Xander Schauffele survives a shock finish to the Travelers, the PGA Tour starts to punch back, Brooks Koepka defects, Lexi Thompson gives away another major and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:
For the first time in his career, Xander Schauffele converted a 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour – even if this one once again required him to come from behind.
Already 0-for-4 in his career when staked to the third-round lead, Schauffele was one shot down as he stood on the 18th tee and watched a series of miscues by rookie Sahith Theegala up ahead.
Knowing what happened next, well, there was plenty to second guess:
1.) Theegala hit driver, not 3-wood, off the tee.
He wasn’t asked about this afterward, but if a driver was going to give him only a wedge into the green, then it’s reasonable to think that a 3-wood would have left him – at most – a short iron, especially being so amped up. Theegala said it should have been a perfect high cut for him, and the shot just didn’t cut. "Maybe it was adrenaline, squared the face a little sooner than normal," he said.
2.) He hit the lip of the fairway bunker.
Sure, it was a bad break that his tee shot rolled near the lip of the fairway bunker, complicating what could have been a straightforward shot from the sand. Theegala claimed he had more room to clear the lip than it may have appeared on TV, and he and his caddie had a lengthy discussion about the best path forward. The goal was to make par … “and never in a million years did I think I would allow myself to blade it,” he said.
From a nearly identical spot, he caught his third shot fat, advancing the ball only 43 yards. He gave himself a chance to save bogey, but his 12-footer lipped out in agonizing fashion.
“I know, and all the guys out here know, how hard it is to win and how few opportunities there are to win,” said Theegala, who also suffered a bad break on the 71st hole in Phoenix, when his tee shot on the drivable par 4 took an unfortunate kick and found the water. “That’s why something like this is really, really going to hurt. It’s really going to hurt.”
(Also: Kudos to the 24-year-old for blowing the lead and still speaking to reporters.)
Now, with Theegala clearing the way, Schauffele took advantage.
He striped a tee shot down the middle, wedged to 3 feet and won by two shots – his sixth career Tour title, and first individually since the 2019 Tournament of Champions. It was also his second this season (teamed with Patrick Cantlay to win the Zurich) – not a bad haul for a guy who ranked fourth on Tour this season in strokes gained: total and groaned that he didn’t have more to show for it.
“In a small way,” Schauffele said, “this is a big win for me mentally.”
On the defensive for much of the past year, commissioner Jay Monahan finally offered a plan to combat the Tour’s existential threat.
Rolling out a schedule that he insisted was years in the making and not a direct response to LIV poaching a few of his top players, Monahan announced last week significant purse increases to six existing tournaments, the addition of a three-event international series that will likely begin in 2024, and a revamped playoff format that will be available to just 70 players and not the usual 125.
Combined, the Tour initiatives are a welcome first step for a circuit that has largely been sticking to the status quo, even as LIV snagged eight of the top 50 players in the world (and counting). But these moves still aren’t likely to dissuade players who are thinking of making the leap.
Let’s break this down:
• It’s obvious that the clearest solution to the Tour’s current predicament is to create a star-studded, streamlined circuit that has only 25 to 30 tournaments for the top 75 to 100 players. That serves two purposes: It eliminates the bottom-feeders who make no difference to the Tour’s bottom line, and it raises the stakes at each tournament because of the relative scarcity of the schedule. But getting to that point is tricky, if not impossible in its current setup. The Tour is a member-run organization whose stated mission is to provide playing opportunities. The new-look schedule (which will start next year but be fully implemented in '24) represents a slight departure from that mission, making clearer the line between the A Tour and the B Tour. But does it go far enough? There still is a similar number of exempt pros and a similar number of opportunities. All the new schedule does is call out to fans, These are the only events that matter:
• It likely wasn’t a coincidence that purses for tournaments like Riviera, Bay Hill and Memorial will be bumped to $20 million – that’s the prize money on offer for the LIV events, before the team component is factored in. Of course, there’s nothing stopping the Saudi-backed tour from announcing a purse increase to $30 million or more – backed by the Public Investment Fund, LIV won’t be outbid. As Monahan himself acknowledged, the LIV circuit is an “irrational threat” that isn’t concerned with a return on investment.
• Plans for the fall have yet to be finalized, but what’s proposed is a bit of a head-scratcher. The Tour’s pitch to top players is a three-tournament international series (England, Middle East, Asia) that will feature gigantic purses and some sort of team component. Except it’s during a time of year, after the fall slate, when the top players don’t want to resume globetrotting – they want time off, to spend time with their family, work on their games or make equipment changes. For everyone else, the fall returns to its pre-wraparound roots with a series of events that will be used to finalize status or determine priority. That’ll appeal to golf’s diehards but no one else.
• LIV's pursuit of the next-generation stars means that the Tour needs to respond in a meaningful way. Right now, through the PGA Tour University program, the top five graduating seniors earn Korn Ferry Tour status, with Nos. 6-15 heading to Canada. Given the reshaped landscape, that's unlikely to be enticing enough for these guys to either stay in school or stick with the program; they're being forced into a feeder system with no guarantee they'll ever emerge at the end. The top college players (top 3? top 5?) need to receive Tour cards, full stop. Yes, many of these kids could use a year or two of Korn Ferry Tour seasoning, but these are unprecedented times and there needs to be a more direct route to the best tour on the planet.
“I don’t see it backing down; they can just double up and they’ll figure it out. They’ll get their guys. Someone will sell out and go to it.”
-- Brooks Koepka on the LIV circuit, Feb. 23, 2022
At least we know now how to frame Koepka’s decision.
He said it himself.
He’s selling out.
Staunchly opposed to the rival tour, Koepka was among the players who was both privately and publicly in support of the Tour. But something changed over the past few weeks. His younger brother, Chase, who has no status on any major circuit, was invited to play in the inaugural LIV event in London. Then, with rumors swirling about his own future plans, Koepka appeared defensive and uncomfortable in a pre-tournament press conference at the U.S. Open, where he declined to talk about his Tour standing and instead lashed out at reporters for casting a “black cloud” over the proceedings.
This reporter asked Koepka point-blank why he’d only played the majors over the past few months, the suggestion being that he was either hiding an injury (there had been reports from his camp that he was considering season-ending hip injury) or done playing the Tour to hold out for LIV. Koepka said that he’d just been busy with his early-June wedding – after saying a few answers earlier that his now-wife, Jena, had done nearly all of the planning herself for their big day.
Little wonder McIlroy called Koepka's actions "duplicitous."
Koepka's departure will be viewed as yet another significant blow for the Tour, a polarizing figure and major hunter who often appeared disinterested during regular-season golf. But it’s also worth remembering that he’s 32, with a longer injury history than anyone this side of Tiger. He only had a few prime years left, if that, and now he’ll spend them "selling out" on the exhibition circuit.
A KPMG Women’s PGA that looked like a runaway turned into a wildly entertaining battle all the way up to the 72nd green.
In Gee Chun had staked herself to a seven-shot lead at one point during the weekend at Congressional, but she arrived on the tee of the par-5 16th hole on Sunday two shots down to Lexi Thompson.
Lexi fans had seen this finish before.
Two holes earlier, she had failed to hit the hole with a 2-foot par putt, a ghastly miss that has been emblematic of her eight-year major-less drought. On 16, greenside in two on the par 5, she faced a golden opportunity to add to her advantage, but she scooped her pitch shot over the green. She walked off with a bogey, her advantage was gone after a Chun birdie.
There were more putting woes for Thompson on the final two holes. First, she shoved a 5-footer for par on 17 that never stood a chance; it was her fourth back-nine bogey. Then, facing a must-make 15-footer down the hill on 18, she meekly left the putt short and right – a dispiriting but familiar outcome.
Thompson wound up a shot behind Chun, who confidently rapped in her par putt to secure her third major title – and one of the wildest wire-to-wire wins imaginable, after a pair of weekend 75s.
That was Thompson’s 16th top-10 finish (and sixth top-3) in a major since her lone title, at the 2014 Chevron. Though not the slow bleed of her 2021 U.S. Women’s Open collapse, this one will sting because of its suddenness. She declined to speak to the media after her round.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
What … Was That?!: Patrick Cantlay. Any thoughts of a duel with Schauffele, his frequent practice-round partner, fizzled early Sunday at the Travelers. After dropping just three shots over the first 54 holes, Cantlay made only three pars in a miserable final round. His closing 76 was the second-worst score of the day, and he plummeted all the way to T-13. And if we're looking ahead, the reigning Player of the Year's peculiar answer to whether he has any interest in LIV will do little to quell the amount of heartburn at Tour HQ.
Cap Tip: Michael Thorbjornsen. The rising junior at Stanford and New England native surged up the leaderboard Sunday, pulling within a shot of the lead before a few miscues on the back nine doomed his chances to become the first amateur to win a Tour event since Phil Mickelson in 1991. Still, the 20-year-old finished fourth, the best finish by an amateur on Tour since 2015. Thor says he is returning to school for his junior season; let the NIL deals roll.
Rookie Run: Padraig Harrington. In his first U.S. Senior Open, the three-time major champion withstood a furious rally by his 2021 Ryder Cup counterpart, Steve Stricker, to capture his first senior title. It’s the third straight year that the Senior Open has been won by a first-timer, following the lead of Stricker and Jim Furyk.
Tour Success Story: Pierceson Coody. In just his third start as a pro, the former Texas standout (and No. 1-ranked amateur) romped to a win on the Korn Ferry Tour, going out in 28 to secure the victory. All of a sudden he’s within reach of a PGA Tour card (31st in the standings), with the rest of the summer to secure his status. That’s a big win for Monahan and Co., for Coody was one of the players who turned down a seven-figure signing bonus from the Saudis to go the traditional Tour route. He’s a good one.
Rally Killer: Rory McIlroy. It’s hard to remember momentum being halted quite like this. McIlroy was cruising midway through the second round, out in front at 13 under, when he stepped to the tee at the par-4 12th. His 3-wood tee shot double-crossed out of bounds, then he predictably flared his next one wide right, into the trampled-down hay. Missing into the bunker, he ping-ponged around the green and walked off with a shocking quadruple-bogey 8. A few holes later, he added another double bogey. Just like that, his title chances were shot, and on the weekend, playing his fourth week in a row, he came home on fumes, tying for 19th. He’ll have a few much-needed weeks off before The Open.
It Just Means More: Haotong Li. There’s been plenty of frustration for Li ever since his star turn at the 2020 PGA, where he led at the halfway point. At one point during the heart of the pandemic he missed the cut or withdrew from 17 tournaments in an 18-event span; as recently as 10 months ago, he thought about quitting the game that had already brought him two DP World Tour victories by the age of 26. And so, after dropping a 40-footer on Thomas Pieters in a playoff, it was understandable that Li was overcome with emotion after prevailing at the BMW International Open. It’s nice to have him back – he’s a fun character with a ton of game.
Significant: Eugenio Chacarra. One of the best players in college golf last season has bolted for LIV. The Spanish star had vowed to come back for his senior season with Oklahoma State, going so far as to remove himself from consideration for the PGA Tour University program that would have given him Korn Ferry Tour status this summer. Instead, Chacarra (who counts LIV member Sergio Garcia as one of his mentors) bypassed that circuit altogether to sign a multi-year agreement with the rival tour. Though it’s not as important as keeping the superstars happy in the short term, Monahan has an interesting long-term decision to make regarding elite up-and-comers like Chacarra. He’s the No. 2-ranked amateur in the world and a player whose macho game translates well to the pro ranks. Is the Tour really going to risk banning a top young player (who hadn’t even owned a Tour card) just to prove a point? The kids are watching, closely.
Anotha One: Matthew Wolff. The former teen phenom is bolting for LIV Golf, with an official unveiling (along with Chacarra and Carlos Ortiz) set for today. It’s been a wild three-year run for Wolff, who splashed onto the scene by winning in his third start as a pro and then posted top-5 finishes in his first two majors. Wolff has been open about his mental-health issues but, just 23, he’s also shown signs of immaturity and indifference. His long-term playing future (if there even is one) has never been more uncertain.
Holding Strong: PGA Tour-DP World Tour alliance. All eyes were on how DP World Tour chief executive Keith Pelley would respond with the deadline looming for Scottish Open entrees. For the first time, the event will be co-sanctioned, and Pelley followed the PGA Tour’s lead in banning LIV players from teeing it up the week before St. Andrews. Pelley has threatened fines and further disciplinary action to players who continue to compete in LIV events, but unlike Monahan, who has indefinitely suspended the defectors, Pelley’s powers are limited by the tour regulations. Eventually, he’ll need to decide whether to go all-in with the Tour or deal with the Saudis.
Connecting the Dots: GSE. Golf insiders have pointed to one player agency as having consistently funneled Tour players into the breakaway league. GSE has already helped broker the deals of Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen and Abe Ancer, among others, with plenty more lesser-names rumored to go soon. Given that connection, keep an eye on the biggest star in that stable, Sam Burns, who – for now – has resisted overtures to leave.
Recovering Nicely: Harris English. The defending champion at the Travelers arrived having played just twice since undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip. A week prior, rather impressively, he tied for 61st at the U.S. Open, extending his longest active streak of made cuts at the majors to 15. Back at TPC River Highlands he was in the mix throughout, ultimately finishing T-19. Once again he’s starting to flash the form that made 2021 a breakout year.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jordan Spieth. After a stomach bug knocked him out of contention at the U.S. Open, Spieth should have been refueled and refocused as he returned to the site of one of his most dramatic victories, in 2017. Nope – he looked totally gassed on his way to an opening 75 and missed the cut (despite a second-round 66). Sigh. At least he’ll have a get-right start next week at the Scottish Open. He’s still among our top five favorites for St. Andrews.