Billy Hurley III authors the story of the year, Jon Rahm dazzles in his debut, the Olympic problem grows deeper, Lydia Ko wins again and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
If this were a Hollywood script, you wouldn’t believe it.
A former Naval officer, in the shadow of the nation’s capital, at the tournament where he asked for help finding his missing father, with his career at a standstill … and he wins? He takes home $1.24 million, earns status for two years, and gets into the Masters and a bevy of other big events?
There are great stories, and then there is what Hurley did Sunday at Congressional, with Woods, the tournament host, looking on. Hurley, who spent five years in the Navy navigating ships through the Suez Canal, won the tournament that was created in 2007 to honor the military.
It was an emotional end to what has been the most trying year of his professional career.
Last year, at the Quicken Loans, he used a pre-tournament news conference to spread awareness that his father, Willard, was missing. Willard died less than a month later of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Last fall, Hurley missed out on a PGA Tour card by less than $400, dropping him back down to the minor leagues. He didn’t have a top-40 in 11 starts this season and contemplated retirement. The only reason he played the Quicken Loans was because Woods gave him a sponsor exemption.
And then it ended like this, with a clutch chip-in, a teary finish, a life-changing victory. It's a story almost too good to be true.
1. One of my favorite stories I’ve ever done was on Hurley in May 2011, less than a week after Osama bin Laden was killed.
During his mandatory five-year tour of duty, Hurley was aboard a destroyer in Bahrain and the Persian Gulf. He was off the coast of Djibouti and in the Red Sea. He was near the heart of terrorism in the Middle East.
That week in 2011, Hurley was set to play in a Monday qualifier for a Web.com event in Athens, Ga., but a half hour before the qualifier, tournament officials told him that he’d received the final sponsor exemption. After bin Laden was killed, they wanted an opportunity to honor a serviceman. “I don’t know if it was karma or fate or luck,” the tournament director said then, “but it just lined up perfectly.”
Hurley told me that he’d probably still be in the Navy if he didn’t feel golf’s pull. “And the thing is,” he said, “the better I play, the more exposure I’ll give the military.”
Well, there was no better publicity than his feel-good victory at Congressional.
2. Hurley’s past life will always be a part of his PGA Tour career. On the eve of the final round, he was hanging around in his hotel room, reading. His manager had told him to stay away from his cellphone and social media, but he couldn’t ignore this phone call: Admiral Mike Mullen's number popped up on the caller ID.
“I sat there for a second and I was like, you know what? When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff calls, you answer the phone,” Hurley said.
They talked for only three or four minutes, about how proud Mullen and the rest of the military and Naval Academy were of Hurley. But the pep talk turned out to be just what he needed.
3. Arizona State coach Tim Mickelson told me recently that Rahm reminds him of his Hall of Fame brother, but that the 21-year-old Spaniard is much better off the tee. Many of the coaches and players who knew him well said they expected him to become a top-5 player in the world, a perennial European Ryder Cupper.
If Rahm’s pro debut was any indication, he’s well on his way.
A week after tying for 21st at Oakmont, he powered his way to a share of the 36-hole lead before settling for a tie for third at the Quicken Loans. We'll see him plenty over the next month – he's slated to tee it up at The Open, Canadian Open, John Deere and Travelers – as he tries to earn status for next season.
4. Rickie Fowler snapped a string of three consecutive missed cuts, but his T-44 finish (and 73-74 weekend) at Congressional suggested that his game is still a touch off as we roll into the heart of the season, with a WGC and three majors in a seven-week span.
Though Fowler says he’s “definitely not concerned” about the state of his game, he pointed to his driving and putting as the culprits. He worked with Butch Harmon on his setup Sunday at Oakmont and noticed his body wasn’t rotating through the ball like it normally does (caused by not being in the proper position at the top).
Can this be corrected in time to salvage a year that has seen Fowler’s game take a step back? Of course, because it's a fine line between missing the cut and contending. But there's no doubt he's losing valuable time.
5. It was a(nother) bad week for Olympic golf, with three notable players turning down an opportunity to represent their country at the upcoming Summer Games.
This has been a problem for a few months, of course, with several major champions declining a spot because of scheduling reasons or uncertainty surrounding the Zika virus. What will be more interesting moving forward is how Rory McIlroy’s absence, in particular, will affect a few of the other boldfaced names, with Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Danny Willett and Fowler all less than 100 percent committed.
Will they join the parade of players who stepped aside? Or will they feel corporate pressure (Coca-Cola and Adidas are big Olympic sponsors) to make the trip to Rio? The deadline for qualifying is July 11.
6. All of the withdrawals have put a damper on golf’s return after a 112-year absence, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed outside of our little bubble.
In an interview with a New Zealand radio station, International Olympic Committee member Barry Maister described the number of dropouts as “appalling” and said that if golf can’t put together a high-quality field, then it shouldn’t be allowed to continue as a medal sport.
“Just getting in with your name, and then putting up some second- or third-rate players is so far from the Olympic ideal or the expectation of the Olympic movement,” he said. “The Olympics is about the best, and they pledged the best. Quite frankly, any sport that cannot deliver its best athletes, in my view, should not be there.”
Ironic, seeing how it was the IOC that chose Rio, with its contaminated water, mosquito population, safety concerns and crumbling economy. As I wrote here, less than 100 percent participation should be blamed not on golf’s status as an Olympic sport but rather on the host venue. Even with a far from ideal summer schedule, players likely would compete in the Olympics if it were held in Chicago, London, Tokyo, Sydney, etc.
7. Though it was far from definitive, Woods suggested Sunday what many have expected for months: He is unlikely to play this year.
In an interview with CBS during the final round, the tournament host said that he’s playing golf at home but that he “needs more time.”
“I still need to get stronger,” he said, “I need to recover faster, and that’s going to take time.”
Earlier in the week, Woods said that he’s able to play 18 consecutive holes, but that he’s not in golf shape – unable to play four or five days in a row, and practice before and after the round, without soreness. Only when (or if) he is able to do that can he begin to seriously consider a return to the Tour. And that, as he said, is going to take time.
8. Ko continues to prompt Tiger-like comparisons with her dominant play on the LPGA. Sunday in Arkansas, she won for the 13th time on the LPGA. It’s her third consecutive season with at least three victories.
How overwhelming has she been this year? Consider that she leads the tour in these statistical categories: Player of the Year, Race to the CME Globe, official money, putts per GIR, putting average, scoring average, rounds under par and rounds in the 60s.
9. After a number of close calls over the past 19 months – 14 top-five finishes, to be exact – Henrik Stenson finally broke through after a marathon Sunday at the BMW International Open.
Peculiar timing, too, for Stenson withdrew from the U.S. Open with neck and knee injuries and said he would need another MRI in the near future. (He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last winter.) Though some long-term concerns remain, this was an important step for the 40-year-old, especially with a busy stretch coming up.
“It feels like I’ve got a nice little boost now in the right direction with the confidence,” he said.
10. How badly did the USGA bungle Dustin Johnson’s U.S. Open penalty? Eight days later, they’re still getting hammered for it.
Early last week, the blue blazers apologized for causing the distraction that not only affected Johnson but also the rest of the field that was left in a strange limbo on the back nine of a major. Mike Davis insists that his charges followed the rulebook, but its handling of the situation should lead to changes moving forward. It also put a brighter spotlight on how course setup has gotten out of control, with insane greens speeds, slope and gravity likely causing Johnson’s ball to move, not the player himself.
Slugger White, the vice president of rules and competitions for the PGA Tour, told News-JournalOnline.com that he wants to see the rule amended to allow for the replacement of a ball that moves without being touched. Nah, that makes too much sense.
11. The PGA Tour canceled next week’s Greenbrier Classic after devastating flooding hit the region over the past week. Host venue The Old White TPC has suffered extensive damage and is beyond reasonable repair to conduct the tournament.
It’s just the third time in the past 20 years that a Tour event has been canceled because of weather, and the first since the 2009 Viking Classic.
An unlikely beneficiary here was this week’s opposite-field event, the Barracuda Championship, which now will offer a spot into The Open for the top finisher (among the top five) not already eligible.
Shane Lowry is generously listed at 224 pounds, and an Irish Examiner writer suggested last week – without any, you know, actual reporting – that Lowry’s weight was to blame for his sluggish Sunday performance at Oakmont that cost him the U.S. Open title.
“A contributing factor to Lowry’s slippage had to be mental fatigue brought on by physical fatigue,” he wrote. “The more tired you are, the more prone to being distracted you are. You lose concentration; you overly internalize. You’re not as confidence as you could be.”
True, Lowry needed to play a few extra holes Sunday to complete his third round, but his doughy physique didn’t seem to bother him as he stormed to a four-shot lead after 54 holes. He simply had a bad day, his closing 76 leaving him in a tie for second. It was still his best result in a major.
Last we checked, Lowry isn’t an NFL running back. He doesn’t need speed, agility and quickness. He doesn’t need to shed tacklers, be light on his feet and go all-out for 60 minutes. All he needs is to be able to swing around his body about 40 times a round, and so far, he’s done OK for himself at his current playing weight: He’s a three-time winner, including last year’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
You do you, Shane.
This week's award winners ...
Early Retirement?: Jason Day. Now 28, the world No. 1 says he will reevaluate his career once he turns 40 and decide whether to continue playing. It wouldn't surprise if this becomes a trend: If today's stars are no longer able to win majors because the rest of the Tour is younger, fitter, longer and hungrier, they're in a unique position in that they'll already have earned more than enough money to call it quits early.
At Least One Member of the Woods Family Will Get Some Reps This Year: Charlie Woods. Following in his famous dad’s footsteps, Woods’ 7-year-old son, Charlie, tied for second in a U.S. Kids Golf South Florida Tour event, with Tiger briefly leaving his hosting duties in D.C. to watch the nine-hole tournament. Woods is famous for saying that second place is simply first loser, but here’s guessing he’ll strike a different tone after this event.
All-Name Team: Sherman “Champagne” Santiwiwatthanaphong. She's a winner on the Symetra Tour, though you probably won't find that surname on an agate page anytime soon.
PGA Tour-bound: Ollie Schniederjans. The former No. 1-ranked amateur in the world won on the Web.com Tour Sunday and locked up a spot on the big tour next season. Get used to seeing him, because he’s every bit as good as fellow high school class of 2011 members Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger.
Ticking Clock: Bryson DeChambeau. It looked like a slam-dunk after his auspicious pro debut at the Heritage, but the intriguing 22-year-old now has only two starts remaining this season to earn the 361 points necessary to claim special temporary membership for the rest of the season. (He has accrued 215 FedEx Cup points.) He'll also play the Canadian Open and Travelers, which would give him the maximum 13 starts allowed for non-members. If nothing else, he's assured of being inside the top 200 and earning a spot in the Web.com Tour Finals.
Red-Hot: Collin Morikawa. In the past two weeks, the rising sophomore at Cal closed with 62 to win the prestigious Sunnehanna Amateur, then went 63-63 on the weekend to reach a playoff at the Web.com Tour's Air Capital Classic.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Patrick Reed. Yes, he made the cut, which is better than most that have landed in this section this year, but his tie for 38th at Congressional was a massive disappointment for fantasy leaguers and a player who has a Tour-best nine top-10s this season. Sigh.