Monday Scramble: Best in the World

By Will GrayMarch 6, 2017, 4:45 pm

Dustin Johnson remains top dog, Rory McIlroy shows signs of promise, Phil Mickelson escapes as only he can, a new course shines and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

He came to Mexico as No. 1, and he's leaving as No. 1.

Much of the early-round fanfare went to other players, but when the last putt fell it was Johnson who had separated from the other elite contenders, strengthening his spot atop the world rankings.

Johnson showed plenty of power at Club de Golf Chapultepec, hitting par-4 greens with irons and launching missiles that may still be in orbit. But this tournament was won not with his braun, but with his touch.

Johnson made a number of critical up-and-downs from tough spots during the final round, including one for birdie on No. 15 that ultimately provided the winning margin. Then, clinging to a one-shot lead on the final hole, he produced a fairway bunker shot from an awkward lie that would've made Tiger Woods blush.

The delineation between any of the top six golfers in the world is razor-thin at the moment, but Johnson seems to have been on cruise control for the better part of a month. That doesn't bode well for the other five in the upper echelon.

1. Johnson's win might have been even more convincing had his putter made the trip south.

DJ missed a total of 16 putts inside 10 feet for the week, including several during an opening-round 70 that left him chasing the pack. That mark tied Vijay Singh for the most close-range putts missed by an eventual tournament winner in the last decade.

Granted, Johnson made more than his fair share from long range - 10, to be precise. But his ability to win in spite of a number of short misses shows how much his game has grown in recent months.

2. Among the many accolades to come his way, Johnson now joins a prestigious list of players to win their first start as the No. 1-ranked player in the world:

  • Ian Woosnam (1991 Masters)
  • David Duval (1999 BellSouth Classic)
  • Vijay Singh (2004 RBC Canadian Open)
  • Adam Scott (2014 Dean & DeLuca Invitational)
  • Dustin Johnson (2017 WGC-Mexico Championship)

3. While Johnson's win was impressive, the true standout performer this week was the Club de Golf Chapultepec.

Little was known about the host site entering the week, but it provided an exacting test for the game's best players. What's more, it created compelling, can't-look-away shotmaking at every turn.

Just months before the USGA hosts the U.S. Open at one of its biggest ballparks ever, Chapultepec showed that short, tight and tree-lined is still a winning combination.

Players were forced to improvise with nearly every errant shot, and the yardage conversions at 7,500 feet of altitude meant tons of play was dictated by feel.

It's unfortunate that Doral no longer has a spot on the Tour's schedule, but Chapultepec proved to be a worthy - and more entertaining - replacement.

4. He didn't win, but MIckelson certainly gave the Mexican fans their money's worth.

No one embraced the shotmaking challenges of Chapultepec quite like Mickelson - partly thanks to his imagination, and partly out of necessity because he couldn't keep his tee shots on the planet.

It's a skill set that has won five majors, and it was on full display during a third-round 68 that included nearly as many free relief drops (three) as fairways hit (four).

And it was all capped by an "I know it looks bad" discussion with an official before taking a drop from an above-ground sprinkler head while buried in the middle of a shrub.

Never change, Phil.

5. A T-7 finish for McIlroy out-performed even his own expectations.

McIlroy made his much-anticipated return from a rib injury and didn't appear to lose a step, opening with rounds of 68-65 before slowing down over the weekend.

It's easy to lose sight of the Ulsterman, what with Johnson's convincing ascent to No. 1 and wins by Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler in his absence. But McIlroy more than held his own in his attempt to kick off the rust, and that bodes well with the Masters in sight.

This season is already filled with plenty of major storylines, but the trip down Magnolia Lane won't be the same without McIlroy firing on all cylinders as he chases the career Grand Slam.

6. The back-nine rally came up short this time, but Jon Rahm offered another example as to why his stock remains red-hot.

The Spaniard turned pro less than a year ago, but he's already won on a beastly track (Torrey Pines) and contended on several others. Sunday he was the only player to give Johnson a run for his money, briefly overtaking him for the lead before a pair of three-putt bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17.

Many casual fans will cite Rahm as a Masters sleeper next month, but that label doesn't even fit anymore if you've been paying attention.

7. The USGA and R&A announced this past week a proposal to lighten the rule book, and we're all better for it.

There will be plenty of time to analyze the new rules before they go into effect in January 2019, and the debate will rage on over why a spike mark can be fixed but a ball must still be played from a divot.

But golf's two governing bodies did well for both the amateur and the professional with one word: simplify.

After so many recent headaches with seemingly miniscule infractions and complicated decisions, a little dose of common sense will go a long way toward making the game easier - and faster - to play.

8. While most of the rule changes were well-received, a few LPGA players bristled at the notion that their caddies will soon not be allowed to line them up.

There is no limit to the list of skills required to play golf at a high level, but one of them surely is the ability to gauge your own alignment. What once served as a helpful confirmation at address has become, for many, a crutch.

It'll be an adjustment for some top players, sure, but it's no different than the one several top men endured when adjusting to the anchoring ban.

9. Welcome back Queen Bee.

Inbee Park has been largely on the sideline since her gold medal-winning performance in Rio, but the former No. 1 showed in Singapore that when she's on her game, she's almost impossible to beat.

Park entered the final round amid a crowded leaderboard that also included top-ranked players Lydia Ko and Ariya Jutanugarn. But Park left them all in her dust with five straight birdies en route to a final-round 64 and a one-shot win.

It was just her second start since the Olympics, an event that itself was preceded by a long injury layoff for Park. But if she's as healthy as she seemed during Sunday's finale, the rest of her peers will need to step up their games.

10. While she didn't win, it was refreshing to see MIchelle Wie's name again on an LPGA leaderboard.

Wie reached the pinnacle of the game at the 2014 U.S. Women's Open, but she's barely been heard from since and entered last week ranked No. 179 in the world. An opening 66 gave her an early lead, and she ultimately tied for fourth.

Wie leaned all week on the mantra that she had once again found a way to have fun on the golf course. Her career has already had more than its fair share of twists and turns, but at age 27 Wie still has plenty of script left to write.

11. The rankings giveth and the rankings taketh away.

Last week Charles Howell III was bumped out of a spot in the WGC-Mexico at the last minute, passed by both Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland at Honda.

This week Ross Fisher - who finished 20th in the Race to Dubai standings when only the top 20 qualified for Mexico - made the most of his opportunity and tied for third after a final-round 65.

The result should allow Fisher to go from one WGC to the next, as he's now 55th in the world with the top 64 next week qualifying for the WGC-Dell Match Play.

What's more, he now has a chance to earn a spot in the Masters with a strong run through the bracket, given that the top 50 on March 27 will earn trips down Magnolia Lane.

As for Howell, he heads to Tampa firmly on the match-play bubble at No. 65, and a return to Augusta National remains barely out of reach as a result.

12. Thomas Pieters' T-5 finish in Mexico shows his game can travel.

The Belgian bomber has already been discussed as a player to watch at the Masters and U.S. Open at Erin Hills, but his result this week - and his runner-up at Riviera - shows he does not need a big ballpark to thrive.

The former NCAA champ has found his footing on the global stage, thanks in large part to his coming-out party at Hazeltine. With his PGA Tour privileges now secured for the rest of the season, don't be surprised if a win soon follows.

The reviews this week in Mexico were largely positive, save perhaps for the food.

A number of players were stricken with some form of stomach bug or food poisoning, ranging from McIlroy to William McGirt and including Henrik Stenson, who withdrew after only 11 holes.

But the gastrointestinal issues also extended to the caddies, notably Mickelson's bag man, Jim "Bones" Mackay. Mackay appeared to struggle for much of the week, and even had to tap out during the second round at which point Mickelson's brother, Tim, took over as caddie.

Mackay was back on the bag for the weekend, but you know it had to be bad considering the fact that Mackay had double knee replacement surgery in October and didn't miss a start.

This week's award winners ... 

Steering Clear of the Snake Pit: Jordan Spieth. Spieth's win at the Valspar Championship sparked his 2015 season, but he has opted to skip the event for the first time as a professional. He's also unlikely to play Bay Hill, meaning Spieth will have skipped the entire Florida swing and will instead use Austin and Houston for his final Masters prep.

Freefall of the Week: Lee Westwood. Westwood birdied two of his first four holes Sunday to reach 11 under and get within a shot of the lead. He then played the rest of his round in 9 over, including four doubles, to finish in a tie for 28th. Ouch.

Turnaround of the Week: Brandt Snedeker. Snedeker was on the other side of the coin, opening with a 75 before going 14 under across his final 54 holes to snag a share of seventh.

Head on a Swivel: Justin Thomas' frustrations got the better of him Sunday, including at one point when a club toss off the tee nearly sent his driver into the gallery. Thomas took the result in stride, and at least it led to a memorable Twitter exchange between him and McIlroy, who has been known to toss a club or two in his day.

Turnabout is Fair Play: Tommy Fleetwood. The Englishman beat Johnson by a shot in Abu Dhabi in January, but this week Johnson was able to edge him by a shot in Mexico. It's still a strong result for Fleetwood, whose recent turnaround continues to impress.

Obligatory Tiger Stat: Johnson's win moves him into second on the all-time WGC victories list with four. But the only man in front of him on that list is Woods, who has 18 trophies on his mantle. That's a record that will still be standing long after we are gone.

Still Seeking Momentum: Danny Willett. The reigning Masters champ missed the cut at Honda, then shot four straight rounds over par in Mexico to finish 69th out of 76 players. Still, there's no better place to limp in for a title defense (and celebratory dinner) than Augusta.

Tweet of the week: Tour rookie Grayson Murray, who believes a rising social media tide would lift all boats:

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Stenson. In a no-cut event you always expect your players to make it through 72 holes at the very least, but the Swede's abrupt first-round exit doomed many a lineup. Alas.

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Rosaforte Report: Toski lively, singing and ready to go home

By Tim RosaforteJune 22, 2018, 6:41 pm

Bob Toski sounded pretty good for a man near death last week. When we spoke on Friday, the 91-year-old teaching legend and former PGA Tour leading money winner was alive and feeling well. Especially when he was talking about giving lessons, swinging a golf club again, and going down to the piano bar at Arturo’s near his home in Boca Raton, Fla., to sing his favorite song, “Sentimental Journey."

“It’s been quite a journey,” Toski said in total bliss. “But I’m going home tomorrow.”

Going back 10 days, to June 12, Toski suffered a severe heart attack that had him on life support, in critical condition, at a hospital not far from the South Florida golf community where he’s pro emeritus at St. Andrews.

He opened 15 minutes on the phone on Friday by asking how much he owed me for the publicity he got during the U.S. Open. Typical Toski. His heart may have skipped a beat, but he hadn’t.

At no more than 120 pounds, still larger than life.

Bob Toski from his hospital bed in South Florida

“This is the mouse,” he said when asked to confirm it really was him on the phone. “The Mighty Mouse.”

We were laughing now, but there was a moment one night during “Live From the U.S. Open” when I got a message from the Boca hospital which sounded grim. That’s when one of the friends by his side texted me and said it would be just like “Tosk” to sit up straight and ask everybody what was going on.

Essentially, that’s what happened. And now here he was on the phone, cracking off one-liners, talking about Brooks Koepka’s win at Shinnecock, giving his take on the USGA and course setup, asking how much I’d been playing, and giving his love to everybody at “The Channel.”

He invited me down for a lesson at St. Andrews and dinner at Arturos. “In a month’s time,” he said, “I’ll be ready to go.”

He sounded ready right now, singing a line from his favorite song, from his hospital bed in the happiest of voices, “Gotta set my heart at ease.”

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Spieth fades with 3-over 73: 'It's just golf'

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 6:10 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – After finding nothing but positives for his first five trips around the course, Jordan Spieth finally suffered a setback at TPC River Highlands.

Spieth won the Travelers Championship last year in his tournament debut, and he quickly bounced back from a missed cut at Shinnecock Hills by firing a 7-under 63 in the opening round this week to take a share of the lead. Out early during the second round with a chance to move even further into red figures amid calm conditions, he instead went the other way.

Undone by a triple bogey on the par-5 13th hole, Spieth was 5 over for his first 14 holes and needed an eagle on the par-5 sixth hole for the second straight day simply to salvage a 3-over 73. The score knocked him back to 4 under for the week and six shots behind Brian Harman.

Despite finding three fewer fairways, three fewer greens in regulation and taking five more putts than he did in the opening round, Spieth still put a positive spin on a lackluster result.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“I actually felt like I had better control of my golf swing than I did yesterday. I really struggled with my swing yesterday and I kind of got some good breaks,” Spieth said. “It’s just golf. It’s kind of like yesterday I got three or four shots extra out of the round, and today I lost three or four based on how I felt.”

Spieth was happy with his opening-round effort, but even after finishing late in the day he still went straight to the driving range that lines the ninth fairway at TPC River Highlands – not exactly standard behavior after grabbing a share of the lead.

“So it’s not like things are on,” he said. “Sometimes it can get disguised by rounds, but it’s not far off. It really is close.”

Spieth has lamented a lack of quality chances to win this year, which he has previously described as being within six shots of the lead heading into the final round. He’ll have some work to do to meet that mark this weekend in defense of his title, as his round hit a snag on No. 13, his fourth hole of the morning, when he pulled his tee shot out of bounds and then hit his subsequent approach into the water.

“For whatever reason, it’s a large fairway but it’s always just killed me,” Spieth said. “I don’t know what it is about the hole, but that hole I get on the tee and for whatever reason I struggle. … I just hit a bad shot at the wrong time there.”

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Watch: Daly's 1999 Pinehurst meltdown as a Lego

By Grill Room TeamJune 22, 2018, 5:42 pm

Jared Jacobs' latest Lego recreation of a memorable golf moment is a timely one.

Less than a week after Phil Mickelson hit a moving ball at Shinnecock Hills, Jacobs gives us John Daly doing the same in the 1999 U.S. Open.

Daly twice hit his ball up the slope and onto the putting surface on the eighth hole in the final round at Pinehurst No. 2, and it twice rolled back to his feet. After the ball began to roll back a third time, Daly slapped it across the green.

Here's a look at some video from the original incident:

Jacobs has also done Lego recreations of:

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Cut Line: Phil's apology doesn't jibe with initial excuse

By Rex HoggardJune 22, 2018, 4:56 pm

In this final look back at the U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson offers a curious mea culpa, the USGA endures another setup snafu and some take the “Lefty Loophole” to a logical extreme.

Made Cut

Strength in numbers. When the PGA Tour introduced a strength-of-field regulation for the 2016-17 season, the results were almost immediately favorable.

Essentially, the rule required players who didn’t have at least 25 starts in the previous season to add an event to their schedules that they hadn’t played in the last four years.

Fields at events that often struggled to attract star players widely improved, but the rule has also had a carry-on impact, as the tee sheet for this week’s Travelers Championship proves.

Five out of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are in this week’s field at TPC River Highlands, including world No. 2 Justin Thomas, No. 4 Brooks Koepka, No. 5 Jordan Spieth, No. 7 Rory McIlroy and No. 9 Jason Day.

Many of these stars added the event to their schedules to fulfill the strength-of-field requirement and liked it, making it a regular stop on their dance cards.

It’s often easy to criticize the Tour and forget the myriad constituents the circuit serves, but on this complicated front they got it right.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

Mea culpa. As apologies go, Mickelson’s statement this week regarding his actions during the third round of last week’s U.S. Open touched all the right points, albeit a tad late for some.

“I know this should've come sooner, but it's taken me a few days to calm down,” Mickelson said in a statement regarding his decision to hit a moving golf ball on the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills. “My anger and frustration got the best of me last weekend. I'm embarrassed and disappointed by my actions. It was clearly not my finest moment and I’m sorry.”

What’s still unclear, however, is exactly what Lefty is apologizing for. In the heat of the moment on Saturday, Mickelson told reporters that those offended by his actions should “toughen up,” and that he fully understood the Rules of Golf on this front and had been thinking about doing something similar to this before.

However, Mickelson’s reconciliatory tone suggests he finally understands the extreme nature of his actions, or maybe he just realized he’s on the wrong side of public opinion.

Tweet of the week:

Mickelson cited a similar scenario on Saturday when asked if he’d ever thought of hitting a moving golf ball. The USGA is deep into what has been billed as a rules modernization. Let’s hope the association, along with the R&A, uses the “Lefty Loophole” as a reason for more tinkering. Players blatantly batting moving golf balls around is a bad look.

Houston, we have a solution. News last week that the Houston Open would remain on the Tour schedule was encouraging on many fronts.

The event will transition to the fall portion of the schedule and will be run by the Astros Foundation and Houston Astros owner Jim Crane.

According to various sources, the event, which lost its title sponsor after the 2017 event, will be supported by a consortium of local sponsors and is looking to relocate to Memorial Park in 2019.

Lost in all this good news, however, is the Houston Golf Association’s role in the event. The HGA had run the event for 72 years and is a staple to the Houston golf community via its First Tee program and amateur events.

Change may be inevitable for the Houston Tour stop, but given the HGA’s commitment for over seven decades let’s hope some things remain the same.

Missed Cut

Shinnecock sequel. After years of telling the golf world that this Shinnecock Hills Open would be different, the déjà vu that descended on the championship for Round 3 was beyond baffling.

The USGA had 14 years to figure out how to keep what is largely considered one of the best layouts the championship uses from slipping over the setup abyss, and yet as a warm afternoon turned to early evening here we were again.

“What happened is we simply got higher winds than we anticipated,” USGA CEO Mike Davis said on Saturday after some Round 3 hole locations became unplayable. “The grass really began to dry out. In fact, if you looked at it at the end, it was almost wilting around there, and it just didn't have enough grass to hold the ball up.”

For many, the moment of truth came about midway through Davis’ press conference on Saturday.

Question: “Mike, are there any regrets about putting the course this close to the edge? And can you really be surprised by the wind on Long Island in June?”

Davis: “Surprised by the wind in Long Island, I think no. Point made on that. We got, essentially, the wind from the direction, the prevailing wind today, but it was simply at a rate that was a good bit more than what we had anticipated and our meteorologist had thought.”

For the record, Saturday’s forecast called for sustained winds of about 15 mph with gusts to 20 mph around 4 p.m. Maybe the USGA got more than they bargained for from Mother Nature, or maybe they just got it wrong – again.