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Monday Scramble: Sound and fury in Phoenix

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Hideki Matsuyama survives in the desert, Rickie Fowler coughs up the lead, record crowds pack a beleaguered TPC Scottsdale, Bubba Watson ticks off the locals and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

The stage, the crowd, the shots – it was the ideal platform for Fowler to validate his standing in golf’s hierarchy. The only problem was that he lost. 

Searching for his fifth worldwide title in his last 20 starts, Fowler’s trademark has been calm, cold-blooded golf under pressure. After all, that’s how he won at The Players, by playing the final six holes in 6 under. That’s how he won at the Scottish Open, by making birdie on three of the last four holes. That’s how he won at the Deutsche Bank, by passing Henrik Stenson with unwavering play down the stretch. And that’s how he won last month at Abu Dhabi, by holing a bunker shot on the 71st hole to nip a world-class field.

But Fowler wouldn't win this Phoenix Open, a stunning result, truly, because his chip-in on 10, brilliant long-iron into 15 and stuffed tee shot on the chaotic 16th set him up for another comeback victory.

Make no mistake: Fowler didn’t lose because he crumbled under the spotlight, because he made nervy swings with the title on the line. No, he lost, mostly, because of two miscalculations on the wildly entertaining 17th hole and because Matsuyama played mistake-free golf for the final 28 holes. 

But the result is still the same, and one of the most compelling storylines moving forward is whether the Phoenix Open will shake Fowler's newfound confidence.

Because for now, he concedes: “This one hurts.”  

1. The putter came alive at just the right time for Matsuyama, who birdied the last two holes to shoot 67 and then prevailed in a four-hole playoff (which he played in 1 under).

Still just 23, Matsuyama is a ball-striking machine who has all the makings of a future star. But there are two reasons for pause: (1) He swings so violently that his body is bound to break down eventually, and (2) His putting is the weakest part of his game, and that's a problem, for it prevents him from consistently challenging the likes of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. 

Superior ball-striking works on a track like TPC Scottsdale – where he was No. 1 in strokes gained-tee to green and led the field in greens hit – but many experts criticized Matsuyama's putting technique, saying that he freezes over the ball and takes long backswings for short putts and short backswings for long putts. Until that’s addressed, it’s difficult to envision him cracking golf's top tier.

2. Still, Matsuyama joined this club, the only players with multiple PGA Tour wins who are 25 or younger:

  • Jordan Spieth (22): 8 wins
  • Patrick Reed (25): 4
  • Matsuyama (23): 2

3. Nothing brings out the hindsight police like a blown lead, but you couldn’t help but question Fowler’s decisions off the tee on the short 17th, one of the best holes on Tour. 

In regulation, Fowler held a two-shot lead. He had just piped a drive 344 yards two holes earlier; now, only a driver or 3-wood would bring the water long and left into play. That alone should have been enough to put an iron in his hand – it’s the only club with which he couldn’t make 5. After consulting with caddie Joe Skovron, Fowler went with a “chip-cut driver,” but with the adrenaline flowing he pummeled his longest tee ball of the week, a shot that hit short, rocketed across the green and trickled into the pond. He couldn’t get up and down from there, leading to a two-shot swing and a tie heading to the 72nd hole.

Yes, it was an impressive tee shot that had a poor result, but the point is that he shouldn’t have even put himself in that position. Go down the right side with an iron and wedge to 15 feet. That's a par, at worst. If nothing else, he still would have a one-shot lead.

In the playoff, Fowler went with 3-wood, hit it high on the face and found the water again – the ninth time in his career he has found the drink on the 17th. He couldn’t get up and down from short of the green, either, handing the title to Matsuyama, who only needed a par.  

“That’s kind of the unfortunate part,” Fowler said, “to hit the shots that I did and to pull them off and then it kind of backfired there.” 

4. Fowler's post-round news conference was limited to three questions, after he broke down in tears while talking about wanting to win in front of his friends and family, particularly his grandpa, who had never seen him hoist a trophy in person.

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5. Bubba Watson clumsily suggested the same thing earlier, but Phil Mickelson said it best last week – the recent redesign has turned TPC Scottsdale from an “offensive course into a defensive course.” 

And that’s a shame. 

Birdie barrages don’t work every week on Tour, but after the annual slugfest that is Torrey Pines, the Phoenix Open – with its record and boozy crowds – should offer a respite for players.

The 2013 Phoenix Open, which Mickelson won at 28-under 256, was the outlier; only four other times since 2000 has the winning score been at least 20 under.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. These fans, in particular, show up for the party, for the birdies and the excitement. Save for the excellent final four holes – risk-reward holes, all of them – TPC Scottsdale has transformed into a largely unmemorable track where par is a good score. 

6. A reported 201,003 fans rolled through the gates Saturday at the Phoenix Open, setting a new attendance record for golf and ensuring that it is the greenest show on turf, non-Woodstock division.

The perfect weather helped, as did the fact that the Super Bowl wasn’t in town and partygoers didn’t have myriad options to get their fill of fun. (And, sure, maybe the volunteer attendance counters had reason to fudge the numbers a bit.)

For years, this writer scoffed at the suggestion that the Phoenix Open was bigger than the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party – the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville that annually attracts close to 200,000 fans, including this UGA alum for seven years and counting. 

That point, alas, is now moot. Outside of an auto race, the Phoenix Open's third round was the second-largest attended sporting event in U.S. history.

7. Of course, expecting all of those fans to behave is unrealistic, if not naive. The 16th is a different animal, with cheers and jeers in equal measure, but the party vibe spilled out onto other parts of the course and affected James Hahn during the third round. 

Hovering near the lead, Hahn sailed his tee shot out of bounds on the 14th hole after a fan distracted him during his downswing. 

"That was me!" the fan yelled. "Sorry 'bout that, bro!"

The mea culpa was little consolation to Hahn, who made triple bogey on the hole, shot 74 and went on to finish in a tie for 17th. Most players love the energy there or they wouldn't turn up every year, but it's definitely not for everyone, especially those who aren't playing well.

8. As the Matsuyama-Fowler playoff continued to a fourth extra hole, as it cut into the first quarter of the Super Bowl, a question arose: Why doesn’t this thing end on Saturday?

The reason, most likely, is that tournament organizers hope to sell more Sunday tickets than Wednesday passes, but it’s not as drastic a difference in fan turnout as it would seem.

Sunday’s attendance was announced at 65,330 – slightly less than Wednesday (58,702) and a whopping 135,000 less than Saturday (201,003). 

The final round is always a buzzkill, but it doesn’t have to be. End golf’s biggest party on Saturday. 

9. If there are important victories in February, this was one for Danny Willett in Dubai. 

The Englishman’s 15-footer on the final hole gave him a one-shot win over Rafael Cabrera-Bello, and it came with many perks: The win, his fourth on the European Tour since June 2012, moved Willett up to No. 13 in the Official World Golf Ranking. It solidified his spot behind Justin Rose in the Olympic rankings. And it gave him some valuable Ryder Cup points; he is now No. 3 on the European Points List, and, barring a summer slide, seems like a safe bet to land on his first team either via the points list or captain’s pick.

“They’re two massive goals of mine,” he said of the Olympics and Ryder Cup.

10. Rory McIlroy backdoored a top-10 finish at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in what was the least surprising result of the week. How he arrived there was the interesting part. 

After a strong start in Dubai, McIlroy was on the verge of missing the cut until he ran off four birdies in his last six holes. It was the first time since 2009 (!) that he finished a round, in that event, outside the top 10.

Prior to last week, he had led or co-led after 14 of his 25 career rounds there. Weekend rounds of 68-65 gave him a tie for sixth. 

"It's sort of a week of what could have been," he said.

11. The “internship” is coming to an end, and it’s safe to say Bryson DeChambeau is ready for a full-time gig.

With his tie for 18th in Dubai, the 22-year-old NCAA and U.S. Amateur champion has now made the cut in all five pro starts and finished inside the top 30 in three of them. 

DeChambeau's next (and final) start before the Masters is the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which he is playing by virtue of his U.S. Am title. It will not count against his maximum seven exemptions allowed to non-members.  

12. Brooke Henderson’s stock continues to rise, especially after she told colleague Randall Mell that she gained distance over the offseason.

The 18-year-old went to a 48-inch shaft in her driver – the legal limit – and added 10-15 yards to her drive. Through three rounds of the Coates Golf Championship, she averaged 281 yards per drive, second only to Lexi Thompson.

Throw in Henderson’s sound short game, and she may soon emerge as Lydia Ko’s top challenger for world No. 1.  

Bubba put his foot in his mouth again once last week in Phoenix, where he said before the tournament that he’s only there “because of [his] sponsors” despite a track record at TPC Scottsdale that includes runners-up each of the past two years.

Give Watson credit for his candor – he was far from the only player who expressed disappointment with the recent redesign, and his bluntness was refreshing amid a Tour landscape that sometimes seems robotic.

But, once again, Watson’s message was clouded by his delivery, which came off as gumpy, whiny, petulant and entitled. After getting endlessly ripped by fans for the first two days, he finally backtracked, saying that he actually loves the tournament and that he didn’t convey his thoughts properly. He actually did well to tie for 14th, after a closing 66.

Watson may smile, laugh and shrug off the incessant boos and expletives hurled his way, but he has also proven to be deeply sensitive when it comes to criticism (though he says he doesn't read stories about himself).

The problem, of course, is that Watson’s comments won’t just die in the desert. Fans will let him hear it for the foreseeable future, or at least until his next forehand-slapping comment. 

This week's award winners ... 

Best Reaction to a first LPGA title: Ha Na Jang. Behold the "Samurai Lasso":

Breakout Star Alert: Beau Hossler. Remember him? He led the 2012 U.S. Open as a 16-year-old, but he’s starting to come into his own on the college and amateur scene, winning twice this season for Texas and rolling to a six-shot victory Sunday at the prestigious Jones Cup. 

Uh, What was That?: Lydia Ko. Was she too busy cheering on Jang in the group behind her? During the final round, the world No. 1 went 5 over around the turn and faded from contention.

Random Thought of the Week: Does the sand at TPC Scottsdale need to be that blindingly white?

Unorthodox Putting: Lexi Thompson, Ian Poulter and Bernhard Langer. Lexi has started putting with her eyes closed, Poults resorted to a one-handed stroke during the second round in Phoenix and Langer carried two putters in his bag until just before his tee time. What did they all have in common? They didn't putt well.

Worst Call of the Week: Will Wilcox. He told daily fantasy players that his game wasn't ready to contend and that they should look elsewhere in Phoenix. Then he closed with 65 and finished T-6.

Celebration(s) of the Week: Harold Varner. Not only did he dab after a holing a long birdie putt in the opening round, but then the North Carolina native donned a Panthers jersey as he strode off the tee on Day 2. If you don't love this kid, that's a you problem. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Kevin Kisner. The Kis has been awesome everywhere of late (four consecutive top-10s!), but even that strong form wasn’t enough to turn the tide at TPC Scottsdale. In three tries now, he has a pair of missed cuts and a tie for 55th.  

Random Thought of the Week, Part 2: Seriously, no disgruntled pro flipped off the fans on 16? That's impressive.