Monday Scramble: Saying Aloha to Hawaii and bracing for 2023 LIV roster

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Si Woo Kim pulls off some late heroics, the PGA Tour kicks off the West Coast swing, LIV Golf readies for more disruption and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

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It wasn’t quite a Rahm-esque rally, but Si Woo Kim pulled off another Hawaiian comeback Sunday to steal the Sony Open.

Throughout Kim’s impressive but inconsistent career, he has always been adept at touchy pitch shots – only once has he finished a season ranked worse than 32nd in strokes gained: around the green.

Never did that pay off more than at Waialae Country Club, where his tee shot into the 17th green bounded over the back and into a grainy lie in the rough. Hearing Hayden Buckley ram home a birdie putt a hole behind him, Kim believed he had nothing to lose and went for the hero shot.

He pulled it off, pumping his fist and playing to the crowd:

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The unlikely birdie kept Kim in a share of the lead and sent a charge into what was an otherwise sleepy event.

On the final hole, Kim hit a stellar shot from the fairway bunker and then two-putted from 40 feet to pull ahead for good. Weekend 64s gave Kim his fourth Tour title, and first in two years. He’s back inside the top 50 and assured of a spot in the Masters.

Buckley could have used some of Kim’s short-game prowess.

His approach shot into the final hole leaked just right and wound up in the collection area short of the green, leaving a dicey pitch to an elevated green with a tucked, back-right pin. Buckley couldn’t get his shot closer than 12 feet, and his putt to force a playoff drifted right of the cup. He also missed a pair of putts inside 5 feet on the back nine, spoiling his bid for a breakthrough title.

“Winning on the PGA Tour is the hardest thing to do,” Buckley said, “and sometimes you just get beat. I feel like that’s what happened today.”

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We’re only two weeks into the "new era" of the PGA Tour, but so far, at least, it seems … very similar?

Even before it became one of the Tour’s designated events with a larger purse and guaranteed top field, the Sentry Tournament of Champions always carried the feel of a limited invitational. And that’s because it was – the spots reserved solely for tournament winners, with the field now beefed up with the addition of the Tour Championship qualifiers. The new status simply made what was already a good event even better.

The Sony Open was the first non-designated event of the year, but that, too, carried on much as it has for years. The event attracted nearly as many top-50 players (14) as last year (16), with Jordan Spieth and Tom Kim serving as headliners, and the 144-man field produced an, um, eclectic leaderboard in which nine of the top 16 players going into Sunday were looking for their first win.

So, the Hawaiian swing had a little something for everyone – all of the stars at Kapalua, then the guys trying to alter their career trajectories at Waialae. That’s pretty much how it’s always been. The only difference now is they’re explicitly calling out that status.

But for all the handwringing about a new A Tour for the stars and B Tour for the middle class, there remains much to like about the beginning of the West Coast swing. This week’s American Express has five of the top 7 players in the world. Next week’s stop at San Diego has a smattering of stars too, including heavyweight Jon Rahm. At least early on, players will pick and choose their favorite spots to fine-tune their games and get ready for Augusta.

As the season progresses, there will, of course, be events that get pinched – Honda, Mexico, Rocket Mortgage and 3M immediately come to mind – but those tournaments have always struggled to attract the big names. Instead, those non-designated events will lean into what they CAN offer: a Masters berth, full FedExCup points … and, oh yeah, a spot in the designated season opener at Kapalua.

This is the bridge year until the PGA Tour unveils its revamped schedule for 2024 and beyond.

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This week should finally bring some clarity.

After weeks of delays, boardroom reshuffling and courtroom wrangling, LIV Golf is expected this week to formally announce its full roster of players for the 2023 league season, according to published reports.

As colleague Rex Hoggard reported last August, Mito Pereira should be among the latest batch of signings. The Chilean, ranked 45th in the world, came within four strokes of winning the PGA Championship last May before a disastrous final hole left him out of the playoff eventually won by Justin Thomas. Pereira is expected to join LIV’s strong Latin American contingent with Joaquin Niemann, Abe Ancer and Carlos Ortiz, all of whom were Tour winners.

Following months of rumors, however, Pereira is the only player who has been named in published reports. LIV CEO Greg Norman said in November that he expected to return “85 to 90%” of the players for this season – meaning he was trying to land six or seven more players, which he said would come from the top 20 in the world.

That doesn’t appear to be the case.

In other LIV-adjacent news, Golfweek reported that Rookie of the Year Cameron Young and long-hitting Cameron Champ were among those who have been granted releases to play in next month’s Saudi International, an Asian Tour event that is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

It’s not yet known whether those players will actually tee it up in the Feb. 2-5 event (held opposite Pebble Beach), but Young’s inclusion would be particularly interesting – he said last year at East Lake that he was very intrigued by the LIV model, and that his only regret was that the lucrative offer for the breakaway league had come so early in his career, when he still had so much he wanted to achieve and didn’t want to jeopardize his standing.

 

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...

LAAC
LAAC

See You in Augusta: Mateo Fernandez de Oliveira. Staked to a four-shot lead in one of the  game's most consequential amateur tournaments, all the 22-year-old from Argentina did in the final round was post a way-too-easy 67 that allowed him to cruise to the title at the Latin America Amateur Championship. Seriously impressive stuff, given all of the perks up for grabs. With the victory, he’s now invited to three of the 2023 majors, including in a few months at the Masters. Fernandez de Oliveira also joined Niemann and Alvaro Ortiz in winning the LAAC a year after finishing in second place.

Laughable: Ian Poulter. It’s only Jan. 16, but we already have what is sure to be one of the year’s pettiest quotes, with Poulter whining that the European Ryder Cup team’s official Twitter account didn’t formally wish him a happy birthday. Keep in mind, of course, that Poulter’s new employer, LIV Golf, hadn’t either … until they rushed and pushed one out about 20 minutes after he complained. Delicious.

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To Be Determined: Tiger Woods’ Ryder Cup role. At the Sony, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson said of Woods: “He’s a part of the team. It’s just a matter of to what degree, right?” It’s a stretch to think that Woods will even be considered for what should be a loaded squad; he’s likely just to play the majors, if that, and Marco Simone is “definitely hillier” than Augusta National, according to Johnson. Woods was involved behind the scenes with last year’s Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow too, but he still wasn’t formally part of the team, earpiece in, zipping around the course in a cart. Will he be there, physically, in Rome, or is it just another shadow captaincy?

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One of Those Days: Jordan Spieth. You never, ever, ever want to go full Camilo, but that’s exactly what Spieth did at the Sony, where he shared the first-round lead but missed the cut, by one, after a no-good, very-bad 75 at Waialae in which he said that he didn’t do much wrong, other than being slightly out of position. (For those wondering, the last player to go from 1st to MC: Matt Every, in 2020.) Spieth wasn’t about to sweat the early exit, especially with how much golf he’s soon to be playing: Beginning with the Phoenix Open, he’s set to play seven of the next eight weeks.

Coming Soon: PGA Tour Netflix doc. The docuseries following the lives and drama of the Tour is slated to be released Feb. 15, the day before the Tour stars begin play at Riviera for the Genesis Invitational. In the trailer released last week, Rory McIlroy (who wasn’t previously announced as having participated) appeared to sit for an interview, but the cameras also tracked others like Spieth, Justin Thomas and Tony Finau, as well as LIV defectors Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Poulter. There will be memes – and, sure, probably some fallout, too.

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Possible Harbinger?: Hero Cup. Led by a rejuvenated Francesco Molinari, the Continental Europe squad convincingly defeated Great Britain and Ireland to capture the tuneup for the Ryder Cup. Molinari’s 3 ½ points were tied among the most of any player as the 2018 major champion, having dropped recently outside the top 200 in the world, still believes he can contribute to the European side in a home game later this year. “It’s a great motivation for me,” he said. An in-form Frankie would be bad news for the Americans – it was five years ago that he became the first European player to hang a 5-0 record on the board in Paris.

New Look, New Sticks: Nelly Korda. Over the weekend Korda posted on social media that she had signed with Nike, but gearheads immediately noticed that the club she was swinging in the ad was cut off. Scrubbed, too, was any mention of her on the Titleist website; just her sister Jessica appeared. But sure enough, on Monday morning, Korda was unveiled as a new TaylorMade staffer. She'll debut her new gear this week at the season-opening Tournament of Champions.

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Be the Change You Want: Adam Scott. The affable Aussie has been on Tour for two decades, but for the first time he’ll serve on the Tour’s 16-man Player Advisory Council. And, just like that, he's also one of the three nominees (along with Maverick McNealy and Kevin Streelman) for PAC chairman. It’s another blow for LIV Golf, which had been actively courting Scott, but it also is also a win for the Tour, which will benefit from the veteran’s thoughtful approach and likability across the membership spectrum.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Tom Kim. After a spectacular start to the year, Kim headed to Honolulu and put up a stinker, missing the cut after rounds of 72-69 – his first MC since last year’s PGA. Kim led the field from tee to green at Kapalua but he was out of sorts on the greens at Waialae, putting up the worst SG performance of his young career in Round 1, losing nearly FIVE strokes (4.989) to the field. Yeah, let’s go ahead and chalk that one up to a fluke.