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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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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.