Tiger Woods returns to the PGA Tour, Jon Rahm wins the first of many, Brittany Lincicome ends the American slump and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
It’s tempting to make a few bold proclamations after Woods’ missed cut at Torrey Pines, to type here that he’s either (a) improving, (b) lost, or (c) finished.
Woods has hinted at it, but since he won’t say it explicitly, let's do it for him: These next few months are his preseason.
He’s trying to make cuts and win, of course, but even more important to Woods is testing his back, evaluating his swing, managing his game and feeling the rush of competition. He’s not trying to peak at the Honda; it’s all about the Masters.
For now, at least, he is maintaining the proper perspective.
So we’ll evaluate and take these appearances for what they are – test runs – while looking ahead to how much sharper he must be to compete at the year’s first major.
After his first Tour start in 17 months, it’s abundantly clear that there’s a long way to go. And no one knows that better than Woods.
1. Why are so many young players like Rahm finding success early on Tour? It’s an attitude.
Last summer Rahm finished in the top 4 in two of his first four starts to lock up his card for this season, but each of those close calls could have turned into victories with the proper mindset.
And so when he surged ahead of the field on the back nine Sunday at Torrey Pines, he fought the tendency to protect his lead, to just try and get in the house unscathed. He told himself on the 17th and 18th holes that he was “one shot behind,” that he needed to make birdie.
Rahm played those last two holes in 3 under par, including the sensational (and unlikely) eagle on 18 to come home in 30, a finishing kick that became a part of tournament lore.
2. This quote from Phil Mickelson on Sunday is all you need to know about Rahm:
“I think he’s more than just a good young player. I think he’s one of the top players in the world.”
Mickelson has played a few times with Rahm, losing to him in money games. He has seen up close the Spaniard’s aggressiveness. His passion. (Did you see his reaction on the 72nd hole?) His remarkable gifts.
“Jon doesn’t have weaknesses,” Phil said.
3. Funny, because about seven months ago, in advance of the NCAA Championship, I asked Tim Mickelson, then the head coach at Arizona State, for a pro comparison.
Mickelson said that Rahm reminded him a lot of his brother, Phil, but with a few key differences.
Though Mickelson and Rahm both have go-for-broke styles and imaginative short games, Rahm, unlike Phil, is a tremendous driver of the golf ball – he’s both long and incredibly straight.
Tim Mickelson was so bullish on Rahm’s potential, he left ASU last summer to become Rahm's manager. It was a throwback to 25 years earlier, when Sun Devils coach Steve Loy left the program to serve as Phil's agent.
4. To hear Rahm afterward was a reminder of how far he’s come in the past four years.
In the fall of 2012, he hardly knew any English. After attending classes with only 30 students in Spain, his first class at ASU was held in a 375-person auditorium. “I thought it was a movie theater, and I was in the wrong place,” he said.
Tim Mickelson wasn’t sure that Rahm would make it in the States. He forced him to do 10 burpee pushups for each Spanish word he uttered during practice. Rahm earned a second language by watching TV and movies, and listening to rap lyrics. Eventually, he thrived, becoming the chattiest member of the team, soaring to world No. 1 and becoming the first two-time Hogan Award winner.
For more on Rahm's back story, here's a profile I wrote nearly two years ago.
5. Though Woods’ performance at the Hero (where he made a field-high 24 birdies) was encouraging, there was decidedly more pessimism after his brief stay in Torrey Pines, where he looked out of rhythm, stiff in the 50-degree temperatures, and swung with a speed that was 6 mph slower than his last full season (2013).
Virtually every swing analyst noted the same thing: Trying to take pressure off his back, Woods’ body line pointed left and he swung out to the right. The top of his backswing didn’t match the path that he wanted to swing the club. That’s a recipe for a two-way miss.
The results weren’t pretty: He found only half the fairways (14 of 28, ranking him T-74 in the field), hit only 20 of 36 greens (T-125) and averaged 44 feet and 4 inches on his approaches (T-112). If there was a bright spot, it was his short game; he gained 1.5 strokes on the greens, good for 37th, and missed several putts on the edge.
Ideally, Woods would aim and swing left, hitting low fades, but that puts torque on his back. His swing remains a work in progress.
6. Though technically correct, the statistic that Woods missed his first cut at Torrey Pines in 16 tries is deceiving.
He hasn’t played on Sunday there in his last three appearances.
Woods missed the secondary cut in 2014, finishing in a tie for 80th after a third-round 79, then withdrew with back problems after a disastrous start in 2015. He didn’t play last year because of injury.
Because of the cool weather, hack-out rough and bumpy greens, Torrey might no longer offer one of his best chances for success.
7. Woods has signed a deal to play TaylorMade woods and irons. The woods part of the deal was a no-brainer – he played them last month in the Bahamas – but the irons were an interesting twist.
According to the release, Woods will have a personalized iron model that will debut this year. But when?
Breaking in a new set of clubs before the Masters, especially when he has only signed up for one event in March, would be a curious move. Woods said that he is in "no rush" to put a new set in the bag, but TaylorMade probably doesn't want to see the Nike sticks in there for much longer.
8. More shocking than Woods’ missed cut was the play of the other superstars in his group, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson.
Day, who led the Tour in strokes gained-putting last season, was woeful on the greens. He took 34 and 32 putts over the first two rounds, respectively. He missed four times inside 5 feet, leading to the world No. 1’s first missed cut since last year’s Farmers, when he dealt with the flu.
As for Johnson, it was his first early exit since his stunning missed cut at the PGA Championship, where he ran out of gas after a stellar summer stretch. He needed 35 swipes during a five-bogey 74 on the easier North Course.
9. Cheng-Tsung Pan seemed poised to become the latest member of the high school class of 2011 to win on the PGA Tour before his putter turned cold on the back nine. After moving into a tie for the lead, Pan made eight consecutive pars to close – including on the back-nine par 5s – to finish at 10 under, three shots back.
There have been four Tour winners from that heralded class. There are at least six others from that class currently playing on Tour, including Patrick Rodgers, who shared the 54-hole lead and tied for fourth.
10. Charles Howell III continues to be a smart pick in one-and-done fantasy formats.
His updated record at Torrey Pines: 15-of-15 cuts, 10 top-25s, three runners-up and more than $2.55 million.
Howell also has six consecutive top-15s on Tour. At No. 64 in the world, the Augusta native needs to crack the top 50 by the end of March to get into the Masters.
11. After their worst year in LPGA history, the Americans got their 2017 season off to a strong start. Six of the top seven players on the leaderboard, including the top four, sported the red, white and blue. That group included stalwarts like eventual winner Lincicome, Lexi Thompson and Stacy Lewis, but also newcomers like Nelly Korda.
U.S. players won seven times in 2015. Last year, they won only twice, their worst showing ever.
“American golf, here we come,” Lincicome said afterward. “It’s going to be our year.”
Eh, maybe. Remember: Only five of the top 10 players in the world teed it up at the season opener in the Bahamas …
12. Scoring was insanely low at the Ocean Club.
With five holes to play Sunday, four players were within two strokes of the tour record for lowest score in relation to par. Annika Sorenstam set the mark at 27 under at the 2001 Ping Register.
But the wind picked up late, and Lincicome and Thompson played off after posting 26 under.
In all, seven players cracked 20 under, after a week of light winds on a par-73 layout.
Bryson DeChambeau has been a pro for barely a year now, and already he is one of the most polarizing figures in golf.
Some love his unique perspective and personality. Others think he’s a phony who is going to tinker his way out of the major leagues. There really isn’t a middle ground here.
Well, Young Bryson had himself a whirlwind week, taking on the USGA for banning one of his face-on putters, attending the PGA Show and #GrowingTheGame with his single-length irons, and then jetting all the way across the country, where his game – and, apparently, his “closure rate” – were off. The missed cut at Torrey added to a stretch of listless play, as he now has just one top-30 worldwide since June.
Even the 23-year-old admitted that he should have taken off last week; that he had too much on his plate and couldn’t have expected a good result. It was a rookie mistake.
DeChambeau deserves credit for establishing a brand and getting people to view equipment differently. But he’ll only be able to truly revolutionize the game if he – first and foremost – plays good golf.
This week's award winners ...
The Happiest Man This Monday: Thomas Bjorn. Tim Mickelson said a few years ago that Rahm would be a European Ryder Cupper by the time he’s 30. At this point, it’d be a massive surprise if he wasn’t by next year in France, at the age of 23. Bjorn just found another huge weapon.
Redemption: Greg Eason. Mentioned in this column the past two weeks for flailing about in the Bahamas, he set the record for the largest turnaround in a Tour-sanctioned event by going 90-68. Good for him. His interesting story, here.
What Could Have Been: Ollie Schniederjans. In the mix on the weekend at Torrey Pines, Ollie’s putter went cold, as he ranked near the bottom of the field in putting and holed only 134 feet of putts combined. He shot 71-71 and tied for ninth.
If At First You Don’t Succeed … : Mark Johnson. For 206 consecutive days he tweeted at Garcia, asking whether he could caddie for him at a tournament. His wish will finally come true this September, during the pro-am at the British Masters.
Auspicious Debut: Nelly Korda. The younger sister of LPGA winner Jessica, the 18-year-old shot 63-67 on the weekend in her tour debut to shoot 21 under and tie for fifth. Big game.
Still The Needle: Tiger. Ratings for the first round of the Farmers were up 109 percent, year-over-year, and were the highest Round 1 overnight since the 2015 Players.
Hey, Who You Workin’ For?: Jeunghun Wang’s caddie. They already have the player’s name stamped on the back of their bib; this guy takes it to another level, putting WANG inside the bill of his cap. Whatever works, because this budding star has three European Tour wins since May.
Winning selfie pic.twitter.com/OUb878JtHe— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) January 29, 2017
When In Doubt, Blame the Media …: Bernhard Langer. Pulled into a bizarre story about voter fraud, Langer began his Tour-issued statement by blaming the media … ironic, of course, because it was the media that set out to clarify the issue and clear him of any involvement.
Third-round entertainment: Elusive fan. Thanks to Harold Varner III for sharing this clip of a man avoiding security, jumping into the pond short of 18 green and finally surrendering. The only surprise: that this doesn’t happen more often.
By far the greatest thing I saw yesterday. pic.twitter.com/WXDjRs9ZN1— Harold Varner III (@HV3_Golf) January 28, 2017
Awkward Line of Questioning: Phil Mickelson. Returning to Torrey Pines North – in 2015, he lost out on the bid to redesign the course – Mickelson was inevitably asked about the job Tom Weiskopf did in his redo. He said the course was “a good challenge” and that it was in “good shape,” which is Phil-speak for “Yeah, I could have done a much better job here.”
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jason Day. The 2015 champion at Torrey, he also had top-10s in both ’13 and ’14. The guy hadn’t missed a cut in a year! Sigh.