. 3). At No. 196, he is not yet eligible for the FedEx Cup playoffs. (Three-and-a-half months to go.) Quite simply, he’ll have to make each and every appearance count if he wants to prolong his season.

12. Lee Westwood nearly coughed up a five-shot lead Sunday, but in the end he improved to 3-0 at the Indonesian Masters. He earned $135,000 for the event, but likely took home countless more, since we're guessing he didn’t fly to Jakarta for a $750K event out of the goodness of his heart.

It was the 42-year-old’s 42nd career title, and he now has won three or more times in six different countries (Germany, England, Japan, South Africa, Sweden). The notable absence: the United States, where, incredibly, he has won only twice.  

13. The PGA Tour’s sponsors sure are getting their money’s worth: A week after RBC man Jim Furyk prevailed in a playoff at the Heritage, Zurich ambassador Rose stormed to victory in soggy New Orleans.

As he waited to see if his 22-under 266 would hold up, Rose had no problem spreading the Zurich gospel. He flexed his left bicep and pointed to the logo on his sleeve. He recreated the Zurich advertisement by posing with two young kids. He snapped selfies with three members of the HMS Lancaster. Worried about a possible playoff? Nah, not this guy.

Rose looooves the Zurich Classic, and not just because he’s compensated handsomely. In his last 15 rounds at TPC Louisiana he is a whopping 60 under par – nearly 20 shots better than the next best on the list. 

14. In only his second start since returning from back surgery, the semi-retired Steve Stricker snapped the longest active streak for consecutive cuts made, with 36. This comes less than a month after then-leader Adam Scott failed to play the weekend in Tampa. Matt Kuchar now holds the Tour lead, with 22. If the trend continues, however, he’ll be doomed sometime in May. 

Nearly 17 million people tuned into the television special in which former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner announced that he’s transitioning genders. Many applauded Jenner for his courage, but as usual Steve Elkington pandered to the lowest common denominator of society by tweeting a disparaging remark about Jenner:

When the backlash (predictably) began, Elkington turned his wrath against a news site that reported his tweet and encouraged his followers to unfollow the account. That his tweet hasn’t yet been deleted shows just how clueless this guy is. Then again, it’s hardly surprising, since it’s been quite a two-year stretch for the former major winner, from his cracks about Pakistanis to a fatal plane crash to his take on gay football player Michael Sam.

Phil Mickelson will miss this week's WGC-Match Play because of "personal issues." He's played the event only once since 2009, usually because it conflicted with his kids' break from school, but this time felt different: Lefty has filmed commercials for the Tour and praised the new format.

Worried that Donald Trump was going to ruin Turnberry, arguably the world’s most scenic links? Fear not. Trump is dumping about $300 million into the renovation, with the biggest changes coming to the most picturesque part of the course, on the ninth and 10th holes. Take a look at this video: The plans look awesome.

One of the hole-in-one prizes at the Volvo China Open was a Volvo EW60C Compact Excavator. It’s an absurd prize that will likely end up on eBay before long, but Mikko Ilonen demonstrated at least one good golf-related use for it.

The women’s Big Ten Championship ended in a tie for the third consecutive year. That's right: No playoff for the overall team champion. Did everyone get a medal, too? 

Can't help but wonder if Rory McIlroy OK'd the junior players to post this arm-wrestling video on social media. Because embarrassing him sure seems like a strange way to repay the guy after he took time out of his busy schedule to give a clinic, answer their questions and even play video games with them:

Was Nick Faldo cheering against Jordan Spieth at the Masters because he didn’t want him to break some of his major records? Jack Nicklaus and many in attendance thought that Faldo was joking when he said that during a fundraising event, but the Columbus Dispatch reporter who attended the luncheon and wrote about the exchange clearly didn’t think so. Sure, Faldo was probably being playful and entertaining, but he likely meant at least some of what he said. It's human nature. Just own it. 

Brendon de Jonge shared the opening-round lead in NOLA, but for the 225th consecutive tournament he failed to get the job done on the weekend. Don’t feel too bad for him. Dude has still banked $10.67 million in his career. 

Time to panic? Paula Creamer shot 82-78 in front of friends and family at the Swinging Skirts and nearly finished DFL. She has one top-15 this season, she’s slipped to 29th in the world, and she has just one win in the last five years. Going up against girls who are younger, hungrier and better in virtually every aspect, the 28-year-old is in danger of becoming an afterthought. 

On Jan. 1, I would have said Sergio Garcia – he's one of the best ball-strikers in the world and has a win and four other top-10s at Sawgrass, including each of the past two years. But he’s been pedestrian, at best, so far. So, now, my short list of contenders …

  • Henrik Stenson. Has been sick for nearly a month with the flu, but he’s putting better than he has in his life and he has a strong record at TPC.
  • Matt Kuchar. The winner in 2013, he showed signs of life at the Heritage after a listless few months. This is one of his favorite tournaments of the year.
  • Jim Furyk. Full of confidence after breaking his winless drought, Furyk is another one of the plodder types that always seem to play well here. No wins in his hometown event, but he was second a year ago and also has three other top-fives. 

Well, he’s 116th now. To crack the top 20, he’d need to win at least a handful of events. It’s hard to make a move in the OWGR. Jimmy Walker has won five times since the start of the 2013-14 season, and he’s still only No. 11. Based on what we’ve seen from Tiger in limited action this season, would you expect him to win a few times? Didn’t think so. Because he’s not eligible for the guaranteed cash-grabs this week in San Francisco or (at least not yet) in Akron, he needs to play well in the majors to rocket up the rankings. He's a good bet for a high finish at St. Andrews, but he could struggle to contend at the other venues this year, especially if he doesn’t get the long-game issues straightened out. At this point, finishing the year inside the top 75 seems like a realistic goal. 

The favorite? Yes, because he’s the best player in the world. But he’s not the overwhelming, can’t-miss pick at any of the next three.

Chambers is such a crapshoot because it’s so unfamiliar to players, but you have to like (1) Spieth, because he has played the course in tournament conditions, at the 2010 U.S. Amateur, and his caddie used to loop there, and (2) Day, because his all-around game is so solid and he embraces the difficult Open conditions.

Rory should contend at St. Andrews because of his atomic driver, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be one of the top dogs at Whistling Straits, along with other studs like Bubba, DJ and Stense.