Justin Thomas takes another step, Tiger Woods fills out his early schedule, Jay Monahan begins Year 1, Jason Day isn't worried about pace of play and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:
Fair or not, Thomas has spent the past few years obscured by Jordan Spieth’s considerable shadow. The same age, they were fierce junior and college rivals. They’re frequent practice-round partners. You might have even seen that they once vacationed together.
That can’t be an easy spot, being an enormously talented youngster who is constantly playing second fiddle to a good friend who is more famous and, for now, more accomplished.
Thomas doesn’t yet have the résumé to match Spieth – Kapalua was his third Tour title; Spieth has eight – but his own star is beginning to rise. He has a fun personality and is active on social media. He’s expressive on the course. And he’s a world-class talent, with his awesome power and stratospheric iron shots. It helps, too, that there is a chip on his shoulder.
“It drove me a lot,” Thomas said of his peers’ success. “I wasn’t mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating seeing some friends and peers my age do well. Not because I wasn’t cheering for them, but because I feel like I was as good as them.”
His title defense in Malaysia last fall helped Thomas feel like he belonged. And now he has two titles in the first four starts of the season and is the 12th-ranked player in the world.
Leave it to Spieth – with whom Thomas has been inextricably linked – to sum up what we all saw in paradise:
“I think it’s potentially floodgates opening.”
1. Yes, Thomas made a few mistakes down the stretch. A poor tee shot on 9. A poor wedge on 10. A poor approach on 15. But on the verge of frittering away a five-shot lead, he summoned one of the best shots of his young career: a 226-yard missile from a slope so severe that he walked after the shot, a la Gary Player.
His 8-iron shot on 17 nestled within 3 feet of the cup, and the easy birdie gave him a three-shot cushion heading to the last.
“It was definitely the best shot I hit this week,” he said.
2. If there’s one area of Thomas’ game that needed improvement, it was his driving accuracy. Finding the fairway isn’t as important when you’re blasting 350-yard drives, but Thomas quickly learned that some of his big foul balls were costing him.
Each of the past two years, he’s been ranked outside the top 135 in driving accuracy. Last year, he was ranked No. 97 in strokes gained-off the tee.
What Thomas showed at Kapalua was not just an ability to pound driver mind-boggling distances; he also displayed something of an off-speed pitch, where he choked down, dialed back and shaped a cut into the fairway. He led the field in 400-yard drives, with two, but he also finished third in strokes gained-off the tee.
Driver is the greatest weapon for the game’s top players – reigning Player of the Year Dustin Johnson was No. 1 in driving last season – so it’ll be interesting to see if Thomas can continue this trend with fairways that aren’t as wide as Kapalua’s.
3. Only one player has beaten Hideki Matsuyama over the past three months: Justin Thomas.
Matsuyama is 402-0 against every other player since mid-October.
4. The Japanese star trailed by two shots entering the final round, dropped five back at one point but still had a chance to pull even on the par-5 15th.
He had missed only four times inside 10 feet during the first three rounds, but here he failed to convert a 10-footer. On the next hole, and with another chance to tie, he left his 10-footer a few rolls short.
As great as he’s been of late, his putter let him down Sunday. Overall, he lost more than two shots to the field on the greens in the final round.
5. Spieth didn’t win the Tournament of Champions in a rout, and that’s probably a good thing.
Last year, after one of the most remarkable major runs in recent memory, Spieth shot 30 under par at Kapalua and blew away the field. The victory served only to inflate what were already insanely high expectations.
There isn’t nearly as much anticipation this year surrounding Spieth – all eyes, for the time being, are on DJ’s follow-up and Rory McIlroy’s bounce back – so he is in a prime position to rebound.
“I was happy when the ball touched down and 2017 started,” he said.
All Spieth did at Kapalua was lead the field in birdies (26) and close with a flawless 65. (Alas, he also made five bogeys, two doubles and a triple during the week.) It still added up to a backdoor top-3 finish – and a lot of momentum as he heads to the Sony Open at Waialae, another course that should fit his game.
6. Wrote more about it here, but we’ll have a much better idea of where Woods is headed on Feb. 26. By that point, he’ll have completed (hopefully) four events in five weeks, an ambitious early-season schedule that will include stops in San Diego, Dubai, Los Angeles and West Palm Beach.
Woods hadn’t competed in 466 days before his appearance last month at the Hero World Challenge. So was it a surprise that he’d craft such a hectic start to his year? Maybe a little. But it suggests two things: 1.) he's healthy, and 2.) he's determined to fight his way back to relevancy.
7. Dramatic changes could be coming to the PGA Tour schedule. It seems increasingly likely that, beginning as early as 2019, The Players will return to a March date, the PGA will move from August to May, and the playoffs (which likely will shrink from four events to three) will wrap up on Labor Day weekend, before football takes over the sporting calendar.
This seems like a no-brainer for the Tour – it’d be one huge event each month from March until July, with the postseason during sports-light August – but new commissioner Monahan cautioned that no decisions have been made.
One issue: How the proposed plan would benefit the PGA of America, which would lose its billing as the year's final major and, potentially, some traditional northern venues for agronomical reasons.
8. New commissioner, but the same ol' policy regarding the disclosure of player fines and suspensions. Monahan made clear last week that, like his predecessor, he has no desire to publicly reveal which players have run afoul of the Tour’s regulations.
“I think our system works,” he said. “I know there is a desire to know everything that’s happened, but our job is we’re family, and if there’s an issue in your family, you deal with it.”
It’s just that every other major sporting league (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, etc.) deals with it differently than the Tour. They understand what Camp Ponte Vedra still does not fully grasp – that public humiliation is a strong deterrent, and that fans, sponsors and media appreciate full transparency.
Day must have known this wouldn’t go over well, his plans to slow down his play this year.
Already a deliberate player, Day is essentially challenging the new Tour regime to do something about slow play.
“I’ve got to get back to what makes me good,” he said. “If that means I have to back off five times, then I’m going to back off five times before I have to actually hit the shot.”
The world No. 1 was right about one thing here: There’s a massive difference between recreational and professional golf.
A casual round at your local country club should not take five hours; but at least it’s more acceptable for those competing for a major, or a $1 million paycheck, to play a course with fast greens and thick rough in five hours. (And besides, slow play doesn’t affect the fans at home anyway – TV coverage windows are the exact same, and the producer can cut to players when they’re ready to hit.)
Should a professional golfer be able to make up his mind and hit a shot in 40 seconds? Yes. Of course. But until the Tour decides to end a 22-year drought and crack down on slow play – with, and only with, a one-stroke penalty – then Day and others will be able to dawdle all they want.
This week's award winners ...
Welcome to 2017: Web.com players. Last year ended with a hurricane. The new year practically started with one, as the seaside course in the Bahamas was pounded with 45-mph gusts in the first round. (A course that isn’t built for wind? In the Bahamas? Oops.) It was carnage – when the first round was suspended because of darkness, 46 players had signed for 80 or worse, with three scores in the 90s.
2016 is Definitely Over: Davis Love III. Last year was undoubtedly a great year for DL3, who captained a slump-busting Ryder Cup victory and received the call that he’d soon be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But 2017 is already off to a rocky start: Last week, he broke his collarbone while snowboarding and will miss the next three months.
Random Thought of the Week: Does a colored golf ball really make the game “more fun”?
Maybe Not a Lock for 2020 after all: McIlroy. Seems it wasn’t just Zika that kept the world No. 2 out of the Olympics. The Northern Irishman revealed that he also would have felt “uncomfortable” at the Games having to represent Ireland or Great Britain, knowing that he doesn’t “feel a connection to either flag.” He added that he “resents” the Olympics for forcing him to choose, since Northern Ireland does not field a separate team.
A Not-So-Hot Take: Monahan. Smart move by the Commish, pumping up the game’s biggest star just a week into his new job: “Just so we’re clear, when he’s 75 years old, I’m going to still think he can win on the Tour.” That, of course, would be a record.
Wedding Bells: Sergio Garcia. Congrats on the upcoming nuptials. If history is any indication, a happy Spaniard usually has good on-course results.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Bubba Watson. Talk about a rough week in paradise. He was dead last in putting (losing more than six shots to the field on the greens) and below average in both approach shots and scrambling. The only thing that saved him on the par-73 layout was his nuclear driver, because he didn’t break 71 and finished in a tie for 25th. Sigh.