Monday Scramble: Time to celebrate and recuperate

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 21, 2015, 5:30 pm

The Americans stage an incredible comeback at the Solheim Cup, Suzann Pettersen (temporarily) embraces the villain role, Jason Day realizes a lifelong dream, Tiger Woods goes under the knife (again), and the PGA Tour season is finally coming to an end in this week's unsportsmanlike edition of the Monday Scramble:

It’d be tempting to say that the U.S. won this Solheim Cup because of Suzann Pettersen, because the controversy galvanized the Americans and propelled them to greatness.

Sure, the ruthless Norwegian gave the U.S. side all the motivation it could ever want heading into singles. But that added incentive can only go so far.

The Americans took back the cup because of incredibly clutch performances from unlikely heroes. Almost everything fell into place.

After all, they still needed rookie Alison Lee to shake off the bizarre phantom concession and win her match. She did, 3 and 1. 

They still needed Angela Stanford to erase the memories of her 3-13-3 Solheim Cup record and knock off Pettersen, Europe’s emotional leader. She did, 2 and 1.

They still needed Gerina Piller to sink a cold-blooded 8-foot par putt with the cup on the line. She did.

They still needed Paula Creamer, the most debatable captain’s pick, to silence the crowd and defeat Germany’s own Sandra Gal in the anchor match. She did, 4 and 3.

Add it all up, and the U.S. secured 8 ½ of the possible 12 points in the final session and erased a four-point deficit. Nothing controversial about that.

1. The biggest star Sunday at the Solheim Cup wasn't rookie Alison Lee, who handled the shocking turn of events with grace and maturity. No, it was Piller, who buried a must-make 8-footer on the last to keep the U.S. team's hopes alive. 

Piller is a 30-year-old with zero career titles on the LPGA. This star-making performance – on the biggest stage in women's golf – should give her plenty of confidence the next time she's in a pressure spot. Don’t be surprised if a win arrives shortly.

2. Speaking of pressure spots … how about the play of Creamer? Sure, she and teammate Morgan Pressel coughed up a huge lead in their Saturday foursomes match, but she bookended this Solheim Cup with big wins in the opening foursomes session and then again in singles, when she drew one of the toughest assignments, going up against Germany's Gal in the anchor match. 

Creamer hardly resembled the player who had missed her last four cuts entering this week and was suffering a crisis of confidence. Instead of getting benched for two sessions, she authored one of the week’s most unlikely turnarounds.  Respect.   

3. Anything Can Happen in 18-Hole Match Play, Vol. 193: An oft-criticized player with only two top-10s this season, 37-year-old nerves and a dismal match-play record dispatches Europe’s most intimidating player. It’s the only explanation for Stanford's singles victory Sunday.

4. A random thought while watching the action: Why were there so few scoreboards on the course? Seeing the red or blue go up on the board ignites the crowd and stirs the players. Seriously, how did this important aspect get so overlooked by tournament officials?

5. Jason Day’s Scorched Earth Tour continued last week at the BMW. Though he slowed down over the weekend when the world No. 1 ranking came into focus, he still shot 22 under par – boosting his total to 101 under over his last seven starts – and won by six shots. Day joined Woods as the only players since 2006 to finish three events at 20-plus under par.

To put his run in perspective, consider this: Day had three wins in his first 164 starts on the PGA Tour. He now has four Ws in his last six events. 

6. Yet it still doesn’t seem as though Day is getting properly recognized for what he has accomplished this season, perhaps because of Jordan Spieth’s brilliance in the majors.

This much cannot be ignored, however: Day is only the third player in the last 20 years to win five or more events in a PGA Tour season. 

The others? Woods (10 times) and Vijay Singh, who had nine wins in 2004.

7. I asked Day on Sunday night why world No. 1 was such an important goal. His answer was money: “I always had a vision of me standing on top of the earth when I was a kid, and knowing that right now there’s no one on this planet that’s better than me, that’s pretty cool. That out of all the golfers that are in the world playing right now, I’m the best. It’s such a good feeling.” For more on Day's rise to No. 1, check out my column from the BMW.

8. Tiger Woods stunned everyone last week with the ultimate post-5 p.m. Friday news dump: He announced that he had undergone a second back surgery and would miss the remaining three events on his 2015 schedule.

The immediate takeaway is this: It is yet another critical setback for a player who is running out of time. He’ll be 40 the next time he tees it up in competition. His greatest challenge isn’t his under-construction swing, or his brittle body that now has endured two back surgeries, an Achilles’ tendon tear and a knee reconstruction. No, his greatest challenge comes at the top of the leaderboard, with studs like Jason, Jordan, Rory and Rickie all vying for titles. Whether Woods can ever play that kind of golf again was very much in doubt, even before this second procedure. 

9. Of all the issues with the FedEx Cup – volatility, player and fan apathy, convoluted math – an even bigger concern looms if one of the top three players doesn’t win the season-long title this week at East Lake: Credibility.

McIlroy was the best player in 2012, winning four times, including a major and two playoff events. He didn’t win the FedEx Cup. 

Woods was the best player in 2013, winning five events. He didn’t win the FedEx Cup. 

McIlroy was the best player in 2014, winning three times, including two majors. He didn’t win the FedEx Cup. 

Clearly, Day, Spieth and Fowler have been the best players in 2015, combining for 11 PGA Tour titles (including all three playoff events) and three majors.

If those players go home empty, the system will have even less credibility. That’s a nightmare scenario for the Tour.

10. For the seventh time in eight years, the defending FedEx Cup champion did not make it back to East Lake the following season. Billy Horschel became the latest FedEx Cup casualty, finishing 66th in the standings and missing out on the season finale.

Brandt Snedeker, who won in 2012, is the only player who returned the following year. He finished 12th in 2013.

“I think it’s as much coincidence as anything else,” said 2013 champion Henrik Stenson. “There just hasn’t been enough guys playing that great the year after.” 

There has to be something more to it though, no? The most likely explanations are a busier schedule after winning the PGA Tour’s biggest prize and complacency after earning a life-changing amount of money, although Horschel dismissed the letdown theory last week.

“Dealing with everything the FedEx Cup brings had nothing to do with it,” he said. “There was no reason why I didn’t have a better year. I embraced the entire situation. It was just disappointing the past month.”

11. Speaking of streaks … Hunter Mahan’s ironman run in the FedEx Cup playoffs came to an end last week at the BMW. By tying for 32nd at Conway Farms – and 49th in the season-long race – Mahan will miss the Tour Championship for the first time in nine years. He was the only player to qualify for every season finale since the FedEx Cup’s inception in 2007. More on Mahan’s incredible run here.

12. Four players moved inside the top 30 at the BMW Championship and earned a spot in this week’s Tour Championship (and all four majors next year). Harris English was the feel-good story, having lived on the bubble the past three years.

The most heartbreaking? Rookie Justin Thomas. 

With 259 yards left into the par-5 18th, he tried to hit a cut 3-wood off a downslope but caught it fat. His ball trundled into the creek fronting the green, and he walked off with par, not the birdie he needed to advance. 

Still, when he signed his card, Thomas was projected to finish 30th. A SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio reporter even told his parents – who were waiting nervously in the flash area – that he would be safe. They celebrated, only to learn a few minutes later that Kevin Na’s 8-foot par putt on the 72nd hole actually bumped Thomas out, to 32nd. 

“Just really upset and disappointed, to be honest,” he would say afterward.

13. Jim Furyk’s status for not only this week’s Tour Championship but also the Oct. 8-11 Presidents Cup is very much in doubt.

Furyk was diagnosed with a bone contusion in his left wrist after withdrawing from the BMW Championship after six holes Thursday. It was the first time in 20 (!) years that he pulled out of a tournament. 

Furyk said he was “very concerned” about his wrist, especially with only two events remaining on his schedule, and would reassess Tuesday whether he is fit enough to play this week.

If he can’t go at East Lake – he is still No. 16 in the standings – then the focus would shift to the Presidents Cup. Captain Jay Haas would be able to select another player if Furyk backs out. 

14. The only problem? None of his options seem too appealing at the moment. 

Brooks Koepka would have been the obvious choice a few weeks ago, but he missed consecutive cuts in the playoffs and tied for 49th at the no-cut BMW.

Some of the other would-be contenders were in even worse shape. Brandt Snedeker was 66th among the 69 players who went all four rounds. Webb Simpson was T-64. Charley Hoffman was T-53. Kevin Kisner was 41st. 

So, if Furyk is unable to play, don't be surprised if J.B. Holmes gets the call-up. The big-hitting Holmes tied for fourth at the BMW – his first top-10 in a stroke-play event since his win in Houston – but even more significant is that he was the next-highest ranked American on the points list. That makes Haas’ decision even easier.

15. Keep this in mind when it comes time for Rookie of the Year voting: Each of the six rookies who have qualified for the Tour Championship in the FedEx Cup era also went on to claim top rookie honors. 

Daniel Berger is the only newcomer to reach East Lake this year, on the strength of a playoff loss at Honda and a runner-up at last week’s BMW. He is now No. 9 in the standings, despite a summer stretch during which he missed seven consecutive cuts. 

The other players who made it to East Lake in their first try and went on to win Rookie of the Year: Brandt Snedeker (2007), Andres Romero (2008), Marc Leishman (2009), Keegan Bradley (2011), John Huh (2012) and Spieth (2013).

Even though he came up short of qualifying for the season finale, expect Thomas to receive plenty of consideration. The 22-year-old Alabama product is popular with his peers and had seven top-10s in 30 starts. Tony Finau, the monster masher off the tee, never seriously challenged for a title this season, but he had five top-10s and posted high finishes at both the U.S. Open and PGA.    

ConcessionGate threatened to overshadow the sterling (and slow) play at the Solheim Cup.

The question isn’t whether any rules were broken on the 17th green Sunday morning – Lee claimed that she heard someone say that her 16-inch par putt was good (likely a voice in the crowd) and Pettersen said that no such concession was given. A mistake was made, and Lee was reckless in scooping up her ball before she was absolutely certain it was conceded. The decision violated the spirit of the rules, however, and Pettersen’s gotcha! attitude on the green, Charley Hull’s emotional reaction when the match was over, and Pettersen’s defiance afterward all gave the impression that this cup was more about ruthlessness than sportsmanship, which was a shame.

After standing her ground and forcing her teammates to stand up for her actions in the post-match news conference, Pettersen finally apologized in a long Instagram post Monday morning. It was too little, too late, of course. The apology reeked of an outside influence – whether it was her public-relations team or captain Carin Koch – and the damage had already been done, not that Pettersen seems overly concerned about destroying relationships with her peers on tour.

It was a regrettable move that won’t soon be forgotten by the Americans.

• U.S. captain Juli Inkster vowed to bring a more business-like feel to the Solheim Cup – no more of that “rah-rah stuff,” like the face paint, temporary tattoos or Hulk Hogan-esque pleas to the crowd. To reinforce the blue-collar, workmanlike attitude, Inkster gave her team … personalized lunch boxes. Europe may have lost this cup, but there’s still something to be said for building a 10-6 lead with an approach that doesn’t include ribbons, manicures or symbolic gifts.

• Rory McIlroy said his putting remains a work in progress after consulting with Dave Stockton after Boston. The temporary fix was to incorporate more knee bend at address, which he hopes will eliminate some of his lower-body movement during the stroke. At the BMW, he was third in strokes gained-tee to green but ranked 48th in putting. His T-4 was his best finish since his win in May at Quail Hollow.

• Henrik Stenson likes the nickname “Mr. September,” and for good reason. He rolled through the playoffs in 2013 en route to winning the FedEx Cup. He’s been superb this postseason as well, posting back-to-back runner-up finishes at the Barclays and Deutsche Bank before a T-10 at the BMW. Now, he heads for only the second time to East Lake, a ball-striker’s paradise that suits his game well. “I’m undefeated when I play there,” he smiled.

• There was no Cinderella story this year in the FedEx Cup Playoffs. Of the eight players who entered the playoffs at Nos. 101-125 in the standings, rookie Zac Blair was the only one who advanced to the BMW. He wound up 59th.

• Reigning NCAA Player of the Year Maverick McNealy on Sunday picked up where he left off last season, earning medalist honors and defending his title at Olympia Fields (which last month hosted the U.S. Amateur). It was the world No. 2’s seventh win in the past 52 weeks. 

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Own history, grow the game with Open memorabilia auction

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 1:00 pm

Get a piece of history and help grow the game, that's what The Open is offering with its memorabilia auction.

The official Open Memorabilia site features unique Open assets from famous venues and Champion Golfers of the Year. All net proceeds received by The R&A from this project will be invested to support the game for future generations, including encouraging women’s, junior and family golf, on the promotion and progression of the sport in emerging golf nations and on coaching and development.

Items for auction include limited edition prints of Champion Golfers of the Year, signed championship pin flags and limited edition historical program covers. Memorable scorecard reproductions and caddie bibs are also available to bid for on the website, with all items featuring branded, serialized holograms for authenticity.

Click here to own your piece of history and to get more information on the auction.

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No indication when Trump Turnberry will next host an Open

By Jay CoffinJuly 18, 2018, 12:25 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Turnberry last hosted The Open in 2009, during that magical week where Tom Watson, at age 59, nearly won his sixth claret jug. Ultimately, Stewart Cink won in a playoff.

While Turnberry remains on The Open rota, according to the R&A, there is no clear understanding of when the club, purchased by Donald Trump in 2014 before he became President of the United States, will next host the championship. The next open date is 2022.

“With respect to 2022, I’ve already said, ’21 we’re going to be celebrating the 150th playing of The Open at St. Andrews,” R&A chief executive Marin Slumbers said Wednesday on the annual news conference on the eve of The Open. “And in ’22, we’ll be going south of the border.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

South of the border means the 2022 Open will be at one of the three venues in England. Since the 2020 Open is at Royal St. George’s, that leaves Royal Lytham & St. Annes and Royal Liverpool as the two remaining options. Since Lytham (2012, Ernie Els) last hosted The Open before Liverpool (2014, Rory McIlroy), that’s the likely choice.

Trump was at Turnberry for two days last weekend, 150 miles southwest of Carnoustie. The R&A said it did not receive any communication from the U.S. president while he was in the country.

Turnberry hosted the Women’s British Open in 2015. Inbee Park beat Jin-young Park by three shots.

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Slumbers explains driver test; Rory weighs in

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2018, 12:18 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Players and manufacturers were informed about three weeks ago that the R&A intended to test individual drivers at this week’s Open Championship, marking the first time the rule makers have taken the current standards to players.

Although the R&A and USGA have been COR (coefficient of restitution) tests on drivers for some time, they have been pulling the tested clubs from manufacturers, not players.

“We take our governance role very seriously, not just on the Rules of Golf and amateur status, but also equipment standards, and we felt it was an appropriate next step to more actively seek to test players' drivers straight out of the bag,” said Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive.

Thirty players were notified their drivers would be tested this week - including Paul Casey, Brooks Koepka, Jason Day and Henrik Stenson - from a list that roughly mirrored the breakdown of various brands based on current equipment counts.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

The R&A test center was set up on the Carnoustie practice range, and according to Slumbers there were no violations of the testing limits, which essentially measure the spring-like effect of the driver clubface.

Although none of the drivers failed the testing, Rory McIlroy did say that TaylorMade was “singled out a bit more than anyone else.”

“A manufacturer is always going to try and find ways to get around what the regulations are. It's a bit of an arms race,” said McIlroy, who plays TaylorMade equipment but said his driver was not tested. “If there is some drivers out there that have went a little bit over the limit, then obviously guys shouldn't be playing them. I think the manufacturers are smart enough to know not to try to push it too much.”

There was no individual driver testing at last month’s U.S. Open, and it’s not expected to become the norm on the PGA Tour, but Slumbers did say the R&A tested drivers at an event earlier this year on the Japan Golf Tour.

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Carnoustie open to any number of scenarios

By Rex HoggardJuly 18, 2018, 12:07 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Carnoustie holds a distinct position within the Open Championship’s rotation of storied venues. It’s come by its nickname, Car-Nasty, honestly as the undisputed rough-and-tumble heavyweight of all the championship links.

Historically, Carnoustie is a beast. A punch in the mouth compared to the other stops on The Open dance card. If the likes of the Old Course and Muirfield are the fair ladies of the rotation, the Angus Coast brute would be the unfriendly bouncer.

As personas go, Carnoustie wears its reputation well, but the 147th edition of the game’s oldest championship has taken on a new look this week. It’s not so much the softer side of Carnoustie as it is a testament to the set up philosophy of the R&A.

Unlike its sister association in the United States, the R&A allows Mother Nature to decide what kind of test a championship will present and this Open is shaping up to be something far different than what the golf world is accustomed.

Instead of the thick, lush rough that ringed the fairways in 1999 and 2007, the last two stops at the par-71 layout, this year has a dust bowl feel to it. The stories have already become legend: Padraig Harrington hit a 457-yard drive on the 18th hole during a practice round that bounced and bounded into Barry Burn and on Monday Tiger Woods slashed a 333-yard 3-iron down the same power alley.

“It’s so fast. It’s nothing like ’99 – that was like a jungle. It was wet, rough was up, there was wind. In 2007, it was cold and green,” said Ernie Els, who has played two championships at Carnoustie. “But this is very, very dry. Very different.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Anywhere else these divergent conditions would simply be the nature of the game’s most hands-off major, but at Carnoustie it’s created an information vacuum and wild uncertainty.

Within a 48-hour window, two of the championship’s easy favorites offered diametrically contrasting philosophies on how they might play Carnoustie.

“There's eight or nine drivers we hit. Depending on the wind direction, we could hit more,” said Brooks Koepka, who won his second consecutive U.S. Open last month. “It's so burnt out, where there's a lot of opportunity where the rough's not quite as thick as I expected it to be.”

That was in contrast to how Jordan Spieth, this week’s defending champion, was thinking he would play the course.

“I talked to [caddie Michael Greller] a little bit about what he thinks, and he said, ‘You might hit a lot of 5-irons off the tee, you might wear out 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you're used to,’” Spieth said.

Unlike previous championships that were played at Carnoustie, which were won by the player best prepared to take a punch, this one might come down to which strategy, controlled and calculated or bold and brash, works best.

In theory, the bombers seem to be on to something, primarily as a result of the dry conditions that have produced uncharacteristically thin and playable rough. The alternative is weaving irons in between the countless bunkers that pepper each fairway, which on links courses are widely considered true hazards compared to what players face at other major venues.

“I would definitely say it is a bomber’s course,” said Gary Woodland, who counts himself among the long-hitting set. “A lot of the bunkers here are 285, 290 [yards] to cover, for us that’s nothing. You can take them out of play, which normally isn’t the case because it’s windy and rainy over here.”

That line of thinking leads to a rather narrow list of potential contenders, from betting favorite Dustin Johnson to Rory McIlroy and Koepka. But that logic ignores the inherent unpredictability of The Open, where countless contenders have been undercut by the rub of a bad draw and the always-present danger of inclement weather.

Although this week’s forecast calls for continued dry weather, winds are currently forecast to reach 25 mph on Sunday which could upend game plans, regardless of how aggressive or conservative one intended to play the course.

Despite conventional thinking and the realities of a modern game that is being dominated more and more by long hitters, there are compelling arguments for the other side of the bash-or-bunt debate.

One needs to look no further than Woods’ record on similarly dusty tracks as an example of how a conservative approach can produce championship results. In 2006 at Royal Liverpool, Woods, who is playing his first Open since 2015, famously hit just one driver all week on his way to victory, and he was just as effective in 2000 at St. Andrews when the Old Course also played to a bouncy brown.

“It could be that way,” Woods said when asked to compare ’06 at Hoylake to this week. “Either case, I'm not going to hit that many long clubs off the tees.”

Adding to that uncertainty is Carnoustie’s track record in producing late drama on Sunday. This is, after all, the same slice of coast where Jean Van de Velde stepped to the 18th tee box with a three-stroke lead in 1999 only to slash his way to a closing triple-bogey 7 and the game’s most memorable, or regrettable, runner-up showing.

In ’07, the heartbreak went extra frames for Sergio Garcia, who appeared poised to win his first major championship before he bogeyed the last hole and lost a playoff to Harrington.

Even this week’s baked-out conditions can’t mitigate the importance and challenge of what many consider the most difficult Grand Slam finish; but the yellow hue has certainly created an added degree of uncertainty to an already unpredictable championship.