Monday Scramble: No Spieth in Rio; more rules drama

By Will GrayJuly 11, 2016, 4:25 pm

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?

Getty Images

U.S. Amateur playoff: 24 players for 1 spot in match play

By Associated PressAugust 15, 2018, 1:21 pm

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Cole Hammer and Daniel Hillier were tied at the top after two rounds of the U.S. Amateur, but the more compelling action on Tuesday was further down the leaderboard.

Two dozen players were tied for 64th place after two rounds of stroke play at Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill. With the top 64 advancing to match play, that means all 24 will compete in a sudden-death playoff Wednesday morning for the last spot in the knockout rounds.

U.S. Amateur: Articles, photos and videos

They'll be divided into six foursomes and start the playoff at 7:30 a.m. on the par-3 17th at Pebble Beach, where Tom Watson chipped in during the 1982 U.S. Open and went on to win.

The survivor of the playoff will face the 19-year-old Hillier in match play. The New Zealander shot a 2-under 70 at Spyglass Hill to share medalist honors with the 18-year-old Hammer at 6 under. Hammer, an incoming freshman at Texas who played in the 2015 U.S. Open at age 15, shot 68 at Spyglass Hill.

Stewart Hagestad had the low round of the day, a 5-under 66 at Pebble Beach, to move into a tie for 10th after opening with a 76 at Spyglass Hill. The 27-year-old Hagestad won the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur and earned low amateur honors at the 2017 Masters.

Getty Images

Hammer in position (again) to co-medal at U.S. Am

By Ryan LavnerAugust 14, 2018, 10:37 pm

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Cole Hammer is in position to go for a rare sweep in this summer’s biggest events.

Two weeks ago, Hammer, an incoming freshman at Texas, was the co-medalist at the Western Amateur and went on to take the match-play portion, as well.

Here at the U.S. Amateur, Hammer shot rounds of 69-68 and was once again in position to earn co-medalist honors. At 6-under 137, he was tied with 19-year-old Daniel Hillier of New Zealand.

“It would mean a lot, especially after being medalist at the Western Am,” Hammer said afterward. “It’s pretty special.”

No stroke-play medalist has prevailed in the 64-man match-play bracket since Ryan Moore in 2004. Before that, Tiger Woods (1996) was the most recent medalist champion.  

U.S. Amateur: Articles, photos and videos

On the strength of his Western Am title, Hammer, 18, has soared to No. 18 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He credited his work with swing coach Cameron McCormick and mental coach Bob Rotella.

“Just really started controlling my iron shots really well,” said Hammer, who has worked with McCormick since 2015, when he qualified for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay as a 15-year-old.

“Distance control with my wedges and all my iron shots, playing different shots, has become really a strength in my game. I’ve really turned the putter on this year, and I’m seeing the lines and matching the line with the speed really well. I think that’s been the key to my summer.”

A two-time New Zealand Amateur champion, Hillier is ranked 27th in the world. He said that, entering the tournament, he would have been pleased just to make it to match play.

“But to come out on top, it’s amazing,” Hillier said. “Cole is a really good golfer and has been playing well lately. So, yeah, I’m in good company.”

Getty Images

Tee times, TV schedule, stats for Wyndham Championship

By Golf Channel DigitalAugust 14, 2018, 9:55 pm

It's the last tournament of the PGA Tour's regular season as the top 125 in the FedExCup points list advance to next week's playoff event. Here's the key info for the Wyndham Championship. (Click here for tee times)

How to watch:

Thursday, Rd. 1: Golf Channel, 3-6PM ET; live stream:

Friday, Rd. 2: Golf Channel, 3-6PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream:; CBS, 3-6 p.m.

Sunday, Rd. 4: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream:; CBS, 3-6 p.m.

Purse: $6 million

Course: Sedgefield Country Club (par 70, 7,127 yards)

Defending champion: Henrik Stenson. Last year he defeated Ollie Schniederjans by one stroke to earn his sixth career PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Henrik Stenson at the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Henrik Stenson

• Missed the cut last week at the PGA Championship

• Six top-10 finishes this year, including T-5 at the Masters and T-6 at the U.S. Open

Sergio Garcia

• Eight missed cuts in last 10 PGA Tour starts

• Currently 131 in FedExCup standings (33 points back of 125th)

Webb Simpson

• Five top-10 finishes in this event since 2010 (won in 2011)

• 56 under par in last five years in this event (best of any player in that span)

Getty Images

Faldo: Woods told fellow Masters champ 'I'm done' in '17

By Will GrayAugust 14, 2018, 7:42 pm

Fresh off his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship, it's easy to get caught up in the recent success and ebullient optimism surrounding Tiger Woods. But it was not that long ago that Woods even hitting another competitive shot was very much in doubt.

Six-time major champ Sir Nick Faldo shed light on those darker times during a recent appearance on the Dan Patrick Show when he relayed a story from the 2017 Masters champions' dinner. The annual meal is one of golf's most exclusive fraternities, as only the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club is allowed to dine with the men who have each donned a green jacket.

Last spring Woods had not yet undergone spinal fusion surgery, and Faldo explained that Woods at one point turned to an unnamed Masters champ and grimly assessed his future playing chances.

Wyndham Championship: Articles, photos and videos

"I know he whispered to another Masters champion, two Masters dinners ago, 'I'm done. I won't play golf again,'" Faldo said. "He said, 'I'm done. I'm done, my back is done.' He was in agony. He was in pain. His leg, the pain down his legs, there was nothing enjoyable. He couldn't move. If you watched footage of him, he couldn't even get in and out of the golf cart at the (2016) Ryder Cup when he was a vice captain."

But Woods opted for fusion surgery a few weeks later, and after a lengthy rehab process he returned to competition in December. His 2018 campaign has been nothing short of remarkable, with a pair of runner-up finishes to go along with a T-6 result at The Open when he held the outright lead on the back nine on Sunday.

After apparently even counting himself out, Woods is back up to 26th in the latest world rankings and appears in line to be added as a captain's pick for the Ryder Cup next month.

"What he's been able to do is unbelievable," Faldo said. "To turn this aruond, to get this spine fusion, it's completely taken away the pain. To have this mobility is absolutely amazing. Great on him, and great for golf."