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Monday Scramble: Cranky lead-in to Players

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Rory McIlroy reminds everyone who is No. 1, the WGC-Cadillac Match Play remains a work in progress, the best players in the world align for what should be an epic Players, and much more in this week's jet-lagged edition of Monday Scramble: 

The No. 1 overall seed endured the most grueling week of the year, survived the fluky match-play format and outlasted Gary Woodland in what was an intriguing on-paper finale between two of the longest hitters on the planet. All of that was working in its favor, so the WGC-Match Play must have been a rousing success, right? 

Far from it.

Sure, McIlroy was smiling at the end, but there were plenty of dark moods last week in San Francisco. There was confusion. Anger. Discontent. Apathy.

The Tour brass knew issues would arise during Year 1 of the round-robin format, and emerge they did, from the hard-luck losers to the lack of halved matches to the lame-duck matchups. This new system was supposed to coddle the top dogs, but only five of the top 16 seeds won their group. 

Commissioner Tim Finchem says a few tweaks are necessary and he wants input from the 64 players in the field. Hopefully he has a few notepads handy.

1. McIlroy found himself in more than a few uncomfortable positions at Harding Park. He may have pulled away early from Woodland in the sleepy final, but he needed a few memorable late-game heroics just to advance to the championship match: 

  • All square against Brandt Snedeker with four holes to play, Rory birdied Nos. 15 and 18 to win, 2 up.
  • Two down with three to play in an elimination match against Billy Horschel, Rory ripped off three birdies in a row to force overtime, then won with a par on the 20th hole.
  • One down with two to play against Paul Casey, Rory needed only a pair of pars to go into extra innings, then won with a birdie on the fourth extra hole.
  • One down with three to play against Jim Furyk, Rory went birdie-birdie-eagle to stun the sixth-ranked player in the world, 1 up.

Entering the finals, McIlroy had trailed in three of his last four matches when he stood on the 16th tee. All he did was play the rest of those matches in a combined 9 under. 

"You have to dig a little bit deeper," he said. "You have to try and find things from places you didn’t know if they’re there or not."

He was Tiger-like in that respect, finding a way to win without his best stuff. Another Tiger comparison: McIlroy and Woods are the only players to win the Match Play as the top seed.

2. Maybe Rory just needed a deadline? 

Last year’s Open was the last chance for Gerry McIlroy to collect on a bet he’d made a decade ago, that his boy would hoist the claret jug before he turned 26.

Last week’s Match Play Championship was the final chance for McIlroy to join Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players in the last 75 years with 10 or more PGA Tour wins by the age of 25. Rory’s 26th birthday is Monday. Done.  

A momentous achievement, no doubt, but a dose of perspective is needed here: Tiger had 29 PGA Tour wins and Jack 17 by the time they turned 26. 

3. However you slice it, McIlroy played a ton of golf last week: 139 holes in all, including the Tuesday pro-am. Concerned that it’ll affect him at The Players? Rory says not to worry. He reached the Match Play final in 2012 at Dove Mountain, then flew back to South Florida and won the Honda the following week.

“I don’t feel like there will be any sort of fatigue or tiredness after this week,” he said. 

Keep in mind the Match Play was the first of five consecutive tournaments for McIlroy – he also has The Players, Quail Hollow, BMW PGA and Irish Open coming up. 

4. Today in mind-boggling numbers ... With the $1.57 million first-place check, McIlroy earned $12,975 per hole last week. A nice haul, certainly, but it’s nothing compared to what Floyd Mayweather earned at his megafight in Vegas – a whopping $83,333 per second. 

6. Much like the FedEx Cup has evolved since it debuted in 2007, the WGC-Cadillac Match Play is in need of another nip-and-tuck before it moves to Austin next spring. 

Commissioner Finchem acknowledged last week that the Tour will listen to its players and partners, though a complete blowup of the system seems unlikely after the first year of the oft-discussed round-robin format.

Here are two solutions, one more drastic than the other:

A.) Ditch the record-based format for points

Twenty-two players were eliminated by sundown Thursday, and eight Friday matches were rendered meaningless. That’s not just a competitive problem; it waters down the overall product, too. Struggling players didn’t like having to stick around for another day just to potentially embarrass themselves with another L, especially when there was so little to play for, other than a couple of points or some pocket change. Ian Poulter, quite accurately, described his Friday match against winless Jimmy Walker as “go home or go home.”

The issue was twofold: (1) Allowing matches to go into extras instead of being halved left some players with nothing to play for on the final day, despite a 1-1 mark, and (2) using the head-to-head matchups instead of a playoff to settle two-player ties deprived the event of some much-needed drama.

Switching to a points system – say, 3 points for a win, 1 point for a tie, 0 for a loss, which would place a greater emphasis on winning – would reward players who take their match the distance and also bring more guys back into the mix.

The best example was what happened in Group 3. John Senden and Henrik Stenson were all square after 18, but the Australian won on the first extra hole. If the points system had been in place, both players would have been tied with 4 points apiece heading into the final day of pool play. Instead, Senden had already wrapped up a spot as he headed out for his Friday hit-and-giggle, and Stenson and Bill Haas played for virtually nothing.

It’d be a surprise if this wasn’t changed for 2016.

B.) Use a stroke-play qualifier, then trim for the round of 16 

One of the biggest arguments for the change to the round-robin format was the fact that the Tour’s big-pocketed sponsors wanted to have the world’s best players around for three days. Can't blame them – golf is a star-driven sport. Though these A-listers appreciate the beauty of 18-hole match play, they’re also not particularly fond of playing one day and heading home if they either struggle or run into a buzzsaw.

Finchem initially shot down this idea during an NBC interview on Sunday, but the best compromise would be to implement a 54-hole stroke play qualifier, then cut to the low 16. The round of 16/quarterfinals would be played Saturday, with the semifinals/finals on Sunday. If the formula is good enough for several USGA events (including the U.S. Amateur, which uses a 36-hole qualifier for 64 spots) and the NCAA Championship (72-hole qualifier for eight spots), there’s no reason it can’t work for the PGA Tour, as well. 

Here's why it works:

  • Everybody is there for 54 holes, so the sponsors (and one-and-done-weary players) are happy.
  • There’s less confusion for fans, because instead of 96 matches spread out over three days they can follow the familiar under-par score.
  • And, most importantly, it reduces the role of luck with the draw and rewards the guys who are playing the best. Jordan Spieth, for example, was 16 under in his three matches and did not advance.

7. If you thought McIlroy got a raw deal having to forfeit what was likely a $150,000 ringside seat to the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, consider what happened to Paul Casey.  

After his quarterfinal match with McIlroy was suspended Saturday night because of darkness, the Englishman spent the rest of the evening hugging porcelain as he dealt with food poisoning. When he arrived for his 6:45 a.m. tee time Sunday, he said it was the “worst I’ve felt in a long time.” Already giving up 10 yards to McIlroy off the tee, Casey felt weak and lagged behind some 30 yards. Even still, he summoned two of his better shots of the week into the par-5 first hole (the 22nd of the match), but couldn’t walk off with birdie. 

“Maybe I should have finished it yesterday,” he grinned. 

8. Jim Furyk went 99 starts between wins at the 2010 Tour Championship and last month’s Heritage, a stretch that included seven runners-up and 31 top-10s.

What are the chances, then, that he nearly went back-to-back for the first time in his career in a fluky format that has tormented him in the past?

Hey, chalk it up to being a Presidents Cup year, because for all of Furyk’s myriad struggles in the Ryder Cup (his 20 losses are the most by any U.S. player) and the Match Play Championship (this was his first semifinal appearance in 15 tries), he’s somehow been able to turn it on in the Presidents Cup. He’s 20-10-3 in the biennial event and seems a lock for this year’s team. 

9. The best players in the world have been getting it done recently on the PGA Tour. Check out the current world ranking for the last nine winners: 8, 2, 41, 11, 12, 2, 5, 6, 1. Pretty stout.

10. Rarely has this scribe covered a crankier tournament. Everybody was on edge. Keegan Bradley punted his bag. Patrick Reed used his putter as a fungo bat. Others left the course in a huff, making a beeline to their courtesy cars without stopping to talk to media. Ian Poulter, after dropping to 0-2 for the week, had a lively exchange in the fairway with reporter Alex Miceli, which ended like this:

The bottom line: Nothing bruises the ego quite like match play. 

11. Down goes another sports power couple. Tiger Woods and Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn issued similar statements Sunday saying that they had broken up after nearly three years of dating. No idea what this means for his on-course future, but Woods seemed genuinely happy and in a good place over the past few years. Bummer. 

Go figure: The most entertaining match of the week was between two guys playing only for a few world-ranking points. The Keegan Bradley-Miguel Angel Jimenez meltdown was the defining moment of a frustrating week for many at Harding Park.

No one emerged from this embarrassing incident unscathed: 

  • Bradley’s caddie, Steven “Pepsi” Hale, stood up for his boss but also escalated the situation by possibly mocking Jimenez’s accent, depending on which Vine clip you watch.
  • Bradley had simmered all week – confronting Bubba Watson, slamming his car door, kicking his bag – and finally boiled over with this nose-to-nose encounter. Alas, he just gave future European Ryder Cuppers all the ammo they could ever need. Want to get under his skin? Just dispute one of his rulings.
  • Jimenez had every right to question the drop on 18, but his accusatory tone (and unwillingness to back down) apparently sparked the animated discussion. 
  • And where the heck was the rules official? A little assertiveness could have gone a long way in this situation, yet all Russell Swanson did was stand back and watch the fireworks. ... OK, we would, too. This was mesmerizing. 

This week's award winners ...

History Major: Woods, a winner at Sawgrass? Last year, remember, McIlroy announced that he had split with Caroline Wozniacki only days before his tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA. He went on to win. Tiger now does the same, only days before his tour’s flagship event, The Players. Hmmm. 

Singles Slump: Bradley. Weren't all of those practice rounds with MJ supposed to make him more cutthroat? Apparently not, because he's lost his past eight singles matches. 

Going the Extra Mile: Jason Hamilton, the caddie for women’s No. 1 Lydia Ko. Hamilton scaled a tree in a desperate attempt to identify Ko’s golf ball. She still made triple on the hole, barely made the cut, and finished outside the top 40 for the second time in three starts. Of course, sandwiched in between those starts was a win … 

When a Consolation Match Actually Matters: Danny Willett. The Englishman needed to win the third-place match against Furyk to earn special temporary membership, which would allow him to receive unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of the season. A 3-and-2 victory did the trick.

Addressed this in the Scorecard (item No. 6), and many times previously, but the 54-hole qualifier/match-play combo is by far the best way to go. It puts the players who are playing the best in the bracket, then allows players and fans to experience the thrill of the one-and-done format.

Finchem prefers to keep the format strictly match play, because it’s the only regular-season event that uses the head-to-head format. If he wants the best possible show on the weekend – and that's the main goal for all of the partners – then this is the route he should strongly consider.  

Some of the hack-out rough was excessive. And the players certainly didn’t love the slower greens. The special routing for the event had a strong finish – the drivable 16th, the difficult 17th and the reachable 18th – but overall, Harding Park is a nondescript track that is probably the worst of the four premier courses in the area (Olympic, Lake Merced, San Francisco GC). The Match Play may be moving to Austin, but we’ll see a lot more of the public course when it hosts the 2020 PGA and ’25 Presidents Cup. It’s better than Dove Mountain, but that’s not saying much.  

Good question. Keegan seems like a poor man's Mayweather – he's so fidgety, Jimenez would be hard-pressed to land a punch. Throw in the fact that the 51-year-old Spaniard would start wheezing in the later rounds, the result of years of cigar smoking, and it should be an unanimous decision.