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Monday Scramble: An ode to 2017

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Tiger Woods returns from a layoff, Justin Thomas becomes a superstar, Jordan Spieth authors an incredible comeback, Lexi Thompson comes close, Team USA keeps rolling and more in this season-ending edition of the Monday Scramble:

Tiger Woods proved yet again that he is still the needle in golf, but 2017 will be remembered as the year that an already-famous high school class rose to the top.

Members of the class of 2011, Justin Thomas was the no-brainer Player of the Year as a five-time winner, major champion and FedExCup champion; Jordan Spieth moved one step closer to the career Grand Slam, on a major pace with Jack and Tiger; and Xander Schauffele went from struggling newcomer to Rookie of the Year after a torrid three-month stretch.

It’s a trend that isn’t going anywhere: 15 of the 30 players who qualified for the Tour Championship were in their 20s, marking the first time that the average age of a Tour winner was younger than 30.

These 20-somethings are talented. Fearless. Hungry.

If Woods can somehow return to championship form, it would make for one heck of a show in 2018: Golf’s next generation versus the player they grew up idolizing. 

1. Before we wrap up the past year, Tiger Woods returned to competitive golf last week, and there was a lot to digest. A few thoughts:

• The biggest takeaway is that Tiger looks happy and healthy. His gait was more athletic, his swing more free-flowing and powerful. That wasn’t the case last year, when he showed flashes of brilliance but overall looked like he was laboring, like he was 60, not 40. If his body cooperates, this "comeback" – whatever that entails – has a real chance.

• Tiger’s driver is now a weapon, not a liability. That hasn’t been the case in … a decade? On a forgiving course, he avoided the big miss, worked the ball both ways and absolutely pounded it, easily reaching the par 5s in two. His 180-mph ball speed matched the big-hitting Thomas, and it would have ranked among the top 20 on Tour last season. The only question: Can his back withstand that type of velocity over a full season?

• His short game still needs work. One of the misconceptions about his previous aborted comebacks was that he was able to spend more time in the short-game area than on the range. Not true, Woods said. It hurt even more to put himself in the proper posture, and so he avoided it altogether. It became obvious that part of the game had been neglected. Albany’s tight, sandy lies proved a stiff challenge for everyone, but Woods hit enough shaky chips to recall memories of his chip-yip horrors from years’ past.

• Tiger has been through a physical and personal hell. He was in so much pain, he kept a bucket near his bed to go to the bathroom. That's a horrible way to live, and it's little wonder he became so reliant on pain medication. It's impossible to play good golf in a fog, but a clear-eyed Woods says he's now on the "other side." 

Overall, the week was a resounding success - the T-9 put him back in the top 700 in the world ranking - that portends well for Woods perhaps being more competitive than previously thought.

2. Some of the Woods apathy was understandable – after all, this was his 10th comeback, from either personal or physical issues – but he proved that he’s still the most powerful man in golf.

His mere presence turned the Hero World Challenge, an 18-man holiday exhibition, into a must-see event. The first round alone was streamed by so many people, it would have ranked as the sixth-most-streamed four-round event of the year on NBC/Golf Channel. (Don’t you people work?!) Based on the reaction of his peers, the on-site fans and a very unscientific sampling on Twitter, most seem genuinely happy that Woods is back in the fold and eager to see him return to form.

If he can stay healthy, 2018 just got a lot more interesting.

3. So what will his schedule next year look like?

At this point, Woods either isn’t sure or isn’t ready to share it publicly.

Only Woods knows his body and how much he can handle, or how much he needs to play to feel sharp, but a pre-Masters run with Phoenix, Riviera, Honda and Bay Hill sounds ideal to this scribe. Yes, he has so much history at Torrey Pines, but the long, brutal track is no longer the best fit for his game.

The worst mistake he can make with a fused back is to overextend himself. He doesn’t need a 20-event slate to be competitive.   

4. At long last, Thomas has moved out of Spieth’s considerable shadow.

For the majority of his career he has taken a backseat to Spieth, and that divide only grew once both were in the pros. Not anymore. With awe-inspiring drives and a vastly improved short game, Thomas became one of the game’s bona fide stars, surging from 35th in the world last fall to No. 3.

And so a new question has emerged: Right now Thomas trails Spieth in the major department, 3-1, but at the end of their careers, who will have more? Thomas has the firepower – and, now, the self-belief – to make it a close race. 

5. It’s a what-could-have-been year for Dustin Johnson.

Make no mistake, he was brilliant – winning four times, including a pair of World Golf Championships and a playoff event, and holding on to the No. 1 ranking – but you also can’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much better.

DJ had reached Tiger-like levels of dominance. He was the first player in more than 40 years to arrive at Augusta having won his last three tournaments … and then he never even made it to the first tee, after slipping on a set of stairs on the eve of the Masters and injuring his back.

The year’s first major went on without the world No. 1 – and produced a deserving winner in Sergio Garcia – but would the result have been different with a healthy DJ? We’ll never know, of course. The back injury led to compensations in his swing, and he failed to factor in any of the three remaining majors. A shame, because that may have been once-in-a-lifetime form.

6. After a predictable letdown year, all Spieth did in 2017 was put together the best ball-striking season of his career and add another major to his collection.

For as much as Spieth is lauded for his putting prowess, this year it was his iron play that carried him to three wins and some Player of the Year discussion. A point of emphasis moving forward will be improving his performance off the tee, but at 24 he’s already a generationally great player.

His back nine at The Open figures to be replayed for decades, a two-hour period that had a little bit of everything – a meltdown that recalled his Masters collapse, a lengthy ruling, clutch shots, a few iconic moments – and, ultimately, the end result that he desired.

If Spieth can overcome all of THAT and still claim the claret jug, then no obstacle is insurmountable. 

7. As for two guys who disappointed in 2017 …

Expect “angry” Rory McIlroy to show up next year. He has plotted an ambitious, early-season schedule in hopes of rediscovering the form that propelled him to four majors and world No. 1.

There should have been plenty of soul-searching this fall, after a transitional year in which he battled a nagging injury, got married and changed both his equipment and caddie. We should know by March if he’s addressed the issues with his wedges and putting.

And after winning eight times over the previous two years, Day went 0-for-2017 while taking significant steps back with his driver, iron play and putter. It’s probably unreasonable to think he’ll ride another heater like he did in 2015-16, but he also possesses way too much firepower to get left behind for long. 

8. In a year in which the top players played hot potato with the No. 1 ranking, even more memorable might be the ladies who didn’t end the year in the top spot.

Lydia Ko was No. 1 at the start of the year and she’s all the way down to No. 9. Ariya Jutanugarn seemed the most likely challenger, but she was alternately brilliant and bewildering during a two-win campaign. Lexi Thompson had the best year of her career, and yet two self-inflicted mistakes left her wanting more.

Rising to the top, instead, were So Yeon Ryu and talented rookie Sung-Hyun Park, who last year took the Korean tour by storm. The talent level is only getting deeper. That’s bad news for Lydia, Ariya, Lexi and everyone else who was supposed to "dominate" the women’s tour.    

9. How good was Bernhard Langer’s 2017? Smart golf people legitimately debated whether he’s better now than when he won his two Masters titles.

That’s hyperbole, of course, but the 60-year-old German left everyone searching for superlatives after a year in which he won seven events (including three majors), finished in the top 3 on five other occasions and top-tenned in 16 of 21 events.

That he didn’t take the season-long title (that went to Kevin Sutherland) should be reason enough for the PGA Tour Champions to overhaul how it determines the playoff winner.  

Langer is now just 10 wins from overtaking Hale Irwin as the all-time senior wins leader. The way he’s playing, he could accomplish that in the next three years. 

10. Are we entering a new era of American domination in team events?

It sure felt that way at the Presidents Cup, where the U.S. team nearly ran the Internationals out of town on Saturday, with the singles session still to play.

Their rout at Liberty National was a continuation of last year’s beatdown at Hazeltine, and what’s so scary about Team USA moving forward is that its core of players – Spieth, Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger – figures to remain intact for the next decade or so, while Europe transitions to a new wave that includes Jon Rahm and European No. 1 Tommy Fleetwood.

Next September in France, the Americans should be heavy favorites to end a 25-year winless drought on foreign soil. 

No moment generated a bigger what-is-happening?! reaction than when Lexi Thompson was slapped with a four-shot penalty during the final round of the ANA Inspiration.

Thompson was cruising, up by three with six holes to play, when she was notified of the infraction from a day earlier, after she sloppily marked a 1-foot putt.

“Is this is a joke?” she asked an official.

In tears, she staged an improbable rally, only to lose to So Yeon Ryu in a playoff. It would be the first of two heartbreaking finishes; at the season finale, she yipped a 2-footer that would have given her Player of the Year honors.

The governing bodies’ new reasonable-judgment standard wouldn’t exonerate Thompson, but the USGA and R&A now seems open to revisiting the more unfair issue – the post-round scorecard penalty, which added an additional two strokes to her card. 

It'll be a long offseason for Lexi.

This year's award winners ... 

Breakout Star of 2017: Jon Rahm. Already one of the game’s best from tee to green, he won three titles all over the globe – California, Ireland, Dubai – while playing many of these courses for the first time. Stud.

One Way to Go into the Offseason: Rickie Fowler. He erased a seven-shot final-round deficit with a career-low 61 that set a course and tournament record at the Hero. It was his third top-2 finish in his last four worldwide starts. Which is why ...

Breakthrough Pick for 2018: Rickie. He’s such a complete player, with a ton of big-game experience. Yes, he tempts us at every major, but a year of watching his pals win the big ones should light a fire under him.  

Most Overlooked Achievement: Branden Grace’s 62. We’d been waiting forever for someone to finally break the 63 barrier in a major. Grace finally did, on a windless day at Birkdale, but it’s been virtually forgotten because A) it happened in the third round, B) he didn’t win, and C) it was one of the most dramatic finishes in history. Hey, he still goes in the record books.

Quote of the Year: Johnny Miller, after Thomas broke his record for lowest U.S. Open score: “A 63 for a par 72 is a heck of a score, even if it was the Milwaukee Open.”

Best Celebration: Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller. Hard to believe, but a golfer and his caddie actually pulled off a cool celebration, connecting not on a high-five but a chest bump after holing a bunker shot to win the Travelers.

Who Got Next?: Patrick Cantlay. He’s already won in Vegas, and the former world No. 1 amateur is finally beginning to realize his immense potential after years on the sidelines because of a back injury and personal loss. Don’t be surprised if he contends for a major in 2018.

Redemption: I.K. Kim. Three years after blowing a 14-inch putt to win a major, Kim banished all of those demons by cruising to the Women’s British title at Kingsbarns. 

Look For a Comeback in 2018 From …: Bubba Watson and Jimmy Walker. Bubba no longer plays a gimmicky ball that you’d find on a putt-putt course, and Walker should be able to put the toughest physical year of his life behind him with the proper Lyme disease medication.

Biggest Surprise: Stacy Lewis’ victory. The former world No. 1 had come so close so many times over the past few years, but to get back in the winner’s circle apparently she needed to open up her wallet. Before the tournament, she vowed to pledge all of her earnings to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. One of the year's feel-good stories.

What to Watch For: Governing bodies vs. golf manufacturers. Never before has there been such a drumbeat for a scaled-back ball or bifurcation. It promises to get very messy. Can’t wait!