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Monday Scramble: Rory McIlroy saves the day, but what a week to unpack

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Rory McIlroy steps up when the PGA Tour needs him most, LIV Golf finally debuts and threatens to splinter golf forever, the U.S. Open returns to The Country Club and more in this week's beefy edition of Monday Scramble:

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Just leave it to the Prince of Ponte Vedra.

No player has been more outspoken against LIV Golf than Rory McIlroy, who publicly spurned the Saudis in 2020 and has been not-so-subtly criticizing those who are tainting their competitive legacy by taking gobs of cash in a series of exhibitions.

So this week, with the professional game being torn apart at the seams, who steps up?

McIlroy, of course.

In front of a raucous, golf-starved crowd that reminded us what a proper tournament looked and sounded like, McIlroy – the Tour’s former Player Advisory Council chairman – shot 13 under on the weekend and held off Justin Thomas and Tony Finau during a spirited battle at the RBC Canadian Open. Three years ago, McIlroy shot a sizzling 61 to win. This time, he roared home with a 62, including birdies on each of the last two holes, to earn his 21st PGA Tour title.

That was a significant number to McIlroy.

“One more than someone else,” he said with a smirk.

That someone?

Greg Norman, the gaffe-prone CEO and frontman of LIV Golf, who ended his Tour career with 20 wins.

“That gave me a little bit of extra incentive today,” McIlroy said.

Waiting greenside to congratulate McIlroy was PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who was on hand presumably to meet with sponsors and quell any panic among the membership. But McIlroy spoke the loudest, not just with his superb play, but with the 63rd shot that he fired Sunday at the Tour’s public enemy No. 1.

The Tour is far from a perfect product, but for one Sunday, at least, McIlroy delivered a much-needed reminder of why it remains the home to the best players in the world.


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Watching McIlroy pummel drives and then stuff wedges over the weekend, only one thought came to mind:

Finally!

This is why golf fans can’t quit McIlroy.

This is why he tantalizes and teases.

This is why he’s so often the answer to the hypothetical question, If the top players in the world are at their best, who wins?

Because no one can make the game look so effortlessly easy.

McIlroy has spent 106 total weeks at world No. 1, but none since 2020, while he’s in his athletic prime. This season, too, has been full of unfulfilled promise. He’s once again in that rarified air of 2+ strokes gained: total, and yet his only win this season came in his first event of the fall, at the CJ Cup, on the heels of what was an emotionally devastating Ryder Cup. He never truly threatened at the Masters, despite a frenetic 64 to finish. He had a primo chance at PGA but backed up with a Saturday 74. He still seemed prone to inexplicable mistakes and costly misses and untidy wedge play.


McIlroy's back-to-back wins at RBC Canadian Open

McIlroy's back-to-back wins at RBC Canadian Open

But in Canada – oh, this was the good stuff.

Entering the week, McIlroy ranked 165th on Tour from 50 to 125 yards, averaging 20 feet, 6 inches with his approach. From 100 to 125 yards, he was 147th – 21 feet, 4 inches.

That’s … not ideal, especially for a player who lives in that zone thanks to his supreme advantage off the tee.

But at St. George's (and, in particular, in a final round that was set up for scoring) McIlroy was dialed.

From 50 to 125 yards: 5 feet, 1 inch.

From 100 to 125 yards: 3 feet, 3 inches (field average was 17 feet, 4 inches).

And, sure, it led to a few stress-free birdies that propelled him throughout the day. But just as important, he said, was how it took some of the pressure off the other parts of his game, like when he was wayward off the 14th tee, laid up to a number in the fairway and then still was able to save par to stay in front.

“That’s a big step forward for me – something I probably wouldn’t have done previously,” he said, “and I think just having the confidence in my wedge game knowing, OK, I can get it up-and-down from 100 yards, move on to the next and no damage is done. So that was huge.”

Was it a one-week aberration or a sign of improvement in what is his biggest statistical liability? We’ll know more at The Country Club, where the rough will be more penal, the greens (hopefully) more firm and the margins smaller.


Harig: the PGA Tour is 'protecting' their assets
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Well.

That was one of the newsiest weeks in the game’s long history, a week that threatens to reshape the competitive landscape for the foreseeable future. There's a lot we know. And there's plenty we don't, too. So here are some things I think, in no particular order, about what has transpired and what lies ahead:

• Charl Schwartzel won the $4 million first-place prize in London, plus another $750,000 for being part of the winning team. Sure, he’s a former Masters champion. But that was 11 years ago. More relevant: He was, statistically, the 198th-best player on Tour this season, and he just won the inaugural LIV event. Yikes. 

• Late-career Phil Mickelson has already been something of a cartoon character, with his perma-grin, aviator shades, the thumbs-up, the coffee plugs, the talk about bombs and calves. Had he not won the 2021 PGA Championship, who knows where Mickelson would be right now? In the broadcast booth? On the senior tour? Maybe he would have wound up with LIV Golf, anyway. But the days of Mickelson being competitively relevant are over, as evidenced by his tie for 30th against a dismal field in his first action in four months. He’s competing this week at the U.S. Open, not because he believes he can win. (He cannot, and he will not.) No, he’s competing because he seemingly wants to remind the USGA brass (with whom he’s always had an adversarial relationship) that he can, that he holds the power – and he’s practically daring them to do something about it. In interviews, USGA CEO Mike Whan has expressed his personal displeasure over how the Mickelson story has unfolded over the past few months, but his individual powers are limited. Monday should set the tone for the rest of the week. Over the past several years, even in the best of times, Mickelson typically doesn't talk before a tournament. But there he is on the pre-tournament press conference schedule, first off at 1 p.m. ET Monday, and he likely has something to say. Buckle up.

• PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has threatened bans, either indefinite or permanent, ever since the early vestiges of a rival tour surfaced. But it’s clear that threat didn’t and won’t deter certain Tour members. Seventeen former or current Tour players are currently suspended. There will be more, perhaps several more, by the time the LIV circuit fully forms. The defectors are – for now – players who largely fit a few molds: They’re past their competitive primes (Mickelson, Westwood, Poulter); they’re ready to do less for more (DJ, Garcia, Oosthuizen); or they’re acknowledging that they can’t hang anymore (Na, Uihlein, Grace). Until that dynamic changes, until the stars who care about their competitive reputations bolt, then the Tour still appeals not just to the majority of the membership, but also to corporate America.

• That said, this summer of discontent should make clear to Tour executives that the status quo will no longer suffice. The talk of “legacy over leverage” is a marketing phrase, not an actual strategy that keeps the superstars on their home tour. It's a little unsettling that it’s not a fair fight, that as much as the Tour is poised to grow over the next decade, as much money as they will pump into FedExCup finales and PIP bonuses and other incentives, it still can’t compete against the Saudi funding. (And Tour pros have already illustrated that they care little about the controversial source of the money. They can't, and won't, be shamed into a decision.) It’s a complicated problem, and we don’t have the answers here. On CBS on Sunday, Monahan didn't offer any solutions, either. But our suggestion is to start with the Tour’s greatest asset – Tiger Woods’ unwavering support – and go from there. He’s still the most influential figure in the sport. Use his unmatched power to help stave off this existential threat.

Podcast: Tour vs. LIV leaves so many questions

Senior writers Rex Hoggard and Ryan Lavner dive into a pool of questions and come up with some answers.

• The loss of Bryson DeChambeau is the biggest blow so far for the PGA Tour. He’s immensely talented. He’s a star attraction. And he’s a polarizing presence on a largely homogenous tour. His deal with LIV Golf came together quickly, within 36 hours, and reportedly came with a $100 million-plus guaranteed offer. For a 28-year-old whose body is starting to break down and has greater aspirations outside of regular PGA Tour golf, it was a no-brainer to take this multi-year deal and see what happens.

• When it comes to the FedExCup, the Tour might want to focus more on what the series is supposed to crown – the best player all season – and not the cold, hard cash ($18 million) that goes to the winner. Not only is that an arms race that the Tour can’t win. But if the rival league is solely about “money, money and more money” – as Monahan wrote in his suspension memo last week – then the Tour would be wise to pivot away from that messaging, too.     

• Current LIV players will still be able to tee it up this week at the U.S. Open, but a close reading of the USGA’s statement seems to suggest that might not be the case moving forward. The USGA didn’t alter its qualifying criteria for this year’s event because it’d be unfair to the competitors who had already earned their way into the “open” championship. Fair enough. But there’s nothing keeping the blue blazers from shutting out LIV players next year or closing any potential Asian Tour loophole – you know, for the “good of the game.” Another important step is what happens with the Official World Golf Ranking. LIV officials plan to file an application this week, despite boasting 48-man fields with the likes of Phachara Khongwatmai and Andy Ogletree. The board deciding its fate consists of … the PGA Tour, DP World Tour, Augusta National, R&A, USGA and International Federation of PGA Tours. Good luck!

• We couldn’t help but chuckle at the suggestion that what LIV Golf was offering was “innovative” or “revolutionary.” (Granted, the Formula 1-style leaderboard was cool.) Fifty-four holes doesn’t create a sense of urgency – it feels incomplete. The broadcast and its propagandizing announcers could show nonstop golf because it doesn’t have a TV partner or advertisers to appease. The shotgun start was an interesting idea to get the day’s action wrapped up in five hours, but final rounds need the dramatic buildup and courses are designed a certain way, 1 through 18, and different finishing points mess with the competitive integrity of the design. And that gets to the heart of the issue: These aren’t tournaments. They’re useless exhibitions. They're boring, hollow cash grabs devoid of context or consequence. LIV officials can and will buy participants, but they still can’t buy meaning.

 

ONE SCRIBE'S TOP 10 FAVORITES FOR THE U.S. OPEN

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1.) Jon Rahm: The defending champion has largely been absent from the game’s biggest events this year (no finish better than T-27 in The Players, Masters or PGA), but no one should be trusted more. He does everything well and, unlike last year, he now has the self-belief that he can do it.

2.) Rory McIlroy: Not tough enough to win another Open? He’s racked up three consecutive top-10s in this event as he’s adapted his game for golf’s toughest test. If he can avoid another weekend letdown, there’s little reason to think he can’t factor again. These summer Opens are coming at an ideal time for a star hitting his stride.

3.) Scottie Scheffler: This will be the world No. 1’s fifth start in the past six weeks, and he grew more frustrated in Canada than we’ve seen him of late. Still, that’s not nearly enough to fade the Masters champion – he drives it well, hits a ton of greens and scrambles well. What’s not to like?

4.) Matt Fitzpatrick: Had yet another chance to win his first Tour event in Canada, and he could arguably be higher on this list than fourth as he returns to the site of his 2013 U.S. Amateur win. The perennial sleeper isn’t all that sleepy this week.

5.) Justin Thomas: Hasn’t been his best major historically (just two top-10s in seven tries) but he’s clearly in good form and his confidence remains sky-high. Coming off a third-place finish in Canada that fueled the fire.

6.) Will Zalatoris: His elite ball-striking is a separator when the conditions get extreme, as they will at Brookline. With five top-8s in his last seven majors, he has more crunch-time experience recently than anyone on this list.

7.) Xander Schauffele: Facts are facts: He has never finished worse than T-7 in the U.S. Open. Starting to play better, too, with no finish outside the top 20 in the past two months.

8.) Sam Burns: He’s 64th or better in every major statistical category. It hasn’t yet translated to success in his limited major career (best finish: T-20, at the PGA), but it will eventually.   

9.) Patrick Cantlay: Expectations were high at Southern Hills, and he flamed out with rounds of 76-75. In all, he has gone T2-WIN-MC-T3 across his last four starts. He’s too good not to shift the narrative, but his poor major record (just two career top-10s) carries some risk here.

10.) Cameron Smith: Needs to drive it better than he has this season (he’s the rare top player actually losing strokes off the tee, ranking 143rd), but if everyone is missing fairways at The Country Club then his tidy short game will keep him in it.

Let’s also discuss: It feels wrong to not include Collin Morikawa on this list, but his form over the past two months inspires little confidence – no top-25s in his last four starts; ditto for Brooks Koepka, the former major machine, who (perhaps dogged by a left hip injury) hasn’t been better than 55th in the game’s biggest events this year; Jordan Spieth is a threat everywhere but his only top-10 in the U.S. Open came in 2015 … when he won at a very un-U.S. Open-like Chambers Bay; Max Homa is playing the best golf of his life and finally put it together at a major, coming off a T-13 at the PGA; Shane Lowry has cooled just a bit, but he’s perfect for Brookline’s fairways-and-greens slugfest; if he’s engaged (a big if considering his wallet just got sufficiently stuffed), Dustin Johnson could easily improve on his strong Open record that features six top-10s.

 

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ... 

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Three-Peat: U.S. Curtis Cup team. You know it’s a mismatch when the Americans nearly closed out Team GB&I on Saturday. Needing only two singles wins to secure the cup, the stacked U.S. squad poured it on with a 15 ½ to 4 ½ beatdown at Merion. The Americans are now 31-8-3 in the biennial series, and GB&I hasn’t won on foreign soil since 1986. It might be time to include all of Europe.

Taking No Prisoners: Linn Grant. The former Arizona State product became the first woman to win on the DP World Tour after she throttled the field at the Scandinavian Mixed. Though she played from different tees than the men, she had the lowest score overall by nine shots and was 14 (!!!) clear of the next-best woman. Got a feeling she’ll be on the radar for the 2023 European Solheim Cup team.

What Could Have Been: Justin Rose. On the strength of three eagles, Rose was seriously threatening the lowest mark in Tour history. But instead of firing 57, the Englishman bogeyed 16, bounced back with a birdie on 17, and then stood in the first cut on the 18th hole, where he caught a flier, airmailed his 153-yard approach over the green and failed to get it up-and-down when his 18-footer tailed left of the cup. Oy. Rose tied a career low with 60 ... despite three bogeys. It still was an important result: The T-4 in Canada moved him to 79th in the FedExCup standings, giving him some needed breathing room over the next few months.

#Trending: Tony Finau. He simply got beat Sunday, his closing 64 coming up a little shy of McIlroy’s scorching Sunday mark. Nevertheless, Big Tone appears back on track, racking up his third top-5 in his past five starts; prior to that he didn’t have a top-10 since the playoffs last fall.

Just Enough: Wyndham Clark. Though he seemingly tried to give it away, playing his last five holes in 5 over par to tumble to joint seventh, Clark’s finish in Canada earned him an Open debut next month at St. Andrews through the Open qualifying series. Keith Mitchell (Go Dawgs) also can book a flight to Scotland after playing his way in. 


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Baby Bump?: Harry Diamond. As his boss strutted his way to another win on Tour (and a $1.56 million payday), McIlroy’s usual caddie was at home, prepared to welcome his second child. On the bag instead was one of McIlroy’s longtime friends, former rugby player Niall O’Connor, and the fill-in was steady enough to see this one through. McIlroy hopes that Diamond will be able to loop this week at Brookline.

That’s More Like It: Brooke Henderson. With a bogey-free 64 on Sunday, the Canadian star stormed up the leaderboard to take the ShopRite in a playoff against Lindsey Weaver-Wright. Outside the top 10 in the world entering this week, Henderson will return to the elite company with whom she belongs. She now has won at least once in seven of the past eight seasons.

Remember Me?: Lucy Li. The one-time phenom who eschewed the college ranks appears poised to make it on the LPGA after all. On Sunday the now-19-year-old won on the Epson Tour (in a playoff against fellow teen Alexa Pano) and moved to No. 1 on the points list. After years of seasoning on the mini-tours, we’re looking forward to seeing what she can do at the next level.  

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Cameron Smith. In some respects it’s an accomplishment that he even played four rounds, after an opening 76 in Canada. He rallied to make the cut with a second-round 65, giving him a few more reps before the year’s third major. But instead of pressing ahead, he leveled off with a 1-under weekend when the conditions were ripe for scoring and tied for 48th. Sigh.