Monday Scramble: POY vote transparency needed

Monday Scramble: POY vote transparency needed

Chris Kirk looks as good as ever, Rory McIlroy offers hope for more peaceful times, Scottie Scheffler wins in a tight (and mysterious!) race and plenty more in this season-opening edition of the Monday Scramble …

Chris Kirk’s inspiring comeback reached another level Sunday when he outlasted a world-class field to win the season-opening Sentry by one shot over Sahith Theegala.

The 38-year-old Kirk knows he’ll probably always be remembered as the multiple Tour winner who reclaimed his career after stepping away from the game in 2019 to address alcoholism and depression.

And that’s OK with him.

Had he not made the difficult decision to get sober, Kirk believes his career would have been over a long time ago.

“It’s 100% the reason why I’m able to do what I do,” he said.

And what Kirk has done recently is play some of the best golf of his career.

He returned to the winner’s circle last year in Palm Beach for his first victory in eight years, a triumph that helped him earn the Tour’s Courage Award. But the work wasn’t done. Over the offseason, he continued to better himself. He hit the gym harder than he ever has. He fine-tuned his swing with coach Scott Hamilton. He found the proper mental space with performance coach Zach Sorensen.

Sure, even Kirk was a bit surprised by how well he played in the first event of this new Tour era. He shot 29 under par at Kapalua, his macho birdie on the 71st hole giving him the edge. With the wind swirling from both directions, Kirk went up two clubs – from a 7-iron to a 5 – and drilled yet another high, metronomic draw right at the flag on the longest par 4 on the Tour schedule. The shot landed on the front edge and rolled to within 2 feet, one last birdie in a round of 65 that was enough to hold off a slew of contenders on what was, on average, the lowest score to par (6.34 under) of any round on Tour since at least 1983.

For Kirk, the victory gave him a massive head start in the season-long race (plus $3.6 million in the bank), a year after narrowly missing the Tour Championship. It also moved him from just outside the top 50 in the world all the way to 25th, securing a spot in the Masters.

Along the way, Kirk said he has rediscovered his love for the game – not just the weekly competition, but the amount of work it takes to compete against the world’s best.

“I definitely have fallen back in love with the process, and sometimes you get rewarded for it, like today, and sometimes you don’t. That’s just part of the deal,” he said. “But I think to be successful and to really enjoy your life as a PGA Tour player, you’ve got to love the work.”

It's a great story that keeps getting better.

2023 Ryder Cup - Singles Matches
2023 Ryder Cup - Singles Matches

Rory McIlroy makes his 2024 debut this week in Dubai, but he already played an important shot to begin the year.

In the (ironically enough) “Stick to Football” podcast, McIlroy seemed to strike a more conciliatory tone, expressing regret at how judgmental he’d been toward some LIV departures; describing Jon Rahm’s stunning departure as a “smart business move”; and suggesting that LIV took advantage of some of the PGA Tour’s inherent “flaws.”

Combined, the comments represented a sharp U-turn for one of LIV’s most vocal critics, and Greg Norman was quick to capitalize in praising McIlroy for “falling on his sword.”

But that’s not what he was doing here.

This wasn’t a full capitulation, a mea culpa for his role in golf’s ongoing civil war.

No, this represented more of a personal evolution. More information has come forward, and the landscape keeps shifting. McIlroy is allowed to change his mind, and he actually should be praised for his open-mindedness and thoughtfulness rather than stubbornly digging in.

It’s clear where this whole thing is headed – in fact, McIlroy is intimately aware, having only recently resigned from the Tour policy board – but he isn’t blind to the realities of the present, either. He’s talking a lot of sense here.

The Tour didn’t disclose the vote totals for all of the contenders for the Player of the Year award. We just know that Scottie Scheffler received the highest percentage of the vote, at 38 percent. That means it was an incredibly close race, with Masters champion Jon Rahm and FedExCup winner Viktor Hovland also receiving serious consideration.

This was one of the more fascinating votes in recent memory.

No doubt, Scheffler was a strong candidate, with his two victories, boatloads of top-5s and mind-numbing consistency. But it’s also worth remembering the timeline here, because with the end of the wraparound schedule (RIP) voters waited until the conclusion of the entire Tour season:

• Voting began Dec. 1;

• Rahm left for LIV on Dec. 7;

• Voting ended Dec. 15.

The Tour has never been transparent in this department, but it’d be fascinating to see a more in-depth breakdown: Who led the early vote? What percentage of votes went Scheffler or Hovland’s way post-Dec. 7? What percentage of the Tour membership even voted at all?

All unanswered questions, unfortunately.

But this much we know for sure: Rahm is suspended by the Tour, and Scheffler just became the first player since Tiger Woods (2005-07) to win consecutive POY awards.

Reasons for Optimism: Jordan Spieth. Last month, at the Hero World Challenge, Spieth detailed the issues he had with a nagging wrist injury and how, finally, he was optimistic about how he could swing the club and where his game could go in 2024. Even if he didn’t practice as much as he would have liked heading into his season debut – the weather can be iffy this time of year in Dallas, and he has two kids under the age of 3 – he still gave himself a realistic chance to win at Kapalua, ultimately finishing in solo third. He led the field in putting, rapping in 435 feet worth of putts, but in the final round he was undone by a series of bad breaks: A ball in a double divot on 15, a plugged lie in the lip of a fairway bunker on 16 (that led to his first bogey since the opening round) and then another old divot on 17. Now, though, he’ll have another mini-break before returning at Pebble and diving into the meat of the Tour schedule. The arrow is pointing upward, again.

… And Still Not Enough?!: Sungjae Im. The birdie machine was cookin’ once again at the Plantation course, where he set a new Tour record by recording 34 birdies – the most ever in a 72-hole Tour event since they started keeping detailed records in 1983. Im tied for fifth this week, an impressive showing considering he managed just an even-par 73 on Saturday (when he still recorded six birdies). Forget one week – it might take us all year to make 34 birdies.

The Sentry - Round Three
The Sentry - Round Three

Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery: Long putter. No doubt influenced by Lucas Glover’s career-saving switch to the long wand, Akshay Bhatia and Ben An were among those who showed up on Maui with the new toy and wielded it successfully. Bhatia was a shot off the lead heading into the final round and ranked third in the field on the greens – a remarkable improvement for a player who ranked 183rd a season ago. Ben An finished fourth at Kapalua on the strength of a final-round 64 despite ranking nearly last in the field in approach play on Sunday. Overall, he was 18th in putting. Oh, and speaking of putting ...

More of the Same: Scottie Scheffler. For one week, at least, the world No. 1 was undone by a familiar nemesis. Scheffler ranked first in the field off the tee and third in approach, powering him to yet another top-5 finish, but his chances to win were gone once he needed 64 swipes with the putter on the weekend. Overall, in his second tournament start since hiring putting coach Phil Kenyon, Scheffler took 121 putts and ranked 45th out of 59 players – not as poor as some of the lowlights last summer, but a small step back from his most recent performance at the Hero. As much as he wishes the focus were elsewhere, his work on the greens will continue to be something to monitor.

Viktor Hovland wins 2023 Tour Championship
Viktor Hovland wins 2023 Tour Championship

Head-Scratching Move: Viktor Hovland. After the best season of his career, Hovland has split with swing coach Joe Mayo, as first reported by Golf Channel colleague Todd Lewis. Both Hovland and Mayo declined to discuss the reasons behind the split, but it was a surprising turn of events after Mayo was largely credited with revamping Hovland’s much-maligned short game. (A curious, independent thinker, Hovland is no stranger to coaching changes, however.) Nevertheless, in his first start as a single man, Hovland was in the mix at Kapalua before a bladed bunker shot led to a triple bogey late in his third round. He wound up tied for 22nd.

Welcome Back: Gary Woodland. It’s great to see G-Dub back in a Tour field, four months after undergoing surgery to remove a brain lesion. His return this week at the Sony should be celebrated, no matter how he performs.

Natural Fit: Kevin Kisner. The three-time Tour winner and Hall of Fame straight shooter made his debut in the booth at The Sentry, and he sure didn’t sound like a rookie. Kiz was typically funny, sharp, self-deprecating and insightful, especially when he pushed Spieth to speed up on a 3-foot attempt and observed that Scheffler’s open shoulders at address aid his ball-striking prowess but might be one of the culprits for his recent struggles on the greens. Kiz isn’t retiring from pro golf, but he should have a home on TV – hopefully as a hole announcer – whenever he wants it. He was very good and an easy listen.