Justin Thomas wins and loses and then ultimately prevails, Patrick Reed goes nuts on the greens (and then gets heckled), Xander Schauffele kicks himself for a blown chance, Dustin Johnson shakes off the rust and more in this week's 2020 debut of Monday Scramble:
1. After bogeying the final hole of regulation, Justin Thomas made birdie on the third playoff hole to defeat Patrick Reed and win the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
TAKEAWAY: Afterward Thomas seemed more relieved than happy, and that was understandable. For 15 holes he played one of the best rounds of his life considering the brutal conditions, but then he coughed up a two-shot lead with three holes to play, hitting a few woeful shots on 18 that opened the door for both Reed and Xander Schauffele. Thomas eventually pulled it out by hitting a high cut from 113 yards that carried the ridge and nearly dropped, setting up his winning birdie in overtime. Elated, he was not.
Thomas will eventually learn more from this hard-fought victory than if he’d left without the trophy, but he couldn’t go there late Sunday night. Not yet, anyway. “I’ll be able to really take a lot from this once I figure out what it was or whatever it might be,” he said. “But it’s always nice (to win), no matter how it’s done.”
2. With the victory, the 26-year-old Thomas became the winningest active player under the age of 30 on Tour, surpassing Jordan Spieth.
TAKEAWAY: This was Thomas’ 12th Tour title, and his third in his past six Tour starts. No player has won more often on Tour over the past five seasons.
No longer in Spieth’s immense shadow, Thomas has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past few years while Spieth has struggled to find his game. At one point in their careers, Thomas trailed Spieth, 8-1, in the wins department (and still does, 3-1, in the majors), but Thomas has since pulled ahead – and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Asked to reflect on the achievement as the Tour’s preeminent under-30 player, Thomas instead offered a glimpse into the mindset that makes him so dangerous. “Personally, it’s not an accomplishment getting to 12,” he said. “It’s an accomplishment winning today, but I’ll have fun with my family and celebrate it tonight, and next week we try to get 13.”
And this week, of course, is the Sony Open. Thomas also won at Kapalua in 2017 before hopping the short flight to Honolulu. All he did that week was fire an opening 59 on his way to a dominant victory.
3. A red-hot putting week lifted Reed into the playoff – and then he heard it from the crowd.
TAKEAWAY: It was one of the strangest stat lines you’ll ever see: Reed ranked second-to-last in the field in greens hit but had 45 one-putt greens (62 percent!) to finish the week at 14-under 278, tied with Thomas and Schauffele. Reed twice matched the low round of the week (66) and gained a whopping 9.24 strokes on the field on the greens.
Unfortunately for Reed, he couldn’t make the putts that mattered in the playoff – missing putts of 30 and 17 feet that would have won him the title outright. On the third extra hole, and with Thomas in tight, a spectator hollered, “Cheater!” as Reed’s 13-foot birdie putt raced past the cup – a reference to Reed’s brazen penalty in the Bahamas where he improved his lie in the sand. Reed didn’t appear to address the incident with any on-site reporters, and Thomas said that he never heard the heckler.
A point on this: If Reed is getting heckled in MAUI, of all places, then he needs to gird himself for a rough year. The crowds at TPC Sawgrass, Winged Foot and TPC Boston, just to name a few, will be even more hostile.
4. Aiming for back-to-back titles at Kapalua, Schauffele three-putted the 18th green twice to bow out of the three-man playoff.
TAKEAWAY: All four of Schauffele’s Tour wins have come from behind, and he seemed genuinely curious how he’d handle being in the pole position with one round to go at Kapalua. Consider the lessons learned: He managed just a single birdie in the first 12 holes, getting passed by Thomas. Then he ran off three birdies in a row, putting himself back in the mix. And then he squandered a golden opportunity to win, saying he got “gusted” on his eagle attempt from 35 feet and then missing the 7-foot comebacker, too. He also three-putted from 100 feet in the playoff, leaving a sour taste in his mouth afterward: “I should have won the tournament. I think I know it. Everybody knows it.”
There’s little doubt Schauffele, 26, is one of the game’s rising stars, but there’s one piece missing in his game. Once he figures out life as a frontrunner, it’ll be a game changer for him. “I know I’m good enough to hang with the best,” he said. “I just need to be a little smarter when the time is right, and I would have closed it out.”
5. In his first start of the season, Dustin Johnson tied for seventh – his best result since May.
TAKEAWAY: There were some obvious signs of rust in Johnson’s game, but at least one part was in mid-season form. On new greens, Johnson rolled in 428 feet, 7 inches worth of putts – a new personal best in a Tour event. That’s a promising sign for a guy who has played musical chairs with putters over the past few years.
A no-brainer pick for a comeback year, Johnson revealed that he was uncertain for last month’s Presidents Cup all the way until a few days before he departed for Australia. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery in the fall, he still had some discomfort in his left knee, and he was working through bad habits after spending much of 2019 hanging back on his right side and swinging away from pain. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t at his best at Royal Melbourne and then ranked in the bottom half of the Kapalua field in strokes gained: tee to green. That’ll surely improve once he gets more competitive rounds under his belt, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Johnson pick up a win before Augusta.
6. Only six players were double-digits under par in Year 1 of Kapalua’s “refinement.”
TAKEAWAY: On TV, at least, so much remained the same about the Plantation Course. The dramatic elevation changes. The Pacific blue horizon. The lush grass. But PGA Tour pros didn’t obliterate the course like they had in years’ past (the winning score the last five years was at least 20 under par), and there was a reason for that.
Sure, there was plenty of rainfall over the past month, making a long course even more of a brute, but the fresh greens were easier to putt but harder to hold, the new grass in the fairways cost the course some of its speed, and players contended with 30-mph gusts in each of the last three rounds.
The course will firm up over time, of course, and when it does we’ll see some of the only-at-Kapalua shots we're accustomed to.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
WTH? Moment of the Week: Patrick Cantlay. It’s still unclear to what he was referring, but the normally reserved Cantlay was caught on a hot mic dropping an F-bomb (Warning: NSFW) and pining for post-round Mai Tais. Cantlay is interesting and delightfully blunt in smaller settings, so it’s a shame he’s likely going to get slapped with a conduct-unbecoming fine. His moment of levity may also have inspired this bizarro crowd:
Moving On Up: Cantlay. Four birdies in his last five holes gave Cantlay solo fourth at Kapalua, which also bumped him ahead of Tiger Woods in the latest world rankings, at No. 6. Only the four leading Americans will tee it up for the red, white and blue in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics – and Cantlay (as well as Schauffele) seems to be Woods’ stiffest competition for a roster spot.
Let's Try Again in a Few Weeks: Jordan Spieth. His 2020 debut will be delayed a few weeks because of a cold apparently so nasty that he pulled out of the Sony Open. He’ll begin his year at Torrey Pines.
Holding Steady ... For Now: Middle East commitments. Last week we tracked down the managers for Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau to ask whether the stars were still committed to playing in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia in the wake of increased tensions in the region following the death of Iran General Qassim Soleimani. The stock answer, for now: They’re still planning to play, but watching the situation closely. The European Tour’s Middle East swing begins next week.
Can We Bring Back 2019?: Brendon Todd. The end of the wraparound schedule couldn’t have come at a worse time for Todd, who closed out the fall with back-to-back wins before coming up just short of a three-peat in Sea Island. But now that it’s 2020, Todd looked mortal – he finished 29th in the 34-man field.
Unlikely to Return Next Year to Kapalua: Martin Trainer. The Puerto Rico Open champ has fallen on hard times recently, with 15 consecutive missed cuts to close out 2019. Then he came to Kapalua and, though he earned some much-needed points and cash ($64,000), finished last (by eight shots) at 18 over par. Yikes.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Cameron Champ. At least Champ tied for 14th, but we expected more from the bomber in what was a rain-softened ballpark. Unfortunately, in windy conditions you need to strike it purely, and Champ was good but not great against this elite field. Sigh.