Monday Scramble: Ranking Masters favorites

By Ryan LavnerApril 4, 2016, 12:15 pm

Masters week finally arrives, Jim Herman stuns in Houston, Lydia Ko dazzles us again, Tiger Woods masters the Friday news dump and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

The Masters is always the most anticipated major, for a few reasons:

It’s the tournament most players most want to win. It’s the inherent beauty and mystique of Augusta National. And it’s the Masters’ place on the calendar – eight months have passed since the last major championship, and every event since has felt like a referendum on the list of favorites.

But this year feels a bit different, no?

Fourteen PGA Tour events have been played in 2016. Eight have been won by major champions, and four former Masters winners have already won a title this year. It's why the Masters field is so small – almost all of the top players are snatching up titles (and, by extension, the automatic invitations).

Four of the top five players in the world have won an event this year, and the only guy who hasn’t, Rory McIlroy, blew a 54-hole lead at Doral and is, well, Rory McIlroy, so he’s a threat every time he tees it up. McIlroy and the other top two players in the world – the winners of five of the past six majors – are all 8-1 odds or better to win at Augusta.

The point here is that this Masters has all the makings of an instant classic, of one of the most memorable majors in the past two decades. Too many great players are in form for there to be a rout, a dud winner, a lack of drama on the back nine.

Or so we hope.

1. Here are one man’s top 10 favorites for the Masters. Adjust your pre-draft rankings accordingly: 

  1. Jason Day: The rare player who can smash right-to-left tee shots and sky-high irons while also dazzling around the greens with one of the game’s best short games. The only thing he hasn’t done at Augusta – where he already has a pair of top-3s – is win.
  2. Adam Scott: Augusta’s stressful greens will test his revamped stroke, but Scott’s ball-striking is strong enough to give himself a great shot at a second green jacket. 
  3. Bubba Watson: The favorite as the Tour left the West Coast, Watson contended at Doral but tweaked his back and then bowed out early at the Match Play. Both of his Masters wins have come in even-numbered years and following victories at Riviera and runners-up at Doral. Hmmm. 
  4. Jordan Spieth: Not exactly peaking heading into Augusta, with five over-par scores in his last 10 rounds, but in his young career he’s already shown a remarkable ability to rise to the occasion on the biggest stages.
  5. Rickie Fowler: The timing just seems right: He’s in good form, with a win in Abu Dhabi and a bunch of other top finishes, and he’s placed in the top 12 in each of the past two Masters. Too bad orange and green don’t go well together. 
  6. Rory McIlroy: Yes, his pursuit of the career Grand Slam remains a major storyline this week, but it almost seems as if he’s flying under the radar, with Day’s emergence and Spieth’s defense. If he can have a decent putting week and avoid a nine-hole blowup, it could be his week.  
  7. Phil Mickelson: For years, Lefty’s early-season struggles were disregarded because his record at Augusta was so good – Don’t worry, he’ll find his game once he heads down Magnolia Lane. Though he remains winless since July 2013, he has played well during the year’s first few months. Now, expectations are understandably high.  
  8. Dustin Johnson: His physical tools are undeniable and he’s coming off his best result at the Masters (T-6). It remains to be seen, once again, whether he has the discipline to handle the Sunday pressure.
  9. Louis Oosthuizen: His runner-up at the Match Play (his fifth consecutive top-15) eliminated any chance of being a Masters sleeper, but perhaps King Louie will go overlooked after laying an egg in his final tune-up in Houston. 
  10. Justin Rose: Quiet start to the year, but he owns one of the best scoring averages on Tour and has finished outside the top 25 only twice in 10 career trips to Augusta. 

2. Tip of the cap to journeyman Jim Herman, who shared the 54-hole lead at the Houston Open, chipped in on the 70th hole and broke through on Tour for the first time in 106 starts. He gave a teary interview afterward and didn't express any regrets about missing his 8:42 p.m. flight back to Fort Lauderdale. 

He was heading to Augusta instead. 

3. A decade ago, Herman was working as an assistant pro at Trump Bedminster in New Jersey when he played a round with a billionaire named Donald Trump. Impressed, Trump wrote Herman a check to help fund his floundering career.

After failing at Q-School, toiling on the mini-tours and then graduating from the Tour a whopping four times, Herman is now a Tour winner.

“I feel awfully good,” Trump told USA Today on Sunday night. “It was really nice to see him win. He’s such a good guy. A nice person. And he deserves it. Such a great story. He’s what America is all about. He never gave up, never gave up on his dream. I’m proud of him.” 

4. Does a high finish in Houston augur a great week in Augusta? Well, it has recently for a few top players:

  • Spieth lost in a playoff in Houston last year. He won the Masters.
  • Matt Kuchar lost in a playoff in Houston in 2014. He tied for fifth the next week.
  • Fowler and McIlroy each finished sixth in Houston in ’14. They tied for fifth at the Masters. 

But no player has ever won the Houston Open and Masters in back-to-back weeks. 

Still, there were a few meaningful takeaways from Houston, such as ... 

5. Spieth got himself into contention Sunday, but he chastised himself for rinsing eight (!) shots during the week. 

6. Mickelson made a number of mistakes as well, especially off the tee, but he shrugged off those miscues. His rationale made sense, too. At Augusta, only one tee shot brings a hazard into play (13), so players are swinging as hard as possible on every tee box. To prepare for the year's first major, Mickelson adopted a similarly aggressive approach at the Golf Club of Houston, which is far more penal, and as a result he took plenty of penalty drops.   

7. Henrik Stenson came close. Again. Since his season-ending victory in Dubai in November 2014, the ball-striking savant has a remarkable 13 top-five finishes, including eight runner-up finishes.

8. DJ might be the least-talked-about player who has the best chance to win. After an opening loss at the Match Play, Johnson added the Houston Open while on the range warming up for his Thursday match, saying that he needed more reps. He reached the knockout stage, torched Patrick Reed with seven birdies and an eagle, and still got in two days of prep at Augusta before a solo third in H-Town. Trending. 

9. Apparently, Daniel Berger’s left wrist is OK. The 22-year-old injured his wrist during the Match Play when he tried to play a shot next to a rock wall. He withdrew from his third-round match but bounced back with a tie for fifth in Houston.    

10. Lydia Ko is truly amazing.

Three weeks from her 19th birthday, she hit all of the clutch shots down the stretch at the ANA Inspiration – none more so than an 88-yard wedge to a foot on the final green, a kick-in birdie that put even more pressure on Ariya Jutanugarn. Read colleague Randall Mell's column here.

Ko is now the youngest two-time major winner, male or female, in the modern era. Her game has no weaknesses – and no limits.

11. The poise and control with which Ko closed out the year’s first major stood in stark contrast to Jutanugarn’s shaky finish.

Staked to a two-shot lead with three to play, she bogeyed the 16th hole, butchered the 17th and then snap-hooked her final tee shot into the water, leading to another dropped shot, her third in a row.

Jutanugarn was one of the best junior players I’ve ever covered, boy or girl, and she’s only now beginning to play her way back into shape after a debilitating back injury. But when you add in her collapse at the 2013 Honda Thailand, there’s already a lot of scar tissue for the uber-talented 20-year-old. 

12. The World Golf Hall of Fame announced last week that it will raise the minimum age for induction from 40 to 50.

About time. 

With players still highly competitive into their 40s, it only makes sense for the Hall to push back the enshrinements until they are Champions Tour eligible.

Most immediately, this new rule affects Tiger Woods, who turned 40 last December, but it’s a move that likely won’t upset him: It spares Woods the awkwardness of being celebrated for a career that isn’t yet over. Mickelson, for instance, won a major a year after his induction speech.  

Tiger Woods

Woods announced – at 8:05 p.m., on a Friday, on April Fools’ Day – that he won’t play in the Masters. In other news, the sun rises in the East.

Of course he wasn’t going to play. Woods is (finally) listening to his doctors and seems determined not to rush what is his final comeback attempt. After all, golfers don’t return from four back surgeries. 

So why the delay? Why wait to announce what seemed so obvious to so many? 

Maybe Woods just wanted to toy with us. Perhaps he seriously thought he could play and the drive to prepare helped his rehab, until he eventually came to his senses.

Whatever the reason, it was odd, and it was unnecessary, and for the first time, few people seemed to notice. Or care.

This week's award winners ... 

Let's Hope This Doesn't Happen at Augusta: Bubba Watson's half-court shot. This is the halftime-entertainment equivalent of having a putt to win the Masters hang on the lip. Brutal.

Surely a Terrible Jinx: The weather forecast for the Masters. This could change at any moment, of course, but Masters week looks nearly perfect – a chance of rain Thursday morning, a steady 20-mph wind Friday, but temperatures will be anywhere from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. Glorious. 

And Your NCAA Player of the Year Is …: Beau Hossler? The Texas junior moved another step closer to wrapping up top-player honors with a two-shot victory Sunday at the Augusta 3M Invitational. It is Hossler’s NCAA-leading fifth title this season – two more than any other player. Voting for the Haskins Award ends before the NCAA Championship, so Hossler has three more events to solidify his position. 

Not Like Jack: Michelle Wie. Much was made of Wiesy’s new putting style – tabletop stance and also mimicking Nicklaus’ famous crouch – but it wasn’t a cure-all for her game. She still averaged 31 putts per round and, after a closing 77, tied for 36th. She hasn’t been better than 25th in seven starts this year. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Oosthuizen. Rounds of 73-77, on a course he loves, a week after a runner-up showing at the Match Play, a few days before the Masters? Sigh. 

Never Gets Old: Tim Herron's scripting.

Getty Images

Spieth takes familiar break ahead of Open defense

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – As his title chances seemed to be slipping away during the final round of last year’s Open Championship, Jordan Spieth’s caddie took a moment to remind him who he was.

Following a bogey at No. 13, Michael Greller referenced a recent vacation he’d taken to Mexico where he’d spent time with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan and why he deserved to be among that group of singular athletes.

Spieth, who won last year’s Open, decided to continue the tradition, spending time in Cabo again before this week’s championship.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I kind of went through the same schedule,” Spieth said on Monday at Carnoustie. “It was nice to have a little vacation.”

Spieth hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship; instead he attended the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this month in Seattle with his sister. It was Spieth’s first time back to the Pacific Northwest since he won the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I went out to Chambers Bay with [Greller],” Spieth said. “We kind of walked down the 18th hole. It was cool reliving those memories.”

But most of all Spieth said he needed a break after a particularly tough season.

“I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working,” he said. “It was nice to kind of have that itch to get back.”

Getty Images

Harrington: Fiery Carnoustie evokes Hoylake in '06

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 3:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – One course came to mind when Padraig Harrington arrived on property and saw a firm, fast and yellow Carnoustie.

Hoylake in 2006.

That's when Tiger Woods avoided every bunker, bludgeoned the links with mid-irons and captured the last of his three Open titles.

So Harrington was asked: Given the similarity in firmness between Carnoustie and Hoylake, can Tiger stir the ghosts this week?

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“I really don’t know,” Harrington said Monday. “He’s good enough to win this championship, no doubt about it. I don’t think he could play golf like the way he did in 2006. Nobody else could have tried to play the golf course the way he did, and nobody else could have played the way he did. I suspect he couldn’t play that way now, either. But I don’t know if that’s the strategy this week, to lay up that far back.”

With three days until the start of this championship, that’s the biggest question mark for Harrington, the 2007 winner here. He doesn’t know what his strategy will be – but his game plan will need to be “fluid.” Do you attack the course with driver and try to fly the fairway bunkers? Or do you attempt to lay back with an iron, even though it’s difficult to control the amount of run-out on the baked-out fairways and bring the bunkers into play?

“The fairways at Hoylake are quite flat, even though they were very fast,” Harrington said. “There’s a lot of undulations in the fairways here, so if you are trying to lay up, you can get hit the back of a slope and kick forward an extra 20 or 30 yards more than you think. So it’s not as easy to eliminate all the risk by laying up.”

Getty Images

How will players game-plan for Carnoustie?

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:31 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Thomas took a familiar slash with his driver on the 18th tee on Monday at Carnoustie and watched anxiously as his golf ball bounced and bounded down the fairway.

Unlike the two previous editions of The Open, at what is widely considered the rota’s most demanding test, a particularly warm and dry summer has left Carnoustie a parched shade of yellow and players like Thomas searching for answers.

Under the best circumstances, Carnoustie is every bit the unforgiving participant. But this week promises to be something altogether different, with players already dumbfounded by how far the ball is chasing down fairways and over greens.

Brown is beautiful here at Royal Dark & Dusty.

But then it’s also proving to be something of a unique test.

Where most practice rounds at The Open are spent trying to figure out what lines are best off tees, this is more a study of lesser evils.

Tee shots, like at the par-4 17th hole, ask multiple questions with few answers. On his first attempt, Thomas hit 2-iron off the tee at No. 17. It cleared the Barry Burn and bounded down the middle of the fairway. Perfect, right? Not this year at Carnoustie, as Thomas’ tee shot kept rolling until it reached the same burn, which twists and turns through both the 17th and 18th fairways, at a farther intersection.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“A hole like 17 in this wind, the trick is getting a club that will carry [the burn],” said Thomas, who played 18 holes on Monday with Tiger Woods. “If that hole gets downwind you can have a hard time carrying the burn and keeping it short of the other burn. It’s pretty bizarre.”

The sixth hole can offer a similar dilemma, with players needing to carry their tee shots 275 yards to avoid a pair of pot bunkers down the right side of the fairway. Yet just 26 yards past those pitfalls looms a second set of bunkers. Even for the game’s best, trying to weave a fairway wood or long-iron into a 26-yard window can be challenging.

“Six is a really hard hole, it really just depends on how you want to play it. If you want to take everything on and have a chance of hitting an iron into a par 5, or just kind of lay back and play it as a three-shot hole,” Thomas shrugged.

It’s difficult to quantify precisely how short the 7,400-yard layout is playing. It’s not so far players are flying the ball in the air, particularly with relatively little wind in the forecast the rest of the week, so much as it is a question of how a particular shot will run out after it’s made contact with the firm turf.

As the field began to get their first taste of the bouncy fun, one of the earliest indications something was askew came on Sunday when Padraig Harrington, who won The Open the last time it was played at Carnoustie in 2007, announced to the social world that he’d hit into the burn on the 18th hole.

“This time it was the one at the green, 457 yards away,” the Irishman tweeted. “The fairways are a tad fast.”

Most players have already resigned themselves to a steady diet of mid-irons off tees this week in an attempt to at least partially control the amount of run-out each shot will have.

Jordan Spieth, the defending champion, hadn’t played a practice round prior to his media session, but could tell what’s in store just from his abbreviated range session on Monday. “Extremely baked out,” he said.

The conditions have already led Spieth and his caddie, Micheal Greller, to conjure up a tentative game plan.

“You might wear out your 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you’re used to,” Greller told him.

But even that might not be the answer, as Tommy Fleetwood discovered on Sunday during a practice round. Fleetwood has a unique connection with Carnoustie having shot the course record (63) during last year’s Dunhill Links Championship.

The Englishman doesn’t expect his record to be in danger this week.

In fact, he explained the dramatically different conditions were evident on the third hole on Sunday.

“There’s holes that have been nothing tee shots, like the third. If you play that in the middle of September or October [when the Dunhill is played] and it’s green and soft, you could just hit a mid-iron down the fairway and knock it on with a wedge,” Fleetwood said. “Yesterday it was playing so firm, the fairways really undulate and you have bunkers on either side, it’s actually all of a sudden a tough tee shot.”

The alternative to the iron game plan off the tee would be to simply hit driver, an option at least one long-hitter is considering this week if his practice round was any indication.

On Sunday, Jon Rahm played aggressively off each tee, taking the ubiquitous fairway bunkers out of play but at the same time tempting fate with each fairway ringed by fescue rough, which is relatively tame given the dry conditions. But even that option has consequences.

“It’s kind of strange where there’s not really a number that you know you’re going to be short,” said Fleetwood, who played his Sunday practice round with Rahm. “[Rahm] hit a drive on 15 that was like 400 yards. You just can’t account for that kind of stuff.”

Whatever tactic players choose, this Open Championship promises to be a much different test than what players have become accustomed to at Carnoustie.

Getty Images

Fleetwood: Carnoustie course record won't help at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 2:28 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Tommy Fleetwood holds the competitive course record at Carnoustie, but he’s skeptical that his past experience will help him at The Open.

Last fall, in the European Tour’s Dunhill Links Championship, Fleetwood birdied six of his last eight holes to card a bogey-free, 9-under 63, the lowest score ever at what is widely considered to be the most difficult course in the Open rota.

No one expects a repeat this week at Carnoustie – not with the conditions this brown, firm and fast.

“It’s a completely different course,” Fleetwood said Monday. “Shots that you’ve hit have literally no relevance for a lot of it.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It doesn’t do any harm to have played it for a few years. It doesn’t do any harm to have a course record, but it’s a completely different challenge to what we normally face.”

Fleetwood took a much-needed two-week break after the French Open, deciding to withdraw from last week’s Scottish Open for a bit more time in his own bed. (He said it was his last full week at home until mid-October.) Since his sparkling 63 to nearly steal the U.S. Open, the Englishman said that he’d “run out of steam” but now feels energized.  

“There’s not really a good reason why I couldn’t do it (this week),” he said. “It really doesn’t matter what’s happened in the past. The only thing they could do is build your confidence and give you examples of what you can do – examples that you can end up there, and you have the game to compete.”