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Monday Scramble: Tick, tick, tick ... Just a matter of time until Justin Thomas clicks

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Sam Burns outduels Davis Riley in a battle of young guns, Justin Thomas tests his patience, the rival tour finally has a schedule, Henrik Stenson gets a new job and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:


Writers' Block: Burns defends Valspar title

Writers' Block: Burns defends Valspar title

Sam Burns continues to elevate in stature, canning a 32-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to defeat Davis Riley and defend his title at the Valspar Championship.

The victory was Burns’ third Tour title in the past 12 months – the same number as Cameron Smith, Hideki Matsuyama and Patrick Cantlay.

No one has more.

With the playoff victory, Burns climbed to a career-best 10th in the world ranking, and he’s proven worthy of that elite company. He’s long off the tee (25th in distance). He’s lethal with his irons (10th in approach play). And he’s an above-average putter (35th) who racks up a ton of birdies (seventh in birdie average). That all-around excellence means he’ll continue to be a force.  

The more leads he gets, the more comfortable he seems in that position. That’s how it’s supposed to work, after all.

Some final rounds, he won’t have it (he was coming off a Monday 76 at The Players when he was in the final group).

Other times, he’ll go deep (65-67 on the weekend at the 2021 Sanderson Farms).

And some times, like Sunday at the Valspar, he’ll hang around, take advantage of the leader’s mistakes and convert nearly every must-make putt he faces. On the 70th (par) and 71st holes (bogey), he sank putts inside 10 feet that kept him in the mix.

“Man, it came through,” he said. “It was really cool.”

Burns didn’t fare well in the majors last year (WD-MC-76) but he’s a markedly improved player with unassailable confidence, having proved himself again and again and, now, again. It’d be a surprise if he didn’t challenge this year – and as one of the top players in the world, it’s now expected of him.


JT sees 'lots to build on' in Valspar near-miss

JT sees 'lots to build on' in Valspar near-miss

It seems like just a matter of time before Justin Thomas starts cashing in.

Once again he found himself in contention at the Valspar Championship, but he couldn’t gain much ground during a Sunday 70 that left him a shot out of the playoff.

He now has six top-8 finishes in his past eight starts.

Uncharacteristically struggling with his ball-striking last year during a one-win campaign, Thomas has been much sharper from tee to green. In six of seven recorded starts this season, he has gained at least a shot on the field per round with his ball-striking. At the Valspar, he topped the field from tee to green, gaining nearly 10 shots. He drew a bad break on the par-5 11th, when he found a divot at the end of the fairway and made bogey, and he burned the edge on several birdie attempts, holing only 53 feet worth of putts on the last day.

“I mean, it’s coming,” he said. “I’ve just got to be patient and be in the right frame of mind, because you can’t force anything in this game. As soon as I start doing that, you get down some rabbit holes. I’m doing a lot of really, really good things. I just need to keep putting myself there, and it will start happening.”

Thomas isn’t the only elite player currently in the midst of a victory drought.

Dustin Johnson hasn’t won in more than a year. Neither has Brooks Koepka or Bryson DeChambeau. Jordan Spieth is approaching the one-year mark. Heck, even world No. 1 Jon Rahm has gone nine months without a W.

Thomas doesn’t have a sterling record at Augusta National – his only top-10 in six tries was during the November Masters – but we can’t shake the feeling that he’s going on a tear. Soon.


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The LIV Golf league officially has a tournament schedule.

The question now is who will play in those events.

Named the LIV Golf Invitational series, the eight-event schedule will feature 54-hole events with 48-man fields, shotgun starts, a team component and $250 million in prize money. The series begins June 9 in London and will culminate Oct. 28 at the Team Championship. In between are events strategically hosted opposite weaker Tour events and located in areas that largely have been neglected, such as Portland, Boston and Chicago.   

But here was the most interesting note in the press release: “Each event will have teams comprised of different players determined by a draft the week of the event.”

That would suggest – and was later confirmed by LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman – that in Year 1, at least, this isn’t so much a new league as it is new tournament opportunities. Players don’t have to sign up to play in all eight events; they can pick and choose, come and go.

Ah, but that's where it gets sticky with the PGA Tour. The situation is ripe for some anti-trust lawsuits.

Regular Tour members are eligible to receive three conflicting-event releases per season – that’s how Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and others were allowed to play in last month’s Saudi International on the Asian Tour. But according to the Tour Player Handbook, no releases will be approved for tournaments held in North America – and the LIV series is offering four.

How strongly will the Tour enforce this one-off policy? Would signing up for a LIV event subject a Tour member to a potential ban? Is this thing bound to be settled in court? The LIV Golf Twitter account hinted at an imminent player announcement, so we'll soon have some answers.

While making the media rounds last week, Norman said that players in the top 10 in the world ranking were contacting him and asking for more information – but that doesn’t add up.

Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Patrick Cantlay, Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele and Dustin Johnson all have thrown their support behind the PGA Tour. Viktor Hovland said he’d play where the best players were. Cameron Smith just won the Tour’s flagship event.

Norman's greatest challenge is the same now as it was before: If he can’t steal the top players in the world, then all he’d have is a lackluster group of C-listers and has-beens. And if that’s the case, well, the Tour wouldn’t miss ’em.


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In a delayed announcement, Henrik Stenson was named the 2023 European Ryder Cup captain. It was delayed, of course, because the European brass was waiting to see what would happen with the Saudi-backed Super Golf League.

The 2023 captaincy figured to go to Lee Westwood, but he bowed out, he said, because he still wanted to make another team at age 50 (despite going 1-2 last fall), but also presumably because he’s deep in talks with the breakaway circuit.

The attention then turned to Stenson, one of the stalwarts of the old guard and a recent assistant, but he too was weighing his options.

That’s how Luke Donald moved into the lead position – and all he got for his loyalty was a thanks-but-no-thanks message from HQ.

Stenson apparently spurned the Saudis to accept the gig for 2023, when he will oppose Zach Johnson. All he said at his introductory news conference was: "I am fully committed to the captaincy and to Ryder Cup Europe and the job at hand."

Stenson will do a fine job – and with his dry wit, his pressers for the next year and a half are sure to be fun – but the whole saga has been a tad unsavory. Westwood should get a turn as captain, but that’ll be impossible if he joins a rival tour. Donald deserves the job, but after getting passed over this time he’ll be jammed into the captaincy pipeline with Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell and Justin Rose – and someone is bound to get squeezed. Bummer.

 

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ... 

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Remember the Name: Davis Riley. In serious contention for the first time on Tour, Riley rebounded from an ugly triple bogey to force a playoff with Burns, a longtime foe in junior and amateur golf. It was the kind of performance we’d grown to expect from Riley, a former Alabama standout who won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2020. Despite all that firepower and promise (JT has been talking up his game for years), Riley has had a quiet rookie season and, at No. 115 in the FedExCup, needed to pick up the pace if he wanted to avoid a stressful summer. This playoff loss should give him some breathing room (now No. 32 in the rankings), and good thing: His enviable golf swing will make him a lot of money.

Florida Man: Adam Hadwin. One of the few players who apparently wasn’t wiped from the week at TPC Sawgrass, the Canadian backed up a top-10 at The Players with another top-10 at the Valspar, where he won in 2017. He’s the only player to post top-10s in both events. Speaking of trending ...

Silent Assassin: Matthew Fitzpatrick. With top-10s in four of his last five starts, Fitz continues to put together one of his finest Tour seasons to date, even as he searches for that elusive title. If Augusta National is playing firm and fiery in a few weeks, he’ll be a popular pool pick.


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#Grit: Shaun Norris. Looking like he was going to squander a four-shot overnight lead, the South African battled back with three birdies on his last five holes to seal a comfortable three-shot win at the Steyn City Championship, the 39-year-old’s first triumph on the DP World Tour.

Not Quite the Top 64: WGC-Dell Match Play. This is one of the best weeks of the year, even if we’re not a fan of the round-robin format that robs the event of its do-or-die nature. In any case, most of the big names are showing up, save for Burns, who withdrew on Monday citing a need for rest; Rory McIlroy, who added Valero to his schedule; newly minted Players champion Cam Smith, who wanted to spend a few extra days with his family before they return to Australia; Hideki Matsuyama, who has been dealing with a neck injury; and Harris English, who is recovering from hip surgery. Also out – not surprisingly – is Phil Mickelson, who hasn’t been heard from since announcing that he was stepping away. His Masters status seems very much in doubt.  

Let’s Try This Again?: Bryson DeChambeau. As of this writing, DeChambeau is listed in the field for the Match Play, though he could still pull out before the Wednesday start. (Bernd Wiesberger is the first alternate.) If DeChambeau does remain in the field, it’ll be his first start anywhere since he withdrew from the Saudi International in early February citing injuries to his hand and hip. Hopefully he's only returning if he's 100%, or close enough. 

You Love to See It: Augusta National. Now just two weeks away from the start of Masters week, it’s a glorious sight to see the grandstands fully erected for the first time since 2019. Sure, we’ll miss having unobstructed views of most holes because of the limited patrons on-site, but it’s about time to have that full-throated Masters experience back in our lives.

Not Enough: Wesley Bryan. His journey in Tampa was well-documented, including a clutch finish to his second round to play the weekend when he needed a solo 51st to maintain partially exempt status (126-150 category) on Tour. Alas, a Sunday 73 extinguished those chances, sending him back into the great unknown for the remainder of the season when he'll rely on his past-champion status.

On the Ropes, Again: Cameron Tringale. At the end of 2021 he finished at No. 51 in the world ranking – one spot out of an automatic invitation to the Masters. Another top-50 deadline looms after this week, and guess where Tringale finds himself? Yep, at No. 51. Again. He has made only one career Masters appearance, in 2015.

End of an Era: Dustin Johnson. For the first time since 2015, he has been bounced from the top 10 in the world rankings (now 11th). It's been a surprising slide for a player who was No. 1 as recently as last June. With the Saudi distraction behind him, it's time for DJ to get cooking.

Textbook Form: Charl Schwartzel. We’ve seen all manner of club tosses, but rarely do you get the full fling, as demonstrated here by the 2016 Valspar champ. Not surprisingly, he missed the cut – his sixth in a row, as his world ranking tumbles toward No. 200.

In Case You Didn’t Notice: Georgia Hall. Curiously, the Saudi Ladies International didn’t engender the same backlash as the men’s edition – nor did it generate the same on-course drama. Hall cruised to a five-shot victory in what was the second event of the Ladies European Tour season.  

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Collin Morikawa. With yet another chance to ascend to world No. 1, Morikawa would seem an ideal fit for a ball-striker’s paradise like Innisbrook. Instead, he lost more than 8 1/2 shots on and around the greens, barely stuck around for the weekend and tied for 69th out of 72 players. Coming off a missed cut at The Players (where he was on the bad side of the draw), this is not exactly the form we expected to see with the Masters fast approaching.