Monday Scramble: Fast, but not-so furious

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 9, 2017, 5:00 pm

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: 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. 

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What's in the Bag: CJ Cup winner Koepka

By Golf Channel DigitalOctober 23, 2018, 12:50 am

Brooks Koepka closed strong to win the CJ Cup in South Korea, and he also took over the No. 1 ranking. Here's a look inside his bag.

Driver: TaylorMade M3 (9.5 degrees)

Fairway Woods: TaylorMade M2 Tour HL (16.5 degrees)

Irons: Nike Vapor Fly Pro (3); Mizuno JPX-900 Tour (4-PW)

Wedges: Titleist Vokey Design SM7 Raw (52, 56 degrees), SM7 Raw TVD (60 degrees)

Putter: Scotty Cameron T10 Select Newport 2 prototype

Ball: Titleist Pro V1x

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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."