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Monday Scramble: McIlroy fit; Lowry scrambles to win

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Shane Lowry makes a few great escapes, Rory McIlroy returns to action, Jim Furyk coughs up another 54-hole lead and the best players in the world are reminded that "THIS IS MAJOR" in this week's cheesy edition of the Monday Scramble: 

Even before he posted workout videos and spoke in emoji, before he played two practice rounds at Whistling Straits and declared his injured left ankle a “non-issue,” there were many smart people who thought Rory McIlroy would be making a mistake by trying to return for the PGA Championship.

They said he’d be rushing back, that he wouldn’t be 100 percent, that he’d be a victim of his own hubris. They said that it’d be too much too soon, that there would be more risk than reward, that he’d overcompensate and develop bad habits. 

"Save your season, Rory!" they cried. "No, no … save your career!"

Is he making a mistake? Maybe, but right now he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Only he knows how he's feeling, how much discomfort he can handle.

He’s probably not at full strength, and he’ll likely be sore by Sunday night after walking 25-plus miles at one of the hilliest major venues, but if he and his team believe he’s healthy enough to give it a go at the year’s final major, then why not try?

If there was a high probability of re-injury – the most likely scenario is a shot from a downhill lie, with all of the weight on his front foot – then he’d take this week off. His trainer is Steve McGregor, who has worked previously for the Manchester City soccer club and also the New York Knicks. Think this is the first severely sprained ankle he has seen? 

The expectation here is that McIlroy will be fine physically, but that he’ll struggle to score at the PGA – it’ll be 53 days between competitive shots. 

A little rust is easier to fix than a bum ankle.

1. Shane Lowry had not one but two potential candidates Sunday for Shot of the Year – and both came on the back nine, when the pressure was at its most intense.

First came a power wedge shot on 10, after a wild hook off the tee trapped him deep in the woods. He caught a break, receiving a free drop on an upslope because of the 11th tee signage, and he lashed out of the thick rough, his ball soaring over the trees and nestling within 2 feet of the cup.

After the scramblin' man made clutch par saves on Nos. 14 and 17, he went upstairs again for his second shot on 18, when he was clinging to a one-shot lead, when a ricochet off the trees could have led to a big number. His ball somehow sneaked through the branches and came to rest 10 feet away. 

“I couldn’t believe I was seeing the ball coming down from there, coming down on the green,” he said.

Lowry buried the birdie putt to cap a flawless 66 and become the first non-Tour member to win a WGC event since Martin Kaymer in 2011. 

2. One of the best measures of a player’s popularity is the reaction when he wins. Tweets from Lowry's fellow pros poured in after he captured the Bridgestone on Sunday, but the celebration from those at his home club (Esker Hills in Ireland) was even better: 

3. Lowry has just one win since 2012, and a spotty record recently if not for top-10s at the BMW PGA and U.S. Open, but he’s already rocketed up to No. 19 in the world – just one spot behind Patrick Reed, who has four wins in the past 24 months, and ahead of Phoenix Open winner Brooks Koepka, two-time major champion Martin Kaymer and FedEx Cup champ Billy Horschel. Surprising.

4. Jim Furyk had a four-shot lead at the halfway point of the Bridgestone Invitational. It was not an unfamiliar position for the 17-time Tour winner, of course, but over the past few years, whenever he had a lead, he faced an uncomfortable line of questioning:

So ... are you going to close out THIS one?

Granted, the narrative has shifted somewhat thanks to his come-from-behind victory in Hilton Head, his first title since 2010. Furyk even said last week that it was “a refreshing conversation to sit here and talk.”

Two days later, though, he added to what is one of the more amazing stats in golf: He is now 0-for-his-last-10 when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead. 

To hear Furyk afterward, he was surprised to even have a chance to win.

“If we go back to a lot of the interviews I was doing Thursday and Friday, I was saying I was missing too many fairways, made too many poor swings. I really never did figure it out,” he said. “I was covering up with putts early in the week. And under the gun, it got a little worse on the weekend. We’ve got some work to do.” 

Not all losses are created equal – Lowry closed with a bogey-free 66 – but it's clear Furyk still hasn’t vanquished all of his final-round demons. 

5. It’s worth noting that Furyk’s counterpart on Sunday, Justin Rose, hasn’t fared much better as a frontrunner. His closing 72 (and eventual T-3 finish) dropped his career mark to 3-for-11 when sharing the third-round lead on Tour. 

6. Does the Bridgestone help predict major success?

  • The last three years, the PGA winner finished in the top-5 the week prior at Firestone. 
  • Going back even further, over the last nine editions, the eventual PGA champ hasn’t finished worse than 22nd at the final WGC event of the season. 

So, if history holds, that would rule out (among others): Sergio Garcia, Zach Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson, Louis Oosthuizen, Kaymer, Dustin Johnson and Jimmy Walker. Yikes. 

7. Here are one man’s favorites for the PGA Championship:

  1. Bubba Watson: His smash-mouth game and the Straits' big ballpark are a perfect fit, as evidenced by his 2010 playoff loss. His major record this year is a concern, but back-to-back runners-up should give him a little extra fire this week. 
  2. Jason Day: In great form and brimming with confidence. The difference now is that, after his macho finish in Canada, he knows he can get the job done down the stretch.
  3. Rickie Fowler: Ditto for this stud, who could stamp a breakout year with a breakthrough major.  
  4. Henrik Stenson: Under the radar, per usual, but he’s coming off a T-6 at Firestone and he’s a proven late-season performer, finishing in the top six in four of the past five PGAs he’s played.
  5. D. Johnson: Would have listed him No. 1 before his lackluster weekend (75-76) at the Bridgestone, a continuation of his troubling finish at the Open (75-75). If he were to win, it’d be a redemption story for the ages. 

8. Bubba led the field in driving distance at Firestone, averaging (gulp) 331.3 yards per pop, the highest total since the PGA Tour began keeping the statistic in 2003.

Keep blaming those belly putters, though. 

9. Jordan Spieth prefers to play the week before a major.

Why? “I can kind of find out the tendencies, good and bad, that are in my game at the time when the pressure is on,” he said.

Clearly, it works for him.

Here is how he has fared in his 2015 major tuneups:

  • Shell Houston Open: T-2 (lost in playoff); Masters: 1st 
  • Memorial: T-3; U.S. Open: 1st
  • John Deere Classic: 1st; Open Championship: T-4 
  • WGC-Bridgestone Invitational: T-10; PGA: ?

10. Some perspective: When the PGA was last held at Whistling Straits, in 2010, Spieth was a rising high-school senior who didn’t even reach match play at the Western Amateur.

11. Spieth toured the Straits for the first time before heading to Firestone, and said that the successful players this week will have to be “very special” from tee to green. If he wants to become the first player to win all three American majors in the same year, he’ll definitely have to be sharper than he was in Akron.

He hit only 52 percent of the greens at Firestone (38 of 72), a product of a driver that was uncharacteristically wild. Spieth was much better Sunday, finding 10 fairways (four more than any other round), and not surprisingly so was his score: 66, which was good enough for a backdoor top-10. 

Driving will be a major point of emphasis when he arrives at the PGA, because medium-length hitters need to be in the short grass to have any chance to attack. 

12. Dustin Johnson won’t have a chance to ground his club again down the right side of the 18th hole at Whistling Straits – that area has been covered by a spectator grandstand. 

Trying to explain what happened on the 72nd hole back in 2010, DJ said that he thought his ball had come to rest on a trampled piece of dirt and that it never crossed his mind that he was in a bunker.

“Maybe I should have looked at the rule sheet a little harder,” he admitted afterward.

Hey, DJ: You’re in luck! 

The notice to competitors was sent out on social media Sunday, so that (hopefully) there are no misunderstandings this time. 

Interestingly, only four words of the letter have been amended from 2010 (in bold):  

All areas of the course that were designed and built as bunkers, filled with sand, will be played as bunkers (hazards), whether or not they have been raked. This will mean that many bunkers positioned outside of the ropes, as well as some areas of bunkers inside the ropes, close to the rope line, will likely include numerous footprints, heel prints, trash and tire tracks during the play of the Championship. Such irregularities of surface are a part of the game and no free relief will be available from these conditions. All bunkers inside the ropes will be raked each morning prior to play as normal. 

13. When it comes to Tiger Woods, what’s the major number?

Assuming he doesn’t snap a seven-year drought in the majors or finish second at Whistling Straits, he’ll be outside the cut line for the FedEx Cup Playoffs. He said that he’ll decide whether to play the Wyndham based on how he plays at the PGA, but he’ll have to get an early sense of how he is going to finish – that decision has to come no later than 30 minutes after he finishes his second round. 

Woods is currently 185th in the standings, at 147 points. That leaves him 275 points behind the current bubble boy, Vijay Singh, who has 422. 

More points are available at majors, but to be safe, let’s say that Woods needs 325 points to crack the top 125. If he finishes 10th at the PGA – he doesn’t have a top-10 on Tour in two years, remember – then he would still need a top-2 finish at Wyndham. If he is fifth at Whistling Straits, a solo third in Greensboro might still leave him on the outside looking in.

The question: Would he really want to face a win-to-get-in scenario in Greensboro, knowing the potential embarrassment of coming up short against a weak field? Stay tuned Friday. 

14. File this under “because golf”: 

• Troy Merritt shot 138 on the weekend at the Quicken Loans National, including a third-round 61, and won his first tournament on the PGA Tour. 

Three days later, he shot his first Tour round in the 80s, the start of a 22-over 302 week, and he finished last among the 77 starters at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. 

• Eight days ago, Steven Bowditch shot 83 during the final round of the Quicken Loans – five strokes higher than the next-worst score that day. He made $13,000 and some change. 

Saturday at Firestone, he shot 63 to climb up the leaderboard, and he finished T-12 to match his third-best finish in 27 starts. He earned $126,000. 

Andres Romero doesn’t have a fighting chance to make the playoffs.

Battling to keep his card, Romero became so frustrated after back-to-back bogeys at the Barracuda Championship that he punched a sign and – wait for it – broke his hand. Could be tough to form an interlocking grip with a cast on his right paw.

Romero, No. 157 in the FedEx Cup standings, ended up withdrawing from the opposite-field event, but not before he putted a ball off the tee on the last four holes and took double bogey – the highest possible score in the modified Stableford format, and the proper punishment for such petulance.  

In a Facebook post, he apologized to the tournament, the fans and his sponsors for a “big mistake,” and said that his heart was “broken” after throwing away all of his hard work. 

A knockout blow, indeed.

This week's award winners ... 

You Had One Job: 18th-green announcer. Reading from a tee sheet as the players walked up 18, he somehow mangled the tournament winner’s name, calling him “Shawn” Lowry. 

Rest in Peace: Louise Suggs. One of the most influential LPGA players of all time, the Hall of Famer won 11 majors and served as the tour’s president three times. She was 91. 

Math wizard: Kyle Reifers. An eagle is worth five points in the modified Stableford format. So making three eagles in the last six holes is very, very good. Reifers’ record-breaking 22-point total in Reno helped get him into a playoff, where he lost to good-guy journeyman J.J. Henry (who, of course, eagled 18 to win).

Mr. Consistency: Jordan Spieth. Only five of his last 51 rounds have been over par. That streak began March 8. Absurd.

Future Olympian: Matt Kuchar. Oh, he probably won’t end up making the U.S. Olympic golf team, but he’s worth a tryout for the USA Table Tennis squad, no?:

Maybe NOT a Future Olympian: Adam Scott. After the PGA Tour trotted out Henrik Stenson, Byeong-Hun An and Kuchar as the faces of their one-year-to-go countdown, Scott once again made clear that he has little interest in all things Olympics, calling the event a “fun exhibition.” Scott added that “it’s absolutely a possibility” that he will skip the event, because it is not a “priority.” It’ll be interesting to see if Scott changes his tune, or if many other elite players follow suit and let someone else get a crack at a gold medal.

Clean, Old Fashioned Hate: Kisner vs. Hadley (with Harman and Peterson cameos!). In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a proud UGA alum, but this innocuous tweet by Hadley, a former Tech standout, touched off quite a bit of Twitter fun. Dawgs on Top. 

A couple of theories: Because it's hard to win; because the pursuers have less pressure and can take more chances; and because Tiger Woods spoiled us, because he tricked us into believing that anyone with a 54-hole lead should go on to win. It's just not that simple. If nothing else, the dismal closing records of some of the game's best players should help us appreciate Woods more, because he was so proficient in that position (53 of 57, including 42-2 when holding the outright lead). 

The biggest story would be Spieth, because he'd become the first player to capture all three U.S. majors in the same season, and he'd join Hogan and Woods as the only guys with three majors in a year. Then Rory. (An aside: I heard somewhere that a Rory win would rank right up there with Tiger at Torrey in '08. I thought the talking head was kidding, that there was no way he would say something so ludicrous. Sadly, he was not.) Then DJ. Johnson's story is the most likely, especially if he can turn around his recent weekend woes. As I wrote up top, however, I think we'll see a winner with the surname Watson, Fowler, Day or Stenson.