Daniel Berger slams the door, Jordan Spieth moves another step closer, PGA green-lights rangefinder usage and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
Few have played better since the PGA Tour restart than Daniel Berger, and now he has the résumé to back it up.
With a 30-foot eagle on the final hole, Berger closed with a spectacular 65 to win by two shots over Maverick McNealy at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. It was his second title in the past eight months, following his victory at Colonial in the first event back of this new COVID era. He now has posted 26 consecutive rounds of par or better for the second season in a row; over the past two years, only Tiger Woods (2000-01) and Phil Mickelson (2000-01) have accomplished that feat.
Berger has always given off the vibe of a less abrasive Brooks Koepka, his former college teammate at Florida State and another South Florida native (more on that below!). Like most jocks, Berger plays with an admirable fearlessness, wanting the ball when it matters most, in the final moments.
That much was apparent with his gutsy play on the 72nd hole.
A day earlier, Berger blocked his tee shot on the par-5 18th and his ball took an unfortunate right kick out of bounds, leading to a momentum-killing double bogey that put him two shots off Jordan Spieth’s lead. Not only did Berger wipe out that deficit after an eagle on the second hole Sunday, but he attacked the par-5 finisher as if nothing had happened.
Starting his patented cut over the water, Berger peeled his drive back into the fairway and then ripped what he called the best 3-wood of his life – a 250-yard rocket that put him about hole high, 30 feet away for eagle, needing just two putts for victory.
It was the kind of strike that only those who play fearlessly can pull off. Most players would bail a little right in that position, not wanting to make the critical error left and lose the tournament. Berger never even considered it.
“I wanted to be as aggressive as possible,” he said afterward, “and I would rather go down swinging than making a conservative swing that doesn’t end up well. ... I wanted to win the golf tournament. I didn’t want to lose it on the last.”
Nope, Berger went out and won it – and now he has a positive memory that he can recall for a long, long time.
For the second week in a row Jordan Spieth failed to convert a 54-hole lead into victory, this time settling for a tie for fourth at Pebble.
But read that sentence again: Jordan Spieth had a 54-hole lead for the second week in a row.
Who could have foreseen this a few weeks ago, after a missed cut at Torrey Pines to start the year?
Certainly not Spieth, who admitted as much Sunday. He’s been cruising around with nothing more than his B-game, yet it’s still been enough to give himself a chance to win for the first time since July 2017. His run in Phoenix was built largely on a Saturday 61 that included erratic driving, superb iron play and holed putts from everywhere.
His play on the Monterey Peninsula was even more promising.
For the week he gained only a tenth of a stroke on the greens, ranking 42nd in the field. Indeed, this was good form built on improved driving (at least for, say, 75% of the tournament) and – again – terrific iron play.
Per stats guru Justin Ray, Spieth was hitting only 59% of his greens in regulation and was losing 0.60 strokes per round in approach this season entering Phoenix.
Since then? He’s hit 75% of his greens and is gaining 1.70 shots per round.
A reminder: Spieth was the best iron player in the game in 2017.
There’s much to tighten up before Spieth can once again be considered a weekly threat, and he admitted that he’s “significantly far off” where he wants to be with his swing. But the fact that he’s now posted back-to-back top-5s for the first time since April 2018 is a massive positive, trophy or not.
In a controversial move last week, the PGA of America announced that it’ll allow distance-measuring devices at all of its major championships beginning this year. PGA of America president Jim Richerson cited, above all, that rangefinders “may help improve the flow of play” during their championships.
We’ve got a few reasons why this move is the wrong one:
• At the championship level, allowing rangefinders may actually slow down play. The yardage to the flag is only one of several numbers that player and caddie are computing during the course of a round – what about the carry numbers for bunkers, water, front edges, ridges, sections, back edges? Also: With a title on the line, player and caddie are going to be double- and triple-checking what they shot with the rangefinder, perhaps even doing the math the old-fashioned way, too.
• Allowing DMDs may cut down on some of the number-crunching after errant drives, but isn’t that where a Tour-caliber caddie really comes in handy? Take away that calculus, and you remove some of a skilled caddie’s advantage.
• Thinking clearly in the heat of battle is an integral part of the competition. Why make it any easier?
One thing is clear: If a player gets penalized for forgetting to turn off the slope on his rangefinder – or, in a worse-scenario, gets DQ’d for a multiple-hole offense – then this will be a memorable one-off.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Getting the Itch?: Annika Sorenstam. The year began with Sorenstam, a 72-time LPGA winner, trying to get her game in gear for a run at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open title. That event is now off her radar – as the head of the IGF, she’ll be in Japan for the Olympics ... hopefully – but she teed it up in the celebrity division at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions and now will play the upcoming LPGA event at Lake Nona, which is literally in her own backyard. It’ll be her first LPGA start since 2008, but with her kids getting older, it's not a huge surprise to see her dusting off the clubs.
Didn’t Know He Had It In Him: Maverick McNealy. His game? Of course he had it in him. He’s only getting better. But the swagger?!?! You love to see it, folks!
Pros ... They’re Just Like Us!: Francesco Molinari. This is one of the worst shots you’ll ever see a professional hit, let alone one who’s a major champion and Ryder Cup hero. But it’s easy to do, a cold-topped 3-wood in chilly conditions, and Frankie laughed it off afterward. Well done.
Might Not Matter, But ...: Tiger Woods’ world ranking. Perhaps this week we’ll find out more about the short-term future of Woods, who is hosting but not playing the Genesis Invitational, but he will remain inside the top 50 for another week, guaranteeing him a spot at next week’s World Golf Championships event at The Concession – if he wants to be there.
Fine Incoming: Nate Lashley. Tied for the lead, Lashley hit an amped-up short iron over the green on 16, leading to a comedy of errors that saw him plummet out of the lead. After catching too much ball with his pitch shot, he missed his 13-footer for par. Then he missed from 3 feet. Missed from 3 feet. And missed from 3 feet. His triple-bogey 7 dropped him into a tie for sixth, but the money lost wasn’t just on those missed shorties. He’ll also be getting a letter from HQ after cameras caught him slamming his putter into the green – and then, after briefly considering it, not fixing the gash. Yikes.
So, What’d You Guys Talk About?: Joel Dahmen and Sung Kang. It was the first time they’ve been paired together since Dahmen was adamant that Kang took an improper drop during the 2018 Quicken Loans National. Because it’s golf, apparently there was little suspense on the tee, but these little subplots are a fun talking point on social media, at least.
Go On, Young Man: Akshay Bhatia. It got worse as the week went on, but the 19-year-old left-hander hit all 18 greens in regulation during an opening 64 at Pebble – the first player to accomplish the feat since 2008. After missing his first seven cuts as a pro, it’s good to see Bhatia find his footing at the Tour level – he’s got a boatload of potential, even if he’s really raw right now.
Starting to Make Sense ...: Jason Day’s back. To illustrate how good Day’s body is feeling these days, he told CBS’ Nick Faldo that he was recently able to practice putting for five hours – after usually being unable to stay in that uncomfortable posture for more than 15 minutes. A five-hour putting session?! Now we know why his back was shot in the first place.
Memories for a Lifetime: Kevin Hall. One of the best stories in golf – he lost his hearing at age 2 and developed into a Big Ten champion and, now, an APGA tour stalwart – Hall missed the cut at Pebble Beach, but he still had an awesome experience playing the replica seventh hole at Jim Nantz’s house. So cool.
The Best Perspective: Kamaiu Johnson. Making his long-awaited PGA Tour debut, Johnson had two rounds to forget, shooting 14 over par and missing the cut by 15. But he didn’t sulk afterward. No, he vowed to learn from the experience and get even better: “I learned a lot. It’s never a loss. It’s always a learn. It makes me want to go back home and grind and practice and get ready for the next couple events.”
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Phil Mickelson. A five-time winner and all-time earnings leader at Pebble Beach, Mickelson imploded with a second-round 80 (which included an embarrassing quad on the last) to miss the cut by a mile at the Crosby. With just one top-20 finish on Tour since June, the time to turn to the PGA Tour Champions full-time was ... months ago.
TOP 5 COLLEGE TEAMMATES OF THE PAST DECADE
Daniel Berger (Pebble) and Brooks Koepka (Phoenix) became the first college teammates to win in back-to-back weeks on the PGA Tour since ... well ... since FSU's Berger and Koepka did it in 2017.
Which got us to thinking: Over the past decade, which college studs have gone on to have the best success together as pros?
1.) Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger (2011 Florida State): They may not have been best buddies at Tallahassee, but there’s little disputing their individual success at the next level. Koepka has won four majors and got his first Tour title since summer 2019 with a stout final round in the desert. A week later, Berger collected his fourth Tour title with a special final round of his own. They’ve both battled injuries over the past few years but they’re at or close to full health and showing how dangerous they remain.
2.) Matthew Wolff-Viktor Hovland (2018 Oklahoma State): It’s impressive they’re even on this list considering that Wolff, 21, should be a college senior right now. But he’s a Tour winner and has a pair of top-5s in majors, while Hovland has two Tour victories of his own and appears poised to be the next great European Ryder Cupper.
3.) Jordan Spieth-Dylan Frittelli (2012 Texas): They won a national title together in 2012 – ironically enough, at Riviera, with Spieth holing out from the fairway on the 15th hole in a singles match against Justin Thomas – and they’ve gone on to varying degrees of success. Spieth was a Hall of Famer by the turn he turned 22, while Frittelli is an interesting dude who has won five times around the world, including (like Spieth) at the John Deere Classic in 2019.
4.) Harris English-Russell Henley (2011 Georgia): They've shaken off a shocking loss to Augusta State in the 2011 NCAAs with solid pro careers. With six wins between them, they’ve been a fixture on leaderboards for the majority of the past decade ... which greatly pleases this UGA grad.
5.) Max Homa-Michael Kim (2013 Cal): Part of arguably the best college team ever, Homa has both a Tour win and the distinction of being one of golf’s best Twitter follows. Kim was a Haskins Award winner in college and although he has a Tour win (another past Deere champ!) it’s been a tough go the last few years.