Monday Scramble: Captains, you're on the tee

By Ryan LavnerAugust 29, 2016, 4:00 pm

Patrick Reed picks a good time to win, Rickie Fowler picks a bad time to lose (twice), the Ryder Cup picture comes into focus, Ariya Jutanugarn proves she's the best female player and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

The U.S. Ryder Cup picture became a bit clearer on Sunday when Patrick Reed picked up two wins and Rickie Fowler had a stunning back-nine meltdown at Bethpage Black. 

Reed was already a virtual lock for the team, after his consistent play this season and inspired performance at Gleneagles, but nailing down his first win in nearly 20 months gave captain Davis Love III more freedom with his picks.

One of those spots is likely to go to Fowler, which means the next three weeks are essentially an audition for players such as Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk, J.B. Holmes, Justin Thomas and a Hot Hand to be Identified Later.

Now we'll see who shines on the big stage.  

1. Reed has been one of the most consistent players on the PGA Tour this season. He had eight top-10s entering the playoffs, and he’d been 22nd or better in his last six starts.

The only thing missing, of course, was a trophy. He was winless since a victory at the 2015 Tournament of Champions, a limited-field event that kicks off the new year. 

“Top-10ing is great for making a living,” he said. “But at the end of the day, every time we play golf tournament, we don’t settle for top-10s. We’re going out there to try to get a W and try to get hardware and try to get a trophy.” 

2. And so now that Reed has picked up win No. 5 of his career, it elevated him into some elite company.

According to the Golf Channel research department, these are the three youngest players to reach five (or more) PGA Tour wins in the last decade:

  • Jordan Spieth (21)
  • Rory McIlroy (23)
  • Reed (26)

3. Though Reed’s timing was impeccable, it couldn’t have been much worse for Fowler.

He’s been quiet ever since he lost the Phoenix Open playoff on Super Bowl Sunday. His swing got off track, and his putter went cold. But he entered the final round of The Barclays on the verge of playing his way onto the Ryder Cup team, one shot clear of Reed and in need of a solo top-3 finish to automatically qualify. 

Fowler dropped just one shot during a near-flawless first 64 holes at Bethpage Black, but he made three bogeys and a double on the last eight holes. He plummeted all the way into a three-way tie for seventh. Now, he’ll require a captain’s pick, which he should receive, barring injury or alien abduction.

Still, he was smarting afterward. “It will hurt,” he said, “but it’s only going to make it better for next week. I’ll be in a good spot.” 

But it made us think ... 

4. Fowler’s historic finish at The Players seems like a long time ago, no? His reputation as a stone-cold closer has taken a major hit in 2016.

First there was the playoff loss to Matsuyama in Phoenix, where he made a poor club choice off the tee, got an unlucky bounce and found the water. Then there was the Wells Fargo Championship, where he shot 74 after holding the 54-hole lead. 

And then came the final round of The Barclays, where he closed with 74 and finished T-7.

Fowler is now 0-for-4 with at least a share of the 54-hole lead on Tour. His final-round scores in those events: 73, 74, 74, 74. Oy. 

5. Fowler's Sunday collapse made for an emotional Sunday afternoon for Zach Johnson.

When he finished his round, with Fowler still tied for the lead, Johnson was almost assuredly going to be bumped from the eighth and final automatic qualifying spot. He talked afterward of being in a spot that wasn’t “ideal” and that he’s “just got to play better” over the next few weeks. 

Then Fowler shot a back-nine 39.   

Johnson, who has amassed a 6-6-2 record in four Ryder Cups, grabbed the last spot. He was No. 3 in points as recently as July 4, but it's been a struggle of late, with only a pair of top-10s in his past 13 starts. 

Though his precision game wouldn’t seem an ideal fit for brawny Hazeltine, it’s worth remembering that he tied for 10th when the PGA was last held there, in 2009.  

6. This was supposed to be a new-look U.S. team at Hazeltine, but so far only one rookie (Brooks Koepka) has played his way onto the team.

Love should put the best, most deserving players on the team, of course, but he won’t be able to fall back on the “leadership” rationale when making his picks. The Americans already have plenty of it, from veterans like Phil Mickelson and Johnson, and even from a youngster like Jordan Spieth, who is playing his fourth international team competition at age 23.

That’s why we’d like to see Love infuse some new blood onto the team, assuming they show some form over the next few weeks: Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger, Billy Horschel, Gary Woodland, Tony Finau, Kevin Kisner. Somebody different, because you know exactly what you’re getting from a Matt Kuchar-type – a 4-5-2 record. Yawn. 

If Love goes for the same ol’ players, then he shouldn’t be surprised if he returns with the same ol’ result. 

7. If you think Love has three tough picks to make Sept. 12, how about what European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke faces on Tuesday? 

Unlike the American skipper, who has another few weeks to sort out his wildcard selections, Clarke must fill out the rest of his 12-man roster tomorrow. His decision got decidedly more difficult over the weekend, when Thomas Pieters won for the third time in the past year. 

It’s widely assumed that Clarke will take Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, who will bring veteran leadership and decent form to a team that already has five rookies. (There's also been some chatter across the pond that Clarke will choose Luke Donald, which would be a truly bizarre decision. Yes, he'd be a good foursomes partner for Sergio Garcia, but his runner-up at the Wyndham was his first top-25 since April. There are MUCH better options at Clarke's disposal. Such as ...)

Russell Knox – ranked 20th in the world – was thought to be the leading contender for the final spot, after winning twice this PGA Tour season and edging Pieters by .04 points in the standings, but he’s a short hitter who could struggle in the cold at brawny Hazeltine. Last week was also a worst-case scenario for Knox: He played poorly at The Barclays, where he tied for 60th at another big ballpark, and then Pieters played the first two rounds alongside Clarke (which included an opening 62) and then made three birdies in a row to polish off a closing 65 to win the Made in Denmark.

It’s the big-hitting Pieters’ first victory of the year, but his third in the past 12 months. That's the most of any player over that span. He’s also one of the hottest players on the planet, after finishing fourth at the Olympics, second last week at the Czech Masters and then summoning a winning performance when he needed it most.

“He’s got plenty of good players to pick from,” Pieters said after his win, “so if he doesn’t pick me, then so be it and I’ll work my butt off to get there in the next one.” 

It'd be a tough break for Knox, no doubt, but the best option for Clarke is to take Westwood, Kaymer and Pieters. 

8. For the second time in the past two months, Henrik Stenson withdrew from an event because of a knee injury. It’s the same knee that required arthroscopic surgery during the offseason.

Stenson also withdrew from the U.S. Open but returned the following week at a European Tour event in Germany, where he won for the first time in more than a year and kick-started this epic run.

The Barclays WD was reportedly precautionary and he was scheduled for an MRI last week. Fortunately for Stenson, he’ll get an extra day of rest, with the Deutsche Bank Championship beginning on Friday.

It's terrible timing for the Swede, who was playing some of the best golf of his life, with the Open title, a deep run at the PGA and a silver medal at the Olympics. He’s developed a reputation as golf’s Mr. September, given his track record in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, but that mark is now in jeopardy.

9. In his first start since hitting rock bottom with his putter, Rory McIlroy wasn’t much better at The Barclays.

He missed five putts inside 5 feet and finished the week 77th out of the 79 players who made the cut.

And so, it appears, the fix won’t be as simple as changing from his Nike blade to a Scotty Cameron mallet. McIlroy has lost all confidence on the greens, and until he regains it, somehow, 2016 will continue to be a massive disappointment. 

10. Ariya Jutanugarn – the Best Female Golfer in the World – won for the tour-best fifth time Sunday, and it’s reasonable to assume this is just the beginning of a dominant career.

All five of Jutanugarn’s wins have come since May 8. And to think, she was in position to win the LPGA’s first major of the year, but stumbled down the stretch. That was the common theme for the talented Thai, at least until late this spring.

Lydia Ko might hold the No. 1 ranking, but Jutanugarn has shown over the past few months that she has a much higher ceiling. She averages 266 yards off the tee while mostly hitting 3-woods and 2-irons. She hasn't used a driver since May. Ko, meanwhile, is ranked 118th in distance, and she does most of her damage with iron play and putting. 

If Jutanugarn can figure out how to keep her driver on the map, she'd be unbeatable.

11. There’s always far too much attention on the top-100 bubble at the first playoff event, but five guys played their way into this week’s Deutsche Bank Championship – and for one, at least, well beyond.

Sean O’Hair’s tie for second at Bethpage Black jumped him 93 spots in the standings, from 108th to 15th. He’s safe for the next two events, and could stay inside the top 30 for the Tour Championship with continued good play. He’s only made it to East Lake once, in 2009, when he finished third in the cup.

The other four movers were Sung Kang (who tied a tournament-course record with a Sunday 64), John Huh, Tyrone Van Aswegen and Derek Fathauer.

Dropping out of the postseason were Shane Lowry (who skipped the first event to play in Europe), Peter Malnati, Robert Streb, Lucas Glover and Jonas Blixt. Somehow, the playoffs will survive without them. 

12. The first of 25 PGA Tour cards were handed out Sunday in Portland, and there will be some familiar names teeing it up in the big leagues next season.

Here’s a brief skinny on some of the notable names: 

  • Wesley Bryan: money winner after a three-win season earned him an instant promotion.
  • Ollie Schniederjans: Former No. 1-ranked amateur and high school class of 2011 star. He should be one of the favorites for 2016-17 Rookie of the Year.
  • Trey Mullinax: Part of the Sea Island mafia and a member of Alabama’s back-to-back NCAA title-winning teams from a few years ago.
  • Cheng-Tsung Pan: Arguably the best player to come from a Washington program that has produced a number of studs over the past few years. NCAA runner-up in 2015 had six top-10s in his lone season in the minors. 
  • Brandon Hagy: Five top-10s and should immediately vault into the top 5 on Tour in driving distance.
  • Max Homa: The sweet-swinging 2013 NCAA champion (and entertaining dude) won once to grab the 23rd card on offer.

Twenty-five more cards will be available at the Tour Finals, which begin next week. 

Earlier this week, the PGA Tour's official account hosted a Twitter takeover with Zach Johnson. One of his fans asked about the rough at Bethpage Black, and Johnson attempted to describe that it was very, very penal – you know, difficult and punishing. 

Instead, he wrote this:

The tweet was quickly deleted and corrected, but not before it was screen-shotted for posterity. Since Johnson finished in a tie for 48th, hey, maybe the rough was penile, too. 

This week's award winners ... 

If This Doesn't Excite You, We Can't Be Friends: The Ryder Cup is coming. And as Clarke approached the 18th hole in Denmark, a pep rally broke out:

Random Thought of the Week: If the fans at Bethpage were this belligerent for the opening playoff event, what kind of debauchery is going to unfold at the 2024 Ryder Cup there? Starting to think a European player might get tackled. Or there'll be vomiting on a tee box. It's going to be chaotic.

Rio Bump: The Olympic sweep. Reed, Pieters and Jutanugarn – Olympians, all of them – won on their respective tours Sunday. So much for the supposed summer-schedule burnout. 

Tweet of the Week: Colt Knost. No matter your politics, this is just good Twitter:

He's Going to Slow Down Eventually, Right?: Bernhard Langer. A day after turning 59, he tied Lee Trevino for second all-time on the Champions Tour wins list, with 29. 

Is the LPGA Heading to Vegas Anytime Soon?: Ayako Uehara. She made holes-in-one on consecutive days in Canada, just the fourth player in LPGA history to accomplish the feat … and yet we are, still without a single ace. 

How to Earn a New Nickname: Patrick "The Hammer" Reed, after this gavel malfunction at the New York Stock Exchange:

Biggest Letdown: Tom Lewis. Sure, he blew a golden opportunity to shoot the first sub-60 score in European Tour history, as he was 12 under through 13 holes and made three bogeys coming in. Even more of a bummer than "settling" for 62 was the rest of his week: He didn’t break 70 the last three rounds and tied for 26th.

Don’t Play, Bad Things Happen: Ian Poulter. Sidelined since June because of a foot injury, he has now dropped to 101st in the world ranking. It’s the first time that the Englishman has been outside the top 100 in more than 13 years (May 2003). 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Hideki Matsuyama. Came into New York rolling with consecutive top-4s on difficult courses, but once again, his putter let him down in a big way. He lost 3.75 (!) shots on the greens in the second round, missing the cut by a shot. Sigh. 

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Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm each can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He would return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finishing worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish of worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

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Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.