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Monday Scramble: Caddies in the spotlight

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Rory McIlroy makes a change, Jhonattan Vegas successfully defends his title, controversy engulfs the U.S. Girls' Junior, Bernhard Langer takes another senior major and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Around and ’round the caddie carousel spins.

Rory McIlroy joined Phil Mickelson as another star in need of a full-time caddie, after Reuters reported that the world No. 4 axed his longtime bagman, J.P. Fitzgerald, after nine years and four majors together.

The timing is curious, with a WGC event, the PGA and end-of-season series on both the PGA and European tours upcoming. But clearly McIlroy felt it was time for a change.

Their relationship came to an end after a tie for fourth at The Open, where Fitzgerald both kick-started his boss’ run (“You’re Rory McIlroy. What the f--- are you doing?”) and also derailed it, with a mis-club on the 10th hole in the third round, leading to a double bogey.

McIlroy’s bag is arguably the most sought-after in the game, and he should receive no shortage of potential suitors. Not only is he supremely talented, but he requires little hand-holding on the course and needs only to tighten up his course management.

Any takers?

1. How thin are the margins at the elite level? Look at what happened to Jhonattan Vegas.

Entering the RBC Canadian Open, the charismatic Venezuelan had missed five consecutive cuts (and eight of his last 10) and failed to break 70 in his last eight rounds. All it took to reverse his fortunes was a return to his Mizuno MP-4 irons, which had similar specs to the Nike set he used last year to win at Glen Abbey.

Over four days he ranked seventh in strokes gained-approach to green, his best performance of the season.

“My ball-striking was great this week, which is something that I’ve been struggling with the past few weeks,” he said. “I feel like I hit a lot of greens and gave myself a lot of opportunities.” 

2. Vegas hit the shot of the championship in the playoff, when his drive found the left fairway bunker on the par-5 18th.

With 189 yards to the flag, over water, TV commentators thought he’d lay up and try to make birdie with a wedge. Instead, he smashed an 8-iron. His shot clipped the lip of the bunker and somehow landed in the middle of the green, leading to an easy 4 and the victory.

“Obviously a little bit of luck,” he said. “The ball could have gone anywhere from there. But sometimes you have to be aggressive, and when you’re that aggressive, sometimes things go your way.” 

3. Charley Hoffman, Presidents Cup team member? He made himself a more attractive candidate with a playoff loss, but at No. 10 in the points standings, he likely hasn’t done enough yet.

Hoffman said so himself last year, when the idea of playing on his first Ryder Cup team was raised.

“A rookie at 39” – he is now 40 – "is not going to be a captain’s pick,” he said last April. “So I’ve got to play my way onto the team, and I’ve got to play good golf and prove to everybody on that team that I can play and help the team out.” 

4. Ian Poulter continued his resurgent run with a tie for third in Canada. It’s his second top-3 finish of the PGA Tour season – his best showing since 2012, when he won a World Golf Championship in Shanghai.

Poulter didn't qualify for this week's WGC at Firestone, but he could use the week off – playing the WGC and the following week’s PGA would have meant teeing it up seven weeks in a row. 

5. The U.S. Girls’ Junior received some much-needed attention over the weekend. Of course, it was for another rules controversy.

Elizabeth Moon seemed on the verge of winning her semifinal match against highly ranked Erica Shepherd as she lined up her 4-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole. But she missed the putt low, leaving herself about a 6-inch putt for par. She stared in disbelief for a second, then immediately raked the ball back to try again, never turning around to face her opponent.

Standing on the side of the green, Shepherd’s caddie and swing coach, Brent Nicoson, asked: “Did you give her that putt?” Shepherd had not, and so she told Moon: “I didn’t say that was good.”

That was all she needed to say. Moon had violated Rule 18-2, moving a ball in play, and Shepherd was declared the winner.

6. There’s a lot to unpack here.

Who’s most to blame? Easy: It’s Moon. You can’t rake a ball that quickly, even if it’s an obvious gimme. 

But it's not that simple.

In tears afterward, Shepherd explained that she would have conceded the par putt but her eyes were closed during the birdie attempt. By the time she opened them, Moon had already pulled her ball back. However, TV cameras showed her staring at the ball as it passed by the cup, and it only takes half a second to say, “Good.” So if she meant to concede, there was time, even if Moon was WAY too quick to rake.

What about Nicoson, the caddie/coach? Instead of letting Moon’s blunder pass as a mindless moment from a 17-year-old, Nicoson quietly alerted his player to the possible infraction, and she blurted out the reply. (He says there was no malice, and it was just an attempt to gain information from his player.) Nicoson has every right to do that, of course – it was a breach of the rules, after all – even though he could have turned the other cheek and headed to the 20th hole, perhaps even issuing a gentle reminder to Moon along the way. But it's unfair to expect both Nicoson and Shepherd, 16, to make that call in the heat of the moment.

This much is clear: It was a regrettable learning experience for everyone involved.

7. That said, Shepherd deserves props for putting the distraction behind her. She cried for hours after the semifinal victory and hardly slept, and she burst into tears on the practice putting green before the scheduled 36-hole final.

It was her opponent, Jennifer Chang, who comforted her. How’s that for sportsmanship?

“She gave me this whole speech about how there was nothing I could have done about it, and that just really boosted me back up and got me to regroup,” Shepherd said.

Added Chang: “I said, ‘Forget about that. Let’s have some fun. Just you and me, 1-on-1. Let’s go for it.'”

Using the past 24 hours as motivation, Shepherd, a Duke commit for 2019, won the final match, 3 and 2

8. There are three ways to look at Bernhard Langer winning his third senior major of the year (and 10th of his career) Sunday, as former anchorers captured four of the five big ones in 2017:

a.) The governing bodies targeted the wrong issue, because, as Langer and Scott McCarron have showed, anchoring clearly wasn’t that much of a benefit;

b.) Langer and McCarron deserve credit for how well they’ve adapted and practiced their new method, and others are merely jealous of their success;

c.) Their new strokes still violate the spirit of the game, as some have suggested.

Both the USGA and R&A have cleared Langer and McCarron of any wrongdoing, but the murmurs will only grow louder after their stellar major seasons.

Their careers were supposed to be over post-anchor ban. In Langer’s case, at least, he looks as good as ever.  

9. Kevin Stadler made his first competitive start in more than two years last week at the Tour’s Digital Ally Open in Kansas, and he didn’t even last two rounds.

Stadler, the 2014 Phoenix Open winner, has been sidelined since July 2015 because of a broken bone in his left hand. He’d felt better over the past few months and wanted to see if he was ready for a return to the PGA Tour. The short answer: No.

“It feels like an explosion at impact,” Stadler said, after withdrawing following a first-round 72. “It was a setback I wasn’t looking for. It was great to come back and play, to return to some kind of normalcy. But it’s nowhere near good enough to give it a go again.”

Stadler said he’s tried “everything under the sun” and can’t find a solution to his injury woes. “Incredibly frustrated,” he said. 

Oh, there's gotta be a whole lot more to this story. 

Brent McLaughlin, the tattooed, motorcycle-riding tournament director at the Canadian Open, was suspended in the middle of last week’s tournament, according to TSN.

There were no specifics on his ouster, as the CEO of Golf Canada cited a “confidential employee matter.”

This week's award winners ... 

Common Sense Prevailed: USGA. After briefly flirting with the idea of turning Riviera’s iconic 18th hole into a drivable par 4 for the upcoming U.S. Amateur, tournament officials have notified competitors that it won’t happen. The power of the media!

Seriously?: Ladies Scottish Open. There was no full-time leaderboard on the 18th green at Dundonald, so neither Mi Hyang Lee nor her pursuer, Karrie Webb, knew where they stood on the final hole of the tournament. How does this happen in 2017?

Wakeup Call: Paula Creamer. No longer one of the best Americans in women’s golf, Creamer, who is well outside the top 100 in the world ranking, needed to play a one-day qualifier to gain entry into the Women’s British Open. It was first time she needed to qualify for an event, she said, since she was an amateur at the U.S. Women’s Open. 

Golf’s Ric Flair: Maurice Allen. Not sure I’ve ever been this excited about anything in life. 

Score One For the Dads: Reception music. At his wedding, Rory McIlroy tabbed Steve Wonder. For Sergio Garcia’s, it was Kenny G. Whenever Rickie Fowler ties the knot, here’s hoping Billy Joel gets the call.

At Least The Home Décor is On Point: Danny Willett. Sure, his golf game might currently be in tatters, but his barstool game is strong: 

That’ll Help: Robert Garrigus and Brandon Hagy. They both tied for fifth at the Canadian Open, important results that pushed them inside the top 125 in the FedExCup standings and should allow them to keep their cards for next season. 

Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano. Seeing that Kramer Hickok credited a text from Jordan Spieth as the reason why he made his first cut on the PGA Tour, the Spaniard, who sits 182nd in FedExCup points, took to Twitter with this plea: 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Matt Kuchar. Coming off the near-miss at The Open, and returning to a place he loves, Kuchar was an sure-fire pick this week in Canada … except he battled dizzy spells in the opening round, rallied just to make the cut and wound up in a tie for 32nd. Sigh.