Monday Scramble: Open Champ. takes new shape

By Ryan LavnerJuly 6, 2015, 4:30 pm

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. 

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Minjee Lee co-leads Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

By Associated PressJune 24, 2018, 12:25 am

ROGERS, Ark. - Minjee Lee wasn't all that concerned when she missed her first cut of the year this month at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

The ninth-ranked Australian has certainly looked at ease and back in form at Pinnacle Country Club in her first event since then.

Lee and Japan's Nasa Hataoka each shot 6-under 65 on Saturday to share the second-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship 13-under 129. Lee is chasing her fifth victory since turning pro three years ago. It's also an opportunity to put any lingering frustration over that missed cut two weeks ago behind her for good.

''I didn't particularly hit it bad, even though I missed the cut at ShopRite, I just didn't really hole any putts,'' Lee said. ''I'd been hitting it pretty solid going into that tournament and even into this tournament, too. Just to see a couple putts roll in has been nice.''

The 22-year-old Lee needed only 24 putts during her opening 64 on Friday, helping her to match the low round of her career. Despite needing 28 putts Saturday, she still briefly took the outright lead after reaching as low as 14 under after a birdie on the par-5 seventh.

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Lee missed the green on the par-4 ninth soon thereafter to lead to her only bogey of the day and a tie with the 19-year-old Hataoka, who is in pursuit of her first career win.

Hataoka birdied six of eight holes midway through her bogey-free round on Saturday. It was yet another stellar performance from the Japanese teenager, who has finished in the top 10 in four of her last five tournaments and will be a part of Sunday's final pairing.

''I try to make birdies and try to be under par, that's really the key for me to get a top ten,'' Hataoka said. ''Golf is just trying to be in the top 10 every single week, so that's the key.''

Third-ranked Lexi Thompson matched the low round of the day with a 64 to get to 11 under. She hit 17 of 18 fairways and shot a 5-under 30 on her opening nine, The American is in search of her first win since September in the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

Ariya Jutanugarn and Celine Boutier were 10 under.

First-round leader Gaby Lopez followed her opening 63 with a 75 to drop to 4 under. Fellow former Arkansas star Stacy Lewis also was 4 under after a 72.

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Henley will try to put heat on Casey in final round

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:55 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While it will be a tall task for anyone to catch Paul Casey at the Travelers Championship, the man who will start the round most within reach of the Englishman is Russell Henley.

Henley was in the penultimate group at TPC River Highlands on Saturday, but he’ll now anchor things during the final round as he looks to overcome a four-shot deficit behind Casey. After a 3-under 67, Henley sits at 12 under through 54 holes and one shot clear of the three players tied for third.

Henley closed his third round with a run of five straight pars, then became the beneficiary of a pair of late bogeys from Brian Harman that left Henley alone in second place.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Could have made a couple more putts, but to end with two up-and-downs like that was nice,” Henley said. “I felt a little bit weird over the shots coming in, put me in some bad spots. But it was nice to have the short game to back me up.”

Henley has won three times on Tour, most recently at the 2017 Houston Open, and he cracked the top 25 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. But with Casey riding a wave of confidence and coming off an 8-under 62 that marked the best round of the week, he knows he’ll have his work cut out for him in order to nab trophy No. 4.

“I think I can shoot a low number on this course. You’ve got to make the putts,” Henley said. “I’m definitely hitting it well enough, and if I can get a couple putts to fall, that would be good. But I can’t control what he’s doing. I can just try to keep playing solid.”

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Back from back injury, Casey eyeing another win

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:36 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Given his four-shot cushion at the Travelers Championship and his recent victory at the Valspar Championship, it’s easy to forget that Paul Casey hit the disabled list in between.

Casey had to withdraw from The Players Championship because of a bad back, becoming the only player in the top 50 in the world rankings to miss the PGA Tour’s flagship event. He flew back to England to get treatment, and Casey admitted that his T-20 finish at last month’s BMW PGA Championship came while he was still on the mend.

“I wasn’t 100 percent fit with the back injury, which was L-4, L-5, S-1 (vertebrae) all out of place,” Casey said. “Big inflammation, nerve pain down the leg and up the back. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Thanks in large part to a combination of MRIs, back adjustments and anti-inflammatories, Casey finally turned the corner. His T-16 finish at last week’s U.S. Open was the first event for which he felt fully healthy since before the Players, and he’s on the cusp of a second title since March after successfully battling through the injury.

“We thought we were fixing it, but we weren’t. We were kind of hitting the effects rather than the cause,” Casey said. “Eventually we figured out the cause, which was structural.”

Casey started the third round at TPC River Highlands two shots off the lead, but he’s now four clear of Russell Henley after firing an 8-under 62 that marked the low round of the week.

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Bubba thinks he'll need a Sunday 60 to scare Casey

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:15 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Perhaps moreso than at most PGA Tour venues, a low score is never really out of reach at TPC River Highlands. Positioned as a welcome change of pace after the U.S. Open, the Travelers Championship offers a lush layout that often pushes the balance much closer to reward than risk.

This is where Jim Furyk shot a 58 on the par-70 layout two years ago – and he didn’t even win that week. So even though Paul Casey enters the final round with a commanding four-shot lead, there’s still plenty of hope for the chase pack that something special could be in store.

Count Bubba Watson among the group who still believe the title is up for grabs – even if it might require a Herculean effort, even by his standards.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Watson has won the Travelers twice, including in a 2015 playoff over Casey. But starting the final round in a large tie for sixth at 10 under, six shots behind Casey, he estimates that he’ll need to flirt with golf’s magic number to give the Englishman something to worry about.

“My 7 under yesterday, I need to do better than that. I’m going to have to get to like 10 [under],” Watson said. “The only beauty is, getting out in front, you have a chance to put a number up and maybe scare them. But to scare them, you’re going to have to shoot 10 under at worst, where I’m at anyway.”

Watson started the third round three shots off the lead, and he made an early move with birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 en route to an outward 32. The southpaw couldn’t sustain that momentum, as bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 turned a potential 65 into a relatively disappointing 67.

“Bad decision on the par-3, and then a very tough tee shot for me on 17, and it just creeped into the bunker,” Watson said. “Just, that’s golf. You have mistakes every once in a while.”