Monday Scramble: Era of Tiger and Phil fading fast

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 9, 2015, 4:00 pm

In this week’s edition of the Monday Scramble, we discuss how Jason Day bolstered his reputation as the most hard-nosed player in golf, when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will exit stage left, and why the dreaded y-word was all anybody could talk about at Torrey Pines. Ready, set … activate your glutes:  

If it’s not here already, a time will come soon when golf fans tire of the Tiger & Phil Show. How many more WDs must they see before they realize Woods will never reach 19? How many more short putts must Mickelson miss before it’s clear that his best days are behind him?

Last season marked the first time since the mid-’90s that neither star won a tournament, and this year has been even more disastrous. Tiger looks yippy with both his full swing and short game, while Phil says his main focus is to peak for the four majors – an unrealistic pursuit, given his 18-plus weeks of uninspired play. If were lucky, theyll still win the occasional event.

Sad as it might be, an era has slammed shut. This is not an unexpected development, of course, for these aging warriors have dazzled us for the past two decades. Might they still conjure up one or two magical runs in a major? Oh, we can hope. But it’s obvious – painfully so – that the Show now features an entirely new cast of characters. Better get to know ’em. 

1. Last October, in a weekly mailbag, we were asked by a loyal reader to predict the 2015 major champions. Our selection for the U.S. Open: Jason Day. There is no player who embraces the rough-and-tumble test that the Open presents quite like Day, and it’s reflected in his record (three top-five finishes in four appearances). 

Torrey Pines played like a U.S. Open last weekend, with its brutal length, firm greens and hide-your-shoes rough. It was the first tournament since Congressional with a single-digit winning score. And sure enough, Day emerged victorious in San Diego. Why? “I like tough courses that force you to be stressed,” he said afterward. “A lot of people when they feel fear they run away from it. I just said, ‘Enough.’ Instead of feeling the fear and running away from it, I’ve got to run toward it and try and face it.”

2. Granted, it wasn’t always this simple. In the 2013 Masters, remember, Day held a one-shot lead with three holes to play. It was in that moment, standing on the 16th tee, that his mind wandered to what it would be like to become the first Australian to win the Masters. Oops. He promptly bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17 and watched another Aussie, Adam Scott, slip into the green jacket. “The only way to learn from your experience is actually getting in the hunt, experiencing the loss and trying to improve and get better,” he says now. Those tough lessons paid off in San Diego, as he captured his second career stroke-play title on Tour, and first since ’10. 

3. From the Enjoy It While You Can department: 2015 has been dominated by the higher-ranked (aka better) players. Consider the world ranking of the first five PGA Tour winners of the calendar year:

  • Patrick Reed (23) 
  • Jimmy Walker (17)
  • Bill Haas (41)
  • Brooks Koepka (33)
  • Jason Day (8)

4. Last week your correspondent dove deep on the yips – what they are, where they come from, what (if anything) can be done to cure them. The original basis for the story was Woods’ hard-to-watch short game, but after seeing Lucas Glover putt it appears he’s in even more dire need of an intervention. The 2009 U.S. Open champion ranked last on Tour last year in strokes gained-putting (and third-to-last in 2013), and his flinching stroke was on full display in the final round at Torrey Pines. The man doesn’t just need a putting coach. He needs an exorcism. Which reminds us ... 

5. When talking about Tiger, mainstream media types and players (both current and former) invariably will say something along the lines of: Well, he’ll figure it out. He’s still Tiger Woods. Maybe they firmly believe that, or maybe they just don’t want to create a headline. But here’s the reality: Over his last nine PGA Tour starts, Woods has finished: MDF-WD-T25-MC-69-WD-MC-MC-WD. That’s not an aberration. That’s a trend.

6. The most overlooked part of Tiger’s decline is what’s happening to his world ranking. Let’s say he plays only Honda and Bay Hill before the Masters. If he misses the cut in both of those events – and let’s face it, the way he’s playing, it’s not all that unlikely – he will be outside the top 100 in the world by the time he drives down Magnolia Lane. This is important, because 1.) It puts his participation in the World Golf Championship events in jeopardy, from Doral to the Match Play to Firestone; and 2.) He might need to win twice just to crack the top 50. Does he appear anywhere close to being able to accomplish that feat, especially while playing his usual top-tier schedule? (Short answer: No.) 

7. Count swing-coach-to-the-stars Butch Harmon among those who think that Woods’ issues stem from the fact that he’s swinging too hard. “He’s in warp speed,” Harmon told Sky Sports last week. “It’s unbelievable how hard he goes.”

8. When he returned to competition at the World Challenge, Woods crowed about how he had his “explosiveness” back. That may in fact be true, because in his first start of 2015, he posted a swing speed of 121 mph, his highest since ’08. But two events into his year – heck, 2 ½ rounds into his year – he had already broken down, this time because of a stop-and-start delay that caused tightness in his back. Try as he might to keep up with the Brooks Koepkas of the world, it’s glaringly obvious that the incredible torque he puts on his brittle body is doing more harm than good. 

9. The only players with more PGA Tour titles than Billy Casper (51) are all on a one-name basis: Snead, Tiger, Jack, Hogan, Arnie, Nelson. RIP, Billy, the most underappreciated player in the game’s long history.

10. Casper’s three major wins came at a time when the sport was dominated by the Big Three – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Even more impressive: From 1956-71, he won at least once in a remarkable 16 consecutive years. Consider that the longest active streak is Dustin Johnson, with eight.

11. Brilliant move by Hunter Mahan to withdraw before the start of the Farmers Insurance Open with his second child was due any day. With his luck, he would have been leading at the halfway mark.

12. Well, at least the Shot of the Year award is locked up. Check back Dec. 31 for the rest of the top 10:

13. Speaking of Mr. Green … after that hole-in-one albatross in the Victorian Open pro-am, the 43-year-old left-hander not only went out and won the tournament proper – so did his fiancée, Marianne Skarpnord, who won on the women’s side. “I really think it’s fascinating that we’ve both done it,” he said. No argument here.

14. Even with a Sunday 75, Lee Westwood's T-5 finish in Malaysia was enough to push him to the top of the career earnings list on the European Tour, with 30,566,013 euros. It took him an entire career to reach that spot, 22 years. In this era of inflated purses, Rory McIlroy is already fourth on the all-time list, at 24.3 million euros. 

15. Gee, it sure wasn’t hard to tell when some players teed it up on the easier North Course last week:

  • Pat Perez: 75-65-77-83
  • Zack Sucher: 78-65-79-76
  • Kyle Stanley: 76-67-76-75
  • Cameron Tringale: 66-76-75-78

This about sums up the week (h/t @CanadianOpen, and others): 

See what 21-year-old Justin Thomas has done in early 2015, with three consecutive top-20s and multiple opportunities to win? That’s Patrick Rodgers, in 2016. The reigning NCAA Player of the Year needed only two Tour events to notch his first W. He's coming, soon. … The USGA formally announced last weekend the creation of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which will begin in 2018. President Tom O’Toole said that “simply, the timing is right,” and that interest in the event has “steadily increased” since the organization began looking into the event’s viability in the ’90s. That’s fine, but whether fans actually tune in for three-plus hours remain to be seen. … Lydia Ko’s reign at world No. 1 was threatened in her very first week. Something tells us the top spot will change hands plenty this year, so here ends the week-to-week status updates. 

Not optimistic. Lefty looks completely lost on the greens – he’s poor with his speed, he’s not hitting his lines, he’s tinkering with grips. Unless he makes a last-minute U-turn and adds Riviera, he’s taking two weeks off before heading to PGA National, where last year he missed the cut. Even Phil conceded this won’t be a quick fix: “If you putt bad for a few weeks, it’s going to take not only fundamental change, but it will take some good low rounds and some hot putting streaks to get the confidence back, too.” Yikes.

Scrolling through Twitter last night, there was plenty of criticism directed at the long-hitting Holmes. I don’t get it. He made the right call. From 235 yards he was in between clubs and on a downhill lie. He couldn’t land short, because of the pond, nor could he have gone deep, because getting the ball up-and-down from the gnarly rough behind the green was no easy task. (Just ask Jason Day, who was mere inches from drowning his playoff hopes.) Laying up was Holmes’ best opportunity to make 4, even if it didn’t work out. 

We’ve all been there – and it’s hard to watch. Glover thought he’d stumbled upon a solution earlier this year at the Humana, when he widened his stance and started to feel as though he was hitting his putts, not stroking them. But it was clear from his final-round 77 – and multiple yippy episodes – that it was only a temporary fix and much work remains. A shame too, because he was in position for his first top 10 since 2011.  

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HOFer Stephenson: Robbie wants to play me in movie

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 4:20 pm

Margot Robbie has already starred in one sports-related biopic, and if she gets her way a second opportunity might not be far behind.

Robbie earned an Academy Award nomination for her work last year as former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in the movie, I Tonya. She also has a desire to assume the role of her fellow Aussie, Jan Stephenson, in a movie where she would trade in her skates for a set of golf clubs.

That's at least according to Stephenson, who floated out the idea during an interview with Golf Australia's Inside the Ropes podcast shortly after being announced as part of the next class of World Golf Hall of Fame inductees.

"We've talked about doing a movie. Margot Robbie wants to play me," Stephenson said.

There certainly would be a resemblance between the two Australian blondes, as Robbie has become one of Hollywood's leading ladies while Stephenson was on the cutting edge of sex appeal during her playing career. In addition to several magazine covers, Stephenson also racked up 16 LPGA wins between 1976-87 including three majors.

Robbie, 28, has also had starring roles in Suicide Squad and The Wolf of Wall Street.

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Monday Scramble: Who's No. 1 ... in the long run?

By Ryan LavnerOctober 22, 2018, 4:00 pm

Brooks Koepka becomes golf’s new king, Sergio Garcia enjoys the Ryder Cup bump, Danielle Kang overcomes the demons, Michelle Wie goes under the knife and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:

Brooks Koepka added an exclamation point to his breakout year.

His red-hot finish at the CJ Cup not only earned him a third title in 2018, but with the victory he leapfrogged Dustin Johnson to become the top-ranked player in the world for the first time.

That top spot could become a revolving door over the next few months, with Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose all vying for No. 1, but it’s a fitting coda to Koepka’s stellar year that included two more majors and Player of the Year honors.

For a player whose team searches long and hard for slights, there’s no questioning now his place in the game.

1. DJ won three events this season, but he wasn’t able to create much separation between him and the rest of the world’s best players.

Koepka’s rise to No. 1 made him the fourth player to reach the top spot this year, and the third in the past month.

Who has the greatest potential to get to No. 1 and stay there? Johnson is the best bet in the short term, but he’s also 34. Koepka will be a threat in the majors as long as he stays healthy. So the belief here is that it’ll be Justin Thomas, who is 25, without weakness and, best of all, hungry for more success.  

2. Koepka had an eventful final round at the CJ Cup. Staked to a four-shot lead in the final round, his advantage was trimmed to one after a sloppy start, then he poured it on late with an inward 29. He punctuated his historic victory with an eagle on the 72nd hole, smirking as it tumbled into the cup.

It was his fifth career Tour title – but only his second non-major. Weird.

3. How appropriate that golf’s most underappreciated talent – at least in his estimation – became world No. 1 in a limited-field event that finished at 2 a.m. on the East Coast. Somehow he’ll spin this into being overlooked, again.

4. Sergio Garcia carried all of that Ryder Cup momentum into the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, where he earned the hat trick by capturing his third consecutive title there.

While the rest of the world’s best gathered in Korea or rested for global golf’s finishing kick, Garcia won the weather-delayed event by four shots over Shane Lowry. Garcia’s foundation hosts the tournament, and he extended his crazy-good record there: In 14 career appearances at Valderrama, he has three wins, seven top-3s, nine top-5s and 13 top-10s.

Garcia, who went 3-1 at the recent Ryder Cup, became the first player since Ernie Els (2004) to win the same European Tour event three years in a row.

5. Gary Woodland probably doesn’t want 2018 to end.

He was the runner-up at the CJ Cup, his second consecutive top-5 to start the season. He made 11(!) birdies in the final round and now is a combined 37 under par for the first two starts of the new season.

6. This definitely wasn’t the Ryder Cup.

Four shots back, and the closest pursuer to Koepka, Ian Poulter had a chance to put pressure on the leader in the final round. Instead, he was left in the dust, mustering only three birdies and getting waxed by seven shots (64-71) on the last day. Poulter tumbled all the way into a tie for 10th.

7. It hasn’t been the easiest road for Danielle Kang since she won the 2017 Women’s PGA.

The 26-year-old said she’s dealt with anxiety for months and has battled both putting and full-swing yips. Her problems were so deep that a week ago, she stood over the ball for four minutes and couldn’t pull the trigger.

No wonder she said that she was “pretty stunned” to hold off a bevy of challengers to win her second career title at the Buick LPGA Shanghai.

“I’m finally at a place where I’m peaceful and happy with my game, with my life,” she said.

8. In the middle of the seven-way tie for second in China was Ariya Jutanugarn, who will return to No. 1 in the world for the second time this season.

9. Also in that logjam was another former top-ranked player, Lydia Ko, who had tumbled all the way to 17th. Ko hasn’t been able to build off of her slump-busting victory earlier this summer, but she now has six consecutive top-16 finishes and at least seems more comfortable in her new position.

“Sometimes you get too carried away about the awards and rankings,” she said. “It just becomes so much. I think it’s more important to keep putting myself there and … shooting in the 60s, and that way I think it builds the confidence and the rankings kind of sort itself out.”

Here's how Tiger Woods explained his pitiful performance at the Ryder Cup: “I was tired because I hadn’t trained for it. I hadn’t trained this entire comeback to play this much golf.”

Of course, he looked just fine a week earlier at East Lake, where he snapped a five-year winless drought with one of the most memorable weeks of his legendary career. His training wasn’t a topic of conversation there.

It's reasonable to expect that the emotional victory took a lot of out of him, but if he was so gassed, why did he sit only one team session and go 36 on Saturday? By Sunday night, Woods looked like he was running on empty, so either he wasn't upfront with captain Jim Furyk about his energy levels, or Furyk ran him out there anyway.

This week's award winners ...  

Can’t Catch a Break: Michelle Wie. The star-crossed talent announced that she’ll miss the rest of the season to undergo surgery to repair a troublesome hand injury. Maybe one of these years she’ll be able to play a full schedule, without physical setbacks.  

Grab the Mic: Paul Azinger. Taking Johnny Miller’s seat in the booth, Azinger will call all four days of action at every Golf Channel/NBC event, beginning at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He was the most logical (and best) choice to follow the inimitable Miller.

Take That, Dawdler: Corey Pavin. It was Pavin – and not the notoriously slow Bernhard Langer – who earned the first slow-play penalty on the PGA Tour Champions in what seemed like ages. The one-shot penalty dropped him to 15th in the event.

Long Time Coming: Jason Day. His tie for fifth at the CJ Cup was his best finish worldwide since … The Players? Really. Wow.

The Tumble Continues: Jordan Spieth. In the latest world rankings, Spieth is officially out of the top 10 for the first time since November 2014. A reminder that he finished last year at No. 2.

Clutch Performances: Andalucia Masters. Both Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Richie Ramsay both moved inside the top 116 in the Race to Dubai standings, securing their European Tour cards for next season. Gonzo tied for fifth in the regular-season finale, while Ramsay was joint 11th.

That’s Messed Up: CJ Cup purse. As colleague Will Gray noted, the purse for the 78-man event was $9.5 million – or $400K more than the first 15 events of the Tour schedule combined. The difference between the haves and have-nots has never been larger.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. The defending champion never could get started in Korea, closing with his low round of the week, a 4-under 68, just to salvage a tie for 36th. Sigh.  

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Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."

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Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.