Monday Scramble: Banner year for new Big 3

By Ryan LavnerNovember 30, 2015, 2:00 pm

Recapping an epic year in golf, handing out a few awards, looking ahead to 2016 and more in this week's season-ending edition of the Monday Scramble:

No matter how you look at it, the 2015 golf year was one of the best in recent memory. The history. The roll call of winners. The 72nd-hole drama in the majors. Good stuff, all of it. 

But here’s the most exciting part: It set the table for even more compelling action over the next few years. 

Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy comprise a Big 3 that should challenge for all of the biggest titles for the next decade.

The prepared, aggressive and fearless youngsters that set the PGA Tour ablaze this year are only growing more confident with each passing week. Who will emerge as the best under-25 talent? How many more stars will surface next year? 

Lydia Ko and Inbee Park combined for 10 wins and three majors this year, dueling until the final event in one of the most competitive Player of the Year races in LPGA history. There’s little reason to believe they won’t continue their high-stakes game of H-O-R-S-E in 2016.

Will the task force – sorry, Task Force – accomplish anything of significance? Will a coaching change lift Lefty to another major? Will a wounded Tiger summon one more comeback?

Yeah, 2015 was memorable, but we can’t wait for January. 

What We Were Talking About This Year … 

1. Jordan Spieth becomes a household name. 

Spieth burst onto the scene in 2013, when he began the year with no status on any major tour, became the youngest Tour winner since 1931 and reached the Tour Championship. A year later, he played in the final group at both the Masters and Players, but otherwise failed to build on his auspicious freshman season. As ridiculous as it sounds now, there were legitimate questions about his ceiling as a player.  

All it took, apparently, was one stellar final round in Australia to send the now-22-year-old on his way. That win at the Aussie Open, followed by his blowout victory the following week at the World Challenge, changed everything. Imbued with self-belief, he scrambled his way to a win in Tampa, took J.B. Holmes to extra holes in Houston, and then blew away the field at Augusta National, a ballpark that was supposedly too big for his medium-length game.

That kick-started a run in which he won the U.S. Open (thanks in large part to another Dustin Johnson gaffe), torched TPC Deere Run, shared the lead at St. Andrews after 70 holes and finished with a 72-hole score at Whistling Straits that would have won all but two PGAs outright. His near-perfect year – after all, he was only four shots from the Slam – was capped in the best possible way, with a Tour Championship victory that gave him the FedEx Cup and the first $22 million season.

Needless to say, there are no lingering questions about his star power. 

2. Tiger Woods drifts toward retirement.

Long-term concerns about Woods’ game reached an all-time high in 2015, after he suffered a very public case of the short-game yips, missed the cut in three consecutive majors and went under the knife for the fourth time in 19 months.

There were finally reasons for optimism after Woods' game showed promise at the Wyndham Championship in August, but he later revealed that he needed another back surgery. After this latest procedure it’s uncertain when, or if, he will play next year.

Woods won't stay completely out of the picture, after signing up to be a vice captain at the Ryder Cup, but it's merely the latest sign that he's become a ceremonial golfer. 

3. Spieth and Inbee Park chase their own Grand Slams. 

Spieth became the first player since Woods in 2002 to take the calendar year Slam into the third stage. After tying for the lead with two holes to go at St. Andrews, Spieth ultimately finished one shot out of the Open playoff. At the PGA, he finished three shots behind Day, meaning that he was four shots from a perfect major season. It could be years (decades?) before we see that feat challenged.

On the women’s side, Park sparked debate about what constitutes a career Grand Slam after she won the Women’s British Open at Turnberry. Within minutes of that victory, the LPGA trumpeted its star as having completed the Slam, because she now had wins in four different majors. Problem is, the women’s tour has since elevated the Evian Championship to the fifth major, and Park hasn’t won that event, at least not when it counted as a major. So it isn't a Slam, by definition.

Changing the rules as it goes, the LPGA then contended that a sweep of all five majors would be considered a Super Slam … which no one is buying. Sorry, but for Park, the real Slam Watch continues next year in France. 

4. Lydia Ko rewrites the record books.

At this point, it’s safe to assume that the 18-year-old is the “youngest ever” to do just about everything. 

She’s the youngest player to win an LPGA event.

She’s the youngest player to reach 10 titles.

She’s the youngest player to win five times in a season. 

The youngest to reach world No. 1. To youngest to win a major. The youngest to claim the $1 million Race to the CME Globe bonus (twice).

Until a player comes along with the power of Lexi and the putting stroke of Inbee, Ko is going to rule the game for a loooong time. 

5. The worst-timed kickabout in golf history. 

If the photo of Rory McIlroy on crutches wasn’t jarring enough, then the deflated scene at St. Andrews did the trick, with the former world No. 1 unable to defend his title at the Home of Golf in the prime of his career – an opportunity that arises only every five years.

Technically, the ankle injury cost McIlroy five weeks and only three scheduled starts, but he didn’t look right at the PGA or in the FedEx Cup playoffs, despite his assurances that he was 100 percent healthy. McIlroy boosted hopes for a big 2016 with a season-ending victory in Dubai. Even better news was that he vowed to cut down on his silly mistakes – such as playing soccer in the middle of major season.  

6. Jason Day and Rickie Fowler break out.

Before this year, Day was known mostly for his unfulfilled promise, a talented but injury-plagued Australian who had only teased us with his close calls in majors. Fowler? Well, he had only two pro titles despite a massive marketing presence, and his peers thought so much (or little) of his game that they voted him the most overrated player on Tour.

Both players blew those reputations to smithereens in 2015, combining for eight wins, a major and a Players title while vaulting into the top five in the world ranking. Fowler silenced his critics for good, while Day proved that his best stuff is every bit as good as Rory’s or Jordan’s. 

7. The gimme that wasn’t.

The Solheim Cup was marred by Suzann Pettersen's unsportsmanlike conduct after she declined to concede an 18-inch putt in the late stages of her team match against the Americans.

The dispute over the tiddler angered the U.S. team and led to one of the great comebacks in the history of the event. Pettersen was skewered in the aftermath, even by some of the European squad’s longtime backers, and after initially defending her actions she tapped out a long apology that reeked of an outside (p.r.) influence. 

Pettersen became the villain that the Solheim Cup desperately needed, and though she may have lost a few friends along the way, the reception wasn’t overly chilly once she returned to the States. The tone may be decidedly different in 2017, however.

8. Welcome additions to the 2015 golf scene: 

  • Justin Thomas: Thankfully, he won’t just be known as Jordan Spieth’s good buddy anymore. The 22-year-old had a few chances to win in his rookie season and nearly qualified for the Tour Championship, but his year ended on a high note when he broke through at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. 
  • R&A women members: The club decided to end years of male-only exclusivity by inviting women to join, thus ensuring that they’ve officially entered the 20th century.
  • Bryson DeChambeau: One of the most talked-about players this summer because of his unconventional approach and quirky personality, the 22-year-old left school in October after SMU was banned from postseason play because of recruiting violations under the team’s former head coach. Bryson will get plenty of opportunities to earn his card next year.
  • Brooke Henderson: Denied LPGA membership by commissioner Mike Whan, the talented Canadian took matters into her own hands by winning an event by eight shots. 
  • Matt Fitzpatrick: Don’t be fooled by this baby-faced assassin – he has a killer short game and figures to be part of a new-look European Ryder Cup squad in ’16.   
  • Sei Young Kim: All she did during her rookie season was win three times, place in the top 10 on eight other occasions and rocket to No. 7 in the world. 

9. Shot of the Year: Jordan Spieth at the Masters.

Reeling from a double bogey on the 17th hole Saturday at Augusta National, Spieth flew his approach shot into the patrons surrounding the final green. His lead had been trimmed to four shots, and now it appeared that it would be cut to three, maybe even two, at the end of the day. 

Then Spieth pulled off one of the best shots of his career – a soft, high-risk flop shot that carried over a bunker, landed on a downslope and trickled out to 10 feet. Because he’s Jordan Spieth, he also poured in the par putt to maintain a comfortable cushion heading into the most pressure-packed final round of his life. 

10. Putt of the Year: Gerina Piller at the Solheim Cup.

She didn’t get credit for the clinching point, but her 8-foot putt to defeat Caroline Masson was the most important in the Americans’ incredible comeback in Germany.

If Piller missed, the Europeans would have secured the half point they needed to clinch the cup and guaranteed that the only talk afterward would have been about Concessiongate. Instead, she kept the Americans alive, all the way until Paula Creamer closed out her match, and the party was on. 

11. What do Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen, Matt Kuchar and Hideki Matsuyama have in common? They all failed to win in 2015. 

That’s right – 138 combined starts, zero titles. 

Scott’s oh-fer was the most surprising. (He still has one more chance, this week at the World Challenge.) This was his final year to make hay with the long wand, but he never looked comfortable with either method and battled the usual lethargy that comes with being a new parent. The Australian is too good of a ball-striker not to win and contend on a consistent basis, but 2015 was a stunning off-year. 

12. A few predictions for next year ... 

  • Jordan Spieth won’t win a major. Quite simply, the numbers aren't in his favor: Over the past 20 years, only four players have won multiple majors in a season. Woods (2005-06) is the only one who returned the following year and added to his major total. 
  • Rory McIlroy wins a major and earns Player of the Year honors. Motivation is no longer an issue for the former boy wonder. He lost his No. 1 ranking. He saw Jordan assume the role as golf’s biggest star. He squandered two prime chances to add to his major haul. It won’t happen again.  
  • Patrick Rodgers wins a PGA Tour event. In fall 2011, I ranked Rodgers ahead of players like Spieth, Justin Thomas, Ollie Schniederjans, Emiliano Grillo, Daniel Berger and Michael Kim in that heralded high school class. Oops. His career trajectory may have been more gradual than some of the others, but he has all of the physical tools to win a few times next year.
  • Branden Grace wins a major. Arguably the most complete player who still doesn’t get his due, Grace could have – should have? – won the U.S. Open if not for a 70th-hole tee shot that wound up on the railroad tracks. After a two-win season that pushed the South African into the top 20 in the world, and after top-20 finishes in each of the last three majors, Grace is ready to take the next step. 
  • Sorry P-Reed, but Spieth and Justin Thomas team up at Hazeltine. Alas, Thomas didn’t earn a single Ryder Cup point in the fall, but he’ll show Love and Co. more than enough to earn a spot on the 12-man roster. He and Spieth will form a partnership of which dreams are made. 
  • The U.S. wins the Ryder Cup. Long live the task force!

There was no shortage of head-scratching moments this year, from Donald Trump’s continued affiliation with golf to the PGA Tour’s laughable personal conduct policy to Steve Williams' "slave" comment to the World Golf Hall of Fame failing to get Laura Davies to the induction ceremony in time to the Keegan Bradley-Miguel Angel Jimenez royal rumble, but Robert Allenby takes the top prize.

Nearly a year later, no one really knows what transpired that night in Hawaii, but Allenby’s on-course exploits were even more bizarre. He and his caddie Mick Middlemo nearly came to blows during the Canadian Open, leading Middlemo to walk off in the middle of the round. They bickered back and forth in the press, but it was just another black eye for Allenby, who now has mowed through more than 20 caddies during his professional career.

This year's award winners ... 

Best Player: Jordan Spieth. The only worry? That, at age 22, he has already reached the mountaintop. How much better can it get?

Best Tournament: The Players. With the backdrop of that negative player poll, Rickie Fowler went 6 under for his last six holes to force a playoff, then birdied the famous 17th hole twice in overtime.   

Best Moment: Spieth birdies the 70th hole at St. Andrews. In that moment, the Grand Slam actually felt possible – he was tied for the lead with two holes to go, with the brutal Road Hole and gettable home hole ahead of him. You know what happens next, of course, but only Woods can generate the kind of electricity that followed that 40-foot birdie.

Biggest Disappointment: Tiger. Late last year, Woods renewed hopes because he was returning to his roots, slimming down his muscle-bound body and watching tapes of his old swing. It turned out to be a fantasy, as he battled short-game yips, deactivated glutes and general ineptitude during another lost season that ended with the soon-to-be 40-year-old on the operating table. 

Honorable mention: Michelle Wie. Following up on the best year of her career, she couldn’t even muster a top-10 in 24 events and slipped all the way to 49th in earnings. Oy. 

Biggest Heartbreak: Dustin Johnson’s U.S. Open. The most star-crossed player in recent memory added to his list of major gaffes with a slippery three-jack on Chambers Bay’s cauliflower greens. 

Most Improved: Kevin Kisner. This was was a guy, remember, who finished 2014 ranked 236th in the world. This year, he posted four runner-up finishes, including three playoff losses, before blowing away the field in the finale at Sea Island. At No. 16 in the world, he’s now a legitimate major and Ryder Cup contender. 

Next Generation Star: Maverick McNealy. The Stanford junior is the can’t-miss prospect of the moment, soaring to No. 2 in the world after a Player of the Year season. What makes his story even more intriguing is that he might not even turn pro in spring 2017. 

Biggest Surprise: Inbee Park’s five-win, two-major season wasn’t enough to win Player of the Year. To put that in perspective: Her season was better than any in Paula Creamer’s career, but the Queen Bee still got Ko’d. 

Biggest Revelation: The youth movement is bigger and better than anyone could have imagined. Every generation has a few boldfaced stars, but the new wave of talent on Tour is strong, deep and growing exponentially.

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Rose tries to ignore scenarios, focus on winning

By Rex HoggardSeptember 23, 2018, 12:59 am

ATLANTA – No one has more to play for than Justin Rose on Sunday at the Tour Championship.

The Englishman will begin the day three strokes behind front-runner Tiger Woods after a third-round 68 that could have been much worse after he began his day with back-to-back bogeys.

Winning the tournament will be Rose’s top priority, but there’s also the lingering question of the FedExCup and the $10 million bonus, which he is currently projected to claim.

Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“The way I look at tomorrow is that I have many scenarios in play. I have the FedExCup in play. I have all of that to distract me,” Rose said. “But yet, I'm three back. I think that's my objective tomorrow is to come out and play good, positive golf and try and chase down the leader and win this golf tournament. I think in some ways that'll help my other task of trying to win the FedExCup. It'll keep me on the front foot and playing positive golf.”

Although there are many scenarios for Rose to win the season-long title, if Woods wins the Tour Championship, Rose would need to finish fifth or better to claim the cup.

There’s also the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking to consider. Rose overtook Dustin Johnson for No. 1 in the world with his runner-up finish at the BMW Championship two weeks ago. He will retain the top spot unless Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka or Johnson win the finale and he falls down the leaderboard on Sunday.

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McIlroy needs putter to heat up to catch Woods

By Rex HoggardSeptember 23, 2018, 12:29 am

ATLANTA – Although Rory McIlroy is three strokes behind Tiger Woods at the Tour Championship and tied for second place he had the look of a man with a secret when he left East Lake on Saturday.

Trying to play catch up against Woods is never ideal, but McIlroy’s confidence stemmed from a tee-to-green game that has been unrivaled for three days.

“I definitely think today and the first day were similar,” said McIlroy, whose 66 included birdies at two of his final three holes. “I gave myself plenty of chances, and I think the biggest thing today was only just that one bogey. Got to put your ball in the fairway, put yourself in position, and for the most part, I did that today.”

Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

For the week McIlroy ranks first in strokes gained: off the tee, third in strokes gained: approach to the green and second in greens in regulation. But to catch Woods, who he will be paired with, he’ll need a much better day on the greens.

The Northern Irishman needed 30 putts on Day 2 and ranks 23rd, out of 30 players, in strokes gained: putting.

McIlroy skipped the first playoff event, opting instead for an extra week at home to work on his swing and the move has paid off.

“I hit the ball well. My wedge play has been really good,” he said. “I've done a lot of work on it the last few weeks, and it seems to have paid off.”

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Glover trails Straka at Tour Championship

By Associated PressSeptember 23, 2018, 12:19 am

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Sepp Straka moved into position Saturday to earn a PGA Tour card in the Tour Championship, shooting a 7-under 64 to take the third-round lead.

With the top 25 earners in the four-event Tour Finals getting PGA Tour cards Sunday, Straka birdied the final three holes to reach 18-under 195 - a stroke ahead of Curtis Luck, Lucas Glover and Denny McCarthy at Atlantic Beach Country Club.

''It's always good to get an extra birdie in late. I got three of them to finish, which was nice,'' Straka said. ''It's very bunched up there, so you can't really take off, you've got to keep the pedal down and see where you end up at the end.''

Straka entered the week tied for 80th in the card race with $2,744. The 25-year-old former Georgia player from Austria won the KC Golf Classic in August for his first Tour title. He finished 31st on the money list to advance to the four-tournament series.

''My ball-striking is really good,'' Straka said. ''It's been good all week. It's been really solid. I really haven't gotten in a whole lot of trouble and have been able to capitalize on a good number of chances with the putter. Hit a couple of bad putts today, but some really good ones to make up for it.''

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Luck also shot 64. The 22-year-old Australian went into the week 16th with $41,587.

''Obviously, it just comes down to keeping that momentum going and trying not to change anything,'' Luck said. ''That's the really important thing and I felt like I did that really well. I played really aggressive on the back nine, still went after a lot of shots and I hit it close a lot out there.''

Glover had a 68. The 2009 U.S. Open champion entered the week 40th with $17,212.

McCarthy shot 67. He already has wrapped up a card, earning $75,793 in the first three events to get to 11th in the standings.

The series features the top 75 players from the regular-season money list, Nos. 126-200 in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings, and non-members with enough money to have placed in the top 200. The top-25 finishers on the regular-season money list are competing against each other for tour priority, with regular-season earnings counting in their totals. The other players are fighting for the 25 cards based on series earnings.

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Woods' dominance evokes an old, familiar feeling

By Rex HoggardSeptember 23, 2018, 12:14 am

ATLANTA – It felt so familiar – the roars, the fist pumps, the frenzied scramble to keep up with a leaderboard that was quickly tilting in Tiger Woods’ direction.

For the handful of players who were around when Woods made a mysterious and maddening game seem simple, it was like old times, times that weren’t necessarily good for anyone not named Tiger.

“I’m kind of nostalgic,” admitted Paul Casey, who turned pro in 2000, when Woods won the U.S. Open by 15 strokes, one of his nine PGA Tour victories that year.

Casey’s 66 on Day 3 at the Tour Championship vaulted him into a tie for sixth place, but as the Englishman quickly vetted the math he knew those numbers were nothing more than window dressing.

“Sixty-four is my best on a Sunday which puts me at 11 [under], so if he’s 12 I need to shoot my career best in the final round and he needs to do something very un-Tiger-like,” Casey laughed. “I think I’m just posturing for position.”

Casey wasn’t giving up. In fact, given that he outdueled Woods earlier this year to win the Valspar Championship he could have hedged his comments and left the door cracked however slightly. But he’s seen, and heard, this too many times to allow competitive necessity to cloud reality.

On Saturday at East Lake, Tiger Woods was his best version. Throughout this most recent comeback he’s offered glimpses of the old guy, the guy whose name atop a leaderboard echoed through locker rooms for the better part of two decades. After starting the day tied for the lead with Justin Rose, Tiger quickly separated himself from the pack with a birdie at the first.

He added another at the third and by the time he birdied the seventh hole, his sixth birdie of the day, he’d extended that lead to five shots and was sending an unmistakable message that reached well beyond the steamy confines of East Lake.

Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

This was what so many had waited for. This was the Tiger that Casey and others grew up dreading, a machine that never misses iron shots and makes clutch putts look like tap-ins.

“The crowds were electric,” said Rose, who was paired with Woods. “He was running the tables there. He was hitting good shots and making the conversion putts.”

Woods did come back to earth after his blistering start, playing his final 10 holes in 1 over par, but that did little to change the mood as the season moved to within 18 holes of the finish line.

He would finish with a round-of-the-day 65 for a three-stroke lead over Rose and Rory McIlroy. The next closest players were a dozen strokes back, including Casey at 5 under par who didn’t need to be reminded of Woods’ 54-hole conversion rate.

There are no guarantees in sports but Tiger with a 54-hole lead has been about as close to a lock as one will find this side of Las Vegas. He’s 42-for-44 when going into the final round with the outright lead and the last time he blew a 54-hole lead was at the 2009 PGA Championship.

Of course, he hasn’t had a 54-hole lead since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Truth is, he hasn’t had much of anything since ’13 when his dominance was sidetracked by an ailing back. As intimidating as Woods’ play has been this week there was an unmistakable sense of, let’s call it curiosity.

Asked if Woods’ lead felt different than it may have a decade ago, Rose’s response was telling. “Maybe,” he allowed after a pause. “It's a little more unknown now. Obviously his history, his statistics from this point are impeccable. They're incredible. But he's human, and there's a lot on it for him tomorrow, as well as the rest of us.”

Rose wasn’t trying to trick himself into thinking the impossible was possible, although many have when they’ve found themselves in similar positions, it was simply the truth. Woods has had multiple chances this season to complete the comeback and he’s come up short each time.

It was a poor iron shot off the 72nd tee at the Valspar Championship and an even worse drive a week later at Bay Hill’s 16th hole. It was a misplayed chip late on the back nine at The Open and a collection of missed putts at the PGA Championship, although in his defense it’s unlikely anyone could have caught Brooks Koepka at Bellerive.

Nor was Rose being disrespectful. It’s simple math, really, and Woods’ body of work to this point, although wildly impressive considering how far he’s come in 12 months both physically and competitively, paints a clear picture. Given multiple chances to break through the victory ceiling he’s failed to deliver the way he did before injury and multiple back procedures.

“I've felt very comfortable when I got into the mix there at Tampa even though it was very early in my start to this year. And because of that, I felt comfortable when I got to Bay Hill, (and) when I grabbed the lead at The Open Championship,” Woods said. “Things that didn't really feel abnormal, even though it's been years, literally years, since I've been in those spots, but I think I've been in those spots enough times that muscle memory, I guess I remembered it, and I felt comfortable in those spots.”

In many ways the script couldn’t have been written any better for Woods. It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs and the bases are loaded for the 14-time major champion. Hero time, his time.

He’s been here so many times in his career and succeeded more times than not, and this new, reimagined version has the ultimate chance to complete what would arguably be the greatest comeback in sports history.

The ultimate test still remains, but for 18 holes on Saturday it felt so familiar.