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Monday Scramble: Game, set, match, Bubba

By Ryan LavnerMarch 26, 2018, 4:00 pm

Bubba Watson rolls at the Match Play, Justin Thomas comes up short, Masters favorites show their weaknesses, Tony Romo struggles and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

Not even Bubba Watson thought he’d reach the final of the WGC-Dell Match Play – he scheduled a family vacation that was set to depart on Sunday.

And before his out-of-nowhere win last month at Riviera, who could have blamed him?

Last year, Watson was physically ill, down 20 pounds, and mired in one of his worst seasons after a bizarre decision to change his golf ball. It was the lowest point of his career, and maybe even his life. At 39, as a devoted father and husband with interests that stretched far beyond golf, he seemed closer to retirement than another major.

But now, after a lot of soul searching and a heart-to-heart with wife Angie, Watson seems as hungry as ever, winning twice before the Masters for the first time in his career.

Just like that, it’s all on the table again – a third green jacket, a Ryder Cup berth, maybe even a Player of the Year title.

Yes, Bubba’s back, and it’s one heck of a comeback.

1. Watson’s final match against Kevin Kisner was … well … a dud.

Had he converted a 4-foot birdie putt on the sixth hole, Watson would have won the first seven holes. Kisner, who went into overtime to beat Alex Noren in the semifinals, made four straight bogeys during a “pitiful” front nine against Watson, his legs turning to Jell-O.

Watson rolled, 7 and 6, the most lopsided result since the event switched from a 36- to an 18-hole final in 2011.

2. You might recall that Watson’s first trip to France didn’t go so well back in 2011.

He missed the cut, complained about fans and insulted the entire country with these statements about his time sightseeing: “I don’t know the names of all the things, the big tower, Eiffel Tower, an arch (Arc de Triomphe), whatever I rode around in a circle. And then what’s that – it starts with an 'L' – Louvre, something like that. One of those.”  

Well, he should have plenty of time to brush up on his French. It’s hard to see him being left off the U.S. Ryder Cup team now.

Watson was a last-minute addition as a vice captain in 2016, but he should be a lock to play in Paris, barring a horrific slump the rest of the year. He’s No. 3 on the points list, and he showed Jim Furyk that he can once again handle the pressure of match play against the best in the world.

“I’m trying to get Jim Furyk to notice me,” he said. “That’s really all I’m trying to do. Vice captain or playing, I want to be there.”

3. Where does Watson fall among the favorites for the Masters?

Trying to project the mercurial left-hander’s success has always proved difficult, especially at a place like Augusta National. In his past eight starts there, his only finishes inside the top 35 have been his two wins, in 2012 and ’14.

Besides the added pressure, expectation and attention, perhaps that’s why Watson has no interest in being one of the most talked-about contenders.

“I’m not a favorite, I’m definitely going to stay that,” he said. “I’m not a favorite. I don’t want anybody to talk to me that week. Let me just focus on what I’ve got to do. I’m not going to play well that week, so nobody talk to me.”

4. The Match Play might be best remembered for what didn’t happen than what actually did.

Two examples: Justin Thomas and Ian Poulter.

Start with Thomas, who needed to reach the final match to ascend to world No. 1 for the first time.

Instead, he looked flat and played his worst match of the week, never even scaring Watson in a 3-and-2 loss. Afterward, Thomas said that he wasn’t strong enough mentally.

“I haven’t had such a hard time not thinking about something so much,” he said, referring to the potential of becoming No. 1, “and that really sucked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest, and you’re constantly getting questions about it with the media. But I need to be mentally stronger than that and understand that it’s just a match.”

Speaking of which …

5. Poulter thought that all he needed to do to crack the top 50 in the world and play in the Masters was reach the quarterfinals.


Told by “the press” and “other people” that he was in the Masters following a Round of 16 victory, Poulter actually needed to win his afternoon match, too. He was told just before he teed off that there was more work to do, but apparently he couldn’t refocus.

He got routed, 8 and 6.

6. Johnson might have the top ranking until the Masters, but he sure isn’t playing like the best in the world.

After pedestrian performances over his past two starts that still resulted in top-20s, Johnson wasn’t as fortunate in Austin. He lost all three matches, some of them by wide margins. He looked out of form, in all aspects, and surprisingly disinterested.

Maybe it was just an off-week, but Johnson hasn’t shown the same gear since his opening tour de force at Kapalua. On a list of Masters favorites, he shouldn't be near the top.

7. Of the players who are making one final Masters tuneup in Houston – a group that includes Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson – Jordan Spieth’s form will be worth monitoring.

The Match Play was another setback for Spieth, who got blown away in his much-hyped, third-round match against Patrick Reed.

Of the 64 players in the field, Spieth ranked 59th in strokes gained: total. That included another abysmal week on the greens, where he lost more than five shots to the field and made no more than 55 feet of putts each round.  

It’s reasonable to wonder whether his putting concerns are beginning to affect the rest of his game, too, since he was neither accurate off the tee (49 percent) nor precise with his irons (64 percent).

In other words, Spieth is running out of time to get his game in shape for Augusta.  

8. The Tour’s rationale for switching to pool play was that the stars are guaranteed to be in town three rounds instead of one.

But not everyone is totally sold on this format, compared to the traditional one-and-done. There's no buzz early in the week, and the product is questionable at best. Eight of the top 10 seeds were gone by Friday night, some of them merely playing out the string, with nothing to play for Friday besides a few world-ranking and FedExCup points.

Those in the field are hesitant to criticize the Tour (and for good reason), but one guy who wasn’t in Austin had no problem letting it rip, speaking for many when he wrote:

9. Brice Garnett’s wire-to-wire win at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship didn’t give the former Division II golfer a spot in the Masters, but it does guarantee him a place to play through the 2020 season.

Though Garnett finished first on the Tour’s regular-season money list last year, he entered the event in the Dominican Republican without a top-15 finish. Then he shot 18-under 270 and won by four. Go figure.

How many more times must a pro athlete try his hand at a Tour-sanctioned event before it’s a bad idea?

Tony Romo illustrated the difference between good amateurs and good professionals last week at the Tour’s opposite-field event in the Dominican Republic.

Romo shot rounds of 77-82, finished 28 shots off the lead, 15 back of the cut line, and placed last by six shots.

Yes, tournament officials accomplished what they wanted – bringing attention to an event that otherwise would have gone unnoticed – but it's still amazing that a proud professional athlete would subject himself to such embarrassment.

And now we may see even more of Romo this summer. He said that he’s going to set his upcoming schedule this week and that “in a month from now, I think we’ll see things a little better.” Hmmm …

This week's award winners ... 

Move Over, Bernie?: Steve Stricker. The 51-year-old seems primed to end Langer’s extended run of dominance on the PGA Tour Champions, winning his second consecutive start. Stricker’s three results this season: T2-1-1, and he’s now first on tour in scoring average.

That Any Good?: Eun-Hee Ji. The Kia Classic winner hit all 18 greens (including an ace) Sunday en route to a two-shot win. Who knew that putting for birdie on each hole is a key to success?

Get Your Earplugs Ready: Hazeltine. European players and fans who complained about the raucous scene in Minnesota probably aren't thrilled to see the announcement Monday that the 2028 Ryder Cup is headed back there.

We Know What We’ve Seen Here: DJ’s record* drive. Technically, stats at the Match Play aren’t official, and it was downhill, downwind and aided by the road, but Johnson’s 489-yard blast on Austin Country Club’s 12th hole (leaving him just 85 yards into the par 5) would be a PGA Tour record – by 13!

Sunday Struggles: Corey Conners. The Tour rookie has been in the final group on Sunday in each of his past two starts. He shot a 77 (Tampa, T-16) and a 76 (Dominican Republic, T-13). Those could be costly come the fall.

Oh, So It's Not Just a Golf Problem?: Misbehaving tennis fans. As Caroline Wozniacki (remember her?) pointed out here, the idiots are beginning to plague tennis matches, too:

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jason Day. So many to choose from here, but we’ll focus on Day, the Tour leader in total driving and strokes-gained putting, who also won this event in 2016. This year, he couldn’t even advance out of his group, losing to Louis Oosthuizen. Sigh.

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Woods needs top-10 at Open to qualify for WGC

By Will GrayJuly 16, 2018, 4:34 pm

If Tiger Woods is going to qualify for the final WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, he'll need to do something he hasn't done in five years this week at The Open.

Woods has won eight times at Firestone, including his most recent PGA Tour victory in 2013, and has openly stated that he would like to qualify for the no-cut event in Akron before it shifts to Memphis next year. But in order to do so, Woods will need to move into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking after this week's event at Carnoustie.

Woods is currently ranked No. 71 in the world, down two spots from last week, and based on projections it means that he'll need to finish no worse than a tie for eighth to have a chance of cracking the top 50. Woods' last top-10 finish at a major came at the 2013 Open at Muirfield, where he tied for sixth.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

There are actually two OWGR cutoffs for the Bridgestone, July 23 and July 30. That means that Woods could theoretically still add a start at next week's RBC Canadian Open to chase a spot in the top 50, but he has said on multiple occasions that this week will be his last start of the month. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational will be played Aug. 2-5.

There wasn't much movement in the world rankings last week, with the top 10 staying the same heading into the season's third major. Dustin Johnson remains world No. 1, followed by Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm. Defending Open champ Jordan Spieth is ranked sixth, with Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Tommy Fleetwood rounding out the top 10.

Despite taking the week off, Sweden's Alex Noren moved up three spots from No. 14 to No. 11, passing Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Paul Casey.

John Deere Classic champ Michael Kim went from No. 473 to No. 215 in the latest rankings, while South African Brandon Stone jumped from 371st to 110th with his win at the Scottish Open.

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Spieth takes familiar break ahead of Open defense

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – As his title chances seemed to be slipping away during the final round of last year’s Open Championship, Jordan Spieth’s caddie took a moment to remind him who he was.

Following a bogey at No. 13, Michael Greller referenced a recent vacation he’d taken to Mexico where he’d spent time with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan and why he deserved to be among that group of singular athletes.

Spieth, who won last year’s Open, decided to continue the tradition, spending time in Cabo again before this week’s championship.

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“I kind of went through the same schedule,” Spieth said on Monday at Carnoustie. “It was nice to have a little vacation.”

Spieth hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship; instead he attended the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this month in Seattle with his sister. It was Spieth’s first time back to the Pacific Northwest since he won the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I went out to Chambers Bay with [Greller],” Spieth said. “We kind of walked down the 18th hole. It was cool reliving those memories.”

But most of all Spieth said he needed a break after a particularly tough season.

“I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working,” he said. “It was nice to kind of have that itch to get back.”

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Harrington: Fiery Carnoustie evokes Hoylake in '06

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 3:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – One course came to mind when Padraig Harrington arrived on property and saw a firm, fast and yellow Carnoustie.

Hoylake in 2006.

That's when Tiger Woods avoided every bunker, bludgeoned the links with mid-irons and captured the last of his three Open titles.

So Harrington was asked: Given the similarity in firmness between Carnoustie and Hoylake, can Tiger stir the ghosts this week?

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“I really don’t know,” Harrington said Monday. “He’s good enough to win this championship, no doubt about it. I don’t think he could play golf like the way he did in 2006. Nobody else could have tried to play the golf course the way he did, and nobody else could have played the way he did. I suspect he couldn’t play that way now, either. But I don’t know if that’s the strategy this week, to lay up that far back.”

With three days until the start of this championship, that’s the biggest question mark for Harrington, the 2007 winner here. He doesn’t know what his strategy will be – but his game plan will need to be “fluid.” Do you attack the course with driver and try to fly the fairway bunkers? Or do you attempt to lay back with an iron, even though it’s difficult to control the amount of run-out on the baked-out fairways and bring the bunkers into play?

“The fairways at Hoylake are quite flat, even though they were very fast,” Harrington said. “There’s a lot of undulations in the fairways here, so if you are trying to lay up, you can get hit the back of a slope and kick forward an extra 20 or 30 yards more than you think. So it’s not as easy to eliminate all the risk by laying up.”

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How will players game-plan for Carnoustie?

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:31 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Thomas took a familiar slash with his driver on the 18th tee on Monday at Carnoustie and watched anxiously as his golf ball bounced and bounded down the fairway.

Unlike the two previous editions of The Open, at what is widely considered the rota’s most demanding test, a particularly warm and dry summer has left Carnoustie a parched shade of yellow and players like Thomas searching for answers.

Under the best circumstances, Carnoustie is every bit the unforgiving participant. But this week promises to be something altogether different, with players already dumbfounded by how far the ball is chasing down fairways and over greens.

Brown is beautiful here at Royal Dark & Dusty.

But then it’s also proving to be something of a unique test.

Where most practice rounds at The Open are spent trying to figure out what lines are best off tees, this is more a study of lesser evils.

Tee shots, like at the par-4 17th hole, ask multiple questions with few answers. On his first attempt, Thomas hit 2-iron off the tee at No. 17. It cleared the Barry Burn and bounded down the middle of the fairway. Perfect, right? Not this year at Carnoustie, as Thomas’ tee shot kept rolling until it reached the same burn, which twists and turns through both the 17th and 18th fairways, at a farther intersection.

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“A hole like 17 in this wind, the trick is getting a club that will carry [the burn],” said Thomas, who played 18 holes on Monday with Tiger Woods. “If that hole gets downwind you can have a hard time carrying the burn and keeping it short of the other burn. It’s pretty bizarre.”

The sixth hole can offer a similar dilemma, with players needing to carry their tee shots 275 yards to avoid a pair of pot bunkers down the right side of the fairway. Yet just 26 yards past those pitfalls looms a second set of bunkers. Even for the game’s best, trying to weave a fairway wood or long-iron into a 26-yard window can be challenging.

“Six is a really hard hole, it really just depends on how you want to play it. If you want to take everything on and have a chance of hitting an iron into a par 5, or just kind of lay back and play it as a three-shot hole,” Thomas shrugged.

It’s difficult to quantify precisely how short the 7,400-yard layout is playing. It’s not so far players are flying the ball in the air, particularly with relatively little wind in the forecast the rest of the week, so much as it is a question of how a particular shot will run out after it’s made contact with the firm turf.

As the field began to get their first taste of the bouncy fun, one of the earliest indications something was askew came on Sunday when Padraig Harrington, who won The Open the last time it was played at Carnoustie in 2007, announced to the social world that he’d hit into the burn on the 18th hole.

“This time it was the one at the green, 457 yards away,” the Irishman tweeted. “The fairways are a tad fast.”

Most players have already resigned themselves to a steady diet of mid-irons off tees this week in an attempt to at least partially control the amount of run-out each shot will have.

Jordan Spieth, the defending champion, hadn’t played a practice round prior to his media session, but could tell what’s in store just from his abbreviated range session on Monday. “Extremely baked out,” he said.

The conditions have already led Spieth and his caddie, Micheal Greller, to conjure up a tentative game plan.

“You might wear out your 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you’re used to,” Greller told him.

But even that might not be the answer, as Tommy Fleetwood discovered on Sunday during a practice round. Fleetwood has a unique connection with Carnoustie having shot the course record (63) during last year’s Dunhill Links Championship.

The Englishman doesn’t expect his record to be in danger this week.

In fact, he explained the dramatically different conditions were evident on the third hole on Sunday.

“There’s holes that have been nothing tee shots, like the third. If you play that in the middle of September or October [when the Dunhill is played] and it’s green and soft, you could just hit a mid-iron down the fairway and knock it on with a wedge,” Fleetwood said. “Yesterday it was playing so firm, the fairways really undulate and you have bunkers on either side, it’s actually all of a sudden a tough tee shot.”

The alternative to the iron game plan off the tee would be to simply hit driver, an option at least one long-hitter is considering this week if his practice round was any indication.

On Sunday, Jon Rahm played aggressively off each tee, taking the ubiquitous fairway bunkers out of play but at the same time tempting fate with each fairway ringed by fescue rough, which is relatively tame given the dry conditions. But even that option has consequences.

“It’s kind of strange where there’s not really a number that you know you’re going to be short,” said Fleetwood, who played his Sunday practice round with Rahm. “[Rahm] hit a drive on 15 that was like 400 yards. You just can’t account for that kind of stuff.”

Whatever tactic players choose, this Open Championship promises to be a much different test than what players have become accustomed to at Carnoustie.