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Monday Scramble: Emotions run high at Match Play

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Dustin Johnson keeps rolling, Jon Rahm impresses, Jason Day withdraws, and the Match Play format debate rages on in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

There are a few ways to describe Johnson when he performs like this. Dominating. Intimidating. Electrifying.

And then there’s how Rahm described him Sunday night, after losing, 1 up, in the championship match of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play:

“He’s just a perfect, complete player.”

Awesome power works everywhere, of course, but Johnson’s wedge game and solid putting are why he has now won three tournaments in a row, why he has put a stranglehold on world No. 1.

DJ is a player without weakness, a superstar who, if on his game, requires his opponent to be nothing short of perfect to beat him.  

Now the clear-cut favorite for the Masters, can anybody stop him? 

1. Even on a Sunday without his best stuff, Johnson continued his weeklong romp at Austin Country Club.

Here are his final stats from the week:

  • 112 holes played
  • 105 holes led
  • 7 holes tied
  • 46 holes won
  • 23 holes lost

DJ saw the 17th and 18th holes only twice – both times on Sunday, when he went birdie-par to knock off Hideto Tanihara in the semis, then par-par to hold off a hard-charging Rahm in the finals. 

2. Only two players have won the WGC-Match Play without trailing in any match.

Those dominant performances came from two wildly different players.

Luke Donald relied on his precision and short game to accomplish the feat in 2011, when he led 81 of the 89 holes (91 percent) he played over six 18-hole matches at Dove Mountain.

Johnson bashed his way around Austin CC and led for 94 percent of the 112 holes he played. 

3. Six of DJ’s 15 career titles have come since June.

That haul includes some of the biggest prizes in the game: a U.S. Open trophy, victories at a FedEx Cup playoff event and Riviera, and  – gulp – three World Golf Championships.

He is the first player to sweep the four WGCs. 

4. Rahm continued his meteoric rise in the world rankings with a(nother) breakout performance at the Match Play.

His spectacular all-around game was no secret to those who have watched his game over the past four years. He was an 11-time winner at Arizona State, he recorded a pair of top-3 finishes in his first few starts as a pro, and he rallied to win at Torrey Pines earlier this year.

But over the past month, against elite fields, he has proven himself as one of the game’s best.

Rahm briefly led with three holes to play in Mexico, only to stumble late. Then came the Match Play, where he overpowered a series of opponents before taking the world No. 1 to the final hole.

Rahm looked like he was toast, 4 down with six to play, but that’s when he staged a furious rally. He pounded driver and flew the water on 13. He stiffed an approach on 15. He hit a bold shot through the trees on 16. And then he got up and down from a dodgy lie on 17.

It wasn’t quite enough, but Rahm should no longer be viewed as a rising star or a kid with a bright future.

He’s the 14th-ranked player in the world – ahead of Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson and Brooks Koepka – and that’s only because his average points are weighed down by his 40-event divisor. Rahm has played only 19 counting events – based on that calculation and his average points, he’s really the second-ranked player in the world.

5. Sunday was the last day for players to qualify for the Masters via the top 50 in the world ranking.

Clutch performances in Austin by Hideto Tanihara and Ross Fisher secured those two invitations.

Tanihara, who began the week No. 60 in the world, finished fourth but did enough to move inside the top 50.

A trip to the quarterfinals was good enough for Fisher, who was No. 53 and is now set to play the Masters for the first time since 2012.  

The Masters field is at 94 players.

6. It was an unusual week for Rory McIlroy. He played well in two matches, going 7 under, but came away with a 0-1-1 record.

McIlroy would have beat just about anybody else in the opening round of pool play, but Soren Kjeldsen made four consecutive birdies to close – five straight approaches inside 10 feet – to put away the world No. 2.

An injury-hampered start to the season has added up to only 14 competitive rounds of golf heading into the Masters. McIlroy won’t add Houston to get more reps; he is playing Augusta early this week and then returning to South Florida to fine-tune his game.

McIlroy doesn’t think it’ll affect his performance at the year’s first major. In fact, he says his short game is as sharp as it’s ever been going into Augusta after the six weeks away because of his rib injury.

“Freshness could help, especially mentally,” he said. “Mentally going in there and not being drained.” 

7. The opposite might be true for Rahm. Unlike DJ, who withdrew on Monday afternoon, the young Spaniard is still expected to tee it up in the Shell Houston Open, less than a week after playing seven matches over five days on a difficult course to walk. That's a lot of energy expended, with a final test run at Houston and then a long, grueling week at Augusta.

Another reason why the timing of the Match Play just doesn't work.

8. Look, there's no arguing with the quality of winners in the new format – McIlroy, Jason Day, and DJ all ranked no worse than second in the world - and Austin Country Club is a home run as a match-play venue.

But another year of uninspiring round-robin matches has us thinking of more changes. 

Here's why: Supporters of the round-robin format pointed to last year’s results and that it still was basically one-and-done, that only three players lost a match in pool play and still advanced.

That argument doesn’t hold up as well after this year.

Six players lost a match and still moved on to the Round of 16. Five of those players needed a sudden-death playoff. Zach Johnson was the only player to win his group with two points (2-1 record).

Twenty-two players were mathematically eliminated after the first two days of pool play, and that's a problem. When a third of the field is going through the motions Friday, playing only for pride and a few FedEx Cup points, it dilutes the product.  

What we’ll continue to propose here is a stroke-play qualifier that leads into the knockout rounds.

It’d be similar to the format used by the U.S. and Western amateurs: 54 holes of stroke play, after which the field would be cut to the low 16, then single-elimination match play to determine a winner.

Why does this work?

It keeps everybody there until Friday, which was one of the major reasons the Tour (and its TV partners) abandoned the traditional format. It cuts down the number of also-rans, because their poor play doesn’t become a protect-the-field dilemma. And it keeps the schedule they’ve already established, with doubleheaders days on Saturday and Sunday.

Here’s guessing there wouldn’t be as many dropouts with a more traditional approach to the Match Play. It allows the players who are performing the best to play the weekend, while also keeping the integrity of survive-and-advance match play.

9. The Puerto Rico Open victory didn’t earn D.A. Points a spot in the Masters, but the two-year exemption, through 2019, might be even more valuable.

Since his career-best year in 2013, when he won his second of two PGA Tour titles in Houston, Points has fallen on hard times. Each of the past three years, he has finished outside the top 170 in FedEx Cup points. Last year, he needed to survive the Tour Finals.

Points didn’t have a top-30 finish in six starts this season, but it sure didn’t look like it Sunday. He made five birdies in a row to start the final round in Puerto Rico, then ran off four birdies in the last six holes to post a two-shot victory over a trio of players.

“I would like to thank my wife and kids for being so supportive during these last few years, while I have been sucking!” he tweeted. “They never gave up on me!”

10. A final-round 67 gave Bryson DeChambeau a career-best tie for second.

It’s his second encouraging performance in a row, after getting off the schneid and posting a top-30 finish in Tampa.

The mad scientist has had more than his share of growing pains this season, but it appears he’s finally heading into the right direction. Golf is more interesting with him in the mix. 

11. Some of the players who figure to be in the mix at the Masters will get one final tune-up in Houston.

Among the big names in the field, besides DJ and Rahm: Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and Justin Rose.

No player since Mickelson (2006) has won the week before the Masters and then again at Augusta. 

12. Speaking of majors ... an ideal way to prepare for the ANA Inspiration, this was not: Lydia Ko last week missed just her second cut in 91 career LPGA events.

It’s been a peculiar start to the year for the world No. 1. In five starts, she has three top-10s, but none of those were legitimate chances to win. She also has a T-46 and a missed cut.

Ariya Jutanugarn, meanwhile, is drawing closer to the top ranking … 

It was hard to watch Day’s news conference Wednesday at the Match Play, after he walked off the course after just six holes.

The concern originally was that Day had re-injured his balky back, but this was much more troubling – his mother, Dening, was scheduled for lung-cancer surgery after she was originally told that she had only 12 months to live. Day lost his father to stomach cancer when he was only 12.

Dening’s prognosis is better here in the States, and the surgery, according to Day's manager, went well and the doctors are optimistic about her recovery.

Much respect to J-Day for recognizing that family supersedes another golf tournament.

All the best to the entire Day family. 

This week's award winners ... 

Karma: Sam Saunders. After admirably performing all of his unofficial hosting duties two weeks ago at Bay Hill, Saunders shot 67-65 on the weekend in Puerto Rico to score a T-5 finish. It was his best finish on Tour since losing a playoff there in 2015. 

Games We’re Not Familiar With: Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm. Blasting away on the par-5 12th hole Sunday, DJ smoked a 424-yard drive – and was still away. Rahm’s went 438. (Only DJ made birdie.) 

Bad Timing: Dude behind 18 green. There was a loud crash behind the 18th green while Rahm took back the club for his decisive chip shot on the final green. He chunked the shot, leaving the ball atop a steep slope and giving him virtually no chance to make birdie and force a playoff. 

What Could Have Been: Tyrrell Hatton. Locked in a three-man sudden-death playoff to advance to the Round of 16, Hatton’s ball moved on the first playoff hole. Instead of stopping to return the ball to its original position, he quickly discussed the situation with fellow competitor Rafa Cabrera Bello, then went ahead and finished out. Problem was, he played the ball from the new position, and that’s a two-shot penalty. His week was done. 

Hey, Remember Me?: Lucy Li. She was the adorable 11-year-old who qualified for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst. Well, Li, now 14, has qualified for another major, this week’s ANA Inspiration, after winning an AJGA event by four shots. 

Still Going Low ...: LPGA scores. With Mirim Lee's 20-under winning total at the Kia Classic, five of the six events this year have been won with at least a 19 under total.

Trash Talk of the Week: Gary Player. Gotta love this playful jab from the Black Knight as the ceremonial first tee shot at the Masters approaches: 

Nice Consolation: Bill Haas. It must be painful to head back out for another 18-hole match after losing in the semifinals, but Haas made the final tour worthwhile, knocking off Tanihara to bank the extra $133,000 ($678,000 total) and jump eight spots in the world ranking, to No. 39. 

Best Topped Drive: Sergio Garcia. With rain pelting Garcia and everybody else at Austin CC, the Spaniard’s hands slipped off the driver, resulting in the rare Tour player cold-top. (Yes, he lost the hole.)

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Louis Oosthuizen. The South African’s 14 matches won since 2013 was the second-most in the field, behind only Day. He got off to a rousing start, thumping Ross Fisher, but with a 2-1 record he ended up losing to Fisher in a sudden-death tiebreaker, failing to qualify for the Round of 16. Sigh.