Rickie Fowler hangs on, Sergio Garcia melts down, Dustin Johnson adds a trophy, the Rules of Golf take a beating and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
Credit Rickie Fowler. At least he makes it interesting.
Golf fans can be excused if they flipped the channel after Fowler rolled in a 6-footer for birdie on No. 10 to stretch his lead at the Waste Management Phoenix Open to five shots and seemingly put the trophy on ice. But oh, what a near-trainwreck they missed if they did.
Fowler's antics on the 11th hole went from questionable to unfortunate to downright unbelievable all in the span of 10 minutes, and it almost led to an epic collapse at a tournament where he has already built up plenty of scar tissue. But tip the cap to the fan favorite, as he turned things around just in time to escape with a win that should help quell certain narratives about the now five-time PGA Tour champion.
Fowler's biggest victory to date came at the 2015 Players Championship. It sparked the best summer of his career, and it came after an anonymous vote of his peers labeled him "overrated." In hindsight, that proved to be just the spark he needed.
After teetering on the edge of disaster for about an hour in rainy Phoenix, it stands to reason that this might be a similar spark that could pave the way to more hardware for a player whose wins are still outnumbered by his close calls. With a player of Fowler's caliber, the margin between top-10s and wins, plural, is razor-thin.
"At some point you transition from what you've been to something more," Johnny Miller said of Fowler in the final moments of his last broadcast. "I think he's going to come alive."
1. But let's go back to that 11th hole, where Fowler nearly had a sure thing taken away by ... gravity?
After skidding his overly-aggressive pitch into the water, a questionable decision given the goal with a five-shot lead is to simply avoid big numbers, Fowler dropped and ultimately placed his ball back into play on a steep slope behind the green. As he walked up to survey the shot, the ball suddenly rolled back into the water.
After a conversation with a rules official, Fowler learned the hard way that the sequence resulted in an additional one-shot penalty even though neither player nor caddie were anywhere near the ball when it trundled back into the pond. It seemed to shake Fowler, who ended up sinking a clutch putt for triple bogey but bogeyed the next hole and struggled to find his footing as Branden Grace briefly took the lead.
It's also a ruling that nearly melted social media, with many fans (understandably) questioning how the rules can allow a player to be penalized when he's nowhere near his ball when it moved. Add in the asterisk that, had Fowler's ball been on the putting surface, there wouldn't have been a penalty, and it's another instance where a rule could use an injection of common sense.
But Fowler recovered and didn't let it outwardly affect him. On a weekend when certain major champions were suffering on-course meltdowns, it was impressive to watch Fowler demonstrate how to keep a bad break from determining an outcome. "Everything that happened there ... yeah, it sucked," Fowler said. "Luckily, I didn't need a perfect round today."
2. Make no mistake about it: Fowler needed this W. Not just in general, to avoid further questions about his relative lack of titles, but at this specific event.
It was here three years ago that Fowler left in tears, unable to close a late lead before succumbing to Hideki Matsuyama in a playoff. Then last year, he turned a 54-hole lead into a T-11 finish.
It wasn't pretty Sunday, as Fowler has now shot over par in each of the eight instances where he held at least a share of the 54-hole lead. But just like at the 2017 Honda, he did just enough to get the job done and benefited from a lack of pursuit from the chase pack. It means his 1-for-6 closing rate as a 54-hole leader is now 2-for-7, and the questions about his previous near-misses at TPC Scottsdale probably won't get brought up at his press conference next year as defending champ.
3. With all due respect to Fowler, the biggest story in golf this week came from a player who didn't tee it up in the final round.
What exactly Sergio Garcia did on the greens during the third round in Saudi Arabia remains somewhat of a mystery. The facts are these: Garcia publicly apologized for damaging "a couple of greens," with the reported number actually five. He was disqualified by the European Tour for a "serious breach" of the rules as a result, a last-resort bylaw that is rarely if ever cited.
Subsequent reports indicated the Spaniard left scuff marks on a few putting surfaces and took a divot out of another with his putter, while video surfaced Sunday night of a series of expletive-laced swipes in a bunker during the second round that certainly qualify as a tantrum.
Sergio Garcia’s meltdown in a Royal Greens bunker a day prior to his disqualification for vandalism work on five greens. Story by @SkySportsGolf fills in details. Translations welcomed! https://t.co/UoGmPtTOz4 pic.twitter.com/dQMDN7y2PC— Geoff Shackelford (@GeoffShac) February 4, 2019
Garcia seemed to mellow out following his 2017 Masters win, with a wedding and the birth of his first child following shortly thereafter. But this weekend's antics demonstrate that, at age 39, the fire still burns deep inside. And for a player who has previously been cited for spitting into a cup and throwing a shoe among other outbursts, that's not necessarily a good thing.
4. Garcia's outburst put added pressure on the European Tour and chief executive Keith Pelley, who were already enduring a long week of defending the circuit's mere presence in Saudi Arabia.
One on-course meltdown, or a single moment of frustration, is understandable. But Garcia's behavior indicated a pouting that lasted the better part of an hour, with multiple groups behind him alerting officials to the damage, and stretched back to the day prior given the bunker footage. It shows a level of premeditation and a lack of self-control that rises above a momentary snap.
But amid speculation that Garcia might face additional penalties or even a suspension, Pelley was definitive. "The incident is over," he told The Scotsman. "We have dealt with it. Sergio has apologized to the players and we move on."
Pelley and the Euro Tour execs certainly have the right to move on with business as usual. But rest assured, Garcia will still face a formidable round of questions whenever he chooses to next tee it up.
5. It was not a good weekend to be a Rule of Golf.
Well before the Fowler drop debacle came to light, the rule book was under fire because of a new bylaw implemented last month to ban caddies from standing behind players when taking a stance.
The rule received its first round of criticism last week, when Haotong Li received a two-shot penalty on the final green that dropped him from T-3 to T-12 in Dubai and whose merits were, at the very least debatable. But few apologists surfaced Friday when Denny McCarthy got slapped with a two-shot penalty even though he was only taking a practice swing before his caddie walked away.
The groundswell of criticism, including from McCarthy's peers, led the PGA Tour to take nearly unprecedented action by rescinding the penalty in the middle of the next round. It also tabled subsequent similar penalties until a better clarification of the rule is produced by the USGA and R&A. "We agree with the rule, just the interpretation is a little difficult right now," said Tour official Slugger White.
6. For their part, the USGA issued a statement of their own citing the "ongoing dialogue" around the McCarthy penalty and a similar incident with Justin Thomas that nearly led to a violation. "The USGA and the R&A recognize that further clarity on how to appropriately apply this rule is needed," the statement read.
That's all well and good, but the question remains: Why didn't these discussions happen between the governing bodies and professional tours in November? Or if they did, why wasn't "clarity" achieved? The myriad rule changes for 2019 were months in the making and didn't get crafted overnight. If players and rules officials alike are unsure of what is or is not a violation, powder kegs like the one that erupted this weekend in Scottsdale were simply inevitable.
7. There are few more unifying hobbies among players than to blast the USGA for perceived ineptitude, an understandable consequence of a situation where a professional body does not set its own rules to govern its constituents. The conflict has come up again in the last two weeks, with Euro Tour pros rallying to Li's defense and PGA Tour peers chiming in on behalf of McCarthy.
And while the USGA and R&A enjoy positions of power as golf's global governing bodies, the speedy ripple effect this weekend shows that the real power lies with the Tour players – specifically, those in the U.S. The PGA Tour has hinted in recent years that, should a line in the sand be drawn on the question of regulating distance, they'll support their players. A similar show of support this past weekend avoided a mutiny and revealed just where the balance of power sits in a relationship that seemingly grows more contentious by the week.
Welcome to disruption.
After helping Oklahoma State to a national title as a freshman, Matthew Wolff took his funky swing and aggressive style to the PGA Tour this week. And the bump to the big leagues worked out just fine.
The 19-year-old made the cut in his Tour debut, ultimately tying for 50th after four straight rounds of 72 or better. His swing and pre-shot routine may make Jim Furyk blush, but the motion is repeatable under pressure and that's what counts. Drives of 366 yards, like the one he uncorked Saturday on the 18th hole to lead the field, certainly help his cause.
While Cameron Champ was anointed the long-hitting "It Kid" following his win at Sanderson Farms in October, Wolff is going to give him plenty of competition for that title in the coming years as he continues to get more reps against the pros. Weird swing and all.
This week's award winners ...
Guy Gets Trophy: Dustin Johnson. Lost amid Garcia's controversy was the fact that Johnson quietly went about his business in securing a two-shot win in the desert. It was his 20th worldwide victory and proof that DJ's name will inevitably bubble up when discussing prospects for the 2019 majors.
Business as Usual: The 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale. Amid the craziest golf week of the year, none of the headlines were made at the most raucous hole on Tour. Beers were consumed, costumes were worn, errant shots were booed, and everyone went home happy. See you next year.
Hindsight is 20/20: Rickie Fowler. Perhaps all of the drop drama on the 11th could have been avoided for Fowler if he had simply replayed his shot from short of the green – the one from a flat lie with ample green to work with – instead of trying to drop on a precarious slope where he was short-sided and pitching over a bunker.
Bouncing Back: Haotong Li. The 23-year-old could have spent last week licking his wounds after a highly publicized penalty in Dubai. Instead he got back to work and nearly toppled a former world No. 1 en route to a solo runner-up finish. Four eagles during an eye-popping third round certainly helped the cause.
Presidential Attest: Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. The two greats teed it up Saturday in Florida with President Donald Trump, with Trump sharing on Twitter that Woods shot a smooth 64. He also added that Woods and Nicklaus "like each other." Glad we cleared that up.
Knocking on the Door: Gary Woodland. A T-7 finish in defense of his Waste Management title is his seventh top-10 finish in nine starts dating back to October. The wins are coming, and they're coming soon.
Keep Your Pants On: Brooks Koepka. After snapping a pic of himself in a thong while on vacation, Koepka told reporters that he was trying to channel his inner Instagram model. "You know, standing on my tippy toes, because that's how girls make their butts look good," he said.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Brendan Steele. The man has made a mint in recent years at TPC Scottsdale, but this time he wobbled out of the gates by playing his first 11 holes in 6 over. Despite a valiant comeback attempt, playing 5 under the rest of the way, it still added up to a missed cut.
Fare Thee Well: Johnny Miller. It was an emotional sendoff for the Desert Fox, who closed a three-decade run in the announcer's chair this weekend in Phoenix. Good luck with the next chapter, and know that you'll be missed - even by the players you called out with the world tuning in.