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Monday Scramble: Let Tiger mania resume

By Will GrayNovember 27, 2017, 4:00 pm

Tiger Woods gets set for his return to competition, President Donald Trump makes (quick) time for golf during the holidays, the governing bodies float out the idea of diversifying the ball offerings and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

In a week where most of us spent time scarfing down leftovers and sharing reasons to be thankful, the golf news cycle rolled right along with two prominent names at the top.

A normally quiet stretch of the season, with the PGA Tour beginning its longest hibernation of the year, still received plenty of attention because of the presence of Woods and Trump.

The fact that the two men intersected for a leisurely round together without breaking the internet shows that we are in a quiet portion of the calendar, but it's still a testament to the interest in both that golf became a discussion point this weekend around turkey, stuffing and football.

Amid this season of reflection and giving thanks, one thing is certain in golf media: with Tiger and Trump making headlines, there will always be something to talk about - even when the sport makes a rare attempt at having an off-season.

1. We start with Woods, whose return to competition this week is somehow being greeted with as much, if not more, anticipation than the same scenario a year ago.

Last year he made his first competitive swipes in more than 15 months at the Hero World Challenge, where he finished 15th out of a 17-man field. This time he'll be teeing it up for the first time since early February, less than two months removed from comments where he entertained the notion of never playing competitive golf again.

It's a remarkable course correction, one whose Zapruder film intrigue has shifted from Twitter videos to first-hand accounts of Woods' game.

He's more than four years removed from his last win, almost 10 years removed from his last major and staring down birthday No. 42 next month. But based on the interest and speculation surrounding Woods, it might as well be 2008.

2. Quickly becoming an annual fall tradition akin to pumpkin pie, the eyewitness accounts of Woods' on-course progress are rolling in at record speed.

After Rickie Fowler explained earlier this month that Woods was hitting it "way by" him at Medalist, Jason Day told reporters in Australia that Woods is currently "the best he's ever felt in three years."

Then came Brad Faxon's detailed account of their round together over the weekend, where he shared that Woods hit it past world No. 1 Dustin Johnson on half the holes.

It all adds up to brimming optimism surrounding Woods' return, a four-day harbinger of what might be in store for 2018 and beyond.

3. But nothing quite matches hearing from the man himself, as Woods' presence in the Bahamas meant that Hero tournament week started a full day early.

Woods zipped around Albany in a cart, with caddie Joe LaCava along for the ride. Afterwards, he explained that "life is so much better" following his lumbar fusion surgery in April.

There's sure to be rust this week as he rounds out a star-studded field amid the sandy fairways at Albany, but the thought of an optimistic Woods holding his own for 72 holes - and more importantly, remaining healthy for more than a couple days at a time - is enough to merit a quick peek at the countdown clock to the Masters.

4. While Woods played over the holiday weekend with Faxon and Johnson, the fourth in the group just happened to be the leader of the free world.

President Trump took to Twitter to explain that he would (quickly) be pegging it with the current and former world No. 1s. The round continued a year in which the commander-in-chief has made frequent appearances on the course, and it was the second time that he and Woods had played together since Trump's election.

According to Faxon, the best-ball match ended in a tie with Woods and Johnson tipping out Trump International around 7,600 yards while he and President Trump played the blue tees at 6,500 yards.

5. One day after his round with Woods, Trump shifted gears by playing with the only golfer ever to win more major titles.

Jack Nicklaus teed it up with the president Saturday at Trump's course in Jupiter, Fla. Nicklaus has worked together with Trump on course projects and was vocally supportive of his potential in the White House, both before and after the election.

"I like what Donald has done," Nicklaus said last year. "I like that he's turning America upside down. He's awakening the country. We need a lot of that."

No word on how that particular match ended up, but it's hard to think of a better 36-hole itinerary than playing with Nicklaus and Woods in the span of two days. Then again, when you top the organizational chart in Washington, D.C., you can sometimes get the tee sheet to bend in your favor.

6. A change to the rules is far from imminent, but the USGA and R&A appear willing to at least consider an equipment option that might restrict some of the eye-popping distance numbers top players continue to uncork.

The two governing bodies are researching the topic together, and last week USGA executive director Mike Davis went so far as to say that the recent uptick in distance has "horrible" implications.

Davis' remarks weren't tied to the 400-yard drives themselves, but rather to the ripple effects they cause. Longer shots mean longer courses, which means expanded footprints and ultimately increased maintenance costs and environmental impact.

"I don't care how far Tiger Woods hits it," Davis said. "The reality is this is affecting all golfers and affecting them in a bad way. All it's doing is increasing the cost of the game."

It's an intriguing angle with which to approach the situation, and Davis' comments signal the powers-that-be might finally be willing to listen to calls for change.

7. But make no mistake, the possible introduction of a tournament ball won't go down without a fight from equipment manufacturers - specifically Titleist executive Wally Uihlein.

In the wake of Davis' comments, Uihlein wrote a stern letter to the Wall Street Journal questioning some of Davis' claims and insisting, among other points, that the motivation for longer "championship" golf courses was simply to sell more houses along the fairways.

As one of the leading ball manufacturers, Titleist could potentially have the most to lose from any effort to curb technological innovations, even if a reduced-distance model were offered to complement - not replace - consumer options. It seems like the seeds have been planted for what could become an intriguing power struggle within the game.

8. The groundswell to "do something" about the ball certainly did not start at the USGA offices.

The chorus of players adding their voice to the issue has included Woods and, more recently, Geoff Ogilvy. The former U.S. Open champ is one of the most thoughful players with a microphone in his hand, and last week in Sydney he compared the distance craze to the use of aluminum bats in baseball.

"We’ve completely outgrown the stadiums," Ogilvy said. "So do you rebuild every stadium in the world? That’s expensive. Or make the ball go shorter? It seems relatively simple from that perspective.’’

9. There was some actual tournament golf played last week, including an almost-perfect homecoming for Jason Day.

The Aussie was making his first start Down Under since 2013, and he carried a one-shot lead into the final round of the Australian Open. But the birdies dried up in a difficult final round, where he fell back into a tie for fifth as 22-year-old Cameron Davis surged to victory.

It was great to see Day back in Australia playing in a top-notch event. The finish, though, was another example of just how frustrating the year has been for a player who was ranked No. 1 as recently as February but now sits outside the top 10.

10. The defending champ didn't exactly challenge, but Jordan Spieth still left Oz with reason to smile.

With caddie Michael Greller back home with a newborn, swing coach Cameron McCormick took the bag and helped Spieth to an eighth-place showing in an event he has won twice before.

Lifting the Stonehaven Cup proved to be a predecessor for Spieth's major triumphs in both 2015 and 2017. Next year he'll look to show that it's not a requirement as he tries to track down major No. 4.

Move aside, Steph Curry.

After the two-time NBA champ exceeded expectations with his appearance at the Tour's Ellie Mae Classic in August, now it's country superstar Jake Owen's turn to try his hand against the world's best.

Owen is an avid golfer and regular partner with Spieth at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he'll play in his hometown at the Nashville Golf Open in May. His 3 handicap is pretty stout compared to most amateurs, but it's also a far cry from the 0.8 Curry currently posts.

Owen is almost certain to miss the cut, and likely won't be as competitive as Curry was with rounds of 74-74. But before the "he's stealing a start" crowd gets riled up, remember that both Curry and Owen accepted unrestricted sponsor invites. Even two rounds in the 80s will bring attention and media to a circuit that often struggles to gain traction, and that's never a bad thing.

This week's award winners ... 

Officially Expecting: Gerina Piller. The former Olympian and Solheim Cup hero announced that she'll miss the start of the 2018 LPGA season because she is pregnant with her first child, due in May.

Still in Shock: Cameron Davis, who appeared beside himself after hanging on to a one-shot win at the Australian Open. The win vaulted Davis - who had won at Royal Sydney as an amateur only two years prior - from No. 1494 to No. 229 in the world rankings.

Better Late Than Never: Wade Ormsby. The 34-year-old Aussie finally broke through at the UBS Hong Kong Open, holding off a group that included Rafael Cabrera-Bello for his first European Tour win in 264 career starts. To the resilient go the spoils.

On the Mend: Davis Love III, who is back to rehab following hip replacement surgery. The 53-year-old has targeted the Florida swing in March for his return to the PGA Tour.

Ko 2.0: Jin Young Ko, no relation to Lydia, who announced her intentions to join the LPGA tour before guiding a group of Korean LPGA Tour stars to victory in a team event against LPGA pros from South Korea.

Packing for Scotland: Former PGA Tour winners Matt Jones and Jonas Blixt, who along with Davis, qualified for The Open at Carnoustie based on their finishes at the Australian Open in the first of 15 Open Qualifying Series events.

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Gooch chooses 'life over a good lie' with gators nearby

By Ryan LavnerApril 26, 2018, 11:31 pm

AVONDALE, La. – A fairway bunker wasn’t Talor Gooch’s only hazard on the 18th hole at TPC Louisiana.

Gooch’s ball came to rest Thursday within a few feet of three gators, leading to a lengthy delay as he sorted out his options.

Chesson Hadley used a rake to nudge two of the gators on the tail, sending them back into the pond surrounding the green. But the third gator wouldn’t budge.

“It woke him up from a nap,” Gooch said, “and he was hissing away and wasn’t happy.”

The other two gators remained in the water, their eyes fixed on the group.

Full-field scores from the Zurich Classic of New Orleans

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“I’m sure we would have been fine, but any little movement by them and no chance I would have made solid contact,” he said.

A rules official granted Gooch free relief, away from the gator, but he still had to drop in the bunker. The ball plugged.

“I chose life over a good lie in that situation,” he said.

He splashed out short of the green, nearly holed out his pitch shot and made par to cap off an eventful 6-under 66 with partner Andrew Landry.

“It was my first gator par,” he said. “I’ll take it.”

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Koepka's game 'where it should be' even after injury

By Ryan LavnerApril 26, 2018, 11:18 pm

AVONDALE, La. – Brooks Koepka didn’t look rusty Thursday while making six birdies in the first round of the Zurich Classic.

Making his first start in four months because of a torn ligament in his left wrist, Koepka and partner Marc Turnesa shot a 5-under 67 in fourballs at TPC Louisiana.

“It felt good,” Koepka said afterward. “It was just nice to be out here. I played pretty solid.”

Full-field scores from the Zurich Classic of New Orleans

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The reigning U.S. Open champion felt soreness in his wrist the week after he won the Dunlop Phoenix in the fall. He finished last at the Hero World Challenge in December and then the following month at the Tournament of Champions before shutting it down.

He only began practicing last week and decided to commit to the Zurich Classic after three solid days at Medalist. He decided to partner with one of his friends in South Florida, Marc Turnesa, a former PGA Tour winner who now works in real estate.

Koepka hasn’t lost any distance because of the injury – he nearly drove the green on the 355-yard 16th hole. He’s planning to play the next two weeks, at the Wells Fargo Championship and The Players.

“I feel like I’m playing good enough to be right where I should be in April,” he said. “I feel good, man. There’s nothing really wrong with my game right now.”

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Like a tattoo: Ko shares early Mediheal lead

By Randall MellApril 26, 2018, 10:45 pm

Lydia Ko put herself in early position Thursday to try to extend her birthday celebration through Sunday at the LPGA Mediheal Championship.

Ko, who turned 21 on Tuesday, is off to a strong start at Lake Merced Golf Club, where she has a lot of good memories to draw upon as she seeks to regain the winning form that made her the greatest teen phenom in the history of the women’s game.

With a 4-under-par 68, Ko moved into a four-way tie for the lead among the morning wave in the first round. I.K. Kim, Jessica Korda and Caroline Hedwall also opened with 68s.

All Ko has to do is look at her right wrist to feel good about returning to San Francisco. That’s where she tattooed the date April 27, 2014, in Roman numerals. That’s how she commemorated her Swinging Skirts victory at Lake Merced, her first title as an LPGA member. She won there again the following year.

“This is a golf course where I've played well,” Ko said. “The fans have been amazing. They’ve been super supportive every single time I've come here, even since I played the U.S. Juniors here.”

Full-field scores from the LPGA Mediheal Championship

Ko made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Girls’ Junior at Lake Merced in 2012.

“It just brings back a lot of great memories,” she said.

Ko got this week off to a good start with friends from South Korea and New Zealand flying to California to surprise her on her birthday. She was born in South Korea and grew up in New Zealand.

“Turning 21 is a huge thing in the United States,” Ko cracked. “I’m legal now, and I can do some fun things.”

Ko is looking to claim her 15th LPGA title and end a 21-month winless spell. Her ball striking was sharp Thursday, as she continues to work on improvements under her swing coach, Ted Oh. She hit 11 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens in regulation.

“My ball striking's been getting better these last few weeks, which has been really nice,” Ko said at week’s start. “But then I've been struggling with putting, which was the aspect of the game that was going really well. I feel like the pieces are there, and just, sometimes, the hardest thing is to kind of put all those pieces together. Just have to stay patient, I know there are a lot of good things happening.”

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Watch: Rose drops trou despite gator danger

By Golf Channel DigitalApril 26, 2018, 10:12 pm

We all know how fashion-conscious pro golfers are, and sometimes that even trumps modesty.

Take Justin Rose, whose tee shot on the par-3 third hole in Thursday's opening round of the Zurich Classic found the water. But the ball was close enough to shore for Rose to try to play it. Not wanting to get his light-colored pants dirty - what is up with all the white pants on Tour these days, anyway? - he took them off to play the shot.

If there were any gators in the water hazard - and this being Louisiana, there almost certainly were - they showed no interest in the Englishman.

It was only appropriate that Rose should strip down for a shot, as his partner, Henrik Stenson, famously did the same thing (to an even greater degree) at Doral in 2009.

Finally, just to provide some closure, Rose failed to get up and down.