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Monday Scramble: Peaking - and piqued - for Augusta

By Ryan LavnerMarch 12, 2018, 3:00 pm

Tiger Woods contends, Paul Casey ends a drought, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy struggle, the new Rules of Golf go to print and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Tiger Woods failed to win the Valspar Championship on Sunday. Starting the final round one shot back, he made only two birdies – the latter coming on a 44-foot bomb – appeared a touch off with his iron play and struggled with the speed of the greens.

But let’s not get bogged down in the details here.

Even more important than Woods’ best finish on the PGA Tour in nearly five years was the realization that, yes, this guy still can win. And that’s remarkable, after all that he has endured – much of it self-inflicted, of course – over the past few years.

If this all feels so sudden, if it seems unfathomable that the guy who last fall admitted that he didn’t know what his future held now has a legitimate chance to win for the ninth time this week at Bay Hill, you’re not alone. Woods himself seems surprised by how quickly his fortunes have turned, how quickly he’s been able to piece together his game.

For the first time in years, Woods’ game is trending upward – and what a bonus to golf fans everywhere.  

1. At least one player ended a long victory drought.

Casey hadn’t won since the 2009 Houston Open, but he fired a 65 that was good enough to win by one shot.

The affable Englishman said after his second round that if he didn’t win, he hoped that Woods would. Instead, he edged Woods (and Patrick Reed) by a shot.

“I’m glad it’s this way,” Casey said, smiling.

2. Casey had to wait more than an hour to see if his 10-under 274 would be enough.

The first challenger was Justin Rose, but he made back-to-back bogeys early on the back nine and never recovered.

Then came Reed, who thought he’d stiffed his approach into 18 but his shot didn’t carry onto the back ledge. He tried to putt from the front edge of the green and his ball came back to his feet. He made bogey and lost by one.

And then came Woods, who rolled in the long birdie putt on 17 and faced another from long distance, this time from 35 feet, to force a playoff.

“I’m sure he was disappointed he didn’t get the victory,” Casey said. “I thought he was going to win today, before the round started. I thought it was just teed up beautifully for him.”

3. Woods just couldn’t close it out.

I wrote more on his week here, but what really stood out at the Valspar was the quality of Woods’ short game. He ranked fifth in strokes gained-around the green, which seemed impossible given his chipping horrors over the past couple of years. Woods played a number of deft shots around the greens – soft flops, bump-and-runs, long bunker explosions.

His short game looked as formidable as ever.

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee took a closer look at Woods’ action here:

4. Granted, every start feels like a referendum on Woods’ competitive future, but this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational will be really interesting to watch.

It’s Woods’ fourth start in five weeks. It’s his second time playing consecutive weeks. It’s three days after he expended a ton of energy – for the first time in years – while trying to win a tournament. And it’s at a place where he’s had record success, with eight tournament titles.

At Bay Hill, Woods will have to hit driver more than he did at Innisbrook, where he was content hitting 3-wood and iron off the tee. Showing improvement with the big stick this week will be another sign that he is Augusta-ready.

5. Speaking of driver … PGA Tour player Brian Gay questioned Woods’ decision to hit iron off the 18th tee, knowing that he needed a birdie to tie.

Woods explained afterward that the dogleg-left fairway pinches in where he would have tried to squeeze in a 3-wood. So he laid back, to the fat part of the fairway.

From 185 yards, he was in between clubs, but he wanted to leave himself below the hole. His 7-iron came up 35 feet short.

“If anything,” he said, “that 2-iron I could have hit it flatter and hotter, but hey, I’m in the fairway, I got a shot at this thing. Unfortunately, I didn’t hit it close enough.”

6. Remember when Rory McIlroy’s form looked so promising in the Middle East?

That feels like a year ago.

After missing the cut, McIlroy has now shot six consecutive rounds of at least 2 over par. Even after months to work on his game, his putting is still a mess – through two rounds he ranked 140th out of 143 players in strokes gained-putting.

“It’s hard because when I play my weeks off on practice, it feels pretty good,” he said, “and when I get out on to the course, it isn’t quite the same.”

That sure doesn’t sound like a guy ready to contend at the Masters.

7. Is it finally time to worry about Jordan Spieth?

He missed his second cut of the season after a surprisingly poor two-day performance at the Valspar, where he shot rounds of 76-71.

Once again he struggled on the greens, losing more than a shot and a half to the greens with his putter and holing only 51 feet worth of putts. It seems his putting problems are beginning to trickle down to his long game, too. It's hard to overcome the fact that he's 167th in putting. 

What’s the issue? He can’t get comfortable.

“Everything right now is based on how I feel and the setup,” he said. Trouble is, he has only two starts before the Masters to get right.

8. This stat should underscore Woods’ career-long brilliance: He has only 18 missed cuts as a pro on Tour in 318 starts.

Spieth, after this latest missed cut? Nineteen missed cuts in 126 starts.

9. Well, the Rules of Golf are finalized.

So tap down your spike marks, return that moved ball to its original spot (with no penalty!), and be sure to use "reasonable judgment" when measuring a line, drop or distance.

More on that here.

There’s still a long way to go in making golf easier to understand at all levels, but at least this is a start.

Trey Mullinax did his best Phil Mickelson impersonation during the second round, playing a shot from inside the hospitality tent. Not only did he perfectly nip his pitch shot off the carpet, but he cleared a vinyl fence and put enough spin on it to nestle it close to a tucked pin.

Sweet shot, and the tie for eighth was easily his best finish of the season.

This week's award winners ... 

Fun With Numbers: Tiger-Phil. If Woods wins this week at Bay Hill, he’ll have gone 1,687 days between victories – or the exact same number as Mickelson, who just ended his drought at the WGC-Mexico. Hmmm …

Rolling the Rock: Casey. His 21 putts in the final round were the fewest by a Tour winner since Jim Carter in 2000.

Not a Misprint: Woods’ swing speed. On the 14th hole Saturday, Woods swung 129 mph. To put this in perspective: He’s 42 years old … with a fused back … and he just uncorked the fastest swing of the season on Tour. That’s 3 mph faster than Dustin Johnson’s best rip.

Oldie But Goodie: Vijay Singh. Count this scribe among those who thought the big Fijian would mop up on the senior circuit, but Singh, now 55, just collected his first individual title on the PGA Tour Champions. He admitted that he’s been putting too much pressure on himself.  

In Need of a Tiger Break: Brandt Snedeker. On Sunday Sneds played with Woods for the FIFTH time this season, shooting a final-round 78 that cost him a spot in the WGC-Match Play and, possibly, the Masters. His five scores alongside Woods this year: 74-74-73-67-78.

Room for Two Playing Captains?: Jim Furyk. We kid (kinda), but the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain finished seventh in Tampa – his best finish since a tie for sixth at Sea Island in fall 2016.

Yes, This Will Be Loud: First tee at the Ryder Cup. The plan calls for 6,648 seats around the first tee in Paris – that’s WAY more than Hazeltine (1,688) or Gleneagles (2,148).

MIA: Smylie Kaufman. He’s 63 over par for his last five starts. Ouch.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Tony Finau. Fifth here a year ago, where he led the field in strokes-gained off tee to green, and coming off a stretch in which he had two top-6s in his past four starts. What’d he do at Innisbrook? Consecutive rounds of 74, to miss the cut by a mile. Sigh.

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New dad Garcia removes shoes, wins match

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 12:48 am

AUSTIN, Texas – In one of the day’s most explosive matches, Sergio Garcia rolled in an 8-footer for birdie at the 18th hole to defeat Shubhankar Sharma, 1 up, at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

The duo halved just nine holes on Day 1 at Austin Country Club, with Garcia going from 2 up through four holes to 1 down with five holes to play.

But the Spaniard rallied with five birdies over his final eight holes and pushed his record to 20-17-1 in the Match Play. He also gave himself his best chance to advance out of pool play since the format began in 2015.

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The victory continued what has already been a memorable week for Garcia, whose wife, Angela, gave birth to the couple’s first child last Wednesday.

“I already feel like I’m a winner after what happened on Wednesday,” Garcia said. “Obviously, it's something that we're so, so happy and proud of and enjoying it as much as possible.”

The highlight of Garcia’s round on Wednesday came at the 12th hole when he took a drop on a cart path. After considering his options, he removed his shoes and hit his approach from 212 yards to 29 feet for a two-putt birdie to halve the hole.

“I have spikes. So if I don't take my shoes off, I'm going to slip. It's not the kind of shot that you want to slip,” Garcia said. “I had tried it a couple of times on practice swings and I was already slipping a little bit. So I thought I would just take my shoes off, try to get a little bit in front of the hole and it came out great.”

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On a wild Wednesday, DJ, Rory, Phil saved by the pool

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 12:39 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Call it black Wednesday, but then the one-and-done aspect of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play was dulled three years ago with the introduction of round-robin play that assures every player at least three matches in pool play.

Otherwise Wednesday at Austin Country Club would go down as one of the championship’s darkest hours for the top of the dance card. In order, world No. 1 and defending champion Dustin Johnson dropped his Day 1 match, 3 and 1, to world No. 56 Bernd Wiesberger; last week’s winner Rory McIlroy lost to PGA Tour rookie Peter Uihlein, 2 and 1, and Phil Mickelson, the winner of the last WGC in Mexico, dropped a 3-and-2 decision to Charles Howell III.

All told, 11 lower-seeded players pulled off “upsets” on Wednesday, although it’s widely held that the Match Play is more prone to these types of underdog performances than the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

But if it wasn’t March Madness, it was at the least March Mayhem, particularly for those who shuffled around Austin Country Club in a state of mild confusion.

Although there were plenty of matches that went according to plan – with top-seeded players Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama and Sergio Garcia all winning – it was still a tough day for chalk with three of the top 10 players in the world ranking either losing or halving (world No. 3 Jon Rahm halved his duel with Keegan Bradley) their matches.

At least McIlroy made things interesting after finding himself 5 down through 13 holes. The Northern Irishman played his last six holes in 5 under par to push the match to the 17th hole, but Uihlein closed out the bout with a par.

“If he birdies seven straight on you, hats off to him. It is what it is,” Uihlein said of McIlroy’s late surge. “I felt like if I just kind of kept giving myself a chance, I didn't want to give him any holes. He made me earn it, so hats off to it.”

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Johnson couldn’t say the same thing.

After not trailing in any match on his way to victory at last year’s Match Play, Johnson hit a ball in the water, two out of bounds (on the same hole, no less) and began to fade when he made a double bogey-5 at the 11th hole. Although scoring is always skewed at the Match Play because of conceded putts, Johnson was listed at 9 over through 17 holes before his day came to a merciful end.

“We both didn't have a great day. I think we only made three birdies between us, which is not a lot out here,” Wiesberger said. “Obviously it wasn't his best day. It wasn't the best of my days. I think we both have to do a little bit of work this afternoon.”

Although not as scrappy as Johnson’s round, Mickelson has also seen better days. Lefty made just a single birdie and played 17 holes in even par to lose just his second match in pool play.

But then this event hasn’t exactly been kind to Lefty, who has advanced to the weekend just twice in 13 starts.

“I was fortunate today, obviously, to get past him,” said Howell, who is the second-lowest seeded player to advance out of pool play when he did it in 2017 as the 61st player in the field. “But with this pod play the way it goes now, you never know. You've got to keep playing good. Last WGC we had, he won. So he's never out of it.”

That will be the solace those high-profile players who find themselves on the wrong side of the round-robin ledger now cling to. There is a path back.

Since pool play began, just four players have lost their Day 1 matches and went on to win their group. One of those players is Johnson, who lost to Robert Streb on Wednesday in 2016 but still advanced to the quarterfinals.

But if that helps ease the sting for those who now embrace the Match Play mulligan, it did little to quiet the crowds on what turned out to be a wild Wednesday.

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Match-by-match: 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies, Day 1

By Will GrayMarch 22, 2018, 12:22 am

Here is how things played out on Day 1 of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, as 64 players take on Austin Country Club with hopes of advancing out of pool play:

Group 1: (52) Bernd Wiesberger def. (1) Dustin Johnson, 3 and 1: Down goes the defending champ. Johnson never trailed in any match en route to victory last year, and he won five holes against Wiesberger. But that wasn't enough as the Austrian turned an all-square affair into an upset victory by winning three straight from Nos. 15-17.

Group 1: (32) Kevin Kisner vs. (38) Adam Hadwin, halved: This was a tight one throughout, as neither player held more than a 1-up lead. Kisner held a lead for much of the back nine, but Hadwin birdied the 17th to draw even and the match was halved when they both made par on the final hole.

Group 2: (2) Justin Thomas def. (60) Luke List, 2 up: In perhaps the most entertaining match of the morning, Thomas edged List in a rematch of last month's Honda Classic playoff despite List spending much of the round putting with a wedge after bending his putter. Thomas was 3 up with four to play before List pushed the match the distance.

Group 2: (21) Francesco Molinari def. (48) Patton Kizzire, 3 and 1: Molinari turned a tight match into a victory thanks to a few timely errors from Kizzire. Pars on Nos. 14 and 17 were good enough to win the hole for Molinari, with the latter sealing his victory and moving him a step closer to a potential winner-take-all battle with Thomas on Friday.

Group 3: (3) Jon Rahm vs. (63) Keegan Bradley, halved: Rahm was a runner-up at this event last year, but he got all he could handle from one of the last men in the field. Bradley was 2 up with three holes to play, but bogeys on two of the final three holes opened the door for the Spaniard to escape with a draw.

Group 3: (28) Kiradech Aphibarnrat def. (43) Chez Reavie, 3 and 2: Aphibarnrat took the lead in his group with a victory over Reavie during which he never trailed. The globetrotting Thai held a 2-up lead at the turn and closed things out with a birdie on No. 16. Reavie won only two holes all day.

Group 4: (4) Jordan Spieth def. (49) Charl Schwartzel, 2 and 1: The top seed in the group scored an early point in a battle between former Masters champs. Spieth never trailed and took control of the match with three straight wins on Nos. 12-14.

Group 4: (19) Patrick Reed def. (34) Haotong Li, 3 and 2: Reed's much-anticipated match with Spieth is still two days away, but he dispatched of Li in his opener by winning the opening hole and never trailing the rest of the way. Li got to within one of Reed after 10 holes but the American won three of the next five to separate.

Group 5: (5) Hideki Matsuyama def. (53) Yusaku Miyazato, 2 and 1: This all-Japanese battle went to the group's top seed, as Matsuyama poured in a birdie on the par-3 17th to close out the match. Miyazato got off to a strong start, holding a 2-up lead through six holes, before Matsuyama turned the tables with two birdies over the next three holes.

Group 5: (46) Cameron Smith def. (30) Patrick Cantlay, 2 up: Smith never trailed in the match, but it turned into a closer contest than it appeared when the Aussie held a 3-up lead with four holes to play. Uihlein won the next two holes, but he couldn't get any closer as Smith earned a critical victory as he looks to earn a Masters spot by staying in the top 50 in the world rankings after this week.

Group 6: (57) Peter Uihlein def. (6) Rory McIlroy, 2 and 1: McIlroy won last week at Bay Hill, but he's now playing catch up after a decisive loss to Uihlein. The American held a 5-up lead before McIlroy reeled off five straight birdies to cut the lead to 2-up, but a par from Uihlein on the 17th hole sealed the upset.

Group 6: (18) Brian Harman vs. (44) Jhonattan Vegas, halved: This was a tight match throughout, with Harman clinging to a 1-up lead for most of the back nine. But Vegas rolled in a birdie putt on the final green to salvage half a point, much to the delight of the Austin galleries who were out supporting the former Longhorn.

Group 7: (7) Sergio Garcia def. (62) Shubankhar Sharma, 1 up: Garcia and Sharma took turns leading this match throughout the day, with the Indian holding a 1-up advantage through 13 holes. But Garcia won the next hole to square the match, then earned a full point with a birdie on the 18th hole in his first competitive start since becoming a father last week.

Group 7: (20) Xander Schauffele def. (41) Dylan Frittelli, 1 up: The reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year got the best of the former Longhorn in a tight match that went the distance. Schauffele led for much of the afternoon before Frittelli drew level with wins on Nos. 14 and 15. But Schauffele won the next hole and held on from there.

Group 8: (8) Jason Day def. (56) James Hahn, 4 and 2: Day is a former winner of this event, and he separated from Hahn on the back nine to score an early point. Hahn offered a concession on No. 13 to fall 3 down, then conceded again on No. 16 to close the match.

Group 8: (25) Louis Oosthuizen def. (42) Jason Dufner, 1 up: Oosthuizen appeared poised for an easy point before Dufner rallied with three straight wins on Nos. 14-16 to square the match. But Oosthuizen regained a lead with a par on No. 17 and held on for a hard-fought victory.

Group 9: (58) Ian Poulter def. (9) Tommy Fleetwood, 3 and 2: The match between Englishman went to the veteran, as Poulter took his putter from the 2012 Ryder Cup out of the closet and put it to quick use. Fleetwood won only two holes during the match, none after the eighth hole, and he now faces the prospect of early elimination as the group's top seed.

Group 9: (33) Kevin Chappell def. (26) Daniel Berger, 3 and 2: Chappell and Berger were Presidents Cup teammates in the fall, but the opener went to Chappell. Berger won the 13th hole to draw all square, but Chappell reeled off three straight birdies on Nos. 14-16 in response to close out the match.

Group 10: (10) Paul Casey def. (51) Russell Henley, 1 up: Casey is making his first start since winning at Innisbrook, and he scored an early point after rallying back against Henley. The Englishman didn't lead in the match until the final hole, when Henley's tee shot found the hazard leading to an ill-timed concession.

Group 10: (45) Kyle Stanley def. (31) Matthew Fitzpatrick, 1 up: Stanley is making his first match play appearance since 2012, and he got off to a promising start by edging the Englishman. Fitzpatrick was 2 up with five holes to go, but Stanley won three holes the rest of the way including a birdie on the 18th hole to secure a full point.

Group 11: (64) Julian Suri def. (11) Marc Leishman, 3 and 2: Suri was the last man to get into the field following the withdrawal of Joost Luiten, but he's already on the board with an early point. Suri won each of the first two holes and never trailed in the match, closing out Leishman with a birdie on the par-5 16th.

Group 11: (35) Bubba Watson def. (23) Branden Grace, 5 and 3: Watson was absolutely unstoppable in the biggest rout of the day. The two-time Masters champ made seven birdies over his first nine holes, making the turn with a 6-up advantage. Grace never stood a chance.

Group 12: (12) Tyrrell Hatton def. (55) Alexander Levy, 3 and 2: Hatton won the opening hole with a par and never trailed the rest of the way. Levy's win on the eighth hole proved to be his only victory of the day, as Hatton barely had to break a sweat after building a 3-up lead through five holes.

Group 12: (36) Brendan Steele def. (22) Charley Hoffman, 1 up: Steele never trailed in the match and at one point held a 4-up lead, but coming down the stretch it took everything he had to keep Hoffman at bay. Hoffman won four in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 13-17, but a par on the final hole was enough to give Steele the full point.

Group 13: (13) Alex Noren def. (61) Kevin Na, 4 and 2: Noren has come close to winning a few times already this year in the U.S., and he improved his career record in Austin to 5-1 thanks to a steady back nine. The match was all square through 11 holes before Noren took three of the next four, closing things out when Na conceded on No. 16.

Group 13: (29) Tony Finau def. (39) Thomas Pieters, 2 and 1: Two of the longest hitters in the field squared off in this tilt, with Finau notching a full point despite losing two of the first three holes. The American birdied the 15th to take a 2-up lead, then closed out Pieters with a par on the 17th hole.

Group 14: (59) Charles Howell III def. (14) Phil Mickelson, 3 and 2: Mickelson is making his first start since his WGC win in Mexico, but he's now on the ropes after Howell put together a strong back nine that included three birdies in a four-hole stretch from Nos. 10-13 to take control of the match.

Group 14: (17) Rafael Cabrera-Bello def. (40) Satoshi Kodaira, 2 and 1: Cabrera-Bello made a run to the semifinals at this event two years ago, and he's off to another good start following a match in which he never trailed and lost only three holes. With the match tied through 11 holes, Cabrera-Bello's birdies on Nos. 12 and 13 proved pivotal.

Group 15: (15) Pat Perez vs. (50) Si Woo Kim, halved: The first match of the day ended up in a draw, as the top seed rallied from a deficit to salvage half a point. Kim won three of the first six holes and held a 3-up lead with seven holes to go, but Perez fought back with four birdies over the next six holes to draw even.

Group 15: (24) Gary Woodland vs. (37) Webb Simpson, halved: This group remains entirely up for grabs since nothing was decided on the opening day. Woodland took a 3-up lead at the turn, but Simpson rallied by winning four of the next seven holes, including a birdie on No. 17 that brought him back to all square for the first time since the third hole.

Group 16: (16) Matt Kuchar vs. (54) Zach Johnson, halved: This draw likely felt like a victory for Johnson, who was facing a 4-down deficit with four holes to play before closing with four straight birdies to steal half a point.

Group 16: (47) Yuta Ikeda def. (27) Ross Fisher, 2 and 1: Ikeda now holds the top spot in the group after ousting Fisher, who made the quarterfinals last year. Ikeda squared the match with wins on Nos. 6 and 7 before a pivotal birdie on No. 15 gave him a 2-up lead he would not relinquish.