Danny Willett climbs the mountain (again), Jon Rahm inches closer to world domination, Sebastian Munoz continues a Latin American trend, Nelly Korda keeps rolling and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
Back among the game’s elite is Danny Willett, back after one of the most precipitous post-major slumps this decade.
Willett has suffered plenty of lowlights over the past few years, as if punished by the golf gods for stealing the 2016 Masters from collapsing golden boy Jordan Spieth. Ever since then, Willett has sustained serious injuries (shoulder, knee, wrist, back), fought to get off painkillers, and battled his swing, sinking to a career-worst 462nd in the world ranking just a year and a half ago.
At the time you’d be excused for labeling Willett, 31, a one-hit wonder, but then, under the guidance of swing coach Sean Foley and with the renewed perspective of a growing family, he once again began to find his footing.
The surprise win last fall in Dubai.
The pair of top-12s in majors.
And then this: A victory in the biggest European Tour event of the year, after outdueling the No. 5 player in the world. Willett is now ranked 31st.
1. Though Willett had shown better form of late, his performance at Wentworth still rated as a mild surprise.
Yes, he posted top-12s at the summer Opens, but the Englishman has also missed eight cuts this calendar year and failed to crack the top 20 in his past four outings.
Even at his best he’s been a hit-or-miss talent – in his breakout year in 2016, he missed four cuts – but his up-and-down season shows how much higher he still can ascend. That’s encouraging.
2. Willett’s lights-out putter propelled him to his seventh European Tour title (and second Rolex Series win), and it was a putt for bogey, not birdie, that keyed his three-shot victory.
On the 11th hole Sunday, Willett sailed a drive deep into the woods. He failed to advance the ball more than a few yards, burying in front of him in deep grass. His next shot from the hay sent a jolt of pain through his right wrist, and he said that it felt “a little bit funky” for the next 20 minutes. Willett found the green with his next shot, about 45 feet away, and then he canned the putt for bogey to stay one clear of Rahm.
Afterward, he spoke like a grizzled veteran. “I’ve watched a lot of golf on TV, and the people who win every week are not the guys who hit every fairway and hit everything to 6 feet,” he said. “Certain things happen, sometimes on a Thursday or a Friday. But for it to happen on Sunday early in the back nine was crucial just to keep my nose in front. It gave me a little bit of breathing room down the last seven holes.”
3. The maturation of Jon Rahm continues. Though he’s a seven-time winner around the globe and possesses world No. 1-level talent, the 24-year-old is still learning how to handle himself in big tournaments.
That’s the only way to view his near-miss at the BMW PGA, when he had a two-shot lead with 20 holes to play, only to backtrack late in the third round and then make a few crucial errors Sunday, with bogeys on Nos. 12 and 14 and a water ball on 18.
Rahm is thisclose to going on an absolute tear – he hasn't finished worse than 13th since the U.S. Open. But he also has only one win to show for it.
It seems like only a matter of time until he finds the missing piece and realizes his full potential.
4. The BMW PGA was the first qualifying event for the 2020 European Ryder Cup team, and so it was no accident that captain Padraig Harrington found himself grouped for the first two rounds with rising star Viktor Hovland.
Riding a Tour record-tying streak of 17 consecutive rounds in the 60s, Hovland continued his fine play by tying for 11th in his first European Tour event as a pro. In the process he also picked up some valuable Ryder Cup points.
It remains to be seen just how much Hovland, now a full-time PGA Tour member, will play in Europe in 2020. For a European roster in transition – especially with aging veterans Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia – it makes sense for Hovland to get a long, hard look for Whistling Straits.
5. ’Twas a fine backdoor top-10 for Rory McIlroy, who seemed headed for a missed cut with a head-scratching 76 in the opening round. Instead, McIlroy played the next 54 holes in 15 under par to nab a share of ninth place, inching closer to his end goal of reaching Brooks Koepka at world No. 1.
McIlroy will have another chance to make up ground this week, where he’ll tee it up with his father, Gerry, at the Dunhill Links.
6. Not every winner is destined for the PGA Tour by the time he can hold a club.
It wasn’t until Sebastian Munoz was 17 years old that he fully dedicated himself to his craft, playing well enough in his native Colombia to earn a scholarship at the University of North Texas.
There, he didn’t work hard enough either, at least not until he was an upperclassman. He was the No. 1 player on his team during his junior season. Then he made a promise to himself: If he won during his senior year, he’d turn pro; otherwise, he’d head home and work on the farm with his family’s business. He won twice, turned pro, played his way through the mini-tours and onto the Korn Ferry Tour, lost his card, hung on in the final regular-season event and then – boom – became a Tour winner at the Sanderson Farms, after a 15-foot birdie on the 72nd hole and then a par on the first playoff hole.
“Life works in weird ways,” he said. “I never thought this was going to be my path, but here I am. I’m enjoying it 100 percent and I can’t wait to see what comes next.”
7. What comes next, of course, is a boatload of perks: With the win Munoz is exempt for two years, with spots now in the Tournament of Champions, Players, PGA Championship and, now that the Sanderson is a full-fledged Tour event and not just an opposite-field tourney, the Masters.
“Whenever they were doing the trophy ceremony, I just kept smiling to myself ... it’s just like smile, then smile again,” he said. “It hasn’t set in, but I’m fully aware of the perks of being a Tour winner and I’ll carry that forever.”
8. A couple of other nuggets from the Sanderson Farms:
• Munoz’s inspiration last week? Greenbrier winner and fellow Latin American Joaquin Niemann. On the charter to Jackson, Mississippi, he walked the young phenom through his round, then came away with an important lesson. “Him winning last week was the last piece of the puzzle I needed to know that we’re good enough, we’re about to compete, we’re here,” he said. Good stuff.
• Tip of the cap to the playoff loser, Sungjae Im, the Tour’s newly minted Rookie of the Year. With all of the discussion about the condensed schedule this season, Im has proved to be the Tour’s ironman – he has played 17 of the past 19 events, many of them well. In this era, that’s a remarkable achievement.
• The Sanderson Farms snapped a streak of 38 consecutive events on Tour without a playoff, since Charles Howell III prevailed last fall at the RSM.
Remember Danny Willett’s brother, the guy who foolishly trolled American golf fans before the 2016 Ryder Cup, creating a huge distraction for the visiting team and a miserable week for the entire family? (Asked to describe his first Ryder Cup experience, Willett said, succinctly: “S---.”
Well, P.J. popped up again over the weekend, this time for an even more hilarious reason: He didn’t think his brother would win the BMW PGA.
Ah, but a funny thing happened Sunday. Willett began to outplay his more-ballyhooed playing competitor.
And by the end, yeah, Willett's older brother had some regrets.
This week's award winners ...
Move Over, Lexi: Nelly Korda. Still just 21, the youngest Korda sister won her fourth professional event, running away with the Ladies European Tour’s French Open by a whopping eight shots – a week after going 3-0-1 in her Solheim Cup debut. With all of the tools to be a superstar, she’s poised to supplant Thompson as the best American player.
Worth the Trip: Patrick Reed and Billy Horschel. Their tie for fourth at Wentworth was the best finish ever by an American in the event. Based on the new position on the calendar and how glowingly they spoke of the experience, here’s guessing a few more Yanks head across the pond next fall.
Disaster Averted: Justin Rose. The Englishman recently slipped and thought he’d possibly even suffered a torn ACL. An MRI revealed no serious injury, and after skipping the BMW PGA pro-am, he managed a top-10 in his first start in nearly a month. Phew.
Filling Up the Notebook: Rory McIlroy. Cheeky response here from Rors, when asked by the Telegraph’s superb golf writer, James Corrigan, what he thought of Sunday’s rainy forecast.
Plenty of #Grit: Laura Restrepo. Per the excellent Twitter follow, @ACaseoftheGolf1, Laura Restrepo was a combined 171 over par in her three-year Symetra Tour career. Then last week, she fired back-to-back career-best rounds (66-64) to win. That’s why these diehards keep plugging away.
Welcome Home: Brooks Koepka’s trophy case. Here’s the new major display in Koepka’s South Florida home. At this rate, he’s going to need an entire room and not just a nook by the staircase.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Lucas Glover. Apparently he carried over his DFL form from the Tour Championship, as Glover missed the cut with rounds of 70-72 in Mississippi. Not horrible by any means, but we’d expected more after his pair of top-15s there since 2014. Sigh.