Phil Mickelson is the Prince of Pebble, Paul Casey kicks away another 54-hole lead, Jordan Spieth struggles off the tee, Hosung Choi arrives, Brooks Koepka finds his voice and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble:
Just when you’re ready to count out Phil Mickelson … he pops up and surprises you.
Entering his age-49 season, at a time when most are preparing to coast on the senior tour, Mickelson continues to beat the game’s best players and defy conventional wisdom:
He’s as fit as he’s ever been.
He’s swinging with speed.
And he’s continuing to putt well.
Whether it’s equipment or technique, workouts or diet, Mickelson is always looking for an edge – he found the extra 5-6 mph bump, he says, practically overnight – but this late-career renaissance is truly something special.
Is the resurgent form sustainable as the season wears on, as he creeps toward 50?
Hey, who will bet against him now, after title No. 44? He’s shown that he’s clever enough to remain competitive – somehow, some way.
1. Let’s get the historical perspective out of the way:
• Mickelson’s 44th Tour title moved him within one of Walter Hagen for eighth on the all-time wins list;
• He’s now a five-time winner at Pebble Beach, tying Mark O’Meara for the most all time;
• At 48, he’s the oldest Tour winner since 2015;
• And he’s the fourth player with at least a 28-year gap between his first and last wins.
2. The Phil at Pebble hype machine will be working overtime for the next four months, and for good reason. His five wins in the AT&T are tied for the most all time. He has four other top-3s. He was T-16 there in the 2000 U.S. Open and followed it up with a T-4 in 2010.
But before he’s declared the prohibitive favorite to capture that elusive U.S. Open, keep in mind that how Pebble plays in February bears little resemblance to how it’ll play for the year’s third major in June. The weather will be warmer (we hope). The fairways will be tighter. The greens will be firmer and faster. The rough will be longer and thicker.
So Mickelson can’t play the same way at the Open. Though he swung the driver with plenty of speed and power, he hit only half of the fairways during his two rounds at Pebble. It worked out fine this week, because the rough wasn’t penal and the greens were receptive. But that won’t be the case in a few months, and so it’s reasonable to expect that his iron play wouldn’t be quite as spectacular as it was at the AT&T, where he ranked first in strokes gained: approach the green.
Asked afterward what this performance meant for his U.S. Open chances, Mickelson smartly replied: “Absolutely nothing. Very simply it’s nothing like the course we’ll see.”
3. Once Mickelson surged ahead of Paul Casey, flipping a two-shot deficit into a three-shot lead, the only suspense late was whether they’d be able to finish all 18 holes before nightfall Sunday.
Mickelson wanted to forge ahead – “I can see fine …” he said in a delicious bit of passive-aggressiveness – but Casey said he simply couldn’t see. So the horn blew.
Both players had a point. Mickelson was 6 under for the day and seemingly a lock to win, three ahead with two to play, and he’s in the midst of a stretch of five tournaments in six weeks; he’d love to spend an extra night in his bed before heading to Riviera. But Casey was facing a 4-foot par putt on bumpy greens, he still had an outside chance to win, he and FedEx executive Don Colleran were a shot clear in the pro-am race, and there’s a massive difference ($152,000, with big world-ranking and FedExCup points also at stake) between solo second and a share of second.
So they did the right thing, even if Mickelson was ticked off:
4. Casey is now 0-for-4 when holding a 54-hole lead on Tour. All four of those instances came with a multiple-shot lead, a combination of some poor Sunday play (he was 71 or worse in all four events) and a red-hot pursuer:
• 2016 Boston: Casey shot 73; Rory McIlroy shot 65;
• 2017 Tour Championship: Casey shot 73; Xander Schauffele shot 68;
• 2018 Travelers: Casey shot 72; Bubba Watson shot 63.
Pebble followed that pattern, as Casey made momentum-killing bogeys on Nos. 11 and 12 and Mickelson put the hammer down. And so: Casey shot 71; Mickelson shot 65.
5. What was shaping up as a weekend duel between Jordan Spieth and Mickelson fizzled once Spieth made a pair of double bogeys Saturday, on Nos. 13 and 18, after quick hooks off the tee. He tumbled all the way into a tie for 45th, after rounds of 74-75.
“My driver just didn’t behave at all,” he said.
That’s been a familiar theme this season.
During his best season, in 2015, Spieth ranked 15th in strokes gained: off the tee, but he’s trended in the wrong direction each of the past three seasons. The early returns this season are dreadful, as he works to find the right driver. Entering the week he was 156th in that category, and at Pebble he finished 60th – last – among those who played all four rounds.
Much is made of Spieth’s slumping putter, and deservedly so. But his ineffectiveness off the tee might be the bigger issue right now.
6. The Hosung Choi Experiment came and went without much fanfare. He never broke par, shooting rounds of 72-75-77, and beat only 14 players in his Tour debut.
Choi’s swing has and will continue to receive the most attention going forward, but he wasn’t quite the sideshow at Pebble that we initially feared he would, likely because he played so poorly.
Lost in all of the HosungMania was the fact that he’s a professional golfer with three career titles who’s ranked inside the top 200 in the world. He's no slouch. He deserved to get a shot, and now it’s up to him to prove that he’s worthy of a few more chances to make it on the biggest stage in golf.
7. There was a good story to emerge out of the Vic Open: Celine Boutier, a former All-Everything at Duke who battled panic attacks over the ball for the last few years of her decorated career, captured her first LPGA title.
The Vic Open was the co-sanctioned event on the European and LPGA tours that saw the men and women compete for the first time with an equal purse. The unique event lost some of its luster when a host of big-name stars decided not to show up, but it’s almost always a pleasant surprise to watch the women compete alongside their male counterparts. They’ve got serious game, too, and sometimes that goes unappreciated when the two tours are separated for nearly all of the golf calendar.
To that end: It remains a head-scratcher why the PGA and LPGA tours aren’t more collaborative, with a combined Tournament of Champions-type event or, as Golf Channel’s Gary Williams suggested, back-to-back major weeks (the PGA) on the same venue.
Hopefully the Vic Open is the start of something more.
Brooks Koepka was always miscast as the uninteresting jock. He actually has plenty to say, once he lets down his guard.
That appears to be one of his missions in 2019, to let others in a little, and it’s paid off with a series of memorable sound bites to start the new year. From saying that Sergio Garcia was acting like a “child” to opining that no one has the “balls” to penalize slow play, Koepka has rediscovered his voice and, more importantly, his comfort level in the spotlight.
The disrespected storyline was sooo 2018.
Here’s to more – plenty more – of candid Koepka in the future.
This week's award winners ...
Another One: Bernhard Langer. He blew away the field in South Florida, notching his 39th career senior title and moving just six shy of Hale Irwin’s all-time wins mark. Which means that Langer will probably get there sometime in … late 2020?
He's a Baaaad Man: Matthew Wolff. The Oklahoma State star is now 4-for-4 this season, after shooting 18 under to claim the spring-opening title in Hawaii. Tiger Woods and Matt Hill have the record for the most wins in a single season, with eight. Wolff is already halfway there, with eight more chances this spring.
Shot of the Week: Tony Romo. A friendly reminder that this isn’t Romo’s day job. What can’t this guy do?
Never Not Awkward: Paul Casey and Peter Kostis. The CBS on-course reporter was once again tasked with calling Casey’s group while his longtime pupil squandered another 54-hole lead.
Thanks For Rushing!: Scott Piercy. His three-putt from 15 feet in near-darkness on the final green dropped him from seventh to a tie for 10th (a difference of about $45,000), but more importantly it also gave Max Homa a top 10. That got him into this week’s field at Riviera.
Just When You’ve Seen It All: Crosby weather. The final round was delayed because, of all things, a hail storm that blew through the area just as the final groups were set to tee off. Wild stuff.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Brandt Snedeker. Not in the greatest form over the past few months, but there were still reasons for optimism this week – since 2013, he had two wins and a solo fourth at Pebble. So of course form superseded course history, and he missed the cut by five. Sigh.