31 May

Monday Scramble: Many happy returns

first_imgPhil Mickelson and Michelle Wie finally get their trophies, Justin Thomas somehow continues to improve, Tiger Woods adds to his schedule, the governing bodies talk distance and more in this week’s edition of Monday Scramble: The drama Sunday was not limited to the Oscars. It was a banner weekend for marquee golfers breaking out of notable winless droughts, as Wie surged to her first victory since 2014 with a 72nd-hole birdie in Singapore. Of course, that turned out to simply be an amuse-bouche for the main course: a sudden-death playoff in Mexico where Mickelson topped Thomas for his first win since 2013. While they’re separated by nearly 20 years, both Wie and Mickelson have traveled a similar path of late. Wie has battled a barrage of injuries as she largely faded from prominence, while Mickelson was almost out of the top 50 in the world rankings for the first time in 25 years last month. Suddenly they’re both smiling and hoisting hardware, a reminder that perseverance will get you a long way in this game. Given enough time, adversity hits every player regardless of ability. It’s the great ones who find a way to stand back up on the other side. 1. Let’s kick things off with Mickelson, who has been saying for weeks that he’s playing some of the best golf in his career and finally has tangible proof of that confidence. The 47-year-old seemed visibly nervous down the stretch, but he was able to keep the butterflies at bay while chasing down Thomas, who had posted the clubhouse lead. It’s win No. 43 of his career, but given the toils of the last five years it likely won’t rank much below his five major wins on the personal power rankings. It’s been amazing to watch Mickelson go toe-to-toe with Father Time in recent years, digging in for a fight that he knows will take every ounce of talent, strength and focus he can muster. But Sunday’s win in Mexico was his fourth straight top-6 finish – the first such run of his career. It seems that Mickelson is not only keeping up with players half his age, but he has found a way to chisel out some of his very best golf at a time when many of his peers might be counting down until their PGA Tour Champions card arrives in the mail. 2. Mickelson’s win is appropriate given the fact that it came during a vintage Lefty week. The Phil highlights included, but were not limited to: Mistaking the 54-hole leader for a member of the media Asking one of his playing partners to clarify the pronunciation of his name Hitting a shot in the final round from deep within a shrub Hitting another shot Sunday through a seemingly non-existent gap in the trees Helping a playing partner understand his options during a rules situation Explaining to Mexican fans en español that he’ll sign autographs after the round Last but certainly not least, offering during an interview that he may have been a bumblebee in a past life 3. Following the round, Mickelson was asked if he’ll get seven more wins to reach 50 for his career before calling it quits. “No, I will,” he said before the question was even fully formed. “I’ll get there.” There’s reason to believe, at the very least, that Mickelson isn’t done with his latest title. Players have gone on mini-tears before – look no further than Thomas last year, and last fall Justin Rose finally got back into the winner’s circle after a year of strong play only to win again the very next week. As the memories of Muirfield became more distant, Mickelson’s next win was always going to be the toughest one to get. Now that he has it, don’t be surprised if he finds No. 44 in short order. 4. Mickelson’s overtime victory transformed Thomas’ jaw-dropping, 121-yard eagle on the 72nd hole into simply an exciting footnote. Fresh off his win at the Honda Classic, Thomas seemed like an also-ran after two rounds of even-par play. But he found a new gear over the weekend, going 62-64 and jarring his final approach in regulation to nearly steal his third win of the young season. Thomas rightly viewed his playoff runner-up as a bonus given his slow start, and last week’s win likely helped soften the blow of defeat. But the weekend rally is another example of incremental improvement for a player who, despite coming off a breakthrough campaign that featured five wins and a major, seems to only be getting better. 5. Thomas’ results in 2018: T-22, T-14, T-17, T-9, Win, P-2. He’s now up to No. 2 in the world rankings, past both Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth. It might only be a matter of time before he supplants Dustin Johnson – either as world No. 1 or as the favorite to win the Masters. 6. You have to think that former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was beaming with pride over the product last week in Mexico, as the dream of what a WGC event might become was realized. Yes, the tournament was decided in a playoff between two Americans. But before that it put 21-year-old Shubankhar Sharma on the map, and it nearly featured a breakthrough win for England’s Tyrrell Hatton. The leaderboard at Chapultepec became a whirring blur of flags from various nationalities, all leading up to an edge-of-your-seat finish. It made the WGC-Mexico Championship the most captivating Tour event of 2018, and it served as a wonderful showcase for just how global the game has become. 7. In the early morning hours Sunday, Wie laid out a blueprint for a star returning to the peak that Mickelson would follow later in the day. Her one-shot victory at the HSBC Women’s World Championship came in style, as she sunk a 36-foot birdie putt on the final hole that set off a raucous celebration. When Wie won the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst, the thought was that it could serve as a career highlight but would also lead to many more wins. The second half of that equation hasn’t exactly panned out, as the former teen prodigy has battled her body for long stretches and her form and confidence both waned as a result. But now she’s back to her winning ways, and while it feels like she’s been around the game for an eternity, Wie is only 28 years old – for perspective, that’s six months younger than Rory McIlroy. There’s still plenty of time for her to write many more chapters. 8. Wie’s victory was also a big win for the LPGA. It came on the heels of a sensational victory from Jessica Korda the week prior, and it came over a star-studded leaderboard that included major champs Brooke Henderson and Danielle Kang as well as Nelly Korda, who was seeking a sisterly back-to-back. It’s often hard for the LPGA to steal the spotlight from the men, especially when up against a WGC event. But Wie’s victory certainly did that for a part of the day, and the most recent Asian fortnight has flashed the potential of the highs the ladies’ tour can reach when some of its best players are both winning and producing captivating storylines. 9. So, Tiger’s back. Again. The fact that Woods committed to next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, came as no surprise. But his decision to sneak in a trip to the Valspar Championship beforehand qualifies as an unexpected treat. Woods hasn’t played Innisbrook since teaming with Kelli Kuehne for a co-ed team event back in 1996. But given a week off after his 12th-place showing at PGA National, he (and more importantly, his body) are ready to hop back inside the ropes. It’s an enticing prospect to have Woods tussle with the tree-lined Copperhead Course, where his shot-making will be put to the test. But it’s a great long-term sign for Woods’ health that he feels ready for another back-to-back, and his mere appearance in Tampa should ratchet up the Masters fervor a few notches. 10. Woods’ appearance is also a great win for Valspar officials, including tournament director Tracey West, who have quietly compiled the strongest field in the history of the event. Woods’ 11th-hour commitment was mirrored by that of 2015 winner Spieth, as the two join a field that already included the likes of Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia. A tournament that was relegated to the fall for a stretch in the early 2000s now has a surplus of big names, including the biggest draw in the game. Helped in part by the Tour’s new 1-in-4 rule that calls for stars to add new events to their schedule, the Travelers Championship saw a dramatic increase in field strength last year and produced one of the season’s best finishes. It seems the Valspar could be getting a similar bump this time around. 11. After years of a “slow creep,” distance gains have finally caught the attention of the governing bodies. The USGA and R&A released a joint study Monday that found driving distance has increased across seven major tours by more than three yards on average. That comes after the same study last year found that drives had increased a paltry 0.2 yards per year since 2003. It’s the latest move in a calculated game of chess between the governing bodies, the professional tours and the equipment manufacturers regarding the eye-popping distances achieved by some of the game’s elite. More studies and reports are sure to follow, and only one thing remains certain: this topic isn’t going away anytime soon. 12. The study sparked quick responses from both the PGA Tour and PGA of America, with both organizations downplaying the need for sweeping change. Tour commissioner Jay Monahan’s reasoning was especially interesting. In a letter to Tour members, Monahan outlined the “strong correlation” between increased distance and increased club head speed. The latter increase, in turn, was tied to non-equipment factors like player athleticism, improved fitting and increased launch monitor data. Monahan even pointed out that Tour players, on average, are getting both younger and taller. So don’t expect Ponte Vedra Beach to line up behind a possible roll back of the ball anytime soon. Tyrrell Hatton’s bid to win his first WGC event was derailed by a poorly-placed spike mark on the final green, but it nearly came to an end much earlier in the week. Hatton was one of several players to struggle last year with the … digestive challenges an event in Mexico can create, and his tweets after the first couple rounds showed that he was once again dealing with off-course issues: Thankfully for Hatton, his stomach cooperated – and nearly helped him to one of the more unexpected wins in recent memory. This week’s award winners …  Comeback kid: Steve Stricker. Believe it or not, the longest victory drought ended on Sunday belonged to Stricker, who won the Cologuard Classic for his first PGA Tour Champions title and his first win since the 2012 Tournament of Champions. Soaking up the stage: Shubankhar Sharma. While the final round didn’t go as planned, the 21-year-old turned plenty of heads while racing to the top of the leaderboard in Mexico. His earnest zeal was evident, and his potential to serve as a success story for future Indian golfers is clear. Disaster artist: This one goes to the photographer who nearly stepped on Justin Thomas’ ball during the playoff, and would have had it not been for a timely shove from Thomas himself. It can get chaotic inside the ropes down the stretch, but there was no reason for the cameraman to get that close to the ball – and nearly alter the outcome of the tournament with one size-11 stomp. Still seeking reps: Tony Romo, who withdrew from a 36-hole mini-tour event in Texas after 27 holes after a rocky start that included a quintuple-bogey 10 in the opening round. T-minus three weeks until his PGA Tour debut in the Dominican Republic. Nice little offseason: Larry Fitzgerald. After teaming with Kevin Streelman to win the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the Cardinals wideout paired with Jon Rahm at the Seminole Pro-Member on Monday and then teed it up with Tiger Woods later in the week. Who needs two-a-days? Father of the year: Brandt Snedeker, who soldiered on at his daughter’s school despite a mis-spelled cake that might have been the demise of lesser men: Blown fantasy pick of the week: Rickie Fowler. He gets the nod for the second straight week after a back-nine 41 Sunday led to a closing 75 that dropped him from a solid paycheck all the way into a tie for 37th among the 64-man field. While Mickelson and Thomas lit it up, Fowler made only two birdies over his final 27 holes.last_img

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