Monday Scramble: Shiny finish to golf season

By Ryan LavnerNovember 21, 2016, 5:00 pm

Jordan Spieth regains the winning touch, Henrik Stenson and Ariya Jutanugarn deposit big checks, Mackenzie Hughes outlasts the field at Sea Island and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

This was clearly a transitional year for Spieth. There were new expectations, as a two-time major winner. And there were new experiences, as a 23-year-old global superstar.

His year had its share of highlights and lowlights as he adjusted to his new status in the game, but Spieth captured his third title of the year Sunday at the Australian Open. 

That's three victories in what was perceived as a down year. The only players with more worldwide titles this year: Hideki Matsuyama and Alex Noren, with four. 

Even more promising, Spieth closed out his victory in typical fashion – with a gritty par on the 72nd hole, followed by a 10-foot birdie in the playoff

Now that Spieth is refreshed and refocused, look out, 2017. 

1. If you don’t think a silly-season event can be a harbinger of future success, recall what happened to Spieth in 2014.

After his breakout rookie campaign, when he qualified for the Tour Championship and made the Presidents Cup team despite beginning the year with no status on a major tour, Spieth struggled through a lackluster summer and fall before heading Down Under for the Australian Open. He put on a clinic at Royal Melbourne, dusting the field by six, and then had the best ball-striking week of his career a week later at Tiger Woods’ event, romping to a 10-shot victory against an elite field. What followed was one of the best seasons in recent memory.

Expecting that type of historic run is unrealistic – and the mountain isn't as tall to climb – but Spieth viewed his playoff victory Sunday as the start of something special. Again. 

“The way we played the playoff, I think it's going to do wonders for me,” he said. “I’ve been in a little bit of a stall hitting shots when they mattered. To hit those two shots in there, right where I want to hit them and then make the putt, it's really big going forward.” 

2. They lost to Spieth in the Australian Open, but Sunday wasn’t all disappointing for Cameron Smith and Ashley Hall. They both earned a spot in next year’s Open Championship with their high finishes. (Aaron Baddeley also punched his ticket.)

Smith is a promising talent, but expectations for Hall were decidedly lower. The 33-year-old journeyman earned the first title of his career earlier this year, but he’s been mired in a miserable slump, missing four consecutive cuts and sinking to No. 902 in the world. 

"I was pretty close to getting a job in a couple weeks, no idea what,” he said. “I’ve got a couple young kids, so I have to keep the money flowing in." 

Then came his home open.

“I’m going to keep playing golf now.” 

Henrik Stenson

3. Stenson had a fitting end to the best year of his career, with a final-round 65 and the crown as Europe’s No. 1. 

The Open champion, who added another title and a silver medal at the Olympics, captured the season-long Race to Dubai for the second time in his career (2013). There wasn’t much drama in the season finale, with Stenson finishing eighth while his nearest contenders Danny Willett (50th) and Noren (23rd) both failed to make a charge. 

Where does Stenson go from here? There have been plenty of examples of players achieving major success and promptly fading from the limelight. Motivation is the only question mark at this point for the 40-year-old, but a ball-striker that pure will always have a chance.

4. On Jan. 3, this scribe pegged Matt Fitzpatrick as the breakout star of 2016.

OK, so it didn’t quite pan out. He won the Nordea Masters but had only four other top-10s in 29 starts. He was a massive disappointment at the Ryder Cup, going 0-2 in a lopsided European loss. Prior to last week’s season finale in Dubai, he’d actually dropped in the world rankings this year, from 43rd to 51st

And then he won the DP World Tour Championship.

Perhaps I remain more bullish than others – his short game, like a fellow Under Armour endorser, is absolutely filthy – but the belief here is that he will one day grow into a top-10 player in the world.

5. Jutanugarn birdied three of the last eight holes to steal the $1 million prize for the Race to the CME Globe.

The LPGA has been waiting for a game-changing talent, for Lexi Thompson with a putting stroke – a player who bombs it off the tee, launches sky-high iron shots and putts well. That player, undoubtedly, is Jutanugarn, one of the most electrifying players to hit the tour in the past several years. 

Jutanugarn’s ascension is bad news for Ko, who can’t possibly match her physical gifts. This is merely the beginning of her tour takeover. 

6. After a Friday 62 at the CME Group Championship, Ko was in position to sweep all of the end-of-season awards.

Two days later, she walked away empty-handed.

Ko got whipped by Jutanugarn by 11 shots over the weekend, forfeiting her lead in the tournament and points standings, and losing the Vare Trophy to rookie In Gee Chun by 0.013 strokes.

“It’s been a really fun season, but Ariya played better,” the always gracious Ko said afterward. “When you play good and somebody plays better, you can’t do much about it.” 

7. It’s a testament to Ko’s grit and short game that she won four times this season despite losing distance and accuracy. What saved her, of course, was leading the tour in two putting categories.

Yes, Ko is on track to become one of the all-time greats, but there is some cause for concern: Her diminished game, the emergence of a dominant star, constant caddie changes and a reported move to PXG equipment don’t bode well for her long-term prospects. 

8. Chun made a 9-foot putt on the 72nd hole to edge Ko and become the first rookie since Nancy Lopez in 1978 to lead the tour in scoring average.

But she and Ko were far from the only players to take it low this year. It’s the first time in tour history that five players had a sub-70 scoring average:

  • In Gee Chun: 69.583
  • Lydia Ko: 69.596
  • Ariya Jutanugarn: 69.870
  • Shanshan Feng: 69.877
  • Ha Na Jang: 69.976

9. Charley Hull won the LPGA season finale. That meant the big winners were all 22 or younger: Hull (20), Jutanugarn (20) and Chun (22).

There’s going to be plenty of soul-searching this offseason for the tour’s old stalwarts. 

10. Of the potential breakout candidates for next year, Brooks Koepka should be near the top of everybody’s list.

The 26-year-old ended a year of close calls with an impressive performance at the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, where he went 63-65 on the weekend.

An awesome physical talent, Koepka has teased us for a while. He wasn’t quite as sharp in 2016 – and a late-season ankle injury didn’t help – but he has been exceptional of late, going 3-1 at the Ryder Cup, finishing second in Las Vegas and now capturing the seventh title of his career. 

If, like his pal Dustin Johnson, he can shore up his short game and wedges this offseason – Koepka ranked 113rd in strokes gained-around the green and 97th in approach shots from 50-125 yards – then he’s a lock to have a huge year.  

11. It took an extra day, but Hughes earned a life-changing victory at Sea Island.

His ball-striking left much to be desired – he ranked 61st in strokes gained-approaches – but a tidy short game never goes out of style. He got up-and-down 18 of 21 times, none bigger than his 15-foot par save from the edge of the green in the playoff. 

As is often the case in that situation, Hughes poured in his putt first, applying pressure on Blayne Barber, Henrik Norlander and Camilo Villegas.

They all missed. 

12. Hughes’ playoff victory was a reminder of how much a Tour veteran can factor in the development of a young player.

The 25-year-old was playing in his fifth career Tour event when he was paired with Phil Mickelson on the weekend in Napa. Hughes wasn’t used to those crowds, playing at Kent State and on the Canadian and tours, but he acclimated himself well, shooting 69-68 and learning from Lefty.

After winning the RSM, he said that playing with Mickelson prepared him for what he dealt with in the final round (when he held a one-shot lead) and in the playoff, where he battled four other players and 43-degree temperatures. 

“You couldn’t buy that experience,” he said. 

12. It’s been a while since Billy Horschel gave himself a legitimate chance to win, and he’ll be kicking himself for how he frittered away his opportunity at Sea Island.

Part of the five-way playoff, Horschel rushed his 2-foot par putt on the first playoff and missed on the high side.

“I didn’t take my time over that short putt,” he tweeted later. “Simple as that.”

The worst part for Horschel? He had the best chance to win, after knocking his approach to 15 feet and narrowly missing his birdie try. 

Don’t expect Chris Wood and Lee Westwood to team up at the Ryder Cup anytime soon.

When Danny Willett withdrew from this week’s World Cup because of a back injury, the status of his partner, Westwood, also was in limbo.

As the next eligible player, Wood had the option to choose his partner. He picked Andy Sullivan, one of his longtime friends and frequent practice-round partners.

Left out was Westwood – after he’d booked his travel, planned his schedule and prepared for the event.

“I haven’t spoken to Woody yet,” Westwood fumed in Dubai last week, “but frustrated would be one word you could use to describe how I feel about it.” 

Hey, don’t blame Wood – he’s able to partner with whomever he wants.

Instead, why isn’t Westwood ticked at Willett? He should have known there was at least some doubt about his availability to play.  

This week's award winners ... 

The Best Thing You'll Watch This Week: Rory gets grilled by Billy. Would love to see this cheeky little kid interview/poke fun at more of the game's biggest stars. 

Doesn’t Understand How the Internet Works: Pat Perez. He told that coverage of Tiger Woods’ return has been overkill and gotten “old.” Website metrics, however, suggest that the appetite for any Woods news has never been greater.

Equipment Junkies Unite!: Tiger and TaylorMade. Woods was spotted on the range using TaylorMade’s M-series fairway woods, if you're interested in that kind of thing.

The Player-Caddie Combo That Works Together, Gets Surgery Together: Phil and Bones. The same day Lefty underwent sports-hernia surgery, his trusty looper had BOTH knees replaced. They’re both expected to be ready for Mickelson’s 2017 debut on Jan. 19. 

Worst Decision of the Week: RSM’s final-round tee times. Hmm, threesomes with limited daylight and an 11:50 a.m. final group? Tournament officials were asking for trouble.

Awesome Amateur: Curtis Luck. It’s been a rather remarkable summer for the Australian, who won the U.S. Amateur and Asia-Pacific Am, rose to No. 2 in the world and tied for 11th at last week’s Australian Open. Big-time talent.

Back For Another Year: Diana Murphy. She was elected to a second term as USGA president, which guarantees a few more deliciously awkward trophy presentations.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Chris Kirk. The part-time Sea Islander had a win and two other top-20s at this event, he was rolling with three top-10s this season, he shot consecutive rounds of 69 to open … and it wasn’t good enough to make the cut in what was an early-week track meet. Sigh. 

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Woods' final round is highest-rated FEC telecast ever

By Golf Channel DigitalSeptember 24, 2018, 9:05 pm

We've heard it a million times: Tiger Woods doesn't just move the needle, he IS the needle.

Here's more proof.

NBC Sports Group's final-round coverage of Woods claiming his 80th career victory in the Tour Championship earned a 5.21 overnight rating, making it the highest-rated telecast in the history of the FedExCup Playoffs and the highest-rated PGA Tour telecast in 2018 (excluding majors).

The rating was up 206 percent over 2017's Tour Championship.

Final FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Coverage peaked from 5:30-6PM ET (7.19) as Woods finished his round and as Justin Rose was being crowned the FedExCup champion. That number trailed only the 2018 peaks for the Masters (11.03) and PGA Championship (8.28). The extended coverage window (1:30-6:15 PM ET) posted a 4.35 overnight rating, which is the highest-rated Tour Championship telecast on record.

Sunday’s final round also saw 18.4 million minutes streamed across NBC Sports Digital platforms (up 561 percent year-over-year), and becomes the most-streamed NBC Sports Sunday round (excluding majors) on record.

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Randall's Rant: Woods' comeback story ranks No. 1

By Randall MellSeptember 24, 2018, 8:40 pm

We’re marveling again.

This time over the essence of the man as much as the athlete, over what Tiger Woods summoned to repair, rebuild and redeem himself, after scandal and injury so ruinously rocked his career.

We watched in wonder Sunday as Woods completed the greatest comeback in the history of sport.

That’s how we’re ranking this reconstruction of a champion. (See the rankings below.)

We marveled over the admiration that flooded into the final scene of his victory at the Tour Championship, over the wave of adoring fans who enveloped him as he marched up the 18th fairway.

This celebration was different from his coronation, when he won the Masters by 12 shots in 1997, or his masterpiece, when he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots in 2000, or his epic sweep, when he won at Augusta National in ’01 to claim his fourth consecutive major championship title.

The awe back then was over how invincible Woods could seem in a sport where losing is the week-to-week norm, over how he could decimate the competition as no other player ever has.

The awe today is as much over the transformed nature of the rebuilt man.

It’s about what he has overcome since his aura of invincibility was decimated in the disgrace of a sex scandal, in the humiliation of a videotape of a DUI arrest, in the pain of four back surgeries and four knee surgeries and in the maddening affliction of chipping yips and driving and putting woes.

The wonder is also in imagining the fierce inventory of self-examination that must have been grueling, and in the mustering of inner strength required to overcome foes more formidable than Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and today’s other stars.

It’s in Woods overcoming shame, ridicule, doubt and probably some despair to rebuild his life outside the game before he could rebuild his life in the game.

Woods may never let us know the detail or depth of those inner challenges, of what helped him prevail in his more spiritual battles, because he’s still fiercely private. He may never share the keys to rebuilding his sense of himself, but he’s more open than he has ever been. He shares more than he ever has.

As a father of two children, as a mentor to so many of today’s young players, there’s more depth to the picture of this champion today. There also is more for fans to relate to in his struggles than his success. There’s more of the larger man to marvel over.

The greatest comebacks in the history of sports:

1. Tiger Woods

Four back surgeries and four knee surgeries are just part of the story. It’s why Woods ranks ahead of Ben Hogan. Woods’ comeback was complicated by so many psychological challenges, by the demon doubts created in his sex scandal and DUI arrest. There was shame and ridicule to overcome on a public stage. And then there were the chipping yips, and the driving and putting woes.

2. Ben Hogan

On Feb. 2, 1949, a Greyhound bus attempting to pass a truck slammed head on into Hogan’s Cadillac on a Texas highway. Hogan probably saved his life throwing himself over the passenger side to protect his wife, Valerie. He suffered a double fracture of the pelvis, a cracked rib, a fractured collarbone and a broken ankle, but it was a blood clot that nearly killed him a few weeks later. Hogan needed 16 months to recover but would return triumphantly to win the 1950 U.S. Open and five more majors after that.

3. Niki Lauda

In the bravest sporting comeback ever, Lauda returned to grand prix racing 38 days after his Ferrari burst into flames in a crash in a race in Germany in 1976. Disfigured from severe burns, the reigning Formula One world champion was back behind the wheel at the Italian Grand Prix, finishing fourth. He won the world championship again in ’77 and ’84.

4. Greg LeMond

In 1987, LeMond was shot and nearly killed in a hunting accident. Two years later, he won his second Tour de France title. A year after that, he won it again.

5. Babe Zaharias

In 1953, Babe Zaharias underwent surgery for colon cancer. A year later, she won the U.S. Women’s Open wearing a colostomy bag. She also went on to win the Vare Trophy for low scoring average that year.

6. Monica Seles

Away from tennis for two years after being stabbed with a knife between the shoulder blades during a match in Germany, Seles won in her return to competition at the 1995 Canadian Open. She was the highest ranked women’s tennis player in the world at the time of the attack.

7. Lance Armstrong

After undergoing chemotherapy treatment in a battle with potentially fatal metastatic testicular cancer in 1996, Armstrong recovered and went on to win seven Tour de France titles. Of course, the comeback wasn’t viewed in the same light after he was stripped of all those titles after being implicated in a doping conspiracy.

8. Mario Lemieux

In the middle of the 1992-93 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins star underwent radiation treatment for Hodgkin disease and missed 20 games. Making a start the same day as his last treatment, Lemieux scored a goal and assist. The Penguins would go on a 17-game winning streak after his return and Lemieux would lead the league in scoring and win the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

9. Peyton Manning

Multiple neck surgeries and a spinal fusion kept Manning from playing with the Indianapolis Colts for the entire 2011 season. He was released before the 2012 season and signed with the Denver Broncos. He won his fifth NFL MVP Award in ’13 and helped the Broncos win the Super Bowl in the ’15 season.

10. Bethany Hamilton

A competitive surfer at 13, Hamilton lost her left arm in a shark attack in Hawaii. A month later, she was surfing again. Less than two years later, she was a national champion.

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Woods' win makes us wonder, what's next?

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 24, 2018, 6:35 pm

The red shirt and ground-shaking roars.

The steely glare and sweet swings.

The tactical precision and ruthless efficiency.

If not for the iPhone-wielding mob following his every move, you’d swear that golf had been transported to the halcyon days of the early 2000s.

The Tiger Time Machine kicked into overdrive at East Lake, where Woods won for the first time in 1,876 days and suddenly put two of the sport’s most hallowed numbers – 82 and 18 – back in play.

“I didn’t understand how people could say he lost this and lost that,” said Hank Haney, Woods’ former swing coach. “He is so good. He’s Tiger Woods. He’s won 79 times. If he can swing, he can win again.”

The only disappointing part of win No. 80 is that Woods will have to wait four months for another meaningful chance to build upon it. That’s a shame, because all of the pieces are in place for him to make a sustained run, and the Tour Championship might just be the start of an unimaginable final act.

A season that began with questions about whether a 42-year-old Woods could survive a full schedule with no setbacks ended with him saving his best for last, when his younger, healthier peers seemed to be gassed. Taking his recovery week by week, Woods ended up making 18 starts – his second-heaviest workload since 2005 – and never publicly complained of any discomfort, only the occasional stiffness that comes with having a fused lower spine.

Remember when Woods’ tanking world ranking was punch-line material? Now he’s all the way up to No. 13 – not bad for a guy who was 1,199th when he returned to competition last December at the Hero World Challenge. Nowhere close to reaching his 40-event minimum divisor, he’ll continue to accrue points and charge up the rankings, putting the game’s top players on notice.

Final FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

The victory at East Lake moves Woods only two shy of Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour wins record (82), a goal that seemed unthinkable a year and a half ago, when he was bedridden following the Hail Mary fusion surgery. And for those wondering whether he’s capable of chasing down Big Jack, remember that Woods almost picked off two majors this summer, at Carnoustie and Bellerive, with a body and swing that was constantly evolving. 

Indeed, in an era of TrackMans and coaching stables designed to maximize a player’s performance, Woods has refreshingly gone back to his roots. It always seemed incongruous, watching the game’s most brilliant golf mind scrutinize down-the-line swing video, and so this year he has been a solo act, relying on old feels to guide his new move. The credit for this resurgence is his alone. 

Sure, there were growing pains, lots of them, and for months each tournament turned into golf’s version of Whack-a-Mole, as yet another issue arose. The two clubs that most consistently held Woods back were his driver and putter, but recent improvements portend well for the future.

After wayward tee shots cost him the PGA, Woods changed the loft and shaft on his TaylorMade driver. For years, even while injured, he violently attacked the ball in a vain attempt to hang with the big hitters. But these tweaks to his gamer (resulting in lower swing speed and carry distance) were a concession that accuracy was more vital to his success than power. His newfound discipline was rewarded: He ended the season with four consecutive weeks of positive strokes gained: off the tee statistics, and on Sunday he put on a clinic while Rory McIlroy, one of the game’s preeminent drivers, thrashed around in the trees. Woods is still plenty long, closing out his victory with a 348-yard rocket on 18, and from the middle of the fairway he can rely on his vintage iron play. 

His troubles with the putter weren’t as quick of a fix. Frustrated with his inconsistent performance on the greens, Woods briefly flirted with other models before rekindling his love affair with his old Scotty Cameron, the trusty putter with which he’s won 13 of his 14 majors. It’s exceedingly rare for a player to overcome the frayed nerve endings and putt better in his 40s than his 30s, but Woods was downright masterful on East Lake’s greens.

“It’s more satisfaction than anything,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “People have no idea how much work he put into this.”

By almost any statistical measure, Woods’ season-long numbers suggest that he’s already back among the game’s elite – even after struggling to walk and swing for the past four years. He’s the best iron player in the game. He finished the season ranked seventh in strokes gained: tee to green. And after his normally stellar short game went MIA for a few years, his play around the greens appeared as sharp as ever.

And so on Sunday, while watching Woods school the top 30 players on Tour, even Johnny Miller got caught up in the latest edition of Tigermania.

“He’s not looking like he could win a couple more,” Miller said. “He’s looking like he could win A LOT more.”

Where Woods’ story is headed – to No. 1 in the world, to the top of Mt. Nicklaus, to the operating table – is anyone’s guess, because this comeback has already defied any reasonable logic or expectation.

He’s come back from confidence-shattering performances at Phoenix (chip yips) and Memorial (85) and even his own media-day event where he humiliatingly rinsed a series of wedge shots.

He’s come back from four back surgeries and pain so debilitating that his kids once found him face down in the backyard; pain so unbearable that he used to keep a urine bucket next to his bed, because he couldn’t schlep his battered body to the bathroom.

He’s come back from an addiction so deep that in May 2017 police found him slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes, five drugs coursing through his system, a shocking and sad DUI arrest that was the catalyst for this clear-eyed comeback.

All of the months of unhappiness and uncertainty nearly came pouring out afterward – the culmination of a remarkable journey from turmoil to redemption that ranks among the most unlikely in sports history. Woods fought back tears as thousands formed a big green mosh pit and chanted his name, a surreal scene even for this larger-than-life legend. Hugging LaCava, Woods said into his caddie’s ear, over and over: “We did it! We did it! We did it!” 

“He’s pumped up,” LaCava said later. “I’ve never seen him this excited.”

And not just for this moment, but for the future.

The prospects are as tantalizing as ever. 

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DJ may keep cross-handed grip for Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardSeptember 24, 2018, 4:29 pm

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – As he’s proven in the past Dustin Johnson isn’t averse to switching things up when it comes to his putting, but this was extreme even for him.

Johnson switched to a cross-handed grip on the sixth hole during Saturday’s third round at the Tour Championship and continued to use the same grip through the final round.

It was the first time he’d putted cross-handed in competition and the first time he switched his grip mid-round.

Ryder Cup: Articles, photos and videos

“I did it a few times on the putting green. Sometimes I do it on the putting green just to get my setup a little bit better because it just levels out my shoulders,” said Johnson, who closed his week at East Lake with a 67 and finished alone in third place. “I was putting well. I hit some bad putts for the first five holes, so after I hit a really bad putt for eagle on 6, the next one I tried it, I made it, so I kept it going.”

Johnson, who moved back into the top spot in the World Golf Ranking thanks to his third-place finish, was encouraged by his putting on the weekend but he was vague when asked if he planned to putt cross-handed this week at the Ryder Cup.

“We're going to stick with it for now. We'll try it,” he said.