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Monday Scramble: Top 10 favorites for the PGA Championship

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Major week arrives, Justin Thomas walks to another title in Memphis, Brooks Koepka shows signs of life, Brendon Todd has another Sunday to forget, the LPGA and PGA Tour Champions restart, and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

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1. The best players in the world – finally! – gather for a major this week with the PGA Championship getting underway Thursday at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.

TAKEAWAY: It’s the first major of the COVID-19 era, and it’ll be curious to see how much the fan-less atmosphere affects the competition. Each week on Tour has largely felt the same, with similar setups (save for the Memorial) and little on-course energy. Jordan Spieth believes that a major sans spectators will be easier to win and potentially allow someone other than the stars to shine. Thomas isn’t as worried about the prospect of winning in back-to-back weeks – and battling fatigue – because winning without fans doesn’t take as much adrenaline out of him.

There'll be more answers in this space next week, but let’s get ramped up for the first major in 13 months. Here are one man’s top 10 favorites (and some extras!) for the PGA:

1.) Justin Thomas: Odd record in the majors, but JT checks all of the boxes of a future multiple major winner and now comes in riding high off the WGC-FedEx title. Leading the Tour in strokes gained: tee to green, he can take advantage of his length and arsenal of shots to win the major that is best suited to his game.

2.) Brooks Koepka: Ball-striking has taken a major leap in the past two weeks, and he seems to be on the right track with his putting thanks to Phil Kenyon. Won't be fazed going for the historic three-peat.

3.) Webb Simpson: Does everything well, but a penal setup plays right into his hands. Playing the best golf of his career, it wouldn’t surprise at all if Webb picks up major No. 2 at the PGA or U.S. Open.    

4.) Xander Schauffele: In the non-Brooks division, few have played the majors better over the past few years than Schauffele. Back in his home state, he’s long been this scribe’s pick to pick up his first major in San Fran.

5.) Rory McIlroy: Hasn’t looked like the same player after the restart, but the weight and history of a major should give him the focus and fire he needs to access his best. Here’s hoping, because his recent history at Harding Park (won the Match Play in 2015) gives him even more of an edge.  

6.) Bryson DeChambeau: Cooled a bit in his past two starts, but if his nuclear driver stays on the planet it’ll be fascinating to watch him at Harding Park. Still doesn’t have a better finish than 15th in a major.

7.) Dustin Johnson: Shook off a slight back injury and two rough outings with a T-12 in Memphis, which has his arrow pointing upward again heading into the PGA. 

8.) Jon Rahm: His hot-and-cold play over the past two months is a bit of a head-scratcher, but after prevailing at Muirfield Village he knows he can handle adversity on a major-like setup. He’s a threat every time he tees it up.

9.) Tyrrell Hatton: Third on Tour in strokes gained: total, Hatton’s iron play is a field separator and he showed at Bay Hill that he has what it takes to win in challenging conditions.

10.) Patrick Cantlay: Surprisingly has never played at Harding Park but the time is now for the 28-year-old Cantlay, who is a safe if not sexy pick in the year’s first major.

Others warranting consideration for top 10: Daniel Berger: His results since the restart: Win-T3-MC-T2. He's had only two career top-10s in majors, but that seems likely to change; Jason Day: Freed up without a swing coach and seemingly in good health, J-Day has been playing much better over the past month; Collin Morikawa: Has played Harding Park more than a dozen times while at Cal, and his elite iron play should also keep him in the mix; Tony Finau: Caddie uncertainty and Sunday closing are negatives, but it wouldn’t surprise if he contends again; and Tiger Woods: His back remains too much of a day-to-day proposition to crack the top 10, but if somehow the stars align and he feels spry for four days in cooler weather, he’s still a danger man.  


Learning from defeats, Thomas a winner - and No. 1 - again

Learning from defeats, Thomas a winner - and No. 1 - again

2. Justin Thomas returned to No. 1 in the world ranking with a come-from-behind victory Sunday at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

TAKEAWAY: At 27 years old, he’s the third-youngest to reach 13 Tour wins, but this was a particularly satisfying victory for JT for other reasons. He erased a four-shot deficit on the final day by sticking to his game plan and not getting caught up in leaderboard-watching. He avenged a late collapse at Muirfield Village. And with his third win, he validated all of the range work during the break and became the Player of the Year front-runner with five tournaments remaining.

Outside of Woods, no one has the tools that Thomas possesses, and they were all on display as he led the field in strokes gained: tee to green and also pulled off some dazzling shots around the green, including a “sick” – his words – up-and-down on the 72nd hole to seal a closing 65 and a three-shot victory.

Thomas last held the No. 1 ranking in May/June 2018. Asked afterward if he’s better equipped to handle the top spot than he was then (he surrendered it four weeks later), Thomas said: “I feel like I’m a better player and I feel like I’m more complete of a golfer now than I was then.”

No doubt. In the past 13 months he has more wins (four) than finishes outside the top 18 (three).


Koepka: ‘This is where we wanted to be, peaking for the PGA’

Koepka: ‘This is where we wanted to be, peaking for the PGA’

3. With title defenses in back-to-back weeks, Brooks Koepka looked like his old self while finishing in a tie for second at TPC Southwind.

TAKEAWAY: Most will remember the finish: Trailing by one, Koepka took an (overly) aggressive line on 18 and hit his tee shot into the water, leading to a double bogey that cost him solo second, $455,000 and some much-needed FedExCup points.

But let’s look at the bigger picture. It was only his second top-10 of the year. He continued to make immense strides with his ball-striking, leading the field in strokes gained: approach a week after he was top 10 tee-to-green for the two rounds he played at the 3M. And he even addressed his shaky putting by adding guru Phil Kenyon to his stable.  

“This is where we wanted to be, peaking for the PGA,” he said.

It’s hard to disagree. The rest of the field is on notice.


Kang excels again on tough venue, wins Drive On in LPGA's return

Kang excels again on tough venue, wins Drive On in LPGA's return

4. Danielle Kang held off Celine Boutier to win the Drive On Championship, the fourth title of her LPGA career.

TAKEAWAY: In the first LPGA event in nearly six months, Kang showed off all of her hard work during the break and pulled out a victory in a major-championship test at Inverness, which will host the 2021 Solheim Cup. Only five players broke par in the 54-hole event, with Kang’s 2-under 70 in the final round enough to clip Boutier (who had a 6-footer on 18 to force a playoff) by one.

Kang, 27, has now won in four consecutive seasons and leapfrogged Nelly Korda to become the top-ranked American. Though she hadn’t played in a tournament since January, Kang remained sharp while working in Las Vegas with swing coach Butch Harmon and playing against boyfriend Maverick McNealy (who was in contention at the PGA Tour’s Barracuda Championship).


Barracuda winner Werenski: 'To get a win, that's huge'

Barracuda winner Werenski: 'To get a win, that's huge'

5. A week after playing in the final group, Richy Werenski caught fire on the back nine to surge past Troy Merritt and claim his first PGA Tour title at the Barracuda Championship.

TAKEAWAY: The Barracuda has become a launching point for first-time winners, and Sunday was no exception after the former Georgia Tech product came home in 30 – including a hole-out eagle on 16 and then a 20-footer on the final hole – to stun Merritt, who had been in the lead the entire final round.

Werenski finished third at the 3M after holding a share of the 54-hole lead with eventual winner Michael Thompson. He climbed to a career-best 127th in the world ranking.

Though a victory in the opposite-field event didn’t earn an invite to the Masters in 2021, Werenski got spots in the PGA and U.S. Open and will now be exempt through the 2022-23 PGA Tour season – a big deal for a guy who last season missed keeping his card by two FedExCup points. Now 34th in the standings, he might still get to Augusta after all if he can crack the top 30 and advance to the Tour Championship.

 

WHAT ELSE WE'RE TALKING ABOUT ...

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With or without fans, Brendon Todd is having a hard time closing the deal.

For the Tour-best fourth time this season, Todd took a 54-hole lead into the final round of the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, but it was another Sunday to forget. After throwing up a 75 at the Travelers, he posted the same score Sunday against the stacked field in Memphis.

His (ugly) total during those two rounds: Seven bogeys, one triple, zero birdies.

Zero!

Since he squandered an opportunity to win three in a row last fall, Todd has broken par in just two of his past nine final rounds, and his final-round scoring average ranks 166th on Tour. His last five Sundays: 74-75-73-76-75.


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Jon Rahm played down the hangover effect heading into the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, but he also never looked comfortable during his first (and apparently only) start as the new world No. 1.

A second-round 74 derailed his week and led to him finishing in a tie for 52nd. It continued a very un-Rahm-like run this summer: Only once in these six restart events has he finished better than 27th – and that was when he won, at the Memorial.

His two weeks at No. 1 are the shortest since Tom Lehman held the top spot for one glorious week in 1997. But here's guessing that won't be the last time Rahm reaches that rarefied air ... 


Branden Grace
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An eighth PGA Tour player tested positive for COVID-19, but for the first time his withdrawal significantly affected the competition.

On Saturday morning, Branden Grace tested positive for the virus and pulled out of the Barracuda, where he was tied for second going into the weekend.

Grace deserves credit here – he felt fatigued and, rather than just simply chalk it up to playing at altitude, he told Tour officials and got tested to protect the rest of the field.

Unfortunately, it’s a double whammy: Not only did Grace have a chance to win for only the second time on Tour, but with the mandatory two-week quarantine he has to miss this week’s PGA as well.

 

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ... 

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He’s Arrived: Sam Horsfield. Ian Poulter’s protégé made the leap from talented up-and-comer to champion, winning the European Tour’s Hero Open by a shot over #FellowUpandComer Thomas Detry. He’s not going to linger in the OWGR 130 range for long.  

Weekend Charge: Tom Lewis. Trailing by 14 shots heading into the weekend, Lewis fired rounds of 61-66 and briefly shared the lead Sunday in Memphis before finishing in a four-way tie for second.

The Ever-Changing Alternate List: The PGA. As expected, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the first major of the year, with a dozen (and counting) players either turning down an invitation or withdrawing from Harding Park. They’ll determine the final 156 eventually.

Not All Bogeys Are Created Equally: Joel Sjoholm. Who among us even knew this was allowed under the rules?  

Slow and Steady Finishes ... T-36: Henrik Stenson. As noted by stats guru Justin Ray, Stenson’s 62 pars at the WGC were the most in a tournament since Jeff Sluman at the 1999 John Deere Classic. All those pars added up to a 3-under 277.

So Much for that Second Career: Davis Love III. Just a few months into his full-time analyst gig with CBS Sports, Love decided to call it quits. It was understandable – Love wasn’t particularly adept at the role, and he was self-aware enough to recognize it – but we can’t help but wonder how Peter Kostis and Gary McCord feel about the brief tenure.


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Oh, About That Second Career: Jim "Bones" Mackay. Thomas already has one of the best caddies in the game on his bag, but he was bailed out when Bones came to Memphis on late notice after regular looper Jimmy Johnson continued to suffer dizzy spells. They teamed up for the win, a few weeks after Mackay helped guide Matt Fitzpatrick to a third-place finish at the Memorial. Assuming the standard 10% pay, Mackay has raked in about $250,000 over the past month. 

Huge Props: Troy Merritt. Look, as much we want it, we’re never going to get Rory McIlroy mic’d up on the second nine at the Masters. But kudos to Merritt for pulling back the curtain at the Barracuda, where he agreed to wear a mic as he took the lead heading into the final round. Getting to hear what players think and talk about as they try to close out a win helps us better understand the athletes we’re so invested in watching. As for Merritt, he finished second at the 'Cuda for the second year in a row.

Awwwwwkward: Phil and Bones. Since their split in 2017, Mackay has not served as an on-course reporter in any of Mickelson’s groups, and they didn’t appear to exchange pleasantries prior to the final round at the St. Jude in which Mickelson and Mackay were paired together. Neither of them spoke to the media afterward either. Icy!


Furyk on Champions debut: ‘Honor to win the first one’

Furyk on Champions debut: ‘Honor to win the first one’

Who Could Have Seen That Coming? Oh, Everyone: Jim Furyk. The newest kid on the senior block won in his debut, taking the Ally Challenge as the seniors returned to action last week. Against the old-timers this still doesn’t seem like a fair fight – Furyk has been off his game recently, but he finished second at the most recent Players.

Making a Mountain Out of an Ant Hill: Bryson DeChambeau. In the opening round, DeChambeau continued his now-weekly battle of the brains with a Tour rules official, hoping to get a free drop when he spotted some red ants in the area. That, obviously, did not work, and then Koepka (as he is wont to do) trolled Bryson the next day with this dig:  

Let’s Try This Again: Lydia Ko. The one-time phenom has fallen on hard times and is attempting to restart her career with yet another swing coach, this time enlisting Sean Foley – her seventh coach in the past seven years. In tricky conditions she imploded with a second-round 80 and tied for 28th. 

Pandemic Problem: Rory McIlroy. Guess the economy wasn’t the only thing that shut down after The Players. McIlroy’s T-47 finish in Memphis was his fifth straight finish outside the top 10 – the first time he’s done that since summer 2017. Oy.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Tyrrell Hatton. The Englishman has flown under the radar but enjoyed a superb season, stringing together a win and three other top-6s in his last four starts. He didn’t have it in Memphis, however, breaking par only once on his way to a T-69 result – his worst finish since the fall. Sigh.