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Monday Scramble: TPC Sawgrass puts on a show

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Si Woo Kim makes Players history, Ian Poulter locks up his card (again!), the 12th hole flames out, the stars struggle and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble: 

For better or worse, there is no tournament as unpredictable as The Players.

Kim hadn’t done anything of note this season – in fact, after dealing with back and wrist injuries, he had more withdrawals (four) than top-25s (two).

And yet he looked like a completely different player for four days on a course that can punish even decent shots. No one goes to TPC Sawgrass to find their game, and yet Kim, statistically one of the worst ball-strikers this season, finished the week ranked second.

Golf is funny sometimes.

Just 21 years old, Kim is used to being a part of the “one of the youngest to …” discussion. It'll be fascinating to see where this burgeoning star goes from here. 

1. Kim was the youngest player to earn a Tour card, in 2012, when he was just 17. At 20, he closed with 63 and lost in a playoff at Barbasol. A few weeks later, he blew away the field in Greensboro.

Not only is he the youngest winner of The Players – by two years – but he is the fourth-youngest player in the past 25 years to win twice on Tour, behind some bold-faced names, Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia and Jordan Spieth. 

Some elite company, for sure.

2. An instant classic, it was not, but Kim’s short game Sunday was what many will take away from his Players victory.

He hit only eight (!) greens in the final round and still shot a bogey-free 69. Think about that.

He was a perfect 10-for-10 scrambling, rolled in all 15 of his attempts inside 10 feet and needed just 23 putts on the day. 

3. A victory at The Players won’t exempt Kim from fulfilling his mandatory military service in South Korea.

Kim receives a five-year exemption for winning at TPC Sawgrass, and he has until age 30 to complete the two-year obligation that has paused the career of Sang-Moon Bae (who is expected to return next season).

“Regardless of me winning this tournament, I really have to go to the military service, and I’ve already decided that I’m going to go, too,” Kim said. “So I’m ready for that.” 

4. Poulter completed an incredible story Sunday with a tie for second Sunday at The Players.

Incredible because of his position just a few weeks ago – he’d lost his card and was in danger of being sent back to the minors or Europe.

Instead, thanks to Brian Gay, he kept his card after the Tour recalibrated the points for players on major medicals. Then, at TPC Sawgrass, he ranked third or better in strokes gained-tee to green and around the green, went 39 consecutive holes without a bogey in difficult conditions, and earned a paycheck worth $924,000 – enough to keep his card for next season.

5. In contention for the biggest title of his career, Poulter said that he felt “very comfortable” as he played the nerve-wracking finishing stretch at Sawgrass, but he played cautiously given his position.

Down two and with his ball sitting in the right rough on 16, he had only 238 yards to the flag. He chose to lay up and, at least statistically, hit the worst wedge shot of the day (by 21 feet), to 40 feet. Par.

On 17, still trailing by two, he hit it 40 feet left. Par.

And on 18, still trailing by two, in need of a birdie, he shanked his approach shot off a tent and into a palmetto bush, leading to a miraculous bogey and a boatload of badly-needed FedEx and world-ranking points.

6. Steve Elkington rarely looks smart on social media, but he tweeted this Sunday: 

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee offered an even more pointed critique, saying on "Live From": "He clearly did not play to win, and he didn't!"

Were they right?

Afterward, Poulter said it was an “extremely good week” and he was “really pleased.” And he should have been – again, it locked up his card for next season.

But after all that he has been through, after the most trying 18 months of his career, it’s reasonable to wonder whether he was just trying to protect his place on the leaderboard, rather than making a run for the title.

Because we can’t help but think back to how Patrick Cantlay handled the disappointment of losing the Valspar Championship in March.

Cantlay, like Poulter, was competing on a major medical, was coming off a rough patch (injuring his back and losing his best friend/caddie), was trying to earn as much money and as many points as he could, was trying to lock up his card.

But in the aftermath of a second-place finish, he didn’t view it like that at all. He was trying to win, period.

Even as a 25-year-old just starting his career, and with so much at stake, he dismissed any sense that there was solace in finishing second and securing his card. In fact, he was peeved.

“It didn’t really feel like a burden to begin with,” he said. “I’m not too worried about that. It didn’t really feel like much consolation at the moment. I didn’t finish the deal.”

In other words, it was a stark contrast to how Poulter sounded in his post-round presser. 

What Cantlay said was what we want to hear from the great players: We want them to compete for titles, not for points or money or status.

7. As much as the Tour tried to promote a “new-look” TPC Sawgrass, the only notable changes were the drastic makeover of the par-4 12th hole and the redone greens.

It’s clear the greens are still a year or two away from being as receptive as Tour players see on a weekly basis, but the early returns on the 12th are already in:

Good idea. Poor execution. 

The Tour wanted to see a 50-50 split, but only 29 percent of players (131 of 439) went for the green throughout the week – and even that number was boosted by a third-round setup with an easy hole location. Even then, just 62 percent of players went for the green.

Only 19 percent of players were successful in holding the green and putting for eagle. It ranked as the fourth-easiest hole of the week, playing to a 3.83 average.

No doubt, it was a more interesting hole than in previous years. But there is work to be done: 1.) The layup area needs to be more challenging, forcing players to go for it; 2.) The left side of the green is basically unusable because the slope is so severe that any shot spinning in that direction would roll into the water, and 3.) The area between the right bunker and the front edge of the green is too penal and can put good tee shots in bad spots.

Until those issues are resolved – and you can bet Camp Ponte Vedra received plenty of player feedback – the hole will continue to be underwhelming.

Get those bulldozers ready.

8. Rory McIlroy, who has already missed six weeks this year because of a rib injury, is set for another MRI today after feeling discomfort in his upper back.

It might be just a minor inconvenience, a slight tear in a muscle – after all, he was able to complete 72 holes, finishing in a tie for 35th. But it continues what has been a bizarre year for McIlroy.

After Dustin Johnson’s emergence, this was supposed to be the year that McIlroy reasserted himself as golf’s alpha male. Instead, he was an afterthought in the Masters, he changed his clubs and his ball, and he is now, once again, dealing with an injury.

McIlroy is entering one of his busiest stretches of the season. More time on the sidelines would be a massive bummer. 

9. DJ had a career-best finish at The Players – and it still was a disappointing result.

For the first time in nine appearances, Johnson finally got a top-15 finish, thanks to a closing 68 that matched his lowest round there.

It was just the third time in his past 14 starts that Johnson finished outside the top 10.  

10. Even with the deepest field in golf, it seems the star of the show is always Pete Dye’s diabolical Stadium Course, which tricks and confuses and confounds the year’s best once a year.

Early in the week, players will discuss how they’ve (1) come to appreciate the genius behind the design, or how they (2) enjoy how you have to “think” your way around the course.

But by the weekend, by the time the double bogeys rack up and the balls bounce over the green and into impossible spots, the warm, fuzzy feelings disappear.

Here’s Pat Perez on Saturday afternoon, speaking for the rest of the field ... if the rest of the field was speaking honestly:

“I think like everybody else: It’s tough to get through. The course is hard. It doesn’t fit my eye on almost any shot, like everybody else. That’s how it was designed. So you know who loves it? Maybe the winner of Sunday. That’s about it. It was designed to penalize you and cause trouble, and that’s what it does and it makes it uneasy for you. There’s not a shot out there that I’m comfortable hitting.”

11. Another example of why The Players doesn't play favorites and is the most wide-open big tournament:

Of the top 25 players in the world, only four (Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott, Alex Noren and Rafa Cabrera Bello) finished inside the top 10.

If it felt like this ’board was lacking the necessary star power, it's because it was.

The USGA already puts a cap on which amateurs can try and qualify for the U.S. Open, stating that those who don’t play for pay must have a handicap index of 1.4 or lower.

But maybe the blue blazers should pay closer attention to the “professionals.”

Last week, Clifton McDonald shot a 127 in a local qualifier in Alabama, a lowlight that was only brought to our attention thanks to Lee McCoy. 

We attempted to find out more about McDonald – who he is, why he attempted to qualify, why he’s so unfathomably awful – but he declined an interview request, via the USGA.

Since McDonald, a professional from Meridan, Miss., did not shoot a score within eight of the USGA Course Rating, his future entries may be declined if he does not provide proper documentation showing that he won’t embarrass himself once again. The USGA only offered this: “The USGA’s goal is to provide a fair competition and not exclude a player from making the attempt.”

Well, sorry, but there’s nothing fair about playing with or behind a guy who needs 127 shots to play an 18-hole qualifier. 

This week's award winners ... 

Zinger of the Week: Phil Mickelson. When asked whether the USGA needs to get the upcoming U.S. Open right, from a credibility standpoint: “I don’t know if doing one thing right is going to fix that.” 

Pour Some Out For …: J.B. Holmes. The 54-hole co-leader shot a final-round 84, dropping all the way to a tie for 41st. An all-time ejection. 

Sunday (Blood) Red: Big final-round numbers. Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose – they all shot 78 or worse on the last day. 

More Troubles: Danny Willett. The 2016 Masters champion hasn’t done anything of note since that fateful Sunday a year ago, and things have only gotten worse lately. In the past month alone, his caddie fired him and now an achy back has sent him (perhaps fortuitously) to the sidelines. 

Re-Upped: FedEx Cup. Good news, as the Tour’s playoff system will continue through at least 2027, though it could look drastically different in a few years, with a new spot on the schedule and one fewer postseason event. 

How Not to Celebrate an Albatross: Rafa Cabrera Bello. After recording the first 2 on the par-5 16th, the Spaniard flung his iron into the air … and into the pond. Doh!

Life Comes at You Fast: Jon Rahm. Through two days, he looked like the man to beat at TPC Sawgrass. Then, on Saturday, he shot the worst round of his young career, a third-round 82 that led him to miss the secondary cut. Speaking of which …

Seriously?: 54-hole Players cut. The Tour usually resorts to a “secondary” cut when more than 78 players make the weekend. But at the Tour’s flagship event, at the event FOR the players, with so much money and so many points at stake, it just seemed wrong to send 11 players home early. It’s the third time in the last 10 years that this has been used, but it still doesn’t make it right. 

Crisis Management 101: Billy Horschel. After getting shredded on social media for whipping his 5-wood into his bag in a kind of are-you-kidding-me? celebration following a chip-in, Horschel took to Twitter to explain his actions. No matter what you think about the club toss, this was a smart move – and a good use of social media. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jordan Spieth. Striking the ball as well as 2015, and at a course that he actually enjoys because of the strategy involved, Spieth railed against a poor rake job in Round 1, shot a second-round 75 and missed the cut for the third year in a row. Sigh.