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Monday Scramble: Some things change and some just stay the same

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Justin Rose impresses, Tiger Woods debuts, Bryson DeChambeau keeps balling, Jordan Spieth breaks the ice, Haotong Li gets penalized and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

So much for any concern about Justin Rose.

It’s unusual for the top-ranked player in the world to undergo wholesale changes after another banner season. But that’s what the 38-year-old Rose did entering 2019: New driver. New irons. New wedges. New putter. Even a new look with his apparel.

Indeed, there were myriad unknowns heading into the year – including working with a temporary caddie, Gareth Lord, while his normal looper is on the mend – and the questions didn’t subside after a pedestrian start in the desert, just his second finish outside the top 20 since May.

But in his second start with new clubs, on a stout Torrey Pines layout that tested every part of his new bag, Rose won for the 10th time on Tour, shot 21 under par and ranked second in strokes gained: tee to green, a testament to his all-around excellence.

“I’m really happy I challenged the status quo,” he said.

The doubters are gone now, and so here’s a question we didn’t think we’d ask at the end of January:

Is the world No. 1 about to get … better?

1. It’s hard to overstate just how dramatic of a makeover Rose underwent, with the longtime TaylorMade staffer now playing a set that includes a Honma driver, TaylorMade fairway woods, Honma irons, Honma and Titleist wedges, an Axis1 putter and a TaylorMade ball.

One of the reasons that Rose decided to make the jump was so he could have the flexibility to play the mismatched set that he believes is best for his game. And besides, he didn’t think the change was “too drastic” anyway: the blades are similar, with slight differences in the quality of the steel, material, look, sound and feel; the driver has been a “pleasant surprise”; and the putter is a model that he’s wanted to implement for a few years but couldn’t because of contractual obligations.

“People obviously, rightfully so, they don’t understand why I would make that change,” Rose said, “but I make that change with the hopes to get better as a golfer. So that made it special this week to see that trajectory so soon.”  

2. Rose’s conversion rate with the 54-hole lead isn’t good – just four of 15 previously – and so there were a few moments of uncertainty Sunday at Torrey Pines, after he made three bogeys in his first five holes and saw his lead trimmed from three shots to one.

After failing to birdie the par-5 sixth, Rose gave himself a pep talk (“You’re No. 1 in the world for a reason, just start playing like it, please”) and scratched a line on the scorecard in his yardage book, as if to say, OK, it’s time to build the round from here.

On 7, he held off a 9-iron into a tight pin to make birdie, and he was on his way, playing the remaining 11 holes in 4 under par to hold off a hard-closing Adam Scott and shoot a tournament-record 72-hole score.

3. This was just the second time in Rose’s career that he won in January – the 2002 Dunhill Championship was the other.

Being able to pick off a title so early in the year – and with new equipment, no less – allows him the freedom to not have to chase world-ranking or FedExCup points in the heart of the season.

“You can build a schedule that works for you and try and peak for the majors,” he said.

Though he strengthened his lead over Brooks Koepka at the top of the world rankings, this week’s Saudi International features four of the top five in the world and could feature a scenario in which his No. 1 spot is back up for grabs.

4. A string of late birdies and a final-round 67 helped Tiger Woods salvage a respectable week in his 2019 debut. It also snapped a streak of 13 consecutive rounds in the 70s at Torrey Pines, which underscores the belief here that the San Diego muni is no longer the best venue for Woods to kick off the year.

Yes, there are nostalgic reasons to come back every year. Yes, he’s won there eight times, including the 2008 U.S. Open. But if his competitive window is closing, if his trimmed-down schedule is supposed to give him the best chance to reach 83 wins and beyond, then Torrey is simply not one of his best options to play, with its punishing length and juicy rough and bumpy greens.  

He's finished better than 20th there just once since 2009. It's not a personal playground anymore. 

Woods used to show up every year at this event fine-tuned and ready to go. Now, he’s “kicking off the rust” and “gearing up for Augusta” and “trying to get his feels.”

Brutish Torrey Pines isn’t the place to do that. Not for a 43-year-old with a rebuilt body.

Moving forward, he should consider a softer, kinder launching pad.

5. Even still, it was far from a lost week for Tiger.

He finished the week 10th in strokes gained: tee to green and got better, cleaner and faster as the week went on. Over four days his clubhead speed rose from 117.4 mph (Thursday) to 119.7 mph (Saturday) to 120.8 mph (Sunday).

Those are building blocks as he heads to Riviera in a few weeks.

6. That missed cut at last year’s PGA was just the “kick in the butt” that Bryson DeChambeau needed.

Since then, he’s won four of his last nine starts, the latest coming at the Dubai Desert Classic, where he closed with 64 and fired a tournament-record 24 under. He won by seven.

I wrote more about it here, but there’s a uniqueness to DeChambeau that goes beyond his scientific approach or single-length irons or Hogan-style cap. He’s long past the vindication phase, where he was desperately trying to prove that his methods can work. Now it’s about finding elite consistency in his methods and eliminating the “off-weeks” in form.

“We’ve been able to figure out some things that people haven’t gotten yet,” he said.

7. One of those things, clearly, is keeping the flagstick in on the greens.

From the first event of the year, DeChambeau was emphatic that the new rule would provide a competitive advantage. Most on Tour have decided to leave in the stick on long lag putts – if only to lighten the load on their caddies – but they’re still dubious on its benefits from a makeable range.  

Adam Scott, sporting a new arm lock-style putting method, also experienced near-immediate results by leaving in the flag. He was 14th in strokes gained: putting at Torrey.

Is it a coincidence, or are they on to something?

It’s still too small of a sample size to know for certain.

8. The PGA Tour doesn’t handle conflict well, so Jordan Spieth was wise in extending an olive branch to Patrick Reed before they teed off in the third round at Torrey Pines. It was the first time they played together since Reed infamously threw him under the bus after the Ryder Cup, and Spieth was apparently anxious enough that he spent time thinking about how to handle the first-tee awkwardness, knowing that cameras would be waiting to capture their greetings.

He decided on a man hug:

They said all the right things afterward, that they’d both moved on, but a competitiveness chilliness has always defined their relationship. That won’t change moving forward, even if Reed said that he and Spieth are still – gulp – "really good friends."

Haotong Li on Sunday became the first known player to be penalized two shots for having his caddie assist with his alignment when over the ball, except … um ... it doesn't appear to be a clear violation. 

Take a look:

Li hadn't begun to take his stance by the time his caddie moved out of his line. If there's any gray area, shouldn't the benefit of the doubt go to the player?

The controversial decision cost Li about $100,000, as he dropped from a tie for third to joint 12th. 

Imagine that. Another rule that is too vague. 

This week's award winners ... 

Promising Start: Adam Scott. In his first start of the year, and with a new arm-lock putting grip, the Australian closed with four consecutive birdies to finish solo second at Torrey. 

Big Payday ... Maybe: Gareth Lord. Hopefully Rosie doesn’t pull a Kooch when it comes to compensating his fill-in caddie. Lord, who used to loop for Henrik Stenson, was on the bag at Torrey as Rose’s normal bagman, Mark Fulcher, recovers from heart surgery. That victory was worth more than $3,000, or so we’d hope.  

That’s How You Start 2019: Talor Gooch. The former Oklahoma State standout has rattled off back-to-back top-4s on the West Coast, earning a spot in this week’s event in Phoenix, too. Talk to the players, and they’re all high on Gooch’s talent.

At Least He’s Got the Commercials: Rickie. One of the Farmers ambassadors, Fowler has an absolutely dreadful record since 2014 at Torrey Pines: MC-T61-MC-MC-MC-T66.

Exchange of the Week: Eddie Pepperell and Justin Thomas. No other commentary necessary:

Quote of the Week: Bryson. Asked how he’ll celebrate his first international title, DeChambeau replied, in all seriousness: “I’ll have a nice big glass of chocolate milk.” See, this guy gets it.

Let’s Slow Down: Ernie Els as Presidents Cup playing captain? That was the headline on one golf website, after the Big Easy tied for 12th in Dubai. It was a great showing for the 49-year-old, and he has plenty of experience at Royal Melbourne, but Els has two top-10s worldwide in the past five years. Just stop.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Marc Leishman. One of the most obvious one-and-done picks of the year, Big Leish entered the week with three consecutive top-4s and a sterling record at Torrey that included a pair of runners-up. So of course he barely made the cut and tied for 43rd. Sigh.