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.

Getty Images

What's in the Bag: CJ Cup winner Koepka

By Golf Channel DigitalOctober 23, 2018, 12:50 am

Brooks Koepka closed strong to win the CJ Cup in South Korea, and he also took over the No. 1 ranking. Here's a look inside his bag.

Driver: TaylorMade M3 (9.5 degrees)

Fairway Woods: TaylorMade M2 Tour HL (16.5 degrees)

Irons: Nike Vapor Fly Pro (3); Mizuno JPX-900 Tour (4-PW)

Wedges: Titleist Vokey Design SM7 Raw (52, 56 degrees), SM7 Raw TVD (60 degrees)

Putter: Scotty Cameron T10 Select Newport 2 prototype

Ball: Titleist Pro V1x

Getty Images

HOFer Stephenson: Robbie wants to play me in movie

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 4:20 pm

Margot Robbie has already starred in one sports-related biopic, and if she gets her way a second opportunity might not be far behind.

Robbie earned an Academy Award nomination for her work last year as former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in the movie, I Tonya. She also has a desire to assume the role of her fellow Aussie, Jan Stephenson, in a movie where she would trade in her skates for a set of golf clubs.

That's at least according to Stephenson, who floated out the idea during an interview with Golf Australia's Inside the Ropes podcast shortly after being announced as part of the next class of World Golf Hall of Fame inductees.

"We've talked about doing a movie. Margot Robbie wants to play me," Stephenson said.

There certainly would be a resemblance between the two Australian blondes, as Robbie has become one of Hollywood's leading ladies while Stephenson was on the cutting edge of sex appeal during her playing career. In addition to several magazine covers, Stephenson also racked up 16 LPGA wins between 1976-87 including three majors.

Robbie, 28, has also had starring roles in Suicide Squad and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Getty Images

Monday Scramble: Who's No. 1 ... in the long run?

By Ryan LavnerOctober 22, 2018, 4:00 pm

Brooks Koepka becomes golf’s new king, Sergio Garcia enjoys the Ryder Cup bump, Danielle Kang overcomes the demons, Michelle Wie goes under the knife and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:

Brooks Koepka added an exclamation point to his breakout year.

His red-hot finish at the CJ Cup not only earned him a third title in 2018, but with the victory he leapfrogged Dustin Johnson to become the top-ranked player in the world for the first time.

That top spot could become a revolving door over the next few months, with Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose all vying for No. 1, but it’s a fitting coda to Koepka’s stellar year that included two more majors and Player of the Year honors.

For a player whose team searches long and hard for slights, there’s no questioning now his place in the game.

1. DJ won three events this season, but he wasn’t able to create much separation between him and the rest of the world’s best players.

Koepka’s rise to No. 1 made him the fourth player to reach the top spot this year, and the third in the past month.

Who has the greatest potential to get to No. 1 and stay there? Johnson is the best bet in the short term, but he’s also 34. Koepka will be a threat in the majors as long as he stays healthy. So the belief here is that it’ll be Justin Thomas, who is 25, without weakness and, best of all, hungry for more success.  

2. Koepka had an eventful final round at the CJ Cup. Staked to a four-shot lead in the final round, his advantage was trimmed to one after a sloppy start, then he poured it on late with an inward 29. He punctuated his historic victory with an eagle on the 72nd hole, smirking as it tumbled into the cup.

It was his fifth career Tour title – but only his second non-major. Weird.

3. How appropriate that golf’s most underappreciated talent – at least in his estimation – became world No. 1 in a limited-field event that finished at 2 a.m. on the East Coast. Somehow he’ll spin this into being overlooked, again.

4. Sergio Garcia carried all of that Ryder Cup momentum into the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, where he earned the hat trick by capturing his third consecutive title there.

While the rest of the world’s best gathered in Korea or rested for global golf’s finishing kick, Garcia won the weather-delayed event by four shots over Shane Lowry. Garcia’s foundation hosts the tournament, and he extended his crazy-good record there: In 14 career appearances at Valderrama, he has three wins, seven top-3s, nine top-5s and 13 top-10s.

Garcia, who went 3-1 at the recent Ryder Cup, became the first player since Ernie Els (2004) to win the same European Tour event three years in a row.

5. Gary Woodland probably doesn’t want 2018 to end.

He was the runner-up at the CJ Cup, his second consecutive top-5 to start the season. He made 11(!) birdies in the final round and now is a combined 37 under par for the first two starts of the new season.

6. This definitely wasn’t the Ryder Cup.

Four shots back, and the closest pursuer to Koepka, Ian Poulter had a chance to put pressure on the leader in the final round. Instead, he was left in the dust, mustering only three birdies and getting waxed by seven shots (64-71) on the last day. Poulter tumbled all the way into a tie for 10th.

7. It hasn’t been the easiest road for Danielle Kang since she won the 2017 Women’s PGA.

The 26-year-old said she’s dealt with anxiety for months and has battled both putting and full-swing yips. Her problems were so deep that a week ago, she stood over the ball for four minutes and couldn’t pull the trigger.

No wonder she said that she was “pretty stunned” to hold off a bevy of challengers to win her second career title at the Buick LPGA Shanghai.

“I’m finally at a place where I’m peaceful and happy with my game, with my life,” she said.

8. In the middle of the seven-way tie for second in China was Ariya Jutanugarn, who will return to No. 1 in the world for the second time this season.

9. Also in that logjam was another former top-ranked player, Lydia Ko, who had tumbled all the way to 17th. Ko hasn’t been able to build off of her slump-busting victory earlier this summer, but she now has six consecutive top-16 finishes and at least seems more comfortable in her new position.

“Sometimes you get too carried away about the awards and rankings,” she said. “It just becomes so much. I think it’s more important to keep putting myself there and … shooting in the 60s, and that way I think it builds the confidence and the rankings kind of sort itself out.”

Here's how Tiger Woods explained his pitiful performance at the Ryder Cup: “I was tired because I hadn’t trained for it. I hadn’t trained this entire comeback to play this much golf.”

Of course, he looked just fine a week earlier at East Lake, where he snapped a five-year winless drought with one of the most memorable weeks of his legendary career. His training wasn’t a topic of conversation there.

It's reasonable to expect that the emotional victory took a lot of out of him, but if he was so gassed, why did he sit only one team session and go 36 on Saturday? By Sunday night, Woods looked like he was running on empty, so either he wasn't upfront with captain Jim Furyk about his energy levels, or Furyk ran him out there anyway.

This week's award winners ...  

Can’t Catch a Break: Michelle Wie. The star-crossed talent announced that she’ll miss the rest of the season to undergo surgery to repair a troublesome hand injury. Maybe one of these years she’ll be able to play a full schedule, without physical setbacks.  

Grab the Mic: Paul Azinger. Taking Johnny Miller’s seat in the booth, Azinger will call all four days of action at every Golf Channel/NBC event, beginning at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He was the most logical (and best) choice to follow the inimitable Miller.

Take That, Dawdler: Corey Pavin. It was Pavin – and not the notoriously slow Bernhard Langer – who earned the first slow-play penalty on the PGA Tour Champions in what seemed like ages. The one-shot penalty dropped him to 15th in the event.

Long Time Coming: Jason Day. His tie for fifth at the CJ Cup was his best finish worldwide since … The Players? Really. Wow.

The Tumble Continues: Jordan Spieth. In the latest world rankings, Spieth is officially out of the top 10 for the first time since November 2014. A reminder that he finished last year at No. 2.

Clutch Performances: Andalucia Masters. Both Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Richie Ramsay both moved inside the top 116 in the Race to Dubai standings, securing their European Tour cards for next season. Gonzo tied for fifth in the regular-season finale, while Ramsay was joint 11th.

That’s Messed Up: CJ Cup purse. As colleague Will Gray noted, the purse for the 78-man event was $9.5 million – or $400K more than the first 15 events of the Tour schedule combined. The difference between the haves and have-nots has never been larger.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Thomas. The defending champion never could get started in Korea, closing with his low round of the week, a 4-under 68, just to salvage a tie for 36th. Sigh.  

Getty Images

Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."