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Monday Scramble: Day again on top of the world

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Jason Day finds another gear, the Match Play format comes under scrutiny (what's new?), Lydia Ko gears up for a major, Tony Finau earns his first title and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

OK, so we can all agree on this: Day’s magical summer wasn’t a fluke. He’s playing just as well, if not better, during this run-up to the Masters. 

Last year he won five times, captured his first major and achieved a career goal by becoming world No. 1. Then life intervened. He took off nearly three months, shelving the clubs and focusing on his growing family. And once the new year started, his game suffered, because of course it would with so much time away. 

That didn’t change the fact that his combination of power, touch and determination is unmatched in today’s game.

Now, once again, Day is overflowing with belief, just like he was last summer. Now, once again, he looks and sounds like the world’s best player.

If he stays healthy – granted, that's a big if – it will be another huge year.

1. It’s the question we’ve debated for months: When they’re at the top of their games, who would win: Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy or Jason Day? 

We have a little better idea now.

One 18-hole match is far from conclusive, of course, especially with Spieth having already left town, but Day’s 1-up victory over McIlroy in the semifinals of the Match Play at least offered tangible evidence that the Australian can survive a head-to-head tussle with the player many assume is the most talented golfer in the world.

On the back nine of their match, Day routinely drove it past McIlroy, including on the par-5 16th, when he launched a 373-yard tee shot. His iron game is just as solid, and perhaps even more daring. And Day has a markedly better short game, both with his pitch shots and also on the greens.

Whose best is the best? If we're lucky, there'll be more showdowns soon. But for now, McIlroy should no longer be viewed as the default answer. The landscape has changed.

2. What makes Day such an incredible force is not his distance off the tee – several of today’s top players can pound 350-yard drives. No, it’s his soft touch around the greens.

In his match against McIlroy, Day was 7-for-8 scrambling, and he showed off a wide array of shots – flop shots, bump-and-runs, super spinners – to stay ahead in the match. Day’s goal, he said, was to frustrate McIlroy with his short game, to get up and down from everywhere, and he did.

“When he’s on with his chipping and putting, he doesn’t give you anything,” Day’s caddie, Colin Swatton, said in the locker room afterward.

3. Yet, somehow, drama and injuries continue to dog Day, even in victory.

The 28-year-old already had a bulging disk in his back and was prone to flareups. That’s what happened last Wednesday in his opening match, when he clutched his lower back and hobbled down the fairway. He didn’t undergo an MRI in Austin but may opt for an exam once he meets with his trainer, Cornell Driessen, on Tuesday.   

The proper treatment can keep him upright, but it’s a frustrating reminder of how fragile he’s been over the past few years.  

4. Speaking of which ... Oosthuizen knows a thing or two about back injuries, too, which is why it was encouraging to see him play so well at the Match Play. 

He’s in the midst of an exhausting stretch – and his back isn’t causing him fits.

The South African is playing in this week’s Houston Open and then will make the trip to Augusta. It’ll be his eighth event in the last 10 weeks, a run that included trips to Malaysia and Perth.

“While I’m feeling great and I’m doing the stuff I need to do,” he said, “I want to play. If I’m playing well, I want to play more events. I’m forgetting about the past with injuries and I’m just trying to push forward.”

With five consecutive top-15s, expect Oosthuizen to be in the mix – again – at the Masters. 

5. A good stat here from Golf Channel’s Justin Ray: Day is just the third player since 1980 to win his last two PGA Tour starts entering the Masters: 

  • 2015: Day (? at Masters)
  • 2013: Tiger Woods (T-4)
  • 2001: Woods (Won)
  • 1999: David Duval (T-6)

6. Players may have compared it (perhaps unfavorably) to a tighter, shorter Dove Mountain, but the belief here was that Austin Country Club was a phenomenal venue for the Match Play. 

There was a delightful mix of difficult and easy holes, long and drivable par 4s, treacherous par 3s and watery par 5s. One of our only suggestions for 2017 would be to remove the grandstand behind the short 13th, which served as a backstop for players who mindlessly bashed driver and 3-wood, knowing their ball would come to rest just off the back of the green.

Once the traffic issues were sorted out after Wednesday’s debacle – two players abandoned their courtesy cars and walked onto the property – the tournament ran smoothly for the limited number of fans who were allowed through the gates.

7. This was the second year of the round-robin format at the Match Play. Whether it was the new sponsor, the new venue or a couple of tweaks, it felt like an improved event in 2016. 

For all its warts – and we’ll get to those in a minute – the event isn’t as much of a crapshoot anymore.    

It keeps all of the stars there for at least three days (even if they’re not fully engaged), which was the main issue for sponsors, TV and spectators. It allowed players to log some competitive rounds before the Masters. It’s a ton of golf for fans on-site to watch. And it seems to identify which players are performing the best – for the first time since 2006, each of the top three seeds reached the round of 16.

The last two winners, McIlroy and Day, have been pretty good, too.

“I think it’s really good,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said Sunday, “because there’s pieces of it you would say aren’t fundamental to what we’re doing in a vacuum. But having more golf for the fans is a plus. And I think the structure is solid, and in match play whoever plays the best is going to get there. Players like it. Our television partners like it. And the fans are reacting well.”

8. Some fans, that is.

Yes, there is more golf, and that's great for the spectators in Austin, but what about the fans at home? More isn't always better, and 112 (!) matches are way too many to ask the casual fan to follow. All of the standings and points and scenarios make your head spin.

The beauty of match play is its simplicity: It’s head-to-head, winner-take-all, loser goes home. But in this format, a loss or halve is usually but not always a crushing result, which dilutes the product and lowers the intensity.

9. Another issue: Tee times for round-robin play were arranged by group. On Friday, for example, both Group 11 matches were followed by Group 6, Group 14 and Group 3, and so on.

That might help determine the group winners, but the Tour could avoid its biggest issue with the players – those in meaningless matches are still sent out to compete with little at stake but pride and points – by allowing those stuck in an 0-2 vs. 0-2 match to head off first. Winless Bernd Wiesberger and Matt Jones, who had no chance to advance, teed off at 2:50 p.m. local time Friday. That's cruel.

Let them go off first, so they can spin around the course in two-and-a-half hours and leave town. Not only would it appease the players, but it would make the final few hours more intense, because every match would mean something.   

10. All of which is why players remain divided about the current setup. The round-robin format essentially boils down to this:

  • Wednesday serves only to put the losers into a bind; Dustin Johnson was the lone player who dropped his opening match and reached the weekend, and even that was after a sudden-death playoff.
  • Thursday provides slightly more clarity, but the groups require too much math for the casual fan to follow.
  • And Friday, the final day of group play, remains a hot mess, with winner-take-all matches, players with only a sliver of hope and other games that are basically meaningless, save for a few points (FedEx and OWGR) and dollars.

Match play is all about the dramatic tension of head-to-head combat, but there was little drama Friday – only four sudden-death playoffs were required, and just seven matches of significance reached the 18th green. Twenty-two players were mathematically eliminated after two rounds. That's a problem.

11. Jordan Spieth played his most promising golf in more than a month despite a Round of 16 loss to eventual finalist Louis Oosthuizen that also cost him his No. 1 ranking. His swing was off that day. He'll get it sorted out.

What was odd, however, was Spieth’s response to a question about whether it mattered that he’d lost the top ranking.

“It could be a good thing for me going into the Masters,” he said. 

He meant that it would be less pressure on him and more on the current No. 1 Day, which makes sense, but it seemed an unusual thing for Spieth to concede. Rarely, if ever, does he shy away from the attention and the pressure, probably because he’s handled it so well during his young career. He easily could have shrugged off the question and said something along the lines of, “We’ll try our best to get the No. 1 spot back next week in Houston,” but he didn’t.

He already can’t go under the radar in Augusta – he’s a two-time major winner at 22, he’s coming off one of the best seasons in recent memory and he’s the defending Masters champion – so why not embrace the spotlight? To this observer, at least, it was the latest example that Spieth isn’t totally comfortable with his game as the year’s first major approaches. 

12. Long-hitting Tony Finau broke through on the PGA Tour for the first time with a playoff victory Sunday at the Puerto Rico Open. He defeated Steve Marino on the third extra hole.

Last month, I wrote a lengthy profile on Finau, detailing his incredible journey to the PGA Tour. You can read that here

But it’ll be interesting to see whether the Puerto Rico title will serve as a springboard for Finau like it has for players in recent years: In 2013, Spieth tied for second there and went on to win an event, reach the Tour Championship and play on the Presidents Cup team; in ’14, Chesson Hadley won there and earned Rookie of the Year honors; and last year, Emiliano Grillo lost in a playoff there but notched his first Tour title only seven months later. Finau has the potential to make a monster leap this season.

13. Day wasn’t the only world No. 1 who showed top form heading into the year’s first major. 

Lydia Ko rolled to a four-shot victory at the Kia Classic. It’s her first LPGA title of the year, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, in her final tuneup before this week’s ANA Inspiration. 

The Kia was also a step in the right direction for her chief rival, Inbee Park, who has battled a back injury this season. After a pair of top-30s and a missed cut in her last three starts, Park finished second in California.

The most bizarre decision in this year's Match Play was to delay any sudden-death playoffs until after all the group matches were on the course. That meant that Branden Grace (a 5-and-4 winner) had to wait nearly three hours to hit two poor shots and lose the group to Chris Kirk.

Tee times ran each day from 10 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. Would it really inconvenience players in the remaining groups if the playoff slid in front to decide a winner? They’ve already had to wait all day to tee off, so what’s another 10 minutes? Forcing players to stand by – for hours, in this case – was peculiar and a total buzzkill.

This week's award winners ... 

• Have Bed, Will Travel: Oosthuizen. He said that he brings his own mattress with him to Tour events because the hotel beds are either too firm or too soft for his liking. Which begs the question ... why don't more guys with bad backs do that? 

What's a Guy Gotta Do?: Rafa Cabrera Bello. He finished third at the Match Play and beat Mcllroy in the consolation match, but apparently that wasn't enough to fully convince European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke that he's a legitimate contender. When asked by a Twitter user if Bello was now on the watch list, Clarke replied: "He was before this week! His stats have been fantastic all year so far. Tough to pick a rookie though. ." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Left on the Cutting-Room Floor: Rory vs. Rickie exhibition. Representatives from Detroit Golf Club, sponsor Quicken Loans and the participants were unable to reach a deal for the under-the-lights showdown. It was a cool idea, so hopefully they can hammer out an agreement in the future. 

Shhhhh: Patrick Reed's new belt buckle. Granted, it looked better when he was torching Phil Mickelson and not when he was losing in the round of 16: 

Youth Is (Under)Served: Daniel Berger and Smylie Kaufman. Berger, 22, didn't concede a 10-inch putt to Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson on the second hole of their match, while Kaufman, 24, forgot that he wasn't out of the hole after finding the hazard on 17 and conceded his match to McIlroy. Rory gladly accepted the gift; Berger's mistake could have bigger repercussions.

What’s Another Six Months?: Tim Finchem. The PGA Tour commish said Sunday that his contract has been extended for another year but that he likely will step down at the end of the year. The highly capable Jay Monahan has already assumed the day-to-day duties, so don’t expect a rocky transition period.

So True: Andy Roddick, calling out fans who wear golf shoes at tournaments. Seriously, do they think they'll be called on to hit a shot?