Monday Scramble: Thomas relentless; 59 fatigue

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2017, 5:00 pm

Justin Thomas stays hot, Justin Rose and Jordan Spieth battle in the B flight, Rory McIlroy contends (and gets hurt), Jim Furyk lands a new job and there's a 59 watch every day, nowadays, in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

These two weeks in Hawaii altered the trajectory of Thomas’ career.

Viewed at the beginning of the year as one of the game’s many talented youngsters, Thomas showed a glimpse of his best stuff at Kapalua and Waialae. 

And it was remarkable.

At the Tournament of Champions, he surged to a big lead, nearly gave it all away and then shut down the (erstwhile) hottest player in golf with a clutch shot on 17.

At the Sony, the rest of the field never had a chance. He opened with 59, broke the 36-hole scoring record, tied the 54-hole mark and made a final birdie Sunday to shoot the lowest 72-hole total (253) in Tour history. 

His peers took notice: "JT has got it rolling now," Spieth said, "and he's going to be a tough guy to stop this year."

The Hawaii swing might be a working vacation for many, but it was a career-changer for Thomas. Growing more comfortable and confident in the spotlight, he might just be getting started.

Justin Thomas

1. Are we witnessing the birth of another American superstar? We’ll have a better idea by the end of the year whether this is merely a hot streak or the beginning of something special.

But for now, chew on this: Only three players have begun a season with three wins in their first five starts. 

Johnny Miller (twice). Tiger Woods (three times). And, now, Thomas. 

2. Thomas’ play was so dominant from tee to green all week that it almost overshadowed his start. Almost.

His first-round 59 was the result of a perfect storm, with light wind, firm fairways (on an already shortish course) and receptive greens. But that doesn’t diminish his accomplishment at all. 

His round was three shots better than the next-best score (Hudson Swafford) and still 9.25 strokes better than the field average on Day 1.

At 23, Thomas was the youngest and, by far, least experienced player to join the exclusive club. Per the PGA Tour, Thomas (252) broke the sub-60 barrier in 139 fewer rounds than David Duval (391). Jim Furyk, who twice has shot in the 50s on Tour, needed 1,768 rounds.

Speaking of which ... 

3. Is golf’s magic number losing some of its luster?

It sure felt that way at the Sony Open, where each day a player assaulted defenseless Waialae and prompted the increasingly tiresome #59Watch on social media.

Length helps everywhere, of course, but in optimal conditions it wasn’t just the bombers who had a chance to crack 60 – Zach Johnson, Kevin Kisner and Chez Reavie all took aim but came up short. For the week, there was a 59, a 60, two 61s, two 62s and four 63s. 

Birdies and low numbers are fun, but when a quarter of the 60-or-better scores have occurred in the past five years, it’s clear some of the magic is gone.   

4. Rose added the Sony Open to his schedule because of the Tour’s new strength-of-schedule rule, which requires members to play at least one tournament they haven’t played in four years. It worked out just fine for the Englishman.

Debuting a new claw putting grip, Rose was solid on the greens and typically excellent off the tee in shooting 20 under, good enough to hold off Spieth for second place.

“I’m not joking when I say I won the other tournament,” Rose said. 

It was a positive start after a 2016 campaign that was memorable only for his Olympic gold medal. He managed only five top-10s while battling a nagging back injury.

5. As for Spieth, he continued to impress, even if he’s asked more about his close friend than himself of late.

A prime bounce-back candidate after an uneven 2016, Spieth now has a win and three other top-6s in his last four worldwide starts.

With his ball-striking issues sorted out – he led the Sony field in strokes gained-approach to the green – it’s Spieth’s normally reliable putter that has kept him out of serious contention. At Waialae, he ranked 53rd in putting, but he made a crucial tweak before the final round, moving the ball back in his stance and turning the right toe open. He closed with 63.  

6. Over the past nine years, few players in golf have started as quickly as McIlroy. Since 2009, he has five runners-up and eight top-5s overall – but no wins.

That didn’t change at the European Tour's South African Open, where he shook off a back injury to shoot 68 or better all four days. That was only good enough to tie Graeme Storm at 18 under par, with the 38-year-old Englishman prevailing on the third extra hole after a McIlroy bogey. 

“I wish I could have done a little more,” McIlroy said afterward, “but it’s not a bad way to start the season and it gives me something to build on in the weeks ahead.”

7. Whether McIlroy will be able to play in the coming weeks remains to be seen.

The world No. 2 tweaked his upper back before the start of the second round and required treatment each day. He is scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Monday and is uncertain for this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. The MRI is precautionary, he said, but added that he doesn’t want to jeopardize the rest of his season for short-term gain.

(Update: McIlroy has a rib injury and withdrew from Abu Dhabi)

8. How did he get hurt? McIlroy isn’t quite sure. But he does have one theory: It could be a result of muscle fatigue, after testing equipment during the offseason.

“I’ve hit a lot of drivers,” he said. “You put a lot of force on your body when you do that.” 

Last week’s South African Open was the first time that McIlroy put Callaway woods and irons, Titleist wedges and balls, and Odyssey putter in his bag. 

9. Graeme Storm: Does the name sound familiar? Three months ago, he finished one shot (and about $111) shy of keeping his European Tour card for 2017, after bogeying the final hole at the Portugal Masters: 

But a few weeks later, Patrick Reed was (temporarily) stripped of his European Tour membership when he failed to play the minimum number of events (five). That bumped Storm from No. 112 to the all-important 111th spot, giving him full status on tour this year. 

He took full advantage Sunday. 

10. We already know this about Jim Furyk, Ryder Cup captain: The man knows how to keep a secret. He was informed of the committee’s choice before the holidays but wasn’t formally announced as Captain America until last week in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

The U.S. team’s revamped structure has added more cohesion to what was a mysterious, one-and-done process, but it’s also eliminated nearly all of the suspense about future captains. Fred Couples was rumored to be in the mix for next year’s matches in Paris, but Furyk was the perfect choice for 2018. And so here’s a guess on the next few captains: Steve Stricker (2020), Zach Johnson (2022) and Phil Mickelson (2024). One wild card: the health of 41-year-old Tiger Woods, and where he would potentially slide into the rotation.

11. If there was any surprise at all, it was that Furyk would want the job. After all, last year he finished second at the U.S. Open and shot the first 58 in PGA Tour history. Had he not sat out until May because of a wrist injury, he likely would have qualified on his own. He'll be 48 in September 2018.

Furyk left open the possibility of becoming the first playing captain since 1963, but it’ll never happen. Over the past half century, the role of captain has evolved into a full-time job with a million distractions. It says something about Furyk’s competitive fire that he wouldn’t relinquish that dream, at least not yet.

Furyk certainly could play well this year, like predecessor Davis Love III in ’15 (won the Wyndham), but if history is any indication, a captain’s form dramatically declines the year of the matches.

12. Hey, you know what they always say: There’s no better way to start your year than in paradise … where the double bogeys and swing compensations are plentiful.

The Tour's Great Exuma Classic was next-level goofy. On a resort course that apparently wasn't designed for high winds, the best minor leaguers in the world got their teeth kicked in. These were the scoring averages per round, in order: 80.405, 75.758, 74.209, 74.269.

Only one player, Kyle Thompson, finished the week under par. Yeah, he earned that potential trip back to the PGA Tour.  

Greg Eason is a former top-10 college and amateur star. A few years ago, he was one of the rookies to watch on the Tour. Each fall, he’s been one step away from graduating to the big tour.

All of this to say: He is a good player. 

A good player who just happened to have a very, very bad week.

The 24-year-old Englishman wasn’t the only player who embarrassed himself during the Tour’s season opener in the Bahamas, but he was absolutely brutal. 

He shot rounds of 91-95 and finished last. By six. 

Yes, conditions were horrendous, with the wind howling up to 45 mph. The first-round scoring average was 80.4. The 36-hole cut was a record 11 over par. 

But Eason began the week with 36 golf balls … and two days later, he had only four left.

If he can shake off this humiliation and earn his Tour card this year, he’s our Comeback Player of the Year. 

This week's award winners ... 

Comeback of the Week: Kevin Kisner. He went 3 under for his last three holes Friday to make the cut on the number. In the third round, he burned the edge on a 9-footer that would have given him the second 59 of the week. He shot 60-65 on the weekend to tie for fourth.

Desperately Needs to Resume Control of his Social-Media Accounts: Dustin Johnson. Come on, man

Keep An Eye On: Phil Mickelson. He has already committed to next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, but he remains “hopeful” that he’ll be able to serve as more than just a tournament ambassador this week in Palm Springs. Lefty had two offseason surgeries to repair a sports hernia.  


Not In Kansas Anymore: Toto Gana. After losing a two-shot lead with two to play at the Latin American Amateur, the 19-year-old Chilean made a clutch up and down on the first playoff hole, then stuffed his approach to 2 feet to earn a Masters berth

Never Seen That Before: Joaquin Niemann. In a sudden-death playoff in Panama, and with a Masters invite on the line, he hit a TV cable on his follow through. The ball raced through the green, but he still made par. He lost on the second playoff hole. 

Biggest Story of the Week (ahem): Spieth and Smylie Kaufman went fishing. And their kayak capsized. With Thomas winning in a rout, well, this qualified as news.

What’s “The Zone” Look Like?: Woody Austin. Playing in the Diamond Resorts Invitational, Austin rang up 10 birdies and eagle. He thought he’d shot 60 on the par 72 until he walked off the last green and was congratulated for breaking golf’s magic number. Said Austin: “Everybody goes, ‘No, it’s a par 71.’ So, ah, cool.”

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jimmy Walker. The king of Waialae, he had two wins and two other top-15s there since 2011. Alas, you can add another missed cut, as well, after rounds of 71-67. Sigh.

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Club apologizes for calling cops on black women members

By Associated PressApril 23, 2018, 11:07 pm

YORK, Pa. - A golf club in Pennsylvania has apologized for calling police on a group of black women after the co-owner and his father said they were playing too slowly and refused requests to leave the course.

“I felt we were discriminated against,” one of the women, Myneca Ojo, told the York Daily Record. “It was a horrific experience.”

Sandra Thompson and four friends met up Saturday to play a round of golf at the Grandview Golf Club, where they are all members, she told the newspaper.

At the second hole, a white man whose son co-owns the club came up to them twice to complain that they weren’t keeping up with the pace of play. Thompson, an attorney and the head of the York chapter of the NAACP, told the newspaper it was untrue.

On the same hole, another member of the group, Sandra Harrison, said she spoke with a Grandview golf pro, who said they were fine since they were keeping pace with the group ahead of them.

Despite that, the women skipped the third hole to avoid any other issues, she said.

It’s part of golf etiquette that slow-moving players let groups behind them play through if they are holding things up, and often golf courses have personnel who monitor the pace of play, letting golfers know when they are taking too long.

The five are part of a larger group of local women known as Sisters in the Fairway. The group has been around for at least a decade, and all of its members are experienced players who have golfed all over the county and world, Thompson said. They’re very familiar with golf etiquette, she said.

After the ninth hole, where it is customary to take a break before continuing on the next nine holes, three of the group decided to leave because they were so shaken up by the earlier treatment, the women told the paper.

Thompson said the man from the second hole, identified as former York County Commissioner Steve Chronister, his son, club co-owner Jordan Chronister and several other white, male employees approached the remaining two women and said they took too long of a break and they needed to leave the course.

The women argued they took an appropriate break, and that the men behind them were still on their beer break and not ready to tee off, as seen in a video Thompson gave the newspaper. The women were told that the police had been called, and so they waited.

Northern York County Regional Police arrived, conducted interviews and left without charging anyone.

“We were called there for an issue, the issue did not warrant any charges,” Northern York County Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel said. “All parties left and we left as well.”

A phone listing for Steve Chronister rang busy on Monday. He told the York Daily Record he didn’t have time to comment on Sunday.

Jordan Chronister’s wife and co-owner of the club, JJ Chronister, said Sunday she called the women personally to apologize.

“We sincerely apologize to the women for making them feel uncomfortable here at Grandview, that is not our intention in any way,” she told the newspaper. “We want all of our members to feel valued and that they can come out here and have a great time, play golf and enjoy the experience.”

She said she hopes to meet with them to discuss how the club can use what happened as a learning experience and do better in the future.

Thompson said she’s not sure a meeting is what needs to happen.

“There needs to be something more substantial to understand they don’t treat people in this manner,” she said.

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Randall's Rant: Augusta has the power to strengthen LPGA

By Randall MellApril 23, 2018, 9:57 pm

Augusta National Golf Club is turning women’s golf upside down.

If you care about the LPGA, that should be your hope, anyway.

Your hope should be that the investment made in the new Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship announced at the Masters three weeks ago will eventually filter up the women’s ranks.

While the new amateur event comes with significant challenges for the women’s tour - with its first major (the ANA Inspiration) in a tough spot the same week as the Augusta National Women’s Amateur - there is LPGA seed money being planted in Georgia

There’s an investment that may grow the women’s game beyond fueling new interest among girls.

“I just hope corporations start recognizing the value of investing in the women’s game, the way Augusta National does,” two-time major champion Cristie Kerr said. “There are so many corporate sponsors in the men’s game who don’t invest a single dollar in the women’s game. Obviously, that’s their prerogative, but we have a lot of value as a tour.”

And there’s your hope.

Augusta National is a collection of power brokers, CEOs and leaders now invested in growing the women’s game.

They’re taking a special interest in watching these young female amateurs emerge, and it’s only natural to expect they’ll become emotionally invested in where these young players go.

And a lot of these young players will go on to the LPGA.

The LPGA is thriving under commissioner Mike Whan’s leadership, with Whan seeing opportunities where others didn’t. He saw Asian interest in the tour as an asset, not the liability so many thought a decade ago.

The LPGA had withered to 23 events in 2011 with $40 million in total prize money. This year, it's up to 34 events with a tour-record $68 million in prize money. Whan did that with a lot of Asian backing.

Of the 10 tour events the LPGA has staged so far this year, including this week’s tournament in San Francisco, nine have Asian-based title sponsors. Even the LPGA’s domestic events are thriving on Asian money. 

All six of the U.S. events staged so far this year have Asian-based title sponsors. You have to move into May and next week’s Volunteers of America Texas Classic before finding an American corporate title sponsor of an American LPGA event.

That starts changing with summer approaching, but overall there will be 17 Asian-based companies or organizations as title sponsors of LPGA events this year, with 14 American-based entities sponsoring or owning events.

Whan says that’s a good thing.

“The diversity of sponsorship on the LPGA makes us a stronger business,” Whan said. “Since I’ve been in office, we’ve worked through recessions in different parts of the world. None of those recessions were crippling to our overall schedule, because we have so many sponsors on board, from so many different places.”

Whan says American corporate interest is growing considerably, with more American marketing partners joining the LPGA this year. The next steps players would like to see are increased purses and endorsement opportunities for women.

The winning two-man team at the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic this week will take home a combined $2,073,000. This week’s LPGA Mediheal Championship features a $1.5 million purse for the entire field.

“The income gap in golf is as much a concern to me as the corporate income gap is to working women,” 12-time LPGA winner Stacy Lewis wrote in an essay earlier this year for the World Economic Forum.

U.S. Solheim Cup captain and LPGA Hall of Famer Juli Inkster started wearing a San Francisco Giants cap this year with no endorsement deals on her bag or shirt. She has become more outspoken about the lack of corporate support for all female golf pros.

“I'm going to say it right now, and I probably shouldn't say it, but I just don't understand how all these companies get away with supporting PGA Tour events and not supporting the LPGA,” Inkster said at the last Solheim Cup. “It makes me a little upset, because I think we've got a great product. We deserve our due.”

With Augusta National investing in young amateur women, it may only be a matter of time until corporate America significantly steps up support. The game’s greatest power brokers appear ready to grow with the young women they will begin investing in next year. That should be the hope for anyone who cares about the LPGA.

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Report: Tour close to finalizing Detroit tournament

By Will GrayApril 23, 2018, 7:07 pm

With the final pieces of the 2019 schedule falling into place, the PGA Tour appears on the verge of returning to Michigan for the first time in nearly a decade.

According to a Detroit News report, the Tour is "believed to be close" to an agreement to bring a tournament to the Motor City beginning in 2019, reportedly likely to take place at Detroit Golf Club near downtown.

While the specifics remain undisclosed, the prime candidate for such a move appears to be The National. The Washington, D.C.-area event, which benefits Tiger Woods' TGR Foundation, was sponsored by Detroit-based Quicken Loans from 2014-2017. This year the tournament will be conducted at TPC Potomac without a title sponsor.

According to a Detroit News report in September, Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert was open to continuing his company's sponsorship of the event if it shifted to Detroit.

In addition to The National, the only other current PGA Tour event without a title sponsor is the Houston Open. On Monday Charles Schwab was introduced as the new title sponsor of the Fort Worth Invitational beginning in 2019.

The PGA Tour has not held an event in the state of Michigan since 2009, the final year of the now-defunct Buick Open at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club. While the final details of a revamped schedule have yet to be announced, the Tour is expected to unveil its itinerary for the 2018-19 season at The Players next month.

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Inbee Park quietly reclaims world No. 1

By Randall MellApril 23, 2018, 6:44 pm

Inbee Park moved back to No. 1 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings in about as ho-hum fashion as you’ll ever see a player take the top spot.

It isn’t that she doesn’t care about the top ranking. It just wasn’t a priority in her return to golf this year, after missing big portions of the last two years with injuries.

With an Olympic gold medal and seven major championship titles, the LPGA Hall of Famer isn’t done trying to top the scoreboards that matter most to her.

“To be honest, I never really think about being No. 1 again,” Park said early last week, before tying for second at the Hugel-JTBC LA Open. “If it comes to me, great. If not, it doesn't matter.”

It came to her for the fourth time in her career.

Park, 29, reigned at No. 1 for 59 weeks in her longest run on top, back in the 2013 and ’14 seasons.

Oddly, this run to No. 1 almost comes as a surprise to Park, who didn’t need long to get back to the top spot after returning to the tour. She won the Bank of Hope Founders Cup last month in her second after missing seven months with a back injury.

Park last lost the No. 1 ranking in October of 2015, doing so to Lydia Ko.

In six starts this year, Park has finished T-3 or better four times. She leads the tour in scoring average (69.13) and is second in greens in regulation (77.5 percent).

Just wait until her putter heats up.

Yeah, Park’s not very satisfied with her putting. She’s one of the greatest putters who ever played the women’s game, but she has been frustrated with the inconsistency of her stroke much of this season. Of course, her standards are high. She ranks second in putts per greens in regulation so far this year.

On Sunday, this is how Park summed up her putting in 2018: “Some days, I’ve been really good. Some days, I’ve been really bad.”

Park has led the LPGA in putts per GIR in five of the last 10 years. She switched from her preferred mallet-style putter to a blade earlier this season and won with a Toulon Madison blade at the Founders Cup last month. She was back with an Odyssey White Hot 2-Ball mallet this past week. That’s the putter she used to win the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro two years ago. She used an Odyssey Sabertooth winged mallet in her 2013 run of three consecutive major championship victories.