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Monday Scramble: Koepka struggles to make weekends; Finau struggles on Sundays

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Michael Thompson ends a winless drought, Tony Finau lets another chance pass, Tiger Woods skips a WGC, the European Tour restarts in earnest and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:


Thompson's message to peers: 'I'm a threat every week'

Thompson's message to peers: 'I'm a threat every week'

1. Seven years and counting since his lone PGA Tour title, Michael Thompson birdied two of the last three holes for a two-stroke victory at the 3M Open.

TAKEAWAY: There was little to suggest recently that Thompson, 35, was on the verge of something special: He was ranked 218th in the world and had just a single top-25 on Tour in the past 10 months. Statistically he was one of the worst ball-strikers on Tour this season, ranking 169th in strokes gained: tee to green, which was hard to imagine given the beautiful tempo and rhythm with which he swung at TPC Twin Cities.

Much like PGA National, where Thompson earned his first title in 2013, the watery 3M host demands precision, especially when the wind kicked up. Thompson finished the week ranked fourth in strokes gained: approach (only once this season had he been better than 39th) and led the field in putting on his way to victory – proof that his ongoing work with swing coach Justin Parsons is starting to pay off. 

“This win validates the first win,” he said. “It solidifies my presence on the PGA Tour and proves to my peers that I’m a threat every week and that’s what I want to be.”

Yet it wasn’t an iron shot or a putt that was the highlight of his week.  

Thompson found the bunker on the drivable 16th, but he was 37 yards from the flag located on the far right side of the green. The mid-range bunker shot is one of the most difficult in the game, doubly so when you haven’t won in seven years, are tied for the lead and are staring at water long if you catch it thin. Instead, Thompson hit a beauty to 2 ½ feet, setting up the go-ahead birdie.

It was his first win in 2,702 days and 167 starts.


Finau: No trophies for T-3; 'I've learned that the hard way'

Finau: No trophies for T-3; 'I've learned that the hard way'

2. In position to win for the second time on Tour, Tony Finau could manage only a closing 68 as he finished in a logjam for third at the 3M.

TAKEAWAY: Though a final-round 78 at the Memorial could be chalked up to the demanding conditions, Finau had no such excuses this time while battling a leaderboard full of mostly unproven players. After taking the lead for the first time, he made only two birdies after the third hole and never factored down the stretch. It’s his 30th top-10 since the 2016-17 season, the most of any player without a win. The next closest is Tommy Fleetwood. With 16.

So what’s going on?

Last week Finau sacked his longtime caddie, Greg Bodine, in an effort to mix things up. That suggests perhaps Finau wasn’t thrilled with some of the course-management decisions they’d made recently. He'll have his brother on the bag for the next two weeks. 

Ranked only 19th in distance and just 29th in strokes gained: off the tee, Finau has consciously decided not to maximize his greatest advantage on a Tour that rewards the biggest hitters. Swing coach Boyd Summerhays told me that Finau's ultra-conservative style of play should soon be converted into more of an aerial attack.

And his final-round scoring average ranks 171st on Tour, so he’s still not comfortable in the heat of battle. The 3M was the first time in his last eight starts that he posted a lower Sunday score than in the third round.

That Finau is 16th in the world ranking despite having just one career title is a testament to his consistent excellence, but his awesome gifts leave us wanting more.


Tiger to miss next week's WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational

Tiger to miss next week's WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational

3. Tiger Woods is skipping this week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, opting for more rest and practice instead of a final tuneup before the year’s first major.

TAKEAWAY: It likely would have been a different story had Woods not backed into the weekend at the Memorial, but this was to be expected once he played four competitive rounds. Managing his brittle body is priority No. 1, and ultimately an extra week of wear and tear in the Memphis heat wasn’t worth the risk.

What does this mean for his PGA chances? Wouldn't think it helps. Woods lacked pop in his driver and struggled mightily on the greens at Jack’s Place. Unless he’s heading early to California, an extra week of practice on his backyard greens and at Medalist isn’t going to help prepare him for what he’s going to face at Harding Park. If there’s any silver lining it’s that Woods’ iron play was typically on point in his first event of the restart. It’ll need to stay that way if he has any hopes of being competitive at the PGA.


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4. Needing a big week to ensure his spot in the upcoming FedExCup Playoffs, Brooks Koepka missed the cut by one at the 3M.

TAKEAWAY: Koepka needed to birdie his last hole of the day to play the weekend, and he was in luck – the par-5 18th is reachable for nearly everyone in the field. But his final hole epitomized his current struggles: He missed the fairway left, laid up to 155 yards, and then couldn’t hit a wedge inside 30 feet. He walked off with par and another early exit.

Though there were some encouraging signs with his shaky ball-striking – he ranked 10th in strokes gained: tee to green – he was nearly last in the field in putting. He now has more missed cuts in 2020 (three) than he did in 2018 and ’19 combined.

Koepka is 155th in the season-long standings. With 136 points, he’s now 100 points behind the current No. 125, Matt Wallace. He’d make up that deficit with a sixth-place showing this week at the WGC in Memphis, or with a seven-place finish the following week at the PGA. But it’d take a win – or a couple of top-5s, at least – to make some serious inroads in his goal to make it all the way to Atlanta for the Tour Championship.

 

WHAT ELSE WE'RE TALKING ABOUT ...

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Ah, now that explains why Dustin Johnson has been out of sorts since his victory at the Travelers.

After posting the worst 36-hole score of his career at Muirfield Village and then throwing up a 78 in the first round of the 3M Open – which included a stretch of four water balls in two holes – Johnson pulled out of the event, citing a back injury. His manager said it’s nothing major and that, after rest and treatment, he should be good to go for the next two weeks. But it was curious that Johnson not once mentioned feeling less than 100 percent, though he was spotted by reporters stretching out his back over his opening nine holes in Minnesota.

Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery, because DJ not only has had plenty of success at TPC Southwind (he’s a two-time winner, most recently in 2018) but he was starting to trend in the right direction for the PGA, too.

White House eases rules for players to enter U.S.

The White House has eased travel restrictions for players, caddies and other essential personnel entering the United States to compete on the PGA Tour.

Despite the White House easing travel restrictions for international players, Lee Westwood has decided against playing in the PGA Championship.

Westwood was initially listed in the field for this week’s WGC in Memphis, but Westwood told reporters at the British Masters that he wouldn’t travel to the States. Why? Because, he said, “I’m still more concerned that America doesn’t take (the coronavirus) as seriously as the rest of the world.”

Westwood isn’t alone in his belief that it may be unsafe to play amid a raging pandemic; basketball and baseball players have also opted out of the season too, for various reasons. The Tour has done a stellar job of protecting the players, caddies and officials, but Westwood, who is slightly asthmatic, wasn’t keen on sitting in a plane for 10 hours just to play in a few tournaments, and his decision should be respected.


Most intriguing storylines as LPGA returns next week in Toledo

Most intriguing storylines as LPGA returns next week in Toledo

The LPGA is back in action this week – the first time the top women in the world will tee it up together since Feb. 16.  

The Drive On Championship and Marathon Classic will be played without fans as the LPGA heads to Toledo, Ohio, for two weeks. The Drive On event at Inverness will feature 144 players and a $1 million purse.

The LPGA has already canceled more than a dozen events this year because of the pandemic.

 

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ... 

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Look Out For: Renato Paratore. The 23-year-old Italian claimed his second career European Tour title, going bogey-free for 62 holes en route to a two-shot victory at the British Masters, the first of six events comprising the tour’s U.K. Swing.

Best Wishes: Andrew “Beef” Johnston. Open about his struggles with mental health, Beef withdrew from the British Masters because of anxiety while playing in the tour’s “bubble” environment.

They’re Back!: Premier Golf League. The Guardian reports that, with the European Tour finances imperiled by the pandemic, the shadowy figures of the PGL have reappeared and extended offer sheets to several brand-name players, including Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka (who has already rejected their overtures) and Rickie Fowler, among others. As of now the PGL seems like more of an existential threat to the European Tour, not the PGA Tour, but we’ll see what transpires in 2021 and beyond.  

Divorce Lawyer on Line 1: The European Tour’s “buddy system.” With the tour restarting in earnest last week, the circuit mandated that player and caddie remain buddied up for the entire week, meaning they must travel, play, rest and dine together. That’s a lot of together time (and it’s not going to be for everyone, as Eddie Pepperell suggested), especially if things aren’t going well on the course.

Pros, They’re Not Like Us!: Tommy Fleetwood. Tommy Lad was back on Tour last week, making his first start since the shutdown at the 3M. Predictably, he was rusty and missed the cut, but it’s hard to feel too sorry for him – he spent the two-week quarantine period in the Hamptons, playing – envy alert – Shinnecock, National Golf Links of America and Friar’s Head. Fleetwood is now in the midst of nine straight weeks in the U.S. (without his family), through the U.S. Open.

All in the Family: Boyd Summerhays. Finau’s swing coach is also the father to some pretty talented kids: His son, Preston, won the prestigious Sunnehanna Amateur, while his daughter, Grace, recently became the youngest winner of the Utah Women’s Amateur.  

Timely Weekend: Adam Long. His 127 across the final two rounds (63-64) surged him into solo second at 3M, enough to secure his spot in the U.S. Open in September. It was his first top-10 since the Phoenix Open in February.

Top Koreans approach LPGA return with caution

It looks as if the year’s first major championship will be staged without the highest ranked Koreans.

Bummer: Women’s British Open field. Four South Koreans who sit in the top 10 in the world rankings are set to miss next week’s Women’s British Open because of fears over the coronavirus. Though understandable, it’s unfortunate that the first major of the year will be without so much star power, as Jin Young Ko, Sung-Hyun Park, Sei Young Kim and Hyo-Joo Kim are all planning to sit out.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Dustin Johnson. Bit of a scary pick, admittedly, after his nearly-DFL finish at the Memorial, but DJ was still a month removed from victory and the highest-ranked player in the field. Then he opened up with 78 before pulling out with a bad back. Double whammy. Sigh.