Monday Scramble: Rory McIlroy goes 0-for-2 at Old Course; Mackenzie Hughes a winner after 2,142 days

Mackenzie Hughes clutches up for his kids, Ryan Fox authors a what-could-have-been moment, Rory McIlroy posts yet another good finish, Bryson DeChambeau drops bombs and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

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In 2016, Mackenzie Hughes won in his fifth start as a PGA Tour member.

“I felt like, Oh, man, this is going to be easy – I’m going to be able to rack up a few of these,” Hughes recalled.

Ah, but that wasn’t how it played out.

Hughes has been solid ever since, finishing inside the top 100 in the FedExCup in all but one season, but a second victory eluded him. It got to the point that his oldest son, Kenton, 5, began to ask dad when he was going to add to his trophy collection.

Needing to address some of his weaknesses, Hughes began tinkering with speed training during the COVID break in 2020 but really ramped up the effort over the past few months. He has never averaged more than 300 yards off the tee, leaving him in the middle of the pack with distance on a tour that is only getting more favorable to the bombers. On the range at the Sanderson Farms, that work was on display: He warms up with 10 driver swings as hard as he can before settling into his stock shot. It increases his baseline and gives him the feeling that he still has more in reserve if he needs it.

Mackenzie Hughes wins Sanderson Farms with birdie on 2nd playoff hole

On the course, he has noticed a difference. His average total driving distance was 299.9 yards (good for T-26 in the field), and he was able to carry fairway bunkers even on mis-hits. Into the par 5s he had shorter clubs. “It’s just one of those where you’re like, That was awesome, because that’s exactly why I do this,” Hughes said.

Mentally, he’s looking for improvement, too. Recently he’s been trying to increase his positive self-talk, though that was put to the test in the final round at the Country Club of Jackson, where he needed to make clutch pars on Nos. 14, 16 and 18 just to force a playoff with Sepp Straka.

“I didn’t want to lose the tournament that way, bogeying the last hole, when I felt like I was somewhat in control of the tournament,” he said. “I felt like it would have been a tough way for me to deal with losing.”

Hughes didn’t have to wonder. In overtime, he rolled in an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole, pumping his fist as the ball was still a foot away from the cup. Pouring on the green were his wife and two young kids who no longer have to ask about that second Tour title. The rooster trophy was coming home.

“This one might sit in his room for a while,” Hughes said, “because he’s been talking about it for quite some time.”

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Ryan Fox won for the second time this year on the DP World Tour with a comeback victory at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.

The New Zealander capitalized on Richard Mansell’s final-round freefall, his closing 76 the only over-par score in the top 25 on Sunday. Fox needed only a 68 to surpass him and win by a shot.

It was yet another head-turning performance from Fox, who at age 35 is starting to come into his own. The second title lifted him into the top 30 in the world (No. 25) for the first time and was a belated reminder – much like the similarly spurned Hughes – of what he could have brought to the International Presidents Cup team. Sure, he likely wouldn’t have made a significant difference in what became a four-point victory for the Americans, but Fox ranks top 10 in driving distance and is enjoying the best year of his career. He would have been a sensible pick at Quail Hollow.

With help from above, Ryan Fox wins Dunhill Links for Warnie

Captain Trevor Immelman confirmed that Fox was under serious consideration for a wildcard spot, but after a brilliant stretch in the early summer he had cooled recently with six straight finishes outside the top 20. He is also not a member of the PGA Tour, playing exclusively on the European circuit. Immelman said that they “wrestled with that decision a lot” and that Fox playing on the DP World Tour “did not in any way, shape or form hurt his opportunity at all.”

But it's looking more and more like a head-scratching decision to leave him home. All of a sudden, Fox has rocketed to third in the Race to Dubai standings with only six events remaining.

"I guess after the good run I had in the middle of the year, that was always the goal, to give myself a chance going into Dubai," he said. "It's pretty cool to have that. Obviously a couple of pretty good players on that rankings list, so I'll have to do something even more special to get ahead of those guys but just to be in the mix is pretty good."

McIlroy's Dunhill Links hopes end in Road Hole bunker

Rory McIlroy stalled out on the back nine at the Old Course – for the second time this year.

Just three months after his bid for a drought-busting major came up short in the 150th Open, McIlroy once again let slip an opportunity to win at St. Andrews.

Surprisingly just one shot off Fox’s lead heading to the reachable par-5 14th, McIlroy played even par to the clubhouse (including a bogey on the Road Hole) and wound up two shots shy of Fox’s mark at the Dunhill Links. McIlroy, who played the pro-am event with father Gerry, finished joint fourth individually after weekend rounds of 66.

“Not birdieing 14 was a momentum-killer,” McIlroy said, “and then 17 was playing pretty tough. I came up two or three short of my target at the end.”

It was eerily similar to the way that McIlroy closed out The Open, when he hit every green in regulation on the final day but made just a pair of two-putt birdies for a 70 that saw him get passed by not just eventual winner Cameron Smith but also Cam Young. Staked to a share of the 54-hole lead – and four shots clear of the Camerons – it represented one of McIlroy’s best chances to end a major-less slump that dates to summer 2014. He ended this year’s major season with top-8 finishes in each of the four Grand Slam events.

No one in golf has been as consistently excellent as McIlroy since the Masters. Ranked ninth in the world heading into the year’s first major, he’s now all the way up to No. 2 and closing in on Scottie Scheffler, who hasn’t won since Augusta. (However, OWGR guru Nosferatu projects that McIlroy could drop as low as No. 4 next week because of his divisor.) McIlroy’s T-4 in Scotland was his 11th top-10 in his last 14 starts, including his fifth in a row. He has only two official starts remaining this year: his title defense in two weeks at the CJ Cup in South Carolina, then the DP World Tour’s season finale in Dubai.

“I’m playing really well, which I keep saying,” he said. “When you put yourself in the mix week-in and week-out, you are going to win some tournaments you probably shouldn’t. And you’re going to lose some you should probably win. It evens out at the end of the year.”

 

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...

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Tip of the Cap: Bryson DeChambeau. In what was arguably his most impressive performance of the year, DeChambeau nearly shocked the long-drive community by reaching the two-man final of the world championships, losing to Martin Borgmeier. DeChambeau tied for seventh last year in what was expected to be a post-Ryder Cup sideshow, but he remains as committed as ever to improving the product. Bryson’s 406-yard bomb in the final was 20 yards short of the winning drive, but he thrilled the crowd – and impressed the champion: “That guy is a professional golfer and he’s putting up these ball-speed numbers,” Borgmeier raved afterward. “He lights it up in the final, hitting 400-plus! No one has ever done that before! People don’t realize how crazy that is!” It’s been a largely forgettable season to date for DeChambeau, whose on-course highlights include a $100 million-plus signing bonus to defect to LIV Golf and a tie for eighth at The Open. Of course, DeChambeau will need to dial it back this week as he plays in the third-to-last LIV event of the season in Bangkok.

Everybody Taking a Crack: Josh Allen. Bryson’s viral sparring with the rope line has made its way all the way to the NFL, with the Bills star quarterback showing how to properly navigate that obstacle post-round. Just as funny is the Bills flack who nearly gets clotheslined in the stunt.

Motivation: Mackenzie Hughes. He might not have had as big of a gripe as Ryan Fox, but Hughes said that getting passed over for a Presidents Cup pick – when he thought that he could have helped the visiting team – fueled him over the past few weeks. The Canadians who did make the team, Corey Conners (automatic qualifier) and Taylor Pendrith (captain's pick) surprisingly went 0-8 combined at Quail Hollow. Said Hughes, “I totally respected Trevor’s decision to go the direction he went, and there wasn’t a weak link on that team; there were 12 great players, and they had a really tough opponent in the U.S. I still cheered like hell for them to pull it off. But I’m definitely motivated for Montreal, and I don’t want to have to let that come to a captain’s pick next time when that comes around.”

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Softening Stance: Rory McIlroy. He has been one of the staunchest Tour defenders in this heated golf civil war, but he seemed to suggest in Scotland that he might be backing down from his hardline stance on a couple of fronts. McIlroy said that he’d be open to LIV golfers receiving world-ranking points if the tour meets the criteria (its application to the OWGR is under review) and called for a truce between the rival circuits – even though he acknowledged that was unlikely in this current environment, with a pair of lawsuits weaving its way through the court system. On that latter point, it’s obvious that a resolution, of some sort, is the only way forward, but it’s unclear what that looks like, especially with both sides so firmly entrenched. Neither Jay Monahan nor Greg Norman have signaled any interest in a compromise. Something, or someone, has to give.

Stars in Action: Global golf! Patrick Cantlay headlines the field in Vegas after another standout week at the Presidents Cup, while Jon Rahm is a +250 favorite to capture his home open in Spain. Oh, and Cameron Smith and Dustin Johnson are LIVing it up this week in Thailand.

Lowered Expectations: Mark Hubbard. A reporter asked the 54-hole leader at the Sanderson Farms whether he thought he’d be in that position at the start of the week. “Absolutely not, no,” he replied. The reason? His young daughter got him sick, and then she knocked a knife off the kitchen counter that stabbed him in the foot. “I had a hole in my foot this whole week, and I didn’t get to practice at all last week,” he said. In all honesty, he said, he was just trying to knock off the rust ahead of this week’s Shriners event. He slid back to the field with a closing 74, but here’s guessing Hubbard would have taken a T-5 at the beginning of the week.

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#Trending: Sepp Straka. With two playoff losses in his last four starts, Straka – who also won earlier this year at the Honda – is all the way up to 26th in the world, even though he’s somewhat of an anomaly, with stats from last season showing him losing strokes to the field per round with his long game. He’s made some significant strides in the past few months, however, and at the Sanderson Farms he ranked fourth in the field in ball-striking. He’s squarely on Luke Donald’s radar for 2023.

Also #Trending: Taylor Montgomery. Watch out for this top rookie, who has now posted back-to-back top-10s in his first two starts on the big tour. That’s six consecutive top-10s overall, too, including the Korn Ferry Tour. After a few years of being the first man out, the 27-year-old Montgomery is already proving that he has what it takes to stick on Tour.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Sahith Theegala. After kicking off his sophomore season with a top-10 in Napa, it was reasonable to expect Theegala to continue rolling at the Sanderson Farms, where he was looking to avenge his near-miss from a year ago. Instead, he could only muster rounds of 73-71 and missed the cut. For a player who has often been described as streaky, it was just his second weekend off since The Players. Sigh.