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Monday Scramble: No Spieth in Rio; more rules drama

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Sand gets in the way of a great tournament finish, the Olympic field suffers another notable loss and the golf world turns its attention to Royal Troon, plus more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble.

The USGA just can't seem to escape controversy.

First it was Dustin Johnson and his wobbling golf ball at Oakmont. This time it was Anna Nordqvist, who was denied a chance at the U.S. Women's Open title because her club found a few specks of sand at the wrong time.

Make no mistake, the penalty was correctly applied. Upon video review, it was evident that Nordqvist had, unknowingly, grounded her club in a bunker.

But that doesn't do much to dispel the notion that the USGA seems like an organization that can't stay out of its own way. Its shepherding of some of the game's most intricate (and arcane) rules aside, the USGA has seen the defining moment of both of its biggest tournaments this year turn into a rules official tapping a player on the shoulder and starting into a "We regret to inform you..." speech.

"It's definitely a shame for it to come down to something like that," said winner Brittany Lang. "You never want it to be because of a penalty. You want it to be because of better play."

It's certainly not the scenario officials had hoped for at the beginning of the week, and it's a situation where the optics were worsened with most golf fans still recovering from the debacle of Johnson's penalty at Oakmont.

1. As with Oakmont, the USGA exacerbated the issue with poor communication. While they took too long to decide Johnson's fate last month, at CordeValle the timeline was compressed as the penalty occurred in the midst of a three-hole aggregate playoff.

An odd scene played out on the third and final hole, as TV viewers equipped with video replay realized that Nordqvist would be docked two shots, but the players actually competing for the title strolled down the fairway blissfully unaware of the circumstances.

By the time USGA officials informed Nordqvist and Lang of the penalty, it was after Nordqvist had hit her final approach - but before Lang hit hers, arguably the worst possible time to make such an announcement.

Lang clearly altered the strategy for her wedge shot, as Nordqvist certainly would have done the same with such crucial knowledge in hand. To inform the players at an uneven juncture only increased Lang's advantage, since she was able to play more shots with a full grasp of the big picture.

If officials couldn't reach Nordqvist with a definitive answer before her approach, fine. But in that case, they should have waited until Lang had hit her third shot to No. 18 before informing either player.

2. The whole situation unfortunately overshadows a breakthrough victory for Lang, who at age 30 now has a major title to her credit. Eleven years after she was a surprise runner-up at this event as an amateur, stunned along with Morgan Pressel by Birdie Kim's 72nd-hole bunker shot, this time she remained cool under pressure and made a number of critical putts, none more important than the 12-foot par save on the second extra hole after an errant approach.

Her win also breaks the Korean stranglehold on this national championship, as she becomes just the second American (along with Michelle Wie in 2014) to win the U.S. Women's Open since Paula Creamer took home the trophy at Oakmont in 2010.

3. The rules controversy also took some heat away from Lydia Ko, who let the trophy slip away in surprising fashion.

Ko began the day with a one-shot lead and appeared on cruise control until a hiccup on the eighth hole was followed by a disastrous double bogey on No. 9. After displaying a calm demeanor throughout the week in California, the Kiwi was never quite able to get back on track and ultimately missed the playoff by two shots.

It was an uncharacteristic wobble from the world No. 1, who has two majors in her pocket and likely many more ahead of her. But after she was topped in a playoff by Brooke Henderson at Sahalee, Ko's season could very well be as marked by her multiple wins as by the hardware she let get away.

4. Ko was in the anchor pairing along with Sung-Hyun Park and Eun-Hee Ji when they were put on the clock on the 12th hole, a decision that seemed to rattle all three players coming down the stretch.

"When it is windy and when every shot really counts, to kind of feel a little rushed is tough," Ko said after a 75.

It's a tough break for the final group at a major, until you realize that the trio took 5 hours and 43 minutes to play 18 holes. Nearly six hours! There were winds, sure, but the weather in sunny NorCal certainly seemed to be less of a factor than it was, say, at the Scottish Open.

The women's game is already plagued by the label of slow play. Ko and the tournament leaders did little to flip that script under the spotlight of one of the biggest events of the year.

5a. The U.S. Olympic team got a big boost Sunday when both Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed confirmed their plans to tee it up in Rio.

The entire commitment process hasn't gone exactly as planned over the past few weeks, as seemingly one big name after another has dropped out with most citing Zika concerns. Dustin Johnson was the latest to skip the Olympics, a decision that gave Reed another chance to wear the stars and stripes after an entertaining Ryder Cup debut in 2014.

5b. Of course, their decision was quickly overshadowed by the withdrawal of Jordan Spieth on Monday.

Spieth's comments about the Olympics had grown increasingly non-committal in recent weeks, and he now joins the other three highest-ranked players in the world on the sidelines next month. It's arguably the biggest loss for golf's return to the Games, and somewhat surprising given Spieth's earlier comments and his sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola, which pumps large amounts of sponsorship dollars into the Olympics every other year.

There are a number of valid issues surrounding golf in the Rio Games, and there will be plenty of time to dissect where things went wrong for the International Golf Federation. But if the top four players in the world withdrawing from the competition isn't a worst-case scenario, it has to be pretty close - and might get even closer if Spieth decides to defend his title at the John Deere Classic while the Olympics are being conducted half a world away. 

6. Clearly, the current theme of Olympic golf is more about who will be sitting out than who will participate in the sport's return from a 112-year hiatus. But expect that to change.

After all, there were rumblings back in 2008 that Padraig Harrington's two major wins should come with an asterisk because world No. 1 Tiger Woods missed both events with a leg injury. But eight years down the line, Harrington is simply viewed as a three-time major champion - and rightfully so.

The notables skipping the Olympics are a legitimate story, and a sizeable one at that leading into the Games. But once the first ball goes in the air, the story will shift to the players, and the course, and the glory that comes with winning a medal while representing one's country.

Twenty years from now, fans won't remember which golfers skipped the Olympics. But they'll remember who won.

7. No one is questioning the Olympic spirit of Jaco van Zyl these days. The South African has a spot in Rio after three of his countrymen withdrew earlier this year, and he's not taking it lightly: van Zyl announced this week that he would withdraw from both the Open and the PGA Championship to rest up for Rio.

It's an unconventional choice, sure. And perhaps if he had been as enthusiastic about playing in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in March, he would have stayed in the OWGR top 50 long enough to book his first trip to the Masters. But credit to van Zyl for owning up to his decision, despite the potential consequences, to make the Olympics a clear priority.

8. After a rare bye week on the PGA Tour, it's officially time to turn our attention to the 145th Open. While Zach Johnson will look to defend the claret jug, much more attention will be on Dustin Johnson as he looks for his second straight major and third win in as many starts after his victory last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Royal Troon may not seem like an ideal course for Johnson, but keep in mind that he appeared on cruise control en route to the 36-hole lead last year at St. Andrews and, were it not for an ill-fated long iron approach, could very well have won at Royal St. George's in 2011.

Then again, when you have a 340-yard power fade on speed dial, there isn't a course in the world that seems too tough to handle.

9. Some players who are not receiving nearly enough attention heading into tournament week, with odds courtesy the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook:

- Branden Grace (20/1): The South African's last four major championship results? T-4, T-20, third, T-5. Expect him on the leaderboard come Sunday.

- Louis Oosthuizen (30/1): Twice a runner-up in majors last year, Oosthuizen has now finished T-30 or better in seven straight majors dating back to the 2014 PGA Championship.

- Martin Kaymer (50/1): A two-time major champ who is starting to turn things around at just the right time heading into a busy summer stretch.

- Russell Knox (60/1): Fresh off a top-10 at Castle Stuart, Knox has stepped his game up considerably over the past year and will have plenty of support from the Scottish crowds.

10. One player not flying under the radar would be Phil Mickelson, who closed with a 66 at Castle Stuart to post a T-13 finish that makes it seem like he was much more of a factor than he was. Mickelson is one of the few players in the Open field with some Troon experience, having missed the playoff in 2004 by only a single shot.

Lefty is always prone to stepping up in the biggest occasions, and he is not that far removed from a run of strong play that carried him through much of the spring. But this week marks the three-year anniversary of his most recent worldwide win, a stat that no one would have believed when he walked off the final green at Muirfield with the claret jug in tow.

11. One notable absence this week in Scotland was that of Fowler, who didn't return to defend the title he won in dramatic fashion last year at Gullane.

The summer schedule is hectic for all the top players, and Fowler has a sponsorship deal with Quicken Loans which meant he played Congressional the week between the U.S. Open and WGC-Bridgestone. It also meant that a two-week stint in Scotland would have made the Open his fifth start in as many weeks, and the PGA would have been six out of seven.

It's an understandable decision in a situation where something has to give. But it's still unfortunate that Fowler couldn't find a way to defend at one of the more prestigious events on the European Tour.

"Bethany Lang."

That's the name that USGA president Diana Murphy went with during the trophy ceremony at CordeValle - not once, but multiple times, to the point that the crowd tried to chant "Brittany" in unison to get her to realize her error. Murphy never appeared to do so, and by the time she issued an apology late Sunday night, the damage was already done.

This week's award winners ... 

Golden first win?: Gerina Piller's T-8 finish at CordeValle was just enough to sneak her into the top 15 in the world, earning her an Olympic berth in the process. It's a testament to her consistency this year, and an even more remarkable achievement considering the fact that she has yet to record her first LPGA win. To find a male counterpart without a PGA Tour or European Tour win, you have to go all the way down to K.T. Kim at No. 42.

Better late than never: The final player to crash the Olympic party on the men's side was Espen Kofstad, who will represent Norway in Rio after his playoff win at a European Challenge Tour event in Slovakia. Known more as a winter sports destination, Norway actually took home four medals at the 2012 Olympics, including a pair of golds.

Check, please: Rick Lamb pulled off a Cinderella story at the Tour's LECOM Health Challenge, going from Monday qualifier to the winner's circle in the span of a week. Lamb capped things with a chip-in birdie to win a four-man playoff, and after missing the cut in his first two Web events, both after Monday qualifying, he made his first check of the season one of the big, novelty kind.

Next event up: Golf doesn't have an Ironman award, but if it did, the hardware might go to Danny Lee. After floods prevented him from defending his title at The Greenbrier, Lee flew to Scotland and tied for third at Castle Stuart. While many top names are finding any reason they can to snag a week off, Lee was given a very legitimate reason to rest and instead challenged himself against a new venue on short notice.

Whatever works: John Daly played his way into the mix this weekend on the PGA Tour Champions, then proceeded to putt one-handed during the final round:

Because, why not?