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Monday Scramble: Open Champ. takes new shape

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Rory McIlroy lands on the DL, Tiger Woods takes a few baby steps, Kevin Kisner loses another playoff, Robert Streb becomes the world’s best 13-club player, golf’s leading bodies swing and miss, and more in this week’s injury-plagued edition of the Monday Scramble: 

Good morning, Jordan Spieth. Your path to history is a little bit clearer. 

Spieth's biggest threat, Rory McIlroy, announced Monday that he suffered a significant ankle injury while playing soccer with friends over the weekend. Whether Rory can tee it up at the Open (and in the PGA in a few weeks) is very much in doubt. Even if he can compete, it’s unlikely he would be effective.  

While this is devastating news for McIlroy, it represents a significant boost for Spieth and his chances of capturing the third leg of the Grand Slam. The world No. 1 was only a slight betting favorite at St. Andrews, but his power game has proved well suited for the Old Course’s unique demands. As of Monday morning, Spieth’s odds had already improved, from 6-1 to 9-2.

With McIlroy almost certain to be out of the mix, even more attention will be on Spieth and his pursuit of history. He doesn't cower from the spotlight. 

1. News of Rory McIlroy’s injury has already prompted the tired arguments that he shouldn’t have been playing soccer with friends, especially with only two weeks before the Open. 

Was it the smartest thing for him to do before a major? Probably not. But what do you want him to do, watch from the stands? Serve as the referee? Hand out fruit snacks and slices of watermelon? He’s an athlete. He's 26, with no injury history. He is – gasp! – living his life uninhibited. This was a fluke injury, not another cautionary tale.   

2. No idea how long McIlroy will be out. But every unathletic sports writer who twisted an ankle once and had no access to the best treatment says that it’ll be a LONG time before Rory plays again. An actual expert – not someone who plays one on Twitter – said on “Morning Drive” that the timeframe for a return is usually anywhere from 10 days to six weeks.

3. By almost any measure, Tiger Woods made progress last week at The Greenbrier.

  • He made the cut. 
  • He shot more rounds in the 60s (three) than he had all year (two).
  • He recorded his first bogey-free round in 56 tries (2013 Barclays). 
  • He carded his lowest opening round in 23 months and his lowest 72-hole total since his last win in August 2013. 

All good stuff, so he's back on track, right?

4. Sorry, I'm not yet convinced. 

Everybody tore up the rain-softened Old White TPC – all but one of the 77 players who made the cut finished under par. Even with the fairways playing wider, Woods still found the short grass only 64 percent of the time; and after a great putting round on Day 1 he lost strokes to the field on the greens the other three rounds. Just when it looks like he has fixed one issue, another emerges. That must be frustrating. And exhausting. 

Woods is still prone to the occasional foul ball, and he has a double bogey or worse in 11 consecutive tournaments; his out-of-nowhere OB tee shot on the 11th hole Saturday erased any outside chance of a rally. When he briefly moved within striking distance, he reverted to old habits and swung out of control. It added up to an also-ran finish. 

So this was progress, yes, but nothing more than that.

5. That was a hard-earned $1.2 million for Danny Lee. He has played 27 of 34 events this season, but even that statistic is deceiving. 

Lee didn’t qualify for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, Masters or WGC-Match Play. So, really, the only events he has decided NOT to play this season were the Puerto Rico Open (opposite Doral) and St. Jude Classic (week before the U.S. Open). 

“I never get tired of playing golf,” he said. “It’s my job, and I just love doing it, and I’m just happy to be out here every week.” 

The reason he has logged so many rounds this season? He's desperately trying to make the International Presidents Cup team. The event will be played in South Korea, where Lee was born. 

6. Talk about good karma. Lee was so frustrated a week ago at the Travelers Championship, he gave away his Callaway driver to a fan who followed him for all 18 holes. 

At The Greenbrier, he never hit fewer than 10 fairways per round – a 76 percent clip that was markedly better than the 61 percent rate he carried into last week’s event. 

7. Robert Streb enjoyed his best putting performance of the week Sunday, picking up nearly one-and-a-half shots on the field on the greens.

Even more impressive when you consider he was using a 56-degree wedge for half of his round.

Streb accidentally broke his putter during the final round Sunday, when he set his club down next to his bag. Because his putter wasn’t damaged during the normal course of play – for instance, if he had stroked his putt – Streb was not allowed to replace his club and had to choose a different option.

He opted for the 56-degree sand wedge, because it had a flatter leading edge. Streb made only one mistake with the wedge – three-putting from 24 feet on 17 – but wound up making five back-nine birdies, including a 5-footer on the last that earned him a spot in the playoff. In all, he took 14 wedge putts. 

8. Kevin Kisner is still looking for his first PGA Tour W, but you won't find a player who has come closer this season.

First came the RBC Heritage, where Kisner birdied the last hole in regulation and the first playoff hole but then lost to a Jim Furyk birdie on the second extra hole. Then came The Players, where Kisner’s 12-foot putt to win burned the edge. And then at The Greenbrier, his 16-footer to post 14 under came up four inches short. He bowed out of the playoff at Old White TPC when his tee shot sailed over the green into a nasty lie.

That's three playoff losses in 11 weeks. 

“It’s tough to win out here, man,” he said afterward. “I’ve had a heck of a year, and if I can keep it going like this, I’ll have plenty of wins.” 

9. Donald Trump essentially dared the most powerful people in golf to reprimand him, to show him that no one is above the game, and they did nothing. 

After he said that Mexican immigrants are rapists, drug dealers and criminals, Trump told Golf Channel that he has received “tremendous” support from the golf firmament – “I haven’t heard one negative thing” – because he has been “great to golf” and because “they all know I’m right.” Trump’s last point was the only one the golf bodies took exception to, saying in a carefully crafted joint statement that Trump’s views are not consistent with those of the PGA and LPGA tours, PGA of America and USGA. How weak. 

With a rare opportunity to show some backbone, to take a stand on a racial issue, the organizations instead opted for a 79-word statement that said very little. No talk of moving the Cadillac Championship, a World Golf Championships event that is played each spring on the beleaguered Trump National Doral. No talk of moving the Grand Slam of Golf, set for Trump’s course in L.A. No talk of moving the 2017 U.S. Women's Open or 2022 PGA, which are headed for Trump National Bedminster. Nothing.

While the powers-that-be sat and waited out the p.r. storm, one person tangentially related to golf had the sense to distance himself from Trump. That would be singer Ricky Martin, who announced that he will no longer host his charity tournament at Trump's course in Puerto Rico. At least he took a stand for what's right.  

10. Reasons why Spieth playing the John Deere Classic is the right move:

  1. Because he’ll be feted like a rock star.
  2. Because he’ll make tons of birdies, which is what he needs after two weeks away from competition.
  3. Because the long travel and jet lag didn’t affect him late last year, when he won in Australia and Florida in back-to-back weeks. 
  4. Because Spieth thinks it’s the right move, which is all that matters.

11. Spieth’s life changed two years ago. After beginning his rookie season with no status on any major tour, Spieth holed a bunker shot on the 72nd hole that led to a playoff victory over Zach Johnson and David Hearn. 

Since that week, Spieth has put together a remarkable resumé:

  • 51 events
  • Three wins (including two majors)
  • Seven runners-up
  • 16 top-5s
  • 21 top-10s
  • 36 top-25s

That’s better than a lot of dudes’ PGA Tour careers. 

12. For what it’s worth, every Open Championship winner since 2010 has played the week before at the Scottish Open.

Of that group, only Phil Mickelson, who went back-to-back in '13, had a top-10 finish at the Open tuneup. But maybe there is something to be said for flying across the pond early, getting adjusted to the time change and the weather and the conditions and the types of shots that are required. 

Among the many big names in this year’s field: Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Jimmy Walker, Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Brooks Koepka and Ian Poulter. Hmmm. 

Soooo ... wonder what these two talked about at Wimbledon: 

Good On Ya: Bubba Watson. He decided to remove the Confederate flag image from the roof of his General Lee car, saying that it was “offensive to some people” and “felt like it was the right gesture for me to do.”  

Moving On … Down: Tiger Woods. Even with an encouraging performance at The Greenbrier, he still dropped in the world rankings, from No. 220 to No. 226.

Not Always the Best Predictor for Success: the U.S. Amateur. Lee became just the second Amateur champion since 2000 to win a PGA Tour event. 

Oh, Someone Other Than Adam Scott Uses a Long Putter?: David Hearn. Was legitimately surprised to learn someone else still uses the long wand. With only five months before the anchoring ban takes effect, the Canadian nearly brushed his way into the winner’s circle.  

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Webb Simpson. Of course he injured his back while lifting his kid out of The Greenbrier pool. Of course he missed the cut when he was a sure-fire, no-doubt-about-it pick in Group 2. Ugh. 

The Big Golfer: Shaquille O’Neal. Diesel may miss more 3-footers than free throws, but the guy sure knows how to entertain. Here’s his swing in too-tight pants: 

The answer is Rory and Jordan – now, and for the next 40 majors. It just seems highly unlikely now. Sigh. 

For as much ink as the Tiger-Phil rivalry received, they very rarely went head-to-head in a big event. And when they did? It was magic – the 2005 duel at Doral, the '07 showdown in Boston, their spirited game of H.O.R.S.E. at the ’09 Masters. Even a decade later, those highlights produce goosebumps.  

Spieth has been reluctant to declare himself as McIlroy’s rival, saying that he’s not yet on his level, not yet anyway. Maybe so, but he’s also spotted the young master more than four years. If he’s not at that level already, he’s thisclose. A head-to-head meeting at a major, whether here or at the PGA, could help bring this fledgling rivalry to life.

My answer after the Masters: Yes. 

My answer after the Memorial: No.

My answer after the U.S. Open: Oh God no. 

My answer after The Greenbrier: Ehh … maybe?

Can he win? No. Can he contend, or finish only a few shots back of the champion? Doesn’t seem likely. Can he finish in the top 25? Definitely.    

His experience on the Old Course is worth a few shots, and his iron game was much sharper at The Greenbrier than in his previous two starts. He never hit fewer than 13 greens in West Virginia, even on days when he hit only half of the fairways. He can confidently shape the ball both ways, which will be important when the wind whips at St. Andrews. 

The two biggest question marks are his driving and putting. Assuming he has to hit driver a few times per round, can he (A) keep it in on the map, and (B) avoid the many bunkers? And though the massive greens minimize the importance of lights-out putting, Tiger will still have to knock in a ton of 5-to-8-footers. He hasn’t seen enough go in this season to have a ton of confidence in that department.  

Both require patience and time, and it’s fair to wonder how much time Tiger has spent on his putting over the past few months. His chipping and putting was such a disaster earlier this year that he devoted nearly all of his practice time to fixing the pattern problem. Now that the short-game issue seems to be corrected, his long game suffered from the neglect. Now that the long-game issue seems to be turning a corner, the last piece is his putting.

When he won eight tournaments in 2012 and ’13, he ranked inside the top 35 in putting. This year, if he had enough rounds to qualify, he would be 99th.

You may recall that Woods repeatedly blamed the speed of the greens during his run of major misses. His former coach, Hank Haney, opined two years ago that it was because Tiger doesn’t put in enough time on the practice putting green to learn the speed. With so much maintenance still to be done with his long game, it’ll be interesting to see whether Woods makes his putting a point of emphasis once he gets to St. Andrews. 

G-Mac has spoken a length this season about a lack of motivation. He got married and he had a baby, and all of those exciting life events have affected his play. He’s far from the first player to cite a lack of desire, but he spoke at the U.S. Open about how he also doesn’t want to be remembered as just a one-hit major wonder. He may have the motivation back, but with no top-25s worldwide since January it’s hard to predict big things in the coming weeks.