Monday Scramble: Scott survives; Monster mashes McIlroy

By Will GrayMarch 7, 2016, 5:00 pm

Adam Scott keeps on winning, Rory McIlroy runs out of steam, Tiger Woods holds court, Bubba Watson has another close call and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Adam Scott appears plenty comfortable in the winner's circle.

One week after edging out Sergio Garcia at the Honda Classic, Scott survived a rocky finish to claim his second title in as many weeks, this time at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. The Aussie had gone all of 2015 without a victory, but with two wins under his belt - not to mention a runner-up finish last month at the Northern Trust Open - Scott has stamped his name as one of the Masters favorites.

In one impressive fortnight, Scott has put to bed any question of his post-anchoring viability. Still equipped with one of the sweetest swings on Tour, he now appears back to the form that helped him don a green jacket and took him to No. 1 in the world less than two years ago.

Sure, it wasn't entirely pretty. But few rounds are on the Blue Monster, and when Scott needed to hole a putt coming down the stretch, his stroke never wavered. Eighteen putts faced inside 10 feet during the final round, 18 putts right on target.

Add another trophy to the mantle.


1. Much of the attention surrounding Scott's recent success may center on his putter, but his win in Miami had roots in some terrific iron approach shots. Of the seven birdies he made during the final round, Scott's longest make was only 9 feet - a stark contrast to the scorecard of his closest competitor, Bubba Watson, who was holing putts from Hialeah for much of the afternoon.

With Rory McIlroy wavering in the middle of his round, Scott grabbed the tournament by the throat with a trio of timely approaches:

  • 169 yards to 2 feet, 7 inches on No. 11
  • 140 yards to 5 feet, 2 inches on No. 12
  • 141 yards to 3 feet on No. 14

That trifecta turned a one-shot deficit into a two-shot lead, and Scott would need all the cushion he could afford coming down the stretch.

2. "Ugly and good, all in 18 holes." That's how Scott described his final-round 69, a round that included equal parts blunder and brilliance. There were birdies, sure, but there were also two early double bogeys that seemingly took him out of contention and a bizarre shank from the bunker on No. 16 that nearly cost him the tournament.

Scott's impeccable tee-to-green game has been on full display these last two weeks, but so too has his resiliency. He seemed to have things well in hand at PGA National before a third-round quad brought a half-dozen players back into the mix, and this time he found trouble after watery approaches on Nos. 3 and 5. But just like last week, he kept his composure and battled back.

If the test of a champion is determined by how he handles adversity, consider Scott to have passed with flying colors.

3. Despite a strong round, Scott nearly watched his hopes of winning disappear beneath the surface of the water that guards the 18th green. His approach to the final green was bold - almost too bold - as clinging to a one-shot lead, he hit a cut around a palm tree to a narrow target. But the shot sailed long and left, bounding over the green and toward the lake.

Recalling memories of Fred Couples' famed shot from the 1992 Masters, Scott's ball snagged just enough in the Bermuda rough to stop inside the hazard but short of the water. The subsequent pitch and 6-footer gave him a win by the narrowest of margins.

"When you're that lucky," he said afterward, "you'd better get it up and down."

4. Scott's victory moves him up to No. 6 in the latest world rankings, which means of course that we need to widen the range on "Golf's Big (insert number)." Right?

Perhaps Scott's recent hot streak can demonstrate once and for all that that narrative is played out. If the success of Spieth, McIlroy and Day last summer caused fans to harken back to the halcyon days of Nicklaus, Palmer and Player, that's fine. But let's not continue to move the goalposts, reacting to every victory by adding another seat at the table of golf's elite.

Welcome to 2016, where any number of strong and talented players can win an event against a world-class field, or even two in a row. Sorry that such a landscape doesn't lend itself well to a hashtag.



5. You'll only hear this about 1,392 more times before the Masters, but Watson has finished second at Doral in 2012, 2014 and now 2016. Those first two instances, of course, saw him fitted with a green jacket a few months later.

Whether Watson will make it 3-for-3, adhering like the San Francisco Giants to strong play in even-numbered years, remains to be seen. But his play this week at Doral, coupled with his convincing win last month at Riviera, show that he is peaking just in time to make that trip down Magnolia Lane.

6. While Watson has bombed his way around the rebuilt Blue Monster each of the last three years, it was actually his putter that proved to be his most valuable asset during the final round. Sparked by a 61-foot eagle bomb on No. 8, Watson made more than 158 feet worth of putts Sunday, easily his best putting effort of the week.

The pink driver, fancy footwork and 300-yard bombs of "Bubba Golf" get plenty of attention, and rightfully so. But it's Watson's deft touch on and around the greens that tends to turn his good weeks into great ones.

His short game was on at Riviera. It was on at Doral, especially Sunday. If it remains in shape leading into the Masters, he will be tough to beat.



7. Speaking of tough to beat, what exactly happened to the McIlroy coronation that was scheduled for Sunday?

McIlroy began the day with a three-shot cushion and a strong record as a 54-hole leader. His lead reached four shots early in the fourth round, and it seemed like we could be heading for a Rory Romp the likes of which we have seen before at places like Congressional and Hazeltine.

Instead, McIlroy began to sputter, and ultimately stalled out. There was a sloppy approach on No. 7, a water ball on No. 8, another bogey on No. 9 and all of a sudden McIlroy was in chase mode. By the time he rolled in a birdie on No. 16, his first of the day, the damage was done and the tournament all but lost.

The week as a whole was a bit of a mixed bag for McIlroy, who was seeking momentum after a missed cut at Honda and created headlines with his surprising switch to a cross-handed putting grip. It didn't work at first, then it worked really, really well, and then things kind of fizzled as the tournament slipped away - a similar pattern to his result at the Northern Trust Open.

Give McIlroy an "incomplete" for this week as he continues his quest to gain traction before the Masters.

8. The player who joined McIlroy in third place? That would be Danny Willett, whose record in WGC events since last season goes as follows: T-12, third, T-17, T-3, T-3.

Throw in a T-6 finish at St. Andrews when Willett held the 36-hole lead, and it's clear the Englishman belongs on the world stage. He'll be a name to watch both for the Masters and at the WGC-Dell Match Play before that, depending on when his first-born arrives, and American fans should prepare themselves for the notion that he'll probably go about 4-1 in his Ryder Cup debut later this year at Hazeltine.

9. Lost amid McIlroy's final-round falter was the mutilated scorecard of his playing partner, Dustin Johnson. Johnson began the day three shots off the pace, still with a chance to successfully defend his title, but those chances went up in flames when DJ played Nos. 10-13 in 7 over en route to a 79.

It's just the latest in a string of weekend melts from Johnson, a trend we saw last year at St. Andrews and Firestone but which dates back to Pebble Beach in 2010. When he's on, Johnson is really, really good. But when the going gets rough, things tend to go south in a hurry.

Johnson's mental toughness has been an oft-debated subject, perhaps never more so than in the aftermath of Chambers Bay, but he clearly has the fortitude to win consistently on Tour. Still, there's reason to suspect that if Johnson had mirrored Scott's final-round start of 3 over through five holes, he would've been much more likely to head for the exit than the winner's circle by day's end.



9. Tiger's back! Well not exactly, but Tiger Woods' lengthy press conference at his newly-minted Bluejack National outside Houston was a much more welcome sight than the somber offering he gave at the Hero World Challenge in December.

When Woods will return to competition remains anyone's guess, but the former world No. 1 showed a little spring in his step earlier this week while fielding questions and putting his way around a couple of the shots on the 10-hole short course at Bluejack. Perhaps it's another shining example of "underpromise and overdeliver," but after the way Woods closed out 2015, fans and media alike are left to clamor for any shred of hope he might be able to offer.

This week it came in the form of some toothy grins from a director's chair, accompanied by several vague answers about his health and prognosis that amounted to upbeat shoulder shrugs. Hey, we'll take what we can get.



11. Can we make every week include a celebratory dance from the LPGA's latest sensation, Ha Na Jang? Can she, for instance, start adding Instagram videos of her reaction to a well-cooked dinner?

Jang notched her second win of the year at the HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore, and after a surprising "lasso" move to celebrate her victory at the Coates earlier this season, the Korean stepped up her game by channeling Beyonce with a move from the "Single Ladies" music video.

The reason for her song choice?

"I am single right now, too," she said.

Refreshing and light-hearted candor from a player LPGA fans should keep an eye on, and one whose appeal commissioner Michael Whan would be wise to market to a broader audience.

12. Speaking of Whan, his resurrection of the LPGA took another big step this week when the organization formed a "strategic alliance" with the PGA Tour. While the details of the new, budding partnership have yet to be sorted out, it's still a boon for the women's game to be formally tied to the biggest brand in golf.

Should it someday lead, as some have theorized, to some sort of combined-field event, we could look back at this week as the beginning of a truly significant shift in the game.

It's tough to upstage Tiger at the christening of one of his own golf course designs, but 11-year-old Taylor Crozier managed to do it. Inaugural tee shot at The Playgrounds, a 10-hole short course at Bluejack National, and Crozier promptly cards a 1.

No sweat for a grizzled vet like Taylor, though, who calmly walked back to his bag to replace his club before getting a bearhug from the Big Cat.

News, notes and observations from the past week ... 


Donald Trump is an avid golfer, and he even used part of a campaign speech over the weekend to reference his prowess off the tee (which he measured at 280 yards). It's odd, then, that Trump would use the time following his much-ballyhooed arrival on-site Sunday to interrupt the pre-round routine of some of the tournament leaders, including McIlroy and Johnson, for some light banter.

Certainly a bit of an etiquette faux pas from Trump, as both players likely would've preferred to keep to their strict warm-up schedule. The fact that both went on to implode after chatting with the resort's owner was surely a coincidence. Right?

It was a rough week for Steven Bowditch, but the Aussie still managed to pocket a cool $48,000 despite failing to break 80 on the Blue Monster. His 37-over total not only left him in last place, but he was 14 shots worse than Kristoffer Broberg in 64th.

Bowditch's scores of 81-80-80-84 left researchers scrambling for the record books of futility, as a pair of 80-plus scores rarely affords a Tour pro a third-round tee time. But the WGCs are no-cut events, which meant the Aussie had two more days to spin his wheels.

With two wins to his credit, Bowditch is no hack and his performance shouldn't be used as a referendum to change the rules of WGC tournaments. Instead, it should serve as a cautionary tale for how big of a punch Trump's place can pack, even against an elite player.

No one ran the scoring gamut at Doral quite like K.T. Kim. Kim's weekend in Miami included two eagles, three doubles, an 11-hole stretch without a single par and a tidy 10 on No. 10 during the final round. It added up to a tie for 42nd at 6 over for the Korean, but hey - at least he got his money's worth.



Another strong finish for Phil Mickelson, who ended up alone in fifth place in Miami. Lefty built a three-shot lead at one point early in the week, and while he faded a bit from there it's still another promising result on the heels of his runner-up at Pebble Beach and T-3 finish in Palm Springs. Mickelson will win a tournament before the season finishes. Book it.

Punters, take note of Smylie Kaufman's T-8 finish after four straight sub-par rounds in his Doral debut. The rookie has more than found his footing after a surprise win in Las Vegas, and he now has four top-25 finishes in seven starts since January along with a spot inside the OWGR top 50. Any list of Masters sleepers would do well to include the former LSU standout.

A middling week for the world No. 1, as Jordan Spieth finished T-17 but never really factored. He'll head north up I-75 to defend his title in Tampa, where he may feel the pressure of pre-Masters expectations begin to mount should he once again fail to find his groove.

The latest course architecture seminar was hosted by reigning Rookie of the Year Daniel Berger, who bristled at the Blue Monster scorecard that included the 227-yard fourth hole and the 238-yard 13th:

I mean, he's not wrong.

This week's dose of nightmare fuel comes from Spieth and Justin Thomas, who may or may not be friends and who joked prior to their shared third-round tee time about the loser possibly shaving his head:


 

 


A parting shot to the artist formerly known as Doral, which has hosted a PGA Tour event in some form every year since 1962. With Cadillac's title sponsorship - not to mention the presidential aspirations of the resort's owner - leaving things in limbo, that streak may be in jeopardy.

While the course has undergone a pair of noticeable facelifts in recent years, it has been a staple of the circuit for decades and a means by which the Tour could plant its flag in the golf-rich market of South Florida.

As one who used to skip school to watch as Skip Kendall took the 18-hole lead seemingly every year at the old Doral Ryder Open, I'll certainly miss the Blue Monster when (if?) it leaves the schedule.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.”

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

Woods: New putter should help on slower greens

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 11:35 am

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Tiger Woods’ ice-cold putting showed at least a few signs of heating up earlier this month at The National, where he switched putters and ranked seventh in the field on the greens.

The mallet-style putter is still in the bag as Woods prepares for The Open, and he’s hoping the heavier model with grooves will prove valuable at Carnoustie.


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“To be honest with you, I’ve struggled on slower greens throughout my entire career,” Woods said Tuesday. “So for me, it’s going to help on these greens, for sure.”

To combat the slower greens, Woods usually applied a strip of lead tape to his putter. But this heavier model of putter doesn’t need the extra weight, and the grooves on the putter face allow the ball to get rolling faster and hotter.

“You don’t necessarily have to do that with the grooves,” he said of the lead tape. “When I putted with the Nike putter, I didn’t have to put lead tape on the putter to get a little more weight to it. I could just leave it just the way it was. This is the same type.”  

For all of the talk about his putting woes this season, Woods still ranks 56th in strokes gained: putting. More crucial this week: He’s 102nd in approach putt performance, which quantifies how well a player lag putts.