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Monday Scramble: Does an international stalwart have to win in the U.S.?

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Sungjae Im breaks into the winner's circle, Tommy Fleetwood's U.S. drought continues, PGA National flexes its muscle, Tiger Woods remains on the shelf  and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:


Im credits aggressive play for first PGA win

Im credits aggressive play for first PGA win

1. After a number of close calls and Rookie of the Year honors in 2019, Sungjae Im is now a PGA Tour winner.

TAKEAWAY:  Im was the last man standing Sunday at PGA National, coming from behind with a final-round 66 to snag a one-shot win at the Honda Classic. Just 21 years old, the Korean sensation has been viewed as a talented prospect since his quick ascent from the Korn Ferry Tour. Now he has the credentials to back up those expectations.

Im was a marathon man last season, playing 35 times en route to a trip to East Lake and his first Presidents Cup bid. He's something of a unicorn among his Tour brethren, still without a permanent residence and instead bouncing from one hotel to the next as he plays nearly every possible week. But his bona fides haven't been in doubt since he finished T-4 at the 2018 Safeway Open in his first start as a Tour member.

Im let one get away in the fall, losing a playoff to Sebastian Munoz at the Sanderson Farms. But this past week on a demanding layout, he leaned on his stout iron game – nowhere more clearly than the treacherous Bear Trap, where he stuffed irons on Nos. 15 and 17 en route to birdies that proved decisive. No longer saddled with the weight of trying to win his first Tour title, Im's well-rounded skill set could make this win the first of many.


Fleetwood (71): 'I didn't do that much wrong, really'

Fleetwood (71): 'I didn't do that much wrong, really'

2. While Im got his first PGA Tour win, Tommy Fleetwood's drought continues. It also brought the merits of the two biggest worldwide tours to the forefront of debate.

TAKEAWAY: Fleetwood's talent is beyond reproach: five European Tour wins, a Race to Dubai title, Ryder Cup hero status and a pair of runner-up finishes in majors. But he missed out on another chance to shed his status as the best player in the world without a PGA Tour win, and it sparked a discussion over whether a player can reach elite status without winning in the U.S.

NBC analyst Paul Azinger shined a spotlight on the issue while setting up the final round, noting that Fleetwood was facing pressure as the 54-hole leader while "trying to prove to everyone [he's] got what it takes."

"These guys know, you can win all you want on the European Tour, in the international game and all that," Azinger said. "But you have to win on the PGA Tour."

Winning on the PGA Tour isn't everything. Fleetwood's game and credentials stack up favorably against several American veterans who have racked up multiple PGA Tour wins over their careers. But with each near-miss, Fleetwood's lack of hardware in the U.S. becomes an increasingly glaring omission.

Sunday's third-place finish, the result of a closing 71, included a watery bogey on the 72nd hole when he needed birdie to force a playoff. It was a disappointing close for a decorated player, and one that ensured that the debate will rage on about whether or not a PGA Tour win is a prerequisite for global success.


Im notches first PGA Tour win at the Honda Classic

Im notches first PGA Tour win at the Honda Classic

3. The week's biggest winner might have been PGA National, which played more like a major venue than an everyday Tour host.

TAKEAWAY: The Champion Course has always been viewed as one of the toughest non-major venues on Tour, but things reached a new level this week as Im won with a 6-under total.

It was the highest winning score to par on Tour in more than four years, and it marked the first time since 1996 that no player had a single round of 5 under or lower. The week's best score was a 4-under 66, shot twice by the eventual winner.

Fickle winds and firm greens were a potent combination, and PGA National's setup is such that double bogey or worse lurks around just about every corner. And while it was an assuredly difficult week to be walking inside the ropes, the viewing product was a refreshing reminder that fans don't necessarily have to wait for the U.S. Open to see par become a coveted target.


Koepka (MC): 'Nothing to do with my knee, it's just me'

Koepka (MC): 'Nothing to do with my knee, it's just me'

4. Brooks Koepka hasn't seemed like his former self since knee surgery last fall. A dispiriting missed cut at the Honda after consecutive rounds of 74 didn't help matters.

TAKEAWAY: Koepka was the lone top-10 player last week at PGA National, but he was long gone by the time Im got his hands on the trophy.

The former world No. 1 was off-kilter from the start in a de facto home game, making as many birdies (4) as doubles or worse across 36 holes. Koepka said all the right things in speaking to reporters after each round, explaining that he was hitting good shots that simply weren't being rewarded, but there was no hiding from his 8-over score.

Koepka has been slow to rebound from this latest knee injury, failing to crack the top 15 in his first three starts of the year after missing the Presidents Cup. But his woeful week at PGA National seems to be a low point for a player who hasn't seemed the same since going toe-to-toe with Rory McIlroy at East Lake.

Koepka's beefing up his schedule as a result, adding a trip to Orlando that means he'll play five straight weeks. It's an indication that his rebuilt knee can take the added strain, but also a sign that he might still be searching for something as the major season approaches.

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5. Tiger Woods took a pass on a tournament where he's won eight times before, casting further doubt on his status with the Masters just six weeks away.

TAKEAWAY: Few pundits batted an eye when Woods opted to skip the Honda. But his decision to pass on this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, with his agent citing back stiffness as a primary factor, raises some eyebrows.

Woods has not played since finishing last among the 68 players who made the cut at the last month's Genesis Invitational, a week when he seemed woefully out of sorts well before the final putt dropped on Sunday. He didn't go to Mexico for a no-cut event the following week, and now he's skipping an event he's dominated.

Woods continues to reiterate the notion that every decision he makes is with Masters prep in mind, and the green jacket currently hanging in his closet is a testament to his ability to carry out that plan. But his pre-Augusta schedule now looks like The Players and the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, with no guarantee that he'll make the trek to Austin.

At age 44, it comes as no surprise that Woods is listening to his body and managing his load accordingly. But he'll need the full arsenal by the time he drives back down Magnolia Lane, and the opportunities to fine-tune his game are dwindling.

 

This Week's Award Winners ... 

Langer wins 41st Champs title at Cologuard

Bernhard Langer took another step closer to the PGA Tour Champions wins record, firing an 8-under 65 for a two-shot victory at the Cologuard Classic.

The Ironman Strikes Again: Bernhard Langer. At 62 years young, the German bagged his 41st PGA Tour Champions win at the Cologuard Classic. It's the 14th straight year he's won at least once on the over-50 circuit and nudges him closer to Hale Irwin's all-time record of 45 career Champions victories.

Bear Trap Extension: The 15th, 16th and 17th at PGA National receive plenty (plenty) of attention, but Sunday, the closing hole proved it was no slouch. Runner-up Mackenzie Hughes' chances to win largely ended when his approach sailed toward Wellington and into the greenside grandstands, while Fleetwood and Brendan Steele both rinsed their approaches en route to bogeys from the day's final pairing.

The WTH?! Moment of the Week: "Get in the hole" Guy just needs to go. The latest example was Fleetwood's final approach, during which a fan appeared to yell the exclamation in the middle of his backswing.

While Fleetwood and his caddie, Ian Finnis, both claimed not to have heard the premature yell, it's an unsavory aspect of the fan player relationship that cropped up two years after Justin Thomas had a fan ejected for making comments down the stretch. Cheers and critiques are all welcome from those outside the ropes – but it's not that hard to wait until after contact to lob your one-liner.

Score One for the Vets: Im became the fifth player age 22 or younger to win on Tour, but it's not just the young guys having fun. Former world No. 1 Luke Donald contended throughout the weekend en route to a T-11 finish, while fellow Englishman Lee Westwood tied for fourth. Already a winner this year in Abu Dhabi, Westwood's candidacy as a player for this year's Ryder Cup received another boost.

Pull Up a Chair: Woods shared his plans for the annual champions' dinner at Augusta National, a mouth-watering combo of fajitas and sashimi that could also potentially include milkshakes. You can never go wrong with the menu for the most exclusive meal in golf, but the image of green jacket winners swilling a milkshake and trading stories is tough to top – even if Gary Player won't partake in the sugary concoction.

Comeback Kid: Friday afternoon Mackenzie Hughes was teetering toward his sixth straight missed cut. But after making the cut on the number, the Canadian surged into contention and nearly toppled Im, the highlight coming with a fist-pump birdie from long range on the penultimate hole.

With two straight rounds of 66, Hughes turned a potential early exit into a solo runner-up finish that could make all the difference for his status in 2021 and beyond.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Rickie Fowler. After three top-6 finishes at the Honda since 2016, including his 2017 win, Fowler dug too big of a hole with an opening-round 76 en route to a trunk slam. The questions continue to linger for a longtime top-10 player who has dropped in the rankings and has not yet gotten his 2020 campaign on track.