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:
Tiger was 2nd chipping prox. @ValsparChamp at 4’7”— Brandel Chamblee (@chambleebrandel) March 12, 2018
Comparing his technique on the left to his worst at ‘15 WMPO where he averaged over 30 ft. there is quite a difference. He sets the club more in/up comes a tiny bit over, doesn’t take the club out, drop under and drag left. pic.twitter.com/78zrGwaG8h
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.
Tiger way too conservative on the last. Can’t leave yourself 190+ needing birdie to tie— Brian Gay (@BrianGayPGA) March 11, 2018
He didn’t have to birdie it till today https://t.co/lgr7EkiCvJ— Brian Gay (@BrianGayPGA) March 12, 2018
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.
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.