Monday Scramble: (Don't) Slow your roll

By Ryan LavnerMay 1, 2017, 3:55 pm

The PGA Tour tries team play, officials finally hand out a slow-play penalty, Lexi Thompson returns, Ian Poulter retains his card and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

The new team format at the Zurich Classic was a hit.

The success of a Tour event largely depends on player support, and the New Orleans stop now has plenty of it, with several guys remarking how much fun the event was and how they wished the circuit had one or two more events like it.

For years, the Zurich has been an afterthought, a C-level event on a mediocre course during a dead time on the golf calendar. The switch to a two-man team competition gave the event new life, and it also gave those in Ponte Vedra Beach reason to believe that there’s room on the schedule for team golf other than the Ryder and Presidents cups.

Now, it’s up to commissioner Jay Monahan and Co. to keep the momentum rolling, to find new and interesting ways to liven up the Tour. 

1. On Monday morning, Cameron Smith sealed a victory that seemed destined to be his the previous night.

From an awkward lie on the 72nd hole, the Australian had wedged to kick-in range to set up an easy birdie and post 27 under par. That’s when Kevin Kisner, using only the light from a nearby video board, banked his 30-yard pitch shot off the flagstick and into the cup for an unlikely eagle-3 to force a playoff.

After three uninspiring playoff holes, Smith hit a perfect drive on 18, ripped a 3-wood up the gut and then stuffed his 57-yard wedge shot to 3 feet.

For the 23-year-old Smith, it’s his breakthrough Tour title and earns him a two-year exemption, as well as a spot in The Players, the PGA and the 2018-opening Tournament of Champions. It is his partner Jonas Blixt's third Tour victory, but his first since 2013.

“He’s gonna be a superstar one day,” Blixt said of his partner, “and you can see it now. Seeing how he played golf this week, the sky is the limit for him. I haven’t seen anything that good in an extremely long time.” 

2. Kisner and partner Scott Brown said they didn’t run out of gas, but they definitely ran out of magic.

After recording 16 birdies in a 19-hole span, the team from Aiken, S.C., made par on 10 of their last 11 holes. They were caught by Blixt-Smith in regulation, then that birdie drought kept the door ajar during the four-hole playoff. 

3. Even a new format couldn’t put the Zurich on Mother Nature’s good side.

The six-hour weather delay Sunday added to a growing list of delays at this event. In fact, 43 percent of the rounds (12) since 2010 have either been suspended or canceled.

There is no easy solution to the event’s weather woes. Move the Zurich any earlier in the year, and it’ll be a tough sell for players who are focused on preparing for the Masters. Any later, and players will be subjected to suffocating heat and humidity, and the event would lose its team-play appeal with the Ryder or Presidents cups drawing closer.  

Ideally, the event would be played two weeks after the Masters (or a week earlier than this year), while officials can hope for the best with the weather. 

4. After 22 years, Glen Day is officially off the clock.

The PGA Tour finally decided to call a slow-play penalty, and curiously it waited until the first round of foursomes play – a format unfamiliar to more than half the field – in the first team event on Tour since 1981.  

My thoughts on the penalty can be found here. The CliffsNotes version: By going after a couple of little-known players - Brian Campbell and Miguel Angel Carballo - and by ignoring the extenuating circumstances, the Tour proved that it really has no idea how to stop slow play.

5. Not to be outdone, the European Tour handed out a slow-play penalty to Soomin Lee at last week’s Volvo China Open.

Lee received three bad times before he was finally docked a stroke.

Check out the video: 

6. With extra eyeballs on the tour because of the weather issues in New Orleans, the LPGA once again failed to deliver.

Just a few weeks after the rules debacle at the ANA, the Volunteers of America Texas Shootout was marred by a never-ending playoff and unfathomably slow play from veteran Cristie Kerr.

It didn’t help that the players were forced to play the poorly designed finishing hole six times.

Look, there’s a reason the playoff rotation usually calls for the 18th hole over and over again – that's where the fans are. But the LPGA and every other tour needs to show flexibility when it becomes clear that hole won’t produce a final result in timely fashion.

Both players have to compete on the same hole. What’s the big deal in moving it around? 

7. Thompson and her "team" missed a massive opportunity last week in Texas, the LPGA star’s first event since she was slapped with a four-shot penalty that derailed her at the year’s first major.

Instead of admitting that she had committed an infraction, instead of vowing to mark the ball more carefully in the future, Thompson sounded defiant and refused to acknowledge the obvious – that she had played from an incorrect spot. That her team appears committed to prolonging the controversy, saying that the LPGA needs to provide a “true and transparent” accounting, is even more of a head-scratcher.

Making an already emotional 22-year-old continue to relive the worst day of her golf career is a mistake. Even if the LPGA does divulge information about the viewer who emailed the infraction – and there is no incentive for the tour to do so – it won’t change the fact that Thompson lost.

She needs to move on. Speaking of Lexi ... 

8. The USGA and R&A took another step toward limiting video evidence by introducing a new decision to the Rules of Golf that allows a committee to overturn a penalty if it is determined that the infraction could not have been seen by the naked eye or that the player used reasonable judgment. The full news story can be found here.

The new rule, effective immediately, will help a player in Anna Nordqvist’s situation but not necessarily in Thompson’s. Nordqvist’s penalty last year at the U.S. Women’s Open, when she grazed a few grains of sand on her backswing, could only be detected on slow-motion replay. She wouldn’t be penalized now.

But the same is not necessarily true for Thompson, or at least it’s not as clear-cut. The committee will now be able to discuss the incident with everyone involved – the player, the caddies, the officials in the group, etc. – and also factor in the egregiousness of the error. On a 16-inch putt, it could be argued that Thompson’s re-marking was not reasonably judged. 

9. Of course, a larger issue remains: The post-round scorecard penalty.

When news broke of the new decision, players were asked their thoughts on the change. Most thought it was a step in the right direction, but more needed to be done.

That there even needs to be a scorecard in 2017, with a mountain of ShotLink data providing scores and yardages and other information, is debatable. But penalizing a player for signing a card that is only determined to be incorrect later is outdated and just plain unfair.

The USGA and R&A are taking a “deeper evaluation” of scorecard penalties and viewer call-ins, though the latter issue has no simple solution.   

10. Nothing gets the blood pumping quite like a FedEx Cup points structure story, but here’s the takeaway from the Ian Poulter saga: He has Brian Gay to thank.

It was Gay (who had locked up his card but hadn’t done enough, points-wise, to qualify for The Players) who brought the inequalities in this year’s points breakdown to the attention of the Tour higher-ups. They unanimously agreed that the players competing on major medicals – who were trying to retain exempt status based on a previous year’s standings – were at a disadvantage because of the change this season that devalued finishes between 15th and 68th.

Poulter had no idea, but he's the main beneficiary of Gay's investigation.

Now, the Englishman can turn his attention to trying to keep his card after this season. He’s 129th in FedEx Cup points, but he has the rest of the season, with no restrictions, to crack the top 125.  

Crane is now known for not only his slow play, but his slow pay.

He was reminded again last week that fast money makes fast friends because he was called out on Twitter by Tom Gillis, whose “friend” alleged that Crane owed him $6,000 for losing a putting contest earlier this year in Phoenix.

Turns out – thanks to Charley Hoffman – that that “friend” was PGA Tour winner Daniel Berger.

The issue was “handled,” according to all sides involved, but Crane is now a slowpoke in more ways than one. 

This week's award winners ... 

He's Back: Dustin Johnson. The world No. 1 returns to action for the first time since withdrawing from the Masters because of a back injury. He’ll be looking for his fourth consecutive title – no player has won that many in a row since Tiger in 2007-08 (six). 

Quite the Comeback: Alexander Levy. The Frenchman rallied from seven shots back to steal the China Open. It’s the largest final-round comeback this season on the European Tour. 

Not Bad For a Retired Golfer: Charlie Wi. The 45-year-old journeyman teamed with K.J. Choi and was only two shots off the halfway lead. Wi had retired as a full-time player last summer, choosing to teach juniors in LA over the grind of a 25-event schedule. They tied for 24th.  

First Time for Everything: Drinking Sprite, not some alcoholic beverage, out of the Ryder Cup trophy. 

Learning Experience: Eun Jeong Seong. The 17-year-old, who won the U.S. Girls’ Junior and U.S. Amateur in the same year, shot three consecutive rounds of 69 in Texas before getting blown off the course during a Sunday 86. She’s ready for the pro ranks, even if the final round in wind-whipped conditions suggested otherwise. 

Best Laid Schemes: Pac-12 Men’s Championship. The 72-hole conference championship in Boulder, Colo., was reduced to a shotgun start and 54 holes because of – you guessed it – snow. An ideal way to prepare for NCAAs, it was not. We hear the weather in Southern California and Arizona is lovely this time of year.

Best Wishes: John Senden. He has taken a leave from the PGA Tour after his son, Jacob, was diagnosed with the brain cancer. All the best to the Senden family. 

Something About New Orleans: Brian Stuard. The defending champion at the Zurich, he teamed with Chris Stroud to tie for 11th. It was his first top-15 finish in the 31 events since his rain-shortened victory at TPC Louisiana a year ago. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Rose. Making his first start since a playoff loss at the Masters, the Englishman was returning to a place where he won in 2015 and had three other top-15 finishes since 2012. He was also playing alongside world No. 6 Henrik Stenson, with whom he has successfully partnered at the Ryder Cup. No matter. They both rinsed their second shots during Friday fourballs and missed the cut by one. 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.