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.”
Still can't decide what's harder to believe:— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) January 8, 2018
The drive itself, or that it didn't go in. pic.twitter.com/nQExRTPhqZ
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?
So this just happened... and the kid is in socks pic.twitter.com/XtmOZH5sNE— Kendall Lang (@KendallLang) January 6, 2018
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.
I don’t always finish first in the Madison Club member member tourney, but I always finish first at their member member after party pic.twitter.com/LZg7vRvUzN— Ben Crane (@bencranegolf) January 6, 2018
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.