Brooks Koepka is back, Jordan Spieth shows signs of life, Dustin Johnson stays hot, the governing bodies offer some "solutions" to the distance problem, Tony Finau misses again and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
Brooks Koepka had a point. His best finishes since the restart last summer have been in:
• Memphis (WGC)
• Houston (2,000 fans a day, at the time the most since the shutdown)
• Augusta (major)
• Phoenix (5,000 fans a day, the most since the shutdown)
Without the fans to provide the juice, or without the big events to provide the history-altering stakes, Koepka said he felt flat and “just couldn’t do it.”
That doesn’t tell the whole story, of course. Injuries to his left knee and hip were worse than he let on, and even ordinary tasks like bending down in a bunker and placing a quarter behind his ball on the green sent a jolt of pain through his body.
But deep down, Koepka is a showman, and he stepped up in a way Sunday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open that stood in stark contrast to the timid, wobbly play of the other contenders. With a closing surge, Koepka played the last six holes in 5 under, including a chip-in eagle on 17 that gave him the lead for good. It was his first title since August 2019 and a statement victory after tumbling outside the top 10 in the world rankings and recording a career first with three consecutive missed cuts coming in.
“I like the way I finished that off,” he said. “I hit a lot of quality golf shots down the stretch. I haven’t been in contention in God knows how long, so to actually hit golf shots like I’m accustomed to seeing when the pressure is on, it’s a good feeling.”
In one of the most unexpected moments of the season, Jordan Spieth exhilarated fans with a Saturday 61 at the Phoenix Open to share the 54-hole lead.
There’d been scant signs that Spieth was ready to win. Statistically, his ball-striking remained a mess. He missed the cut last week at Torrey Pines. He didn’t have a top-10 in eight months, dropping all the way to 92nd in the world. But there he was in Phoenix, as if he’d never left, spraying drives, stuffing irons and rolling in marathon putts – a vintage Spieth performance that left us longing for the halcyon days of 2017. His 10 birdies in the third round were a career high.
That he struggled to a Sunday 72 that left him in a tie for fourth wasn’t a surprise. He hit the fewest fairways of anyone in the field (23 of 56) and holed only 43 feet worth of putts on the final day. But this was a much-needed sign that Spieth is on the right track with his swing changes. Last week, he thought about dropping out of the tournament, believing that he was “really far from where I needed to be,” and that Pebble Beach would be a better spot for him than TPC Scottsdale. Even in a share of the lead, his goal in the final round wasn’t results-oriented – it was to be “committed to committing.”
Is he back? Not quite. His driving still puts him in too many trouble spots; he was able to escape from the desert with his extraordinary imagination and instinctual shot-making, and that’ll be inhibited at a traditional setup with thicker rough. But there were promising signs. For the first three days at least, his mid-range putting returned. Once the hallmark of his game, he led the field in strokes gained: approach, gaining nearly eight shots on the field. This was his first third-round lead since the 2018 Open.
“It is far from where I want to be as far as how it feels,” he said, “but boy, I’m glad I came.”
Just as he does seemingly every time he tees it up these days, Dustin Johnson gave himself another chance to win at the Saudi International. That he was able to pull through, despite a poor week on the greens, was a testament to how well he’s swinging.
Johnson won by two shots for his second title in Saudi Arabia in the past three years, and it was the 25th worldwide title of his career. Though he ranked in the top 5 both off the tee and with his approach, he was 92nd in the field in strokes gained: putting, losing an average of nearly a half shot per round on the greens. He said the greens were tricky to read, and the constant breeze affected his lines.
“I’ll go home and work on that a little,” he said, “but I’m worrying about all parts of my game, just like I always try to get better.”
There isn’t much better DJ can do. Here are his results in his past nine worldwide starts:
That any good?
There was a moment late Sunday in Saudi Arabia that epitomized why DJ is the world No. 1 and Tony Finau is still searching, somehow, for win No. 2.
Johnson was just coming off a 4-foot par miss on the previous hole when he stepped to the tee of the 350-yard 17th. Nursing a one-shot lead, he could have played conservatively with an iron off the tee, tried to stiff a wedge and then take on the par-5 finisher. Instead, he grabbed driver – and pounded it 330 yards, into a sliver of fairway just short of the green. With only 33 yards to the pin, he clipped a perfect chip to a foot that gave him a comfortable cushion heading to the last.
How’d Finau play that hole?
Well, he was coming off a 9-foot par miss on 16 that dropped him two off the pace. With Johnson out front, Finau needed to make something happen, fast, or he’d settle for another top finish and no trophy. Except he didn’t try to force the issue. Despite having as much firepower off the tee as Johnson, Finau opted for his driving iron. That he mis-hit the shot with the conservative club choice only made it worse. His ball found the rough and left him unable to control his wedge into the green, his ball trundling into the greenside bunker. He hit a mediocre bunker shot off an uphill lie and missed the 10-foot comebacker.
Just like that, he’d bogeyed the 70th and 71st holes of the tournament and was three behind – and on his way to a tie for second. It was his third consecutive top-4 finish.
“I know how well I’m playing and I’ve got to just keep positive,” Finau said. “If I keep playing at a high level and give myself a chance to win, I just know it’s bound to happen.”
Though short on specifics, the USGA and R&A released three proposed changes – and six other areas of interest – as the latest step in their Distance Insights Report.
The proposed changes are super technical in regards to driver and ball specifications, but one of them was easily understood – reducing the maximum length of a driver from 48 to 46 inches, aka the Bryson DeChambeau Rule, after he talked for much of 2020 about putting a longer driver into play.
Except ... surprise! Bryson is sticking with his 45 1/2-inch model, believing that his current setup is good enough to achieve maximum gains. Nearly every Tour player uses a driver that’s less than 46 inches, so this appears an effort to keep the elite game from someday resembling the World Long Drive circuit.
Most interesting was the exploration of “areas of interest” that cover everything from shorter-flying golf balls to smaller, less-forgiving and less-springy drivers. Those topics will receive feedback until November, but anything that would potentially be put in place seems as though it’d fall under a “model local rule” to be applied only for elite level pro and amateur play – in other words, bifurcation.
But here’s what we’re wondering: If the governing bodies create this avenue to roll back distance through a local rule, why would the PGA Tour adopt that rule for their competitions? They’re in the entertainment business, and right now they go to great lengths to showcase the biggest and baddest drivers. Couldn’t they just say, "No thanks, we're good."
Where it’d get tricky is if the Masters and two Opens decide to put those restrictions in place for their events, all but ensuring that the others, including the Tour, would follow suit.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Uh-Oh, That Looks Familiar: Xander Schauffele. Though he’s not quite in Finau territory yet, Schauffele is getting close, failing to convert a fourth 54-hole lead into victory. Since the 2019 Tour Championship, no one on the PGA Tour has played better – he leads in the strokes-gained total statistic (+168.5) by a wide margin over Justin Thomas (+144.5), and yet he’s the only player among the top 6 on that list who has yet to record a victory during that span. Needing another birdie for a playoff Sunday, his bogey on 17 (pull hook into the pond, then a woefully short chip) was particularly gruesome.
See You Again Next Year?: Rory McIlroy. Making his tournament debut in the desert in large part because of the stats nerds who told him TPC Scottsdale was a perfect fit, McIlroy shot a final-round 64 – his best closing score since the 2019 Canadian Open – to surge into a tie for 13th. If he comes back, we’ll see how he likes the spectacle of 500,000 drunkards.
Couldn’t Find a Nice Pair of Slacks?: Tiger Woods. He looks like he went straight from the gym to the Super Bowl. Ever heard of dressing up for the occasion?
Room for Improvement, Believe It or Not: Bryson’s driving. For the first time in a while, DeChambeau didn’t use his greatest weapon to his advantage, ranking just 23rd in the strokes gained: off the tee statistic at the Saudi, gaining an average of just over a half shot (0.55) per round. He still finished joint 18th. Though not a perfect comparison across two tours, that’s the second-worst he’s finished in that driving category since this experiment began in late 2019. The worst? The 2020 BMW (30th).
That’ll Make Paddy Happy: Justin Rose. The former world No. 1, who lost his way after changing equipment and leaving swing coach Sean Foley, recorded a much-needed high finish in Saudi Arabia, closing with 65 to tie for second. Down to 38th in the world, that was Rose’s first top-5 in more than a year. Captain Harrington desperately needs Rosey in good form come the fall.
O’ Captain, My Captain: Steve Stricker. Not only did he outplay Padraig Harrington over their first two rounds at the Phoenix Open, but Stricker, who turns 54 later this month, was actually in the hunt through 36 holes, playing in the final group Saturday. He wound up in a tie for fourth, becoming the oldest player to finish inside the top 5 of a Tour event since Tom Watson at the 2009 Open.
When Good Isn’t Good Enough: Andrew Putnam. He became the second player this season who failed to win after going bogey-free for the week, joining Mark Anderson, who played with a clean card at the Safeway. Doubt Putnam was going to complain about his T-7 though – it was his first top-10 in more than a year.
Take Cover: Dustin Johnson. Many are still put off by the European Tour’s decision to stage an event in Saudi Arabia, so maybe DJ knew what he was doing by not yelling “fore!” on this long-range missile.
Worth Monitoring: Jon Rahm. The Spaniard and wife Kelley are expecting the couple’s first child later this spring, and if the baby boy is a little late – like, during the second week of April – he wouldn’t hesitate to withdraw from the Masters. Obvi.
T&Ps: Thomas family. Word trickled out Sunday that Paul Thomas, grandfather of Justin, passed away Saturday night. A former PGA pro, Paul gave his love of the game to Mike, who then gave it to Justin. Playing with a heavy heart, Thomas struggled in the final round and tied for 13th in Phoenix. All the best to the Thomas family.
Way to Rub It In: WMPO volunteer. Matt Kuchar’s found the drink, and this marshal just couldn’t help but give him the “yeah, you’re swimming” signal.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Daniel Berger. Combine recent course history (four top-11 in six tries) with recent form (back-to-back top-10s) and Boog was a solid bet to keep cooking in the desert. Though he didn’t do anything egregiously wrong, his rounds of 69-71 weren’t enough to stick around for the weekend – his first missed cut since July. Sigh.
TOP 5 GOLFERS THE KANSAS CITY CHIEFS COULD HAVE USED IN THE SUPER BOWL
Well, that wasn’t much of a Super Bowl, with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers blowing out the Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9, in a game that didn’t even feel that close. For much of the game Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was running for his life, and there isn’t an active PGA Tour player who could stand among the O-line and provide some protection.
But that doesn’t mean Tour players couldn’t have contributed in other ways!
Dustin Johnson, wide receiver: With the Bucs desperately trying to take away Mahomes’ best vertical passing threat, Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs could have used another dependable option with a long wingspan. To be honest, DJ couldn’t have fared worse than the other Chiefs receivers, who seemed to be trying to make catches with their faces.
Scottie Scheffler, tight end: In today’s NFL, this is a position in title only. Basically, if you’re big and rangy, but not lightning quick, you can be a tight end. With the defense focusing so much on Travis Kelce, the Chiefs should have drawn up some multiple tight-end sets. That plan seemed to work just fine for the Bucs.
Tony Finau, defensive end: OK, maybe he’d get blown off the ball, but the Chiefs needed to try something. The 43-year-old Brady was pressured on just four of 30 dropbacks – the fewest total of his Super Bowl career. Get big Tone in there to hunt Brady down.
Brooks Koepka, cornerback: When Brooks is at his bulky best (like, right now) there’s been some chatter on social media that he looks like a linebacker on the course. Not quite – but here’s visual proof that he IS comparable to an elite NFL cornerback.
Tyrrell Hatton, assistant coach: Andy Reid already has a Super Bowl ring, but where was the passion and energy on the sidelines on Sunday? Let Hatton in there to light a fire under the boys, or at least provide some comic relief.