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Monday Scramble: The man who did the near-impossible on the Champions Tour

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Viktor Hovland double dips in Mexico, Steven Alker goes from zero to hero, Keita Nakajima validates his ranking and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

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Used to theatrics down the stretch to win, Viktor Hovland was too dominant at Mayakoba to need them.

Ahead by two shots heading into the final round of the World Wide Technology Championship, Hovland never gave the challengers any hope as he poured it on and delivered a four-shot victory to successfully defend his title in Mexico and capture his third PGA Tour trophy. The win moved him to a career-best 10th in the world and reminded us yet again that his best is still ahead of him.

His breakthrough win in Puerto Rico in 2019 required a few magical moments with his much-maligned short game. Last year at Mayakoba, he canned a 30-footer on the final green.

This time, Hovland eased into the day with four birdies in his first 11 holes and cruised to the comfortable win over Carlos Ortiz, whose long par putt on the final green gave him solo second in his home country and a little extra holiday spending cash ($144,000 difference).

Hovland’s week started inauspiciously, when, bored on the range, he loaned his driver to Danny Lee, who was cranking up his speed training. Alas, the shaft shattered, and Hovland was left scrambling for a replacement. James Hahn stepped up to offer his backup driver, which was about a half-inch shorter and cost Hovland about 10 yards off the tee. It might have been a blessing: Hovland flighted it lower, kept it between the tree lines at claustrophobic El Camaleon and expertly relied on his point-and-shoot iron play.

When asked whether Hahn should get a 10% cut, like his caddie, Hovland laughed: “I definitely owe him one. We can negotiate something going forward.”  


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Typically, the seniors wouldn’t find a spot in this space, but Steven Alker’s story is worth sharing.

Having turned 50 in late July, the New Zealander was hoping to win a few one-day qualifiers to sneak into the fields, with an eye on PGA Tour Champions Q-School at the end of the year. It was a sensible plan, and when he qualified into the Boeing Classic, Alker kept rolling, tying for seventh to play his way into the next event.

Then a funny thing happened: He didn’t stop.

Another top-10 at The Ally earned him a spot in the next event. Then another top-10. Then another top-10.

He racked up five consecutive top-10s, and eight in nine tries, his only other result a T-16.

“I guess it’s just been building,” he said.

In limited action he still was 55th in the playoff standings, but a T-4 in the playoff opener moved him inside the cutoff. Needing another solid week, he delivered at the TimberTech Championship, outdueling Jim Furyk to win for the first time, anywhere, since the 2014 season on the Korn Ferry Tour.

Now, Alker will be exempt on tour, fully, in 2022.

“I didn’t know much about it either,” Furyk said of Alker’s game. “But I told him on the 18th green I was real happy for him. To come from really no status out here on the Champions Tour to making the Tour Championship, that’s some really good golf.”

Alker is all the way up to 22nd in the standings – too far behind to capture the overall Charles Schwab Cup, but still a serious threat to hoist one last trophy. His peers mightn’t have known much about him a few months ago, but they definitely recognize him now.  


Keita Nakajima
Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship


Yep, that’s how they drew it up.

For the first time since the Asia-Pacific Amateur was introduced in 2009, the No. 1-ranked player in the world won the event.

That’s what organizers had in mind when they created the tournament to promote golf in the region and inspire the next generation, and over the past decade-plus we’ve seen the next wave of international stars get their start. None were bigger than Hideki Matsuyama, a two-time AAC winner who at the Masters became the first Japanese male to win a major.

Lofty expectations surely will be heaped upon the latest winner of the AAC: Keita Nakajima.

His No. 1 ranking came not from beating up against kids his own age but rather the pros. The 21-year-old won a pro event in Japan, finished second in another, and established his bona fides as a next-gen star. Though still an amateur, Nakajima has a better world ranking than established 20-something Tour pros like Doc Redman and Wyndham Clark.

Once again Nakajima showed he had the goods in Dubai, where he fired all four rounds in the 60s, made a nifty par on the 72nd hole and then buried a birdie putt on the second extra hole to defeat Taichi Cho and claim the biggest title of his ascendant career. He looks like a force. 

Nakajima was already exempt into the 2022 Opens by virtue of his McCormack Medal as the world’s top amateur. Now, he has a date at Augusta – where he’ll no doubt tee it up in practice rounds with the defending champion.

 

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ... 

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Remember Me?: Thomas Pieters. Immensely talented but maddeningly inconsistent, the Belgian returned to the winner’s circle for the first time since 2019. His win in Portugal, the fifth of his Euro Tour career, capped an encouraging run during which he’d posted four top-20s in his last six starts. It’s good to see him back; a man of his ability shouldn’t be loitering outside the OWGR top 100.    

If Not for Saturday ...: Matthew Wolff. The halfway leader at Mayakoba and threatening to run away from the field, he inexplicably backed up on Day 3, making only one birdie in a third-round 74 – more than five shots worse than the field average – that sent him spiraling down the leaderboard. A closing 65 helped him salvage a top-5 finish, his second in a row. After a trying 2021 on the course, he seems to have regained his footing and his arrow is back pointing up, again. 

It’s Not How You Start ...: Justin Thomas. Three over on his opening holes, JT was DFL and appeared on his way to an early exit in what was sure to be a shootout in Mexico. Then he caught fire – as he does – and actually rocketed into the lead late in the third round. The hot streak didn’t last, as a closing 69 didn’t put much pressure on Hovland, but he walked away with a third-place finish – his third top-5 in his last five starts. As he said afterward, considering his start: “I’m very pleased.”

Back 2 Back: Danny Lee. Clearly unbothered by destroying the tournament leader's driver before the event, Lee fired a closing 64 and posted consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time since fall 2019. This autumnal surge has vaulted him nearly 100 spots in the world ranking, to No. 192. 


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While You Were Sleeping ...: Lydia Ko. Saudi Golf’s big push into the sport has caused much handwringing when it comes to the men’s game ... but in an interesting dichotomy, there was no such consternation with some of the biggest names in the women’s game heading to the desert to tee it up in the Ladies European Tour’s Saudi International, perhaps because it’s a sector that badly needs an infusion of cash, no matter the source. In any case, Ko's final-round 65 gave her a five-shot win for her second title of the calendar year.  

Almost There: Houston Open. It’s the second-last event of the 2021 Tour schedule, and a tidy field has assembled: Sam Burns, Scottie Scheffler, Matthew Wolff, Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau and Adam Scott among those in H-Town. Sure, you're probably burned out by now, but savor the action while you still can.

Live Golf ... on a Monday!: Korn Ferry Tour Q-School. With the third round delayed a day because of weather, the Tour hopefuls teeing it up in Savannah will finish Monday, with the top 40 and ties earning guaranteed starts on the developmental circuit next year. Everyone else will be hoping for the best, so it's a big deal. Chun An Yu, Daniel Summerhays, Albin Choi, Mike Visacki, John Augenstein and Justin Suh are among the names hovering around the cut line heading into the final 18. The stream starts at 10 a.m. ET.


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Once More, With Feeling: Phil Mickelson. Looking to join Jack Nicklaus as the only player to win four senior titles in his first six tries, Lefty was a late commitment to the PGA Tour Champions’ season finale. Though he has won three times this season, he remains outside the top 25 in points for the super-season and without a chance to take the big prize. Indeed, with 880,000 points going to the winner of the Charles Schwab Cup, it’s a four-man race with Langer gunning for his sixth title: Langer (3,560,999), Jim Furyk (3,223,272), Miguel Angel Jimenez (2,901,298) and Ernie Els (2,875,445).

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Tony Finau. Though El Camaleon largely takes the big stick out of his hands, Finau has had plenty of success previously south of the border, where he’d posted three top-16s in five trips. Ah, but not this time, as he continued his fall slumber with a T-45. After that drought-busting win at the playoff opener and a T-15 the next week, he has failed to finish in the top half of his last three fields. Sigh.