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Monday Scramble: Questions great and small

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Ted Potter Jr. overtakes Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson impresses, Tony Romo gets a start, an amateur shoots 56 over par and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

There’s no overstating just how impressive Potter’s victory was Sunday at Pebble Beach.

It was his first time in a final group since 2011, on the Tour.

It was the first time he’d been paired with Johnson since 2014, before DJ was a major champion and the world No. 1.

And he was playing one of the most iconic courses in the world, against the most stacked field of the year, in a threesome that waited all day while the other groups ahead needed six hours to complete their final rounds.

All of that … and Potter never blinked, other than a nervy three-putt on the opening hole. He was 4 under the rest of the way, holing clutch par-savers and putting it on cruise control late, an anticlimactic three-shot victory. Not that Potter minded.

He now has two Tour victories (2012 Greenbrier), to go along with his estimated 60 titles on the mini-tours. This was easily the most significant – and the most surprising, given the circumstances. 

1. Potter’s win at Pebble Beach was his first top-10 on Tour since July 2013. He lost nearly two years after breaking his fibula and tibia and requiring 12 screws and two plates to put his ankle back together.

But Potter, 34, is used to overcoming adversity. In 2004, while trying to establish himself in golf’s minor leagues, he missed the cut in all 24 of his starts. So, no, an ankle injury wasn’t going to deter him.

He regained his Tour card by finishing 14th on last year’s Web money list, after a season in which he had two runners-up and seven other top-10s.

With this victory, he is now exempt through the 2019-20 season.

2. And what of Potter’s more heralded playing partner?

A birdie on the last gave Johnson an even-par 72. At one point Saturday Johnson led by four shots, but Potter’s 62 at Monterey Peninsula and then another solid closing round Sunday left Johnson three shots behind.

Johnson shot only 2 under across the final two rounds at Pebble. To put that in perspective, no player over the past 10 years had a better scoring average at Pebble than DJ (68.9). He just wasn’t sharp enough with his irons.

3. Sunday’s pace of play didn’t help, either, and for that he can look to his pro-am partner. 

Johnson’s father-in-law (oh, yeah, and former NHL legend) Wayne Gretzky withdrew after the third round because of a back injury.

Or not.

Gretzky was in Edmonton on Sunday afternoon, as his 1984-85 Oilers squad was celebrated as the “Greatest NHL Team of All Time,” after a vote by 3.6 million fans. The intimate gathering at the Rogers Place cost fans $99, and they'd been promoting that Gretzky would attend.

Why was this significant? Johnson plays quickly, and as a three-ball (including Potter’s pro-am partner, 9-handicap Sean Kell) they waited on every shot behind all of the foursomes.

“It was slow,” Johnson admitted.

Gretzky could have been a welcome distraction from all of the downtime in between shots. 

4. This was the second time in three tries this season that DJ coughed up a 54-hole lead, though this wasn’t nearly as crushing as his six-shot meltdown last fall in China. Over his career, he’s now 5-for-12 converting a third-round lead.  

5. Now nearly five years and 100 starts removed from his last victory, Phil Mickelson seems as close as ever to ending the longest drought of his career.

Lefty closed with a 67 Sunday to finish in a four-way tie for second. It was his seventh runner-up finish since that Muirfield Open, but his first since the 2016 Open, when he was outdueled by Henrik Stenson.

Coupled with a tie for fifth in Phoenix – another track where Mickelson has historically played well – he now has consecutive top-5s for the first time since 2013. The last time he’s had three top-5s in a row? All the way back in 2007. He’s in the field this week at Riviera.

“Right now I’m hitting it as well as I have in a long time,” Mickelson said. 

6. It may have looked like an ordinary tie for 20th, but Jordan Spieth made significant progress last week at Pebble. He needed 27 or fewer putts each of the last three rounds on bumpy, poa annua greens, and he finished the week ranked 38th in strokes gained-putting – his best of the season in a full-field event.

The reason for the turnaround?

Spieth said Steve Stricker took a look at his putting, and caddie Michael Greller offered a good tip about keeping things moving, not being so static over the ball.

“From the beginning of the year until now,” he said, “this is as good as I’ve felt. It’s all positives.” 

7. The setting is so idyllic, it’s hard to storm off property after a missed cut at Pebble Beach. And so Rory McIlroy still managed a few smiles even after a disappointing season debut on the PGA Tour.

After two close calls to start the year on the European Tour, McIlroy’s putter didn’t make the long trip. It was ice-cold during a Friday round at Spyglass, where he needed 38 swipes (and five on one hole), and he missed the 54-hole cut by two shots.

Still, he seemed to enjoy his three rounds in his tournament debut, playing alongside his father, Gerry. “I wish I could have played a little bit better for him,” McIlroy said. “But it was a really cool few days, even though the golf didn’t quite go where we wanted it to. We still had a good time.”

He’s back in action this week at Riviera, his second of three events in a row. 

8. Tony Romo will make his official PGA Tour debut next month at the PGA Tour’s opposite-field event in the Dominican Republic. CBS broadcasting partner Jim Nantz called this a few weeks ago, when he suggested that Romo would soon tee it up in a Tour event.

It’s a smart move by the folks at Corales Puntacana Resort & Club – there was going to be little attention on the event that is played opposite the WGC-Match Play, and now there’s a reason to tune in – but a risk by the Tour. No professional athlete has teed it up in a Tour event since 1992, since a disastrous showing by former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, who shot 80-91.

If Romo similarly flames out – and there’s no reason to think he will, as a plus-0.3 handicap – then it’ll be a long time before another athlete gets a crack at the big leagues. 

9. Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t decide to play the World Super 6 until last Sunday and didn’t even arrive in Perth until Wednesday, eschewing a practice round. He was the final qualifier for match play, finishing 24th, and then survived a marathon weekend to earn his fourth European Tour title.

It’s his second match-play title, after winning the 2015 Paul Lawrie event. It’ll be fun to watch him at next year’s Presidents Cup, assuming he remains in good form. 

10. Tiger Woods hasn’t yet committed to next week’s Honda Classic, and he likely won’t decide until he sees how his week progresses at the Genesis Open. That’s what Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, told ESPN over the weekend.

It’s easy to see Woods playing Honda if he misses the cut at Riviera – that’d give him a few more days to recover – but playing back-to-back weeks is a tall task for a guy coming off four back surgeries and wanting to take things slowly in 2018. If he makes the cut at Riviera AND plays Honda, that’s a great sign moving forward.

If Woods doesn’t play Honda, then his options for the rest of the pre-Masters schedule is limited. He isn’t eligible for the WGC-Mexico or WGC-Match Play, he’s never played the week before the Masters (Houston) and, if we assume that he’ll tee it up at Bay Hill, then Valspar the previous week would be a no-go, too, since that’d be back-to-back starts. 

Still want to complain about how Steph Curry doesn’t deserve an unrestricted sponsor exemption on the Tour?

At least he didn’t embarrass himself.

The same can’t be said for amateur Julio Bell, who was given a spot in this week’s Club Colombia Championship.

The 52-year-old shot rounds of 93-105 – that adds up to a 36-hole total of 56 over par – and then didn’t even have the dignity to sign his scorecard, so he was disqualified. 

Because it’s an unrestricted sponsor exemption, there are few rules in place about who can and can’t play – there were some reports that Bell paid for the spot – but maybe the sponsors can do just a little vetting beforehand? 

This week's award winners ...

Weekend Troubles: Jon Rahm and Beau Hossler. With a chance to make a dent in his world-ranking deficit, Rahm has now shot over par in each of his last three final rounds, including a 76 Sunday at Pebble. Hossler, meanwhile, is averaging less than 69 in each of the first two rounds this season, while he’s 184th on Tour (73.33) in the final round. Both are too talented to keep this trend going for much longer.

Master of Consistency: Chez Reavie. Dating to last fall, he has now finished in the top 25 in 10 of his past 12 starts, including a playoff loss at the Phoenix Open. He followed that up with a tie for second at Pebble. 

Story You Might Have Missed: Adam Scott. After missing the cut at Pebble, the Australian is all the way down to 51st in the world. He’s not yet exempt into the U.S. Open – his five-year exemption for winning the 2013 Masters expired last year – but he will need to remain in the top 60 later this spring for a spot. 

Give These Guys a Medal: Bell’s playing partners. Somehow, Jim Knous (T-16) and Jimmy Stanger (T-20) both made the cut in Colombia, despite watching the third in the group slap it around like a 20-handicapper. They should be commended. 

How to Clap Back: Romo. Pulling double duty on the par-3 17th at Pebble Beach, Romo settled in for his bunker shot with his headset on and a microphone stuffed in his left pocket while CBS analyst Nick Faldo criticized his setup. Romo splashed out to 12 feet, grabbed the mic and said to Faldo, without missing a beat, “It’s a different kind of sand, Nick.”

Of course, the week wasn’t all bad for Faldo: He also made an ace on Jim Nantz’s (sick) backyard hole.

Initiated: Charlie Rymer. Making his PGA Tour Champions debut, the Golf Channel personality got a rude awakening to the senior circuit, finishing last in the 77-man field (and 39 shots back of winner Mark Calcavecchia) after a closing 87. These guys are good!

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Gary Woodland. Flying high off a win in Phoenix, and with a tie for fifth in this event a year ago, Woodland was a good bet to continue his run of three consecutive top-15s. Instead, he crashed out with rounds of 69-72-73 to miss the cut. Sigh.