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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Lopez fires flawless 63 for lead in Arkansas

By Associated PressJune 23, 2018, 12:41 am

ROGERS, Ark. – Since its first year on the LPGA Tour in 2007, the crowds at the NW Arkansas Championship have belonged to Stacy Lewis.

Another former University of Arkansas star staked her claim as the hometown favorite Friday when Gaby Lopez shot a career-low 8-under 63 to take the first-round lead at Pinnacle Country Club.

Like Lewis, the two-time winner of the tournament, Lopez starred as a three-time All-American for the Razorbacks before joining the LPGA Tour in 2016. Despite flashes of potential, Lopez had yet to join Lewis among the ranks of the world's best - missing the cut in her last two tournaments and entering this week ranked 136th in the world.

For a day, at least, the Mexican standout felt right at home atop the leaderboard in her adopted home state.

''I feel like home,'' Lopez said. ''I feel so, so comfortable out here, because I feel that everyone and every single person out here is just rooting for us.''

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Moriya Jutanugarn was a stroke back along with Minjee Lee, Catriona Matthew, Nasa Hataoka, Lizette Salas, Mirim Lee and Aditi Ashok. Six others finished at 6 under on a day when only 26 of the 144 players finished over par, thanks to some mid-week rain that softened the greens and calm skies throughout the day.

Jutanugarn finished second at the tournament last year and is trying to win for the second time on the LPGA Tour this year. Her younger sister, Ariya, is already a two-time winner this year and shot an opening-round 66.

Lewis, the former world No. 1 who won the event in 2007 in 2014, finished with a 66. She's expecting her first child in early November

Defending champion So Yeon Ryu, coming off a victory Sunday in Michigan, shot a 67.

Friday was Lopez's long-awaited day to standout, though, much to the delight of the pro-Arkansas crowd.

After missing the cut her last two times out, Lopez took some time off and returned home to Mexico City to rest her mind and work on her game. The work paid off with two straight birdies to open her round and a 6-under 30 on her front nine.

Lopez needed only 25 putts and finished two shots off the course record of 61, and she overcame a poor drive on the par-5 18th to finish with a par and keep her place at the top of the leaderboard. Her previous low score was a 64 last year, and she matched her career best by finishing at 8 under.

''(Rest) is a key that no one really truly understands until you're out here,'' Lopez said. ''... Sometimes resting is actually the part you've got to work on.''

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Harman rides hot putter to Travelers lead

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:28 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – There are plenty of big names gathered for the Travelers Championship, and through two rounds they’re all chasing Brian Harman.

Harman opened with a 6-under 64, then carded a 66 during Friday’s morning wave to become the only player to finish the first two rounds in double digits under par. The southpaw is currently riding a hot putter, leading the field in strokes gained: putting while rolling in 12 birdies and an eagle through his first 36 holes.

“Putted great today,” said Harman, who ranks 22nd on Tour this season in putting. “Got out of position a couple of times, but I was able to get myself good looks at it. I started hitting the ball really well coming down the stretch and made a few birdies.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Harman, 31, has won twice on the PGA Tour, most recently at last year’s Wells Fargo Championship. While he doesn’t have a win this year, he started his season in the fall by reeling off five straight finishes of T-8 or better to quickly install himself as one of the leaders in the season-long points race.

Now topping a leaderboard that includes the likes of Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy, he realizes that he’ll have his work cut out for him if he’s going to leave Connecticut with trophy No. 3.

“The putter has been really good so far, but I’ve been in position a lot. I’ve had a lot of good looks at it,” Harman said. “I’m just able to put a little pressure on the course right now, which is nice.”

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10-second rule costs Zach Johnson a stroke

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:06 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Zach Johnson heads into the weekend one shot back at the Travelers Championship, but he was a matter of seconds away from being tied for the lead.

Johnson had an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 3 at TPC River Highlands, his 12th hole of the day, but left the ball hanging on the lip. As Johnson walked up to tap the ball in, it oscillated on the edge and eventually fell in without being hit.

Was it a birdie, or a par?

According to the Rules of Golf, and much to Johnson’s chagrin, the answer was a par. Players are afforded “reasonable” time to walk to the hole, and after that they are allowed to wait for 10 seconds to see if the ball drops of its own accord. After that, it either becomes holed by a player’s stroke, or falls in and leads to a one-shot penalty, resulting in the same score as if the player had hit it.

According to Mark Russell, PGA Tour vice president of rules and competitions, Johnson’s wait time until the ball fell in was between 16 and 18 seconds.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Once he putts the ball, he’s got a reasonable amount of time to reach the hole,” Russell said. “Then once he reaches the hole, he’s got 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, the ball is deemed to be at rest.”

Johnson tried to emphasize the fact that the ball was oscillating as he stood over it, and even asked rules officials if marking his ball on the edge of the hole would have yielded a “bonus 10 seconds.” But after signing for a 2-under 68 that brought him within a shot of leader Brian Harman, the veteran took the ruling in stride.

“The 10-second rule has always been there. Vague to some degree,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is I went to tap it in after 10 seconds and the ball was moving. At that point, even if the ball is moving, it’s deemed to be at rest because it’s on the lip. Don’t ask me why, but that’s just the way it is.”

While Johnson brushed off any thoughts of the golf gods conspiring against him on the lip, he was beaming with pride about an unconventional par he made on No. 17 en route to a bogey-free round. Johnson sailed his tee shot well right into the water, but after consulting his options he decided to drop on the far side of the hazard near the 16th tee box.

His subsequent approach from 234 yards rolled to within 8 feet, and he calmly drained the putt for an unexpected save.

“I got a great lie. Just opened up a 4-hybrid, and it started over the grandstands and drew in there,” Johnson said. “That’s as good of an up-and-down as I’ve witnessed, or performed.”

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Travelers becoming marquee event for star players

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 11:29 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Get lost in the throngs following the defending champ, or caught up amongst the crowds chasing the back-to-back U.S. Open winner, and it’s easy to forget where this tournament was a little more than a decade ago.

The Travelers Championship was without a sponsor, without a worthwhile field, without a consistent date and on the verge of being jettisoned to the PGA Tour Champions schedule. The glory days of the old Greater Hartford Open had come and gone, and the PGA Tour’s ever-increasing machine appeared poised to leave little old Cromwell in its wake.

The civic pride is booming in this neck of the woods. Main Street is lined with one small business after the next, and this time of year there are signs and posters popping up on every corner congratulating a member of the most recent graduating class at Cromwell High School, which sits less than two miles from the first tee at TPC River Highlands.

Having made it through a harrowing time in the event’s history, the local residents now have plenty of reason to take pride.

The Tour’s best have found this little New England hamlet, where tournament officials roll out the red carpet in every direction. They embrace the opportunity to decompress after the mind-numbing gauntlet the USGA set out for them last week, and they relish a return to a course where well-struck shots, more often than not, lead to birdies.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Ten years ago, this tournament was also held the week after the U.S. Open. Stewart Cink won, and for his efforts he received a paltry 36 world ranking points. But thanks to a recent influx of star-power, this week’s winner will pocket 58 points – the same amount Rory McIlroy won at Bay Hill, and two more than Justin Rose got at Colonial. Now at the halfway point, the leaderboard backs up the hefty allocation.

While Brian Harman leads at 10 under, the chase pack is strong enough to strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned veteran: McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson, they of the combined eight major titles, all sit within three shots of the lead. Former world No. 1 Jason Day is one shot further back, and reigning Player of the Year Justin Thomas will start the third round inside the top 20.

Paul Casey and Bryson DeChambeau, both likely participants at the Ryder Cup this fall, are right there as well at 8 under. Casey lost a playoff here to Watson in 2015 and has come back every year since, witnessing first-hand the tournament’s growth in scope.

“It speaks volumes for what Travelers have done and how they treat everybody, and the work that Andy Bessette and his team put in to fly around the country and speak highly of this event,” Casey said. “And do things which matter, to continue to improve the event, not just for players but for spectators.”

Part of the increased field strength can be attributed to the Tour’s recent rule change, requiring players who play fewer than 25 events in a season to add a new event they haven’t played in the last four years. Another portion can be attributed to the short commute from Shinnecock Hills to TPC River Highlands, a three-hour drive and even shorter across the Long Island Sound – an added bonus the event will lose two of the next three years with West Coast U.S. Opens.

But there’s no denying the widespread appeal of an event named the Tour’s tournament of the year, players’ choice and most fan-friendly in 2017. While Spieth’s return to defend his title was assumed, both Day and McIlroy are back for another crack this year after liking what they saw.

“Anyone that I talked to could only say good things about the tournament about the golf course, how the guys are treated here, how the fans come out, and how the community always gets behind this event,” McIlroy said. “Obviously I witnessed that for the first time last year, and I really enjoyed it.”

After starting the week with all four reigning major champs and five of the top 10 players in the latest world rankings, only Masters champ Patrick Reed got sent packing following rounds of 72-67. The remaining top-flight contingent will all hit the ground running in search of more low scores Saturday, with Spieth (-4) still retaining a glimmer of hope to keep his title defense chances alive, perhaps with a 63 like he fired in the opening round.

The Tour’s schedule represents a zero-sum game. Outside of the majors and WGCs that essentially become must-play events for the game’s best, the rest of the legs of the weekly circus become victim of a 12-month version of tug-of-war. Some players like to play in the spring; others load up in the fall. Many play the week before majors, while a select group block off the week after for some R&R far away from a golf course.

But in an environment where one tournament’s ebbs can create flows for another, the Travelers has continued a steady climb up the Tour’s hierarchy. Once in jeopardy of relegation, it has found its footing and appears in the process of turning several of the Tour’s one-name stars into regular participants.

Rory. Jordan. Bubba. JT.

It’s been a long battle for tournament officials, but the proof is in the pudding. And this weekend, the reward for the people of Cromwell – population 14,000 – looks to be a star-studded show.

“All the events are incredible,” Thomas said. “But this is kind of one of those underrated ones that I think until people come and play, do they realize how great it is.”