Monday Scramble: Max Homa rising up the ranks; Sergio Garcia ready to fly the coop

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Max Homa closes out another W, Rory McIlroy trends in the right direction, Sergio Garcia appears headed for the exit and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Writers’ Block: Evolution, next step for Homa; grading Rory

The most popular narrative surrounding Max Homa is how the social-media sensation has gone from cracking jokes on Twitter to cracking skulls on the course.

And, sure, he’s a humble, self-deprecating, likable character who has built a sizable following through his swing roasts and podcast appearances. But that’s not the story behind his steady rise.

Now that Homa is a four-time Tour winner (and just the fifth multiple winner this season), it’s worth retelling the background of how he arrived here. During the 2016-17 season, he played 17 Tour events and missed 15 cuts. The only two cuts he made, he failed to finish better than 71st. He lost more than two strokes to the field with his ball-striking every round he played. His total earnings for the season: $18,008. A year later, in a similarly dark place, he needed to close with four consecutive birdies just to gain entry into the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, where he eventually earned back his Tour card.

These days, Homa wears those scars proudly.

“I carry that because I’ve seen it,” he said Sunday night. “It doesn’t faze me as much because I know what bad is, and my bad today was going to be making a boatload of money and moving along to the PGA Championship in two weeks with a good chance to win if I keep playing like this. I think that’s something I carry close to my chest, because I think it’s something that as much as nobody will want to have it, it’s nice to have if you get through that tough time.”

With Wells Fargo win, Max Homa proves that he is 'that guy'

Perhaps because of that rough start to his Tour career, Homa, 31, has often battled professional insecurity. The feeling that he’s not good enough to hang. In 2019 – just a few months after that career-saving birdie barrage – he won his first Wells Fargo Championship, but he didn’t really believe that he belonged as a Tour winner. Last year, he cracked the top 50 in the world, but he still hadn't really proven himself against the top fields – he doesn't have a finish better than 40th in a major, with a boatload of missed cuts.

“You start looking around,” he said, “and it’s a new crop of people and you start thinking to myself, Am I as good as these guys?

There should be little doubt now for Homa, who is one of just seven players on Tour with three victories since the start of the 2020 season. Remember those putrid ball-striking stats from a few seasons ago? With the help of swing coach Mark Blackburn, Homa is now ranked 27th on Tour in strokes gained: tee to green, gaining nearly a shot on the field (.976) per round. Rory McIlroy, who failed to hunt down Homa on the final day, was highly complimentary: “He’s a really good player. Honestly, when you look at him play, you think he should have done better than he has. Sometimes it takes guys a little bit longer to figure their games out and live up to their potential, but he definitely seems to have come into his own over the last couple years.”

Homa has moved into the top 30 in the world, and now he’s in the mix to play on his first U.S. Presidents Cup team, especially with so much turnover expected at the back end of the roster (Bryson DeChambeau, Harris English, Tony Finau, etc.). The Wells Fargo victory moved Homa up to No. 6 on the points list, and even if he doesn’t qualify automatically, he’d be a sensible pick given his popularity among his peers and the fact that the event is held at Quail Hollow, site of that first win, in 2019.

“I care about nothing more than making that Presidents Cup team,” he said.

Until he gets there, he still questions whether he truly belongs among that heralded company: “I want to be top-10 in the world. Play Presidents Cups. Play Ryder Cups. Am I good enough to do that?” But he's slowly discovering the superstar within himself: “I’ve always struggled with it, but I have great people around me who bash me over the head telling me that I am that guy. I tried to walk around this week believing that and faking it a little bit until I made it.”

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Despite a few challenges from outside threats like McIlroy, Matt Fitzpatrick and Cameron Young, the final round of the Wells Fargo was a two-man duel between Homa and Keegan Bradley.

Searching for his first Tour title since 2018, Bradley began the day with a two-shot lead but squandered the advantage with a pair of double bogeys, including a ghastly mistake on the 11th hole when he could have bailed out well left of the green and minimized the damage. Still, he had a chance to close the gap late, but he missed way left of the green on 15 after standing in the middle of the fairway. Homa slammed the door with this tasty approach into the same green – which he said was one of the best holes he’s ever played in his career, under the circumstances:

Needing to apply the pressure on 17, Bradley nearly found the water off the tee. Then he drove into a fairway bunker on 18 and topped his second shot to make a closing bogey. Little wonder he didn't linger long with his final-green handshake.

Indeed, it was yet another tough loss to stomach for Bradley, who of the 11 times he has played in the final group has won just once. He’s 0-for-4 when staked to the third-round lead, finishing runner-up each time. At least there was a silver lining to this narrow defeat: He moved to No. 44 in the world, putting him well inside the qualifying cutoff for next month’s U.S. Open at The Country Club, an event he desperately wanted to play given his Northeast ties.

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McIlroy’s post-Masters/pre-PGA start showed plenty of encouraging signs:

• Caught in the miserable conditions Friday, he holed a clutch 7-footer on the final green just to make the cut on the number;

• Freed up, he was one of just two players to post both weekend rounds in the 60s, charging all the way up to fifth place – his fourth top-10 of the season;

• And needing to sharpen his approach play before the year’s second major, he missed only seven greens on the weekend and ranked 12th in that category.

That’s not to suggest there weren’t little areas to clean up. Having moved within two shots of the lead on the back nine, he played his last eight holes in 1 over par when he could have stolen the title. Post-round, he also lamented a few wrong decisions, like taking a hard wedge on 15 instead of a three-quarter 9-iron; his ball ripped off the front of the green and eliminated a realistic birdie opportunity.

“No complaints with the game,” he said. “Everything feels pretty solid.”

After a runner-up at the Masters, he’ll be among the top 5 favorites for the PGA, where he’ll look to win a major for the first time in (gulp) eight years.

Lynch: Garcia is a 'weapons-grade whiner'

In a signature display of petulance, Sergio Garcia seemed to wave goodbye to the PGA Tour.

While stomping around in knee-high grass, perturbed at a Tour rules official who determined that Garcia had exceeded the three-minute limit to search for a lost ball (a ruling the Tour later determined was incorrect), Garcia whined, “I can’t wait to leave this tour. I can’t wait to get out of here.”

Then added, “A couple more weeks, and I won’t have to deal with you anymore.”

Garcia has been one of the international players linked to the Saudi-backed rival tour – and this was seemingly all the confirmation we needed that he has one foot out the door. He didn’t speak to reporters after the incident, nor did he address it the rest of the week at the Wells Fargo, where he tied for 21st. His manager confirmed, however, that Garcia has asked for a conflicting-event release to play in the first LIV event, June 9-11 in London.

It’s little surprise that Greg Norman and Co. would pursue a player like Garcia: he’s a major champion, with Ryder Cup pedigree and name recognition. And it’s little surprise that the breakaway circuit would be appealing to Garcia: He’s 42 and on the downside of his career, with a single Tour win (at Sanderson Farms, in 2020) in the past five years. Though he has $50 million-plus in Tour earnings, these are massive guaranteed paydays that require less work. It'd unmistakably be a concession, on his part, that he's no longer among the game's elite.

It’d also be a risky move for Garcia, just as it was for Lee Westwood: DP World Tour leadership has threatened to punish any player who signs up for the LIV events, potentially ruling them out of any future Ryder Cups, either as a player or captain. Even past his prime, Garcia was one of the lone bright spots for the Europeans at Whistling Straits, going 3-1 and continuing his unparalleled success in foursomes. He’d also be a lock for a future captaincy, perhaps in 2027.

One thing is clear: Both Westwood and Garcia (and Ian Poulter, who also has been linked to the LIV series) seem to be calling the tour’s bluff. It's tricky ground to navigate. How will Keith Pelley respond?

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...

'Un-be-liev-able!' Thorbjorn Olesen with 'miracle finish' to win British Masters

Back in the Winner’s Circle: Thorbjorn Olesen. Five months after he was cleared of sexually assaulting a woman on a plane in 2019, Thunder Bear won the British Masters in wild fashion, canning a 30-footer for eagle on the 71st hole and then sinking a 35-footer on the final green to win by one. “It’s been some tough years,” said an emotional Olesen, who was suspended by the tour after being accused of sexually assaulting a woman and being intoxicated on a flight in '19. He was acquitted after claiming that he had no memory of his behavior after taking sleeping pills. The incident had a devastating impact on his career; at the time, he was the 62nd-ranked player in the world, and he headed into the Belfry at 376th. “It’s been extremely hard, really tough, and that’s why this one feels really special to me.” The stunning conclusion gave Olesen his first win since 2018.

Sleepy No More: AT&T Byron Nelson. The post-Masters gloom is over, with seven of the top 15 players in the world signing up for this week’s Tour event in Dallas. It’s the final event before the year’s second major, with locals Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth joining Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele, Brooks Koepka and others in a PGA tune-up at TPC Craig Ranch. It's expected to be the strongest Nelson field in 15 years.

Deadline Looming: First LIV Golf event. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has to decide by Tuesday whether he will green-light players’ requests to play in the first LIV event next month outside London. He is expected to do so, following the precedent of other worldwide money-grabs, but lawyers are likely to get involved when registration for the second event opens next week. Per Tour guidelines, players cannot be granted releases for conflicting events in North America. LIV officials said that 15 of the top 100 players in the world have registered for the inaugural event, with the Telegraph reporting that 40 DP World Tour players have signed up – nearly all of them veterans. Louis Oosthuizen and former world No. 1 Martin Kaymer are two of the other names mentioned.

Under Construction: Pebble Beach’s eighth green. Photos surfaced last week of some heavy-duty construction underway at Pebble’s notoriously difficult eighth hole. Any time an iconic course goes under the knife it sets off some alarm bells, but longtime observers noted that this should be seen as a welcome change – with green speeds what they are today, there are too few hole locations for the setup crew to use. Pebble hosts the 2023 U.S. Women’s Open for the first time, in addition to its annual Tour stop.

Is It Too Obvious?: Matt Fitzpatrick at the U.S. Open. Fresh off another high finish, the tidy Englishman appears closer than ever to getting his maiden victory on Tour, to go along with his seven titles on the DP World Tour. Having long relied on his short game and putter to get by, Fitz has made a monumental leap with his ball-striking, ranking sixth on Tour in strokes gained: tee to green (47th last year). That’ll play anywhere, of course, but he’ll be particularly feared at The Country Club, where he won his U.S. Amateur title in 2013.

Well, That Escalated Quickly: Joel Dahmen. What if I told you that Dahmen (who tied for 51st) was actually holding the lead on Friday? He was at 9 under par, in total control of his game – or so it seemed. Then he proceeded to play his next 10 holes in 8 over, followed it up with a Saturday 76 and tumbled off the board. By the time he birdied the 12th hole on Sunday – his first birdie in 43 holes – his week was toast. At least he kept his humor about the whole thing, tweeting, "Golf is very hard! Thankful to have my guy @GenoBonnalie by my side through it all."

Implosion: Jason Day. On the comeback trail after an injury-plagued few years (and after dealing with the death of his mother this spring), Day grabbed the 36-hole lead to boost hopes of a resurgent performance. But in cold, wet conditions Saturday, he lost his driver swing and surrendered his three-shot cushion in a matter of a couple holes, leading to a third-round 79. He wound up in a tie for 15th, squandering a golden opportunity to drastically improve his FedExCup standing (was 124th; now 103rd).

Tough Luck: Texas. The seventh-ranked Longhorns easily could have made the case as one of the top seeds for the upcoming NCAA regionals, but instead the NCAA stuffed them in the Norman regional with the top-ranked Sooners – meaning one of the six NCAA qualifiers has two of the seven teams in the country, when the field strength is supposed to be evenly distributed throughout the country. Coaches bicker all the time about how these things are determined, but this one seemed particularly egregious.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Marc Leishman. The gritty Australian had fared well in two previous cracks at TPC Potomac, finishing in the top 13 in each of his two appearances. Though he loves a stern test, he was derailed in the miserable weather Friday, crashing down the board with a second-round 75 to miss the cut. He’s looking for his first top-10 in a full-field event since last October. Sigh.