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Monday Scramble: DJ's Kapalua crush

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 8, 2018, 4:00 pm

Dustin Johnson keeps rolling, Justin Thomas has caddie issues, Tiger Woods announces his early schedule, Rickie Fowler breaks tradition and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Here we go again, another year in which DJ looks unstoppable.

There are maybe five players on the PGA Tour who can overwhelm the competition with their physical gifts, who can mash the accelerator and pull away.

The difference with Johnson – the reason he has blown past Rory McIlroy and Jason Day (for now) – is that he can access that awesome potential more consistently; this was his eighth win in the past 19 months.

His eight-shot romp at Kapalua immediately recalled his dominant form last spring, when he headed into the year’s first major with three consecutive victories, all in big events.

“I felt as close as I have to the level my game was during that stretch,” he said Sunday.

Of course, this being Johnson, the question now is whether the star-crossed talent can sustain it, through freak injury (please rent only ranch-style homes from now on) or something else.

Already, it looks like 2018 could be a special year.  

1. DJ might have already locked up Drive of the Year.

With the outcome no longer in doubt, he went at a driver 90 percent and pounded his tee shot down the hill on the 433-yard 12th. He knew his ball started on a good line, but he was stunned to see where it finished – 6 inches from the cup, for a tap-in eagle.

He joked to Golf Channel on-course reporter Jim “Bones” Mackay that he’d caught his drive a little thin.

In reality, he said, “that was flush.”


2. Johnson led the field in strokes gained-tee to green and off-the-tee. (He hit 15 drivers over 375 yards.) In the final round, he gained 4.09 strokes on the field with his driver, the best-ever round at Kapalua.

Sure, he missed a few fairways, but “I don’t think I hit a bad drive all week.”

Most interesting about that?

He was using a new driver, putting TaylorMade’s M4 in the bag last Saturday. 

3. Of his many incredible gifts, DJ’s short memory might serve him best.

It’s the reason why he was able to win the 2016 U.S. Open after several near-misses. And it’s why he was able to shrug off a record-tying loss in his most recent start on Tour, when he blew a six-shot lead in the final round at the WGC-HSBC Champions. 

Johnson insists that he didn’t even remember that loss until it was mentioned to him after his third round … and yet, after being asked about it repeatedly Saturday night in Hawaii, he set out on the final day to “prove to myself that ain’t going to happen again.”

He turned a two-shot lead into an eight-shot margin of victory, one off the tournament record. Johnson joined Hal Sutton (1983) as the only players to lose a six-shot lead and then win in their next start.



4. Justin Thomas had a few issues in paradise.

His game wasn’t as sharp as he’d hoped coming out of the gates, finishing 22nd after a closing 67, but an even bigger dilemma is who he’ll walk alongside during the next few events.

His regular caddie, Jimmy Johnson, has plantar fasciitis and will be in a walking boot for at least the next month. (It usually takes 3-12 months to fully heal.) Subbing in for the final two rounds at hilly Kapalua was Thomas’ father/swing coach, Mike.

This week? Well, good caddies are in short supply on the island, so he’s brought NBC/Golf Channel on-course reporter Jim “Bones” Mackay out of retirement; Bones hasn’t looped at Waialae since 1992.

After that, however, is uncertain. (Mackay’s stint is expected to only be one week, though NBC doesn’t broadcast an event until Honda.) Over the next two months Thomas is scheduled to play Sony, Phoenix, Riviera, Honda and Mexico.

Said Thomas: “I told [Johnson], ‘Look, I’d rather you take as much time as you need to get it better and make sure that you’re fresh come L.A., Match Play, Masters, whatever it is. I want him to be 100 percent again.” 

5. Keep an eye on Jordan Spieth’s putter during this run-up to Augusta.

The three-time major winner said that he spent a majority of his offseason working on his putting. That was the aspect of his game, remember, that slipped in 2017, dropping from second to 42nd in strokes gained-putting.

Spieth said he’s been grinding with swing coach Cameron McCormick since the Bahamas. He’s trying to get his posture and setup back to where it was in 2015-16, when he was at his best, when he primarily used his shoulders, not his hands, during the stroke. It’s unwise to rely too much on putting stats from Kapalua – it’s windy, and the massive greens are slow – but he ranked 30th out of 34 players in putting.

“It’s just stuff that needs on-course reps in tournament play, and I didn’t expect it to be on fire at all at the start,” he said, “and if it was, that would have been an advantage.” 

6. Jon Rahm won three times last year while playing courses he’d never seen before.

No surprise he kept rolling in his first trip around the Plantation Course.

He won the B flight at Kapalua, and the runner-up finish was his 14th top-5 in 37 pro starts.

The 23-year-old Spaniard moved to No. 3 in the world – the fourth-youngest to reach that mark, behind only Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. 



7. It was little surprise that Tiger Woods’ early-season schedule will include both Torrey Pines and Riviera.

He’s an eight-time winner on the San Diego-area muni, and though the brawny track is no longer the ideal fit for his game, the nostalgia apparently was too much to ignore. Riviera, too, was a no-brainer, now that the event benefits his foundation. (It’ll be his first start at Riv since 2006.)

Though it would have been neat to see Woods ease into the season at courses like Waialae and PGA West, it was never going to happen. He’s nothing if not a creature of habit.

Honda and Bay Hill – two more difficult stops – would be the next logical additions to his pre-Masters schedule. At least there shouldn't be any unnecessary international travel.

8. The first week of the new year always brings with it a slew of equipment signings.

Sergio Garcia’s switch to Callaway was one of the worst-kept secrets in the sport, but a big surprise was Xander Schauffele’s move to the same company.

Schauffele is coming off a breakout season in which he won twice, including the Tour Championship, finished third in the FedExCup and earned Rookie of the Year honors.

He cashed in, but the decision carries some risk – the last Rookie of the Year to change equipment after his big first season was John Huh (2012-13). He hasn’t come close to replicating that success. 

Schauffele tied for 22nd at Kapalua.

A trend-setting Fowler wore an untucked Hawaiian shirt last week, and social media practically melted.

Though most were in favor of his Maui-themed garb, some were genuinely put off by his choice for the opening round.

This is laid-back golf, on an island, in a 34-man event … and yet a few curmudgeons thought he lacked “manners” and looked “unprofessional” and, yes, even that he should be fined. (That one was laughable, especially since PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said: “I thought it was fantastic.")

Never mind that it was the best-selling shirt in the Kapalua merchandise tent on Friday.

Keep doing you, Rick. 

This week's award winners ... 


What’s Up With …?: Brooks Koepka. After routing the field at the Dunlop Phoenix in November, the reigning U.S. Open champion finished last for the second tournament in a row – this time by six shots. Koepka has been battling discomfort in his left wrist, and most concerning, he said, is that doctors still don't know what's wrong. His manager said they're "planning to have some people look at it" this week.

RIP: DJ’s old irons. The clubs that Johnson used during his final-round collapse in Shanghai? Long gone. They never even made the trip home. “They’re probably still in my locker at whatever the golf course is called,” he said.

Worse Than Originally Thought: Jimmy Walker’s health. The 2016 PGA champion was plagued last year by the effects of Lyme disease, but his wife, Erin (who also contracted the disease), chronicled that Jimmy also tested positive for mononucleosis, two types of pneumonia, West Nile Virus and a virus common to children called CMV.

Experience is Overrated: Christopher Carns. This Clemson student, who says he’s never played golf before, drained a 94-foot putt at the Clemson-Louisville basketball game to win $10,000. Bonus points for accomplishing the feat in … slippers? 


Do It For Jarrod: Jarrod Lyle. The Tour has declared this “January for Jarrod month,” as the affable Australian undergoes another round of treatment for leukemia. Head here to help

No Shame in his Game: Ben Crane. There are no words for this. No words. 


What To Watch For: JT vs. Kiz. Your trusty correspondent’s Georgia Bulldogs will look to win their first national title since 1980 on Monday night, but even more is at stake – the loser of a friendly wager between Thomas (Alabama) and Kisner (UGA) has to wear the other team’s jersey this week at Waialae. Go Dawgs!

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Brendan Steele. A smart one-and-done pick because of his T-6 last year and his run of good form during the fall, when he defended his title at Safeway and tied for 13th in Malaysia. Alas, he shot 1 under – 23 shots behind DJ – and finished 29th. Sigh.  

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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 Web.com 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.