Monday Scramble: Wild, crazy times in the golf world

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 26, 2015, 4:20 pm

One of the biggest events of the year is going down this week in Phoenix – and yeah, the Super Bowl is in town, too. Regardless of who wins in the desert, it promises to be the Greatest Show on Turf. We’ll get to that madhouse, plus more from Humana, Dustin Johnson’s imminent return and Robert Allenby’s self-inflicted mess in this week’s edition of the Monday Scramble: 

Every win should be treasured.

Within minutes of Branden Grace capturing his eighth career title (by the age of 26), the Twittersphere blew up: Yeah, but what has he done in the States? The answer: Not much, at least not yet, but that doesn’t diminish his accomplishment. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the dominant success of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, because in the first month of the new year we’ve already watched proud champions Charl Schwartzel (South Africa), Martin Kaymer (Abu Dhabi) and Jimmy Walker (Kapalua) remember just how difficult it is to win on the global stage.

Which brings us to Bill Haas, a nice player but a guy occasionally criticized for not doing more with his incredible natural ability. No, Haas has never had a top-10 in a major, but here's the thing: He’s grateful to have these six wins, knowing that he plays on the best tour in the world against the best players in what often amounts to a weekly putting contest. “If I could only win one a year for the rest of my career, I would be completely happy,” he said. Sounds like a player who cherishes his time in the winner's circle, and for good reason.

1. Esteemed colleague Rex Hoggard has already wadded through the murkiness that is the Robert Allenby story. When the police release their report, it’s clear that Allenby will most certainly regret this quote in the days following the incident: “It’s such a shame that people are focusing on whether the story is true.”

2. Fortunately, the only robbery we noticed in Hawaii last week was Miguel Angel Jimenez’s continued fleecing of the Champions Tour. He’s now batting .667 on the over-50 circuit, and he’ll be a force for as long as he cares to enter tournaments. We hear those $309,000 paychecks can buy a lot of Rioja.   

3. Speaking of the old-timers ... how good is Bernhard Langer? The ageless wonder made a 10 (!) on the par-5 seventh hole in the first round. He dropped only one more shot the rest of the tournament, recorded 13 birdies and an eagle, and finished joint fifth. Luke, your thoughts, please … 

4. What do Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo, Raymond Floyd and Johnny Miller have in common? None won more than once after turning the big 4-5. Phil Mickelson, coming off his worst year as a pro, turns 45 in June. 

5. That said, Phil tied for 24th in his season debut and showed signs of life after a listless 71 in the opening round. Predictably, there were a few rusty shots and lapses of concentration, but his swing looked good and he appears about 15-20 pounds lighter. It’s worth noting that Phil hasn’t fared well in the desert over the past few years, using the event more as a spring training start. We’ll have a better idea as to the state of his game at Torrey Pines, his third consecutive start.  

6. Players are prohibited from tossing freebies into the stands on 16 at TPC Scottsdale this week, but they ARE allowed to make a direct handoff. With that in mind, here are four items Tiger should personally deliver to the front-row spectators, if he’s keeping a sense of humor:

  • Chiclets
  • Dave Pelz instructional short-game DVD
  • A pair of dad jeans, preferably from Costco
  • A cassette of Luke’s 1997 hit single “Raise the Roof”

7. On Aug. 1, 2014, the PGA Tour issued a statement saying that Dustin Johnson was NOT facing a six-month suspension for failing a third drug test. On Feb. 5, 2015, Dustin Johnson will return to the PGA Tour. Time elapsed: 6 months, 5 days. A coincidence, surely.

8. For a player who has shied away from the spotlight in recent years, Johnson was on quite a p.r. blitz last week. The SI puff piece. The painfully awkward ESPN sit-down. Multiple 1-on-1 phone interviews, including with Read each piece and familiar narratives appear: Wakeup calls. Redemption. Personal growth. Watch the ESPN interview, however, and it’s clear that Johnson has not completely accepted responsibility for whatever “personal challenges” he faced, saying that “I’m not really here today to talk about that” when pressed about whether he has ever used cocaine. P.R. 101: Total honesty is almost always the best strategy. 

9. After Lee Westwood saved an elderly man from drowning in Barbados, this image is forever seared into our minds: 

10. Much was made of Justin Thomas’ incredible lash at the ball, and it's easy to see why. He’s only 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, but he rips through impact with Young Tiger ferocity. Thomas told me his swing speed has maxed out at 119 mph, which would rank him about eighth on Tour – behind Charlie Beljan, Tony Finau, Bubba Watson, Jhonattan Vegas, Brooks Koepka and Andrew Loupe, all of whom are monsters, physically. The player most similar to Thomas in terms of build and swing speed: Charles Howell III.  

11. Win rates for players who were third or better through 36 holes of a PGA Tour event (via Golf Channel research department): 

  • Tiger Woods: 62.7 percent (52 of 83)
  • Rory McIlroy: 43.8 percent (7 of 16)
  • Phil Mickelson: 35.3 percent (24 of 68)
  • Matt Kuchar: 8 percent (2 of 25)

If Kooch were a baseball closer, he’d be searching for employment or floundering in Double-A. He has won seven times, finished in the top-10 in 70 events and banked more than $31 million, but that’s a troubling conversion rate.

12. The last time Rory McIlroy dealt with an off-course distraction at a tournament, he won the BMW PGA. (Sorry, Caroline.) Now, with his court case against his former management team looming next week, the world No. 1 will make his second European Tour appearance of the season in Dubai. The potentially sensitive situation hasn’t deterred oddsmakers, though. Rory is installed as a 3/1 favorite. 

13. Here are a few guys I’ll have in my fantasy lineups this week: Bubba Watson (three consecutive top-10s at TPC Scottsdale; should have won last year), Hideki Matsuyama (T-4 here last year; top-15s in three of his last four events), Brendan Steele (three top-6 finishes in a row here; coming off a T-2 at Humana) and Justin Thomas (back-to-back top-10s to begin 2015). 

With so many questions still unanswered about what actually happened in Honolulu, Robert Allenby will not just subject himself to 500,000 unruly fans this week in Phoenix – he’ll also hold a formal news conference! Who is advising this guy, Kris Jenner?

The biggest storyline heading into Sunday’s action was two-time heart-transplant recipient Erik Compton. At last year’s U.S. Open, he said he hoped his T-2 finish would now force fans to view him as a great golfer, not just a man playing the PGA Tour on his third heart. We're getting there, slowly, but it remains a backstory too remarkable to ignore. 

The 35-year-old Compton has to take dozens of medications each day so his body doesn’t go into a sparring match with his donated heart. Surges of adrenaline make it difficult for him to grip the club under pressure. He warmed up for only 15 minutes Sunday in an attempt to conserve energy. All of that was working against him - there were built-in excuses - but in the aftermath of a disappointing final round at Humana, Compton didn’t hold back. He described his day as “pretty pathetic.” He wasn’t interested in consolation prizes, silver linings or feel-good stories. He didn’t care about holding a share of his first 54-hole lead on Tour, a meaningless statistic, he said, because, “If I looked at statistics, I wouldn’t be standing here.” It took many of us by surprise, but it was refreshing. Who knows how many more chances he’ll get to nab that elusive Tour title. But if he does convert, if he does calm his nerves and put together one magical Sunday, it would not just be one of the greatest stories ever in golf, but in all of sports.

Jason Dufner changed his diet out of necessity. He hasn’t felt good for the past few years, and he wouldn’t have been able to continue playing golf in his old body. So, during the offseason, he shed 20 pounds, stuck to a strict workout regimen and cut out sugars, alcohol and soda. He looks great, even if his golf didn’t. He somehow opened with 76 and missed the 54-hole cut in his season debut at the Humana. ... The USGA will once again require that at least two mid-amateurs make the 2015 U.S. Walker Cup team. (I’ve made my thoughts on that rule abundantly clear.) It’s now a safe bet that one of those two spots will go to Scott Harvey, the 36-year-old reigning Mid-Am champ who won the South American Amateur last weekend. … Humana is no longer the title sponsor of the Palm Springs-area event, but fear not: Tournament officials already have a handshake agreement with a new sponsor. An official announcement is expected “soon,” according to the tournament director. … It may have taken longer than anticipated, but Byeong-Hun An is finally coming into his own. An, who six years ago became the youngest winner of the U.S. Amateur (age 17), finished fifth in Qatar, his second consecutive top 15 to begin 2015. He is a full-fledged European Tour member this year.

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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.

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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.  

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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."

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Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.