Rory does what Rory does, the Super Golf League poses a serious threat, Ariya Jutanugarn rises again, the U.S. wins another Walker Cup and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
Now that Rory McIlroy has returned to his normal cruising altitude, it’s worth revisiting his nosedive.
Just two months ago, at The Players Championship, McIlroy missed the cut by a mile and stepped to the podium at TPC Sawgrass. Rarely had he looked so lost and confused, so frustrated and vulnerable. That afternoon he conceded that he’d gotten sidetracked chasing speed to keep up with Bryson DeChambeau and needed to reset.
It was a shocking admission: How did the Great Rory McIlroy – the best player of his generation – lose his way trying to mimic someone else, when his own talent was so overwhelmingly obvious?
But that low point sent him on a different path, one with renowned swing coach Pete Cowen, and it’s gotten him back in the winner’s circle in just three events. McIlroy won at Quail Hollow for his first win since November 2019 (the second-longest drought of his career) because of a few go-shot shots that he’d acquired, a commitment to play the fade off the tee and a revitalized putting stroke that had him ranked third in the field. It was the first time his new learnings were put to the test – and he responded by beating a stout field at a major-caliber course, a reminder that the transcendent talents are never as far off as they seem. He's already the betting favorite for next week’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, where he torched the field by eight shots in 2012, the last time a major was held there.
“It’s satisfying to see the work is paying off, but it’s just the start,” McIlroy said. “There’s much more that I want to achieve and so much more I want to do in the game. But this is nice validation that I’m on the right track.”
A track that could make him better than ever.
It was no coincidence that news of the Premier Golf League/Super Golf League’s reemergence coincided with the first PGA Tour player meeting of the year. Though it remains unlikely that the breakaway tour(s) could successfully launch, the threat is still real and commissioner Jay Monahan stayed resolute in his message: any player who signs up for the rival tour would be suspended immediately and likely receive a lifetime ban, according to a report from colleague Rex Hoggard.
The Tour isn't messing around.
So with nearly a week to sit on it, here are some thoughts on the PGL/SGL talk:
• Realistically, there’s almost no chance it actually happens; to be successful, the rival tours would need more than half of the big-name players to sign up, because the Saudis aren’t pining for the Tour’s middle class. And that scenario seems unlikely, with McIlroy and Justin Thomas among the stars who have already voiced their contentment with the current arrangement.
• Various reports have pegged Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Rickie Fowler among those who are at least listening to what the Saudis are offering. They’re gaining leverage. Reading the tea leaves, it appears that what the superstars want is guaranteed money – significant guaranteed money, regardless of how they perform on the course, regardless of whether that undermines pro golf's brutal meritocracy. An $8 million first-place prize via the Player Impact Program is nothing compared to what the deep-pocketed Saudis can spend to secure their services. The Tour superstars want to get paid like their well-compensated peers in other sports, and though they’re obviously not going to get a seasonal salary of $35 million-plus like LeBron James or Mike Trout, they clearly want more. Keep in mind that in 2019, during the last full Tour season, Brooks Koepka topped the money list at $9.6 million – and that’s not including a FedExCup bonus or endorsement deals.
• Players can say all they want that they’re “intrigued” or “interested” or “listening” to the rival tours, but there’s little incentive for them to actually sign up or announce their intentions. They’d face an immediate Tour suspension and have no legitimate tour to play until at least fall 2022, when the SGL is hoping to launch, if it does at all. That’s career suicide.
• The majors are in the unique position to shut this thing down. No world-class player is going to make the jump if it costs them a chance to play the major championships. The PGA of America has already come out strongly on the side of the PGA and European tours.
• It’ll be curious to see how long the big names let the links to the rival tours continue to linger. Do they really want to tarnish their professional reputations, abandon their pursuit of historical greatness and squander goodwill with fans just because they want to squeeze a few million more a year out of the Tour? They’d come off, at best, looking selfish and ungrateful, to say nothing of short-sighted, and that’s not a good look.
The Year of the Slump-Busting Star continues.
Jordan Spieth, Lydia Ko, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka, Brooke Henderson, McIlroy – and Ariya Jutanugarn.
Jutanugarn fired a final-round 63 to steal the win at the Honda LPGA Thailand, a stirring comeback for the former world No. 1 who has slipped all the way to 33rd as she failed to record a top-20 finish in five tries this year.
It was Jutanugarn’s 11th career LPGA title but first since summer 2018. In between has been some frustrating golf from one of the most enigmatic players in the women’s game – a power player who shies away from driver, a mega-talent who is constantly battling self-doubt, a loving presence who is often much too hard on herself.
Speaking with reporters afterward, Jutanugarn said that she was so fed up last year that she told her mental coaches that she wanted a break – for how long, she didn’t know. “I’m done,” she said. “I want to stop playing.”
She didn’t mean that seriously, not at age 25, not with so much still to achieve. Ariya should take plenty of confidence in her Sunday performance, overtaking ANA winner Patty Tavatanakit and erasing the painful memory of blowing a late lead in her homeland in 2013.
The United States won its third consecutive Walker Cup on Sunday, beating a game Great Britain and Ireland squad, 14-12.
Though the U.S. team was the most stacked it’s ever been – it had nine of the top 20 players in the world amateur rankings – the star of the show undoubtedly was sun-splashed Seminole, which proved a demanding test even for the long-hitting youngsters.
“I can’t think of a better course to play a Walker Cup match on,” said Cole Hammer, a junior at Texas who earned the point that sealed the American victory.
This contest wasn’t without its drama, as some kind of “norovirus” – or at least that’s what they’re officially calling it – ravaged both teams, causing a pair of players to miss at least two sessions and forcing the squads to use alternates for the first time in tournament history. (Even crazier: They only had reserves on-site this year because of COVID-19 protocols.) You had to feel for reigning U.S. Amateur champion Tyler Strafaci, who waited to turn pro until after the Walker Cup, got hit the hardest with the bug on the U.S. side and withdrew a half-hour before his Saturday singles match, leaving in an ambulance to receive further care. He returned on Sunday and dragged, going 0-2. But at least he was part of a winning squad.
It’ll be tough to top Seminole, of course, but the next two Walker Cup venues are also bucket-list stops: St. Andrews in 2023 and Cypress Point in 2025. Neither course has hosted this event in more than three decades.
WHAT ELSE WE'RE THINKING ABOUT
Give us more Garrick Higgo – much more.
The 21-year-old left-hander just bulldozed another field, this time by six shots at the European Tour’s Canary Island Championships. It was his second win in three weeks – and the sixth title in his short career, which now includes just 47 career starts. That’s about a 13% win percentage.
Higgo will make his major debut next week at the PGA Championship and should be in line for even more elite events thanks to his world ranking that is now on the verge of the top 50. Scores will be decidedly higher at Kiawah, but Higgo will enter the week having played his last three events in a mind-bending 68 under par.
Normally, the week leading into a major is a bit of a letdown.
Not this time.
The Byron Nelson field is loaded, what with Hideki Matsuyama making his first start since the Masters (following a 14-day mandatory quarantine upon returning home to Japan), Brooks Koepka testing his surgically repaired right knee, Jordan Spieth knocking off the rust after three weeks away and DeChambeau bashing away in front of his hometown fans. Oh, and Dustin Johnson is looking to end his worst stretch of golf in two years.
Koepka’s appearance is most promising: He said he probably wouldn’t compete again between the Masters and PGA so he could let his body heal, ensuring he was good to go for the busy summer stretch. But apparently he feels well enough to get in a tune-up start, too.
Alex Cejka owes Jay Haas a nice case of wine.
Haas pulled out of the Regions Tradition early last week, allowing Cejka, the first alternate, to get into the first senior major of the year. He wound up winning the event in a playoff with Steve Stricker, after Stricker couldn’t match with a 10-footer on the second extra hole.
The win comes in Cejka’s third career start on the PGA Tour Champions. He turned 50 last December. He hadn’t won anywhere since the 2015 Puerto Rico Open.
The seniors have another major in three weeks, at the Senior PGA at Southern Hills – the course that will also host the 2022 PGA following its removal from Trump Bedminster.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Expensive Mistake: Bryson DeChambeau. Believing he would miss the cut at Quail Hollow after a 2-over start, the brawny basher was surprised to read a text from his manager that conditions had worsened and he was indeed in line to play the weekend. His deal with NetJets requires a six-hour notice – the very first of first-world problems! – and so DeChambeau woke up at 2:30 a.m. Saturday and couldn’t return to Charlotte until just a few hours before his morning tee time. He still managed to shoot 68 and, of course, squeeze in a range session after the round. Better still: His T-9 finish allowed him to cover the cost of the re-fuel.
Luck of the Draw: Rory McIlroy. Last Wednesday he tweaked his neck so badly on the range that he thought he would have to withdraw from the tournament. Unable to make a full turn Thursday morning, he said he definitely would have had to pull out if not for an afternoon tee time that allowed him to receive treatment, slap some KT tape on the back of his neck and go to work. Four days later, he won.
MVP: Harry Diamond. McIlroy’s best friend and caddie played a huge role in the victory Sunday, after McIlroy’s wayward tee shot on the 72nd hole. When his ball somehow hung up in the tall grass on the side of the slope inside the hazard line, McIlroy thought about trying to gouge it back to the fairway. Ah, Diamond said, but let’s slow down and reassess: That wasn’t a guaranteed out. Where’s the best place from which to play the third? So McIlroy took a drop, hit his third shot on the green and two-putted for the bogey and the one-shot win. This was McIlroy and Diamond’s sixth win together – and McIlroy said it was their best one yet.
#Trending: Viktor Hovland. That’s back-to-back top-3 finishes at Innisbrook and Quail Hollow – among the best courses in the regular season – as he’s now on the doorstep of the top 10 in the world ranking. You don’t think those laser iron shots will play well in the wind at Kiawah?
Lesson Learned ... Or Not: Phil Mickelson and Joel Dahmen. One of the game’s great characters, Dahmen tweaked the 50-year-old on Twitter and said he looked forward to seeing how his game stacked up against the best of the Champions Tour. Well, Mickelson schooled him on Day 1, shooting 64 to Dahmen’s 68, but the recent Punta Cana champ got the last laugh. Lefty predictably imploded the rest of the week, going 75-76-76 to finish 69th, while Dahmen ended his week in joint 18th. Speaking of Phil ...
A Quote That Will Live in Infamy: Mickelson, on the Super Golf League. Though any sane person can see the SGL for what it is – a shameless money-grab by folks who are sportswashing – Mickelson said that signing up for the upstart league would actually be a, gulp, “selfless” act, because players would be sacrificing their freedom to set their own schedules. “Even though their schedules are being appreciated financially,” he said, “it would take a lot to give up control of that even though the entire sport would benefit.” And he said that with a straight face!
All Good Things ...: Jon Rahm. The world No. 3 missed the cut at Quail Hollow, ending his Tour-leading streak of 22 consecutive cuts made, falling just 120 short of tying Tiger Woods’ record. Rahm is back in action this week in Dallas.