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Monday Scramble: Many happy returns

By Will GrayMarch 5, 2018, 5:00 pm

Phil Mickelson and Michelle Wie finally get their trophies, Justin Thomas somehow continues to improve, Tiger Woods adds to his schedule, the governing bodies talk distance and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

The drama Sunday was not limited to the Oscars.

It was a banner weekend for marquee golfers breaking out of notable winless droughts, as Wie surged to her first victory since 2014 with a 72nd-hole birdie in Singapore. Of course, that turned out to simply be an amuse-bouche for the main course: a sudden-death playoff in Mexico where Mickelson topped Thomas for his first win since 2013.

While they're separated by nearly 20 years, both Wie and Mickelson have traveled a similar path of late. Wie has battled a barrage of injuries as she largely faded from prominence, while Mickelson was almost out of the top 50 in the world rankings for the first time in 25 years last month.

Suddenly they're both smiling and hoisting hardware, a reminder that perseverance will get you a long way in this game.

Given enough time, adversity hits every player regardless of ability. It's the great ones who find a way to stand back up on the other side.

1. Let's kick things off with Mickelson, who has been saying for weeks that he's playing some of the best golf in his career and finally has tangible proof of that confidence.

The 47-year-old seemed visibly nervous down the stretch, but he was able to keep the butterflies at bay while chasing down Thomas, who had posted the clubhouse lead. It's win No. 43 of his career, but given the toils of the last five years it likely won't rank much below his five major wins on the personal power rankings.

It's been amazing to watch Mickelson go toe-to-toe with Father Time in recent years, digging in for a fight that he knows will take every ounce of talent, strength and focus he can muster.

But Sunday's win in Mexico was his fourth straight top-6 finish - the first such run of his career. It seems that Mickelson is not only keeping up with players half his age, but he has found a way to chisel out some of his very best golf at a time when many of his peers might be counting down until their PGA Tour Champions card arrives in the mail.

2. Mickelson's win is appropriate given the fact that it came during a vintage Lefty week. The Phil highlights included, but were not limited to:

  • Mistaking the 54-hole leader for a member of the media
  • Asking one of his playing partners to clarify the pronunciation of his name
  • Hitting a shot in the final round from deep within a shrub
  • Hitting another shot Sunday through a seemingly non-existent gap in the trees
  • Helping a playing partner understand his options during a rules situation
  • Explaining to Mexican fans en español that he'll sign autographs after the round
  • Last but certainly not least, offering during an interview that he may have been a bumblebee in a past life

3. Following the round, Mickelson was asked if he'll get seven more wins to reach 50 for his career before calling it quits.

"No, I will," he said before the question was even fully formed. "I'll get there."

There's reason to believe, at the very least, that Mickelson isn't done with his latest title. Players have gone on mini-tears before - look no further than Thomas last year, and last fall Justin Rose finally got back into the winner's circle after a year of strong play only to win again the very next week.

As the memories of Muirfield became more distant, Mickelson's next win was always going to be the toughest one to get. Now that he has it, don't be surprised if he finds No. 44 in short order.

4. Mickelson's overtime victory transformed Thomas' jaw-dropping, 121-yard eagle on the 72nd hole into simply an exciting footnote.

Fresh off his win at the Honda Classic, Thomas seemed like an also-ran after two rounds of even-par play. But he found a new gear over the weekend, going 62-64 and jarring his final approach in regulation to nearly steal his third win of the young season.

Thomas rightly viewed his playoff runner-up as a bonus given his slow start, and last week's win likely helped soften the blow of defeat. But the weekend rally is another example of incremental improvement for a player who, despite coming off a breakthrough campaign that featured five wins and a major, seems to only be getting better.

5. Thomas' results in 2018: T-22, T-14, T-17, T-9, Win, P-2.

He's now up to No. 2 in the world rankings, past both Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth. It might only be a matter of time before he supplants Dustin Johnson - either as world No. 1 or as the favorite to win the Masters.

6. You have to think that former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was beaming with pride over the product last week in Mexico, as the dream of what a WGC event might become was realized.

Yes, the tournament was decided in a playoff between two Americans. But before that it put 21-year-old Shubankhar Sharma on the map, and it nearly featured a breakthrough win for England's Tyrrell Hatton. The leaderboard at Chapultepec became a whirring blur of flags from various nationalities, all leading up to an edge-of-your-seat finish.

It made the WGC-Mexico Championship the most captivating Tour event of 2018, and it served as a wonderful showcase for just how global the game has become.

7. In the early morning hours Sunday, Wie laid out a blueprint for a star returning to the peak that Mickelson would follow later in the day.

Her one-shot victory at the HSBC Women's World Championship came in style, as she sunk a 36-foot birdie putt on the final hole that set off a raucous celebration.

When Wie won the 2014 U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst, the thought was that it could serve as a career highlight but would also lead to many more wins. The second half of that equation hasn't exactly panned out, as the former teen prodigy has battled her body for long stretches and her form and confidence both waned as a result.

But now she's back to her winning ways, and while it feels like she's been around the game for an eternity, Wie is only 28 years old - for perspective, that's six months younger than Rory McIlroy. There's still plenty of time for her to write many more chapters.

8. Wie's victory was also a big win for the LPGA.

It came on the heels of a sensational victory from Jessica Korda the week prior, and it came over a star-studded leaderboard that included major champs Brooke Henderson and Danielle Kang as well as Nelly Korda, who was seeking a sisterly back-to-back.

It's often hard for the LPGA to steal the spotlight from the men, especially when up against a WGC event. But Wie's victory certainly did that for a part of the day, and the most recent Asian fortnight has flashed the potential of the highs the ladies' tour can reach when some of its best players are both winning and producing captivating storylines.

9. So, Tiger's back. Again.

The fact that Woods committed to next week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, came as no surprise. But his decision to sneak in a trip to the Valspar Championship beforehand qualifies as an unexpected treat.

Woods hasn't played Innisbrook since teaming with Kelli Kuehne for a co-ed team event back in 1996. But given a week off after his 12th-place showing at PGA National, he (and more importantly, his body) are ready to hop back inside the ropes.

It's an enticing prospect to have Woods tussle with the tree-lined Copperhead Course, where his shot-making will be put to the test. But it's a great long-term sign for Woods' health that he feels ready for another back-to-back, and his mere appearance in Tampa should ratchet up the Masters fervor a few notches.

10. Woods' appearance is also a great win for Valspar officials, including tournament director Tracey West, who have quietly compiled the strongest field in the history of the event.

Woods' 11th-hour commitment was mirrored by that of 2015 winner Spieth, as the two join a field that already included the likes of Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia. A tournament that was relegated to the fall for a stretch in the early 2000s now has a surplus of big names, including the biggest draw in the game.

Helped in part by the Tour's new 1-in-4 rule that calls for stars to add new events to their schedule, the Travelers Championship saw a dramatic increase in field strength last year and produced one of the season's best finishes. It seems the Valspar could be getting a similar bump this time around.

11. After years of a "slow creep," distance gains have finally caught the attention of the governing bodies.

The USGA and R&A released a joint study Monday that found driving distance has increased across seven major tours by more than three yards on average. That comes after the same study last year found that drives had increased a paltry 0.2 yards per year since 2003.

It's the latest move in a calculated game of chess between the governing bodies, the professional tours and the equipment manufacturers regarding the eye-popping distances achieved by some of the game's elite. More studies and reports are sure to follow, and only one thing remains certain: this topic isn't going away anytime soon.

12. The study sparked quick responses from both the PGA Tour and PGA of America, with both organizations downplaying the need for sweeping change. Tour commissioner Jay Monahan's reasoning was especially interesting.

In a letter to Tour members, Monahan outlined the "strong correlation" between increased distance and increased club head speed. The latter increase, in turn, was tied to non-equipment factors like player athleticism, improved fitting and increased launch monitor data.

Monahan even pointed out that Tour players, on average, are getting both younger and taller. So don't expect Ponte Vedra Beach to line up behind a possible roll back of the ball anytime soon.

Tyrrell Hatton's bid to win his first WGC event was derailed by a poorly-placed spike mark on the final green, but it nearly came to an end much earlier in the week.

Hatton was one of several players to struggle last year with the ... digestive challenges an event in Mexico can create, and his tweets after the first couple rounds showed that he was once again dealing with off-course issues:

Thankfully for Hatton, his stomach cooperated - and nearly helped him to one of the more unexpected wins in recent memory.

This week's award winners ... 

Comeback kid: Steve Stricker. Believe it or not, the longest victory drought ended on Sunday belonged to Stricker, who won the Cologuard Classic for his first PGA Tour Champions title and his first win since the 2012 Tournament of Champions.

Soaking up the stage: Shubankhar Sharma. While the final round didn't go as planned, the 21-year-old turned plenty of heads while racing to the top of the leaderboard in Mexico. His earnest zeal was evident, and his potential to serve as a success story for future Indian golfers is clear.

Disaster artist: This one goes to the photographer who nearly stepped on Justin Thomas' ball during the playoff, and would have had it not been for a timely shove from Thomas himself. It can get chaotic inside the ropes down the stretch, but there was no reason for the cameraman to get that close to the ball - and nearly alter the outcome of the tournament with one size-11 stomp.

Still seeking reps: Tony Romo, who withdrew from a 36-hole mini-tour event in Texas after 27 holes after a rocky start that included a quintuple-bogey 10 in the opening round. T-minus three weeks until his PGA Tour debut in the Dominican Republic.

Nice little offseason: Larry Fitzgerald. After teaming with Kevin Streelman to win the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the Cardinals wideout paired with Jon Rahm at the Seminole Pro-Member on Monday and then teed it up with Tiger Woods later in the week. Who needs two-a-days?

Father of the year: Brandt Snedeker, who soldiered on at his daughter's school despite a mis-spelled cake that might have been the demise of lesser men:

Blown fantasy pick of the week: Rickie Fowler. He gets the nod for the second straight week after a back-nine 41 Sunday led to a closing 75 that dropped him from a solid paycheck all the way into a tie for 37th among the 64-man field. While Mickelson and Thomas lit it up, Fowler made only two birdies over his final 27 holes.

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"The Men In Blazers" Hosting Nightly Show From The Open, July 18-22 on NBCSN

By Golf Channel Public RelationsJuly 17, 2018, 1:55 pm

Show to Include Off-beat Interviews, Unique Features and Men In Blazers Distinctive Takes on The Open

VIDEO: Men In Blazers: Carnoustie Through the Years Hosting The Open

Culminating in France’s thrilling win on Sunday, NBC Sports’ critically-acclaimed The Men In Blazers – Roger Bennett and Michael Davies – have spent the past month breaking down all of the action surrounding the FIFA World Cup. However, there will be no rest for the duo as they leave behind their Panic Room studio in the “crap part of SoHo” in Manhattan to host a nightly show in conjunction with The 147TH Open. The show will feature the pair’s signature, unconventional style in providing unique takes on golf’s original championship while “sporting an arsenal of the finest golf sweaters that could be found on eBay.” Originating from Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland, Men In Blazers will air nightly on NBCSN Wednesday, July 18 through Sunday, July 22.

In addition to delivering a series of features for NBC Sports’ coverage surrounding The Open, the nightly Men In Blazers show on NBCSN will offer expanded highlights following each round; off-beat interviews, special guests and cameos; along with non-traditional stories highlighting cultural elements relevant to Carnoustie and The Open.

“Both Davo and I grew up with The Open being the heartbeat of our sporting year,” said Bennett. “To cover it from that beautiful monster that is Carnoustie is the honor of a lifetime. We look forward to savoring every attempt to tame Hogan’s Alley, the futile battle between man and nature, and all those ‘subtle’ Ian Poulter wardrobe changes, in equal measure.”

Dedicated features being showcased over the duration of the week include: a retrospect on past Opens having been staged at Carnoustie; an in-depth recollection of the unforgettable 1999 Open; an introduction to the second-oldest golf shop in the world; a history lesson on Carnoustie and its influence on golf around the world; and an examination of Carnoustie’s local delicacy known as “bridies”.


Wednesday, July 18               11-11:30 p.m. (NBCSN)

Thursday, July 19                   11-11:30 p.m. (NBCSN)

Friday, July 20                        1-1:30 a.m. (NBCSN, Saturday overnight)

Saturday, July 21                    11:30 p.m.-Midnight (NBCSN)

Sunday, July 22                      10-10:30 p.m. (NBCSN)

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Woods delofts 2-iron to use off Carnoustie tees

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 1:23 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Tiger Woods has been effective this season hitting a 2-iron off many tees, reverting to a version of the stinger shot he made so popular.

This week at baked out and brown Carnoustie he went to the next level, adding a new 2-iron to his bag that he bent to 17 degrees, down from his normal 20-degree version.

“I took a few degrees off of it, just trying to be able to have the ability to chase one down there,” he explained on Tuesday.

Woods said he still carries the club about the same distance, from 245 to 250 yards, but “it gets to its final destination much differently [on the ground].”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“Obviously, it rolls out whereas mine back home, I've generally liked having it 20 degrees because I can hit the ball into the par 5s as an option,” he said. “This one's not really designed for hitting the ball in the air to par 5s as an option. It's more of a driving club.”

After playing two practice rounds, Woods said he wasn’t sure how much he would use the new 2-iron given the dry conditions which have led to ridiculously long tee shots, and he said he might adjust the club more if the course doesn’t slow down.

“If it softens up, it could be a good club,” he said. “If it doesn't soften up, then I might just add a degree to it and keep it a little softer and not have it so hot.”

The Open is the second consecutive event where Woods has added to his bag. At The National earlier this month, he went with a new mallet-headed putter that he plans to continue to use this week.

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Europeans out to end the recent American dominance

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 12:59 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In golf’s biggest events, the Americans have left the rest of the world feeling red, white and mostly blue.

If you’re wondering whether the U.S. currently holds a meaningful title, the answer is probably yes.

Golf’s four majors? Yep.

The Ryder Cup? Indeed.

The No. 1 player in the world? Absolutely.

The Presidents, Solheim, Walker, Palmer and Curtis Cups? Uh-huh.

It’s been a popular talking point at the men’s majors, as Europe’s finest players have been peppered about why they’ve all seemingly fallen under Uncle Sam’s spell.

After all, the Americans haven’t ripped off five major wins in a row like this since 1981-82 – when Justin Rose was still in diapers.

“I don’t know what I’d put it to down to,” the Englishman said Tuesday, “other than the American boys in the world rankings and on the golf course are performing really, really well. The top end of American golf right now is incredibly strong.”

Since 2000, the Americans have taken titles at eight of the nine courses on the modern Open rota. The only one they’ve yet to conquer is Carnoustie, and that’s probably because they’ve only had one crack at it, in 2007, when an Irishman, Padraig Harrington, prevailed in a playoff.

Not since Tom Watson in 1975 has a U.S. player survived Carnoustie, arguably the most difficult links on the planet. But Americans ranging from Dustin Johnson to Tiger Woods comprise six of the oddsmakers' top 10 favorites, all listed at 25/1 or better.

“America, there’s no doubt about it, and there’s no other way to put it, other than they have an exceptional bunch of players at the moment,” Tommy Fleetwood said. “It just so happens that it has been a run of American golfers that have won majors, but at the same time, they’ve generally been the best players in the world at the time that they’ve won them.

“You don’t really look at them as a nationality. You just look at them as players and people, and you can understand why they’re the ones winning the majors.”

Indeed, there’s not a fluke among them.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Since this American run began last summer at Erin Hills, Brooks Koepka (twice), Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed have hoisted trophies. All were inside the top 25 in the world when they won. All were multiple-time winners on the world stage before that major. And all, most ominously for Europe, were 29 or younger.

“There’s a bit of camaraderie amongst all of them,” Rose said. “I know Brooks and Dustin are incredibly close, and you’ve got Rickie (Fowler) and Justin Thomas and Jordan as a group are all really close. It’s working really well for them. They’re spurring each other on.”

That’s why there’s even more anticipation than usual for the Ryder Cup. The Americans haven’t won on foreign soil in a quarter century, but this band of brothers is better and closer than those who have tried and failed before them. Couple that with a few aging stars on the European side, and there’s a growing sense that the Americans could be on the verge of a dominant stretch.

That should sound familiar.

During an eight-major span in 2010-11, the most common refrain was: What’s Wrong with American Golf? International players captured seven consecutive majors, including six in a row at one point. They took over the top spot in the world rankings. They turned the Ryder Cup into a foregone conclusion. In the fall of 2010, Colin Montgomerie pounded his chest and declared that there’d been a “changing of the guard over to Europe,” and it was hard to find fault in his reasoning.

“European golf was very healthy a few years ago for a long time,” McIlroy said. “It seemed like every major someone from the island of Ireland turned up to, we were winning it. It doesn’t seem that long ago.”

Because it wasn’t.

So even though it’s been more than a year since an International player held any title of consequence, these types of runs are cyclical, and Europe in particular has no shortage of contenders.

Major drought or not, McIlroy is a threat every time he tees it up. Rose turns 38 in two weeks, but he’s playing arguably the best golf of his career, recording a top-10 finish in a ridiculous 17 of his past 21 starts. Fleetwood is fresh off a runner-up finish at the U.S. Open, where he closed with 63. Jon Rahm is a top-5 machine. Alex Noren just won on the Ryder Cup course in France.

“I think Tommy, clearly, showed how close the Europeans are to challenging that dominance as well,” Rose said. “So it’s not like we’re a mile behind. It’s just that they’re on a great run right now, and there’s no reason why a European player shouldn’t come through this week.”

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Links to the past: Tiger's return revives Open memories

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 12:51 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Tiger Woods rekindles his love affair with links golf this week at Carnoustie, which seems about right considering his introduction to the ancient ways of the game began here on the Angus coast.

It was here on the most brutal of the Open Championship rota courses that a 19-year-old Tiger first played links golf at the 1995 Scottish Open, an eye-opening and enlightening experience.

“I remember my dad on the range with me, saying, ‘Are you ever going to hit the ball past the 100 yard sign?’” Woods recalled on Tuesday at Carnoustie, his first start at The Open since 2015. “I said, ‘No, I'm just enjoying this. Are you kidding me? This is the best.’”

During this most recent comeback, Tiger has been all smiles. A new, relaxed version of his former self made calm and approachable by age and the somber influence of injury. But this week has been different.

During a practice round with Justin Thomas on Monday he laughed his way all the way around the brown and bouncy seaside layout. Much of that had to do with his return to the unique ways of links golf, the creative left side of his brain taking the wheel from the normally measured right side for one glorious week.

He talked of game plans and strategic advantages on a parched pitch that has seen drives rolling out over 400 yards. At his core, Tiger is a golf nerd for all the right reasons and this kind of cerebral test brings out the best of that off-the-charts golf IQ.

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Although there are no shortages of defining moments in Tiger’s career and one can make all sorts of arguments for what would be his seminal moment – from the 1997 Masters to the 2008 U.S. Open –the 2006 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool stands out, based on near-perfect execution.

In ’06 at Liverpool, which played to a similar shade of dusty yellow as Carnoustie will this week, Tiger hit just a single driver, opting instead for a steady diet of long irons off tees. For the week he hit 48 of 56 fairways, 58 of 72 greens and rolled the field for a two-stroke victory and his third, and most recent, claret jug.

This Open has all the makings of a similar tactical tour de force. For this championship he’s put a new 2-iron into play that’s more like a strong 1-iron (17 degrees) and imagines, given the conditions, a similar low, running menu.

“It could be that way,” Woods said when asked the similarities between this week’s conditions and the ’06 championship. “I'm not going to hit that many long clubs off the tees, just because I hit a 3-iron on Monday, down 18, I went 333 [yards]. It can get quick out here.”

If Tiger ever needed a major championship confidence boost the Carnoustie Open would be it, an inspiring walk down memory lane to a time when he was the undisputed king of golf.

“[The ’06 Open] is the closest you can compare to this,” David Duval said. “But I struggle to remember that golf course being as fast as this one. It was close, but this one is something else.”

Ernie Els had a slightly different take, albeit one that was no less ominous to the rest of the field this week.

“Liverpool is on a sand hill, this has a bit more run to it,” Els said. “But it’s got the same feel. It’s almost like St. Andrews was in 2000. Very, very fast.”

It’s worth noting that Tiger also won that ’00 Open at the Home of Golf with an even more dominant performance. It is the unique challenges of the links test that make many, even Tiger, consider the Open Championship his best chance to continue his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.

More than any other Grand Slam gathering, The Open is blind to age and the notion of players competing past their prime. In 2008 at Royal Birkdale, then-53-year-old Greg Norman flirted with the lead until the very end, finishing tied for third; a year later at Turnberry, Tom Watson came within one hole of history at 59 years young.

“It certainly can be done,” Woods said. “You get to places like Augusta National, where it's just a big ballpark, and the golf course outgrows you, unfortunately. That's just the way it goes. But links-style golf courses, you can roll the ball. Even if I get a little bit older, I can still chase some wood or long club down there and hit the ball the same distance.”

Whether this is the week Tiger gets back into the Grand Slam game depends on his ability to replicate those performances from years past on a similarly springy course. As he exited the media center bound for the practice putting green on Tuesday he seemed renewed by the cool sea breeze and the unique challenges of playing the game’s oldest championship.

Coming back to Carnoustie is more than a reintroduction to links golf; for Tiger it’s starting to feel like a bona fide restart to his major career.