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Monday Scramble: Major mettle, Masters favorites

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Lexi Thompson agonizingly loses a major, Russell Henley heads back to Augusta, Tiger Woods withdraws late and more in this week's major edition of Monday Scramble:

No sport lacks common sense quite like golf, a point that was reinforced Sunday at the ANA Inspiration. 

Yes, the Rules of Golf were applied correctly, and Thompson should have been penalized two shots for playing from an incorrect spot. But allowing an outside agency to affect the outcome – and, most troubling, a day later – was maddening for anyone with an interest in fairness.

After announcing 30 proposed rules changes last month, the USGA and R&A asked for feedback before those rules go into effect in 2019.

Here is one that wasn’t considered and now should move to the top of their to-do list: Viewers should not be allowed to call, email, fax, tweet or smoke signal any potential infraction – especially a day late.

The lessons from Lexi’s lost major shouldn’t soon be forgotten. 

1. In a way, Thompson was fortunate not to have been disqualified on the spot as she made her way to the 13th tee Sunday.

Two years ago, she would have been sent packing.

The Rules of Golf were changed for 2016 so that, according to the exception to Rule 6-6d, any player who turns in a scorecard and did not knowingly commit an infraction would not be disqualified but rather assessed a two-shot penalty. That was the second of the two-shotters she incurred. 

Where that rule fails, however, is that it’s only used for the first, second and third rounds. If Thompson had won Sunday, but a rules breach wasn’t spotted until Monday, it’s too late. The tournament has been completed. No penalty.

That’s a huge problem. 

2. The real crime here was that the LPGA wasn’t notified about Thompson’s potential infraction until the final group was on the ninth hole on Sunday.

That’s nearly 20 hours after she marked her 1-foot putt and didn’t replace it in the original spot.

Had that person sent in the email earlier, Thompson would only have been docked two shots and could have played the back nine of a major without tears streaming down her face.  

3. There is some hope that this kind of infraction will be eliminated in the future, if the proposed rules changes are approved.

Among those proposals was a reasonable judgment standard, which states that a player needs only to estimate or measure a spot, point, line, area or distance and will not be second-guessed based on later evidence (such as a video review) if the player did all that “could reasonably be expected under the circumstances to estimate or measure accurately.”

That would seem to absolve Thompson, whose infraction went undetected by both her and her fellow playing competitors on Saturday. 

4. There is an argument to be made that allowing viewer call-ins is a necessary evil. A professional golf tournament is a massive playing field that cannot possibly be covered by a few rules officials. They can’t see everything.

And players don’t want to win with a penalty. Can you imagine the uproar had video surfaced of this infraction, she was not penalized, and she went on to win by one? There would have been calls for her to disqualify herself. She would have been skewered on social media.

A solution would be to have a rules official dedicated to watching the TV feed. If he spots a potential infraction, fine. But it would cut out the armchair officials at home. 

5. After the five-shot swing, Thompson rallied just to force a playoff.

It was reminiscent of what happened to Dustin Johnson at last year’s U.S. Open. Leading the toughest tournament in the world on one of the United States’ most difficult golf courses, Johnson was confronted by a rules official, informed of a potential penalty, and brushed it off to win his first major. 

Thompson, meanwhile, played her last six holes in 2 under par, and her eagle putt on the last in regulation to win outright came up a few inches short.

To this scribe, at least, that was the most impressive aspect: Neither DJ nor Lexi wilted when confronted by a rules official in the MIDDLE of a final round of a major. Remarkable resilience. 

6. And, as usually happens in these scenarios, the winner was completely overshadowed.

So Yeon Ryu, 26, won her second career major with a closing 68 and a birdie on the first playoff hole.

Even she admitted that the ending was awkward. 

“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” Ryu said. “It just hurts me as well. It’s a weird feeling. But at the same time I’m really proud of myself and just appreciate everything right now.” 

7. Here’s one way to get back to the Masters: Make 10 birdies while playing in the final group.

It worked for Henley on Sunday at the Shell Houston Open, as he erased a four-shot deficit to storm past Sung Kang and capture his third career Tour title.

The former Georgia product regularly attended the Masters while growing up in Macon, about 120 miles from Augusta. He finished 21st in his most recent appearance, in 2015. 

8. Kang couldn’t miss over the first two rounds, rolling in 300 feet worth of putts to take a six-shot lead. His 17-under 199 total after three rounds matched the tournament scoring record.

On the weekend, however, he made only six birdies and sank just 156 feet worth of putts.

The runner-up finish was his career best on Tour. 

9. All of the handwringing over whether players should withdraw before (or during) the final round of the Houston Open turned out to be for naught.

Tour officials moved up tee times several hours in anticipation of strong storms that threatened to push the Masters tune-up into a fifth day. That, of course, would have proved problematic for the 17 players who made the cut in Houston and also had a major to prepare for.

But ultimately, there was no suspension of play, no last-second withdrawals and no drama. Phew. 

10. Here are one scribe’s 10 favorites for the Masters, in order:

1. Dustin Johnson: Such an obvious favorite that it makes you wary: Can he play smart and position himself in the proper spots? Can his short game hold up? Will his power fade work as well at a course that favors drawers?

2. Jordan Spieth: Not as sharp entering Augusta as he was in 2015, but it’s the course that fits his game best. He’ll be a factor once again.

3. Rory McIlroy: An early-season injury and all of the storylines surrounding DJ and Spieth have actually allowed the world No. 2 to – can you believe this? – slip under the radar entering the year’s first major. That should help as he aims for that elusive green jacket.

4. Phil Mickelson: Figures to contend here for the next decade, but he might not get a better chance than this – he’s motivated, in form, putting brilliantly. Just needs to string four rounds together.

5. Jason Day: Granted, he’s a big question mark, given his family turmoil and his stop-and-start schedule this spring, but he’ll be highly motivated to nab another major. 

6. Rickie Fowler: A risky pick for Masters pools, because he looked good last year, too, and then opened with 80 to miss the cut.  

7. Jon Rahm: Virtually no experience at Augusta, but that’s about the only drawback for a kid who has all of the tools to break the rookie drought here.

8. Justin Rose: Been a quiet past few months for Rose, but he and Lee Westwood are as solid as they come here. Seven consecutive top-25s.

9. Sergio Garcia: Comfortable and confident, but he’s currently ranked 191st in putting. The Masters isn’t his best chance to win a major this year, but wouldn’t it be something if he broke through?

10. Louis Oosthuizen: A fixture in this spot, because a swing that pure is always dangerous.

Others receiving consideration, and an explanation why they weren’t ranked higher: Hideki Matsuyama (slumping of late), Justin Thomas (impossible to predict), Henrik Stenson (best finish T-14), Thomas Pieters (lack of experience).

11. Woods confirmed – at 7:30 p.m., on the Friday before Masters week – that he would not play in the first major of the year.

A surprise, this was not. As much as he talked about “trying everything” in hopes of being ready to play, it was a pipe dream. He only began practicing within the past week, and Golf Channel insider Tim Rosaforte reported that one of his sessions late in the week lasted no more than five minutes.

The bigger question is where does Woods go from here. Does he ramp up his activity for The Players, at a course he doesn’t particularly like? Or Erin Hills, a brutish, new U.S. Open venue? Or Royal Birkdale, where he hasn’t played in nearly two decades?

All of a sudden, with the Masters out of the picture, it makes a 2017 return less appealing. 

12. It’s unusual that a player who has won two green jackets in the past five years isn’t even discussed this week as one of the Masters favorites. So it goes these days for Bubba Watson.

He doesn’t have a top-10 in a full-field stroke-play event in more than a year. Watson changed golf balls (to Volvik) and has lost more than 15 pounds because of changes to his diet. His play has yet to catch up; he is ranked outside the top 130 in iron play and has been woeful around the greens, one of the worst on Tour in putting and scrambling.

Watson said Sunday that his drives once again have the low, boring trajectory he’s had his entire career, and it was as simple as a change in his ball position.

“It’s never been a swing flaw,” he said, and he has only four options for why his shots don’t start the way he wants it: His ball is positioned either too far back, forward, close or far away. Same with his putting.

“It feels good,” he said.

If his putter can catch fire this week, hmm … 

Kelly Kraft and Grayson Murray thrust themselves into a Twitter storm last week when they pointed out how quickly European and Asian players seemed to rise in the world rankings.

Of course, they didn’t put it that politely, and suggested that they could surge up the rankings if they played overseas. 

That prompted this from Thomas Pieters:

The solution for Kraft and Murray, as always, is this: Play better. 

This week's award winners ... 

Still Left Unanswered: Why Lexi marked her 1-foot putt. She wasn’t in her fellow playing competitor’s line. It was the kind of little putt she has made thousands of times without a second thought. So why mark it? To move it away from a pitch mark or spike mark? That was never addressed, only that Thompson didn’t realize it wasn’t in the exact same position. 

Hoping This All Blows Over: Phil Mickelson. The New York Post, citing court documents, reported that Mickelson paid off a $1.95 million debt to noted sports gambler Billy Walters in 2012. A clause in the PGA Tour handbook stipulates that players should not associate with people who could reflect poorly on the game …  

So You’re Saying There’s a Chance: Henley at the Masters. Only four players have won the week prior to the Masters and then again in Augusta – and only one since 1988 (Mickelson in 2006). 

Might Want to Stick to Your Day Job: Tony Romo. With the NFL in the midst of its offseason and his playing future uncertain, the (soon-to-be former) Cowboys quarterback dusted off his clubs and played at the Azalea Invitational. He shot rounds of 78-77-77 to miss the cut. 

Good Results No One Is Talking About: Rafael Campos. With no status on Tour, he top-10'd in his native Puerto Rico, which earned him a spot at Houston, where he finished in the top 10 again, a solo seventh. Now he’s bound for Hilton Head next week. He is a lock to at least secure a spot in the season-ending Tour Finals. 

Locked up: Rory McIlroy. On the eve of the Masters, McIlroy and Nike announced a contract extension that will keep the world No. 2 with the Swoosh until at least his age-37 season. Ten years!

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Seriously, just name somebody you might have picked. Stenson. Spieth. Scott. Kuchar. JB. They all missed the cut. Sigh.