A new PGA Tour is upon us, Nelly Korda does world No. 1 things, Jason Kokrak shows how it's done, Bernhard Langer and Phil Mickelson team up for titles, and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
The PGA Tour as we know it might be changing.
Appearance fees. Guaranteed contracts. An international series. It’s reportedly all on the table over the next few years.
Reporting from colleague Rex Hoggard (as well as The AP and Golfweek) suggests that a new fall series is taking shape, with the top players being lured to tee it up in a handful of WGC-style showcases that would feature bloated purses, limited fields and guaranteed paydays.
There’s much still to be determined – such as: who would qualify, what happens to the other fall events, how does it affect the season-long FedExCup, where the events will be held, whether there'll be a team component, as rumored – but this seems like a necessary step, for a few reasons: 1.) It appeases the stars; 2.) wards off any potential challenge from the rival tours, which are offering gobs of cash, and 3.) injects a dose of excitement into an otherwise sleepy portion of the schedule.
On the surface, at least, what the Tour is proposing isn’t much different than what happened more than a decade ago with the introduction of the FedExCup. The Tour knew it needed to spice up its finishing kick, and so it created a playoff structure that ended before attention shifted to football. Creating more events like the CJ Cup – a strong, limited field, with guaranteed money – won’t alter players’ legacies and it definitely won’t keep fans from tuning into Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers on Sunday afternoons, but it’s infinitely better than waving the white flag. James Hahn, one of the Tour’s four player directors on the policy board, offered a damning indictment of the current setup when he told Hoggard that “what we have right now, the product, isn’t working in the fall.”
The Tour has long held the view that professional golf is the ultimate meritocracy, but these are changing times, even before the threat of the new leagues. Athletes have become empowered and enlightened, understanding and embracing their worth like never before, and now they’re leveraging that power to put pressure on the top levels of their sport. The PGA Tour is no different in needing to adapt.
Think of it this way: Bryson DeChambeau and Ben Silverman are peers on Tour, but they are not equals. Not in revenue, not in fan interest, not in entertainment value. So why should they be treated like it?
A glitzy “star schedule” should be just the beginning for a Tour that needs to lean into its dozen boldfaced studs, not its strength in numbers. It’s well past time for the model to change.
The LPGA couldn’t ask for a better finish to its season.
World No. 1 Nelly Korda survived a wild final hour, making birdie on the final hole of regulation and then again with a 22-footer in overtime, to take the Pelican Championship in a playoff over Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko and Sei Young Kim.
There was plenty to digest from the week, most notably:
• It was Korda’s fourth LPGA title of the season. Plus an Olympic gold. As the No. 1 player. It’s the most decorated year for an American woman since Stacy Lewis in 2012. Oh, and she’s only 23. Just getting started.
• Here was yet another crushing disappointment for Lexi Thompson, perhaps the most popular American player (for now) but who remains winless since June 2019. She coughed up the lead at the U.S. Women’s Open and stumbled to the finish line again in Florida. Three misses inside 6 feet over the closing few holes (including on the 72nd green, with a chance to win outright) will add another layer of scar tissue. Despite all the talk of her improved putting, well, it doesn’t much matter if the putts aren’t holed in crunch time.
• The Player of the Year race is tight. Really tight. With her fourth win, Korda now ties Jin Young Ko for the most victories this season. Korda also inched ahead in the POY standings – by 10 points – heading into the season finale this week in Naples. A season-ending victory earns 30 points, and a runner-up is worth 12 points, so Ko, the defending champion, has an opportunity to claim the crown at the buzzer. Otherwise, it could cap Korda's breakout year.
Sunday at the Houston Open was a reminder that winning on Tour is hard – unless, apparently, you’re Jason Kokrak, who continued his mid-career resurgence.
After going winless across his first 233 events, the 36-year-old has now hoisted trophies after three of his last 27 tournaments. His latest came at Memorial Park, where he went 66-65 on the weekend to vroom past a host of contenders.
Even Kokrak surprised himself with this one. Striking it so poorly in practice on Tuesday, he thought about withdrawing from the event. But he stuck with it, overcame a back-nine 41 in the second round and then ripped off four birdies in a row late Sunday when the others were faltering.
Some takeaways from Sunday’s action:
• Even though he made two late birdies to salvage a tie for second, Texas native Scottie Scheffler dropped three shots in a five-hole span to start the back nine to kick away his chance for a maiden victory. He’s all the way up to No. 17 in the world – but he’s the only player inside the top 25 without a Tour title. It’s only getting harder.
• More on Martin Trainer below, but his storybook week ended with three bogeys over his last five holes, dropping him into a tie for fifth. Considering his past two years, he’s probably overjoyed by the result, and you have to appreciate his persistence in the face of constant failure. Here's hoping he's on the other side of this miserable slump.
• Sam Burns’ last four results: Win-T14-T5-T7. And his run at the Houston Open expired with a closing double bogey. He’s in the mix every single week, even without his best stuff. Scary.
Much like the early iterations of the FedExCup, there were dual winners Sunday at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship.
The first was Phil Mickelson – again – after he fired a final-round 65 to take the season finale, his fourth senior win in six tries.
And the second was Bernhard Langer – again – after he edged Jim Furyk for the Schwab Cup, the sixth time he’s claimed the season-long title.
Though he has resisted going full-time on the Champions Tour – either because he’s still convinced he can compete against the young bucks, despite evidence over the past two years that largely suggests otherwise, or perhaps because he’s planning his eventual exit from the Tour to join a rival circuit – Mickelson has a chance to do something historic as the senior GOAT. He’s 51 years old, in great shape and still hitting it plenty long. He’s now just (*checks notes*) 41 wins behind the all-time record.
Langer continues to amaze, even at age 64. Battling a balky back, he bested his age in the third round (63) and finished 17th – a weekly disappointment for him, perhaps, but still enough to keep him ahead of Furyk in the points race. Langer will slow down eventually ... but that time didn’t come in 2021. What a legend.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Out of NOWHERE: Martin Trainer. In the 70 events since he won at the 2019 Puerto Rico Open – also out of nowhere – the 30-year-old has been one of the worst players on the PGA Tour. That is not an overstatement: He has zero top-25s, 61 missed cuts, was an unfathomable -351.5 strokes gained: total and had plummeted to 1310th in the world. The only reason he could play in Houston was because his status was extended another season thanks to COVID. But Trainer is living proof that all it takes is one good week, and that everyone teeing it up on Tour is capable of greatness. He hung around all week in Houston, even grabbing a two-shot lead late in the final round, and wound up tying for fifth. With nothing but MCs to start the season, the high finish moved him to No. 71 in the FedExCup race, and it could go a long way toward helping him maintain his playing privileges for the following season. Well done.
You Can't Stop Him, You Can Only Hope to Contain Him: Steven Alker. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the stalwarts on the senior tour probably didn’t know who Alker was, considering he spent the majority of his career toiling on the Korn Ferry Tour, where he last won in 2014. Oh, but they all know about him now: He finished second at the Schwab Cup Championship, concluding a remarkable run of golf that saw him finish inside the top 10 in nine of his 10 starts – despite beginning this summer with zero status! Hopefully he can continue this sublime form after the holiday break.
The Definition of Lost: Brooks Koepka. Remember when the four-time major champion infamously boasted that he doesn’t practice before regular PGA Tour events? Ah, well, times have changed, because King Koepka is logging some serious hours on the range to try and find something, anything, to kick-start his MIA game. A week after going through a four-hour post-round session at Mayakoba, here he was working deep into the night in Houston, and even getting a second opinion from swing coach Randy Smith. It begs the question: Is Koepka working this hard at home, too, or simply trying to make up for lost time? In any case, after another MC, it's looking increasingly likely it'll be an ugly made-for-TV match with Bryson DeChambeau.
Back to his Roots: Rory McIlroy-Michael Bannon reunion. McIlroy, who will play in Dubai this week, confirmed to Golfweek that he has returned to working exclusively with Bannon, his childhood instructor. This comes after a months-long experiment with Pete Cowen, which included a few highs (Quail Hollow, CJ Cup) and a couple of high-profile disappointments (three of the four majors, the Ryder Cup). Indeed, it’s not just talk – McIlroy is trusting who, what and how he got to the top.
Out with a Whimper?: DP World Tour Championship. The European Tour’s season finale is missing some juice, what with world No. 1 Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland passing on the big-money championship in Dubai. It’s hard to fault Rahm here – he said in a statement that he needs to “recharge my batteries” before 2022 – but it’s a bad look that two of Europe’s biggest stars can’t be compelled to fly halfway around the world for a guaranteed check and the tour’s splashy finish. Rahm was No. 3 in the Race to Dubai standings.
But Here Starts a New Era: DP World Tour. Say goodbye to the European Tour, which is being rebranded to the DP World Tour beginning next week with the start of the 2021-22 wraparound season. This doesn’t seem like a massive deal: It’s not the first time that the European Tour has changed names – after all, it once was called the Volvo Tour – and it better reflects the global nature of the circuit. But we’re not sure the €2 million minimum purses for non-Rolex Series events will do much to keep veterans like Lee Westwood and Justin Rose from considering the breakaway tours.
Cool Story: Lauren Coughlin. Needing a boost to secure status for next season, Coughlin Monday qualified into the LPGA’s penultimate event and finished inside the top 25 to lock it up for 2022. Very cool.
Didn’t Think That One Through ...: Hole-in-one prizes. Any player who aced the 12th hole at last week’s LPGA event walked away with a two-year lease of a Lamborghini ... and three players accomplished the feat. Sweet deal – it’s a Lambo! – but hopefully they can get a good rate on the insurance or it’ll collect dust in their garage.
Smart Course Management: Hannah Green. Leading the way in the AON Risk/Reward Challenge, she wisely opted not to play in the penultimate event and preserved her positioning for the $1 million bonus. That’s just sensible accounting – she’d banked just $531,000 this year, and only 14 players eclipsing the $1 million mark this year. It wasn't, ahem, worth the risk.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Joaquin Niemann. As consistent as they come, the 23-year-old had missed just a single cut over the past 14 months, and there was little reason to think he’d add to that total coming off a T-5 at Mayakoba. So of course he threw up a second-round 73 at Memorial Park and missed by a few in Houston. Sigh.