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Monday Scramble: The return of Macho McIlroy

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Rory McIlroy cashes in, the Tour Championship format shines in Year 1, Juli Inkster goes with experience, Viktor Hovland earns his PGA Tour card, Brooks Koepka strips down and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

Though the new FedExCup finale is far from perfect – more on that later – the Tour Championship went about as well as the PGA Tour could have hoped.

In the final pairing Sunday afternoon were the two best players all season long.

There was compelling back-nine drama, with three-shot swings and costly mistakes and clutch putts.

And Rory McIlroy won both the 72-hole competition (worth Official World Golf Ranking points) and the net division, earning him the richest prize in golf history.

The golf was quality. It was simple to follow. And there was a deserving winner of the season-long race.

What more could you ask for in Year 1?

1. Now THAT’S the Rory McIlroy we’ve been waiting to see in a big-time spot.

Putting on a clinic off the tee (more than five shots gained on the field!). Looking sharp with his wedges. And showing off the most improved part of his game, with a rock-solid putting stroke.

McIlroy was so impressive throughout the entire bag that he built a four-shot lead on the back nine and was able to afford a few dropped shots on East Lake’s toughest holes.

For a guy who has been criticized for folding under pressure – including last year in the final group with Tiger Woods, and again last month in another head-to-head duel with world No. 1 Brooks Koepka in Memphis – this was a macho response from McIlroy.

2. There were a couple of moments that helped push McIlroy toward the $15 million jackpot.

The first came on the par-4 eighth, when he made a rare miscue with a short iron, pulling his shot left of the green. The ball appeared headed for the pond – and a likely double bogey – before it got caught up in a drain and came to rest short of the penalty area. He pitched on and saved par.

Those are the breaks that win championships.

The other moment that won him the title? It came on 16 green, when McIlroy was coming off back-to-back bogeys and in danger of losing another shot, bringing Xander Schauffele within one. After a mediocre pitch left him 7 feet for par, McIlroy gutted the left-to-right slider to maintain his two-shot cushion. He poured it on from there, with consecutive birdies to close. He eventually won by four.

3. Since it was a big topic of discussion heading into the week, here's how the leaderboard would have looked in previous years at the Tour Championship – and how OWGR points were allocated based on 72-hole finish:

1. Rory McIlroy (-13)

2. Xander Schauffele (-10)

3. Paul Casey (-7)

4. Brooks Koepka (-6)

T-5. Chez Reavie (-5), Adam Scott (-5)

T-7. Tony Finau (-4), Bryson DeChambeau (-4)

T-9. Kevin Kisner (-3), Jason Kokrak (-3)

T-11. Justin Thomas (-2), Hideki Matsuyama (-2)

T-13. Jon Rahm (E), Tommy Fleetwood (E)

T-15. Patrick Reed (+1), Gary Woodland (+1), Louis Oosthuizen (+1), Sungjae Im (+1)

19. Rickie Fowler (+2)

T-20. Webb Simpson (+3), Matt Kuchar (+3), Marc Leishman (+3)

T-23. Corey Conners (+4), Brandt Snedeker (+4), Charles Howell III (+4)

T-26. Abraham Ancer (+5), Justin Rose (+5)

28. Patrick Cantlay (+9)

29. Lucas Glover (+10)

30. Dustin Johnson (+13)

4. There are two ways to view McIlroy’s 2018-19 season.

You can view it as a disappointment, because he ran his major-less drought to five-plus years. That included a shocking no-show in the first round of the Portrush Open, in arguably the most important major of his prime, when his frailties were exposed for the entire world.

And then there are the cold, hard numbers.

McIlroy had three wins in 19 starts, including a dominant performance at The Players (against the strongest field in golf) and again in the season-ending Tour Championship (against the top 30 players of the Tour season). In between was a tour de force in Canada.

It was his most consistent season to date, with a Tour-leading 14 top-10s. It was also – at least statistically – his most impressive.

Strokes gained: total measures a player’s performance against the field. These are the top four seasons in the ShotLink era (since 2004):

  • Tiger Woods, 2006: 3.44
  • Tiger Woods, 2009: 3.19
  • Tiger Woods, 2007: 3.09
  • Rory McIlroy, 2019: 2.55

In other words: The only player this century with a better season-long performance against the field was Tiger Woods.  

“The Holy Grail is three (strokes),” McIlroy said. “I’m not going to stop until I get to three because Tiger has done that multiple seasons, and when you get to three strokes gained, you’re just in another league. So that’s what I strive towards. I’m getting closer.”

Tour Championship: Rory McIlroy

5. McIlroy was part of the policy board meetings that settled on this staggered start for the season finale, and he has 15 million reasons to approve of the format now, too.

This year, yes, it worked out well.

But what if the week had turned out differently?

What if Justin Thomas, who began the week at 10 under, started with consecutive rounds of 65 to blow away the field?

What if Schauffele had clipped McIlroy in low total strokes for the week, but didn’t take home the $15 million?

What if next year Brooks Koepka wins the Grand Slam AND the first two playoff events, and yet he doesn’t win the Tour’s season-long prize?

The week-after discussion would be decidedly different.

It might seem insignificant, but the Tour would be wise to rebrand the season finale – to call it the FedExCup Finale, shifting the focus away from the fact that it’s a 72-hole tournament and more that it’s a four-day shootout for a lot of money. Which reminds us ... 

6. It was fitting that the player with the highest net worth won the richest prize in golf.

But it touches on a larger point: Do fans really care if millionaires bank even more money?

And will there be the same interest next year when the $15 million payday isn't a new idea? 

That’s what McIlroy wondered before the tournament started. “Players might care about it,” McIlroy said, “and we want to be rewarded and paid for what we do. But competitively, it’s not about that. It’s about trying to win golf tournaments.”

Consider the top 5 on the leaderboard heading into the final round.

Four of the five players had at least $30 million in on-course career earnings alone on the PGA Tour, and obviously will take home even more in the next decade or so.

None of these guys are hurting for cash. Not at this level.

7. Might this be the dawn of golf’s next great rivalry?

This decade came and went without two headliners in the sport repeatedly going head to head in the biggest moments, but McIlroy, 30, and Koepka, 29, offer that potential moving forward.

They’re wildly different personalities. They’re both incredibly accomplished. They’re fun to watch play and refreshingly honest in the press tent. And, more importantly, they’ve traded blows over the past year, with Koepka scoring a decisive win in Memphis before McIlroy turned the tables at East Lake.

Koepka is as comfortable as anyone in his own skin, but at times McIlroy has desperately searched for who he is as a competitor. Is he the swaggering, sauntering dynamo who romped to blowout major wins? Or is he the well-adjusted adult who has achieved a rare balance while competing at the top of the sport? Not even McIlroy seems to be sure.

After the Tour Championship, McIlroy admitted that he might need to copy Koepka’s ruthless, DGAF style to once again unlock his potential: “I realized if I want to become the dominant player in the world again I need to be more like that. I guess that’s the ultimate compliment I can give Brooks, is today I wanted to be a little bit more like him.”

Sign us up for five more years of that.

8. Captain Juli Inkster rounded out her U.S. Solheim Cup team Monday, a group that figures to be heavy underdogs next month at Gleneagles.

With her two wildcard selections, Inkster opted for Stacy Lewis and Morgan Pressel, a pair of 30-somethings who have made a combined nine Solheim Cup appearances.

Pressel’s selection was a no-brainer: She has a 10-7-2 career record in the biennial event and has played well at times this summer. She’ll be terrific, as usual, in foursomes play.  

But the Lewis pick was yet another frustrating example of a captain choosing “veteran leadership” and “stability” over form.

No doubt, the American team is inexperienced. Only two players have won a major. The automatic qualifiers have combined for only 23 LPGA titles. Five are Solheim rookies. Eight of them have never played an overseas cup. All told, it might be the weakest bunch of qualifiers in U.S. history.

But Lewis isn’t the spark that the Americans needed. Since returning from maternity leave at the end of last year, she has done practically nothing, with only a pair of top-45 finishes in her last 11 starts. Even her Solheim record (5-10-1) is underwhelming.

Sure, it might add another unknown to the mix, but Inkster should have taken talent – and, say, Jennifer Kupcho – over Lewis' past accomplishment.


9. All’s right in the world: Viktor Hovland will be a full-time PGA Tour member for the 2019-20 season.

In what seemed like a formality, Hovland tied for second at the Korn Ferry Tour Finals’ second event, locking up one of the 25 cards that were available through the three-event series.

The promotion wasn’t a surprise – he closed out his Tour schedule this summer with four consecutive top-15s – but the journey through the Finals added a little extra mileage on what’s already been a long year. At least now he has the ultimate reward, and he’ll be joined on the big circuit next season with winners Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff.

Scary stuff Saturday at East Lake, when a bolt of lightning struck and injured six fans during a weather delay at the Tour Championship.

It was a relief to hear that all five individuals who were transported to the local hospital Saturday night were treated and released, with no serious injury.

That could have turned tragic, and Tour commissioner Jay Monahan rightfully gave those affected a shoutout on the 18th green Sunday. 

This week's award winners ... 

ESPN The Body Issue

Gotta Respect It: Brooks Koepka in the Body Issue. When we broke the story at The Players that Koepka had shed 20-plus pounds, for a reason he wasn’t yet prepared to share, we had a feeling it was for the nude photo shoot. That finally was confirmed this week, with Koepka clapping back at any and all haters with this boast: “All these people that talk crap and whatever on social media, they don’t have the balls to do it, and they wouldn’t look that good.”

Competition at its Finest: Paul Casey. Facing a 5-footer on 18, Casey didn’t even think about making the birdie putt, instead lagging it close to preserve his one-shot cushion on sixth place in the FedExCup finale. His cautiousness was warranted: It was worth an extra $600,000 to finish No. 5 in the season-long race. That $2.5 million bonus, by the way, was worth more than any other tournament victory in the world this year. What a time to be alive.

In Need of a Break: Dustin Johnson. We’ve documented his slump in this space over the past month or so, but it’s reached the point that he just needs to put the clubs away for a while. After grabbing the 36-hole lead in the playoffs opener, he finished his season with 10 consecutive rounds failing to break 70. He was last in the field at East Lake.

Dad Moves: Matt Kuchar. Those who have seen his hula dance probably weren’t surprised by this cringe-worthy attempt at the Tootsie Roll, but this is a perfect cap to Kuchar's bizarre year:

Everyone Else is Playing For Second: Jin Young Ko. The world No. 1 continued to do work, firing a bogey-free 64 to win the CP Women’s Open – her fourth title of the season. She went without a bogey all week, the first player to win an event blemish-free since Inbee Park in 2015.

A Helpful WD: Lee-Anne Pace. Leading in the season-long $1 million Aon Risk Reward Challenge, Pace pulled out of last week’s LPGA event with a back injury. This is interesting, because Pace made a quadruple bogey on the risk-reward hole and now that big number is thrown out, keeping her in line for the big jackpot. “It’s all legitimate,” she said.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Justin Rose. With one of the best records at East Lake (two runners-up, a pair of T-4s and a couple of other top-10s there since 2012), the Englishman was a trendy pick to charge up the FedExCup leaderboard. Instead, he shot a second-round 74 and carded an 8 on Sunday to finish in a tie for 26th. Sigh.