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Monday Scramble: The whole world smiles with you

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 26, 2018, 5:45 pm

Justin Thomas hangs tough, Tiger Woods reemerges, Sam Burns impresses, Jessica Korda perseveres and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

Justin Thomas isn’t just a free-wheeling birdie machine who fires at every flag.

The Honda Classic proved that.

The reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year has developed a smarter brand of golf that he has turned into seven wins in his past 31 starts.

That’s been the steepest learning curve for the 24-year-old, realizing that he doesn’t need to play perfect to win. He’s talented enough to make loads of birdies, but now he has the discipline to avoid the big mistake.

Down the stretch at PGA National, Thomas played the last 10 holes (including the playoff) in 3 under, using his power in obvious birdie situations and then playing away from the water on the most difficult holes.

The scary part for the rest of the Tour? Thomas seems to be getting better each week.

1. Thomas played the par-5 18th hole two different ways Sunday, both with great success.

With Luke List already on the green in two shots in regulation, Thomas chose to lay up from a thick lie in the right rough. From 117 yards, he needed birdie, and he stuffed his gap wedge for a kick-in four.

He was even more aggressive in the playoff. With List banking his approach shot off the grandstand, Thomas hit a 259-yard 5-wood that cleared the water and rolled out to 40 feet, setting up his two-putt birdie.

Clutch shots, both of them.

2. Here’s my report on Thomas’ victory, including his claim that he’s playing even better now than his five-win season a year ago.

3. Thomas’ win wasn’t without drama.

A week after criticizing some of the fan behavior at Riviera, Thomas signaled for a spectator to be ejected during the final round.

Tied for the lead as he walked to the 16th hole, Thomas heard a fan yell at him: “I hope you hit it in the water!”

When his tee shot headed down the middle, the same fan apparently shouted for the shot to find the bunker.

That’s when Thomas had enough.

“Who said that? Was it you? Enjoy your day, you’re done.”

Thomas got blasted on social media for being “soft,” but this type of fan behavior can’t be tolerated.

Unfortunately for Thomas, fans now know that they can get under his skin, and they may be even more tempted to heckle him. The Ryder Cup in Paris could be interesting.

4. So THAT was unexpected from Tiger Woods.

After spraying shots all over Torrey Pines and Riviera, Woods turned up at PGA National – one of the most demanding tee-to-green courses on Tour – and looked like a completely different player.

He shaped shots and controlled his trajectory, finishing the week ranked first in proximity to the hole. He was third in driving distance, curving the ball both ways off the tee with every club.

Woods finished 12th – his best finish in a Tour event since August 2015. 

“I know it’s been a long time,” Woods said, “but I remember how to do this.”

Here's colleague Randall Mell with more.

5. Every player in the field could play the woulda-coulda-shoulda game … but Woods played the Bear Trap 8 over par for the week. He played the other 60 holes 8 under.

That score would have been good enough for a playoff with Thomas and List.

6. Woods remained coy about the rest of his pre-Masters schedule, but it’d be a shock if he didn’t tee it up at least once more, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he’s an eight-time winner.

After the round, Woods said that his only immediate plans were to get back in the gym, to keep his body strong and healthy. (We really gonna try this again?)

His goal is still to “build toward Augusta,” but one final tune-up – at a place he’s dominated – makes a ton of sense.

As for the rest of his 2018 outlook, even Woods can’t deny the obvious.

“My expectations have gone up,” he said.

7. Tip of the cap to Sam Burns, the 2017 Nicklaus Award winner and current Tour player who was paired with Woods on the final day of the Honda Classic.

The 21-year-old Burns was the youngest player to be paired with Woods in the final round of a Tour event since Sergio Garcia in 2001 … and all Burns did was shoot a bogey-free 68 to clip his idol by two shots and, with a tie for eighth, earn a spot in next week’s Valspar Championship.

“It’s almost like I’m speechless,” Burns said.

And to think: Last August the USGA selection committee left Burns – the college Player of the Year who delayed turning pro to make the squad and who already had a top-10 in a Tour event – off the Walker Cup team, because he’s, well … no one is quite sure why, and the USGA doesn’t explain its decisions.

No matter. You can bet this round, and this week, will prove to be very useful for him.

8. So, no, Woods may not intimidate his opponents like he did in his prime, but he still can make playing alongside him difficult.

Just ask Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season. He was grouped with Woods for the first time in his career.

On their first hole Thursday, Kizzire said that he was so queasy that he wasn’t sure he was holding the club. He fought through the nerves, of course, but he told us afterward that he learned more during those two rounds – about playing with pressure, about handling himself – than in his two wins.

That’s pretty cool.

9. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: PGA National’s greens were in brutal shape for this year’s event.

A dry February left the greens firmer and faster than usual, but the course allowed heavy traffic until the Sunday before the event.

Several players noted how the sand-filled surfaces appeared to have been spray-painted green. There was so little grass that it made chipping and pitching around the green impossible to predict.

Everyone has to putt on the same surfaces, of course, but Woods made numerous references to the greens making it “tough” to hole putts, and that was charitable.

The TifEagle Bermuda greens are set for a re-grassing next summer, but after this disastrous week they should move up the project. These weren’t good enough for Tour standards.  

10. It’ll also be interesting to see the field for this event next year. The Honda will always be a draw for the local residents, but it probably won’t be the no-brainer start it is now.

Next year, the Honda will likely be sandwiched between the WGC-Mexico and The Players, with Bay Hill and Tampa after that. The top guys need a break somewhere.

11. Nobody will ever doubt Jessica Korda’s toughness again.

She set a tournament record with a 25-under performance in Thailand to win by four shots. It was the fifth win of her career, and her first since 2015, but this was by far the most difficult.

In December, Korda, who turns 25 this week, had double jaw surgery that required 27 screws. Her jaw was broken in three places, and for weeks she was fed through a syringe.  

When she made her season debut last week, her face was pain-free but still numb. Her headaches were gone, too. Finally.

“I just came with no expectations after surgery,” she said. “It’s really hard for me to move. All this stuff is still really hard, but I’m really, really happy that I chose to come back in this exactly where I started my rookie year in 2011.

“I don’t think I could have asked for a better win.”

12. Once labeled an up-and-coming star on the European Tour, Eddie Pepperell finally earned his breakthrough victory Sunday at the Qatar Masters, winning by one shot over Oliver Fisher.

“I did the things I needed to do,” he said afterward. “I didn’t play fantastic, but I won ugly, and for the first win to be ugly is good.”

The gregarious Pepperell needed 129 starts to earn his first title. He’s of the most fun characters in the game, chronicling the past few years on his highly entertaining blog.

Here was his father Joe's reaction to the win:

13. The first World Golf Championship of the new year will get underway this week in Mexico.

Defending champion Dustin Johnson is back, but the field is missing five of the top 13 in the world: Hideki Matsuyama, Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson.

Jason Dufner doesn’t have a hat sponsor this year. That’s hard to believe, of course, since he’s a major champion and five-time PGA Tour winner, but that’s the deal.

Dufner can wear any cap he wants, and so while he was hanging out at Rickie Fowler’s house on Friday night, and with a third-round pairing with Tiger Woods looming, he picked through his hat selection and found this:

Asked about it afterward, Dufner replied: “Perfect timing, playing with Tiger.”


This week's award winners ... 

Warm weather, loose back: Tiger Woods. At one point Saturday, Woods’ swing speed clocked in at 128 mph. Perspective: That average swing speed would have led the Tour every year since 2007, when they first started keeping the statistic.

First time for everything: JT > Spieth. For the first time in his career, Thomas moved ahead of Spieth in the Official World Ranking, from No. 4 to No. 3. Asked if it was significant to him, Thomas said: “Not really, because there’s still two more spots that I want to climb.”

Oh, to be an elite amateur: Walker Cup. With the amateur version of the Ryder Cup headed back to the Old Course for 2023, the next four venues are secured: Royal Liverpool, Seminole, St. Andrews and Cypress Point. That any good?

Another penalty: Lexi Thompson. She was docked two shots for moving an advertising sign in her second round. They’re immovable obstructions, as outlined in the tournament handbook given to each player, which she must not have read.

Quote of the week: Justin Thomas. When told about his “(Expletive) yeah!” celebration on the 18th green, Thomas sheepishly apologized. “Please don’t fine me very much, PGA Tour.”

Blown fantasy pick of the week: Rickie Fowler. The defending champion at the Honda had a sub-70 scoring average at PGA National and a recent 54-hole lead in Phoenix, but he bombed out early with rounds of 71-76. Sigh.

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Own history, grow the game with Open memorabilia auction

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 1:00 pm

Get a piece of history and help grow the game, that's what The Open is offering with its memorabilia auction.

The official Open Memorabilia site features unique Open assets from famous venues and Champion Golfers of the Year. All net proceeds received by The R&A from this project will be invested to support the game for future generations, including encouraging women’s, junior and family golf, on the promotion and progression of the sport in emerging golf nations and on coaching and development.

Items for auction include limited edition prints of Champion Golfers of the Year, signed championship pin flags and limited edition historical program covers. Memorable scorecard reproductions and caddie bibs are also available to bid for on the website, with all items featuring branded, serialized holograms for authenticity.

Click here to own your piece of history and to get more information on the auction.

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No indication when Trump Turnberry will next host an Open

By Jay CoffinJuly 18, 2018, 12:25 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Turnberry last hosted The Open in 2009, during that magical week where Tom Watson, at age 59, nearly won his sixth claret jug. Ultimately, Stewart Cink won in a playoff.

While Turnberry remains on The Open rota, according to the R&A, there is no clear understanding of when the club, purchased by Donald Trump in 2014 before he became President of the United States, will next host the championship. The next open date is 2022.

“With respect to 2022, I’ve already said, ’21 we’re going to be celebrating the 150th playing of The Open at St. Andrews,” R&A chief executive Marin Slumbers said Wednesday on the annual news conference on the eve of The Open. “And in ’22, we’ll be going south of the border.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

South of the border means the 2022 Open will be at one of the three venues in England. Since the 2020 Open is at Royal St. George’s, that leaves Royal Lytham & St. Annes and Royal Liverpool as the two remaining options. Since Lytham (2012, Ernie Els) last hosted The Open before Liverpool (2014, Rory McIlroy), that’s the likely choice.

Trump was at Turnberry for two days last weekend, 150 miles southwest of Carnoustie. The R&A said it did not receive any communication from the U.S. president while he was in the country.

Turnberry hosted the Women’s British Open in 2015. Inbee Park beat Jin-young Park by three shots.

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Slumbers explains driver test; Rory weighs in

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2018, 12:18 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Players and manufacturers were informed about three weeks ago that the R&A intended to test individual drivers at this week’s Open Championship, marking the first time the rule makers have taken the current standards to players.

Although the R&A and USGA have been COR (coefficient of restitution) tests on drivers for some time, they have been pulling the tested clubs from manufacturers, not players.

“We take our governance role very seriously, not just on the Rules of Golf and amateur status, but also equipment standards, and we felt it was an appropriate next step to more actively seek to test players' drivers straight out of the bag,” said Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive.

Thirty players were notified their drivers would be tested this week - including Paul Casey, Brooks Koepka, Jason Day and Henrik Stenson - from a list that roughly mirrored the breakdown of various brands based on current equipment counts.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

The R&A test center was set up on the Carnoustie practice range, and according to Slumbers there were no violations of the testing limits, which essentially measure the spring-like effect of the driver clubface.

Although none of the drivers failed the testing, Rory McIlroy did say that TaylorMade was “singled out a bit more than anyone else.”

“A manufacturer is always going to try and find ways to get around what the regulations are. It's a bit of an arms race,” said McIlroy, who plays TaylorMade equipment but said his driver was not tested. “If there is some drivers out there that have went a little bit over the limit, then obviously guys shouldn't be playing them. I think the manufacturers are smart enough to know not to try to push it too much.”

There was no individual driver testing at last month’s U.S. Open, and it’s not expected to become the norm on the PGA Tour, but Slumbers did say the R&A tested drivers at an event earlier this year on the Japan Golf Tour.

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Carnoustie open to any number of scenarios

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2018, 12:07 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Carnoustie holds a distinct position within the Open Championship’s rotation of storied venues. It’s come by its nickname, Car-Nasty, honestly as the undisputed rough-and-tumble heavyweight of all the championship links.

Historically, Carnoustie is a beast. A punch in the mouth compared to the other stops on The Open dance card. If the likes of the Old Course and Muirfield are the fair ladies of the rotation, the Angus Coast brute would be the unfriendly bouncer.

As personas go, Carnoustie wears its reputation well, but the 147th edition of the game’s oldest championship has taken on a new look this week. It’s not so much the softer side of Carnoustie as it is a testament to the set up philosophy of the R&A.

Unlike its sister association in the United States, the R&A allows Mother Nature to decide what kind of test a championship will present and this Open is shaping up to be something far different than what the golf world is accustomed.

Instead of the thick, lush rough that ringed the fairways in 1999 and 2007, the last two stops at the par-71 layout, this year has a dust bowl feel to it. The stories have already become legend: Padraig Harrington hit a 457-yard drive on the 18th hole during a practice round that bounced and bounded into Barry Burn and on Monday Tiger Woods slashed a 333-yard 3-iron down the same power alley.

“It’s so fast. It’s nothing like ’99 – that was like a jungle. It was wet, rough was up, there was wind. In 2007, it was cold and green,” said Ernie Els, who has played two championships at Carnoustie. “But this is very, very dry. Very different.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Anywhere else these divergent conditions would simply be the nature of the game’s most hands-off major, but at Carnoustie it’s created an information vacuum and wild uncertainty.

Within a 48-hour window, two of the championship’s easy favorites offered diametrically contrasting philosophies on how they might play Carnoustie.

“There's eight or nine drivers we hit. Depending on the wind direction, we could hit more,” said Brooks Koepka, who won his second consecutive U.S. Open last month. “It's so burnt out, where there's a lot of opportunity where the rough's not quite as thick as I expected it to be.”

That was in contrast to how Jordan Spieth, this week’s defending champion, was thinking he would play the course.

“I talked to [caddie Michael Greller] a little bit about what he thinks, and he said, ‘You might hit a lot of 5-irons off the tee, you might wear out 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you're used to,’” Spieth said.

Unlike previous championships that were played at Carnoustie, which were won by the player best prepared to take a punch, this one might come down to which strategy, controlled and calculated or bold and brash, works best.

In theory, the bombers seem to be on to something, primarily as a result of the dry conditions that have produced uncharacteristically thin and playable rough. The alternative is weaving irons in between the countless bunkers that pepper each fairway, which on links courses are widely considered true hazards compared to what players face at other major venues.

“I would definitely say it is a bomber’s course,” said Gary Woodland, who counts himself among the long-hitting set. “A lot of the bunkers here are 285, 290 [yards] to cover, for us that’s nothing. You can take them out of play, which normally isn’t the case because it’s windy and rainy over here.”

That line of thinking leads to a rather narrow list of potential contenders, from betting favorite Dustin Johnson to Rory McIlroy and Koepka. But that logic ignores the inherent unpredictability of The Open, where countless contenders have been undercut by the rub of a bad draw and the always-present danger of inclement weather.

Although this week’s forecast calls for continued dry weather, winds are currently forecast to reach 25 mph on Sunday which could upend game plans, regardless of how aggressive or conservative one intended to play the course.

Despite conventional thinking and the realities of a modern game that is being dominated more and more by long hitters, there are compelling arguments for the other side of the bash-or-bunt debate.

One needs to look no further than Woods’ record on similarly dusty tracks as an example of how a conservative approach can produce championship results. In 2006 at Royal Liverpool, Woods, who is playing his first Open since 2015, famously hit just one driver all week on his way to victory, and he was just as effective in 2000 at St. Andrews when the Old Course also played to a bouncy brown.

“It could be that way,” Woods said when asked to compare ’06 at Hoylake to this week. “Either case, I'm not going to hit that many long clubs off the tees.”

Adding to that uncertainty is Carnoustie’s track record in producing late drama on Sunday. This is, after all, the same slice of coast where Jean Van de Velde stepped to the 18th tee box with a three-stroke lead in 1999 only to slash his way to a closing triple-bogey 7 and the game’s most memorable, or regrettable, runner-up showing.

In ’07, the heartbreak went extra frames for Sergio Garcia, who appeared poised to win his first major championship before he bogeyed the last hole and lost a playoff to Harrington.

Even this week’s baked-out conditions can’t mitigate the importance and challenge of what many consider the most difficult Grand Slam finish; but the yellow hue has certainly created an added degree of uncertainty to an already unpredictable championship.