Monday Scramble: Big names, big games, big wins in the golf world

Tony Finau keeps winning, the Player Impact Program intrigue grows, Nelly Korda makes a statement and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

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The pro game is skewing younger and younger, but Tony Finau – at age 33 – is better than ever.

With one win in his first 188 official starts on the PGA Tour, big Tone now has four wins in his last 30 appearances.

Even if he only improved to 12th in the world, that run – which started at the beginning of the 2021 FedExCup playoffs – has at least put Finau on equal footing with some of the biggest names in the sport in terms of victories, with Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and Patrick Cantlay all having four wins over that same span.

At the Cadence Bank Houston Open, Finau led at one point by eight shots Sunday and sailed to a four-shot margin of victory. It was, at least statistically, the best performance of his career:

  • 1st in fairways hit

  • 1st in greens hit

  • 2nd in strokes gained: putting

  • 2nd in strokes gained: off the tee

  • 4th in strokes gained: tee to green

According to stats guru Justin Ray, Finau is just the sixth player in the last 15 years who won while ranking in the top 5 in those areas.

In the third round, Finau hit all 13 fairways for the first time in his career. Lauded for his insane speed and effortless power, Finau now describes himself as a “precision player” who has managed to fine-tune his immense gifts. A few years ago, it would have been unfathomable to think that he could lead the field in accuracy.

“It was probably the best driving week I’ve had in my career,” Finau said afterward. “And it’s a lethal combo when I feel like this is the best putting week I’ve had as well.”

It seems like a lifetime ago that critics (including in this space) wondered whether Finau, in the midst of all those near-misses, would ever realize his monstrous potential. He called the past few years the most important of his career, because his confidence and self-belief never wavered even as the disappointments stacked up and the amount of outside noise increased. Credit both Finau and swing coach Boyd Summerhays for targeting areas of weakness (accuracy, short-iron play, putting) and becoming a much more well-rounded player.

Another step – majors, a POY season – could be coming in 2023.

“I was always hopeful that I could go on special runs,” Finau said, “and I think we’re starting to see that now. I’m starting to put together a full-package game, which is really exciting for me.”

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Rory McIlroy broke the news (to The Associated Press) that he finished second to Tiger Woods in the second annual Player Impact Program.

That wasn’t much of a surprise: Even in limited action Woods remains the game’s preeminent needle mover, while McIlroy, the reigning FedExCup champion, figured prominently both on the course and behind the mic.

Who comes next is even more intriguing.

LIV Golf poached five players from the 2021 list, which was no small thing because those were the players deemed most popular by the Tour’s own metrics. Those were the players that the Tour determined were the most valuable to their brand – and now they’re playing for the opposing team.

Tiger Woods again wins the Player Impact Program, according to Rory McIlroy

The final standings, which now include 20 players vying for a $100 million bonus pool, could come out as early as this week.

It’s reasonable to assume that Jordan Spieth will finish third on the list. But then …?

Justin Thomas finished sixth in 2021, but he won a major this year and, though not as front facing as McIlroy, still helped carry the Tour banner. Finau should crack the top 10 for the first time.

Where does Scheffler land? He won the Masters and earned Player of the Year honors, but like Cantlay a year ago, he keeps to himself and doesn’t have much of an online presence.

How about Xander Schauffele? He’s one of the best players on Tour, but he prefers to let his clubs do the talking. Does he drive viewership when he's in contention?

Max Homa and Billy Horschel both elevated their profiles this year and would seem – at least from this seat – to be ideal candidates for a top-10 finish. Did Tom Kim’s recent star turn rocket him up the standings?

With Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bubba Watson all gone, others need to fill the void. Which is why we’re about to learn how important Jon Rahm, Will Zalatoris, Cameron Young, Viktor Hovland and others are to the Tour brand.

Those who rank lower than expected could feel slighted by the Tour’s own system that is supposed to better recognize on-course performance and now carries added importance with guaranteed appearances in the elevated events.

If history is any indication, the PIP standings will be a guide for LIV as it seeks to add to its roster of players for 2023 and beyond.

Korda emotional after Pelican Championship win

A tumultuous year has produced a familiar result.

Nelly Korda is back on top of the women’s game.

The American star returned to the No. 1 spot after defending her title at the Pelican Women's Championship following a closing 64 that – once again – denied Lexi Thompson a long-awaited title.

Korda wasn’t even sure whether she would be able to play this season after she missed four months because of a blood clot in her left arm. She twice was a runner-up this summer but missed her last two cuts and seemed on the verge of following up her breakout 2021 campaign with a winless season.

Then came the Pelican, and a stirring final round that gave her a one-shot victory over Thompson, who now has nine runner-up finishes since her last win in 2019 – easily the most of any player on tour.

As for Korda, she reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Rankings, knocking out 19-year-old Atthaya Thitikul, whose reign lasted just two weeks. Korda spent a total of 29 weeks in the top spot, most recently as this January.

As she said on the 18th green Sunday, “It feels really good to be on top.”

 

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...

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Late Bloomer: Steven Alker. Before turning 50, the journeyman from New Zealand had banked just north of $2 million in his career. Fifteen months ago, he had no definite status and was Monday qualifying his way into senior events. But now, in his first full season, he’s the tour’s top dog and biggest earner, capturing the Charles Schwab Cup on Sunday and nearly $5 million. What a remarkable turnaround.

Going Out in Style: Padraig Harrington. In the PGA Tour Champions season finale, Harrington set the all-time 72-hole scoring record of 257 on his way to a runaway seven-shot victory at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship. Alker may have won the grand prize, but Harrington made a strong case for Player of the Year. He won four times and in four fewer starts than Alker.

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‘Tis the Season: Tiger Woods. In the no-surprise department, Woods committed to play in his end-of-season exhibition in the Bahamas, as one of the three tournament sponsor invitees. That should mean three straight weeks of TW: the Hero, the Match and then the PNC with son Charlie. Would we prefer all of that Tiger Time in the heart of the golf season? OK, sure. But at a sleepy time of year, we aren’t going to complain.

That’s More Like It: Tommy Fleetwood. The English flusher has been in a mysterious winless drought dating to 2019, but he was back where he belongs – the winner’s circle – at the Nedbank Challenge. Teary-eyed at the finish, it was the sixth DP World title for the world-class player who now plays full time in the States. He's back inside the top 25 in the world.

Bounce Back: Andy Ogletree. The former U.S. Amateur champion became a social-media punching bag after he played the first LIV event, finished last and then got banned from the PGA Tour for teeing it up on the rival circuit. Just when it seemed like he'd reached the nadir, he played some sterling golf at the Asian Tour event in Egypt, firing all four rounds of 66 or better (including a final-round 62) that gave him his first pro win and a home for the next few years if his Tour suspension isn’t lifted.

Officially Official: PGA Tour University upgrades. The Tour Policy Board is expected to green-light a proposal this week that would ensure that the top senior in the Tour's PGA Tour University rankings will automatically receive a Tour card following the NCAA season, plus the addition of a direct pathway for any "accelerated" underclassman who dominates the college and amateur game. That's a great move ... that doesn't go nearly far enough. The top 3 need Tour cards, immediately, if they really want to shore up the pipeline.

When You Only Kinda-Sorta Know the Rules: Mark Hubbard. On his way to a missed cut in Houston, Hubbard decided to add a 15th club to his bag (a driver with a different spinning head), believing, he said, that he’d be in line for a maximum four-shot penalty as he wound down his final event of the year. Ah, but because he never officially declared another club out of play, as soon as he hit the extra big stick he was in clear violation of Rule 4.1c and promptly DQ'd. What a weird one.

Final acts: 2022 golf season. This week before Thanksgiving, we'll wrap up on the PGA Tour (RSM), DP World (Dubai) and LPGA (CME Globe) before we can all take a collective breath ... at least until Holiday Exhibition SZN. This final week is a sneaky-great one for golf.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Sam Burns. He’d placed seventh each of the last two years at Memorial Park, but he didn’t show up ready to play this time around. He opened with an ugly 77 in the first round, then decided to call it quits when he had five holes remaining in his delayed second round, marking a disappointing end to what was an otherwise impressive 2022 campaign. Sigh.