Dustin Johnson crushes, Rory McIlroy wins (the B-flight!), Tiger Woods confounds, the backstopping controversy explodes, Bryson DeChambeau fumes and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
It’s beginning to feel a lot like 2017.
That’s when Dustin Johnson was unbeatable, the clear-cut world No. 1 and the prohibitive favorite as we headed to Augusta. Then came the mishap on the eve of the Masters, and the back injury that lingered, and now 2017 will forever go down as DJ’s what-if? year.
Johnson will be the first to admit that he isn’t as sharp or as dominant as he was two years ago, but he’s trending that way: He won earlier this month in Saudi Arabia and just completed one of most impressive performances of his career. In front of 46 of the top 50 players in the world at the Mexico Championship, Johnson dusted a game Rory McIlroy by five shots and was 10 (!) clear of third place. His driver was typically lethal, he hit the most greens and paced the field in putting.
Try beating that.
Johnson will ascend to the top of the world rankings after this week’s Honda Classic, and maybe we’ll once again be treated to another stretch of remarkable play.
No, it’s not like early 2017 – yet – but it’s starting to feel that way.
1. DJ doesn’t approach the game in these terms, but with his 20th Tour title (and a major) he’s a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame.
Not that there was much doubt anyway, with his impressive body of work in this era of immense depth and parity.
But look at the numbers:
• He now has more Tour titles than Ernie Els, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite.
• He now has as many wins as Greg Norman and Hale Irwin.
• And he’ll soon pass Davis Love III (21), Ray Floyd (22), Gary Player (24) and Johnny Miller (25).
• He’s now won at least one Tour event in each of his 12 seasons.
2. So thorough was Johnson’s dominance that he had only two holes worse than par, no one pulled closer than two shots over the weekend and he shattered by five shots the best 72-hole score in three years at Chapultepec (21-under 263).
The only tense moment came at the fifth hole, where his tee shot settled behind a tree. Johnson told the official that his only option was to play out sideways, which meant that he’d be standing on a cart path. He was given relief, punched out to 50 feet and two-putted for par.
3. DJ has only two more starts before the Masters, where he’s posted a top-10 finish in each of his past three starts.
The first is at The Players, where he said he’s looking forward to the new (old) March date and an overseeded TPC Sawgrass that should play softer and allow him to hit more drivers. He badly needed a change – he had just two top-25s in 10 career starts there.
His other remaining start is the WGC-Match Play at Austin Country Club, where he dominated in 2017.
4. Whether it’s missing the fairway with an iron, or blowing a 6-footer for a two-shot swing, or making a critical strategic error, there are a few too many errors each day for McIlroy to come out on top at week’s end.
A perfect example was the par-5 sixth on Sunday: Needing to put pressure on the leader, McIlroy instead blew his drive into the trees and asked for relief from a cart path, a similar situation to what Johnson had faced just a hole earlier. Except the official didn’t grant McIlroy relief, and he pitched out left-handed. The only mistake he could make from 225 yards out was to miss short, in the water, and that’s exactly what he did with 5-iron. He made bogey, DJ made birdie, and just like that the three-shot deficit (still doable on a tricky course) was upped to five.
Ballgame ... despite leading the field in strokes gained: tee to green.
On the plus side, it's the first time in his Tour career that McIlroy has four consecutive top-5 finishes. He's 56 under par across that span.
"Sometimes guys play better than you, and that's totally fine," he said.
5. For the first time in recent memory, Tiger Woods declined to talk to reporters for the last two rounds of an event.
Too bad, because there was plenty to ask.
A.) Why did you not alter your approach off the tee?
He was second in accuracy but ranked 70th out of 71 players in driving distance (surrendering 35 yards, on average, to DJ) and finished 66th in strokes gained: off the tee. Yes, Woods was first in strokes gained: approach the green, but he was never going to make up the necessary ground by laying so far back on tee shots. He had to attack on the gettable holes and, for some reason, never did.
B.) Where is your level of concern with your putting?
Woods is coming off the worst putting year of his career – he finished 48th in strokes gained: putting. Not horrible, certainly, but nowhere near where he was in his prime, and at times he was in such disarray that he benched his trusty Scotty Cameron putter. This becomes problematic because almost no one becomes a better putter with age, and at 43 he is showing signs of decline on the greens. His last three starts on the West Coast haven’t been particularly good, either – perhaps not a huge surprise, given his traditional struggles on poa annua – and his 66 putts on the weekend clearly left him in such a sour mood that he declined to talk to the assembled media. It’s something to watch as the Tour heads to Florida.
6. The practice of backstopping – or leaving a ball unmarked near the hole – once again sparked the outrage of Golf Twitter over the weekend.
Here’s the video:
Afterward, the players said that they’d never heard of the term or Rule 15.3a/1 and weren’t trying to gain a competitive advantage; they were simply trying to be mindful of pace of play, since the third player in the group, Michelle Wie, was receiving a ruling.
A couple of things:
• It’s a horrible look, Olson and Jutanugarn laughing and bumping fists as if to say: How funny that our balls collided! We just helped each other!
• Being unaware of the rule is not an excuse; it says so explicitly in the rulebook.
• Pace of play should never take precedence over protecting the field, and besides, it's a lame excuse – it saves, what, 15 seconds?
• Intent is what matters here – a player must agree to help the other player “in order to use it as a backstop,” according to the rules. That’s very difficult to prove. Both players told officials that leaving the ball unmarked wasn’t for a backstop, but rather to keep moving. The officials agreed, and thus no penalty.
• Saying that these pure-hearted pros would never cheat is laughable. Even good people can do the wrong thing.
• And finally: Mark the ball on the green, especially when it’s near the hole, and this won’t be a problem anymore.
What happened to a good ol’ fashioned club toss? Or kicking the bag?
This disrespectful trend of players taking out their aggression on the course has to stop, and it’s up to the tours to properly punish the offenders.
We’ve already seen that European Tour boss Keith Pelley had no interest in suspending Sergio Garcia for inflicting damage on five greens in Saudi Arabia. So now it’s PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan's job to set the tone on player discipline.
This is the second week in a row that DeChambeau has damaged the course: At Riviera, he took a chunk out of the back wall of a greenside bunker, and in Mexico he bludgeoned the practice putting green with his putter. (He later issued an apology on Twitter.)
Please, guys: Go back to cussing out your caddie or snapping a shaft!
This week's award winners ...
Pop-Up Player: Martin Trainer. He’s been so inconsistent that he has only four top-25s in 29 starts on the Web and PGA tours over the past two seasons, but at least he knows how to make his good starts count – he has three wins in that span, including Sunday at the Puerto Rico Open, ensuring him status (and perhaps some competitive freedom) through the 2021 season.
Add This to the Governing Bodies’ To-Do List: Changing the drop height rule. Not only does it look ridiculous, but it still makes little sense, as if a few feet will make a difference in the randomness of the bounce. Rickie Fowler was dinged when he played a shot after dropping from shoulder height – as he’d done his entire life. Just make the rule anywhere above the knee and be done with it.
First Time For Everything: Tiger’s putting. He four-putted and then three-putted on back-to-back holes in his third round, setting a personal worst and ending his chances of an 81st Tour title. And to think: That poor stretch began with a 5-iron into the green on a par 5!
Golf is hard.— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 23, 2019
Double bogey for Tiger Woods. pic.twitter.com/ZN3Lz1U6mQ
Pro Move: Phil Mickelson. A day after posting a shockingly poor 79 in the opening round in Mexico, the defending champion turned around and fired a 65. The 14-shot improvement, round-to-round, was the largest of Phil’s career, and it showed, if nothing else, his level of professionalism to not mail it in. He tied for 39th.
Is This The Year?: Amy Yang. After earning her fourth LPGA title in Taiwan, we can’t help but look to the majors. She has 10 career top-5 finishes in the events that define careers. Maybe this is the year she finally breaks through.
Yeah, Sure, Whatever You Say: Love for Matt Kuchar. All week we heard that the fans in Mexico were so supportive of Kuchar in his return to Mexico ... but it sure sounded like they were yelling, “Booooo” and not “Koooooch.” Perhaps not coincidentally, he was 11 over on the weekend. The Players and Bethpage could be fun this year.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jon Rahm. Riding high off seven top-10s in a row, at a course where he contended two years ago, Rahm instead was a non-factor, failing to break par in the first three rounds and tying for 45th. Sigh.