Tiger Woods appears set for a shocking return, Jennifer Kupcho captures her first major, J.J. Spaun earns the final invitation to Augusta National, this writer makes his list of the top 10 Masters favorites and more in this week's major edition of Monday Scramble:
Tiger Watch is back on.
It’s been so long, we almost missed all of the will-he-or-won’t-he? drama.
Though Woods maintains he’s still a “game-time decision” to make his competitive return at the Masters, all signs point to him playing in the year’s first major. He arrived in Augusta on Sunday to continue his preparation, was added to the pre-tournament press conference schedule (11 a.m. ET Tuesday) and headed to the tournament practice area for a short warmup session.
Woods seamlessly moved through the bag for about 20 minutes, displaying plenty of pop and speed, and varying his shot trajectories. As he walked toward a cart waiting to whisk him to the tournament course for a mid-afternoon practice round, he displayed only a slight limp. He played the second nine during Sunday’s practice round, but how he looked is somewhat of a mystery – the course was closed to the media.
The media blackout gave Woods the opportunity to gauge his game and fitness without every step being scrutinized. (About those steps: He was spotted on Sunday wearing FootJoy shoes.) It’s not a question of his desire; that he hasn’t officially committed yet suggests he’s still unsure whether his rebuilt leg can withstand seven days of six-mile walks on one of the game’s most undulating courses.
When (or if) he declares himself fit to play, that means Woods believes he can seriously contend against the world’s best. He doesn’t do anything ceremonial. He wouldn’t be here to wave to the patrons, to soak up the adulation, to shoot a pair of 75s and jet home to South Florida, a heating pad on his leg.
Woods signed up for the PNC Championship last December, with little advanced notice, because he knew he could still hit the shots (he and son Charlie finished runner-up). He’d sign up for the Masters for the same reason.
Jennifer Kupcho made one final leap into Poppie’s Pond, putting her game on cruise control Sunday at the Chevron Championship to capture her first major (and first LPGA title).
It was a full-circle moment for Kupcho, who three years ago became the inaugural champion of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. That year she made the rare decision to defer full LPGA status so she could finish off her college career at Wake Forest and compete in the first-ever women’s event at Augusta National. That move paid off – she authored a stirring performance to help launch her star.
Kupcho, 24, has played well throughout her young career, including at the 2021 Solheim Cup, when she was one of only three Americans to post a winning record. It all came together during the last major round at Mission Hills, as she opened up a seven-shot lead early in the final round and easily withstood seven Sunday bogeys to win by two over Jessica Korda.
With the victory, Kupcho became the first American to win the Chevron since Brittany Lincicome in 2015.
“It’s surreal,” she said. “To be a major winner is really special, and to be the last person here at Mission Hills to jump into Poppie’s Pond, it’s all really special.”
J.J. Spaun broke out of a crowded leaderboard and rebounded from an opening double bogey to capture his first PGA Tour title at the Valero Texas Open. He won by two shots over Matt Kuchar and Matt Jones.
For Spaun, 31, it was a much-needed breakthrough for a player who had endured a few lean years. In 16 starts this season he had mustered only one top-15 finish, but at least he felt good – as this story recently detailed, he had been misdiagnosed with Type 2 diabetes (he was actually Type 1), sending his health into a mysterious tailspin.
Last year, Spaun said he was “lost” and unsure whether a golf career was the way forward.
“I was just playing bad,” he said Sunday night. “I didn’t know where my swing was. I didn’t know what to do. I had been working hard at it, too. That was the thing – I was putting so much into my game and getting nothing in return and just playing worse.”
Spaun lost his Tour card last summer but found that to be a blessing – he regained it in the first event of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, jumpstarting his confidence.
Now, he has job security, with a two-year exemption, and a spot this week at Augusta National.
“It’s just perseverance,” he said. “Just trying to push through and stay strong.”
Sixteen-year-old Anna Davis was the latest surprise winner of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
For the second year in a row, Augusta National produced the kind of second-nine drama that the Masters has long been known for. In 2021, it was Rose Zhang making triple bogey on the 13th hole to turn arguably the most prestigious title in amateur golf into a mad scramble. This time, it was LSU junior Latanna Stone squandering a two-shot lead with two holes to play to hand the title to Davis, a 16-year-old left-hander who isn’t old enough to get her driver’s license or officially talk to college coaches.
The Californian was already drawing plenty of national interest, after last year winning the Girl’s Junior PGA and playing on the Junior Ryder Cup team. Now she’ll have her pick of the top programs.
Here are a couple of stories, if you missed them: Mine on Stone, and the pain of coming oh-so-close at Augusta; and colleague Brentley Romine on the latest ANWA winner.
ONE WRITER'S TOP 10 FAVORITES FOR THE MASTERS:
1.) Jon Rahm: Might have been unseated as the world No. 1, but he still has the most complete skill set in the game – and enters the year’s first major as the top driver on Tour. Four consecutive top-10s at Augusta, and looking for more.
2.) Rory McIlroy: Here we go with another shot at the career Grand Slam, and Rors is an infinitely better place with his game than at this time last year (even while coming off a missed cut in San Antonio). The key: Getting off to a better start. Only once since 2011 has he began his Masters with a round in the 60s. That’ll be telling.
3.) Justin Thomas: Very odd that he has only a single top-10 in six career Masters starts (and it was during the November edition in 2020) but then again his overall major record of late has been underwhelming. JT is the game’s preeminent shot-maker and hits the kind of towering iron shots that play so well at Augusta. Just needs to see some putts drop.
4.) Jordan Spieth: The ultimate test of current form vs. course history. Unlike last year, Spieth isn’t steamrolling into town with loads of confidence (though he posted a bogey-free 67 Sunday in San Antonio); he has challenged just once this year, at Pebble, and has been uncharacteristically sloppy on and around the greens. Dismiss him at your own peril, though: One win, two runners-up and a pair of third-place finishes in eight Masters appearances.
5.) Scottie Scheffler: There’s little reason to think the world No. 1 and hottest player in golf won’t keep cooking at Augusta, where he has top-20s in his only two appearances. Booms tee shots, skies his irons, fills it up on the greens. Why not?
6.) Xander Schauffele: It’s been a quiet year so far for X, with only a single top-10 finish. Still, he’s 26 under par in his last three trips around Augusta and has proven that he’s a primetime player, even without the W's.
7.) Cameron Smith: Haven’t seen The Players champion in a few weeks, but it’s unlikely that he suddenly forgot how to chip and putt. Also working in his favor: The Aussie has three top-10s in his past four tries at Augusta.
8.) Dustin Johnson: The 2020 champion’s game seems to be rounding into form at the right time, first with the record-tying 63 at Sawgrass and then with a deep run at the Match Play. If his driver is grooved, look out. Again.
9.) Brooks Koepka: No one has been better in the majors since 2016 than King Koepka, who, like DJ, is coming off an encouraging week at the Match Play. Could barely walk at last year’s Masters, but before that he had 10 consecutive sub-par rounds here.
10.) Will Zalatoris: Augusta has become a ball-striker’s contest, not a putting one, and that plays right into the hands of Zalatoris, last year’s runner-up. Also promising: With the recent changes to his putter, he has looked better than usual on the shorties.
Worth mentioning: Where’s the world No. 3, Collin Morikawa? He’s been scuffling of late and has fired a round in the 60s at Augusta just once in eight rounds. ... Viktor Hovland’s shaky short game and Augusta’s notoriously tricky runoff areas bears watching. ... The most surprising stat of the day: Patrick Cantlay has only two career top-10s in majors. How? ... Paul Casey’s back has healed, he’ll be a sleepy sleeper. Matt Fitzpatrick, too, if it's firmer and faster (maybe unlikely with forecasted storms early in the week): four top-10s in his last five starts overall. ... Crazy to think Sam Burns, world No. 11, is a Masters first-timer. With three wins in the past year, it should surprise no one if he’s in the mix.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Lack of Progress: Bryson DeChambeau. If there’s any positive news here during a week when he shot rounds of 73-76, it’s that he’s survived another week without an injury setback. But from a performance standpoint, there’s little reason for optimism. At the Texas Open, he hit only 10 of 28 fairways and half the greens, ranking outside the top 125 in strokes gained: tee to green. That ... that will not play at Augusta National, one of the most exacting course on the planet, and a place where big Bryson has struggled even in good health (no better than T-21, as an amateur). It’s starting to feel like a lost year, unfortunately.
Inauspicious: Jordan Spieth’s putting. Hey, Spieth absolutely striped it at TPC San Antonio, ranking first in the field in strokes gained: tee to green. That’s great! Alas ... “It was the worst I’ve ever putted in a professional event,” he said. Indeed, his nearly seven strokes lost on the greens was the worst of his career – by nearly three strokes. He missed nine putts inside 7 feet, including twice inside 3 feet. “I’ve got to figure out a stroke feel that gets me comfortable everywhere,” he said. Well, he has three more days to figure it out.
Not Ideal: Hideki Matsuyama. On the eve of his title defense at the Masters, Matsuyama withdrew from the Texas Open, citing a neck injury, the same issue that has plagued him over the past few weeks (including at The Players). It’s an unfortunate turn of events for the Japanese star who was having one of his best seasons yet, with victories at both the Zozo and the Sony Open. Hopefully a few extra days of treatment can get him right for this special week. We spotted him on the tournament practice area on Sunday afternoon.
Not Ready Yet: Harris English. A two-time winner last year, English is still recovering from hip surgery in February. His WD put the Masters field at 90 ... assuming Woods gives it a go.
One Week Too Late: Richard Bland. Ah, what could have been for the 49-year-old Englishman, who came up just shy of the top-50 world-ranking cutoff for the Masters. (He was 53rd during the final qualifying week.) Well, he’s in the top 50 now, a week too late, after the T-29 at the Valero pushed him to 48th. He’ll have a few avenues to earn his first Masters invitation in 2023: Maintain this top-50 position through the rest of the year, or win a Tour event.
Signs of Life: Matt Kuchar. Not much has gone right lately for one of the game’s most consistent performers, who was about to fall outside the top 150 in the world before the Valero Texas Open. But in his 500th career start on Tour – no small achievement! – he stirred the echoes and nearly won for the 10th time. Chasing Spaun to the end and needing an eagle on the last, Kuchar's long approach found the water. He tied for second – his first top-5 in a stroke-play event in 26 months. He’s back inside the top 100 (No. 98).
End of an Era: Judy Rankin. Though the Hall of Famer isn’t retiring, she’s set to drastically reduce her broadcasting schedule, beginning with the one final spin around Mission Hills. That’s a shame – she’s so insightful, and so easy to listen to. Here’s a nice piece the broadcast did on her career, in case you missed it:
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Corey Conners. The 2019 Texas Open champion was coming off a marathon week at the Match Play, when he won the consolation match. Apparently, he ran out of gas in San Antonio, carding a third-round 75 to tumble down the leaderboard. He wound up in a tie for 35th, but we still like the sweet swinger’s chances of a high finish at the Masters.