Webb Simpson digs deep, Tony Finau's wait continues, Brooks Koepka surrenders the No. 1 ranking (next week), Graeme McDowell reemerges in a Ryder Cup year, Phil Mickelson shows signs of life and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:
1. Webb Simpson birdied the last three holes – including the first playoff hole – to defeat Tony Finau and win the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
TAKEAWAY: One of the most consistent players in golf finally got his, with Simpson earning his first title since that runaway Players victory in 2018 (and sixth overall). His last four starts: 7th, 2nd, 3rd, 1st. His last 12 starts: six top-3s, the most on Tour, more than even Justin Thomas.
Simpson is back inside the top 10 in the world for the first time since 2012 – he’s No. 7 right now, and will bump up another spot next week when the rankings are recalculated – and his understated excellence is worth appreciating in this bomb-and-gouge era.
Averaging 294.8 yards off the tee, Simpson ranks 133rd on Tour in driving distance. He’s giving up 10, 20, maybe 30 yards off the tee to the best players in the sport, but he’s deadly accurate (7th), a world-class iron player (2nd in SG: approach) and a vastly improved putter (7th) who makes the second-most birdies per round on Tour (5.56). He's basically an older version of 2015 Spieth.
To contend on today’s Tour, against players who are bigger and stronger and longer, Simpson needs to pick his spots on the schedule, play to his strengths and then capitalize when an opportunity arises. Over the past two years he’s done that better than anyone in the world.
2. Two ahead with two to play, Finau eventually lost in a playoff as the wait continues for Tour title No. 2.
TAKEAWAY: Often cited as a blowup candidate once he earns his second Tour title (and first since 2016), Finau again leaves a tournament disappointed.
No one over the past four seasons has done more with so little to show for it: Six runners-up, 15 top-5s, 28 top-10s and 47 top-25s.
All are the most of any player without a win in that span.
This time, Finau didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. He missed a 7-footer for birdie on the easy 15th. He laid up in the no-man’s-land bunker on 17. He couldn’t convert the downhill slider on 18 in regulation. But the end result still was the same. It was Simpson, not Finau, who showed a killer instinct and snagged the title.
3. For the first time in nine months, Brooks Koepka will lose his No. 1 ranking when it's recalculated after this week's events.
TAKEAWAY: It felt like only a matter of time, as Koepka needed a top-13 in Saudi Arabia in order to avoid losing his top ranking either last week (to Rahm, if he’d won in Phoenix) or this week to McIlroy, who will ascend to No. 1 for the first time since September 2015.
Koepka didn’t speak to reporters in Saudi Arabia, but here’s guessing he won't be too torn up about the math equation. He’s focused solely on getting his body and game ready for the Masters, and sitting idle for more than three months – as both McIlroy and Rahm surged – made this flipflop inevitable.
If Koepka plays the way he’s capable in the game’s biggest events – beginning next week, against a top field at Riviera – then the rankings will sort itself out.
4. Graeme McDowell overcame a slow start with a pair of back-nine birdies to win Sunday at the Saudi International, snapping a six-year winless drought on the European Tour.
TAKEAWAY: It’s the second consecutive year in which G-Mac has won, following up his win at the 2019 Puerto Rico Open on the PGA Tour. That was his first win – anywhere – since 2015. His work with swing coach Kevin Kirk, whom he hired last August, is already paying dividends.
The timing couldn’t have been better for McDowell, who moved to No. 47 in the world and could set himself up for berths in the two upcoming World Golf Championship events and the Masters, if he can maintain that position through the end of March. He still has goals to accomplish – top 20 in the world, a chance to win another major – and this victory in Saudi Arabia moves him another step closer.
And another thing: What’s gotten into the 2018 European Ryder Cup assistants? First Lee Westwood, and now McDowell breaks through, making it possible that these aging warriors could grab one of the precious spots on the European roster for Whistling Straits.
5. Phil Mickelson’s tie for third in Saudi Arabia represented his best finish in a year, since his victory last February at Pebble Beach.
TAKEAWAY: Apparently, this is Lefty’s time of year, and the T-3 finish was desperately needed for a player who was spiraling toward the top 100 in the world ranking. Instead, now he can return to Pebble Beach with some much-needed confidence, after the worst prolonged stretch of his career.
After missing the cut in his first two starts in the States – and saying that he was closer to good golf than his scores indicated – Mickelson moved within two shots of the lead late Sunday. He drove the ball long (314-yard average) and relatively straight, at least by his standards (57%), and so for at least four days he showed that he’s not yet finished. He's the one to watch in his title defense at Pebble.
This Week's Award Winners ...
The WTH? Moment of the Week: Graeme McDowell. In the second round G-Mac was given a bad time after he was interviewed on camera for Sky Sports. These walk-and-talks are supposed to give viewers rare access into a player’s mind during the course of the round, but who in their right mind is going to agree to one now? G-Mac could have been slapped with a one-shot penalty if he’d received another bad time. Fortunately for him, it all worked out OK.
Yikes: Jordan Spieth. For once it was his putter that let him down, as the erstwhile Golden Child missed the cut in Phoenix after bogeying the 36th hole. Spieth said that he drove the ball the best he has in years during the second round ... and he still only ranked 43rd in strokes gained: off-the-tee. Until his driver cooperates – he’s strengthened his grip about five degrees, with an eye on Augusta – then it’s going to be a rough few months, unfortunately.
What a Difference a Year Makes: Davis Riley. A year ago the former Alabama stud had no status anywhere, earning his way into Korn Ferry Tour events through Monday qualifiers. He played well enough in limited action to earn status, then won Sunday in the third event of the year. He’s going to be a goodie.
Here He Comes: Dustin Johnson. There was no more obvious bounce-back candidate in golf than DJ, whose back half of 2019 was derailed by a lingering knee issue. Now that he’s fully healed, he’s back doing DJ things, finishing in the top 7 in both Hawaii and Saudi Arabia, where the defending champion shot four rounds in the 60s and finished solo second, two shots behind McDowell.
Coming Soon: The USGA-R&A Distance Report. Years in the making, the governing bodies’ definitive report on the distance boom will drop Tuesday. Could be wrong, but we’re not expecting to read the words: “Roll back the ball.” At least not for a few more years.
Worth Watching: Koepka’s driver. The (soon-to-be-former) world No. 1 tied for 17th on the European Tour, but he made an equipment adjustment midway through the tournament that suggests he’s not fully comfortable off the tee. After beginning the week with a TaylorMade M5 driver, Koepka – who is an equipment free agent, able to play whatever he likes – was spotted on the weekend with a Callaway driver. We’ll see what he shows up with at Riv – and if he’s more proficient off the tee.
Nice Touch: Sunday at 16. Tip of the cap to the PGA Tour staff member who thought of this creative way to honor Kobe Bryant, cutting the cup (at 8:24 a.m.) 24 paces deep and 8 from the left edge.
Good Omen: Davis Thompson. The Georgia junior, who last fall finished in the top 25 in the Tour’s event on Sea Island, just broke the tournament record at the Jones Cup for the largest margin of victory (nine). Newish winners of the event include JT and P-Reed, which is awfully good company.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Brandt Snedeker. Rounds of 72 and an early exit weren’t what we expected from Sneds, who hadn’t missed the cut in Phoenix since 2009 and who finished third at Torrey Pines after also posting a T-12 at the Sony. Sigh.